~~~

Meredith returned to the beach each morning for the next three days. Toby had created more sand lions, each one just as terrifying as the first. She had reconnected with the darkness and brought back five more emerald lions from the other side, sending each of them across the ocean before they devoured them. By that third morning, Meredith felt drained. It was as if each time she’d reached into that darkness, some part of herself remained in the black void, slowly killing herself each time another lion came to life on the beach. She was so spent by the end of the third morning, Meredith considered just letting the last beast kill her, believing Toby would never let her stop. In the end, her fear of dying was stronger than her exhaustion, so she’d sent it beyond the ocean.

The sixth lion Toby had named Taven.

Meredith sits dejectedly at the edge of the shore and stares across the dark waters. She wonders if those dark monsters suffered beneath the cold depths of some abysmal ocean of Nothingness. Did they feel fear in the end? Were they even capable of that? Toby was right about one thing. It was getting easier to kill the lions. She closes her eyes and lets loose weary tears, wondering if she is just as bad as the beasts.

“That’s enough for now,” Toby announces, sitting down beside her.

Meredith refuses to look at the boy. He is enjoying every part of their little war against the lions, and she hates him for it.

“You look a little pale,” he says. “I think I’ve been pushing you too hard too fast. We’ll take a break and let you build your strength back up.”

“Won’t they come if I stop?” Meredith says flatly.

“No,” Toby assures her. “I think we’ve scared them, Meredith. They know what’s happening here… and
they know what you can do to them. They’ll be reconsidering coming here, especially after we strike them hard with what’s coming next.”

Meredith turns. “And what might that be?”

Toby smiles like the devil. She hates that, too.

“Not yet, Meredith. Let’s get rested up first. Then, I’ll tell you all about my secret battle plan.”

“‘Secret battle plan’?”

“Yeah, I’ve been working on it for a while now. But let’s take a break… you’ve earned it.”

Meredith turns back toward the ocean and sighs.

“What’s the matter with you?” Toby says, standing up. “I thought you liked our adventures? We’re fighting back against these things… and winning! Isn’t that exciting?”

She shrugs her shoulder. “I’m just… I’m just really spent. It’s takes a lot out of me to do what we’re doing.”

“Sure. Sure. I get that. That’s why we’re taking a break.”

“No… I mean… I think it’s killing me, on the inside. I just feel like I’m rotting away to nothing and soon I’ll just be an empty shell sitting on this shore.”

Toby laughs. “That’s a bit dramatic. You’re doing great! You’re just tired, is all. We’ll go hang out tonight and eat all the pizza and ice cream you want. How does that sound?”

“Fine.”

“And tomorrow we’ll do anything you want.”

“Can I go home?”

Toby says nothing.

“That’s what I thought.”

Toby sighs. “I told you, Meredith. I’m not keeping you here. They are.”

She looks at him. “Are they, Toby? Are they really?”

“Don’t you believe me?”

“I don’t know what to believe. All I know is that killing these lions is going to kill me, too.”

“You’re wrong, Meredith. You’re getting stronger and stronger. I mean, that last one-”

“Taven?”

“Yeah, Taven. He didn’t even have a chance to charge before you sent him away super quick! I’ll admit, he’s not the strongest of the First Ones, but that doesn’t make him any less dangerous. But you took care of him just like that!” Toby snaps his fingers for effect.

“What’s a ‘First One’?”

Toby’s excitement falters. “Never mind that. Doesn’t matter.”

“Okay,” she says, and turns back to the water.

“Want to go swimming tomorrow? We can make the waves as tall as you want and ride them into shore. Doesn’t that sound awesome?”

“Sure.”

Toby hesitates and scowls at her. “I don’t understand your attitude. You should be grateful for all I’ve done for you.”

She turns and scoffs. “‘Grateful’? Are you serious?”

Toby shakes his head. “You have a gift, Meredith. Call it a superpower if you want. You can do things I can’t begin to think of, and all you do is whine about it.”

“Some gift,” she says with contempt. “I’d give anything to be rid of it… to have a normal life where people treat me the same as they treat everyone else.”

“That’s stupid talking,” he says. “Everyone wants superpowers. If I could do the things you do… well… I’d-”

“You’d do what?” she interrupts. “You’d kill monsters? Then what? What else would you decide to kill?”

“That’s not what I meant. Stop putting words in my mouth!”

“Then stop acting like what we’re doing is fun!” she snaps. “This isn’t fun anymore. Nothing is. I hate this place… and I hate you!”

Toby’s face turns red. He looks like he’s about to explode then takes a deep breath and smiles. “You know what? Just sit there a while and stare out at the dumb ocean. There’s no point talking to you when you get like this.”

“That’s the best idea you’ve brought up this morning,” she says.

“Fine!” he yells, waving a hand at her. Toby turns and walks toward the lighthouse. “When you decide to stop acting like a baby, I’ll be waiting in there!”

Meredith is mad now. She stands up, turns, and shouts, “Keep treating me like that, and next lion we bring back… I might just let him have ‘you’!”

Toby stops, turns, and laughs. “There you go! Now that’s the Meredith I love! You keep that fire lit, okay? We’re going to need it for what we’re going to do next.” He turns away and resumes walking toward the lighthouse.

“Screw your stupid secret plan!” she shouts at his back. Meredith immediately cups her mouth after swearing.

Toby is laughing hard now.

“I hate you!” she whispers toward the evil boy.

~~~

Meredith slept most of the following day away. She’d avoided him the night before, and Toby, sensing she wanted to be left alone, made himself scarce. After finally waking and forcing herself to leave the lighthouse, Meredith had wandered the shore line, going in the opposite direction as far as she could, desperately trying to figure out a way to get off this beach prison. As before, the shoreline had extended endlessly, refusing her access to the other side of the island.

“I know you’re doing this, too, Toby,” she’d said to the wind after turning around and heading back toward the lighthouse. “I know you can do more than you’re letting on with your own… superpowers.”

Toby had returned to the lighthouse that evening to find Meredith pretending to be asleep in the lighthouse keeper cabin. He’d stared at her frail form covered in blankets in the small bed, then silently advanced up the stairs to sleep in the top of the lighthouse.

After he’d left, she’s relaxed and let much needed rest overpower her. Toby had made good with his promise to give her a break… and that included a break from him. But she knew what tomorrow morning meant.

More lions.

And more lies.

~~~

She wakes to the creaking sound of a rocking chair. Meredith opens her heavy eyelids and focuses on a small form sitting in the large chair, hidden within the dull morning light.

Toby looks tiny in the big chair. He rocks impatiently, still shirtless, his legs crossed, arms folded over his sandy swim trunks. To Meredith, his partially shadowed face makes him look like some demonic doll in the faint light. He is smiling… always smiling.

She sits up, startled. “Why are you sitting there, staring at me while I’m sleeping?”

He mercifully stops rocking and laughs. “Sorry. I didn’t mean to startle you. I was just too excited to wait for you outside this morning.” As an afterthought, he adds, “And I’m sorry for upsetting you. I was mean, and I hurt your feelings.”

“That’s… okay. But you can’t just sit there in the dark like that… it’s creepy.”

“I didn’t know how to wake you. But now that you’re up… we’ve got a big—and I mean BIG—day ahead of us!”

His excitement is nauseating. Meredith wants to curl back up into a ball and sleep forever. She sighs deeply and is almost afraid to ask. “What’s going on?”

Toby leans forward in the chair, resting his elbows on his knees, his chin in his hands. “It’s time to reveal my secret plan.”

She frowns. “That’s right. You’d mentioned that.” With reluctance, she adds, “Okay… what’s this ‘secret plan’?”

He stares around the cabin as if searching for someone in the room, then whispers, “It’s best not to talk about it… you know… just in case. So, I’m just going to show you.”

Meredith closes her eyes and struggles to be patient. It’s not been apparent lately, but Toby is clearly an annoying ten-year-old boy this morning. “Okay. Let me wake up and you can show me-”

“We have to go… now,” he says, the urgency in his voice leaves no room for debate.

Meredith’s fear has returned. She throws the blankets aside and starts to get up. “Why? What’s the matter?”

Toby gets up out of the chair and moves toward the door. “We’ve got some hiking to do. It’s best we leave immediately.”

“Where are we going?”

He smiles with his eyes lighting up in the gloom. “We’re going to the other side of the island.”

~~~

The trip across the center of the island is surprisingly brief. The uphill climb over the top of the solitary mountain does not stretch on endlessly, as it always had before. This time they reach the top and Meredith nearly falls over as a sudden gust of warm air pushes violently against her, like a large invisible hand. After clearing her hair from her face, she can see the dark ocean. It looks much more alive and menacing from way up here. She squints and stares out across that dark vast void and can see nothing as water and sky appear to merge, blurring the horizon. The waves are much higher on this side and more erratic. The sky over the horizon is very dark. There’s a storm coming.

Meredith can’t see the shoreline yet, her view is obscured by the tree tops on this side, but she can hear the massive waves crashing below with immense force. She regrets ever inquiring about this side of the island and silently hopes they somehow end up back on their familiar beach.

Toby takes an exaggerated deep breath, standing next to her with his arms held wide. “Isn’t this awesome!” he says. His hair is blowing wildly across his forehead.

“We should go back,” Meredith says weakly. “That storm looks bad.”

“We’ll be okay,” he assures. “It’s always like this over here.”

“You’ve been here before?”

Toby ignores the question with a smile. “Let’s get going.” He leads the way back down the other side of the mountain and Meredith reluctantly follows.

Thirty minutes later, the island jungle begins to thin out as they reach the bottom. Meredith can already see the sand through the waving branches running out toward a long shoreline. She can tell that the beach is much larger on this side. “Why have we not come here before?” she asks, as they step toward several tall sand dunes with a path running between them.

“We’ve tried, remember?” Toby says, not bothering to look back. “I guess you just weren’t ready to see it until now.”

“What’s that even mean?”

“You’ll see.”

They clear the sand dunes and Meredith stops. Her eyes are as wide as saucers. “What… what is this?” she whispers in disbelief and horror.

Filling the width of the large beach, and up and down the shoreline as far as she can see, there are sand lions. Hundreds, perhaps thousands of sand lions.

“Toby!” she yells, as the young boy races over to the closest lion that appears to be striking the air with its massive paws while standing up on its rear legs, open maw turned toward the sun as if the beast had just challenged it.

Toby stops and turns. “Isn’t this incredible! I know it’s a bit overwhelming when you first see them all… but just look at them!”

“I’ve seen enough!” Meredith shouts over the wind. “I want to leave right now, Toby!”

The young man scratches his head, confused by Meredith’s reaction. He walks over to her. “What’s the matter?”

“Did you… did you make all of these things?” she says, still finding lion after lion everywhere she looks.

“Yes,” he answers proudly. “I want to say that it took me a real long time… but as I’ve always told you… time is kind of broken here.”

“But… why? Why on earth would you make so many?”

Toby stares at her with a shocked expression. “I made them all for you, of course. Now… Instead of one at a time, we can bring them all here and send them away… across the ocean!”

Meredith stares back out at the vast sea of sand lions. “You want me to… there’s no way I can do ‘that’! Just attempting to bring them all here together could kill me!”

Toby stares at the sand and frowns. “I’m sorry, Meredith. I couldn’t say it before because you were so afraid… but… this is the way it must be. If we don’t do this now… they’ll be here by tomorrow morning anyway… and then we will be dead.”

Meredith shakes her head. “No! No… no… NO!” She stomps her feet in the sand and balls her hands into fists. “You can’t do this! You can’t make me do it!”

Toby’s face has turned to unreadable stone. He glares at her behind his sand-covered face, his hair hiding his merciless, cold eyes. “If you want to survive this day… you will do exactly what I say, Meredith. I’m done playing these silly games with you. I’ve tried to prepare you for war while there was still time, but now… there is no more time.”

“But you said this place doesn’t care for time. We’ve only just arrived, remember? So… what does it matter? And what ‘war’ are you talking about? I just want to go home!”

The young boy shakes his head. “I’m trying to speak to you in concepts you will understand. Yes, time doesn’t matter here. But if it gets the point across… then know we are almost out of time. The lions have found us. We must strike now! One last final blow! And this is the way it has to be, Meredith. I know you can do this. You’re ready. Just… go get them from the darkness and lead them back to this beach.”

“But… but there’s too many! How can I possibly-”

“Your magic is stronger than you know. They will come. They lions will be compelled to come. When they do…” He looks toward the ocean and points, “Just send them across, Meredith.”

“You want me to kill all these creatures?” The thought of destroying even these monsters on such a massive scale made her sick.

“Yes… send them out of existence!”

She stares toward the ocean, toward the pending storm. “What’s really out there, Toby? What’s on the other side of that ocean?”

“Nothing, Meredith… and I do mean that.”

She turns and says, “I don’t believe you. You’re still keeping secrets.”

Toby stares at the foolish girl, then smiles. “Fine. You deserve to know the rest. After today, I’ll tell you everything. But right now, we have to finish this.”

“Then… this is it? After I send all these lions across the ocean… I can go home?”

Toby lets loose a devious little smile. “Sure, Meredith. You can go home… if you still want to.”

Meredith smiles. “Yes. I want that very much.”

“Then help me finish this,” Toby says, reaching out to take her hand. “We can end this… today… right now. No more lions… and then we’ll be free.”

“I like the sound of that,” she admits. Meredith scans the massive horde of sand lions dominating the beach, then finally nods her head. “Okay. One more time.”

“It will be different than before,” Toby says. “You’ll have to send them across all at once. Understand?”

She nods.

Toby smiles. “Very good! After today, Meredith, everything’s going to get sooo much better. Everything’s going to change.”

~~~

Meredith returns to the dark, cold place deep within her mind. The connection with the lions is immediate. They are there, all of them, waiting… waiting to storm her mind the moment she arrives.

She screams as the emerald beasts rip into her thoughts with united ferocity. She can’t force them out. They attack her sanity like savages, ripping into her thoughts, her very identity, as easily as tearing into flesh and bone. They have a hunger that defies all reason. Meredith feels herself slipping away, becoming one among this massive pride of brute monsters… no… NO! She can sense what they are now, beneath the surface.

Yellow feverish eyes gaze into her soul. She is becoming… she is becoming one among the horde.

They are not lions.

They are dead.

No.

They are worse than dead.

She sees the emerald beasts shifting forms, resembling wax animals melting in flames. Beneath, they are hideous abominations to the light… and there are so many of them!

Meredith screams and somehow manages to push them from her ravished mind. She retreats… but they are following…

~~~

…The young girl barely escapes the void, collapsing to her knees in the sand—still screaming.

The sky has grown dark and ominous above. The waves crash into the shore. The wind blows fierce. The storm clouds split at the seams, releasing torrential rain down upon the beach. Meredith is soaked in seconds.

From just above the roaring waves, Meredith can hear Toby, shouting toward her. She’s about to turn, but the closest sand lion roars to her right.

The entire beach comes to life as monstrous lions emerge from the sand sculptures. They begin to attack each other. Many stare into the storm clouds, threateningly roaring, and momentarily confused by the weather.

“Meredith!”

She is disoriented, exhausted, and terrified. All Meredith wants to do is lie down and roll the sand over her frail body like a blanket, and never wake again.

“MEREDITH!”

At last, she hears Toby yelling at her.

The young boy reaches her, leans over, and pulls her to feet with more ease than a ten-year-old should possess. He grips her shoulders hard and shakes her like a rag doll. “WAKE UP, YOU TIMID LITTLE BITCH! DON’T YOU DARE QUIT ON ME NOW! I’M TOO DAMN CLOSE. TOO CLOSE!” He slaps her hard across the cheek.

Meredith stares at him, stunned. “Let me go!” she screams into his face.

“The lions!” he shouts, appearing to calm down slightly. “Send them across… or we’re dead! Do it! Do it… NOW!”

Something finally breaks through the fear. She is angry. Meredith pushes Toby away from her. She turns toward the crazed beasts attacking each other on the beach. She closes her eyes tight, and lets out an unintelligible shout, like a desperate war cry before the final suicidal assault.

The lions start to evaporate into the air. First just a few, then several, then a hundred… a thousand…

Meredith is still screaming when she falls to the ground, gripping the sides of her head as though it were about to implode. She is shaking violently. Her eyes open wide revealing two fiery yellow orbs, full of hate, full of hunger, full of madness.

Meredith collapses in the sand, her body contorted from every muscle tightening in her flesh all at once. She is no longer Meredith… she is a legion of blood-crazed savages, trying to rip their way out of her flesh from the inside.

Toby steps away from the young girl, his face filled with shock, awe, and a little fear.

Meredith stops screaming and suddenly goes limp. She inhales deeply, remembering how to breathe. Then exhales deeply and falls into a heavy sleep.

It is over.

The beasts are all gone.

Everything… has changed.

~~~

She wakes to the soothing rhythm of a much calmer ocean. Warm water caresses her feet then flows up beneath her soaked sundress, stopping at her chest before receding. Meredith attempts to rise from the wet sand but the pain ripping through her entire body floods over her like a powerful wave. She moans deeply, placing her face in the sand. It feels like every bone in her body was broken, every muscle torn, and then recently reassembled.

“Take it easy.” It’s the young boy’s voice coming from somewhere nearby. “You’ve expended a lot of energy and your body is bearing the brunt of it. It will pass.”

She manages to lift her head.

Toby is sitting, scrawling something in the wet sand with a stick. He looks just like a normal boy again. There are no lions, sand or otherwise.

The pain slowly ebbs. Meredith moves her arms beneath her and gently pushes herself up to her knees. Her wet hair feels like seaweed sticking to her face. The water is refreshing, dulling the aching within her exhausted flesh. “Where are we?” she manages in a weak voice.

Toby doesn’t look at her. He is still drawing lines in the sand. “When you collapsed, I brought you back across the island… to our beach. You were real messed up. I thought you might be dead… but you made it.” He finally turns to her and smiles. “You did it, Meredith. You sent them all away.”

She manages to sit back in the sand, propping herself up with her throbbing arms. The mid-afternoon sun tempered by a warm breeze feels good on her wet skin. “I hurt. I hurt all over.”

“Like I said, it will pass. You just need to rest for a little while longer.”

“What… what happened… over there? I’ve… I’ve never felt anything like that before.”

Toby places his stick down and turns in the sand until he’s facing her. “They almost overwhelmed you, Meredith. You started to become one of them near the end.”

“‘I started to become one of them’? You mean… a lion?”

“No… don’t be silly,” he laughs. “You couldn’t become a lion any more than they could. But they almost… consumed you… from the inside.”

“I… I don’t understand.”

“They’ll do the same thing over there, across the ocean,” he says matter-of-factly, ignoring her. “Those worthless blood bags won’t know what it is, or what’s happening to them… but it won’t matter. None of them will matter anymore. They won’t be able to stop what’s coming… not like you.”

“What does that mean? I thought… I thought the lions were dead. And what do you mean they’re not lions?”

He laughs. “Wow… you’re just loaded with questions.”

Meredith closes her eyes and tries to concentrate through the pain. “I don’t care what you say. It’s over. That means I can finally go home.”

Toby smiles, then turns back toward the sand, picking up his stick. He shakes his head and laughs as if Meredith just told a joke. He starts scrawling again.

“Did you hear me?” She forces out. “I said, I want to go home! You promised!”

“I heard you,” he says. “I’m just not so sure you know what you’re asking.”

“Explain that.”

“There is no ‘home’. Not anymore. But the good news is… they won’t be bothering us, here. They’ll never find us now, Meredith. When we’re finished, you’ll be safe here.”

“You’re not… making any sense. We are finished. You said-”

“Look, you foolish little girl,” Toby interrupts. He puts the stick down again. His smile is gone. He turns to her with a face loaded with contempt. “I don’t care about your pointless questions any longer. I’ve reached the end of my patience with you and your whining. We are done when I say we’re done. Are we clear?”

Meredith doesn’t know what to say. Everything feels… wrong.

Toby’s face softens. “There I go again,” he says with a smile. “I’m sorry, Meredith. I’m not trying to be harsh with you. I’m just… well… I want to leave this place, too.”

“Okay, then, let’s leave… together.”

He laughs again. “You still don’t get it. Oh well… I shouldn’t be surprised. Just let me finish up here and we can get this over with. Alright?”

“Sure,” she says, refusing to provoke him further. “Whatever you say, Toby. We’ll finish whatever it is you’re talking about… and then we’ll go home.”

“You… still… don’t… get it!” he snaps. “You have no ‘home’! It’s all gone, Meredith! Get that through your dense little brain!” He raises his arms out wide and dramatically declares to the sky, “This… this is your home now!” He turns to her and finishes, “I’ve spent a considerable amount of time and effort trying to make you feel comfortable here. And all I get from you in return is your ungrateful, childish behavior! It’s really become quite tiresome. But no matter. We’re almost done.”

Meredith nods. “Sure. Anything you say, Toby. We’ll finish whatever you want and then… please… can I go home?”

“Your home is gone,” he says. “The Lions are loose, Meredith.”

Those words, she remembers them. They trigger something within her. Something that fills her with immense fear. “What… what have we done, Toby?”

The young boy’s face loses all humor. “We did what we always came here to do, Meredith—what we were always meant to do. Now, there’s just one thing left to finish.” He tosses the stick aside and stands up. Toby shakes the sand off his hands and stares down at what he’s scrawled in the sand. “Come… come and see this.”

“Where did we send the lions, Toby?”

He lets out a heavy sigh, rolls his eyes, and then puts his hands to his hips. He turns to her. “Fine. I told you I’d tell you the rest, and I will. But after, you’ve one more thing to do. Understood?”

Meredith nods. “What’s really on the other side of the ocean?”

“I think you know already,” he says with a wicked smile.

Tears starts to stream down her face. “We sent them… ‘I’ sent them… home.”

Toby nods. “Yep. You certainly did. But on the bright side, no one will ever call you a freak again. Consider it ‘pay back’ for all those years your world rejected you.”

Meredith closes her eyes. She doesn’t want to hear anything else. “You tricked me.”

“Yes, I used you. And I will keep on using you until we’ve finished.”

“What will happen to them?”

“They will all die. The lions will see to that. But they would’ve died eventually… this will only speed up the inevitable. But you’re asking the wrong question, Meredith. It’s not, ‘What will happen’ but ‘When’.”

“I… I don’t understand.”

“Of course, you don’t. You’ve never really listened to a word I’ve said. But that’s okay, I’ll remind you. Time doesn’t work over here. What we do here, and what you did to your world from here, affects time differently over there. Maybe your world is safe today, maybe it died years ago… or many years from now. It’s hard to say in this moment. But one way or the other, your world is gone. The ravenous monsters you’ve unleashed will see to that.”

Meredith remains silent.

“So, I’ll ask you, do you really want to go home… knowing what awaits you there?”

She looks into Toby’s uncaring eyes. “What are the lions?”

He smiles so fiercely that Meredith looks down at the sand. “As I’ve told you, they aren’t lions. Just as I’m not a ten-year-old boy named Toby. But for the sake of all your limited, uncomprehending minds, we’ve chosen our various forms… something tangible, from your world… whatever we can use… because your dull eyes could not dare gaze upon our true forms. Not one of you could look into the abyss, stare into the eyes of what you all mistakenly call ‘madness’ and survive it. That is all the answer you can handle, you and the rest of your pathetic kind. Now, I’ve answered your stupid questions. Get up and get over here. We’ve one thing to finish and I grow incredibly weary of your existence.”

Meredith manages to wobble to her feet. The fear within is palpable, dulling the pain within her bones. She slowly steps toward Toby.

He points toward the sand.

She stares down at what he’s scrawled, half-expecting it to be another lion. Her face turns pale as recognition sets in.

It is a three-pronged symbol with a large eye at the top. It is the symbol that will haunt the remainder of her days.

“I’ve seen this before,” she says weakly. “It’s how you led me here.”

“It’s far more than that,” Toby says. “It means many things to your worthless species, especially to the ones who first found me—again, due to the limits of your dull minds, even my scribbles are unfathomable to your kind. But I will simplify. This is me—my name, my form, my purpose. It is the closest your frail minds will ever come to understanding who I am, at least, while I’m still over here. For the fools I’ve used to get me this far, it is known as ‘Mother’. I tolerate that weak interpretation because of what that word means in your world. It is a mother’s purpose to create… and on a primitive level… that is as close to my purpose as you can grasp. But don’t concern yourself, Meredith. Again, I’m merely introducing myself, or a version of myself that you can perceive. I show it to you now so that we may conclude our business together because, like the lions, you need to know who I am beneath this limited form… in order to send me across the ocean.”

Meredith is stunned. She shakes her head and takes a step back. “No. No… I can’t do that! I won’t!”

“You will,” he says patiently. “Consider this: What do you think my lions will do over there if left unchecked? With no one to keep them under control, they will ravish your world very quickly. But… if I am with them, they will have no choice but to serve my purposes and there will be order rather than chaos.”

“But my world dies anyway,” Meredith says. “That’s what you said.”

“Yes. But at least you will have time to say your goodbyes while I selectively eliminate your species. I am not a savage, Meredith. But I assure you, what you’ve unleashed on your world will be the most brutal and terrifying way to die if I’m not over there to keep the beasts on a leash. For a time, I intend to rule your primitive species. It doesn’t serve my agenda to wipe you all out… like a plague.” He shakes his head and stares toward the sky. “I’m really loathe this place. At least we have that in common. Now, if you’re done with all your meaningless questions, I would really like to leave.” He stares at her with an intensity that will not tolerate disobedience.

Meredith tries to stall. “I can’t send you across. My abilities don’t work like that. I draw power from that dark, dead place where the lions come from. I don’t even understand how it works… just that I feel it… I feel them… coursing through my mind.”

“Yes,” he nods impatiently. “I am well aware of what you can do… more than you know.” He walks toward the shore and laughs. “Even Death is something your species misunderstands. You perceive the darkness as something horrible and lifeless, full of monsters and personal demons. But it, too, has chosen a form… something your kind can endure without collapsing in fear. The darkness can be brutal, when it needs to be… but in truth, it is very beautiful… much like a hidden paradise.” He turns to her and smiles.

Meredith’s eyes open wide. She stares out at the dark waters, her heart pounding fiercely in her chest. “It’s… it’s not just the ocean,” she whispers. “It’s everything on this side of it, too!”

Toby smiles. “There you go! Now you’re starting to see the bigger picture. Now you know why your magic is so very powerful in this place.”

“The lions have been here all along,” Meredith says. “You just hid them from me… behind the ruse of this island.”

He nods. “Yes. What you perceive as the realm of the dead extends to this island.”

“But… I’m not dead. Right?”

“No, you most certainly are not,” Toby continues to stare out toward the ocean. He frowns. “If you were, your abilities would be useless here. But somehow, you are here, and you are not here. That is your true gift, Meredith. That is the crown jewel of your existence.”

Meredith frowns and stares at Toby’s back. Her mind is blown by everything she’s learned… everything she’s done… but now, there is one thing left she can still do to make things right.

“You can’t leave this place without me. You can’t even stand on these shores if I hadn’t first thought them up. No… this isn’t a form that Death has chosen… this place only exists in my mind.”

Toby turns and glares at the young girl.

Meredith smiles. “Somehow… I have created all of this… inside of me… and not only can I cross the veil into the dark… but I can exist in it… here.” She can see it all clearly now. “Yes! That’s it, isn’t it? This place… it’s like a life ring thrown out from a boat, still connected to the ship!

Toby nods. “Primitive, but yes, the analogy is close. This place is your tether in the darkness. But that doesn’t-”

“Connected to me in the real world!” she interrupts. “I’ve been home all along! All I need to do is follow that line back!”

Toby laughs. “Oh, you are precious, in your own simple way. Do you really think you could navigate across the void as easily as following a rope? Do you really believe it’s that simple?”

She glares at the boy. “Why not? If I can send an army of lions across that dark… then why not myself? I could just leave you here to rot on this island!”

“Watch your tongue, girl!” Toby snaps. “I could sever your precious life line and wipe you out of existence with the snap of a finger. Don’t mistake my longsuffering for weakness. This place exists for as long as ‘I’ allow it! Without this island, your mind would be devoured by madness and things you could never understand. Put simply, you can die here as easily as you can die back in your so-called real world.”

Meredith nods. “Yes. For once, I believe you’re telling me the truth.”

“Count on it.”

“But you do need me,” she continues. “That’s the only reason I’m still alive… here, or there. After you’re finished with me and I send you across the darkness, what’s stopping you from just killing me on the other side?”

“Absolutely nothing,” Toby says with a devious little smile.

“Then that’s it, isn’t it?” Meredith says. “You use me, then kill my body in the real world.”

“It will be as easy as unplugging you from a machine that is keeping your frail flesh alive. Over there, in your world, you are considered ‘brain dead’, do you know what that means?”

Meredith waits.

“It means that, except for a small handful of people from your world who serve my purposes over there, you’re already considered medically dead. Kind of ironic, isn’t it? I won’t even have to murder you. I could just hand you back over to the sheep, and they’ll do it for me. Your mind has already been away from your body for far too long. Those people who never understood you in life, labeled you a freak and pushed you away, they will be the same ones who unplug you from life-support, severing your precious tether… forever.”

Meredith looks toward the sand. He’s right, she thinks. I’m already dead back in my world. I’ve only got one more move I can make. “Why should I help you?” she finally says. “I should keep you here and die knowing that I prevented that much.”

“This was never about your pathetic life, Meredith. I hope you can see that now,” Toby says.

Meredith waits.

“As I’ve already told you, and again, you fail to listen… this is about giving your species time. The longer I’m over here while the Lions are loose upon your world… the worse it’s going to be for them. Those monsters will tear your people to pieces, from the inside out, in ways you can’t even imagine.”

“What does that mean?”

Toby laughs. “I’m done answering your questions. You have a choice… one choice. Yes, you can try to keep me here a little longer. I’m sure we’ll find another like you someday… but I’m extremely patient. Your world will still perish, and I will enjoy tormenting you here, day after endless day, until I grow tired of you… or until you finally give me what I want. Then after, I will kill you in your world. But by then, you will be begging me to do it just to escape this hellish island, and then you’ll be thanking me after I’m gone for my… act of mercy.”

Meredith refuses to look at him.

“So, what’s it going to be, Meredith?”

It feels like an eternity before she answers. Meredith takes a deep breath, looks up at the monster, and says…

~~~

… “Where… where am I?”

“Welcome back, Meredith. It’s good to hear your voice again. I’m Doctor Forrester from the orphanage. Do you remember me?”

“Yes… I remember you…but… I can’t see. I can’t move! What’s happening to me?”

“Relax. You’ve been… somewhere else… for a while now. Your body is just adjusting. You’ll be okay in a little while.”

“What do you mean? Where did I go?”

“You were… you were in a coma, but not quite. Do you know what a coma is, Meredith?”

“Like a really long dream that you can’t wake from… right?”

“That’s good, Meredith. Very close. Anyway, while you were dreaming, I tried to find you, but it took a very long time.”

“And… I’m back now?”

“You are… almost there.”

“What is this place? Why can’t I see you or move? It’s like I’m here but I’m not here at the same time. I’m confused.”

“You’re in a place I like to call, Elsewhere.”

“Elsewhere?”

“Yes.”

“So, I’m still dreaming?”

“Yes and no, Meredith. Do you remember anything that you dreamed?”

“No.”

“Are you positive? Anything at all? It’s very important that you tell me if you remember anything.”

“No… it’s all… black… inside my head.”

“Does it feel like a fading dream that goes away after waking?”

“Yes. Just like that.”

“What’s the last thing you remember… before going to sleep?”

“I remember… I remember being frightened. I thought Clem was coming for me… so I hid in that creepy basement with all those dolls… and… there was something else… but I can’t remember.”

“Do you remember finding the symbol on the door? The three-pronged symbol with the eye?”

“Yes! That’s how I… I can’t remember after that.”

“That’s fine, Meredith. That means the medicine I gave you is working.”

“Medicine? Was I sick?”

“Yes. You were very sick. But you’re all better now.”

“Did I… did I do anything bad?”

“That’s a strange question, Meredith. Why would you ask that?” …

~~~

Next Episode 49-9

Previous Episode 49-7

~~~

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__________________________________________
“Chapter 49-8: Lions in the Dark” Copyright © 2019 Scott Scherr, from the novel, Don’t Feed The Dark, Book Six: Mother. 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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