~~~

“Demons,” Logan said, crossing his muscular tattooed arms as if the matter were already settled. “It has to be.”

Stephen immediately rolled his eyes and sighed. “I feel a sermon coming on.”

“I’m not playing around, little brother. This is as serious as it gets.”

Megan remained quiet. She seemed distant and lost in her own troubled thoughts.

Meredith just stared at the big preacher. Her face betrayed nothing either way as to what she believed the lions to be.

“Come on!” Stephen shook his head. “On top of everything else… now I’m supposed to believe this zombie apocalypse is just a big ruse for what… a demonic invasion from hell? What’s next? You going to tell me that Toby is actually Satan?”

Logan raised his eyebrows. “You said it… not me.”

Stephen looked to Meredith for the voice of reason. “Tell me you don’t believe any of this?”

She sighed and answered weakly, “I don’t know what to believe about the lions. I’ve spent so much of my life trying to shut that horrible world out of my head, that I never wanted to dwell on who or what was contacting me from the other side. At one time, back when I was a considered a medium, I believed they were the voices of the deceased. But now… I don’t know. Perhaps Logan is on to something. Maybe they’re not demons in the way religion portrays them, but they certainly are monsters… and obviously dangerous.”

“So, these… monsters… crossed over into our world and then what… possessed one in every five human beings at random, turning them into flesh-craving beasts?” Stephen shook his head. “No. I can’t believe what’s happened can be reduced to that… I won’t!”

“I’ll admit,” Logan injected, “demons have been turned into some Hollywood joke over the years with all those cheesy horror films about possessions and exorcisms… but that doesn’t mean they aren’t real. The Bible is clear on the matter. They exist. Jesus, Himself, faced a legion of them in one man. He commanded them to depart the man and then sent them into a pig. Perhaps the only difference now, is that we call them hordes today.”

“Yes, I’m familiar with the story,” Stephen said. “But… it just seems so-”

“Think of them as spiritual beings,” Logan interrupted. He gathered his thoughts and continued, “‘When an impure spirit comes out of a person, it goes through arid places seeking rest and does not find it. Then it says, ‘I will return to the house I left.’ When it arrives, it finds the house swept clean and put in order. Then it goes and takes seven other spirits more wicked than itself, and they go in and live there. And the final condition of that person is worse than the first’”

“What was that?” Meredith said.

Logan looked to her. “I was quoting from the Book of Matthew. Jesus said that. There’s plenty more scriptures that talk about the existence of these creatures and how to overcome them by faith in God.”

She nodded but said nothing more.

“Well,” Stephen said, clearly uncomfortable, “before this becomes a Bible study, maybe we should focus on our immediate situation and save the theological discussions for later.”

“I’ve seen one myself,” Logan said, surprising everyone. “I’ve spoken quite often about it in my sermons about my old life and what led me to God. It happened the night I chased down a young Asian boy in a back alley… that’s when I was confronted by one of these dark spirits. It was one of the most sobering experiences in my life, prior to this apocalypse, of course.”

“I haven’t had the opportunity to hear many of your sermons,” Meredith said. “Sounds like I should’ve heard this one. Do you remember what it looked like?”

Logan shifted uncomfortably. “I’m not proud to say that I was in the middle of beating the life out of that boy in the alley. Then, this… shadow man… came toward me. He was wearing a coat and a hat with these fierce-looking yellow eyes… just like those emerald lions you described.” He turned to Stephen. “And just like a certain type of zombie we’re familiar with, too.”

Stephen looked away.

Meredith was stunned. “Go on. Did it say anything to you?”

Logan scratched his beard nervously. “No… it didn’t. But the boy spoke to me, but mind you, it didn’t sound like the boy at all. You see, right before that creature stepped up to me, Brian, that was the kid’s name, he said something like, ‘The demon comes for you, but God has set you aside. Repent’. Then the boy took off running. I turned around and fired five rounds from my gun into that creature, at point blank range. Nothing happened. Well, nothing happened the way I thought. You see, that spirit tricked me. Instead of firing five shots at it, I ended up filling that kid with holes instead. At least, that’s what I tell myself what really happened. To this day, I’m still not sure what happened.”

“That must have been awful for you,” Meredith said. “I mean, killing that boy when you thought-”

“Yeah, it was.” Logan averted his eyes. “I’ve come to terms with it. I died that day, too. Died to all that old hate so that I could live for Christ. I’ve been trying to fight that good fight ever since.”

“And that spirit… did you ever see it again?” Meredith said.

Logan gave her a grave look. “I have. Most recently, I saw it just outside that airlock door before we entered the cavern.”

Stephen gave him a surprised glance. “You said you saw your nephew?”

“I did,” he said with a heavy sigh. “Jonas, or what was pretending to be Jonas, was trying to get me to break that airlock door. God turned the tables on that creature and gave me the strength to face it. That’s when it did the strangest thing. It started to… shift its shape.”

Meredith stared at him intently. “What do you mean by that?”

He nodded. “Yeah, I know, it sounds crazy… thought I was going crazy, like those scientists did. That’s why I kept it to myself. But I watched it change from Jonas, to some dark-haired young woman who looked all beat up with a knife sticking in her eye. Then it changed back to Jonas… then the Shadow Man appeared… that same one with the coat and hat and those eyes… and then it just… faded away like a black mist.”

Stephen started making strange sounds like he was caught between choking and coughing.

They all turned to look at him.

“You okay, little brother?”

Stephen nodded, then fell to his knees. He put his hands over his face and started laughing uncontrollably. Then he started to weep.

Meredith moved over to him. “What’s the matter, Stephen?”

Even Megan moved and squatted beside the distraught former teacher.

Stephen looked at Meredith through tears. “All this time… even up until now… I still wasn’t convinced that she was real. Some part of me always wondered if I hadn’t just embraced some insanity I’d created.”

Logan moved in and put a big hand on his shoulder. “Something’s vexing you. Something’s always been eating away at you, little brother. Looks like it’s finally caught up with you.”

Stephen smiled at the big preacher. “The girl you mentioned… with the knife sticking in her eye… I know who that is.”

Logan and Meredith gave each other a confused glance then turned back to Stephen.

“I’ve been keeping this secret for so damn long,” he said, calming down, and wiping tears from his face.

“You mentioned the girl,” Logan said. “Who is she?”

“Nicole,” he said. “Nicole Marie Howard. She’s the girl I killed, on accident, the night of The Change.”

Logan nodded. “Yes, of course, you mentioned her when you took office. But why would I-”

“It’s more than that,” Stephen said. He looked to Meredith and finished. “I’ve been seeing that girl ever since the Marina. She’s been with me all this time.”

Meredith’s eyes went wide. “What do you mean ‘seeing her’?”

“Seeing her, talking with her, hell… we even had a relationship together, albeit, a unique one. Nicole’s as real to me as any of you. I used to believe I was going insane, then I just… I don’t know… accepted it. I accepted her, like she always wanted me to. We were in love. But then I found out she used me to do some horrible things… and I’ve been trying to get away from her ever since.” He turned to Logan. “She’s the one you saw down by the airlock. Nicole was trying to stop you because she knew that if I went down there in the cavern… she couldn’t follow. I haven’t heard from her or seen her since. I believe she’s gone.”

Logan was speechless. He stood up and started scratching his beard.

Meredith smiled. “That’s some secret you’ve been keeping all this time,” she said.

“Sorry. You’re not the only one with a cross to bear. Nicole… she was mine.”

“And you didn’t know she was real… until Logan mentioned her just now?”

Stephen nodded and laughed. “Yeah… I mean… it didn’t matter anymore… I’d convinced myself she was real. Then she murdered Olivia, and all those people who committed suicide in the compound… and then… I started having doubts again.”

“What was that?” Logan said.

He turned to the preacher. “I don’t know how she does it, but Nicole… she would… take control of me when I slept. I believe she taunted all those people into killing themselves… using my body to do it.”

Logan had to remind himself to breathe. “Are you saying that this Nicole… she possessed you?”

Stephen raised his eyebrows. “I never looked at it that way… but… now that I know she’s real… then maybe that’s exactly what she did.”

Meredith was staring at him so intensely that Stephen thought she was trying to set him on fire with her eyes. “What? What is it?” he said.

“This is important, Stephen. Are you sure she’s gone? Are you absolutely positive that Nicole is gone?”

He nodded. “Yeah… yes… I’d know. There were times she hid herself from me, but I always knew she was still there… I could feel her. But now, it’s different. I don’t sense her anymore.”

“Okay, Stephen,” Meredith said. “Okay.”

“Why? What am I missing here?”

Logan spoke up. “To you, it was Nicole. To me, it appeared as Jonas. But it was that spirit I saw in the back alley. That was the last form it shifted into before leaving.”

Stephen considered the ramifications. He shook his head. “No, that doesn’t mean Nicole was that thing you described. Maybe she just saw it in your head, like Jonas, and was trying to use it to scare you.”

Logan wanted to protest, but Meredith cut in. “It’s understandable, Stephen. You and this… Nicole… spent a lot of time together. I’m sure she still means a lot to you.”

He nodded with a frown. “She did… until she betrayed me. You both must understand, I never knew what she was doing to those poor people in the compound, using me body to do her dirty work. I had no idea she was capable of that! It was always just her and I… and she was a great comfort to me in the early days when the guilt nearly destroyed me.”

Meredith gave Logan a cautious look, earning her a suspicious glance from the preacher, and then said, “We understand, Stephen. It’s not your fault. And whatever Logan saw at the airlock… well… that wasn’t the Nicole you remember.”

Stephen looked up at Logan. “That wasn’t your Shadow Man, Logan. She was just trying to stop you… to keep her and I together.” Fresh tears started streaming down his cheeks. Stephen was stunned that he still felt so strongly for the dead girl, considering everything she’d done. And now that I know she’s real… it’s too late. She’s gone, and I… I miss her. He kept that admission to himself. They would never understand.

Megan surprised them all by sniffing at the air like an animal. She got up and crouched down. “We need to leave,” she said. “I can sense them… the dead.”

Meredith was surprised. She, herself, had not sensed them at all. “Are they close, honey?”

“Not yet,” she said. “But they are moving toward us. We don’t want them to find us. We don’t want Toby to find us… ever.”

Megan’s words sent a chill up Meredith’s spine. “Yes… we certainly don’t.”

“Are they tracking you, Meredith? Like before?” Stephen said.

“No. I’m better at blocking them out now. They can’t track me unless I want them to… as long as I keep the door in my mind closed.”

“And Toby?” Logan said. “Can he find you?”

Meredith’s face turned to stone. “Not if he knows what’s good for him. I don’t think he’s ready to deal with me yet… not after the orphanage.”

“Well, then I guess we need to decide where to go from here?” Logan said.

Stephen nodded in agreement.

Megan started to relax, sitting back down.

“Nothing’s changed,” Meredith reminded them. “I am still dangerous… and you three need to get as far away from me as you can, since shooting me is not an option.”

“Don’t start that again,” Stephen said. “We’re in this together. That hasn’t changed.”

Megan slapped Meredith in the arm as if to say, “Stop saying stupid things!”

Meredith smiled at them both, grateful for the love they showed her, and the love she held for them. She looked up at the big preacher. “What about you? I don’t blame you for hating me, Logan. If you want to leave, I won’t stop you.”

“It would seem we all have much more in common then we realize. We’ve all been manipulated by… whatever these things are.”

Stephen looked up, was about to protest, then remained silent.

Logan continued. “We will have to revisit this at length and find it what it all means.” He sighed heavily and looked to Meredith. “Sorry for calling you an abomination. That was a bit… harsh. Stephen’s right. You were just a young girl. This isn’t your mess… it’s Toby’s.”

She nodded at him with a smile. “Thank you for that.”

He looked away.

Meredith took a deep breath and said, “It’s clear what I have to do. I need to put as much distance between myself and Toby as I can, for as long as I can. I don’t expect any of you to come with me… but this is what I have to do, for the sake of whatever world we have left.”

Stephen smiled. “Then it looks like I’ll be joining you. You’re going to need someone who’s an expert on managing guilt to remind you what’s what.”

Meredith laughed and took Stephen’s hand in hers. “Thank you, Stephen.”

“I’ve got your back,” Megan said, while trying to remove dirt from under her thumb nail. “Don’t try to talk me out of it or I’ll eat you.” A small crack appeared in the corner of her mouth.

Meredith and Stephen gave her a surprised look that was interrupted by Logan’s laughter.

“Oh… that was classic!” he roared. “The looks on your faces!” His laughter was infectious, causing them all to break at Megan’s joke.

When they calmed down, the big preacher said, “I’ll be joining you as well, Meredith. God’s not given up on you, and neither have I.”

She nodded at him with a smile.

“Where do we go?” Stephen said. “Should we look for Gina and Marcus? They’re still out there somewhere.”

She smiled at the thought. There’s that at least. “No,” she said. “I hope they’ve found each other by now. But we can’t endanger anyone else.”

“There’s a chance… even if it’s a small one… that some people back at the compound might have survived the Shadow Dead attack,” Stephen reminded her. “Do we just leave them all behind?”

“If there are survivors… and I pray you’re right, Stephen… then we’re doing the best thing we could do for them by leading Toby away from our friends. Wouldn’t you agree?”

Stephen nodded.

“We should continue north,” Logan suggested. “This is the farthest we’ve been out this way. Who knows what we’ll discover.”

“I like the sound of that,” Meredith said.

“But for how long?” Stephen said. “How long do we run and hide?”

Meredith let out an exhausted sigh. “For as long as we can, Stephen. Toby can’t find me… everything may depend on it. So, we run, we hide, we fight when we have to… until we find a better way.”

The others nodded in agreement.

~~~

They waited long enough for the morning to settle over the woods. A low, hovering mist covered the forest floor after last night’s storm making the morning feel damp and chilly. The fog only amplified their trepidation after Meredith’s shocking revelations. The future for all of them was shrouded in unknowns as they’d all have to navigate this proverbial fog together, hunted by dark forces responsible for more than they could contemplate.

Could they hide from this malevolent creature calling itself Toby? Demon or something entirely different, it all added up the same: Meredith had become a mobile ‘ground zero’ for this continuously unsettling apocalypse that defied all reason. And it would be up to all of them to keep her safe and far from the clutches of the darkness still attempting to consume what was left of their devasted world.

Logan stepped outside the wasted barn to gather his thoughts and seek guidance from God. He prayed for wisdom, patience, and for liberation from the hatred that was the thorn in his flesh. Jesus remained his ‘constant’ in this crazy, unsettling world. If he could still hang on to his faith in this one unchanging Rock in which he stood upon, he believed he, as well as the rest of them, still stood a chance.

Meredith stepped out and sheepishly approached the big preacher. “Am I disturbing you?”

Logan turned, the lines of exhaustion had clearly multiplied upon his bearded face. He smiled weakly. “No. I was just asking for God’s guidance. We clearly need it.”

“Agreed,” she said with a smile, staring down at her feet.

Logan’s eyes narrowed as he studied the strange woman. “For someone who can do what you can do, understanding the dark forces that are at play in this world, I’m often surprised by your moments of admission, when most of the time you seem to be on the fence about God Almighty.”

Meredith looked up and laughed. “As Stephen might say, have I stepped precariously into one of your ‘sermon’ landmines this morning?”

The big preacher laughed. “No. Nothing like that. But you’re not off the hook for a hallelujah explosion one of these days,” he added with a wink. “I’m just baffled by your faith. You’re very guarded most of the time about what you believe about God… and then sometimes you seem to be on the verge of prayer yourself. What gives?”

“I have reached out to your God, my God… if I can say that… and have I asked for guidance, on occasion. Sometimes in desperation, to be completely honest. I just don’t know if God is listening to me.”

“He loves you, Meredith. He will never forsake you.”

“Yes, maybe… but considering who, or what I am… maybe that bridge between your God and myself has burned down long ago. I’ve been hated and scorned for what I am for most of my life. I hate myself for what I am… and what I’ve done.” She looked away. “I guess what I’m trying to say is that I don’t know how I can do the awful things I’m capable of doing… what I have done… and still be worthy of God’s love.”

“You’re not,” Logan said.

Meredith was surprised by the preacher’s bluntness. “Well… I guess that settles-”

“What I mean is,” Logan clarified, “none of us are.”

Meredith looked puzzled. “Why would God love us then? Why would he let his creation fall to ruin if he loved us so much?”

Logan laughed. “I don’t pretend to understand the Mind of Christ or the master plan behind the Master. I just know that God has not abandoned us, even if it feels like it at times… especially now.”

Meredith shook her head. “I marvel at your faith. I knew another like you who felt the same, no matter what the circumstances were. He even lost his daughter to this… chaos… and he still believed in God, even to the bitter end before he was shot dead on some street in the middle of nowhere… for no reason.”

“Sounds like a good, God-fearing man who knew the score,” Logan said with a nod.

“Yes,” she said. “He was a good man who certainly didn’t deserve what this world did to him, while people like me continue to get a free pass in the apocalypse.” She reached for a bump at the back of her head where Stephen had struck her last night. “I should’ve been dead when I woke in that barn… and I mean, dead like them. To unleash what I did upon that horde… I knew there was no coming back from it, and yet, somehow… I’m still here.”

Logan looked at her and smiled. “The grace and favor of God is an amazing, mysterious and humbling thing. May we continue to walk within the light of it, in Jesus’ mighty name. Amen.”

“Amen,” she agreed. “I guess that’s all we can do sometimes isn’t it?”

“What’s that?”

“Just pray for help, stop asking all those big, terrifying questions about why we’re still here when others are gone, and just… what… trust in God?”

“Yes,” Logan said. “That’s about it.”

Meredith nodded and went silent.

“What troubles you, Meredith? Clearly you didn’t come out here to pray with me and discuss matters of faith, although, I do appreciate your openness on the subject.”

“I wanted to talk to you about a matter from last night, something that I’d like to stay between the two of us… you know, like when someone talks to a priest in confidence.”

“I’m not a priest, Meredith. Feel free to confess your sins with me if you’d like. I’ll gladly pray to God on your behalf.”

She laughed. “Sorry. No, I’m not here for confession… although I think I did a lot of that last night. I guess what I’m trying to say is that we may have an internal problem ahead of us that needs to be handled… delicately.”

Logan gave her his complete attention. “This is about Stephen, isn’t it? That’s why you gave me that look last night when he was talking about Nicole.”

“Yes,” she said, lowering her voice and moving closer. “Before we leave, I need for you to understand that although Stephen believes this… creature… is gone. I’m not convinced that it won’t find him again.”

“You mean… the demon?”

“Okay,” she said. “We’ll call it that, if we don’t have to discuss the theology around it.”

Logan nodded. “What is it, Meredith? What are you holding back?”

She sighed heavily and said, “I believe I might know this creature. From what you and Stephen described, it sounds very familiar to me.”

“You’ve seen it, too?”

“Maybe… but I’m not certain yet,” she said cautiously. “I’m only bringing it up now so that we might prepare for it… should the need arise.”

Logan was becoming increasingly uncomfortable. He waited for her to finish.

Meredith nodded. “If… and I do mean… if… this creature was to return… and if it’s what I think it is… then we’re in real danger.”

“Go on,” Logan said.

Meredith frowned. She finished, “I believe the creature that’s afflicted you, and Stephen, might be… A First One.”

~~~

Next Episode 50-1

Previous Episode 49-10

~~~

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__________________________________________
“Chapter 49-11: 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.

Comments
  1. alikolino says:

    When and impure spirit comes out of a person
    –> an instead of and

    We’ll all been manipulated by… whatever these things are.
    –> We’ve instead of We’ll

    Well call it that, if we don’t have to discuss the theology around
    –> We’ll instead of Well

    I like where the story is going, keep up the good work!

    Like

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