Archive for the ‘serial novels’ Category

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***SPOILER ALERT: IF YOU HAVEN’T FINISHED READING DON’T FEED THE DARK, BOOK 6: MOTHER, THEN I ENCOURAGE YOU TO STOP READING NOW***

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So, here we are again. One more massive volume of this dark saga complete. By the numbers, not only is Book Six the new longest book in the series, clocking in at over 305,000 words (yeah… I know, right), but this last chapter, Treachery, is now the longest chapter in the series at over 64,000 words… whew! I had no idea at the start of this challenging book that it would get this long, but it did. I guess I shouldn’t be too surprised… lol.

Book Six was the most difficult (and intimidating) volume to write in this series because I knew it was answer time, which meant getting into the ‘origin story’. I must say, since the second chapter, I’ve had my eyes opened wide and my jaw hitting the floor at many of the revelations that came out of this book. When I discovered that Meredith was ‘ground zero’… I was like, “Shit! Didn’t see that coming… at all!”

Of course, along with the many surprises I experienced writing this final chapter to the second major arc in the series, I always knew that this was going to be Meredith’s final act. That’s why so much of this story was centered around her character and past. I wanted this special woman to have her time in the spotlight and finally tackle a lot of the tough questions and mysteries surrounding her life and the people in it. I was delighted to finally get around to writing about Hannah and Frank’s connection to Meredith, a question that’s been lingering since Book One.

I’ve endeavored to tell the best origin story I could without slowing things down too much. I know there were times when these chapters seemed like they’d never end… lol. Hopefully, I’ve covered and answered as many questions as possible about the Mother organization and how it evolved.

I knew that this was also going to be Nicole Howard’s finale book and I thought it was very cool that she got to be there at the end to help Meredith send Toby back into the darkness.

Returning to finish the New Cleveland arc of this story was a lot of fun, especially when I got to bring back Herbie and show how he’d changed since his days as a strip club owner. I was hoping poor Wendy would make it to the next book, but things just went from bad to worse for her and it just wasn’t meant to be. A part of me was really looking forward to exploring her ‘pacifist’ character more going into the next book, but it just didn’t work out. The one that really hurt was finding out that Nine’s new friend, the girl named Joe, was going to be hung from the old rollercoaster. I knew that one was going to suck… especially for Nine. And Diane’s reaction to Nadia’s betrayal? Damn! I felt as shocked as Tony and the others when that occurred. And then, the return of Orosco… to find out that his ‘new group’ is a bunch of Mother rebels… didn’t see that coming either. I’ve said this before, I love it when I’m surprised by how this story turns, and it’s exciting to write a story like this that doesn’t always follow the script. It’s like, this story is already written, and I’m just being fed the tale in portions when it’s time to tell it.

Well, I could go on an on about so much that’s happened, but I’ll stop there. If anyone has questions about anything that you may have found confusing, ask away, I’ll endeavor to answer what I can so as long as they don’t enter spoiler territory.

So, what’s coming next?

I’m glad you asked… lol.

Some time next spring, the first of the final two books in this series will premiere. Book Seven: The Prophet, will begin with most of my remaining survivors together for the first time since the end of Book Four. The opening chapter, tentatively titled, Anniversary, will begin a few months after the end of Book Six, one year after The Change. I can’t say too much right now, but it will involve a ceremony of some sort, commemorating everyone who has survived that first long year.

What I can also add about Book Seven is that everyone will be in it. So before you ask, “What the hell happened to Russell and Alysa?” Not to worry, that story will be covered. I’ve lots of stories left to cover in these final two books, stories I’ve been seeding or just been waiting to tell for a real long time.

Now that I’ve survived writing Book Six, and I can put that ‘Mother’ of a story in the rearview mirror, I expect to have a blast with these last two volumes.

Well, that’s all I have for now. I’m already jumping into Book Seven. Again, if you have questions about anything, feel free to ask, and I’ll answer them here.

See you spring 2020. I’ll post updates along the way.

As always, thanks for reading and for your encouraging comments either here or in the other places this story is posted. If I don’t hear from you, I hope you all have a great Christmas and New Years.

Peace,
-Scott

~~~

~~~

Gina sat on the aft deck with her back against the lifeline, knees up, her shaking arms wrapped around them as she tried to relax. Her clothes were covered in blood. Her shoulder-length red hair, disheveled with dried up black blood, hung over her intense green eyes, surrounded by a face mask of more blood. She rested her chin on one knee and continued to stare in disbelief at Stephen and Logan who were speaking with the captain of the Carrie-Anne. Her bloody hand axe and pain stick sat next to her on the deck on her right side.

They’re alive, she thought to herself. Stephen, Logan, Meredith…

And at the same time, every recruit she’d been left in charge of, including Julianne…

All dead.

A lone tear streamed down her face. She could feel a flood of emotions attempting to breach her hard exterior. She fought against it and won… barely. She closed her weary eyes and tried to process everything Logan and Stephen had told her since escaping on the vessel, which was now headed toward a cave on the western side of the island to rendezvous with Clementine, Meredith, and…

Megan? She couldn’t wrap her mind around that one. The last time she’d seen that pitiful girl, she was a monster left to rot inside a glass cage.

“Gina?”

She opened her eyes with a start, realizing she’d dozed off. Stephen was kneeling in front of her, his kind eyes looking at her in a way that made her feel… uncomfortable.

He smiled and said, “Sorry. Didn’t mean to startle you.”

She attempted a smile. It felt awkward to do so. “It’s good to see you,” she said. “I’m… I’m still in shock… I think. So much has just happened.” She looked away, feeling too exhausted for words. “Where’s Logan?”

“It’s okay,” Stephen said. “Just rest a bit. Captain Carl has informed us that we can’t enter the cavern until the tides recede. It will probably be another hour. Logan’s keeping an eye on the captain… just to make sure he doesn’t change course.”

“Is there a problem?”

“No,” Stephen said. “Captain Carl just isn’t very happy right now. He only got half the fuel he set out to get and we weren’t part of the… arrangement… that he made with the Red Lady. But in the captain’s defense, he did get us here, loaned us the guns and flares, and if not for that bright-ass spotlight, we might not have made it back to the dock.”

“Clementine,” Gina said. “You can’t trust that bitch. If she’s with Meredith…”

“We’ll cross that bridge when we get there,” Stephen said with a weary sigh. “What Meredith went in there to do… well… I don’t even want to think about it.”

Gina nodded. Logan and Stephen gave her the short version of events leading up to all of them being out here. “This… this Toby. He’s the one running things, then?”

“Yes,” Stephen said. “He’s… shit… I don’t even know where to begin on that one. It’s a long damn story that Meredith needs to tell. So much has happened, Gina. So… damn… much.” He looked away with a heavy sigh.

She laughed weakly. “It’s okay. It can wait. I’m just… I’m just glad you’re here. Last I knew, all of you died at the compound. That’s what that witch, Clementine, led me to believe. That’s why I’m out here now.”

Stephen gave her a puzzled look.

She clarified. “We… Clementine and I… we were planning on going after the Shadow Dead… for what they did.” She looked away and shook her head. “Doesn’t matter now. I don’t even know what’s true anymore.”

“We’ll get to it, Gina. After this mess is finished… we’ll share notes and blow each other’s minds.”

This made Gina laugh. It was a vulnerable laugh. One she hadn’t felt since… Marcus.

No… Russell Bower, she reminded herself. She didn’t even want to approach that topic, not yet, not now. Instead, she asked, “Did… did anyone else make it?”

Stephen gave her a sad look and shook his head. “I don’t know Gina. We’ve been back to the compound and searched the area around it. After a while, I think we were searching for you and Marcus as an excuse to stay in the area as long as we could. We found no one. Did Marcus ever catch up with you? Have you seen him?”

Gina closed her eyes. “Marcus… is dead. The Shadow Dead took him.” And that’s all she would volunteer as she opened her eyes and turned away. “We should stay focused. I’ll… I’ll fill you in later.”

Stephen just stared, disheartened by the news. “Okay,” he finally said. He reached toward a bucket of water sitting beside him and retrieved a sponge. He leaned in to wipe the blood from his friend’s face.

Gina flinched from the sponge and knocked his hand away from her face. “Don’t do that,” she spat.

Stephen looked shocked. “I… I was only trying to help. You’re covered in that black blood.”

“It’s a mark of honor!” she blurted out. She immediately saw young Julianne’s face and almost broke. Gina shook her head and calmed down. “Sorry. Sorry, Stephen. It’s been a… long fucking night. Please… go ahead. Get that shit off my face.”

Stephen hesitated then came back in with the sponge. He carefully wiped the blood away from her eyes, nose and mouth. He felt his throat tighten and stopped when he found Gina’s face beneath all that blood. “I’m the one who should be sorry,” he said. “You’ve been through hell out here. I can tell.”

“I just need a really long shower,” she joked.

“That’s not what I mean.”

She looked at him, her eyes full of sadness. “What’s happened to me is not your fault.”

“Of course, it is. I was the one who exiled you, remember?”

Gina stared at the tears coming down Stephen’s face. She wanted to reach up and wipe them away but stopped herself. She smiled, her own tears flowing now, and said, “You did the right thing.”

He looked confused and ashamed.

“I’m… I’m not well, Stephen. I’ve done horrible things. I was unfit to lead… or to be around any of you.”

“I don’t believe that,” Stephen said.

She smiled. “And nothing I say will convince you otherwise because you always find the best in people. But I’m telling you, I’m fucked-up. Just look at me.”

Stephen did. “I sent you out here… alone. No one should be alone. And I’m responsible for doing that to you.”

She laughed. “Doesn’t matter right now. We can talk about the blame game later. I’m just glad you’re alive.”

Stephen smiled. “Same here. It’s good to see you. I mean that.”

“I know you do, Stephen. And… and if it helps to hear it… then I forgive you for exiling me.”

Stephen nodded. He shoulders sunk and he wept.

Gina could no longer fight back the flood. She reached over for her friend and they embraced.

For the first time in a long time, Gina almost felt… human.

~~~

“Meredith! Megan!” Stephen shouted into the cavern for the fourth time.

Gina stood on the dock, armed with both her weapons. She watched Stephen and Logan search the cavern floor with flashlights while Captain Carl had the siblings shine the spotlight around from the deck of the Carrie-Anne.

“Megan!” Logan shouted, staring up toward the crack at the edge of the cavern. “Meredith! Can you hear us?”

The fiery red head stared up toward the crack in the upper wall where she was informed Meredith, Megan and Clementine had gone. She raised her own voice toward Logan and Stephen, pointing toward the crack. “We should go! Maybe they can’t hear us if they’re on the other side!” She stepped off the dock and started toward the crack.

“No, Gina! Wait!” Stephen cut in front of her. “Meredith warned us that we couldn’t go up there… not without losing our sanity.”

Gina just gave him an uncomprehending look and walked around him.

“Gina!” Stephen protested in vain.

“My ‘sanity’ has been in question for a good long while,” Gina said over her shoulder. “Meredith’s in there somewhere with that evil woman. I’m not going to leave her there!”

Logan and Stephen both caught up with her and gave each other a ‘what the hell’ look.

Gina stopped abruptly, just before the top of the wall where the long crack started.

Someone was lying down just inside the crack.

Gina turned. “Stephen! Your light!”

The former school teacher shined his flashlight toward the crack. His beam struck the startled face of the half-dead, sitting against the wall with Meredith’s head in her lap. The half-dead shielded her eyes with her hands and hissed at them.

Stephen jumped back. “Shit! Megan? Hey… it’s just us.”

Megan crawled out of the crack, taking up a defensive crouch in front of Meredith. She growled and screamed at them, unwilling to let them any closer.

“Something’s wrong,” Logan said as he and Stephen lowered their flashlights. The preacher took a closer look at Megan. She was a filthy, bloody mess. But it was her eyes… those silver eyes… that shook him. They were open so wide that it made the young woman look like some insane alien attempting to take on a female form.

Gina looked past that half-dead at Meredith’s unconscious body. Then she stared at the half-dead and saw blood in her mouth. She tensed up immediately, squaring up toward the monster, and hissed, “What did you do?! Get the fuck away from my friend you dead freak!”

Megan swung her right arm toward Gina as she attempted to move closer.

“Gina!” Stephen said. “What are you doing?”

Gina raised her axe with murder in her eyes. “This fucking thing’s been feeding on our friend!” Believing Meredith was already dead, she advanced toward the creature, preparing to strike it down. “I should have killed you in that cage a long time ago,” she hissed.

Megan growled and swung both her arms toward Gina’s face. She crouched down, preparing to pounce on the enraged woman.

“Gina… STOP! You don’t know what the hell you’re doing!” Stephen grabbed Gina’s arm just before she brought the axe down on Megan’s head.

Gina turned toward him in shock, nearly swinging the Balato at him. “Let go of me! That fucking thing’s killed our friend!”

Logan was there. He wrapped his big arms around Gina and dragged her back.

Stephen let go of Gina and immediately turned to Megan, raising his arms submissively before she attacked. “Megan… it’s me… Stephen.”

A flicker of recognition shown in the half-dead woman’s eyes, enough to cause her to pause.

“Just… relax,” Stephen continued. “We’re you’re friends. We just want to help you help Meredith… okay?”

Megan just stared at the former school teacher, panting and shaking violently. She then grabbed the sides of her head and fell to her knees, screaming.

By now, Gina had broken loose of the big preacher, who just stood in front of her with his hands up. “Just hold on, Gina,” Logan said. “Let Stephen talk to her.”

Gina still held her weapons. For a moment she looked like she was about to attack Logan, then she took a step back and glanced at Stephen. “Get away from that thing!”

Stephen got lower to the ground, his hands still up. “Just… take it easy, Megan.” He noticed there was a piece of flesh ripped out of her left arm. He frowned and said, “What have you done to yourself?”

“Is everything okay,” Logan yelled back.

“The blood’s not Meredith’s,” Stephen said. “Looks like she took a bite out of her own arm.” He glanced at the unconscious woman and smiled at Megan. “You carried her all the way back here, didn’t’ you? Then you got… hungry… so damn hungry you hurt yourself instead of turning on Meredith.”

Megan rolled up into a ball, still breathing hard. She was trying to regain control.

Stephen dared to reach out and touch the young woman on the shoulder.

Megan flinched then grabbed Stephen’s wrist.

Shit… not you’ve done it, he thought.

But Megan didn’t lash out. She let go of his wrist and started to weep. “Help… help her… please!” she said, turning to Meredith.

“Okay,” Stephen said, rising to his feet and moving toward Meredith.

Megan let him.

By now, Gina had calmed down. She waited as Stephen examined Meredith. “Well?” she said.

Stephen turned, frowning. “She’s very weak. We need to get her to the-”

A loud crashing sound echoed through the crack in the wall. A gust of stale air exited the crack, blowing Stephen’s hair back.

“What the hell was that?” he whispered.

“Son of a whore!” Captain Carl yelled, getting everyone’s attention. “All of you… get the hell on board… NOW!”

Gina turned toward the frantic captain and said, “What’s the problem?”

In answer, something big fell from the cavern roof and splashed down in the water ten feet from the bow of the Carrie-Anne.

“It’s a bloody cave in!” Carl said. “Get you asses on board! Time to go!”

More rocks from the cavern ceiling started to fall, splashing all around the dock.

“Logan… get Meredith!” Stephen shouted. “I’ll stay with Megan.”

The big preacher nodded, then gave Gina’s hand axe a cautious look. He pointed at her and said. “You fucking behave.”

Gina nodded, lowering her weapons.

Stephen slowly helped the half-dead to her feet. By now, she was shaking so hard Stephen thought she was freezing to death. He gently led her toward the ship.

Gina and Logan reached Meredith.

She knelt and briefly examined her. “Nothing looks broken,” she advised.

The big preacher nodded. He bent down and easily scooped up the older woman, cradling her in his arms.

More rocks splashed down around the ship.

Captain Carl already had the siblings removing mooring lines. He shouted toward the others, “Let’s go! Damn cave’s coming down on us!”

The others cleared the dock and quickly got on board.

While Logan and Gina moved Meredith toward the aft deck, Stephen stopped with Megan, long enough to yell up to the captain, “That’s everyone! We’re not waiting for the fucking Red Lady!”

“Aye,” Carl called down. “You don’t have to tell me twice.”

Captain Carl disappeared into the pilot house, started the engine, and turned the ship around toward the exit.

A rock struck the roof of the pilot house, leaving a decent dent.

“That’s no damn way to treat a lady!” The captain shouted up toward the ceiling.

The Carrie-Anne made a break for the exit while the cavern continued to come down around them.

~~~

The first traces of dawn brought much welcomed light over the eastern horizon.

The Carrie-Anne drifted with a southerly current a quarter mile from the western side island. They all stood on the aft deck watching what remained of the large Mother installation collapse into the caverns beneath it, creating what looked like a huge crater in its place. Several avalanches of rock and dirt rolled down from the center of the island sending debris into the lake on all sides.

Gina frowned as she watched the northern cliff crack away and descend into the water. Goodbye, Julianne, she thought. You died well.

“What do you suppose caused all that?” Logan said.

“The caverns were unstable to begin with,” Stephen said. “Just like the one beneath the orphanage. Remember when we saw the walls move in that place?”

Logan nodded.

“Orphanage?” Gina said.

Stephen laughed. “Add that to the list of long stories to tell.”

Gina smiled absently, still staring at the crumbling island. “I imagine Clementine or Meredith had something to do with this.”

“Or Toby,” Stephen added.

Gina just gave him a blank stare. She turned to check on Meredith, glancing suspiciously at the grey-eyed monster who refused to leave the unconscious woman’s side. Megan held on to Meredith’s hand with her head tucked in between her legs. She was rocking back and forth trying to remain calm.

“She always like that?” Gina said.

“No,” Logan said. “Believe it or not… that young lady damn near made a complete comeback on the human side of things.”

Gina turned to the big preacher. “That’s impossible. She’s dead.”

“Not dead,” Stephen corrected. “Half dead.”

“Whatever.” Gina dismissed the matter and knelt on the other side of Meredith. “This isn’t like before when she used her powers. She’s barely breathing.” She looked up at Stephen. “What the hell did she get herself into in there?”

Stephen didn’t know how to answer that question without opening a can of a thousand more questions. He shook his head and said, “All I know is that she came back here to finish this… at great risk to herself.”

“What do you mean, ‘finish this’?”

“He means… he means that I came back here… to send Toby back to where he belongs.”

They all turned, startled by Meredith’s weak reply.

Gina smiled. “Welcome back.”

Meredith looked up into those green eyes, her eyes tearing up. She raised an old hand and touched Gina’s cheek. “It does my heart good… good to see you again, Gina.”

Gina wiped fresh tears away with the back of her dirty hand. “What crazy shit did you do this time, woman?”

Meredith smiled. “I came… we came… at the enemy directly. And since… since I’m here and not… not still over there… I guess my crazy plan… worked.”

Stephen was there. “Clementine? Is she…”

Meredith shook her head. “I don’t… I don’t know, Stephen. But I think… Toby… finished her off.”

“And Toby?” Logan added.

She smiled weakly at the big preacher and said, “I do believe ‘our’ God provided me a way out… before… before things got bad.”

“Praise Jesus!” Logan said.

She turned to Stephen. “I had a little help. Sylvia and Nicole were with me.”

Stephen’s eyes went wide. “Should I even ask how you managed that?”

Meredith laughed. “No… I’m too tired to explain it. But… but just know that without Nicole’s help… I would have failed. I suspected that it might… that it might require a spirit… to defeat a spirit… in Elsewhere. Turns out… turns out I was correct. Toby’s gone. Nicole and Sylvia defeated him… and dragged him back into the darkness… permanently.”

Stephen wiped a tear from his eye. “Nicole… is gone, then?”

Meredith gave him a sad look.

Stephen nodded.

Gina looked completely confused.

Meredith locked eyes with her and said, “I’m sorry you were…. you were all alone here… with that evil woman.”

Gina nodded, and looked away. “And I’m sorry I trusted her. I was so desperate for anything to hold on to after I found out about the compound… and that snake took advantage of my pain and grief.”

Meredith frowned. “I’m sorry… sorry you had to… find out what happened that way. It must have been… must have been awful.”

Gina nodded. “Yes. But finding you, Stephen and Logan out here… I thought everyone was gone.”

Meredith grabbed Gina’s hand and smiled. “And I thought you were gone, too. If you know what I mean.”

Gina just stared, not knowing how to respond to that.

Megan lifted her head and noticed Meredith. She tried to speak, but had trouble forming words. The young half-dead let go of Meredith’s hand and grabbed her own head.

Meredith smiled at her. “What’s the matter, honey?”

“I think… I think she was in the cavern too long,” Stephen said. “Looks like she carried you all the way back through the dark… and paid the price.”

Meredith nodded, smiling proudly at the young woman. “So, you’re the reason… I’m on this ship… and not dead in that cave.”

Megan stared at her.

“Well, of course you did… you did all that. You’re such… such a brave young woman,” Meredith said. “I’m so very proud of you, Megan. You’ve come a long… a long way.”

Gina stared at the dead woman and swore she saw tears in her eyes. “What’s wrong with her… I mean… besides the obvious?”

Meredith frowned at Gina’s harshness. “You try entering a realm of madness and see how well you fair afterwards, Gina.”

Gina remained silent.

Meredith reached a shaky hand toward Megan, and then touched her forehead. The old medium closed her eyes tight, muttered something under her breath, and then opened her eyes, retracting her hand.

Megan smiled at the older woman. Her mind was clear now. “Mer… Meredith?” the young woman said through tears.

“That’s right… honey. I’m here. I’m here. I’ve taken that madness… that madness away from your thoughts. You should be… be fine now.”

And surprisingly, Megan was.

“How did you do that?” Stephen said.

Meredith smiled in response. “Harder to explain than to perform. I just knew… I just knew what to do.” The older woman suddenly stared straight up into the sky as if discovering some awful, wonderful truth just beyond the clouds. Her face looked distant.

“What’s wrong?” Gina asked. “Something’s different… isn’t it?”

Meredith turned to her and smiled. “Yes, Gina. Everything’s different now. She took in everyone else and said, “Listen… listen to me now. I haven’t much time left.”

“What’s that mean?” Megan said, clearly terrified.

The others came in close.

She smiled at them all and said, “I’m not even… not even supposed to be here. When I left this body, it was with the understanding… that I couldn’t come back. And yet… somehow… I’m here, and not here at the same time.”

“I don’t understand?” Stephen said, concerned.

“I was… away… for too long, and I can feel it. My mind was left exposed in that horrible cave, and… and there’s not much left… It’s time for me to rest.”

“NO!” Megan said, shaking her head fiercely. “You can’t go!”

Meredith smiled at her and said, “You dragged me out of that dark cave… and gave me a chance… to come back… one last time… to be with my family. Thank you for that, Megan.”

Megan grabbed Meredith’s hand and looked away.

Stephen was in tears. “I… I don’t understand. You’re here. You seem… well.”

“It’s this body, Stephen. It’s failing fast. Without the mind… the body can’t survive long.”

Stephen didn’t know what to say.

“So… whatever’s happened… now you’re… dying?” Gina asked.

Meredith stared at her and finally said, “Yes, honey. There’s no way around it. I can feel it. My time is very short now. I shouldn’t even be here… but somehow… I am.”

Logan smiled. “Sounds like God did you one last favor.”

She looked at the big preacher and smiled. “Perhaps… perhaps He did.” Meredith caught the sun peeking up over the horizon. She turned to Megan, “Please… help me up, honey. I don’t want to miss this.”

Megan helped the old medium sit up as she leaned back against the lifelines.

Meredith smiled at the rising sun. “That’s… that’s so beautiful.” She turned, looking long into all their faces. “I’ m… I’m so grateful,” she said through tears. “To look at you all… one last time. To share… to share one last moment… with the ones that I love.” She finished on Logan and said, “I am… blessed.”

Logan nodded with a smile. He quickly turned toward the lake to hide his own tears.

Gina didn’t know what to say. Part of her was glad to be sitting here, sharing in her old friend’s final moments. Another part of her was furious. To come all this way, and be reunited, just to lose her in the end. “This is fucking bullshit,” she spat, feeling her stone exterior crumble, just like the dying island behind them. “I just got you back.”

Meredith nodded. “I know. But at least we’re together… right now. I will settle for that.”

“That’s not good enough,” Gina said coldly. “I can’t… I can’t go through this again… not with you.” Her tears flowed freely now. Gina shook her head. While Meredith was grateful for God’s generosity, Gina just wanted to shake her fist at the sky and curse His name. In the end, her grief triumphed over her anger… and she just wept.

Meredith smiled at her. “Remember the tears, Gina? Always remember what it means to shed them, and tremble at the thought of ever descending to a place inside where there are no more tears.”

Gina nodded with a smile. “I remember. Tears are gold.”

Meredith nodded. “Just like refreshing drops of gold… raining down on a warm summer day. My goodness, I’m surprised I still remember that.”

The two of them exchanged a long look between friends where no words had a place.

Meredith looked away abruptly and said, “It’s almost… almost time to leave.”

“Take me with you,” Megan said. “You can’t… you can’t leave me here. I won’t let you.”

“You can’t go with me, honey. You need to live. You need to live… for me.”

Megan hesitated than finally nodded.

Meredith’s gaze lingered on the young half-dead, her eyebrows going up as she saw something within her that surprised the old medium. “Now I understand,” she said, smiling at the girl. “I should have seen it.”

“What was that?” Megan said.

“Again, Megan… fight for your place in this world. You must. Understand?”

“Yes.”

“I love you… so very much.”

“And I… and I love you.” Megan got up before she lost control and destroyed… everything. She rushed toward the bow of the vessel, releasing her sorrow on the morning with sobs and screams.

“She’s is so much pain,” Stephen said.

“Look after her, Stephen. You and Logan both. She will need you now… more than ever.”

Both men nodded.

Logan, looking uncomfortable, said, “I’ll go up front, make sure… make sure she’s okay.” He stopped and said to Meredith, “It’s been an honor fighting the good fight with you. May God continue to grant you peace and guidance on your journey, both here, and hereafter.”

Meredith nodded with a smile and said, “Thank you, Logan. May He continue to be with us all.”

“Amen.” Logan walked away to catch up with Megan.

Meredith sighed heavily and smiled at her two oldest friends.

Stephen was a weeping mess. He tried to calm down. “This isn’t right. You deserve better than this… after all you’ve done.”

“I’ve done enough,” the old medium said, leaving the comment open-ended. “It’s alright, Stephen. I’m at peace with this. I’m tired. Tired down to my very bones. My part is done. It’s up to you now to make things better again. Make all the sacrifices that came before mean something. There isn’t anyone better I can think of who can lift up humanity and lead us into something better… make us all better than what we were before.”

Stephen was humbled. “I… I will try my best.”

Meredith smiled. “Just hearing you say that fills me with hope. Thank you, Stephen for that… and for believing in me when no one else did. You are a good friend.”

The former school teacher wiped tears from his face, reached over, and hugged Meredith.

Meredith laughed lightly and whispered in his ear, “You will be alright. Lead them into hope, Stephen. Lead them all into hope.”

Stephen broke his embrace and nodded.

“I’d like a moment alone with Gina,” Meredith said.

Stephen nodded and rose to his feet. “I’ll… I’ll be nearby. Just holler if you need anything.”

Meredith nodded, watching the distraught young man depart. She turned to Gina who was sitting on her knees, staring into oblivion. “You okay?”

Gina nodded. “I guess I’ll have to be.”

Meredith glanced at her blood-stained clothing, then back into Gina’s sad and disconnected green eyes. “I’ve not given up on you, honey. I know you’ve had… hard choices to make. And you will continue to face harder choices down the road.”

Gina looked into the medium’s eyes and said, “I have… so much blood on my hands, Meredith. Sometimes… sometimes I don’t know if I’m any better than the evil people thriving in this world. I’m so full of hate and anger… and that coldness you once called me out on.”

“Yes, but you’re…. but you’re aware. And I know that you’ll… that you’ll find your way back… even if it means traveling through the fire to do so.”

“I don’t know what that means.”

“You will,” Meredith said. “That fire will make you stronger, and this world, these people, will need your strength before this is all over.”

Gina had no response to that. She shook her head and said, “Why do all the good people keep dying… all the ones who belong in this world—who are absolutely essential? Me… I’m just another monster who probably needs to be put down before I cause some real damage.”

“You are more than you know, Gina. I see it in you… even if you can’t right now. You will find your way back. I believe in you.”

Gina started to weep, letting her shoulders drop. “I hope your right.”

“I am,” Meredith said. “Now, I have to tell you something… something very important. It won’t make much sense to you right now… but after your caught up to speed… you will have to decide what to do with this.”

“I don’t like the sound of this at all.”

Meredith shook her head. “I’ve carried this burden long enough. I’m running out of time and… and I can’t carry it any longer. I’d meant to handle this… but things got crazy… and then things got really crazy. Unfortunately, someone must know… and it has to be you.”

“Okay.”

“Come closer.”

Gina did.

Meredith leaned in and whispered in her ear. As she did so, Gina’s eyes went wide with horror. She tried to pull away, but Meredith grabbed her hands, keeping her close, until she was finished.

Gina pulled away from Meredith, staring into her eyes with shock and resentment. “Why would you tell me something like that?”

“Because someone has to know,” Meredith said. “Someone who can look this particular ‘monster’ in the eyes… and not flinch.”

Gina shook her head. “It’s too much!”

“I trust your judgment on this matter,” Meredith said. “I chose to keep it to myself… for too long. And then time ran out. I don’t know if that was the right call or not… but now I’ve told you. You will have to… have to consider this carefully… as I have… and then decide what to do about it.”

Gina nodded.

“Gina!”

She looked up. Meredith’s eyes were going wide. “What? What’s wrong?”

The old medium reached out her hands.

Gina took them in her own. Meredith’s grip was surprisingly strong.

“It’s time,” Meredith said. “I… I can see myself! Soaring above the clouds! Soaring higher… higher… it’s so beautiful up here, Gina! So…”

Gina felt Meredith’s grip on her hands go limp. She stared into Meredith’s eyes. For a moment she was there… and then…

“Meredith?” Gina said through sobs.

Stephen turned and met Gina’s horrified gaze. “Logan! Megan!” he called out.

The old medium went limp and fell forward. Gina caught her in her arms and held her.

They were all coming now.

But it was finished.

“Meredith,” Gina whispered through tears. She held on to her old friend so tightly that if she let go now… “Meredith,” she repeated, “rest now… you’ve earned it.” Her last words nearly destroyed her.

“I… I love you.”

~~~

Captain Carl turned off the engine, making sure the aft end of the Carrie-Anne remained pointed toward the rising sun. After offering his inadequate condolences, he’d provided them a large blanket from his cabin, some rope, and then respectfully stood beside the siblings just outside the pilot house. All three of them lowered their heads in silence as the rolling waves splashed against the sides of the vessel.

The others stood in silence around Meredith’s body, now wrapped up in a blanket—the rope holding it in place around her frail frame.

It had been Stephen who had suggested a ‘burial at sea’, and the others had agreed.

If not for the waves and the wind, the silence left in the wake of so much grief would have been too much for any of them to handle.

Even Logan, who usually provided words of comfort, had very little to say.

And everyone understood.

Meredith would’ve wanted it this way.

No torturous goodbyes. Just… ‘until we meet again’.

For Meredith Montgomery, the thin line between this life, and the next, was something she was well-acquainted with.

And by association, they all knew that Meredith wasn’t gone… not really.

In her own words, she might have said…

“I am here, and I am not here.”

They each spoke briefly and shared what their hearts could handle.

When it was time, Stephen and Gina carried the body toward the side of the ship. Captain Carl had removed a section of the lifeline so they could finish. They gently swung Meredith’s body toward the opening and let go.

They all winced at the finality of the splash.

And then it was done.

Megan collapsed on the deck.

Logan knelt beside her and held her.

Stephen put an arm around Gina’s shoulders as they both watched their old friend’s body drift into the shimmering wake of the Carrie-Anne—the new morning light igniting the surface of the deep with majestic pink and red hues. They waited there until Meredith’s body disappeared between the swells which carried her to peace.

And then they wept for their great loss.

~~~

A few hours later, Gina and Stephen were standing on the upper pilot house deck, staring across at the mainland as the Captain made his final approach toward Fairport Harbor Marina.

“It’s been a long time since I’ve seen this place,” Gina remarked, sighing heavily.

“Yeah,” Stephen added. “Meredith took us down the river before we crossed. We even stayed the night at the boathouse… remember that place?”

Gina smiled. “Yes. God… that feels like such a long time ago.”

“Too many ghosts on that journey,” Stephen said.

She looked at him and nodded.

Stephen stared toward the empty marina. “I don’t have a clue where to go once we set foot on the shore. It’s a little terrifying.”

“We’ll find a way,” Gina said. “We always have.”

“You can always stay on board the Carrie-Anne,” Captain Carl said from behind them. The bald, one-eyed captain joined them, lighting up his pipe.

They turned.

“Come again, Captain?” Stephen said.

“I’m just saying… the invite’s out there… for all of you.” He stared at the marina. “Not much left on the mainland anyway. You could stay on board, join my crew, and I’ll count it toward paying off your debt.”

Stephen laughed. “Or… you could still join us.”

“Nah. Not for me. I belong on the sea.” He pointed his pipe toward the mainland. “Too much death and pain over there. Out here, on the water, it’s not as bad as all that. The sea is merciful… in her own way.”

There was an awkward moment of silence.

Carl continued, “Again, I’m sorry for your loss. I buried my wife out here… in the same way.”

Stephen was surprised by the captain’s openness. “I’m sorry to hear that. Was it… after?”

“No,” he said. “She died to cancer… long before all this… mess.”

“I’m sorry for your loss, captain,” Gina said.

Carl nodded, looking uncomfortable. “Her name was Carrie-Anne… imagine that. Part of her… I believe… never really left. I swear, she’s still here sometimes. Not so much before as after… but I can hear her voice in the wind on certain nights when the seas are quiet.”

“The world is much quieter these days,” Stephen added. “Sometimes… I can hear those voices, too. Even on the mainland.”

Gina simply nodded in agreement.

This made Carl laugh. “I suppose the ghosts outnumber us these days. Perhaps, we’re the minority now.”

“Perhaps,” Gina said absently.

Carl, looking for an exit from the conversation, turned and said, “Well… good luck to all of you. I’m heading inside to make the final approach. Once you’re all on the ground, I’ll be leaving. You have until then to decide if you want to join me… or continue to take your chances in that vast graveyard over there.”

“Comforting thought,” Stephen said.

Carl laughed. “Either way… I can tell you’re all good people. Good people don’t last long these days, certainly never long enough to pay off debts, but good people make for good company, too. I’ll take that as down payment on your debt, Stephen. Hopefully, next time we meet, we can square away the difference… with interest, of course.”

Stephen laughed. “Okay. Thanks for the loan, Captain. And… for everything else. Perhaps you’re a good man, too.”

The captain waved off the compliment. “Bah… don’t be spreading that around! Bad for business.” He winked at them both, then turned for the pilot house.

Gina shook her head at the captain and said, “He’s a strange one… but I like the man.”

Stephen laughed. “Yeah… me, too.” He turned and looked back down on the aft deck. Logan was still down there with Megan. She’d crawled into a ball and was resting against the big man’s shoulder. He smiled at them and thought, Logan’s really growing fond of that girl. He frowned at Gina and finished, We’re all she has left. I don’t know if Gina will ever be able to accept her… and she won’t be the only one. He shook off the troubling thought. “One day at a time,” he said out loud.

“What was that?” Gina said.

Stephen looked at her. “I was just thinking, as soon as we step on that dock, it’s going to be like starting over again. I’m grateful that we’re still alive to do so… but it’s…”

“Scary as hell?” Gina finished.

“Something like that.”

Gina turned back toward the docks. They were close enough now to make out details. She could see the large hangars off to the right. Directly behind the marina, the dilapidated houses and businesses that made up the northern end of Fairport Harbor rose up above the docks like old bones from the past. Every dark window resembled hollowed-out eyes on ancient skulls.

Well… at least I’m not alone this time, she thought with a shudder. I can’t do ‘alone’… not anymore.

“Gina, you’re not alone,” Stephen said, as if reading her thoughts. “And that’s how we face everything… scary.”

She smiled at him, a lone tear streaming down her scarred cheek.

~~~

Gina, Stephen, Logan and Megan stepped out on the dock. Logan was carrying a backpack with three-days provisions and an assault rifle.

Captain Carl gave them a farewell nod from the deck of the Carrie-Anne, and said, “I wish I could do more. But that’s all I can spare.”

“You’ve done enough, Captain,” Stephen said. “Thank you.”

Captain Carl puffed on his pipe and turned, yelling at the siblings to take in the mooring lines.

They all turned toward the empty docks.

“May God grant us His grace to see us through… whatever happens next,” Logan prayed.

Suddenly, twenty armed men wearing body armor stormed out of the closest buildings and swarmed the docks, guns raised.

“Shit!” Captain Carl shouted from his ship, ordering the siblings to arm up.

Logan already had his rifle raised, standing in front of Megan protectively.

Surprisingly, the young half-dead, did nothing. There was no fight left in her now that Meredith was gone.

Gina raised her hand axe and Balato, stepping in front of the group.

The soldiers had the dock surrounded in moments.

“Drop the weapons! This is your only warning!” a tall man with a mustache and dark hair, wearing a ball cap flipped backwards commanded. The man, noticing Megan, added, “Step away from the hybrid!”

Logan aimed his rifle at the man and refused to move.

Stephen stepped beside him, to form a human barrier in front of Megan.

Gina, ignoring all the guns aimed at her, took a threatening step toward the one calling the shots.

“That’s close enough!” the ball cap soldier said.

“You fire one round at my friends… and I will kill you where you stand,” Gina promised.

The man laughed disbelievingly, and said, “Clearly your math skills are a little rusty. With a word, my men will mow you all down.”

Gina flashed the man a devious smile, gripping her weapons tight. “And you mistake me with someone who gives a shit about dying. I die daily. You better hope your men can aim those things before I cut your throat open.”

By now, Captain Carl, and the siblings were all armed, aiming their rifles at the soldiers from the deck of the Carrie-Anne. He shouted down to them, “Stand down! Or this will end bloody!”

The ball cap soldier sighed at the new guns and stared at Gina. “Lower your weapons. Step away from the hybrid. I will not say it again.”

“Come one step near that girl, and you’re dead,” Gina pushed defiantly.

This surprised both Logan and Stephen.

“Cole!” One of the soldiers behind the ball cap man said. A second man with a blond flattop and a scruffy beard stepped up beside him and placed his arm on the ball cap man’s rifle, pushing it down and away from Gina’s face.

Cole looked over confused.

“Sonofabitch!” the other man said, staring at the bloody woman with red hair. “Gina? Is that you?”

Gina stared at the blond-haired man. Her face softened as recognition slowly set in. “Sergeant… Hash?”

Hash laughed nervously. “You still remember me. That’s good.” He turned to Cole. “There’s no threat here, Cole. These are friends. I know this woman.”

Cole was staring at the guns on deck. He looked at Hash and frowned. “You better be right,” he said. Cole lowered his weapon and signaled his men to do the same. Then he addressed Gina. “Now… please lower your weapons… all of them. If you are who this man says you are… then I’m about to be your new best friend.”

Gina looked confused. She stared at Hash.

“Please… Gina. It’s alright now. They didn’t know who was on that ship… and they had to be sure you weren’t the enemy.”

Gina, choosing to gamble on a man she hadn’t seen since the beginning of all this madness, took a deep breath, and lowered her weapons. She turned to Logan and nodded.

Logan reluctantly lowered his rifle but refused to step away from Megan.

Captain Carl and his crew lowered their weapons as well.

“Sergeant,” Gina said. “I don’t know what you’re mixed up with here. But I remember you were a decent man… and I’m trusting you.”

Hash laughed. “Well I’ll be damned! I never thought I’d see you again!” He turned to Cole. “Call them. Call them now.”

Cole reluctantly nodded, then pulled out a hand-held radio and keyed it up. “Area’s secure. Let them through.”

Within a minute, voices were coming from the behind the armed men, urging to get through.

Hash just smiled at Gina, like an idiot, shaking his head.

Gina was still trying to process Hash being here when she looked up and saw Nine, Diane and…

“Tony?”

Nine caught sight of them on the dock and started hooting and hollering. “They’re fucking alive! You see that shit, Diane!”

The one-armed woman, although much more reserved, was grinning from ear to ear.

Gina was locked in on the big man storming down the dock. Her heart started to race, her emotions… teetering toward overload as her mind failed to keep up.

Tony saw her. Tears were streaming down his face. “Gina!”

“Tony,” she whispered, falling to her knees and dropping her weapons. She was about to pass out, then two big arms wrapped themselves around her and she was in Tony’s arms. She stared into his tired face and placed a hand on his cheek to make sure he was real.

“I’m here,” he said through tears. “I’m here.”

Gina collapsed in his arms and wept. She wept long and hard.

Nine and Diane reached the pier and embraced their old friends.

Orosco was the last to reach them. The black man was grinning and laughing and crying.

Stephen saw him. “Orosco?”

The black man grabbed Stephen’s shoulders and drew him in for a hug.

Stephen was completely in shock as he stared around the dock surrounded by armed strangers… and his friends. He couldn’t stop the tears from falling. He managed to get out. “How… how did you…”

“Wait,” Orosco said, fumbling with an inside shirt pocket. “You’re gonna love this.”

The black man pulled out an object that Stephen recognized immediately.

Orosco flashed him a toothy grin. “We found it, Stephen. We found your… mixed tape.”

Stephen laughed long and hard.

Tears of grief, and the fear that had first greeted them on that dock, had been suspended. In that moment, joy was triumphant.

Megan stood back, overwhelmed by the unexpected jubilation. She understood what this all meant, even though she was on the outside looking in. She looked back at the lake and smiled. If Meredith had been here, she would’ve been overjoyed, too. And that brought the half-dead woman a little peace.

Meredith was gone, and the ripples of that loss would soon be felt by them all.

But in that moment on the dock, ‘Alone’ had suffered a major defeat.

~~~

Don’t Feed The Dark will return Spring 2020 with Book Seven: The Prophet.

~~~

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__________________________________________
“Chapter 54-13: 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.

~~~

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.

~~~

Just a quick update on the schedule (again *sigh*). Sorry about all these erratic postings. I knew November was going to get busy, that’s why I so wanted to finish Book Six in October. But alas, here we are. I’m right in the middle of what should be the first of the final two episodes… but I’m not ready to post yet. I will try to finish it up this week. I just ask for your patience while I’m juggling around too many ‘real world’ obligations at the moment. Not to worry though, I am getting it finished, it’s just hard to find time to write in the middle of my busy-ass schedule. Again, my apologies ;)

-Scott

~~~

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~~~

Just outside the southern end of the Mother facility, Lady Clementine’s detachment of armed and unarmed men and women, dressed in forest green uniforms, were busy preparing for the now late arrival of the Carrie-Anne. They had all been told to expect the vessel before dusk and that Clementine was bringing a very important guest to the island. That meant getting everyone on the same page and putting on a well-disciplined first impression. Lady Clementine demanded perfection and that meant everyone needed to be on top of their assigned tasks.

Of course, this was all just another ruse, designed by Lady Clementine, to further misdirect Toby’s attention away from the cavern on the western end, stalling for time. But no one wearing green had been informed of this.

Several tall spotlights on wheels were now being moved from a large hangar bay to various points surrounding the helicopter landing pad, as well as down by the dock. The lights were powered by one large generator, which meant that Clementine’s electricians needed to lay cables before the twilight sky quickly faded overhead.

Clementine’s security attachment was busy making sure the dock just south of the hangar bay was secure. The medical staff prepared for emergency services. Three helicopter pilots waited near their birds on the helicopter pad in case their services were needed to search for the Carrie-Anne should she not arrive at all. Personal aides that performed a wide variety of tasks from cooking meals, to cleaning, to the maintaining of equipment, all went about their assigned duties, preparing for an evening arrival, with much trepidation.

Everyone who had been with Lady Clementine at the airport on the mainland were now housed in the barracks adjacent to the large helicopter pad. While one shift went about their duties a second shift enjoyed what little down time they could in the barracks.

Before the last of the spotlight cables were in position, the sky had grown dark.

That’s when all hell broke loose.

Howls erupted from the east side of the hangar bay and just west of the barracks.

Everyone stopped what they were doing, staring at each other with uncertainty.

And then the Nightwalkers attacked. They went immediately for the electricians preparing the spotlights and started to tear them apart.

Screams erupted.

Everyone resting in the barracks started to get up and look around.

Eight monsters dressed in strange armor stormed into the barracks and started ripping them apart.

More screams.

The camp security force, most of them focused on the dock, suddenly turned back and headed for the barracks, guns raised.

They never made it as a horde of nightmarish creatures charged straight for them, jumping out of the evening shadows that hid their approach. The Nightwalkers dug razor sharp teeth into flesh, slashing their claws across the stunned soldiers’ exposed throats and faces.

Erratic gun shots echoed across the camp.

Panic took care of the rest as people outside ran for the false protection of the hangar bay, or the barracks, where they were attacked by wild beasts with red eyes. People inside, tried to make it out, but were grabbed and dragged back into dark corners were the Nightwalkers fed on them alive.

One helicopter pilot managed to get into his bird while blood was splattered across his windows. People trying to make it to the choppers were tackled from behind and dragged off into the night, kicking and screaming.

The pilot got his engine running as the blades of his chopper came to life, momentarily distracting the closest monsters. He could hear people attempting to climb into the rear of the helicopter. Fearing for his life, the pilot took off too fast, as terrified men and women in blood-cover green, tried to hang on to the chopper, and fell to their deaths on the helicopter pad.

As the pilot cleared the ground, he heard a low growl from behind him. He turned and found the eyes of a savage creature, it’s face dripping with the blood of a fresh kill. The pilot reached for his holstered handgun.

Too late.

The disfigured former human dug its teeth deep into the pilot’s shoulder.

The pilot cried out and lost control of the bird as it started to spin in circles, moving too low and toward the southern entrance of the Mother installation.

As the Nightwalkers continued their slaughter of everyone near the hangar bay and down by the docks, the out-of-control helicopter crashed into the southern end of the facility, exploding on impact. Shrapnel and debris from the crash shot outward, ripping into fleeing flesh and producing a massive fireball that shot up into the dark sky.

The tall spotlights, surrounding the camp like silent spectators, watched on with indifference as the Nightwalkers slaughtered everyone in the area, feasting upon many of them while they screamed to death.

Not a single light had been turned on.

~~~

The Carrie-Anne rocked up and down across the rolling waves as Captain Carl navigated the vessel to the south, a quarter mile off-shore, preparing to round the southern point of the island. The last of the day’s light was quickly going out over the western horizon, leaving a blood-red glow to mark the remains of the dying sun. The wind had picked up considerably, kicking up the waves, and making it difficult to hold course.

At the close of the tense confrontation down on the aft deck, Captain Carl had laughed unexpectantly, taking another hit off his pipe. He’d waved off his deckhands who had lowered their weapons, and said, “If only to meet this ‘special lady’ of yours and find out how she can drive the two of you to this madness… I will take you to the southern dock. She must be one of a kind, perhaps a siren of sorts whose beauty is just as dangerous and alluring as her song.”

Logan and Stephen had just given each other a confused look.

“No matter,” Carl had concluded. “Call me curious. I want to meet your… Gina. Besides, I could have my hands load up my commission while we wait for you at the dock. The sooner I’ve concluded my business with the Red Lady the better. Now, please, lower the flare gun and get the hell away from my damn fuel.”

Afterwards, Captain Carl had insisted his guests join him in the pilothouse so he could keep an eye on them while the siblings remained armed and stationed nearby.

Stephen and Logan had offered no further resistance.

“The hell?” Carl blurted out from behind the helm. They had just rounded the southern tip of the island.

“Is there a problem, captain?” Stephen said.

He shook his head and pointed his pipe toward the dark stretch of land ahead of them. “Somewhere in that dark mess is the dock. Those morons are supposed to have a lit up for me! They know this! It ‘ain’t the first time we’ve docked at night!”

Stephen and Logan stared out the front pilothouse windows. All they could make out was a darker line of land, silhouetted against the darkening sky. If not for the last of the fading light, they would not have been able to discern where the land met the water.

“Why would they not have lights on?” Logan said.

Carl ignored the big man’s question. He started barking orders at the siblings. The young man left the pilot house with instructions to man the bow mounted spotlight at the very front of the vessel.

“We can still make it in without the dock lit up, but we’ll have to slow down and drift a bit until we locate it with our own light. It’s just a bigger pain-in-the-ass this way.”

Logan pushed again. “Can you think of any reason why those lights would be out, captain?”

Carl just stared and frowned. “It’s damn unusual,” was all he said. “The Red Lady runs a tight operation here… always has. This is not like her. Not at all.”

Stephen and Logan shared a worried glance.

“Something’s happened,” Stephen whispered.

A bright light flashed ahead of them, getting everyone’s attention.

“Holy Mary Mother of…” Captain Carl let his words hang as he exited the pilot house and shouted down to the red-headed deck hand. He sent the girl down to join him.

Stephen and Logan just stared at the ball of fire hovering in the vicinity of the southern dock.

“Gina?” Stephen asked.

Logan nodded. “Perhaps. Whatever’s happening, I’m sure she’s right there in the middle of it.”

The captain came back inside looking winded and cursing under his breath. “That better not have been my damn fuel!”

“What’s happening?” Stephen said.

Carl was turning hard on the helm. The Carrie-Anne was turning away from the island as the captain altered course to run parallel to the shore, heading the other direction toward the east side.

“I told the twins to keep the lights out. We’ll be running dark. I won’t risk pulling into whatever madness is happening over there,” the captain said. “Looks like a good way to lose my ship, too… and that I will not allow.”

“Then where are you going?” Stephen pushed. “Our friend is over there! Something’s clearly wrong and we need to get Gina the hell out of there!”

“Aye,” Carl said with an impatient nod. “You’ll get your chance. But I’m not leaving here empty handed. There’s an older dock on the east side. A bit trickier to reach, but we’ve used it a time or two. There’s a small fuel depot on the east side where we might make up for our loses. If you’re still bent on finding your friend, I’ll let you off there while we gather fuel.”

“You mean while you ‘steal’ fuel,” Stephen corrected.

Logan laughed. “He is a fucking pirate.”

“I’ll just be collecting what I’m owned,” Carl clarified. “The Red Lady, if she’s still around at the pick-up, will understand.” He looked at them both and finished, “As for the rest, I’ve never ventured off the docks… never wanted to, either. But I will say that the eastern dock is out of the way. It’s surrounded by trees and might help you find your friend more… discreetly.” He laughed and took another hit from his pipe. “And judging by what we just witnessed on the south side, you may not want to be discovered after we get there. I suggest you find your friend quickly and skip the tour. Once I’ve got my fuel, I want to be off this damn island and back on the water. Are we clear on this?”

“Crystal,” Stephen said. “And… thanks for waiting.”

Captain Carl raised an eyebrow, amused. “You misunderstand. As much as I like you two, despite our little ‘blow up the ship’ moment earlier, my only concern is the payday. Nothing more. Should you happen to be back on board by the time I depart, then that’s just good timing. But if you’re not… I won’t be here. So, you better hurry.”

Logan nudged Stephen with an elbow and said, “He’s worse than a damn pirate. He’s an opportunist.”

This made the captain laugh.

“Well, whatever your motivations lie, thanks all the same,” Stephen said. “And… sorry for the whole ‘flare gun’ fiasco.”

“No worries.”

Stephen was about to turn, then stopped. “Captain, what will you do after all this?”

“I don’t catch your meaning.”

“I know you don’t care about what’s happening on the island or why we’re even here. But just to let you know, should we succeed in our… mission… you may find yourself unemployed.”

Carl laughed. “Yeah. This may be my last run regardless. Once things start unexpectedly blowing up at your employer’s place of business, that’s a clear sign that the well may have run dry. But don’t you worry, young man, I will manage.”

“Well,” Stephen continued. “I only wanted to say, should we make it out of this mess, you’re more than welcome to join us on the mainland. We once had a… prosperous… community with good people—the best kind of people.” Stephen started to get a little choked up. “Anyway, should we survive this island, I know we will get it all back… someday. You and your crew can join us and help us rebuild.”

Captain Carl gave Stephen a curious look, then took another drag off his pipe. “Prosperous, you say. I like the sound of that. However, you seem to be overlooking the obvious. Whether you find your dear friend, Gina, or not, and make it back to the Carrie-Anne before I leave this rock… you still have no way of making it back to the mainland. Unless you are all exceptional swimmers.”

Stephen smiled. “I was leading into that.”

“I suspected,” the captain laughed.

“After your services are finished here, I would like to commission you to take us back… to the mainland.”

“And just how do you expect to pay for this?”

Stephen shook his head and sighed. “With a promise.”

Carl laughed hard. “Well… I’ve not much use for that currency.”

The former school teacher gave him a stern look. “You would be a fool to turn down this promise, Sir. Especially considering how very few people are left. And out of those scattered pockets of humanity, even fewer still would care to come together and start over. Most people would rather kill each other now to get whatever scraps they can get. But I’m telling you, we will rebuild. And I promise you, as long as I live, you will always have a part of it… if you help us get back.”

Captain Carl just stared. He turned to Logan and said, “Does he always talk like this?”

Logan laughed, putting a hand on Stephen’s shoulder. “This one’s a rare find. He still believes in Humanity… the good parts. If my friend says we’re going to rebuild, then I wouldn’t bet against him.”

“Well… I appreciate the optimism. But again, I haven’t survived this long on promises. Sorry, Stephen, but I don’t intend to stick around after my deal with the Red Lady is finished.”

Stephen smiled. “Maybe I’m using the wrong words here. Perhaps what I mean to say is… think about what I’ve proposed as an… investment. An investment in what’s left of our species to overcome and start over. Don’t you want to be a part of it?”

Captain Carl gave Stephen a shrewd look over his pipe and then laughed. “You are persistent if nothing else. I can appreciate that. ‘Investment’.” He mulled over the word while continuing to steer. “That does sound much better than a promise. I will consider it. That’s the best I can do.”

“I’ll take it,” Stephen said. He reached out his hand. “I know this might seem a bit archaic, but back when I was growing up, handshakes still sealed the deal.”

“But we haven’t agreed to anything,” Carl said.

Stephen smiled. “But we have. You just don’t know it yet.”

This made the captain laugh so hard he almost dropped his pipe. He settled down and stared at Stephen’s hand. Finally, he shook his head and said, “Why not.” Then he shook his hand. “Verdict’s still not in on whether I’m shaking a dead man’s hand or not.”

“We’re not dead yet,” Stephen reminded him.

“Amen, little brother,” Logan said. “Amen.”

They rounded the southern tip of the island and turned north along the eastern shoreline.

~~~

Heart pounding in her ears. Out of breath. The scent of rotting murderers invade her nostrils. Leg muscles burning. Dying recruits’ screams from all around her—pleas for mercy ignored. Growls. Violence. Death.

Eyes useless.

The KAR had been swallowed up in darkness.

I am not here, Gina reminded herself. I am the dark.

She commanded her body to become still… silent. No, that wasn’t right. That was impossible. Gina emulated the darkness… hid within it.

But it didn’t matter.

The Nightwalkers would find her.

A shifting sound to her right. Friend or Foe?

Something bumped against her right shoulder. Gina whirled around with her hand axe and struck a monster in the face. It screamed in pain and slithered away.

Two more came at her.

Gina ducked down and jammed her Balato upward into something hard.

A monster cried out in frustration.

Something just missed her face. She felt her hair shift from the clumsy blow. Gina rolled out of that spot and quickly got to her feet.

And then all at once, faint light from the southern doors poured into the KAR as the first recruits opened them wide and started to flee.

The KAR was infested with hungry beasts and dying recruits.

Move! Move now! Gina focused on the light and bolted for the door, slashing at Nightwalker’s while screaming at them with each fierce blow of her axe.

The monsters howled back.

“To the fucking doors!” Gina cried. “Hurry… or we’re dead!”

Some recruits were already ahead of her. She could hear others following. She focused on the doors. She focused on killing anything that stood between herself and those doors.

The monsters attacked from the sides and from behind, knocking recruits to the ground.

More screams.

Suddenly Julianne was beside her, swinging her sword into the darkness like a maniac.

She could see Gilo ahead of her, trying to protect the flank of fleeing recruits.

Kyle was somewhere behind them, still fighting near the center of the KAR.

And then all at once, she was back in the dull light, racing down the hall surrounded by bloody recruits.

The monsters were right behind them. They screamed and slashed at flesh, taking down the recruits near the rear and then dragging their fresh kills back into the KAR… to feed.

Gina glanced once at Julianne who had stopped long enough to attack two monsters who had caught up to them. She sliced at the Nightwalkers with brutal speed, screaming at them more to dispel her own terror. Black blood splattered her face. Other recruits turned to fight. Some continued to run for the southern exit on the other side of the mess hall.

The fiery red head turned back in time to hack into the face of another beast. Then she ducked down and cut into its thigh.

The monster howled in pain and hobbled back.

Most of the Nightwalkers had ripped off their cumbersome armor by now, revealing naked and tortured looking flesh covered in blood. Their red eyes blazed. Their jaws hung open, dripping blood, black bile, and displaying blood-stained razors for teeth.

Several more recruits went down. Gina and the others were falling behind. “Move! Move! MOVE!” she shouted to them. Gina, Julianne and the others whirled around to catch up to the recruits toward the front. They had just reached the end of the last hallway leading into the mess hall.

We’re going to make it! Gina thought.

As if sensing this, the Nightwalkers howled and sprinted after them on all fours. They quickly caught up to their flank and started killing more recruits.

Someone yelled from behind them.

The Nightwalkers turned in time to see a young man in a ponytail, whirl his spear around and stab into them repeatedly.

Gina barely had time to register the young Ama-Eskua recruit’s fierce determination and bravery. Nightwalkers from behind Kyle grabbed at his feet, causing him to lose his balance and fall forward. The others in front of him turned back.

Kyle was immediately swarmed by fifteen Nightwalkers. He was torn to pieces.

“Fuck me!” Gina shouted, turning away.

“He died well,” Julianne said from her right. “May we all die as well.”

Kyle’s sacrifice had bought them a slight lead. Gina and the rest of the recruits cut through the mess hall and reentered another labyrinth of southern hallways, following the sounds of the recruits up front.

By the time they reached the far end of the last hallway leading to the exit, the beasts had caught up.

Gina could see the first recruits reaching the door. Gilo was still with them. He turned back and saw the others. He raced toward Gina’s group with his sword drawn to help defend their flank.

The young Ama-Eskua recruit made it halfway back when the southern exit suddenly exploded, knocking Gilo off his feet. Gina and the others were also thrown to the ground as fire filled the other end of the hall. Debris shot back at them like bullets. A piece of the southern door penetrated the forehead of one recruit, killing him instantly.

The Nightwalkers directly behind Gina’s group caught the blunt of the bright flames, covered their eyes, and temporarily retreated out of the hallway.

As for the recruits near the exit. They were blown to pieces.

Gilo, his legs severely burned, managed to crawl back to the rear group.

Gina and Julianne, covered in cuts, burns and dust from the blast, managed to get up and reach him.

The young man was in so much pain as he coughed up blood. He kept his composure and said to Gina. “You have to… have to… reach the sanctum, now… only way… out. Western hall… the old showers… weak northern wall… other side… sanctum… lower level.” That was all Gilo managed. The young man exhaled his last and stopped moving, his eyes locked in on Gina.

Gina shook her head, trying not to lose it. She turned to Julianne. “Do you know the place he’s talking about?”

Julianne, her sad eyes locked in on the dead young boy warrior, just nodded. “I know it. He’s right. That’s the only chance we have. These beasts are everywhere. If we can get into the sanctum, we might be able to slip in behind them and find a way out.”

Gina nodded and looked back at what remained of her injured and battered recruits. Including herself and Julianne, they were now ten. She looked down the hall behind them. “The flames are holding them back for now. We need to move while they’re stunned. Can we get there from here?”

Julianne nodded. “Back one hall and take a left. That will lead us into the western berthing wing. The old shower room is at the far end. But it’s a dead end. If we can’t breach it… we will die there.”

“We’re going to die in this fucking hallway if we don’t try,” Gina said. “You ready?”

Julianne nodded. “Yes, Lady Gina.”

She turned to the recruits. “Stay strong. Stay brave. We might make it out of this, but we need to keep fucking fighting. Are you still with me?”

The weary recruits started to rise, shaking off their injuries as well as pieces of their blown-up friends. They defiantly raised their weapons in the air.

Gina gave them a fierce proud look, and then raised her bloody axe. “Let’s move.”

~~~

Next Episode 54-12

Previous Episode 54-10

~~~

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__________________________________________
“Chapter 54-11: 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.

~~~

Meredith could feel the darkness assaulting the closed mental door of her mind like an unstoppable storm—no—that wasn’t quite right. It had the ferocity of a storm, but it was so much more than that. The storm was alive, and not alive. She could sense multiple evil entities coming together in the black, void, surrounding her mind, taking on many forms and no form at all. Meredith could feel the outer rim of her sanity coming undone as her reinforced barriers collapsed with each new shape in the darkness, becoming something that her mind had no comprehension of. There were no words to adequately describe, and no thoughts that she possessed that could assess each new attack on her mind. The darkness no longer needed to force their way in through her mental doorways. Instead, it simply became the walls, the ceiling, and even the floor within her once secure mental room, making her inadequate door something that no longer fit the strange dark shapes that pulsated about her mind. This allowed the darkness to slip into every new crack, forcing Meredith to challenge the very structure surrounding her mind as she quickly erected new structures to delay the darkness flooding her thoughts.

When she, Clementine and Megan entered the final cavern at the end of the labyrinth of erratic caves and stone halls, they knew immediately that they’d reached a thin barrier between the world of the living, and the world of the dead. They all stopped just inside the cave entrance, pushing back against the darkness that immediately came for them. It moved around them and through them, as alive as the shifting cavern walls the appeared to melt in the range of their torch lights.

Clementine and Megan immediately moved next to the old medium as she attempted to expand her mental barriers around the three of them. But the effort took a huge toll on her mind.

Megan held Meredith’s hand, staring into the older woman’s face. Meredith struggled to find balance for them in this living/dead place that belonged in neither world.

Clementine focused her attention on lighting eight torches mounted on the wall near the entrance, trying to ignore the darkness that clawed at her face and screamed into her mind. She’d expected the assault, but it didn’t make it any easier to be here. Without Meredith, that darkness would have drove herself and the hybrid insane within moments of entering the cave.

With more light now, they could make out what was in front of them. The cave ceiling was as tall as the cavern floor was deep. The stone steps they’d been following descended down into a bowl where stalagmites and stalactites were so long, ascending up from the cavern floor, and descending down from the ceiling, that it looked like they’d just entered the closing jaw of some enormous monster instead of a cave.

At the center of the large cave, down in the bowl, was a single round structure sitting in what looked like a crater, as if the rock itself had come to life and attempted to reform up and around the odd-looking structure that did not belong. There were no spotlights surrounding the bowl, no buildings erected like they’d seen in Labyrinth Level 1. Just the round irregular structure that looked like something no man had built, but rather, like something else that had slipped across the barrier from the other side. Aside from the mounted torches, and themselves, nothing else provided a foothold into their world. And Meredith was their only tether from falling into the abyss of madness that had risen around them.

Clementine raised a shaky hand and pointed down into the bowl. “Toby’s body is in there,” she said. “When Mother first found this place, before the organization woke the entity we’ve come to know as Toby, they’d managed to build a single room that was intended to be a stable environment cutting into the veil between worlds. As we now know, from Labyrinth Level 1, that Mother failed to complete this mission. All they’ve done in either place is grant Toby a foothold across that veil. He is powerful in both places, but after the disaster beneath the orphanage, which was originally intended to be Mother and Toby’s… common ground… any further attempt to build was scrapped since nothing living can survive being this close to that veil. As a lesson learned from the orphanage facility, Toby has stabilized this place while Mother focused on the hub above it, to work with the entity from a safe distance. But they did get the brain-dead Toby down here, as the entity instructed them to do. No ‘human’ has been down here since. Not until now.”

“That’s not a comforting thought,” Meredith said, staring down at the odd structure. “What can we expect to find down there?”

“You’ve seen the structure before, Meredith,” Clementine said. “It’s the round white room with the chair at its center, staring up at Toby’s symbol.”

Meredith nodded, remembering when they’d first encountered such a room in Labyrinth Level 1. “And Toby, Forrester’s brother… he is kept in there?”

“Yes. For a very long time.”

“How is that possible? I was expecting to find someone on life support, hooked up to machines, not this,” Megan said. “What’s keeping that body alive?”

Clementine smiled. “What’s keeping you and I alive, child?”

“Meredith.”

“And do you know how she is able to do this?”

Megan said nothing.

“Neither do I,” Clementine added. She stared back down at the room in the rock. “Nothing works down here the way we understand. Objects from our world fail, including our fragile minds, while Toby can sustain flesh, without the mind, down there in that abomination of a room.” She looked back at Megan. “Even you… hybrid… are a mystery asking about mysteries. All I know is that Toby’s flesh is stabilized and sustained by the entity that has become Toby. But no longer.” She turned to Meredith. “I sense that we are running out of time.”

Meredith nodded. “Yes, I can… I can only protect us… for a short while. It is… very challenging.”

Clementine rubbed the side of her head and crinkled her face as if a bolt of pain just shot through her mind. “I am… having much difficulty keeping the darkness out. At each moment I’m about to be overwhelmed by it, like standing too close to the shore when the tidal wave is about to strike, something keeps that wave from crashing down… just barely… then it starts all over again. I assume that you are stopping the waves, Meredith?”

Meredith nodded. “Do what you came to do, Clem, but do it quickly.” She looked down into the bowl and finished, “I will remain here with Megan. The closer we get to that structure the harder it is for me to protect the three of us. I will keep you protected while you destroy the body. But you will need to hurry back immediately after.”

Clementine nodded, and then gave Meredith a probing glance. “I don’t know if you’re telling the truth, or if you just want to create distance between us. What are you up to, Meredith?”

“The longer you badger me, the less time we have. I’m telling you… this place, this darkness… it’s nothing like I’ve ever experienced. You say the veil between worlds here is thin. It feels more like the veil is about to burst… and that world is about to flood this cavern.”

Clementine’s frowned. “Very well. Just don’t run away this time, sister. I need everything you have to get me there and back. The rest I can manage.”

Meredith stared at the evil woman, her eyes starting to shift colors, going from dark, to red, to yellow, then dark again. “Like I said… hurry. You won’t have to worry about Toby showing up if I can’t hold… If I can’t hold this… darkness… back.”

“Just, do you part, Meredith. I will do mine.” Clementine turned and headed down the stone steps into the bowl.

Meredith waited until Clem reached the cavern floor. She turned to Megan. “How are you holding up?”

Megan shook her head. “It’s like… it’s like monsters are in my head trying to tear my brain apart… and make me forget… everything. I feel like… I feel like I’m fighting them inside my own mind. But I sense you there with me… and it helps.”

“You need to listen to me now. We are out of time,” Meredith said. “Once that evil woman makes it to Toby’s body… I’ll be gone.”

Megan looked distressed. “What… what do you mean… ‘gone’?”

“Nothing’s changed, honey. I have to go away… just like we planned.”

“To… Elsewhere?”

“Yes.”

Megan nodded, tears filling her eyes. She struggled to keep her emotions in check. “Take me with you,” she pleaded.

Meredith smiled, placing a hand on the half-dead’s pale cheek. “Where I’m going, Megan, I can’t take you. This battle is mine alone. You know this.”

Megan wiped tears from her face. “But… but I can’t protect you… if you don’t take me with you.”

Meredith looked down into the bowl.

Clementine was almost to the crater structure.

She turned back to Megan. “When she goes inside, I will reach out to Toby and let him know where we are. When that happens, he will have to deal with Clem first. When he does, I will… cross over while he’s distracted. Hopefully Clem will have just enough time to finish her part. But when I go… I can’t protect you or her. You will have to run, Megan. Run as far away from this cave as you can before the madness overtakes you.”

“And the witch?”

Meredith’s face went dark. “She’ll get what she’s owed. She’ll never make it out of this cave. But you won’t either if you stay here. So, run. Get back to the dock. Wait for the waters to subside. Then the boat will arrive, and you need to be on it. I need to know before I go that you’ll be alright. My heart can’t take losing you.”

“But what about you? How will you get back if I leave?”

Meredith’s eyes filled with tears. “I’m sorry, Megan. This was always a one-way trip for me. Whether I defeat Toby, or not… this is as far as I go. Clementine was correct on one thing. I can’t be allowed to survive here, especially if Toby wins in Elsewhere.”

“No!” Megan said, violently shaking her head. “NO!”

“This is the way it has to be, Megan. I’m sorry. I’m leaving now… and so are you. You need to do this… for me. Okay?”

Megan stepped back reluctantly.

Meredith turned toward the bowl.

Clementine looked back up at them once, then turned and stared at the strange round structure.

The old medium turned to Megan. “Now, Megan. Run. Tell the others. Tell them why I did this. They need to understand.”

Megan stepped back toward the entrance, her face full of tears.

“Be brave, now. Be the brave woman I know that you are. And… I love you… so very much.”

Megan smiled. “I… love you.”

Meredith nodded. “Go. Run… Run right now. NOW!”

Megan turned, her torch still in her hand, and then she ran out of the cavern, howling in pain like a wounded animal as her heart was about to burst.

Meredith closed her eyes, trying to shut out the poor girl’s sobs. She took a deep breath and sighed as she turned her mind toward a very familiar place and fired her thoughts through the darkness like an arrow… until she found the island… and Toby.

Where have you been? Toby’s frantic voice filled her mind immediately. I’ve been trying to find you and Clementine in the middle of all that confusion at the facility. But she hid herself from me and… What? What is this? What is happening? WHY THE HELL ARE YOU DOWN HERE ALREADY, MEREDITH?!

Meredith didn’t hesitate. “Clementine brought us here to stop you, Toby. To destroy your foothold in this world.”

Toby immediately disconnected from her thoughts. Meredith could still sense him… heading toward the crater… to deal with Clementine’s treachery.

Meredith looked back once to make sure Megan was long gone. She knelt down and then looked up, beyond all the despair, the darkness, and stone, then whispered a desperate prayer: “I don’t know if even You can come with me to that dark place… or if you even care to. Perhaps that’s what I deserve. But if you are listening, God, please… help me finish this. I don’t care what happens to me… just please… I need help.”

Meredith closed her eyes and stopped fighting against the darkness.

Before it consumed her mind, Meredith followed the imaginary tether out of her flesh, crossed the veil, and found the island—the Isle of Lions—floating at the center of the dark.

Meredith’s body fell over in the cavern like a marionette with its strings just cut.

~~~

As Clementine approached the crater room, she was mortified by its appearance up close. What was once a small domed structure made of steel and aluminum was now fused with rock and what looked like… translucent human flesh, with arteries pumping black blood through its thin, pulsating membranes, acting as walls. Her first impression after the shock settled was that she was staring at some massive human heart… still beating in this unnatural place.

She found a cavity in the living dome, assumed it was the doorway, and quickly entered.

Inside the heart-like room, the walls pulsated several times as her feet sank slightly in the fleshy floor. At the center of the room, what was left of an old retractable chair was covered in sickly flesh. And sitting in it, was the barely recognizable remains of Doctor Forrester’s brain-dead brother attached to long sinews attached to large muscles that crisscrossed the entire room. More translucent flesh-covered arteries were connected to Toby’s body, pumping black fluids into the man’s eye sockets, neck, chest and out of every limb… if they could still be called ‘limbs’.

The smell of long rotting flesh immediately assaulted Clementine’s nostrils as she covered her mouth and nose and looked away from the disgusting remains of Forrester’s brother.

Just finish this horrid affair! she reminded herself, feeling the darkness clutching to her brain like the strange tentacles of flesh that were attached to the mangled body.

She did her best to focus and reached out with her mind, focusing all her strength at the abomination in the chair. Suddenly, the flesh-infested body exploded, splattering Clementine with black blood and the rotted remains of Toby’s body. The walls of the room pulsated irregularly for a few moments that ceased.

Clementine wiped black blood from her eyes and nearly threw up. She looked over at what remained. The body was completely obliterated, leaving nothing but the unattached tentacles dangling from the top of the dome, and lying on the floor like otherworldly snakes. Everything was dripping vile black blood.

She laughed, despite her disgust. “Fuck you, Toby. Your demented science experiments on this island are finally finished.”

WHAT HAVE YOU DONE?!

Toby’s voice boomed so loudly in her thoughts that Clementine covered her ears.

AFTER EVERYTHING WE’VE BEEN THROUGH… THIS IS HOW YOU REPAY ME… YOU WORTHLESS TRAITOR CUNT!

Clementine turned like a terrified child and headed toward the exit.

YOU’RE NOT GOING ANYWHERE, TRAITOR!

Suddenly the fleshy tentacles came down from the heart-like chamber and wrapped themselves around Clementine’s legs and arms, dragging her back to the center of the room.

“No!” she cried out, no longer able to focus her thoughts to defend herself. “Let me go!”

The darkness within the cavern immediately stormed her thoughts, setting her brain on fire.

YOU HAVE SUCCEEDED IN DESTROYING YOURSELF. MY REACH INTO YOUR WORLD… THOUGH BRIEFLY INTERRUPTED BY YOUR ARROGANCE… WILL BE FIXED MOMENTARILY. UNFORTUNATELY FOR YOU, I DON’T NEED TO REACH ANYWHERE, NOT IN HERE, TO TAKE CARE OF YOU, TRAITOR!

“Meredith!” Clementine called out. “What you have done to me, you fucking lying bitch!” She reached up and grabbed the sides of her head as if it were about to implode.

Toby’s laugher filled her shadow-infested mind. YOU HAVE BEEN BETRAYED! TREACHERY BEGETS TREACHERY, MY WAYWARD DAUGHTER! AND TO THINK THAT I BROUGHT YOU THIS FAR… THAT I LET YOU GET THIS CLOSE. BUT DID YOU REALLY THINK THAT I DIDN’T FORSEE THIS MOVE? THAT I DIDN’T, ON SOME LEVEL, ANTICIPATE IT? YOU FOOLISH, FUCKING LITTLE GIRL! NOW YOU WILL SUFFER. YOU WILL SUFFER IN WAYS THAT MAKE THE THINGS YOU DID TO OTHERS SEEM TAME!

Clementine started to scream as her mind began to break.

But Toby wasn’t finished with her yet.

The fleshy tentacles started penetrating her flesh. Two went straight into her chest, two went into her shoulders, two more penetrated the back of her thighs. One even came up from the floor, beneath her black-covered red robe, and pierced her between the legs.

Clementine continued to scream until a tentacle pierced her throat.

The last two drilled into her eye sockets.

Clementine’s body convulsed violently for a few moments, then suddenly went limp, suspended in the center of the dome by the tentacles as black blood coursed through her disfigured old flesh.

GOODBYE, DAUGHTER. I LOVED YOU… BUT I NEVER TRUSTED YOU. THANK YOU FOR BRINGING YOUR SISTER. AND AS FOR YOU… YOU WILL MAKE A FITTING… REPLACEMENT.

Clementine felt the darkness invade every part of her in ways no human being had ever experienced. Her mind went black… but Toby made sure the dream center of her brain remained active… as well as her pain receptors.

Lady Clementine, or what remained of her consciousness, would now experience Toby’s version of ‘Hell’… specifically tailored to make her suffer in ways no human being could ever conceive.

~~~

As Clementine’s screams reverberated throughout the cavern, new torchlight approached the frail remains of Meredith’s vacant body. Two pale hands grabbed the old medium from under her armpits and started to drag her out of the cave.

The darkness within the cavern violently attacked the young half-dead’s mind. Megan didn’t care. She fought against the demons that plagued her thoughts with howls and screams, fighting like a savage through tremendous mental anguish, empowered by love and grief that drove her past the point of madness. The human side of her would have gone insane in moments… but it was the beast… the monster inside of her… who managed to get Meredith’s body up over her shoulder. Megan turned with her fading torchlight and shambled out of the cave.

~~~

Next Episode 54-11

Previous Episode 54-9

~~~

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__________________________________________
“Chapter 54-10: 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.

~~~

Gina and the recruits reached the upper landing of the hub with weapons drawn. The large, dimly lit former headquarters of Mother seemed vacant until the loud alarm suddenly went silent.

With her hand axe in one hand, the Balato in the other, Gina signaled everyone to hold at the landing.

From beneath them, they could hear what was left of the patrols being slaughtered. Desperate sounds of fighting and screams echoed across the hub. Many of the recruits believed the ghosts of this unnerving, dead space had all assembled below to take their revenge against the living.

Gina looked back into their confused and terrified faces.

The recruits shifted nervously behind her, staring at each other and then back to Gina, waiting for her to tell them what to do… or wake them from this nightmare.

Even the three remaining Ama-Eskua recruits looked uncertain as Gilo and Kyle took up defensive fighting positions on either side of their leader with Julianne guarding her back and staring up and around at the shadows as if everything and anything might attack them in the next few moments.

Gina stopped at the upper rail, looked down into the hub, and tried to process what only her ears could tell her since she could not see a single Ama-Eskua warrior below.

Where the fuck are they?

When the screams finally ceased. The hub went silent.

“They know we’re here,” Julianne whispered.

Gina gripped her hand axe so tight her hand started to go numb. “What are they waiting for?” she whispered back.

Kyle raised his spear and whispered, “They’re not waiting. They’re already moving to surround us.”

Gilo, with his sword up, added, “We have the advantage of higher ground. They will be going for the stairs… or they will draw us toward them. Either way, we are too tightly packed on this landing… and they know it.”

Gina nodded, the lack of any sound below causing her to second guess everything. Should they attack? Retreat? Drop their weapons and give in to the fear?

“There’s too many places to hide in here,” Julianne started. “They will strike us hard and fast and attempt to scatter us throughout the hub. If that happens, they can pick us off from the shadows.”

She thought of the KAR, formerly the Kill Room. That was the one place they all understood. They had trained hard in that large space. If they could draw the Ama-Eskua back there, they could stay together and maybe survive the next few minutes.

“We need to get back to the KAR,” Gina told her. “Maybe we have the numbers… and they know it.”

“Agreed,” she said. “That might be all we have.”

Gina signaled the recruits to fall back to the KAR. They all slowly retreated off the landing.

From all around them, they heard large footfalls on metal.

“They’re coming up the stairs!” Kyle said, whirling his spear around toward the closest staircase while walking backwards off the landing.

Gilo and Julianne stood right next to him, forming a line in front of Gina and to protect the rear.

“Fall back to the KAR… fast!” Gina called out, forcing the recruits to move. “Ring Formation!” she added.

They all raced out of the hub and toward the KAR.

Gina and the Ama-Eskua recruits were the last to exit the door off the landing. They all caught a glimpse of the enemy as several dark shapes came together at the other end of the landing. They merged into one large shadow… and… stopped.

Holy fuck! Gina thought. There’s so many of them! “Let’s move!” she ordered. “Hurry!”

“What are they doing?” Kyle asked Julianne as they turned to sprint back to the KAR. “That’s not an Ama-Eskua move. They don’t form… ranks.”

Julianne had no response.

Even Gilo seemed confused by the odd battle tactic. “They’re acting like a pack… moving as one.”

Gina didn’t hear them. Her only concern was getting everyone back to the KAR.

They were the last to reach the northern door and sprinted inside.

“They’re not following!” Julianne yelled as she was the last to reach the large lit space.

The recruits were already forming two large circles at the center of the gymnasium-sized room—one inside the other—a battle formation they’d practiced often for the purpose of fighting against a surrounding enemy. This was called the Ring Formation, something Julianne had suggested when they had discussed possible battle tactics of the Shadow Dead. They had all agreed that those traitors preferred to use the darkness to surround an enemy… a stolen, misused Ama-Eskua tactic.

In addition, every recruit was now carrying a pre-staged Balato in their non-weapon hand. This was Gina’s suggestion. They could use the pain sticks defensively to block or even stun the enemy, in place of a shield, while still striking with their primary weapons.

Gina felt a moment of pride in the recruits for remembering their training and not giving in to fear and falling apart. She was also grateful for the lighting. Of all the rooms in the training facility, the KAR was still the most lit up… which meant fewer shadows.

“Get ready!” Gina barked as she joined the inner circle with Julianne, Gilo and Kyle. Even they were now wielding Balatos in their support hands.

The objective of the Ring Formation was to keep a surrounding enemy in front while the first ring acted like a shield for the second. While the Ama-Eskua attacked the outer ring, the inner ring could strike from between the first rank. If the first ring was breached, the inner ring could step forward to form a new outer ring while the outer ring stepped back to become the new inner ring, regroup, and then start again. This was a move used to tire out the enemy, even an enemy with superior numbers. As fighters fell, the rings would grow smaller, but they could keep the advantage of holding the enemy out front and stay in the fight for as long as the rings held.

Gina quickly assessed their numbers. Forty-eight. Twenty-four per ring. That’s all we’ve got. She already had to assume that the six recruits on patrol in the hub were dead. She had no idea how many Ama-Eskua warriors the Order might send at them, or from where. Julianne believed the number would be low, and that the Order’s honor would dictate fewer warriors to defeat an inferior enemy. Gina hoped that Julianne’s assessment was correct.

Everyone in the KAR stood still as stone. The slightest sound was amplified.

Gina had been prepared for this. Ama-Eskua warriors were trained to use psychological warfare to unhinge an enemy. Such tactics included unnerving silence and painstakingly long lulls in fights to get the enemy to lower their guards.

But not this time.

“I hear them,” Gilo whispered to her right. “They’ve exited the hub.”

Gina tensed up and signaled the recruits with hand gestures to stand by. She looked over at Julianne to her left. She wore a pained face. “What is it?” she whispered.

Julianne gave her a strange look. “Something is ‘off’ about this attack. The others agree. The Ama-Eskua do not fight like a pack.”

“What do you mean ‘a pack’?” Gina said.

“That’s what Gilo said.”

She turned to the young warrior recruit. “It’s how they appeared on that landing,” he said. “It looked… unusual.”

Gina nodded as she struggled with something that started to unnerve her.

No time, she concluded, forcing the thoughts away. She needed to stay focused.

They could all hear them now. The enemy was entering the final hallway in front of the KAR.

All the recruits tensed up, staring into each other’s faces for perhaps the last time.

And then there was a new sound.

“What is that?” Kyle whispered.

Gilo and Julianne looked equally confused.

Gina heard it, too, and nearly dropped her weapons on the floor as recognition set in.

Rat-a-tat-a tat

~~~

“…Unless Gina’s locked up in some dungeon, which I don’t believe is the case, she might have some limited freedom on this island. She might know where Toby is… Toby’s body.”

The others paused, looking confused.

Meredith pulled them in close… and told them her plan.

Most of it.

“Remember what I told you about the dolls when I was child at that orphanage? How I found that secret room with the patients strapped into beds?”

They all nodded.

“One of them was Toby. The real Toby, Doctor Forrester’s brain-dead brother. He was much older, but it was still him. I believe the entity pretending to be Toby is using Forrester’s brother as a tether to this world. I also believe that without this tether, the Toby we’ve come to know will not be able to reach out into our world from the other side.”

“You mean from Elsewhere,” Stephen said.

Meredith smiled at him. “Yes. From Elsewhere.” She gazed into all their faces and sighed. “Part of what we need to do is find that tether and disconnect Toby from it.”

“You mean, kill the real Toby,” Megan said, with no emotion.

“I believe Forrester’s brother is long gone, or, at least, what made him alive is long gone. What remains is the memories, or dreams, or whatever it is that Dr. Forrester tapped into, that allows that monster who calls himself Toby to keep a foothold in our world. He still needs me to cross.”

“So, Toby is using the brain-dead Toby to affect our world,” Stephen started, “just like you’re using another brain-dead girl’s body to remain in our world?”

Meredith frowned. “Her name was Michelle.”

“Of course,” Stephen said. “Sorry.”

“That’s okay. You are correct. It’s very similar to what Forrester and Finch did, transferring my… entire consciousness… into Michelle’s body. Don’t ask me how Forrester did that, I still don’t know. The only difference now is that Toby can’t use brain-dead Toby the way Forrester used Michelle. That Elsewhere secret died with Forrester… and for good reason. But he’s still connected to our world through her brother, and he won’t need that body for much longer once he gets to me.” She stopped for a moment. “Perhaps that is the urgency I’m sensing? Maybe something’s wrong with Toby’s body? Maybe, after all this time, the tether is finally failing?”

“Or maybe the real Toby is fighting back,” Megan said.

Meredith gave her a questioning look. “What do you mean by that, Megan?”

“Maybe Forrester succeeded in what she originally intended to do? Wasn’t she trying to bring back her brother in the first place?”

Meredith considered this, staring at the young half-dead for a long time. She sighed heavily and finally said, “Megan, I hope you’re wrong. Because if not…” She looked down at the strange old flesh that had been her body for so long. “If you’re not… then I’ve a lot more to answer for.”

They all left it at that.

“So, that’s why I need all of you to find Gina,” Meredith continued, bringing them back on track. “She may know where Toby’s body is, or at least know how to find it. And if we break that connection, and sever Toby’s tether to our world, perhaps I can finish this for good.”

“What does that mean?” Logan said.

“It means she’s going to Elsewhere,” Megan finished. She stared at the old medium. “She’s going to let Toby find her… and bring her back.”

“You can’t do that!” Stephen said. “That’s just what that monster wants!”

Meredith nodded sadly. “Yes. It is. But it won’t be like before. Toby will believe he has recaptured that frightened little girl he manipulated a long time ago. And that will be my advantage. He will also be blind to our world without his precious tether. I believe that will actually scare him… a little.”

“If we find that body,” Stephen corrected.

“Yes,” Meredith agreed. “There is that.” She took a deep breath and finished. “You all need to trust me now. This may look like I’m giving Toby what he wants, but I assure you, I wouldn’t be doing this if I didn’t have a chance to stop him. And I’m telling you all now… I do. But I can only do it… over there. I need this. I need to do this. Toby used a very naïve little girl to do some very horrible things. I released The Lions into our world. I know it isn’t my fault, not directly, but I am still responsible. This is my battle to fight… and I am ready to fight it now. But I need your help to get there. Will you help me do this?”

With much reluctance, they all nodded…

…Stephen was lost in thought, staring into the ship’s wake as the last of the sunlight caused the water to shimmer, reflecting the evening sky above. His thoughts had drifted back to their last conversation in the boathouse. That was when they’d all decided to help Meredith jump right back into the monster’s mouth. Although the plan had been modified since reuniting with Meredith’s evil sister from the past, the end result was still the same.

I can’t believe we’re letting her do this, he thought. If she fails… and Toby succeeds… He shook off the dire thoughts. Now was not the time for doubt. They had their own job to do.

Stephen and Logan stood on the aft deck of the Carrie-Anne watching Captain Carl bark orders down toward the bow at his two-man crew from just outside the pilot house. They were currently getting ready to drop anchor, but the waves were making operations difficult… and the crew distracted.

The big preacher stared at the setting sun just ahead of them. The sky was getting dark fast as the bottom of the clouds near the horizon started to ignite into majestic hues of red and gold. He turned to Stephen and said, “Another thirty minutes of light at most. If we don’t make a move soon, we’ll have the night to contend with as well as the captain’s crew. We might not even be able to dock.”

“I know,” Stephen said, staring over the aft lifeline and into the rolling waves. “I’m just trying to think of a way to approach the captain and present our case. Like Meredith said, he does seem reasonable. We already know he isn’t a part of Mother. We just need an angle, something to entice the man into helping us get to Gina.”

Logan shook his head and laughed. “Little brother, you and Meredith are far too trusting. This man is a shrewd businessman beneath all that jovial, indifferent talk. If he thinks we’re asking him to do anything that would jeopardize his arrangement with that witch, Clementine, and the sweet deal he already has with Mother, then I’m sure he’ll just throw us overboard.”

“You might be right,” Stephen agreed. “But we should try to talk to him first.”

Logan nodded. “I’m all for keeping the peace. But I think I have a back-up plan to make the reasonable Captain Carl more… cooperative… should he laugh you right out of his pilot house.”

Stephen frowned. “What are you up to?”

Logan smiled and pointed toward twenty fifty-five-gallon tarped containers, stacked two drums high and strapped up toward the front of the aft deck, just beneath the pilot house steps, to the left of the cabin door. “This pirate might me more motivated to help us… if he believed his precious ship were in danger. While you’re talking to the man, I’ll sneak down into that cabin and have a look around.”

“What do you hope to find down there? Weapons?”

Logan smiled. “We’ll just see what the Good Lord provides.”

Stephen’s glanced at one of the drums. The word PETROL was stenciled on the side.

~~~

They were out of time.

Before Gina could prepare herself, or the others, for the horrors coming toward them, the north doors to the KAR slammed open. Several dark, disfigured shapes dressed in former Ama-Eskua warrior armor burst through the doorway and howled at the them. They had elongated limbs with claws instead of fingers. Grotesque upper bodies with bones penetrating rotting flesh were partially covered by armor intended for human beings, making these mangled monsters look like they’d been dressed in Halloween costumes that no longer fit. Blood red eyes stared at the recruits with savage hunger behind cracked helmets—razors for teeth gnawed at the inside parts of the face shields as the creatures screamed in frustration within their light metal trappings.

Julianne locked eyes with Gina. For the first time, Gina saw fear in the young Ama-Eskua recruit’s eyes. “What… what are these things?”

Gina gave her a fierce look. “Keep it together,” she ordered. “The face of the enemy has changed.” She then raised her voice toward the others, noticing her recruits starting to fall apart and disperse, breaking the outer ring. “Hold your positions! Defend yourselves! These aren’t Ama-Eskua… not anymore! They’re a variation of the dead—a hybrid—part man, part beast, that we call Nightwalkers! I’ve faced their kind before. They don’t like the light, and this is the best lit place in this entire fucking facility!”

The creatures charged toward them on all fours, like a pack of ravenous wolves. Some moved very quickly while others struggled sluggishly, their movements restricted by armor or their misshapen bodies. The overhead lighting at the center of the KAR was not bright enough to stop them, but it was enough to annoy the beasts and slow down their charge. As the first animal-man hybrids cleared the doorway, more came in from the hall.

The recruits raised their weapons.

Gina raised her hand axe, focused on the closest monster, and let a savage sound escape her mouth to dispel the fear—a war cry from one savage to another to let the monsters know that they were not the only beasts in the large space.

Gina’s ferocity was infectious as the recruits took up the war cry and howled back at the monsters, causing them to slow down and stare at their strange prey with confusion. The Nightwalkers could smell the blood, but it was the fear they normally sensed which drove them into a frenzy for the hunt. But this time their prey did not act like wounded animals in a trap, but more like smaller animals backed into a corner—and just as deadly as the hunters.

Gina picked up on this immediately. “They’re just animals!” she shouted. “They’re confused! Use it! USE IT!”

As the first of the Nightwalkers reached the outer ring, recruits raised their Balatos to deflect clawed arms while stabbing, chopping and slicing with whatever weapons they held in the other to hold the ring in place.

Other red-eyed beasts were quickly surrounding them, looking for any vulnerability in the ring to strike.

“They may not be human,” Gilo shouted toward Gina, “but they still act like Shadow Dead, surrounding the enemy to come in quick for the kill!”

The irony did not escape her. While the Shadow Dead were men and women disguised and behaving as beasts… these things were beasts disguised as warriors of the Order. But the end result was still the same. They were dealing with animals either way. And animals, wild or otherwise, could be intimidated by stronger or more cunning creatures.

She was scanning the Nightwalkers toward the back of the KAR as they moved around the outer ring while the others attacked the ring directly to distract and throw the recruits into confusion. “Hold the ring!” she shouted. “Hold it no matter what! All they want is an opening or to force us out of the light!”

Gina, Gilo, Julianne and Kyle led the inner ring, reinforcing the outer ring by stepping in between the gaps with fierce strikes to the heads of the savages.

The Nightwalkers howled in pain and slashed at the faces of the recruits. Several in the outer ring went down. Recruits from the inner ring stepped up to take their places. Every time a recruit went down, the Nightwalkers would drag their dying bodies back to the darkest parts of the KAR and devour them alive. The screams of each recruit, ripped apart and fed on, just made the Nightwalkers more violent as they fought each other for the remains.

Gina refused to look at each recruit knocked down and dragged off. They were all finished if they couldn’t hold the rings. Heroics would get them all killed. Gina lunged forward and hacked at the claw of a beast trying to claim a young girl. The beast stepped back, howling in pain. The girl fell to her knees, gripping her torn throat. Another recruit quickly took her place as the young girl fell forward on her face. A different Nightwalker came in quick and snatched a long lock of hair on the dying girl’s head and dragged her body back to the shadows along a wall to feed on her warm flesh, leaving a crimson trail into the dark.

The red-headed savage felt nothing as their numbers dwindled—the rings getting smaller and smaller. She just screamed at the monsters, hacking away at them in between the gaps, tuning out the horrifying sounds of the slain… and the sounds of feasting along the walls of the KAR.

Kyle whirled his spear around and jammed it into the eye of a beast.

Julianne came in low with her sword and hacked off the same monster’s left leg, causing it to fall back.

Gilo was forced to step forward into a gap in the outer ring as the head of a recruit fell right off his shoulders, leaving an opening for a second Nightwalker to charge in and bite into the arm of a second recruit. The young Ama-Eskua recruit came in low then thrust his sword upward into the chin of the disfigured brute. He pulled his sword out, slicing the monster’s face in half, and then quickly thrust his sword into the throat of another monster. Gilo retracted his sword and whirled around to slice off the clawed arm of another beast.

Gina tried to grab the recruit who had been bitten in the arm, but another beast snatched him back into the darkness where three more beasts started to tear the young man apart.

The Nightwalkers were going down but so were the recruits.

There were now twenty recruits, including Gilo, who held the outer ring, while fifteen more maintained the inner ring.

The Nightwalkers still outnumbered them three to one.

Julianne, her clean greys soaked in black blood, turned to Gina. “We’re holding… barely. But they have the advantage. They can wear us out and pick us off at their leisure. We need a better position, preferably a choke point.”

Gina, her face and hair covered in blood, held up her bloody axe and stared up at the lights. “Without those, there’s nothing to stop them from one massive charge. The lights are the only thing they fear.”

Gilo stepped back within the inner circle as another recruit took his place. He, too, was a bloody mess. “On the south side of the facility, there’s spotlights surrounding the hangers around the helicopter pad. That’s where Lady Clementine’s group that came in with you are stationed. The security force will have guns… and we could use the help… as well as the light.”

“She never mentioned that to me,” Gina said.

Gilo just shrugged his shoulders.

There’s a whole lot that old bitch failed to mention, she thought, considering the faces of their new enemy.

Gina turned to Julianne. “Could we make it there? If we haul ass?”

Julianne’s face was stone. “No… not all of us. These things are far too fast. The rest of the light in the facility is too dim. They’ll overtake us before we make it to the mess hall.”

“What the hell are they doing?” Kyle yelled from behind him.

They all turned.

The Nightwalkers were no longer attacking. They were standing in a circle of their own, at the back of the KAR. Some were feeding, but the rest were staring up toward the lights… and howling.

Then something flew across the air above them, striking the base of one the florescent lights, causing it to shake and shimmer.

“They’re going for the lights!” Gina shouted.

“These things are smart enough for that?” Kyle was shocked. “I thought they were just dead animals!”

Something hit the ceiling then fell at Julianne’s feet.

It was a bloody human leg bone.

She and Gina shared a horrified look.

The Nightwalkers were throwing more bones now. Some threw them at the lights while others threw them at the recruits on the outer ring. The sight of their fallen brothers and sister’s bones being used against them started to unnerve the recruits.

Another bone stuck a bulb above causing it to spark and go out.

This made the monsters roar as one. They jumped around and hissed at the recruits.

“We’re out of time,” Julianne said.

Gina stared up at the lights. We’re so fucked!

“Get them out of here, Gina,” Julianne said. “Kyle, Gilo and I… we’ll hold them back long enough to give you a lead.”

“Fuck that!” she said.

Another bone struck the lights above. Causing one fixture to shake violently.

“We can handle them together,” Julianne assured her. She looked over at Kyle and Gilo who nodded in return. She looked back to Gina and smiled. “They won’t know what fucking hit them, Gina.”

Gina shook her head, then said, “Alright. But you three come right after us. No bullshit hero stuff. Understand?”

All three of them nodded.

Just then, something big struck the central light fixture above them causing a bright flash, and sparks. All the lights went out.

The KAR went pitch black.

~~~

“Absolutely not,” Captain Carl said, standing behind the helm in the pilot house. He lit up his pipe and took a long drag. “Don’t get me wrong, Stephen, as far as passengers go, you all have been easy… up until now. My orders are to standby until the Red Lady finishes whatever she’s doing and then come back for a pick-up. I don’t get paid to make decisions or get involved. I just do what I’m told until the job is done.”

“So, she told you to wait… right here… in this spot?” Stephen said.

Carl laughed. “Well… no… not specifically… but I’m fairly certain she wasn’t wanting me to taxi folks all around this damn island.”

Stephen raised his hands submissively and pushed. “We’re not asking for your crew to get involved, Captain. All we’re asking is that while we’re waiting out here anyway, what’s the harm in taking us around the island to pick up a friend… a friend of Lady Clementine, too, I’ll add. You wouldn’t even have to step foot off this ship. Logan and I will go get our friend… and come right back. I’m sure Lady Clementine would appreciate the extra effort in making sure Gina was safe. Perhaps she’ll even up your commission for all the extra effort.”

“And should the two of you get yourselves into trouble… and I’m sure that will be the case… what would I do then? Just leave you both on the island?”

Stephen nodded. “Yes. If we take too long to get back, although I can’t imagine why,” Stephen lied, “then you can just leave us and head back here in time to pick up the Red Lady.”

Captain Carl scrutinized Stephen with his one good eye. “And when she asks me where the two of you ended up… what should I say then, hmm? That I dropped you off on the island without her permission?”

“If it comes down to it, you could just say we swam back to shore.”

“Either way, I look incompetent. Incompetence is a good way to lose a payday. No, I’m sorry, Stephen, but we’ll be staying right here until it’s time to pick up the Red Lady. Those are my instructions… and that’s what
we’re going to do.”

Stephen started to protest.

“Now,” Carl interrupted. “If you would be so kind as to leave my pilot house and go down on deck where you were told to wait. Don’t come back up here again or I won’t be so nice.”

Stephen sighed. “Does it even matter to you that a woman is in danger? That you could do something very small to help and possibly save her life?”

“Nope. I’m not in the business of saving lives, Stephen. If I were, I’d probably be dead by now. That’s what saving lives amounts to in today’s world.”

Stephen shook his head and gave up. “Megan was right about you.”

Captain Carl laughed. “Yeah, that young lady with the gray eyes understands me more than you do… apparently. Now, if there’s nothing else… get the hell off my bridge.”

Stephen exited the pilot house and joined Logan back aft.

The big preacher, standing with his hands behind his back, glanced into Stephen’s face and smiled. “Judging by your sour expression, I can only assume that your conversation with the captain went very well.”

“Shut up,” Stephen said. “The man’s impossible. All he knows is profits and self-preservation. Time for Plan B. Did you find what you needed?”

Logan made sure Stephen was blocking Captain Carl’s view from the pilot house and then showed him what was in his hands. “No weapons, of course. But I felt fairly certain I would find an emergency kit.”

Stephen looked down and saw the loaded flare gun. “Shit, Logan, you even know how to use that thing?”

“I read the directions, little brother” Logan said with a mischievous wink. “Besides, the whole point is that I won’t have to use it.”

Stephen let out a heavy sigh. “Even if this works and we get Carl to take us to Gina, there will be nothing to keep him docked. We’ll be going there to rescue Gina… in need of a rescue ourselves.”

Logan shrugged his shoulders. “I can only do so much with a flare gun.” He looked up at the pilot house. “Think he’s watching us right now?”

“I’m sure of it.”

“Get ready.”

Stephen looked confused. “‘Get ready’? Get ready for what?”

Logan smiled. “Just follow my lead. Be sure you let the captain know how heartbroken I am about leaving my wife on this island.”

“You’re… wife?”

“Yeah… something like that. Just let the man know how much Gina means to me… you can tell him we’re newlyweds.”

“No. I’m not going to say that.”

“Just… roll with it and tell him how desperate I am to get my beloved wife back. Love can make a man very… unstable… at times, as I’m sure our captain will appreciate.”

“I don’t like this plan.”

Logan laughed lightly. “Ye of little faith.”

“Shit.” Stephen shook his head. “So, what now?”

Logan raised his voice. “What do you mean he won’t take us!” The big preacher took a step back and gave Stephen an enraged look. “That’s some bullshit! I’m only on this damn boat to get my wife home!”

“Oh, okay,” Stephen whispered. “I guess we’re starting.” He reluctantly jumped into the part. Stephen raised his arms to calm the preacher down. “Keep your voice down!” He looked deliberately up toward the pilot house, then back to Logan. “I tried to talk to the man, but he won’t listen!”

“That’s bullshit!” Logan started waving the flare gun into the air as he walked past Stephen and stood in front of the petrol containers. “You tell that damn captain to get his ass down here… NOW!” He pointed the flare gun at the petrol.

Stephen just stood there.

Logan gave him a look and repeated, “NOW!”

“Shit!” Stephen hissed, feeling like he’d missed his cue. He got his feet moving and started up the stairs.

“What the hell is going on back here?” Captain Carl shouted down from the rail just outside the pilot house.

“You tell him, Stephen!” Logan shouted. “Make damn sure he understands this time!”

Carl gave Logan a blank stare, then glared at Stephen who stopped half-way up the stairs. “You’ve got to be shitting me, right?”

Stephen sighed. “It’s his wife.”

“What are you talking about?”

“Gina… the woman on the island.”

Captain Carl raised an eyebrow and then pointed to Logan. “Gina is… his wife?”

“Yes.”

“And… tell me again what that has to do with your tattooed friend aiming a flare gun at my fuel?”

Stephen shook his head. “I tried to talk to him. The only reason Logan’s here was that he found out his wife… Gina… is on this island. After I told him you wouldn’t take us… he… well… he lost his shit.”

“Really?” Captain Carl looked amused. He took a hit off his pipe. “So, if I don’t take him to be reunited with his wife, am I to assume that your big friend intends to blow us all the hell up?”

“Looks that way.”

“I mean it!” Logan shouted up. “Take me to Gina or I’ll fucking do it!”

Captain Carl never lost his amused expression. He pointed his pipe at Stephen. “This was his plan wasn’t it?”

“I don’t know what you’re talking about,” Stephen said. “I’m… surprised that he’s reacting this way. I didn’t think he’d go nuts like this.”

“Doesn’t make much sense to blow up my ship, himself included, if he’s really that determined to see his wife again. Perhaps you two should’ve rehearsed this a few more times.”

Stephen was getting irked by the captain. He took a step toward the pilot house, looked down at Logan, then back to the captain. He lowered his voice and said, “I didn’t mention this before because… well… it’s complicated.”

“‘Complicated’?”

“Yeah,” Stephen explained. “You see… Gina… Logan’s wife… well… she-”

“Oh, come on, man!” Captain Carl said. “Spit it out. Tell me… she had an affair… and that’s why hubby down there is so irate. Hell, I’d understand that, might even lose my shit, too, threatening to blow up things. But you haven’t given me anything.”

This is ridiculous. Stephen’s shoulders fell. “Okay… you win. Gina and I… we… I mean-”

Captain Carl busted up laughing. He pointed to Logan then to Stephen and said, “Are you trying to tell me that you and Gina did the nasty behind that man’s back… and that’s why he’s trying to find her?”

Stephen didn’t know how to respond. “Yeah… sure.”

Captain Carl took another hit off his pipe. “So… he brought you along to tell him where you’d stashed his wife. And now that he’s got you both here, your big angry friend with the flare gun intends on confronting both of you. Is that about it?”

Stephen gave the captain a crooked smile. “You don’t believe any of this, do you?”

“I might if you sell it better.”

Stephen stared down at Logan.

Logan looked confused.

“Alright,” Stephen told the captain. “I’m not here because I want to be. Logan dragged me along to tell him where his wife was hiding. The moment he finds her on that island, it will confirm his suspicions that we had an affair. The only reason he hasn’t killed me yet is because he still doesn’t know if Gina’s here. But once he finds her, he’ll force the truth out of her… and then probably bury us both on this damn island.”

Captain Carl stood up, clapped, and laughed. “Bravo! Much better! You should’ve opened with that line of bull… especially if you want me to believe your crazy friend is enraged enough to blow us all the fuck up to get to Gina.” He looked down at Logan and finished with Stephen. “Now… go down there and tell your friend to lower that flare gun or I will order my deck hands to blow a hole through his head.” Captain Carl waved his pipe into the air.

On cue, both red-headed siblings stepped out from the port and starboard bridge wings, armed with assault rifles. They both charged their weapons and aimed them at Logan’s head.

“Alright!” Stephen said, raising his hands. He looked down at Logan. “He’s not buying it Logan! Just put the damn flare gun down!”

Logan, spotting the armed gunmen, smiled, and turned to Captain Carl, refusing to lower the flare gun. “You think this is all some big damn joke, don’t you?”

The captain shrugged his shoulders. “This poor excuse of a ruse… yes… definitely.”

Logan nodded. He turned to Stephen. “Tell this asshole who I am?”

Stephen looked confused. “He’s a preacher,” he told Carl. “That is the truth.”

“No, Stephen,” Logan corrected. The look he gave him was stone. “Tell him… who I used to be.”

Stephen understood. He gave Carl a grave look. “Before Logan gave his life to God… he was the leader of a racist biker gang.”

Captain Carl look shocked. He turned to Logan and said, “How does one go from being the leader of a hate group to a man of the cloth? Though, that would explain the colorful tattoos on your arms.”

Logan ignored him. He said to Stephen, making sure the prick captain could hear, “Now that he knows what I’m capable of… and that I’m also a man of conviction… tell him I intend to blow up his special lady if he delays us any further in getting to our special lady. Tell him, I’ve made me peace with God a long time ago… and if it’s my time to die… then so be it.”

Stephen turned to Carl. “You get all that.”

Captain Carl stared at the big preacher, then took another drag off his pipe. “I could just shoot you where you stand, preacher.”

Logan made sure Carl could clearly see his finger on the flare gun trigger. “Yeah, you could. But that won’t stop my finger from jerking this trigger.”

“He’s serious,” Stephen said. “No bullshit this time. No stories.”

“And what about you?” Carl said. “Is this ‘special lady’ worth the two of you dying for?”

Stephen didn’t hesitate. “Absolutely. Gina would do it for me.”

Captain Carl shared a look with the siblings, who stared back questionably. Carl took another drag off his pipe and smiled at Stephen. “My, oh, my… this is a much better bluff. Assuming, of course, that flare gun does anything at all. How do you even know it will ignite the petrol?”

“Do you know that it won’t?” Stephen countered.

Logan started praying.

“What’s he doing now?” the captain asked.

Stephen smiled and said, “He’s probably asking God for forgiveness… for what you’re about to make him do. And all this over a damn ride to the island. Tell me, captain, are you prepared to risk everything that matters to you by keeping us from someone we deeply care about?”

Captain Carl stared from Logan to Stephen, then turned to the siblings who waited for instructions. He took a long drag off his pipe this time as he carefully considered his next move.

~~~

Next Episode 54-10

Previous Episode 54-8

~~~

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__________________________________________
“Chapter 54-9: 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.

~~~

Just a quick update on the schedule. Until the completion of Book Six, I will be posting new episodes on Wednesdays and Thursdays. Sorry for the change.

I hope you all had a great Halloween ;)

-Scott

~~~

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~~~

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.

~~~

Hugh Marten sat on the second landing steps overlooking the large steel entrance door to the Ama-Eskua sanctum below. He took the scabbard off his back and laid the sheathed sword beside him. Hugh scratched his itchy beard and then wiped fresh sweat off his brow with the back of his hand. Aside from always being unnervingly quiet, the old Mother Headquarters was always so damn hot and dark. Like the rest of the facility, the overhead lighting provided just enough light to see just how many areas had been swallowed up in shadows. He took a deep breath and let his heavy eye lids close for a moment.

“Taking a break… again?”

Hugh opened his eyes and sighed. “Big damn door hasn’t changed since the last time I looked at it… or the hundred times before that,” he grumbled. “This is a bullshit detail. While everyone else gets to eat, we’re stuck in this dead-ass place doing nothing!”

A younger man, tall, with dark hair and dark eyes, stood behind him on the landing wearing stainless gray. The tall recruit leaned forward, supporting himself with his black spear, and smiled. “What’s the matter, don’t like the assignments Lady Gina graciously provides? At least you have a real weapon again.”

That was all it took.

Hugh turned around and frowned at the younger man. “Come on, Brent, everyone knows that our Royal Highness has it in for me. She enjoys giving me all the shit details. It’s payback for trying to kill her. Sometimes I wish Lady Clementine hadn’t stopped me.”

“Careful, Hugh,” Brent said mockingly, lowering his voice. “The ghosts in this place might hear you and report your insolence to Lady Gina.”

“Yeah! Well… tough shit! I wish she never came here. We had a good thing going before all these… changes. Now, there’s all these rules about how to behave, and how to think, how to fucking dress—We were warriors before all this, and now, we clean, stand guard, and listen to all that woman’s ‘touchy-feely’ speeches about morality! Give me a damn break! What world does she still think we’re living in, anyway?”

Brent laughed. “It will get better. Hell, at least we’re not all going for each other’s throats anymore. Lady Gina’s bringing us together to fight the real fight… out there.”

Hugh waved a dismissive hand in the air. “Screw all that. I’ve been out there. There’s nothing but death. What we had before was better, when Julianne was still in charge. Now, we just wander around in this dark, desolate place waiting to die of boredom while we guard this old tomb.” Hugh turned toward the sanctum door. “I mean, look at it! Nothing’s coming through that damn thing! No one’s used it in years. It’s probably not even a real door. Just some ceremonial nonsense from a time long before us.”

“Why don’t you tell me how you’re really feeling?” Brent poked.

“I’ll tell you! I’m feeling like somebody has to say something to that lame chick! She’s gotta go! Having us triple up on watching this gloomy place is stupid! No one’s coming to get us. Hell, the Order probably doesn’t even care what we do down here anymore.”

The sound of three rusty bolt latches being released reverberated throughout the hub.

Hugh and Brent turned toward the large metal door.

“What the fuck was that?” Brent whispered.

Hugh shook his head. He reached for his sheathed sword and almost knocked it off the steps.

Brent took a fighting stance with his spear. “Get your shit together, man. Something’s not right.”

Hugh unsheathed his sword and stood up.

Suddenly, the large steel door slowly opened toward them, screeching so loudly that it sounded like a banshee let loose.

“Was that the fucking door?” Brent whispered.

The lower level was haunted by shadows. The door stood open. They could see nothing but darkness within the doorway.

“Shit!” Hugh hissed. “Door’s open. I can’t see shit down there.”

“Where are the other patrols? Think they heard that?”

“They’re on the other side of this big fucking space,” Hugh said.

“We need to get to one of the control rooms and sound the- did you see that?” Brent said.

“See what?”

“There! Right fucking there!” Brent was moving around nervously with his spear, pointing toward the door. He tried to get a better angle on the lower level.

Several dark shapes sprinted out of the doorway, dispersing in different directions and disappearing beneath them.

“Fuck!” Hugh yelled. “They’re under us! Lower level!”

A large metal-on-metal sound caught their attention off to the left.

Huge was stepping back up the steps. “They’re trying to get around us… and behind us!”

More movement from the door.

Hugh turned back. “Shit! They’re playing with us! I think a few more just came in!”

“Where are they?”

“I don’t fucking know!” Hugh said. By now they were both pacing the upper level trying to catch movement below.

“Watch the damn door!” Brent said.

“Fuck that!”

More sounds from the lower level.

Large objects were being tipped over.

The sound of a metallic trashcan rolling beneath the stairs.

Breaking glass somewhere to the right.

Footfalls… lots of them… smacking down hard on metal stairs.

“They’re coming up for us!” Hugh yelled.

“You see ‘em?” Brent was peering down a center stairwell into the lower level.

“Screw this. I’m out of here!”

“Where are you going, you cowardly fuck?”

“There’s too many! We need help!” Hugh said.

“We need to alert the others… sound the fucking alarm and-”

“Brent!” Hugh yelled. He pointed a shaky finger toward him.

Something big came up behind Brent, wrapped two gauntlet-covered arms around his waist, and then pulled him down the landing steps.

And then he was gone.

“Brent?” Hugh whispered.

Brent started screaming below.

Get the fuck out of here! NOW!

Hugh bolted for the southern hub exit.

The terrified older recruit dropped his sword and cleared the landing. He ran faster than he thought possible, hearing only the sound of his own racing heart pounding in his ears. He approached the hub exit. “Hey! Anyone! Sound the alarm! SOUND THE FUCKING ALARM!”

Hugh made it to the exit door. Reached for the handle.

Several arms grabbed him from behind and dragged him back into the darkness.

~~~

The Carrie-Anne made its approach toward the island an hour before dusk.

The foreboding mass of land continued to grow larger and larger as they rounded it, preparing for the final approach on its western side. When the island had first come into view, it had looked like a lifeless black rock in the middle of nowhere. But now, they could make out steep cliffs rising up on the west and northern sides, forming a natural barrier that made reaching the island almost impossible from either side. To the south and east, the land leveled out and they could see one large structure dominating the center of the island, surrounded by fields and tropical forests.

“That place looks like Alcatraz,” Logan remarked, standing near his friends on the bow of the vessel.

Stephen nodded. “Probably just as hard to escape, too.” He looked over at Meredith.

The old medium was sitting on the deck. Megan was resting with her head in Meredith’s lap. Meredith gently stroked the girl’s hair, staring absently toward the water. They had all taken turns resting and talking themselves into the idea of this new and dangerous plan ever since Clementine departed for her cabin. No one knew what to say to Meredith, or what to even ask, sine she’d become distant ever since the island first came into view.

Stephen came over and knelt by the tired-looking woman. He lowered his voice. “You ready for all this?”

Meredith turned, coming out of a trance, and said softly, “Sorry, Stephen. What did you say?”

Stephen laughed. “You’ve been somewhere else ever since your old friend left us. Everything alright?”

She frowned. “That evil woman is neither my friend, nor my sister.” Then she lightened up. “Yes, Stephen, I’m okay. I’ve just got a lot on my mind. What we’re about to do is… terrifying. I’m trying to prepare my mind for what’s coming. If it’s anything like that cavern beneath the orphanage…”

Stephen nodded. “Anything I can do to help?”

She smiled at him. “No. But, thank you.”

Stephen wasn’t finished. “You haven’t told us what you really think about this new plan… or why we’re even joining up with this woman. From what you’ve told us about her, she’s likely to kill every one of us after she gets what she’s after.”

“You are correct.”

“Then… why are we doing exactly what she wants?”

She sighed. “Because Clem’s right, Stephen. We can’t finish this without her.”

“And after?”

Meredith frowned. She looked back at Logan who had moved to the other side of the bow, then turned back and stared into Stephen’s face for a long time. “You’ve been a good friend, Stephen. One of my most consistent friends, too. No matter what you found out about me or after learning what I’d done, you never wavered, not once.”

Stephen averted his eyes. “Well, that’s what friends do.”

She smiled and then became guarded. “When we arrive, I’ll need you and Logan to do something you won’t like. I’ll need you more than ever to be that friend who trusts me… even if you don’t understand. Can you still do that for me?”

Stephen looked hesitant, then answered, “Always. But you’re starting to scare me. What is it?”

“When we arrive in the cavern, I’ll need you and Logan to remain with the ship.”

Stephen shook his head. “No. Sorry, but I can’t do that. We’ve already talked about this. We stick together, remember?”

“Yes,” she said. “But things have changed. I wasn’t expecting all this. Once we’re in that dark place, I’ll be able to protect Clem, Megan, and myself from what comes at us… but you and Logan… will be exposed.”

“Exposed?”

“Exposed to the madness… just like before.”

“I don’t understand. Can’t you just… I don’t know… protect us, too?”

“No, Stephen. That won’t be possible. It’s different for Clem, Megan and I because we are already… acquainted… with that darkness. I wasn’t prepared before, but I am now. When the madness strikes, we will have a much higher threshold before it affects us, too. But you and Logan will not. And once I’m directly engaged with that darkness, I won’t be able to help you both… and you will die.”

Stephen knelt back down and let out a heavy sigh. “I wish you’d mentioned that before.”

“Yes, I could’ve, but it wouldn’t have changed anything.”

“Logan’s going to be pissed.”

“Can you do this for me?” Meredith pleaded.

“It looks like we don’t have a choice,” Stephen reluctantly said. “But what about you? Who’s going to help you when that evil damn sister of yours turns on you?”

She looked down at the sleeping girl and smiled. “I’ll have Megan to watch my back. I would rather she go with you… but I suspect she would kill me herself before staying on the boat.”

“I don’t like any of this,” he said, shaking his head again.

“Logan will listen to you,” Meredith said. “Besides, I’ll need you both to do what we originally talked about.”

Stephen waited.

“You two will have to find a way to get to Gina. I don’t know what she’s mixed up in here, but I suspect Clem has manipulated her. You two need to find her. She’s alone and she’s in trouble, whether she knows it or not. Can you do this for me?”

Stephen smiled. “Let me get this straight. You want us to steal the pirate’s ship and make Captain Carl take us to the other side of the island? Sure, we can do that.”

Meredith smiled. “I didn’t say it would be easy. None of this will be. But you two are all she has now. I wish I could do more.”

Stephen nodded. “I’ll talk to Logan. We’ll… figure it out.”

“Thank you, Stephen.” Again, she stared at him for so long that he started getting uncomfortable.

“Was there… something else?” he asked.

She looked away. “No, Stephen. That was it. Again, you’ve been a good friend—the best. I will always love you for that.”

Stephen frowned and then nodded. He got up to talk to Logan before the wicked witch returned. He looked back at Meredith once. Something about her behavior was… off… and it troubled him a lot. He tried to shake it, but Stephen felt like she’d just said goodbye.

~~~

Conversations at dinner were more tense than usual. Everyone not on watch was present in the installation mess hall having hushed discussions. The recruits were constantly glancing over at Lady Gina’s isolated corner of one table where she and all three Ama-Eskua recruits sat over a large old blueprint of the facility. After the word went out to put away the training Balatos and arm up with legitimate weapons, as well as the increased patrols, especially in the former Headquarters area, all the recruits were regressing back into battle mode.

Lady Gina had told them to expect a possible attack on the facility, but she had not given the enemy a name. Some suspected that all this preparation was for a surprise drill, while others were simply excited by the possibility that this was not… and that would mean blood. Either way, the recruits were amped up for a fight.

Gina sat in between Julianne and the third Ama-Eskua recruit, the youngest of the three. He went by the name, Gilo, and his appearance and mannerisms were as peculiar as his name. Gilo did not speak much, but when he did, he usually had something useful to say. Ever since becoming a recruit of the Order, Gilo had chosen to shave his head bald (no one knew why), which made him look much older than twelve. Gilo wore a katana strapped across his back, which seemed far too big for his small frame, making him look ridiculous with it on. Julianne had assured Gina that, despite his age, Gilo was an excellent swordsman, and of the three Ama-Eskua recruits—the most lethal in combat.

Gina wore a pained expression as she struggled to understand the old blueprint. She continued to wear her own Balato strapped across her back to serve as a reminder to the others not to abuse their privileges of getting weapons back. She also wore a hand axe strapped to her side.

She pointed at two long lines on the blueprint and said, “What about here? This looks like it goes right under the sanctum?”

Gilo leaned over the blueprint, then shook his head. “No. That’s a water main. Won’t work.”

Gina leaned back in frustration. “That fucking place is as secure as a prison.” She looked over at Gilo and smiled. “Thanks.”

Gilo nodded and continued to study the blueprint.

Regardless of his skill with the sword, Gina had already discovered how intelligent he was. “You remind me of a friend of mine,” she told him. “He was a bit like you—a jack of all trades.”

Gilo looked up with a blank expression.

Gina laughed lightly. “He just had a bit more hair than you. Ever consider growing a beard, Gilo?”

This made Julianne smirk.

Gilo just gave her a bland look, then finally said, “Ah… that was joke. Correct?”

“Yes, Gilo,” Gina said, trying to hold in her amusement.

Gilo nodded and then said with a straight face. “That was very funny, Lady Gina.”

His dead pan response made both Gina and Julianne laugh. Gina shook her head, “I’ve got to get you out more, Gilo.”

Gilo looked puzzled. “I thought we were trying to get into the sanctum… not further away from it.”

Gina just stared at the young man. “Are you fucking with me, Gilo?”

Gilo smiled, a rarity. “Yes, Lady Gina.”

Gina laughed hard and clapped her hands.

Julianne just shook her head, trying to contain her own amusement.

The only one of the four who seemed completely oblivious to the conversation was the long-haired Ama-Eskua recruit, Kyle, who tugged at his ponytail and sighed. He was no longer wielding a steel pipe.  Instead, he carried a black spear.

Gina stopped laughing and frowned at the young man, who sat directly across the table. “I’m sorry, Kyle,” she said. “Are we boring you?”

Kyle dropped his ponytail and sat up. “No, Lady Gina.” He never looked her in the eyes when forced to address her.

“Well… what is it, then?’ Gina pushed.

At first, Kyle did not respond.

Julianne kicked him beneath the table.

He turned to her and glared.

“Lady Gina has asked you a question. Answer it,” she ordered.

Kyle sighed and said, “It’s not my place to disagree. I am merely a recruit,” he said, with a hint of sarcasm.

Julianne looked on the verge of reaching across the table and punching him.

Gina shook her off with a look. She turned to the disgruntled recruit. “It’s okay, Kyle. I know you don’t like me… and that’s fine. There are days that I don’t like me much either. But if you have something to add to this discussion, even if you don’t agree with my plans, then feel free to speak up.”

Kyle glared at her this time. “Why are we trying to breach the sanctum? They have done nothing to provoke us. I find it difficult to believe that the Ama-Eskua wish to eliminate us. We have been here on this island, long before you arrived, and have never needed to feel threatened by the Order. What would provoke them now?” He said the last, letting his eyes linger on her deliberately.

Gina smirked at him. “That sounds a little like an accusation.”

“Just an observation… and an unanswered question,” he said, looking away.

This time Gina wanted to reach across and hit him. She took a breath. “We are preparing for any and all possibilities right now. As I’ve explained, Lady Clementine told me herself that the Order may try to take advantage in her absence… and that they might come for us.”

Kyle nodded. “As you’ve said.”

“Watch your tone,” Julianne cautioned.

The young recruit could not hold back. He glared at Julianne and said, “And you! How can you just sit there and condone this? This is our Order! And yet, here we are, planning some assault on the Ama-Eskua. How can you stomach that?”

“Keep your voice down,” Gina said.

He turned to her. “Why? If the Order is planning to wipe us out, then why keep it from the rest of them?”

Julianne rose to her feet and placed a hand on the hilt of her sheathed sword. “I will not tell you again. You will show Lady Gina respect… or I will-”

“Enough!” Gina hissed. “Both of you… calm the hell down. Julianne…sit!”

With reluctance, Julianne sat back down, but she refused to break eye contact with Kyle.

Kyle just smirked at her.

Gina sighed. “Look, Kyle. I hope you’re right. In fact, so does Lady Clementine. We’re not looking to start some war with the Order. They may or they may not attack us. The reason I’m keeping it from the others is to not put a sour taste in their mouths about the Ama-Eskua. But… if they do attack… we will be ready to defend ourselves by any means necessary. Is that clear?”

Kyle looked away from Julianne and relaxed. He finally nodded.

“Good,” Gina said, adding a sigh. “Now, can we all pretend to be friends long enough to take the ‘threat’ seriously? Just in case?”

“Of course,” Julianne said. She looked at Kyle.

“Whatever you say… Lady Gina,” he relented.

“I found it,” Gilo calmly said.

They’d all forgotten about the quiet boy who had continued to study the blueprint through their tense discussion.

“Come again, Gilo?” Gina said.

Gilo looked up with a smile. “I’ve found a way into the sanctum.”

Before anyone could respond, a loud buzzing alarm sounded.

All the recruits stood up, reaching for their weapons. They all looked to Gina.

“That’s the hub alarm!” Julianne said. “That can only mean one thing!”

Kyle looked to Gina with a confused and apologetic look.

“To late for ‘I told you so’s’,” she told him. she glanced at all three of them and said, “Nothing else matters now. Put your fucking issues on pause and get ready.”

They all nodded and followed her from the table.

“Alright!” Gina said to the recruits. “We are under attack. There’s no time for questions or for keeping you in the dark any longer. The Ama-Eskua have breached the hub.” She took a deep breath. “They intend to eliminate all of us while Lady Clementine is absent.”

The recruits’ faces were a mixture of shock, confusion, fear and anger.

Gina pulled out her hand axe. “Get those fucking looks off your faces! I don’t care what you believe about our odds of defeating them. Shake it off! They’re still men and women just like you! And they bleed just like you! The worst that can happen is death… and we’ve all been living with that ever since the world went insane! So, clear your fucking heads… find some steel within you, and fight! Fight with all that you have! Fight for each other! Our very existence is at stake. Am I clear?”

“Yes,” they said weakly.

Gina turned her fire on all of them. They could almost feel it radiating from her cold, dark stare. “That’s not good enough! AM I CLEAR?”

“YES!” they all roared.

“You know what to do! We’ve trained for this!” She lifted her hand axe into the air. Everyone in the room lifted their weapons likewise. “Tonight… fuck gray! We will all be wearing BLOOD!”

~~~

Next Episode 54-8

Previous Episode 54-6

~~~

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“Chapter 54-7: 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.