~~~

The waves steadily became stronger as Captain Carl navigated the ship toward the imposing wall of jagged rock towering above the fishing vessel. Initially, it looked like the captain had lost his mind and had decided to crash directly into the wall. But as they sailed closer, shadows shifted along the stone face, revealing a large black hole in the rock, resembling an open mouth, preparing to swallow up the Carrie-Anne.

Meredith stood with her friends near the aft port side of the ship staring into the cavern opening as they rode the rippling current toward their uncertain fate.

The old medium wrapped her arms around the front of her hoody as a cool breeze assaulted her weary face. She closed her eyes and steadied herself, making sure her mind was ready to confront the darkness. I’m so tired, she thought. Tired of fighting. Tired of losing friends… and pieces of myself as each new horrific truth is revealed about what I’ve done… and who I really am. She opened her eyes as the Carrie-Ann entered the mouth of the large cavern.

“Here we go,” Stephen whispered to her left.

She turned and flashed him a weak smile.

He nodded, putting on the bravest face her could manage.

She felt cold fingers slipping into her right hand.

Meredith turned. Megan was staring at her with those deep, dark eyes. For the first time, Megan looked afraid. “You okay, honey?”

Megan’s face was paler than usual. “I’ve talked with Logan and Stephen. I will not leave you alone in this place… no matter what.”

Meredith smiled and squeezed her hand. “I know. And… I’m very grateful to have you with me.”

“Are you scared?”

“Absolutely.”

It became darker as they entered the cavern. They looked up at a dome of ancient granite which rose up nearly fifty feet about them.

“Dear Lord,” Logan whispered from directly behind them. “How such places could exist on earth… it’s mind boggling.” He couldn’t stop staring at the canopy of stone above their heads as the vessel reached a pool of calm water.

Captain Carl reduced the speed of the ship as they drifted toward an old dock off to the right. Laura, and a tall young man with long red hair tied back in a ponytail, rushed toward the bow of the vessel. The young man, wearing jeans and a tie-dye t-shirt seemed oblivious to the cave. The second deck hand, the others suspected, easily could have been Laura’s brother. The siblings started unraveling mooring lines, preparing to dock.

As if on cue, the cabin door opened. Lady Clementine, looking like she’d been aroused from a deep sleep, yawned and stretched her arms. She was still wearing the red robe.

Meredith turned and frowned. “It’s about time you joined us. I was starting to think you’d slipped away during the afternoon transit.”

Clementine smiled. “Did you miss me, sister?”

Meredith ignored the question. “How was your nap?”

“I was… meditating… Meredith.” She stepped up beside her, causing Megan to step back. Logan and Stephen also stepped back. None of them wanted to stand within five feet of the red-robed witch. The ancient-looking woman stared toward the dock. “I don’t sleep much anymore. But… I have learned that there are places one can retreat to within their minds that is so much better than sleep.” She turned. “Perhaps you’ll let me teach you how to do this… should we survive the evening.” She added a playful smile.

Meredith just shook her head. “Remember your promise. My friends—you leave them alone.”

“Of course. I assume that means you’ve finally told them they can’t go any farther with us?”

“They understand.”

“Very good.”

“Megan will be joining us,” Meredith clarified.

Clementine raised an eyebrow.

“Will that be a problem?”

“No, of course not,” Clementine said. “I’m just surprised. You do know how dangerous this last part will be, don’t you?”

Meredith sighed. “I have an idea.”

“And the hybrid—does she the understand the risks?”

“Her name is Megan. She’ll be fine.”

Clementine nodded, dropping the matter.

The ship reached the dock. Laura and her brother jumped off the starboard side and started tying off the Carrie-Anne.

Captain Carl exited the pilot house, lit up his pipe, and then started barking orders at them.

Meredith took in the large cavern and gave Clem a confused look. “All I see is this large pool surrounded by all this rock. This can’t be the place?”

Clementine laughed. She squinted her eyes and stared out beyond the dock. She raised a bony arm and pointed. “There,” she said. “Can you see the steps?”

Meredith followed the old woman’s hand until she saw several old stones coming out of a wall toward the back. At the top she saw, a long, dark crack between the top of the wall and the cavern ceiling, big enough for them to duck under. “We’re going up there?”

“Yes, Meredith. Up… through… and then down the other side.”

“And that will lead us to Toby’s body?”

“Among other things… yes.”

“You are being surprisingly vague,” Meredith said. “If we intend to help each other, now is not the time for secrets.”

Clementine shook her head and frowned. “Sorry, Meredith. I’m not trying to be difficult. It’s just that… well… this is as close as I’ve managed to get. On the other side of that wall… you can feel this place… like a dark sickness trying to suffocate you.” She turned and finished, “Just like the cavern beneath the orphanage, the border between our world… and the other side… is very thin here.”

“I thought you said it was stable?”

“It is… and yet it is not.”

“What does that mean?”

Clementine left the question hanging. “We need to leave now. I suggest you say your farewells. Captain Carl will want to get his ship back outside before the tides change again and flood this place. But don’t worry, he will return at the next shift in the tides. That should give us the time we need to finish this.”

Before Meredith could say another word, Clementine walked toward the starboard side of the vessel and stepped across a walkway that the siblings had just laid across. She then stood between the dock and the rock steps, her arms buried beneath her robe, staring off into nowhere as if she were attempting to emulate the stones all around her.

“Your wayward sister,” Logan started, “there’s something very wrong about her.”

“Yes,” Meredith agreed, staring at Clementine’s back. “I know.” She turned away and gathered them close while they still had time. She gave Stephen and Logan a grave look and lowered her voice. “Remember, find Gina. Get her off this island. The Captain seems a reasonable man. Maybe he’ll help.”

Stephen nodded. “He’ll help us… or we’ll make him help us.”

Logan folded his large arms across his chest. “Amen, little brother.” He turned to Meredith. “Don’t worry about us. We’ve got this.”

“We’ll come back to get the both of you,” Stephen said. “I promise.”

Meredith look away with a nod.

“Just don’t bring that witch back with you,” Logan added. “One witch is enough, and I like the one we already have.” He added a wink.”

Meredith laughed lightly. She turned to Megan.

The young half-dead was already looking around for a fight as she sniffed at something foreign in the cavern air. “This place is bad… very bad. It smells like the evil in this place has been rotting away in here for a long time.”

“Chilling image,” Stephen said with a smile.

Megan relaxed a little.

“Take care of Meredith,” Stephen told her. “Make sure you both make it back here… okay?”

Megan nodded confidently. “I will.”

“Meredith!” Clementine called over. “It’s time, sister. Toby will only be fooled by my little distraction for so long.”

Meredith turned. “We’re coming!” She turned back and grabbed Stephen and Logan’s hands. To Stephen she whispered, “Nothing has changed. We will be sticking to the original plan. The one we spoke about in the boathouse. Understand?”

Stephen eyes went wide.

“There’s no time to argue about it. Just trust me. It’s the only way.”

Stephen nodded. “I… I understand.”

To Logan, she said, “Pray for us preacher. We will need everything your God can give us… everything our God can do… if we’re to stand a chance.”

Logan nodded. “I have not stopped praying since we left the marina. God will be there for all of us, Meredith.” He glanced over at Megan and smiled. “Take care of yourselves, and each other.”

They all lingered a moment longer, then turned away.

Meredith and Megan crossed the walkway and stepped down on to the rocky uneven ground. As soon as Meredith’s feet made contact with the cavern floor, she felt the darkness slowly creeping in around the surface of her thoughts. She immediately put up her mental guards. Whatever this place is… it’s strong and so very, very old! But it was more than that. And then she felt it. This place is alive!

Megan started to growl as she stared all around the cavern.

She feels it, too, Meredith thought.

“It will pass,” Clementine said, coming over. “What you both are sensing are… spirits… for lack of a better word. They’re poking at the fabric of this reality from their own. They are aware of us on some primal level, they hunger for what they don’t understand… but despise. Don’t worry, they cannot reach us, not here. But they desperately keep trying. Think of this place as a hall of mirrors, in part. They can see us but fail to understand the glass that keeps them second guessing where we are. This place confuses them as much as it does us.” Clementine turned to the siblings.

Laura and her brother were moving frantically. They were wrapping fabric and some sort of lubricated twine around three small sticks. They were constantly stealing glances behind them as if expecting the shadows to come alive.

Clementine laughed. “These two would not even make it to the other side of the stone steps before the madness claimed them. It’s a good thing you left the other two on board.”

Meredith stared at the two siblings. She could feel their terror. “What are they doing?”

“Torches,” Clementine said. “As primitive as that sounds, it’s the only light we’ll have on the other side. Sadly, flashlights do not work the way they should in places like this where different realities merge, overlap and… flicker. But fire seems to work just fine in either realm.”

Meredith left the strange comment alone.

After the siblings were finished. They lit the torches, handed one to each of them, and then boarded the Carrie-Anne without looking back. They pulled the walkway back on deck and then quickly removed the mooring lines. Captain Carl started the vessel’s engine.

Within minutes, the ship was pulling away from the dock. After turning around, the Carrie-Anne headed for the mouth of the cave as the fading light coming in from outside started to make the cavern darker.

Meredith and Megan got one last look at their friends. Stephen and Logan waved from the aft deck.

They waved in return.

A few minutes later, the ship escaped the cave.

Meredith stared after the Carrie-Anne with glazed eyes.

Megan placed an arm on her left shoulder.

She turned and found nothing but compassion in the half-dead’s eyes. Meredith nodded with a smile. “I’m okay. Goodbyes are always difficult… especially now.”

Megan attempted a half smile. “We’ll see them again,” she said confidently.

“I don’t mean to be… insensitive,” Clementine said from behind them. “But we should be going now.” Her words failed to feel sincere as the red robed woman turned and started toward the stone steps.

Meredith frowned after her and whispered to Megan, “Do not trust anything that woman says from here on in. Understand?”

Megan scowled at the witch. “I understand.”

With their torches out front, they followed Clementine up the narrow stone steps toward the crack in the upper wall.

~~~

On the other side of the cavern wall, it became so dark that they could only make out surrounding features up to twenty feet. What started off as a single massive cave had turned into a cave system. Once clearing the gap in the first wall, the ancient stone steps descended into what was feeling like a rocky labyrinth beneath the island. The steps took them through several smaller caves and through long gaps in stone that felt like hallways with low ceilings.

They walked in silence for thirty minutes in this vast and mysterious subterranean underworld.

Meredith noticed that the temperature had dropped significantly as she rubbed her arms for warmth. She stared ahead at the red robed woman holding her torch and thought, After she destroys Toby’s body, she will try to kill us. And then she had a chilling thought, staring at all the suffocating rock: We won’t even need graves.

She turned to Megan. Beneath the young woman’s ferocious stare, challenging the darkness with her eyes, Meredith could sense her fear, confusion and exhaustion. Why am I not tired? She was puzzled by this. Meredith stopped and called ahead, “Clem, let’s rest a moment.”

Clementine turned. She was no longer smiling… or pretending. The old woman stared at them a moment as if considering disposing of them now, and then said, “If we must… but only for a few minutes. This place can be very dangerous for anyone lingering too long.”

Meredith leaned back on a large stone. Megan crouched down beside her, holding both their torches like weapons, aimed toward the witch.

Clementine came over and stood still. The old woman closed her eyes and focused on breathing.

To Meredith, it was obvious that Clem, too, could feel the gradual assault on her mind.

Clementine opened her eyes and smiled at them. “We are almost there.”

“So, we just step into Toby’s lair, kill his connection to this world, and then get the heck out? And all this without him knowing?”

“If we hurry, yes.”

“How long have you been planning this… move?”

Clementine smiled and changed the subject. “If we’re found out before I can reach his flesh, Toby will attempt to bring you to him. You and I know that this cannot happen.”

“What are you getting at?”

“I think you know. You’ve always known. Let’s not insult each other any further with pretense.”

Meredith nodded. “We are prepared.” She turned to Megan. “That’s why she’s really here.”

Megan just stared at her.

Clementine was catching on. “Again, Meredith, I have underestimated you. So, the half-dead will terminate you should we fail. That was a wise move.”

Meredith turned to Megan, gave her a look to remain quiet, and then lied, “It’s not a popular move, for sure. But Megan knows what she needs to do should the time come. Under no circumstances can Toby have access to me. Too much is at stake.”

Megan looked away, before her surprise revealed too much.

Clementine stared at them both, then nodded, satisfied. “Well I guess you’ve got the ‘back up’ plan covered. Hopefully, it will not come to that.”

“What will you do to him… Toby’s… flesh?”

Clementine laughed. “You don’t want to know, Meredith. It won’t be pleasant.”

“Will it be… merciful?’

Clementine’s eyebrows shot up. “’Merciful’? You do understand that the real Toby is long gone? That husk in the next cave is just a body kept barely alive to perform a function. Don’t trouble yourself with such a trivial matter. I will do what I must, with the most effective means at my disposal, to destroy that husk.”

Meredith looked away.

“If it makes you feel any better… it will be quick. As for mercy… well… I wasn’t taught that trick.”

“And afterwards?” Meredith challenged. “What will happen to us?”

Clementine just stared as if a child had just asked a childish question. “I believe you already know that answer to that question, Meredith.”

“You’re going to kill us, too,” Meredith said flatly.

Megan started shifting uncomfortably.

Clementine continued to stare at her old friend. “As I’ve said, no more pretense. Yes, Meredith. I will dispose of you right after I cut off Toby’s hand in this world. I can keep him from using that door again. I can seal this place off like a tomb. But what I can’t afford to do is let you live. There’s always a chance that Toby might find another means to reach out into this world… and to you.”

Meredith nodded absently.

Clementine raised an eyebrow. “You seem surprisingly calm after what I’ve just told you. I will miss you on some level, maybe even shed a tear afterwards… but make no mistake… I will kill you when we’re finished.”

“You mean after I get you safely out of this place,” Meredith corrected.

Clementine laughed. “And not one moment beyond that.”

Meredith nodded. “As long as you keep your promise to my friends… and that includes Megan… then you will have no resistance from me.”

Clementine just stared at her old friend for a moment. Finally, she said, “And that’s it? That’s all you’re going to say about the matter?” Clementine seemed offended. “You’re just going to lie down and let me end you… for what? So, the rest of these unworthy worms that you call ‘friends’ can live… while you die?”

Meredith smiled. “I don’t expect you to understand, Clem. But… yes. That’s it.”

Clementine shook a frustrated hand in her face. “What a waste! You are better than them! You deserve this new world as much as I do for all that we’ve suffered!”

Meredith said nothing.

Clementine calmed down. “So be it,” she said. “I was actually hoping that you’d put up a fight. That in the end, I’d finally get a chance to see who was the real chosen one.”

“I’m sorry to disappoint you,” Meredith said. “If I could give you this… gift… all of it… I would. The only good that’s come from bearing this burden are the wonderful people I’ve met that have helped me carry it.” She turned to Megan and smiled.

Megan smiled back.

She turned back to Clementine. “You want to be the ‘chosen one’? Well, I relinquish my crown and freely give it to you.”

“Stop it.”

“You are the best! The most powerful! And I am nothing!”

“I mean it, Meredith… don’t push me!”

“Then grow the hell up!” Meredith spat. “This… competition… between you and I, it’s foolish! I never wanted any of this… and you seem to want it all! Well, once Toby is gone, once I’m gone… you will finally have all that you desire!”

Clementine was fuming in silence.

“If I choose to ‘lie down and let you end me’, as you say, then what is it to you? My friends—my family—mean more to me than anything! They are my ‘real gift’! It is this curse that you crave that keeps me from them… and now… I’ll finally be rid of it. And I will protect them from it! So… yes… you loveless old power-hungry child! I will not fight you! But I will finish this one way or the other! And that is my victory… my crown… and I will wear it proudly to my death… if that’s what is required!”

Clementine’s free fist was balled up so tight her fingernails caused her skin to bleed. She almost lost control… almost. She finally settled down, took a deep breath and hissed, “You will die before this night is done, Meredith. And then we shall see what your death is really worth.”

Meredith did not know how to respond to the cryptic comment.

“We’ve already wasted enough time here,” Clementine said, turning back toward the stairs. “My distraction will only keep Toby amused and preoccupied for so long.”

“Yes, you’ve mentioned that a few times now… this ‘distraction’. Just what have you gotten Gina mixed up with?”

Clementine gloated this time, and said, “The Ama-Eskua Order has decided to eliminate Gina and the recruits that I left under her care. I warned her before I departed that they might try this in my absence. Apparently, I was right.”

“The Order,” Meredith said. “Are you telling me that the ones who trained the Shadow Dead, those monsters who killed all our people at the compound, that they’re now coming for Gina!?”

Clementine laughed. “Oh, you should see your face. Relax, Meredith. I have arranged the whole confrontation. I strongly suspect that Gina and her recruits will put on a very good show.”

“Against those trained assassins? She won’t stand a chance!”

Clementine smiled wickedly and said, “Yes, you are correct, of course.” She turned back toward the stairs and finished, “It’s a good thing then that the Order is long gone… and that there are no more Ama-Eskua warriors… not on this island.”

~~~

Next Episode 54-9

Previous Episode 54-7

~~~

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__________________________________________
“Chapter 54-8: Treachery” 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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