~~~

Meredith slips through the void. In her mind, she imagines descending, but because there is nothing to perceive, there is no sensation of falling into anything. This is the only way she can comprehend moving through the nothingness. She is in The Black. She cannot see anything. In fact, she has no eyes, no body. She has no form or substance in this place, just like everything else. She has been here before. First with Doctor Forrester, then with young Toby. It is the mental closet between worlds… It is Elsewhere.

It doesn’t take her long to travel through it as she approaches the island—the Isle of Lions she has previously created in her own mind. Like a blank black canvas, she repaints the picture until all her senses come to life.

The light returns first as her mind registers sunlight on her closed eyelids—eyes and sun—coming into existence like the opening scene of a movie. She can feel the sun on her face; the warm breeze scattering her long dark hair; the rhythmic sound of the ocean waves on her ears and the screeching of seagulls hovering in the wind. And then finally, the smell of salt saturating the air and filling her nostrils.

Meredith opens her eyes. She is back, standing on the sand dune surrounded by reeds. She looks down at her bare feet buried in warm sand, the ruffled base of the sundress shifting around her young legs. She holds her hands in front of her face. They are no longer wrinkled with age, but smooth, like hands that have yet to experience the world of touch.

She doesn’t need a mirror to know that she is thirteen again—physically—but wishes she had one anyway, just to see the reflection of her real face again. But there is no time for any of this.

And yet… there is… since time does not exist here.

Meredith sighs and steps forward on the sand dune until she can see the white sand beach below.

The lanky, tan young boy of ten with the shaggy black hair and deep blue eyes is not there.

I’ve arrived before him, she thinks in her old voice, wondering if there’s an advantage she can gain from this. She is still her old self in this young body, just like before. It was Toby that made her forget the truth last time.

“Stop trying to be old… this is no place for old ladies. Kids only, remember?” she remembers Toby saying.

“Not this time,” Meredith declares in her young voice. “It is time to put childish ways behind us, Toby.”

She looks to the left. The lighthouse stands like a silent sentinel at the edge of the beach. Everything looks as it did before… but something feels different now.

Meredith smiles when it comes to her. “It’s all smaller,” she says. “Just like when we revisit places from our youth… only to discover that we have become giants with age.” The finality of her words make Meredith a little sad. “Elsewhere may not be affected by time… but I have been… and my perception of this place has changed with it.” She makes a mental note of this as she descends the sand dune toward the beach. As sad as it makes her feel not to experience this place through the adventurous eyes of youth, she is relieved that Toby will not be able to use it against her this time, distracting her from what needs to be done.

Meredith finds the spot where Toby’s sand lion once stood. She stares out into the ocean waves and sighs. This is where it all started, she thinks. This is where I ended the world. I sent The First Ones over from this beach… all six of them. She turns back and stares up toward the jungle terrain behind her, rising over the center of the island. She remembers the trip across, when Toby took her up and over, and then back down the other side to that awful beach full of more lions than she could count.

The Change occurred… over there, she thought.

Meredith turns back toward the ocean, sits down in the sand, and then closes her eyes to clear her mind for what happens next.

After a few minutes pass in this hell of permanent ‘Now’, she opens her eyes abruptly and frowns.

He is here.

“You’re late,” young Meredith says, still staring out at the ocean. “I thought you were always here.”

A young female voice she has not heard in a very long time responds, “I was here, Meredith. But for a moment… I was… Elsewhere, too.”

The joke is a bad one. Meredith turns around. Her eyes go wide as she stares into a familiar frightening face.

Toby, the ten-year-old boy, is gone.

Standing just behind her is a young girl wearing a similar sundress. Her hair is black with a strand of white running down across her bangs. It’s Clem… at fifteen… when they first met at the orphanage. And yet the playful smile painted on her face reminds her immediately of Toby.

“Why are you wearing ‘that’ face… Toby?” Meredith says. “What has happened?”

Young Clem folds her arms across her chest. “I thought you’d be pleased by my new appearance, sister.”

“Don’t call me that. Explain this? I grow weary of your games.”

Toby/Clem laughs. “This is no game. When Clementine destroyed my old body, my former tether to your world, I acquired a new one.”

“How is that possible?”

Clem smiles mischievously, and answers, “It took me a long time, but I finally figured out Forrester’s magic trick. Clementine’s attempt to cut off my connection to your world did not work as well as she imagined. Thank you for the ‘heads up’ by the way. I would have found you eventually and stopped my wayward daughter, but I appreciate that you sought me out instead.”

“What did you do to Clem?”

Toby just smiles. “Does it really matter, Meredith? Wasn’t it your intention to have me kill her after she disposed of my body? I took care of that traitor. Let’s just leave it at that.”

Meredith nods and stares toward the sand. “What happens now?”

Toby laughs. “What do you think, you silly goose? We finish what we started.”

Meredith looks up. “You want me to send you across.”

“Yes… and now I know that you can. You are no longer that timid little brat from before. You have become a strong woman, Meredith, as I knew you would eventually be.”

Meredith glares at her old friend. “Then you also know that I’m strong enough to stop you, too.”

Clem laughs. “Maybe in your world… but not here.” Toby stops, distracted by a thought. “It is strange, connecting with my daughter in this way. I tried so very hard to lead her in the right direction and make her strong, like you. but Clementine was… damaged.” He looks at Meredith. “But I do understand now why she hated you as much as she loved you.”

“I don’t want to hear this,” Meredith says.

“Before you arrived at the orphanage, she was in desperate need of love… she always has been. It was her fatal flaw in the end. And then you entered her life and gave her a friend. Even after I favored you over her, and as much as she despised you for it, she still needed you. Perhaps more than she needed me. Even after all I did for her… it wasn’t enough. Only you could give her what she required… to become strong. That is very curious, and unfortunate at this point.”

“So, the monster you created still craved the one thing you could not provide,” Meredith says with a defiant smile. “That’s very telling, Toby.”

“How so?”

“It tells me that there are limits to what you can do… and that Love can conquer you.”

Toby laughs hard. “Oh, you’re precious, Meredith! The way your face lights up, your eyes flickering to life with all that hope… it’s so very cute… and sad. You may be powerful enough for my purposes, but you’re just as flawed as Clementine… and equally pathetic.”

“Sticks and Stones,” Meredith says. “Let’s get on with this. I’ll start. I will not send you across. You’re going to have to destroy me first.”

“No,” Clem said, in a bored voice. “I won’t. Apparently, you’ve already forgotten what this place is all about. I will wear you down, like before, until your days and nights merge and the years pass, by not passing at all. Eventually, you will give me what I want, and while you are tortured within by the assassin of Time, you will cave and we will arrive back at this moment, again and again. Your limited mind cannot handle an eternity on this island, and you’ll be begging me to go back.”

“I can’t go back,” Meredith says. “My body will perish in your caves—my tether will be gone. I knew this before I came back here and I’m prepared to spend an eternity, if need be, just to keep you on this island.”

Toby considers this, smiles to himself, then turns away. “Well… we’ll just have to see if my understanding of how this place works is stronger than your futile defiance. You seem to forget how very patient I can be.”

“You didn’t seem so patient before,” Meredith challenges. “In fact, if I had to guess, I’d say you’re running out of time in both worlds.”

Toby smiles. “Oh, Meredith. I will miss our little ‘back and forths’. But… let’s get started, shall we?”

Meredith braces herself for anything.

Clem raises her hands above the sand and says over her shoulder, “You know how this works.”

The sand started to shift in front of Toby. Then it started to spin, getting bigger and bigger turning into a massive sand whirlpool.

Meredith steps back as the sand swirls around Toby/Clem, rising around him until he is completely covered. Then the sand continues to rise, up… up… up… into the sky.

When Toby is finished, Meredith stares upward and gasps.

She is standing in the shadow of the largest sand lion she has ever seen. It is fifty feet high, staring down at her with Toby’s sandy grin.

And then the sand starts to change to emerald green as the creature comes to life.

I’m not doing this? she thinks. How is this possible?

I WOULD LIKE TO TRY SOMETHING NEW, MEREDITH. Toby’s voice appears to be booming down from the sky. LET’S SKIP THE ‘WEARING DOWN’ PART. TURNS OUT I’VE A WHOLE BAG OF NEW TRICKS TO TRY. PRESENTLY, I THINK I’LL JUST DEVOUR YOU AND ABSORB YOUR ABILITIES. THEN… I CAN SEND MYSELF ACROSS.

The eyes are the last to change.

The gigantic emerald lion turns its head slowly to stare down at Meredith.

Its eyes are blazing yellow and full of hatred.

~~~

Gina and Julianne pounded on the old north shower room wall with their Balatos, attempting to find a weak spot by testing various spots. The remaining eight recruits formed a protective barrier in the dimly lit space, standing in between their leadership and the shower room door. They had managed to slip into the western wing of the facility without being seen only because the dead were either feeding or still avoiding the area due to the dying flames caused by the explosion near the southern exit. But this would not last long. It was apparent that the Nightwalkers were not only fierce hunters in the darkness, but they were also cunning.

“Why haven’t they come for us?” Gina said, slamming the end of her pain stick at a lower portion of the wall. “They know we’re here. And if they don’t… after all this noise… they will.”

Julianne stopped pounding and put a hand on Gina’s shoulder to signal her to stop.

Gina stopped and stared at the Ama-Eskua recruit.

“Do you hear that?” she whispered.

Gina turned toward the remaining recruits and stopped breathing. Finally, she whispered, “All I hear is disturbing fucking silence.”

“Exactly,” Julianne whispered, also looking back. “They know exactly where we are. They’re just creeping into position, probably just outside this space and down the next hallway.”

“That’s fucking comforting. Why all the stealth? Why not just come at us and finish us off?”

“They’re toying with us, Gina. These creatures know that we’re the last of their prey… and they’re… enjoying themselves.”

“Like a cat stalking a wounded bird,” Gina said with a nod.

“Yes. When they have their numbers in place, I’m certain they will storm this room and eliminate us very quickly… and savagely.”

“Wow… you’re just full of good news.” Gina shook her head and then remembered something her grandfather had told her about bears. She smiled at Julianne and said, “Let’s not act like wounded animals.”

“Come again?” Julianne said.

Gina turned to the recruits, raised her arms, and started screaming defiantly into their faces. Then she started pounding her stick on the wall.

They all looked at her as if she’d just lost her mind.

“Raise you fucking voices!” she said. “Make as much noise as you can! Let the monsters out there know that you are not afraid! Perhaps if we show them enough… crazy… they will be confused and hesitant!”

They all caught on and started making as much noise as they could, screaming and hollering like monsters, pounding their weapons on the walls as if they were all challenging the silence, itself, to battle.

Julianne smiled and nodded.

Gina shrugged her shoulders. “Can’t hurt to try it. I know I’d be wetting my pants a little if I were hearing us out in that hallway right now.” She resumed pounding on the lower part of the wall until her Balato went all the through it. She stared wide-eyed at Julianne. They both attacked the weak point with their sticks until they had a hole wide enough to crawl through.

“That’s enough!” Gina said. “Let’s not make it easy for those fuckers to follow.”

Julianne was already on her belly staring into the hole. It was completely dark within. She breathed in stale air. “Feels like a tomb in there.”

“It’s going to be one out here if we don’t leave right now,” Gina said.

Julianne didn’t hesitate. She crawled through the hole. A moment later she called back, “From what I can see, it’s one long hall. I think this is the old prison wing.”

“I’m not even going to ask,” Gina said. She turned to the others, “Time to go! Through the fucking rabbit hole!”

The others stopped making noise and watched her wave frantically toward the hole. One of them said, “You first, Lady Gina. We have your back.”

The moment they all stopped making animals noises, they could hear movement from just down the hall.

Lots of movement.

No more fucking time! she thought. “Right after me… understand? No ‘hero’ bullshit.”

They nodded.

Gina got down and crawled through the hole.

As soon as she was on the other side, both women started pulling the recruits through the small gap in the wall.

The Nightwalkers howled and stormed into the shower room.

“Come on!” Gina yelled. They managed to get four of the recruits out.

Someone yelled from the other side, “Run! We will hold the line!”

Before she could protest, Gina heard screams from the other side of the wall.

The remaining recruits were being slaughtered.

Gina wanted to crawl back through the hole and help them, but Julianne firmly gripped her shoulder. She turned and met the Ama-Eskua recruit’s sad gaze.

“There’s nothing we can do for them, Gina. We need to move,” Julianne said.

Gina reluctantly nodded and swore, “Fucking animals!” She got up and led her remaining group of six down the dark hallway, entering the prison wing.

The remaining recruits stood on both sides of Gina as they slowly crept through the dark hall.

From behind them, the monsters were already slamming into the wall. Fortunately, they were all too big to fit into the hole as one of the Nightcrawlers got stuck, its long arms clawing at the air toward them as the red-eyed beast howled.

Gina covered her nose and mouth as they stepped deeper into the long, dark space. Their eyes started to adjust to what little ambient light there was. The stench of decay and death permeated the stale air. “What the hell happened down here?” she whispered.

As they traveled the dark corridor with their weapons raised, they noticed dark cells on both sides of the hall. They could see nothing in those cells.

They heard laughter from up ahead.

Gina raised her hand, and everyone froze.

The laughter sounded strained. It was a man… or what used to be. And then there was more laughter from all around them. Men and women, clearly insane, were laughing so long and out of control that it was hard to tell if they were laughing or screaming. Dark, dirty limbs reached out toward them from ancient cell bars as the laughter continued.

Someone managed to speak words, “Kill me!” It was a woman. “Please… just kill me… or I’ll kill YOU!”

And then the others were chanting the same, in between bursts of nerve-wrecking laughter, weeping, and long-suppressed cries of agony.

Gina wanted to crawl out of her skin as one frantic hand grabbed at her clothes. She turned and saw what remained of a woman. She was naked, and bald. The woman looked like bones with skin stretched over them. Her eyes… my God… her eyes looked like two black holes filled with madness. “Please… just… just give me something to use,” the woman half whispered, half hissed. “Anything! I’ll… I’ll bleed out quickly… and… and it will be over.”

Gina pried the woman’s cold hand from her clothing, noticing that what remained of her black nails were bloody from scratching at herself. Gina stepped away from the woman and turned to Julianne. “What the fuck? Who did this to them?”

Julianne looked as shocked as Gina. She shook her head. “I don’t know. This is… beyond cruel.”

The others were pulling together toward the center of the hall, refusing to get within arms-reach of the lunatics in the cells.

Gina turned as the monsters behind them continued to slam into the wall. They’ll breach it soon, she thought. The red-headed woman looked back, eyes forward, and said, “Keep going. If we survive this… we’ll… we’ll come back for this poor people.”

“And do what?” one recruit said. “Their minds are long gone.”

Gina didn’t have an answer. Her promise felt weak. Whatever had once been human in those cold eyes had been ripped out long ago. “Just keep moving,” she said, over the prisoners unending pleas for death and insane laughter.

They reached the end of the wing with much relief. A single steel door stood open revealing a flight of steps that led up to the next level.

“That should take us up into the sanctum,” Julianne said. “Hopefully from there, we can find another door to the outside.”

Gina nodded. Just as she was about to lead them out, a man’s voice from the last cell on their left, said, “Don’t wanna go up there, friends… no … you sure don’t. Nothing but death up there… nothing but death down here, too.” The man laughed.

Gina turned.

An old bald man, sitting in soiled clothing, pressed his dirty face in between the bars. He smelled like he’d shit himself repeatedly. The man had no eyes.

“Why… why are you all down here?” Gina managed.

The man smiled, revealing rotted teeth. To Gina, he resembled a pale jack-o-lantern with that horrendous smile and dark eye sockets. “I was once like you… yes… just like you. I worked for Mother… I was somebody… and now I’m just dead… dead inside… dead outside.” The man laughed.

“Who put you all down here?” Gina said.

The man frowned and started to shake. “Don’t wanna say her name! Don’t ever speak it!” He smiled and then tapped his forehead with his finger repeatedly. “She’s watching us… always watching us! She’s in here… in my brain… turning it inside, out… and outside, in.” He laughed again. “The woman… she… she remembered what we did to her… what we all did… when she was still just a girl… the Devil Girl! She destroyed this place… killed everyone! Mother’s dead! MOTHER IS DEAD!”

“Lady Clementine?” Gina said.

The man jumped back from the front of his cell and started screaming. He covered his ears and shouted, “Don’t say it! DON’T EVER SAY HER NAME! She’ll hear you… hear all of us… and… and let the monsters out again!”

Gina took a step back. “What monsters? You mean… the Nightwalkers? Did they… did they make you like this?”

The man laughed. “The monsters never go away. They’re inside us… inside our minds! She let them loose! They never go away.”

Julianne stepped up beside her and said, “It has been rumored that Lady Clementine has the ability to… break minds. I never believed it myself… until now.”

Gina turned to her. “Clementine did this to them?” She shook her head and thought, My God, what has that evil fucking woman done here? And what has she gotten me into? She turned back to the old man. “What’s your name?”

The man looked as if she’d just asked the hardest question. He scratched at his face, then started slapping himself… hard. “Bard… no… Barry… no… Bawl! Yeah, that’s it! Bawl! I used to… I used to be something… something important here. Now I’m just… dead. Can you help me? Can you kill me now… please? Before she comes back… just… kill us.”

Gina turned away from the sick man and signaled the others to follow her up the stairs. She turned back and said, “I’m sorry this happened to you… Mr. Bawl. We’ll come back… if we can.”

“No… NO! Don’t leave me like this! Kill me! Use your axe and cut my head open! Cut my head open so that all the monsters can get out! All the monsters trapped in my head! In my nightmares!”

Gina turned away and they all ascended the steps.

Mr. Bawl shouted behind them, “DON’T GO UP THERE! MONSTERS WILL GET ‘CHA!” Bawl laughed… and laughed… and laughed…

~~~

Meredith doesn’t know if Toby is just trying to intimidate her into submission, or if he really intends to consume her and take her powers.

Can he really do that? she wonders. This beach was created out of my own imagination. Toby brought it out of me… but it’s still… me. And the rules this place follows are dictated by me being too grounded in our world… and not this one.

The gigantic emerald lion opens its mouth and then lowers its body to strike.

Meredith stares at the lion, then is caught off guard by a wave striking the back of her legs. She turns and stares at the water as understanding hits her.

Before she realizes what she’s doing, she raises her hands, causing the ocean waves behind her to rise and move over her, splashing down hard upon the emerald lion’s head, pushing it back and causing Toby to roll with the force of the flooding waves. And then the water recedes back over Meredith without so much as a drop touching her.

The soaked lion shakes water out of its emerald mane and then stares cautiously at its prey.

“Didn’t expect that, did you, Toby?” Meredith says.

WELL DONE, MEREDITH! YOU’VE FINALLY FIGURED OUT THAT THIS BEACH SERVES YOU… AND NOT THE OTHER WAY AROUND.

Meredith ignores him. She stares at the sand beneath the lion, then quickly aims her hand toward it.

Before Toby can attempt a second charge, the sand beneath the lion starts to sink into a small hole, like sand slipping through an hourglass. Then the hole gets bigger… bigger…

Toby stares down at the sand beneath him and slips into the hole. Meredith starts moving the sand up and around the lion as its massive paws fail to find anything to grip.

And just like that, the emerald lion is swallowed up in the sand.

Meredith feels drained and lowers her hands. Is that it? In her mind, she imagined the lion sinking deeper and deeper into the sand—so deep that it would never be able to climb back out.

Suddenly, the sand explodes.

Meredith turns, managing to shield her eyes from the mini sandstorm. She shakes the sand from her hair and face and looks back.

The emerald lion is climbing out of the sand.

Toby is laughing.

Once the lion is completely free, Toby says, REALLY, MEREDITH? DID YOU THINK YOU COULD JUST ‘IMAGINE’ ME AWAY?

The old medium frowns in her child body. “No… I suppose not. But I am on to you, Toby. You can’t terrify me anymore with your… lions. Create as many nightmares as you wish, and I’ll just turn this island upside-down to stop you!”

The emerald lion spins in a large circle, then turns toward the child and roars at her.

Meredith smiles. “Lion or not, this still looks like the temper tantrum of a ten-year-old boy.”

DON’T MOCK ME, MEREDITH, the voice booms from above. YOU WILL REGRET GETTING ME UPSET. I’M NO LONGER AMUSED.

“So much for your grand patience,” Meredith responds. “All it took was a little sand and water, and now you don’t want to play with me anymore.”

I MEAN IT. YOU’RE TRYING MY PATIENCE.

Meredith glares at the beast. “And I’ve had my fill of your games. I will not give you what you want.”

The lion sits down on its back legs and stares towards the sky.

Meredith feels the air around her getting cold. The wind is picking up. The sunny sky starts to grow dark as storm clouds roll in from the other side of the island. Lightning flashes. Thunder resounds.

Meredith can feel rain coming down. It starts to burn her skin.

The rain picks up.

Meredith is soaked in seconds, screaming in pain from what feels like acid burning through her sundress and tearing up flesh. She falls to her knees as the flimsy clothing falls off her frail frame. She tries to cover her nakedness, as well as her face. Everything burns. Skin and muscle fall away revealing bones. Meredith can’t stop screaming from the intense pain. She falls forward into the sand, a charred skeleton, and…

Meredith is kneeling before the lion. The acid rain has stopped. She raises her head and examines herself. Her flesh is back, as is the sundress. It’s like she died, and then did not die.

She looks up at the lion, confused.

HOW MANY MORE TIMES WILL I KILL YOU, IN THE MOST EXCRUCIATING WAYS THAT ‘I’ CAN IMAGINE, BEFORE YOUR FRAGILE MIND SNAPS? ARE YOU SURE YOU’RE READY FOR AN ETERNITY OF PAIN, MEREDITH?

She can still feel the pain in her flesh… from slowly dying. It takes all her strength to calm her thoughts. “Doesn’t… matter… what you do… what you do to me. I will not send you… across!”

YOU WILL. YOUR MIND CAN ONLY HANDLE SO MUCH. I WILL FIND THE THRESHOLD, PUSH YOU TO THE LIMITS OF WHAT YOU CAN ENDURE, AND THEN YOUR MIND WILL BE SO MUCH MUSH THAT I’LL JUST REASSEMBLE YOUR BROKEN PIECES… JUST TO DO IT ALL OVER AGAIN… AND AGAIN… AND AGAIN.

Young Meredith shakes from the severe pain coursing through her reassembled flesh. She is shaking. He’s right, she thinks. I will not last long like this. He’s too powerful over here and he knows it. I only have one move I can make… but I must hold on… a little longer… get him to lower his guard… just enough. If I don’t strike at the right moment… I’ll get all three of us killed.

Meredith looks into the intense eyes of the lion. She can’t tell by its emerald furry face whether Toby is amused or bored. But what she hopes for is that he’s overconfident.

I just need the right opportunity, she thinks, closing her eyes. She silently prays. God, please help me. I’m here, but it’s not enough. Show me what to do now… while I can still decide anything.

WHAT A PITIFUL LITTLE CREATURE YOU ARE, MEREDITH. I THOUGHT YOU MIGHT LAST MUCH LONGER THAN THIS. APPARENTLY, I OVERESTIMATED YOU.

“You win, Toby,” Meredith says, stalling for time. “I was wrong. The pain… it’s too much.”

NOT SURPRISING. YOU LOWLY BEINGS OF FLESH AND BLOOD… EVEN HERE, IN THIS PLACE… YOU CAN’T SEPARATE YOURSELVES FROM THE FLESH. IT’S WHAT MAKES YOU WEAK… THIS HOLD YOU ALL HAVE ON THE TEMPORAL SHELL THAT HOUSES YOUR WORTHLESS EXISTENCE.

“What would you have me do, Toby?”

The emerald lion just stares at the frail little girl. Then Toby responds, I THINK I WILL TASTE YOU, AFTER ALL. I WILL SLOWLY CONSUME YOUR WORTHLESS FLESH, SHRED YOU TO PIECES WITH MY TEETH, AND LISTEN TO YOU SCREAM A BIT LONGER. THEN I WILL BRING YOU RIGHT BACK TO THIS MOMENT. AND THEN WE SHALL SEE HOW COOPERATIVE YOU TRULY ARE.

Meredith is out of time. She is about to protest, then stops.

She understands what to do now.

God, thank you.

Meredith looks up toward the lion.

SOMETHING TO ADD, MEREDITH? WOULD YOU LIKE TO BEG FOR YOUR LIFE, NOW?

The little girl smiles and says, “I hope you choke on these old bones, you evil little man.”

The lion roars at Meredith so loud that its terrifying sound can be heard anywhere on the island. Toby raises one enormous paw and snatches up Meredith, bringing her close. He then opens his jaw up wide and then tosses Meredith’s flesh into his mouth like a piece of candy.

The monstrous lion swallows the medium whole.

~~~

“What the hell is this?” Gina whispered.

Julianne and the remaining four recruits were equally shocked.

What was once the inner sanctum of the Ama-Eskua, the place where only elite warriors of the Order had ever seen, was now something straight out of a nightmare.

Moonlight pouring in through a tall domed glass ceiling—most of the glass now shattered—penetrated the shadows of the grand hall where the top minds of the Order once gathered to make plans that changed the world. The charred remains of an old willow tree, growing right in the middle of the structure, reached down for them with its sickly black spider-like limbs. A table, once built around the large tree in a donut shape with the tree in the center, was also burned and had collapsed around the dead tree. Broken chairs were scattered everywhere. Weapons that once hung proudly on walls laid still across a filthy floor—each blade stained with old blood. It was clear by the evidence left behind that some final battle had occurred here, and the Order had not prevailed.

Hanging from the highest limbs of the willow were large dripping sacs.

One of the recruits felt dampness on his cheek. He raised his hand to his face and then looked at it.

They all stared at the stunned recruit as he held out his hand and said, “Looks like… looks like… black blood.”

Gina and Julianne just gave each other an uncertain glance.

As the clouds shifted across the moon overhead, more light entered the exposed ceiling, lighting up the taller walls. They were completely covered in corpses. The skeletal remains of disfigured warriors still holding weapons until their last dying breaths, were fused into flesh covered walls leading half-way up toward the domed ceiling. Strands of sickly tentacles connected what remained of the tree to the walls as if the fleshy things attempted to reanimate the dead willow but failed.

Another damn hybrid, Gina thought. Even Mother Nature is not immune to all this shit. She was suddenly reminded of the ancient willow tree that Micom had chained her to. If there had been time to ask, Gina would have inquired about the significance of the willow.

“This isn’t right,” Julianne said. Her voiced sounded strained. “This is no way for warriors to die!”

The bones of the dead were all charred as if a powerful explosion had gone off in the room, propelling bodies into the walls, and burning them all alive.

Julianne stared up and around at the bodies. She unconsciously rubbed her arms as a chill seized her. “They… they didn’t stand a chance… whatever this was… whatever they faced.”

Gina nodded, staring past the burned remains of the Order and studying the flesh-like walls. For a moment, she thought the walls moved. She looked down and noticed that the fleshy substance seemed to be coming up from large cracks in the foundation, as well as from beneath the willow like roots. “What’s directly under this room, Julianne?”

“I believe the sanctum itself sits atop a large cavern system… or so I’ve heard. There are obscure stories… legends… that talk about demons beneath the sanctum living in caves. It’s said that every time an Ama-Eskua warrior claims a life in battle, that their souls are ‘sent beneath the sanctum’. It’s got something to do with sacrifices. Don’t ask me to explain it… that’s all I know.”

“Do you have any idea what’s growing in those sacs?”

Julianne looked at the recruit with the black blood on his hands, then said to Gina, “I suspect your Nightwalkers might be inside of them.”

“That’s what I thought,” Gina said. “Any reason you can think of why some damn tree is producing monsters like fruit?”

Julianne just gave her a blank stare.

“Okay,” Gina said. “Not important right now.” She looked at the walls. “Any reason why the walls are covered in flesh? It looks like this stuff is coming up out of the floor and slowly… growing… all over the sanctum walls and into the tree.”

Julianne just shook her head. “I don’t know, Gina. Nothing in here is what I expected. For my people, this is a holy place… or was. But now, it’s an abomination.”

The walls started to shift. Bones started to rub against each other, creating the illusion that the skeletons of the slain were coming alive and trying to climb down off the walls. Even the lower branches of the willow tree appeared to come to life and reach out toward them.

“Gina… we should leave this horrible place,” Julianne advised. “Something is definitely wrong with all of this.”

“Agreed.” Gina led them across the grand hall and toward a doorway on the northern end. “I hope that’s the exit,” Gina remarked. “I don’t want to find another flight of stairs heading down to where your demons live. We’ve enough up here to deal with.”

“They’re just stories,” Julianne said out loud as if trying to convince herself. “I don’t even know for sure if there is a cavern beneath this place. The histories are very vague on many things related to the Order.”

“Fair enough,” Gina said. “Let’s just-”

A loud crashing sound echoed up from the prison wing stairwell.

“That’s the bathroom wall!” Julianne said. “They’ve breached it!”

“Come on!” Gina said. She led them toward the north door of the sanctum. She prayed that there would be no demons on the other side of it.

~~~

She is within the belly of the beast… at the center of what Toby—this entity—truly is. There is so much pain, hatred, and madness surrounding her. There are no words to adequately describe what Toby is, other than Desolation. The darkness is quickly consuming her identity… she can feel it. Meredith closes her eyes and focuses what little strength she has left to keep her mental walls intact for one attack.

She opens her mouth. Meredith can feel another source of evil leaving her failing flesh as she vomits out what’s left of the trapped entity known as Sylvia. It has taken all she has to keep the old demon locked away inside herself… using an ability she’d never known she possessed until the battle at the inn.

But now, Sylvia is free. And she is almost home. The only thing the old entity hates more than the creatures made of flesh is Toby, himself. She hates him for forcing her out of the darkness and into Meredith’s world.

“I’ve done my part,” Meredith says to her. “I’ve brought you back… as close as I can get. It’s up to you now, Sylvia, to finish the rest.”

The creature loathes the medium for tricking her but understands her part.

KNOW THIS, WOMAN, Sylvia says. IF I CAN… I WILL DESTROY YOU, TOO.

Meredith says nothing. She is dying in all this… darkness.

“Hold on, Meredith. Hold on… just a little longer.”

Meredith manages a smile in the dark. The second voice belongs to Nicole.

“I will… I will try,” Meredith says to her. “Are you… are you ready?”

“Yes,” Nicole says.

~~~

Her heart raced erratically. Legs burning. Hard to draw breath… but she continued to push. Gina and her recruits made it outside into the cool night air and nearly stumbled down a rocky hill before the land leveled out into a grassy field—the northern field.

She looked up at the moon overhead as she continued to run. The indifferent sphere provided them with just enough light to fight off the Nightwalkers that had somehow escaped the facility. They were everywhere.

They tried to use the tall grass in the field to hide, but the dead found them anyway as they pushed north through the field and into the darkness. From all around them, the tall grass came alive as the monsters charged. She could hear the recruits turning as the howling creatures gained ground.

Gina raised her Balato just in time to deflect the clawed arm of a disfigured woman with red eyes. She swung her axe repeatedly into the former woman’s face.

The monster screamed.

Gina felt the creature’s black blood soak the front of her shirt.

Julianne was still beside her, slashing into the night at everything coming out of the grass, in front of them and behind.

Two recruits disappeared into the grass… screaming.

No time to stop. Stopping meant death.

They were now down to four.

They pushed their exhausted bodies through the field, fighting off the dead with all they had left.

They cleared the field and entered a small grove of trees. The land started sloping upward. Without the grass to temporarily hide their movements, Gina could see them in the moonlight, charging out of the field like a pack of wolves… and there were so many of them.

They were completely exposed now as they tried to zig zag through the trees, striking out at the closest Nightwalkers hungering for their blood.

This is it, Gina thought exhaustedly. We won’t survive the next few minutes.

From her right, the blood-soaked Ama-Eskua recruit… no… she was no longer a fucking recruit… not after all this. The young warrior, turned to Gina and confidently said, “It’s been an honor, Lady Gina. We will die a good death.” She turned around and slashed off a monster’s head.

Gina turned and hacked into the face of another Nightwalker.

The last two recruits were fighting with equal tenacity, matching the monsters’ ferocity as they bravely held them back.

Two more beasts came at Gina from the side, howling, and slashing toward her face.

She ducked under the first one and then came up and jammed her axe into the jaw of the second, screaming into the beast’s face.

The monster fell back.

Julianne took care of the other one by cutting off its legs from the knees as she ducked and slashed at the creature.

One more recruit went down as four beasts jumped on top of a young woman.

Now they were three.

“Push! Push! Push!” Gina yelled around her, not sure where Julianne and the last recruit were, only that the Nightwalkers were all around them.

She was the first to clear the top of the rise as they exited the small grove.

Gina stopped abruptly.

If not for the moonlight, she would have fallen right off the northern cliff. The very same spot she’d visited often. She could hear the waves crashing against the rocks below, but she could not make out the dark water.

We’ve reached the end, she thought with no emotion. Gina turned in time to stop Julianne and the final recruit before they, too, ran off the edge. Without a word between them, they glanced into each other’s bloody faces, understanding that the battle was just about done.

“On me,” Gina told them defiantly, as she turned toward the approaching monsters. The beasts had stopped at the edge of the trees, some fed, while the rest slowly gathered for the final charge, savoring the end of the hunt.

They know, Gina thought. They know they have us now.

She forced her tired limbs to obey as she raised the Balato and her hand axe. The others took up position on either side of her as they stood five feet from the cliff edge. “We fight until we can’t fight anymore,” Gina told them without fear. “Use their momentum against them when they charge. We’ll knock these fuckers off the damn cliff one at a time… until they do the same to us.”

Julianne laughed at the bold response as she stared at the gathering monsters. She raised her sword over her shoulder and crouched down to strike. “We will die with honor… no matter what,” the warrior declared proudly.

Gina had no response to that. She had seen death, had dealt her share of it… and for her… there was nothing honorable in staring at the blood on her hands. She uttered one word that summed it all up for her.

“Finally.”

The last recruit, a young man whose name Gina could not remember, was only carrying his Balato now. Somewhere during the fight, after losing his own sword, his pain stick had snapped off at one end, leaving a bloody point that he’d been stabbing into each beast.

The Nightwalkers now filled all available space within the trees. They howled at their prey, taunting them with screams while clawing at the air.

“Come on fuckers!” Gina hissed, staring into the horde as if trying to set them on fire with her intense gaze.

“They know we don’t fear them… not anymore,” the young man said.

“Good,” Julianne said. “I hope that ruins the taste of their meal.”

Gina took a bold step forward, pointed her axe toward the center of the horde, and shouted, “Come on, you fucking dogs! What are you waiting for? COME AND TASTE YOUR FUCKING DEATH!”

None of them knew if the creatures could understand Gina’s challenging words, but they hissed and howled in response.

And then they charged as one.

“Shit, they’re smarter than they look” the recruit said. “They’ll push us right off.”

“So be it,” Gina said.

“So be it,” Julianne repeated, with finality.

A strange sound interrupted the horde’s attack, causing them to hesitate. The red-eyed beasts stared up into the sky.

To Gina, it sounded like…

Fireworks?

Suddenly, the sky directly above them got bright as a flare lit up the night.

The Nightwalkers cried out in pain, shielding their eyes from the intense light. They started to disperse, backing away from the cliff and retreating toward the trees.

Before Gina could register what was happening, the sound of automatic rifle fire echoed across the night, coming from the field, and off to the left.

Stunned and confused creatures were ripped apart by bullets, causing the monsters to scatter.

A few toward the front of the horde ran in the direction of the cliff, trying to get out of the light.

Gina’s group met their clumsy charge and attacked, slicing, stabbing and hacking into the confused beasts. But there was still too many.

The young male recruit stabbed a stumbling Nightwalker beneath the chin. The creature wrapped its arms around the young man and forced him back off the cliff edge, both perishing in the rocks below.

Julianne sidestepped one monster, then came up behind it, and kicked it over the side.

Two more were running toward Gina. She only had time to duck down as the first creature stumbled over her and off the cliff edge. The second attempted to leap on top of her.

Gina rolled on her back, dropping her axe, and managed to get her Balato up with both hands, catching the mouth of the manic monster as it closed its sharp teeth on the pain stick. The Nightwalker raised one clawed hand to slash at her exposed face, but then paused, as a Julianne screamed from its right. Julianne lowered her shoulder and knocked the beast off Gina. Both the creature and Julianne rose to their feet and charged each other. Julianne managed to get her sword up as the beast impaled itself on her sword but managed to swing its long arm across her exposed face, leaving a bloody gash on her left cheek.

“NO!” Gina screamed, getting to her feet and swinging her pain stick like a bat across the monster’s face, forcing it back toward the cliff edge. She bashed the monster’s head in with the Balato until it fell over the edge.

Julianne let go of her sword and stumbled back, her face dripping with blood. She looked on the verge of passing out from the pain, but the warrior fought through it, then stared over at Gina. Two more monsters were coming in at her flank.

The young warrior charged with all she had left and wrapped her arms around the closest monster before it reached Gina. Her momentum pushed the beast into the second as the warrior knocked them both off the cliff.

Gina had just enough time to turn around and watch Julianne go over the edge with the monsters.

“Julianne!” she shouted, reaching out too late.

The Ama-Eskua warrior was gone.

Gina had no time to register the loss as she swung her Balato around at another beast, connecting with its jaw and causing it to stumble to her right and off the edge.

Four more were coming straight for her.

“FUCK YOU!!” She swore at them, swinging the pain stick in front of them as she pushed forward and caused them to falter.

Before the beasts could collect themselves for the final charge, the back of their heads were ripped apart by point-blank gunfire from directly behind them.

Gina fell forward to the ground after overexerting herself with the Balato. She looked up as the four beasts hit the ground.

Another one, a big one, was coming straight toward her. She rose to her knees and brought the Balato back for another swing.

“Gina!”

She recognized the voice before the big preacher’s frame came into focus.

“Logan?” she managed weakly.

The big preacher reached down his hand. “Come on. We have to move.”

Gina, completely in shock, reached up and took the big man’s hand.

He got her to her feet. “Can you keep fighting?’

She nodded through tears and confusion. “Yes.”

Logan swung his rifle around his back and then pulled a flare gun out from the front of his pants. He quickly reloaded it and aimed the flare gun directly toward the front of the horde and fired. The flare struck the front line of the Nightwalkers, setting them on fire. They screamed in pain, running into more creatures that turned away from the light.

From somewhere to the left, there was more gunfire.

“We need to move.” Logan said, reloading the flare gun. “Stephen’s keeping a path clear to the west.”

“Stephen?” Gina responded. “Am I… dead? Are you… are you both really here?”

Logan stared at the bloody woman, who was almost unrecognizable, and smiled. “Praise God, yes. Gina, we are here. But none of us will be if we don’t move.”

Logan turned and fired his last flare up into the sky, as was the plan after he reached Gina. This signaled Stephen to keep firing and move toward them. Hopefully the flare, along with whatever ammo they had left, would give them just enough to make it back along the west side of island before the monsters regrouped.

Assuming the Carrie-Anne was still there.

“Ready?” he said to her. “We’ll need to push hard.”

She located her hand axe, picked it up, and then nodded.

Logan stared at the woman carrying the strange stick in one hand, the bloody hand axe in the other, and thought, She looks like a fucking savage! Dear, Lord, what on earth has happened to this poor woman? Logan nodded back, and then led the way, his assault rifle now out front. They went left and around the burning Nightwalkers.

Gina pushed with everything she no longer had to keep up. She stared at Logan’s back suspiciously, not yet convinced that he was real… or that she was still alive.

~~~

The emerald lion is sitting up on its back legs, staring out across the ocean. Toby is waiting for Meredith to do the only thing she can do to escape the darkness that is overcoming her. The madness and the pain will be too much and she will flee. She will return to her pitiful flesh… and be forced to take Toby with her.

The lion lets out a low growl toward the dark water. Toby hates this place… this prison between two worlds. He can always go back to where he came from. But the demon has overstepped his place there… and he will be punished by those more powerful than himself if he returns. His only choice is to finish what he’s started and cross over into the land of Light and Flesh and make the world of the living his new kingdom. Yes, he knows he will have to deal with the First Ones… the ones who have been plotting in his absence to make a place for themselves. But once he is free, he can deal with all of them.

As for the rest… the humans… they will do whatever he wants, and he will enjoy watching them suffer before exterminating them.

Toby spots something stepping out of the water. It is a small form… a woman.

It is Meredith.

The emerald lion assumes the pouncing position, dropping low in the sand.

Meredith steps onto the sand. She is no longer the young child, but an older woman, wearing a soaked sundress.

The Lion growls at her. The voice booming from above, says, HOW? HOW IS THIS POSSIBLE?

Meredith stops several feet back from the massive lion. She raises her arm and points a wet accusing finger at him. “They are coming for you,” she says. “Your demon masters are not pleased.”

Toby is caught off guard. For the first time, he is confused, and though the demon will never admit it, he is a little afraid.

ANOTHER TRICK, MEREDITH? I DON’T’ KNOW HOW YOU ESCAPED, BUT IT DOES NOT MATTER. I WILL JUST CONSUME YOU AGAIN AND…

Meredith starts laughing at the lion, continuing to point at it.

STOP THAT!

Meredith does not.

The lion roars at the woman and is about to pounce. But then stops. Something is… wrong.

WHAT HAVE YOU DONE, MEREDITH?

The old medium stops laughing and lowers her arm. “I’ve done nothing,” she says. “You did this all by yourself.”

Toby is confused. The lion starts to move around in circles, sniffing at the air, then down toward its feet. Something strange is happening… from within. The lion turns back toward Meredith.

I DON’T KNOW WHAT YOU’VE DONE… BUT IT DOESN’T MATTER.

The lion, in one leap, closes the distance between them.

Toby reaches up one clawed paw and then sweeps it down toward the wet woman… to finish her off.

The emerald claw passes through the woman. Meredith loses her form and turns into rising black mist before fading away.

The lion roars in frustration.

Nicole has done her part.

With Toby completely distracted and confused, a black clawed paw exits the hairy chest of the emerald lion… then a second one.

Toby’s understanding comes far too late. WHAT HAVE YOU DONE, MEREDITH? WHAT HAVE YOU DONE TO ME?

The head of a charred black lion emerges from Toby’s chest and roars.

Toby attempts to move but can’t. From the inside out, Sylvia is shifting forms, tearing the emerald lion apart with multiple clawed paws as she makes herself bigger… bigger… bigger…

NO! STOP IT! I BROUGHT YOU HERE, SYLVIA! HOW CAN YOU DO THIS TO ME?!

The emerald lion falls over on its side as Sylvia rips its way out of the beast.

Before Toby can say anything else, Sylvia’s voice booms down from the sky. I AM GOING HOME… AND YOU… YOU ARE GOING BACK… TO PAY FOR WHAT YOU’VE DONE TO ME!

With that, the charred lion tears into the mangled remains of the emerald lion, ripping it to pieces with its massive teeth until Toby is completely consumed.

Sylvia stops and stares up into the sky. She is already shifting from lion to tendrils of black smoke. Her blazing red eyes are the last to shift form.

I CAN’T SENSE YOU, WITCH, Sylvia says, BUT MAYBE… MAYBE WE’RE BOTH GOING BACK TO WHERE WE BELONG. DO NOT COME BACK HERE… OR I WILL FINISH THIS. The black lion roars a final warning into the sky and then disappears, taking the digested remains of Toby with her…

Home.

~~~

Next Episode 54-13

Previous Episode 54-11

~~~

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__________________________________________
“Chapter 54-12: 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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