Posts Tagged ‘Lions in the Dark’

~~~

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“What was that?” Meredith said.

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

She nodded but said nothing more.

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

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

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

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

Stephen looked away.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

They all turned to look at him.

“You okay, little brother?”

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

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

Even Megan moved and squatted beside the distraught former teacher.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“What was that?” Logan said.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Why? What am I missing here?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Stephen nodded in agreement.

Megan started to relax, sitting back down.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

He looked away.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

She nodded at him with a smile.

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

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

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

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

Stephen nodded.

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

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

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

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

The others nodded in agreement.

~~~

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“You’re not,” Logan said.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“What’s that?”

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

“Yes,” Logan said. “That’s about it.”

Meredith nodded and went silent.

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

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

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

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

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

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

“You mean… the demon?”

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

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

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

“You’ve seen it, too?”

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

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

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

“Go on,” Logan said.

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

~~~

Next Episode 50-1

Previous Episode 49-10

~~~

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“Chapter 49-11: Lions in the Dark” Copyright © 2019 Scott Scherr, from the novel, Don’t Feed The Dark, Book Six: Mother. All Rights Reserved.

No part of this book may be reproduced or transmitted in any form or by any means, electronic or mechanical, including photocopying, recording, or by any information storage and retrieval system, without permission by the author.

This is a work of fiction. Names, characters, places, and incidents either are the product of the author’s imagination or are used fictitiously. Any resemblance to actual persons, living or dead, events, or locales is entirely coincidental.

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~~~

~~~

Stephen, Logan and Megan sat in shocked silence as Meredith destroyed them with the truth.

She told them an incredible story about a young thirteen-year-old girl with special abilities who was abducted by Mother after being injected by Dr. Candice Forrester in that orphanage basement. Meredith told them about the unaccounted time between the summer of 1973 to the winter of 1974 where she was taken to a Mother-run facility on an island and hooked into machines connected to a brain-dead patient named Toby Forrester, Candice’s brother.

Meredith told them about being inserted into Forrester’s experiment involving ‘Elsewhere’—a place that the doctor had discovered in an inactive brain which she believed was the ‘dream center’ of the mind. It was a place where the complete identity, the soul of a person, could be retrieved from a mental ‘back-up drive’, and then be rebooted back into the body. It was Candice’s hope that she could revive her brother, essentially, bringing him back from death, by tapping into this dormant part of the brain.

Mother had repurposed Dr. Forester’s work, without her knowledge, using it instead to connect with an entity they’d discovered in shallow places where the barrier between our world and the other side could be breached. With Forrester’s work, Mother found a doorway to make contact, leaving them only to find a proper key, a.k.a., Meredith, to complete the connection.

Mother’s original attempts to breach this barrier failed down in the cavern beneath the orphanage, known as Labyrinth Level One—the entire reason why the orphanage existed and why the underground Wasteland compound was originally constructed. Eventually considered ‘unstable’, Mother abandoned the cavern and relocated all remaining resources to an offshore island where they believed another thin barrier was still accessible.

After being sent to the island facility, Meredith spent over a year connected to the entity, calling itself Toby, in ‘Elsewhere’. Meredith told them everything she’d experienced on a fictional island where every day felt like the same day because time had no relevance on the other side. She told them about a ten-year-old boy who had manipulated her, getting her to use her abilities to release monsters, disguised as lions, across the veil, and into our world.

While attempting to use young Meredith to get himself across, Toby’s connection was interrupted by Dr. Forrester, who had figured out that it wasn’t her brother that Meredith was connected to, and that Mother had manipulated them both. She’d become blinded by her own desperation to free her brother that she’d failed to recognize what Mother was really doing, or the young lives she was responsible for destroying in the process.

Michael Finch, Candice’s fiancé, died trying to save Meredith. It took his death for Candice to finally open her eyes and see the truth. Michael was dead. Her brother was dead. Forrester, deciding to make things right, and ruin Mother’s plans, found another way to manipulate ‘Elsewhere’ by essentially removing the ‘back up’ drive in Meredith’s mind and putting it in another brain-dead patient, something Michael always believed was possible.

After stealing Meredith away from Toby’s version of ‘Elsewhere’, Forrester put herself in Meredith’s place to taunt Toby into killing her there. The ruse worked, resulting in the physical deaths of both Forrester and Meredith’s bodies in the real world and stealing Mother’s precious connection through Meredith, who they had originally believed had died afterwards.

Dr. Forrester’s experiment to retrieve the brain-dead patients from Elsewhere and restore them back to their bodies… had failed. But the alternative worked for Meredith, who woke up in the body of a brain-dead girl named Michelle, with most of her memory from those dark days hidden… until now…

~~~

Meredith paused from her story and wiped tears from her face. She refused to look any of them in the eye, but their silence was deafening in the ruins of the barn. She kept going while she had the strength.

“I hid myself for years, pretending to be Michelle, with fragments of memories from the orphanage before I was… experimented on… to the memories starting with waking up with that strange face staring back at me. Everything else in between… was gone. Eventually, the rest started to slip away as I grew older and had my own new struggles trying to live with this gift that never went away. I eventually met Hannah… and well… you know the rest.” She looked into their stunned faces and said, “I never knew. Believe me, if I’d known what I’d done… what I was capable of… I would’ve ended my life a long time ago, long before this nightmare world ever happened.”

Stephen sat back and ran his hands through his hair, letting out a heavy sigh. “My mind is completely blown,” he said, the weariness in his voice apparent. “Of all the things you’ve told me over our time together… that… that was like a bomb that just exploded in my face.”

She looked down at her hands and nodded. “That’s about how I feel… now that I know.”

Megan remained silent. She refused to look at the older woman.

Logan, however, looked like he’d just sat on an ant hill. He got up and started pacing.

Meredith stared up at the big preacher. “Go ahead… ask.”

He turned to her, stroking his beard. The big man didn’t know what to think or how to feel toward this woman, who apparently, destroyed his world. “Let’s talk about the lions, again,” he said in an angry voice.

“Logan,” Stephen warned, “stay cool.”

Meredith closed her eyes and waited.

He waved a frustrated fist in her direction, trying to keep his temper in check. “No, I’m good,” he said to him, then glared at the Wasteland Witch. “I’m struggling to understand how something you did in some… dream place… all the way back in 1973… caused The Change in 2010. How the hell is that possible?”

She nodded. “Time,” she said. “That monster tried to tell me back then… but I get it now. He’d said, after I’d let the lions loose, that our world was dead, he just didn’t know when. Time had no meaning in Elsewhere. But he’d said that anything I affected over here… from there… would affect time differently.”

“So, it took almost fifty years for something you did, causing all this madness and death, to finally catch up to us?” he snapped.

She winced at his harsh words but accepted the blow. He’s right. You did all this. The blood is on your hands. “Yes,” she said. “That’s exactly what I’m saying. Don’t ask me how or why that is… I just know that it’s true.”

“You’re an abomination!” he roared into her face, pointing, and taking a threatening step toward her.

Megan was up immediately, standing in between Meredith and the big fireball. She hissed in his face and tensed up. The look in her silver eyes promised more death if Logan didn’t stand down.

“Logan… this isn’t helping!” Stephen also moved in defensively in front of Meredith with his hands up. “Just… chill the fuck out!”

The big man shook his head at them both and laughed. “What’s the matter with you two? She killed everyone you ever knew… everyone you loved… by her own admission!”

“She was just a little girl manipulated by a devious monster,” Stephen corrected. “You heard her story. She didn’t send the lions across the ocean believing she was hurting anyone! Get a grip before you make things worse!”

Logan waved his hands at them and backed down, walking toward the other side of the barn.

Megan relaxed and gave Stephen a grateful nod.

He smiled back reluctantly, feeling sick to his stomach.

“I think what I did has more ramifications than I realize,” Meredith said, still sitting and staring dejectedly into her hands. “Before sending all those lions off the other side of the island-”

“You mean ‘before you unleashed that plague of the dead’!” Logan shot back. “Let’s stop calling them lions, shall we?”

“Fair enough,” she agreed. “Before that, Toby had me on our beach, where I sent six others first. He kept calling them ‘The First Ones’.”

“What’s that mean?” Stephen said.

“I almost forgot, but he’d named some of them… those First Ones. I remember the last one, he called it Taven.”

Megan turned and stared at her.

Meredith nodded her head. “Yes, I’m sure of it. That would mean-”

“You caused everything that happened in the cavern,” Stephen said. “You’re the reason that place turned unstable, right?”

“I believe so,” she said. “I think the first six crossed over in accordance to the dates in those files… somewhere in our past. Taven stayed behind, apparently.”

Logan was laughing. “You’re just full of great news, aren’t you?” he spat. Logan stepped up beside Megan and said, “You realize what you’re saying, don’t you?”

Meredith looked up and met Megan’s sad eyes. “Yes,” she added weakly. “I know what that means.”

Stephen looked confused.

Logan filled in the blanks. “Not only did she break the damn world of its hinges, Stephen… Meredith, here, is directly responsible for the Megan you see before you today! Not to mention what happened to her-”

“SHUT UP!” Megan snapped, staring down the preacher. “JUST SHUT YOUR DAMN MOUTH… OR I’LL RIP IT FROM YOUR FACE!”

Logan looked stunned, taking a cautious step back.

“He’s right, Megan,” Meredith said, wiping away fresh tears. “I did this to you. I did this to you long before The Change even started when I let Taven loose.”

Megan kept her gaze fixed on Logan. She was trying to control her breathing and calm down.

“Logan… if you’ve got any bullets left in that gun of yours, I suggest you put one in me right now,” Meredith said. “It’s not only what I deserve… but considering how badly Toby wants me back… it’s probably for the best.”

Logan looked at the others and then back to Meredith. He shifted uncomfortably. “No,” he said. “You don’t get to do what you did and then take the easy way out. Hell, no! You suffer the consequences just like the rest of us!”

Meredith gave the big preacher a weary look. “I’m not looking for a way out from under my guilt, Logan. I’m just suggesting that I’m dangerous. No… I’m not suggesting… I am dangerous. Toby’s trying to finish what he started, and that requires me. God-only-knows what I’m capable of if he manages to manipulate me any further.”

Logan looked like he wanted to speak, but then waved a dismissive hand at her instead, turning to walk away.

“No one’s shooting anyone,” Stephen said, kneeling beside her. “I don’t care what you did. It’s not your fault. Toby’s behind everything… he’s the one who made you release the lions. You were just a terrified little girl who had no idea what was happening. You can see that, can’t you?”

Meredith shook her head. “Doesn’t matter. I may not have pulled the trigger on the end of our world… but I’m definitely the gun. Toby was powerless without me.”

“That’s not true,” Stephen said. “He’s still been reaching out to our world and influencing it for years. Mother is direct proof of that. And if he still needs you, then that means he’s gone as far as he can. I believe that’s why he’s so desperate to get you back now after all these years.”

Meredith stared at the former teacher. “Then why keep me alive? If Toby’s reached his limit on how he can affect our world… then it’s clear. I need to die.”

“No.” Stephen shook his head. “You said it yourself in your story. He’ll just find another like you eventually. You can’t be the only one who can do what you do… and that monster knows it.”

Meredith silently considered this.

“Look at it this way,” Stephen continued. “The longer he’s chasing you, the less time he has to look for others like you. So, by that reasoning, keeping you alive works to our advantage.”

“Unless her catches me, Stephen.”

He nodded. “Sure. But he hasn’t. And after what you did to get us out of the orphanage, maybe he can’t.”

“Or maybe we’re right where he wants us to be,” Meredith added. “I remember what happened in the cavern now. We didn’t escape because I did something to stop Toby. He let us go.”

Logan came back over. “Explain that.”

Meredith sighed and lowered her eyes. “The madness in that dark, unstable place had the three of you. You were all going insane just outside the tunnel. Toby was mocking me… showing me how helpless I was to do anything about it. But what he was really doing was baiting me to get angry. Right near the end, he just… left me there in that cavern to watch you all die. I was so upset that I didn’t see the ruse for what it was.”

“What happened?” Stephen said.

She shook her head. “He tricked me into following him. As unstable as the caverns were, Toby knew that if he got me down there, he could connect with me again because the barrier between our world and his was thin there, too. He left me there in the darkness, so I followed him… back to Elsewhere. Next thing I remember is we’re standing in this awful field where I first met him in my dreams at the orphanage. The lions were there, too. Toby was older, a teenager, and this was the place he’d lied about and said he’d escaped from when we both ended up on that false island. It felt like a memory… but different. I was there, and I wasn’t there at the same time.”

“You said a lot of things like that down in the cavern,” Stephen reminded her. “How that place was and wasn’t; how those creepy girls were there, and they weren’t… stuff like that.”

“Yes,” she said. “I believe the cavern is just like the place I was taken to at thirteen.”

“When Mother took you to that offshore location? Some island?” Stephen said.

“Yes. That must be it. But I don’t remember that place at all because I was kept sedated until I was inserted into Elsewhere. But that cavern… it has to be the same kind of place.”

“But the cavern is unstable,” Stephen said. “You said Mother abandoned it.”

“Yes. Mother did. But not Toby. He knew I could handle the madness and that’s why he wanted me down there. I believe the boundary between our world and his is so thin in the cavern that at times we were stepping in and out of that dark world without even knowing it. I also believe that’s what drove everyone insane… from the early scientists all the way up to when Miss Evan’s team was there. None of their minds could handle it and that’s why the electrified field was created. I’d already had a connection or developed an immunity to that dead place because I lived there for over a year on that fictional island with Toby… and Elsewhere served as a tether to keep me there, and not there at the same time. Also, I’ve always had a doorway into that otherworld through my… gifts.”

“So, he had you back… but he couldn’t keep you there?” Stephen said.

“No, he couldn’t… and I believe Toby already knew that. But he wanted to test me to see if I could come back… and I did.” She stopped herself abruptly, and then finished, “I don’t know what it was Toby wanted out of us meeting in that place again, but I assume he got what he came for and due to how unstable the cavern had become, he just couldn’t keep me there for long.” She felt bad for holding back the rest of what she suspected happened in that field, and the conversation she and Toby shared, but Meredith needed time to sort the rest out. There was enough already on the table to look at and be horrified by without adding any more speculation. “What I know is that when the connection was severed, the effects of that world on ours, down in that cavern, also diminished. I suspect our worlds merge and then separate at irregular intervals in the cavern. When the separation occurred, balance was briefly restored. For me, I was ripped out of Elsewhere so abruptly and thrown back into my own body… it knocked me out. As for the rest of you, I didn’t do anything. You came back to your senses when the merge ceased, found me unconscious… and, well, you know the rest more than I do.”

“But you said Toby let us go,” Stephen said. “Sounds like the cavern really let us go before we went mad.”

Meredith laughed. “That’s very true. But if I were a betting sort of person, I wouldn’t bet against the possibility that Toby timed all that perfectly, and that he knew exactly when to push and when to pull back. The cavern may be an unstable doorway between our worlds, but I’m sure Toby’s figured out how to use it… and he did.”

“So those creepy eyeless girls, the rotting corpses on the floor, and all the rest of that house of horrors was what… glimpses into that other world?” Logan said.

“Yes,” Meredith said. “I believe that’s why everything we saw down there was confusing my senses. They were there… but they really weren’t there. It was all side-effects of that unstable doorway. Now imagine what that shifting of being in two worlds at the same time would do to the human mind.”

“Madness,” Stephen said with a nod.

“Exactly,” Meredith said.

“But you could handle it. That’s what’s made you such a target to Mother and Toby all these years,” Stephen said.

Meredith nodded sadly. “Yes.”

“You… and Taven,” Megan said, surprising them all.

Meredith looked at the half-dead girl. She was too tired to tell if that was an accusation or just an observation. She frowned at her and said, “Yes, Megan. Taven, too.”

Megan surprised them all again. “What happened to the lions?”

Meredith stared at her. “Come again?”

“You said you followed Toby back to Elsewhere from the cavern, back to the place in the field from your dreams. Then you said, ‘the lions were there, too’.”

“Did I say that?” Meredith started to sweat.

“Yes,” Megan said. “You did.”

“I… I just meant that Toby brought me back to the dream where I first saw the emerald lions… I didn’t mean they were there this time. I must have mis-spoke,” she lied.

Megan just stared at her and said nothing.

Please, Meredith thought. Don’t go there, Megan. Don’t go there right now… not yet… I need time. I need time to understand it… and what it will mean.

It was Logan who bailed her out. “I’m going to ask the question that someone should’ve asked by now.”

They all turned to him.

Logan shook his head, stared at the dirt, and laughed uncomfortably. “All this talk about the damn lions running loose on our world, while they clearly come from some dark, dead place… and we know they aren’t lions at all.”

“What are you getting at, Logan?” Stephen said.

The preacher gave him a wide-eyed look of surprise. “Well… isn’t it obvious? If it ‘ain’t lions that have jumped right out of the living at random back at The Change, or caused the long-deceased to rise up out of the earth, and every other damn horrific manifestation that’s out there… then what the hell are they?”

~~~

Next Episode 49-11

Previous Episode 49-9

~~~

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__________________________________________
“Chapter 49-10: Lions in the Dark” Copyright © 2019 Scott Scherr, from the novel, Don’t Feed The Dark, Book Six: Mother. All Rights Reserved.

No part of this book may be reproduced or transmitted in any form or by any means, electronic or mechanical, including photocopying, recording, or by any information storage and retrieval system, without permission by the author.

This is a work of fiction. Names, characters, places, and incidents either are the product of the author’s imagination or are used fictitiously. Any resemblance to actual persons, living or dead, events, or locales is entirely coincidental.

~~~

… Meredith’s eyes shot open in the dark den. She raised her head from the school table, disoriented and in shock. Stephen and Logan were still asleep on the floor. Megan lay still on a nearby table. For the terrified former medium, more than a year from the missing pages of her life had played out in her dreams—if she could still call them dreams—while in this reality, only a few hours had passed.

She turned and stared at the blank chalkboard, bitterly wishing that her memory was just as bare. The horrific pieces from her obscured past, roughly assembled in her mind like Frankenstein’s monster on a slab with the cover suddenly ripped away, made her want to scream. Toby had unlocked the truth from within her, and now, the weight of what she had done came crashing down.

“Did I… did I do anything bad?”

The question she’d asked Dr. Forrester in the darkness, so many years ago, back when she still possessed the bliss of ignorance, now haunted the crowded hallways of her thoughts. If only she could’ve remained in the dark, lights out, and unaware… but now… the truth cut into her like certain death.

“What have I done?” The whispered question felt like a curse. Meredith was shaking.

She couldn’t protect you forever, Meredith. Toby was back, the older version. That worm, Forrester, stole you from me. She thought she could hide you from the truth… from the awful truth that you and I created together. She died in vain while your world still perished. And now… here we are… back together to finish what was meant to be.

Go away! Meredith thought back. She felt a tempest rising within, a deep, dark anger she’d never known she could feel. Go away… or I’ll-

Threats? Really? I gave you the gift of Truth, gave you back your memories and made you whole again, and this is the thanks I receive? You’re as pathetic as all the rest! You don’t deserve the power you possess. You have no idea how much trouble I’ve gone through to get you back! And still, you act like that foolish child I saved in the sand so many years ago! When I’m through with you, I’m going to make you suffer in ways you can’t imagine, Meredith. I’m going to keep you alive and let you watch as I wipe out everything and everyone you still care about! Now, enough with your childish tantrums! If you don’t do exactly what I tell you now, I’m going to send them, Meredith. I’m going to send the dead in to rip your friends-

A loud door within her mind slammed shut, forcing Toby out with more force than she knew she was capable of.

Meredith’s face grew dark. “No,” she said firmly. “I’ve had enough.”

Someone touched her lightly on the shoulder. Meredith turned and found Megan awake, standing beside her. Two large silver eyes, full of fear, stared back at her like mirrors. All Meredith could see was accusation and guilt reflected in those eyes. “No!” she shouted, nearly falling out of her chair trying to get away from the half-dead woman.

Megan took a step back, startled.

“No… No… NO!”

Stephen and Logan were awake. They started to rise.

Meredith backed away from the table, gripping the sides of her head. She was so angry. Angry at Toby, the Dead, the Darkness… Herself.

“Meredith?” Stephen said, taking a cautious step toward her.

She couldn’t hear him. All she could hear were the dead outside, rioting in her thoughts, their collective madness attempting to consume her.

Rising above the wind whistling through the cracks in the dying house, a terrifying chorus of relentless, savage hunger filled their ears, causing all of them to turn and get quiet.

“They’re coming!” Logan shouted from the broken den window.

Meredith knew what was happening. She’d pushed Toby out… and now he was pushing back. She thought of all her friends… all who had died… all because of what she’d done. And now, Megan, Logan, and Stephen would die… because of-

“NO!!!” she screamed, dropping her hands and staring toward the back of the den.

Stephen’s eyes went wide with fear as he stepped away from the former medium. “Oh, my God,” he whispered. “She’s… Meredith, don’t do this!”

Megan backed away, dropped into a crouch, and started hissing at the older woman.

“Stephen, what is she doing?” The fear in Logan’s voice was loud and clear.

They all watched in horror as Meredith’s eyes changed from a blazing fierce yellow, to a primal red, then to black.

“She’s… she’s letting them in!” Stephen shouted. “Meredith… don’t!”

“The dead will be on us in moments!” Logan said, pushing Stephen back toward the den entrance. “We can’t stay here. Megan! You need to come with us… now!”

Megan remained, staring at the unrecognizable older woman.

Meredith was shaking violently as her eyes continued to shift colors. The former medium managed to walk toward the rear exit of the den as she continued to let the horde of madness fill her mind. She started to scream near the door. The sound of her voice sounded like a thousand madmen overlapping and filling the others with more fear than they thought capable.

“Megan! Leave her!”

The half-dead refused to leave Meredith’s side as she slowly approached Meredith.

It took all Meredith had left to force her feet to move, never looking back, and pull the sliding glass door open to let in the night.

The howling dead was deafening.

Meredith stepped into the night, stared up toward the first wave of the advancing horde and growled, “NO!”

The massive horde paused in their advance toward the house and turned their attention toward Meredith. It was as if a disruptive signal, more powerful than their hunger for blood, had suddenly interrupted their ability to function. Toby’s army of the dead convulsed violently. Monsters in different states of decay, young and old, male and female, red-eyed, yellow-eyed, black—didn’t matter—they all turned their contorted frames toward the older woman who was not only letting their madness consume her, but she was within their decayed dark minds as well… pushing… further and further into their primal need to feed… pushing… further and further toward the source of what drove them… pushing… until they were a part of her… until she had become them, seizing control and forcing the minions from the dark realm back with a very powerful mental whip.

Like a lion tamer.

Before the dead dominated her thoughts, Meredith pushed back with all she possessed, seizing the reigns of the mindless mob from the madness so abruptly until she was able to make them heed to one single desire:

FEED… ON YOURSELVES!!!

For the first time the dead no longer stared at each, void of all recognition, as they’d always done, hunting together under the collective call. One false command, now inserted into the base program that demanded blood, drove rotting flesh over decrepit skeletal frames to gaze into each other’s lifeless eyes and see the horror of all the victims each of them had claimed, reflected in their dead eyes.

It was only a flicker, but it was enough.

All at once, the dead turned on each other. Decayed monsters ripped into each other, believing they had found… blood!

Meredith knew she could not maintain control. She’d known what it would mean to attempt this when she first thought about it and nearly dismissed the desperate idea. But after discovering what she was, what she’d done, and what was really behind the lifeless eyes of these dead beasts, she was prepared to die to stop at least one horde, one small fraction of the hell she’d released on her world, to save what friends she still had left.

If they could take control of me if I allowed them completely in, she’d reasoned earlier. Then I could take control of them, too… like a body snatcher.

Goodbye, she thought now, as the cavern in her mind was about to collapse beneath the weight of the madness she could barely hold up. Once she stopped pushing, she would join the mindless mob of the dead and be torn apart… her mind gone black, forever. Goodbye… and I’m sorry for what I’ve done. She walked toward the closest mob of beasts savagely tearing into each other, prepared to stop fighting, preparing for the collapse.

Someone grabbed her from behind.

Meredith turned.

Megan was there, pulling violently on her arm.

If it had been Stephen or Logan, Meredith might have attacked them,

Surprisingly, the silver-eyed young woman was not affected by Meredith’s mental pushing.

And then Megan spoke. “You’re damn lucky I still need you.”

Toby?

Something struck Meredith hard in the back of the head.

Lights out.

~~~

The wind whistled through every crack, coming down the loudest through a gaping hole above the rafters, leaving a clear view of the pre-dawn sky through the roof of the decrepit barn. Rain trickled down from the hole, accompanied by ambient light, dispelling some of the shadows within the damp skeletal shelter.

The storm was a blessing. It would mask their scent… for now… allowing them a brief respite from their mental and physical exhaustion while each of them tried to piece together what had happened.

After escaping the orphanage grounds, they had wandered north through a large forest at the edge of the property for most of the remainder of the night, wanting to put as much distance between themselves and what was left of the confused mixed horde of the dead.

Stephen, Logan and Megan sat huddled together, sharing a large, dusty tarp they’d found for warmth.

Meredith had awoken an hour ago. She refused to join them, sitting with her back against an old wall, her legs crunched up beneath her dirty sundress, her arms wrapped around her knees. She appeared oblivious to the cold or didn’t care. The old medium refused to speak. The others assumed she was still in shock after losing control and confronting the dead. But it was the real monster of Truth which devasted her now as resurfacing memories continuous threatened to consume her very soul.

They took turns stealing glances at the afflicted woman, but no one knew how to approach her, not like this. What they’d seen her do—what she’d nearly become—was still fresh in all their minds.

Meredith felt their prying, confused and fearful eyes. She did not blame them for how they felt. Her old world had always viewed her the same… and it all seemed justified now.

Megan slowly removed the tarp from around her shoulders and started to rise.

Stephen and Logan stared at her. Their eyes clearly saying the same thing:

What are you doing? Just leave her alone!

Megan frowned at their terrified faces, turned toward Meredith, and walked over. The half-dead young woman sat down beside the older woman, leaned her head back against the wall, and closed her eyes. Megan didn’t say a word, she just waited.

Meredith struggled to keep from breaking down. She whispered to Megan, “I’m sorry.”

She could hear the young woman sigh. “What are you sorry about? We’re away from that horrible house. I don’t care how you did it… everything’s a little better now.”

“I’m sorry for what I did to you,” Meredith clarified. “I couldn’t… couldn’t stop the violence… when I tempted you with the blood. I just made things worse for you.”

Megan waited so long to speak that Meredith thought she’d fallen asleep. Finally, she said, “You did what you had to do… to stop me. I can deal with the rest.”

Meredith turned. Megan’s pale face was partially buried in shadow. “I filled you with so much savageness,” Meredith said. “It’s unforgiveable… what I made you… experience.”

“It wasn’t real,” Megan said. “I didn’t happen. I can live with that.”

Meredith was stunned. “But-”

“I can still see all their faces, all their terrified faces, right before I… devoured them. I know the memories aren’t real… but I can still taste their flesh in my mouth. I keep telling myself that it’s like having a real vivid dream where I lost all control and did all those brutal things to those defenseless people. I hear them scream in my head as I rip them open, one at a time, and then… I wake up.” She leaned forward from the wall, showing Meredith her tear streaked face. “I wake up, and you know what I feel then?”

Meredith sadly shook her head.

“It’s like that feeling you get after waking from an awful nightmare. For a moment, it feels so real… like I did all those horrible things… but then the relief comes. The relief comes from knowing that it never happened… even if it feels like it did.”

Meredith had no idea what to say.

“In a way, I’m glad you did what you did to me… to stop me. Now I know what it feels like… what it tastes like, and smells like… with all that blood on me… all those screams in my ears. Now I know what it would mean to become that complete monster I’ve always feared. That’s why I won’t. I can’t. I’ll die first before I ever experience that again… for real.”

Meredith managed a weak smile and nodded. She was about to speak but Megan isn’t finished.

“You’re not the first person who’s done things to me… probably not the last either, if I have any chance of surviving this. But you didn’t turn me into this monster. You’re just doing your best to stop it in any way you can… just like I’m trying to do.”

Meredith’s hold on her emotions was slipping. Megan had just stabbed her in the chest without realizing it. The young woman’s final words are a fatal blow.

Megan’s pale face looks concerned. “Meredith? Are you okay?”

“No, I’m not okay.” She starts to laugh and cry at the same time, placing her hands in front of her face before weeping.

Stephen and Logan stood up.

She turned to all of them, and blurted out, “I did this! I’m responsible for all of it!”

The two men shared a confused glance.

Meredith turned to Megan, placed a shaky hand on the side of her cheek, and said through uncontrollable tears, “You’re wrong, honey. Oh, I wish, I could take it all back… but I can’t. I did this to you, too!” Meredith removed her hand and looked away as the torrent of tears overwhelmed her.

Megan stared at the older woman. She doesn’t understand.

“Meredith?” It’s Stephen. “We’ve had a rough night… you especially. Why don’t you just rest and-”

“You’re not hearing me!” she shouted. “None of you are!”

They waited.

“I remember everything now, and it all began with me! I let the damn Lions loose! I started The Change!”

~~~

Next Episode 49-10

Previous Episode 49-8

~~~

If you’re enjoying Don’t Feed The Dark so far, please consider voting for it on Top Web Fiction and Top Site List by clicking the links below. This will help increase its visibility and draw in more potential readers. No registration is required. Thanks for your support and for reading :)

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__________________________________________
“Chapter 49-9: Lions in the Dark” Copyright © 2019 Scott Scherr, from the novel, Don’t Feed The Dark, Book Six: Mother. All Rights Reserved.

No part of this book may be reproduced or transmitted in any form or by any means, electronic or mechanical, including photocopying, recording, or by any information storage and retrieval system, without permission by the author.

This is a work of fiction. Names, characters, places, and incidents either are the product of the author’s imagination or are used fictitiously. Any resemblance to actual persons, living or dead, events, or locales is entirely coincidental.

~~~

Thanks for all your votes last week. I’m thrilled to announce that after the conclusion of Chapter 49, I will be going back to posting twice a week as we get into the new story arc. My work load has finally diminished and my writing momentum feels really strong right now.

If you’ve been reading Don’t Feed The Dark online and want to help support the cause, the best thing you could do to show your appreciation and let me know you’ve been enjoying this series is to help spread the word so that more readers find out about this long, dark apocalyptic series.

Here’s an easy way to do so:

Please consider voting for DFTD over at topwebfiction No registration is required. just click and vote. You can vote for DFTD every seven days to help keep it listed.

Anything you can do to help me get Don’t Feed The Dark to the readers is appreciated. Be sure to spread the word on all your social media sites as well.

Thanks again for all your support and for reading.

-Scott

~~~

~~~

Just some quick updates.

First, I’m excited to announce that Don’t Feed The Dark has surpassed the one million words posted milestone! After the last episode, we’re currently at 1,011,841 words… and counting. I had wanted to announce this significant achievement with a special event week, but my exhausting work schedule this month limited what I had time to do. Fortunately, I’ve been able to keep writing at least one new episode a week. So for what it’s worth, this is officially one long damn story… lol. I’ve chosen one of my favorite pictures from Book One to honor the occasion.

Moving on, we’ve just finished the three-part Meredith “Elsewhere” flashback story that covers what happened to thirteen-year-old Meredith after being discovered in the orphanage basement lab at the end of Chapter 35: Dead Dolls, going all the way back to Book Four. The events in those dream-like episodes cover that missing year removed from her memory. In case you found yourself confused at the end of the last episode when Meredith and Toby were interrupted by a surprise encounter with Dr. Candice Forrester, that ending connects with the spin-off story, Elsewhere, which expands upon that encounter and beyond. So, if you haven’t read it by now, I strongly encourage you to read that particular spin-off tale.

There’s been lots of information revealed in this first arc and for the remaining three episodes of this chapter, Meredith and the others will have to deal with the aftermath of Meredith’s returning memory. Enough said there.

I’m currently finishing up the first chapter of the new story arc that takes us back to New Cleveland to find out what became of our auctioned friends, Tony, Nine, Diane, Wendy, Mark, and the good sergeant Hash. That story will continue two weeks after being auctioned off as Tony’s group is scattered all around that dark town. I still expect this middle arc of Book Six to run three chapters. Time will tell as I get further into the tale.

That’s all I’ve got for now. If you have any questions so far about anything that’s happened in these first two chapters, please feel free to ask. I know it’s a whole lot of stuff and I’ll try to answer what I can so as long as the questions don’t encroach upon spoiler territory.

More to come,
-Scott

~~~

~~~

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

The sixth lion Toby had named Taven.

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

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

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

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

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

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

Meredith turns. “And what might that be?”

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

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

“‘Secret battle plan’?”

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

Meredith turns back toward the ocean and sighs.

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

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

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

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

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

“Fine.”

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

“Can I go home?”

Toby says nothing.

“That’s what I thought.”

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

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

“Don’t you believe me?”

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

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

“Taven?”

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

“What’s a ‘First One’?”

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

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

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

“Sure.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Toby is laughing hard now.

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

~~~

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

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

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

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

More lions.

And more lies.

~~~

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Where are we going?”

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

~~~

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

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

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

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

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

“You’ve been here before?”

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

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

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

“What’s that even mean?”

“You’ll see.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Yes… send them out of existence!”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

She nods.

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

~~~

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

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

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

They are not lions.

They are dead.

No.

They are worse than dead.

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

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

~~~

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

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

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

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

“Meredith!”

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

“MEREDITH!”

At last, she hears Toby yelling at her.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

It is over.

The beasts are all gone.

Everything… has changed.

~~~

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

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

She manages to lift her head.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“I… I don’t understand.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Explain that.”

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

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

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

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

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

“Okay, then, let’s leave… together.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Where did we send the lions, Toby?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“What will happen to them?”

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

“I… I don’t understand.”

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

Meredith remains silent.

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

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

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

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

He points toward the sand.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“But… I’m not dead. Right?”

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

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

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

Toby turns and glares at the young girl.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Count on it.”

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

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

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

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

Meredith waits.

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

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

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

Meredith waits.

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

“What does that mean?”

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

Meredith refuses to look at him.

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

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

~~~

… “Where… where am I?”

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

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

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

“What do you mean? Where did I go?”

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

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

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

“And… I’m back now?”

“You are… almost there.”

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

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

“Elsewhere?”

“Yes.”

“So, I’m still dreaming?”

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

“No.”

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

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

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

“Yes. Just like that.”

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

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

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

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

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

“Medicine? Was I sick?”

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

“Did I… did I do anything bad?”

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

~~~

Next Episode 49-9

Previous Episode 49-7

~~~

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

No part of this book may be reproduced or transmitted in any form or by any means, electronic or mechanical, including photocopying, recording, or by any information storage and retrieval system, without permission by the author.

This is a work of fiction. Names, characters, places, and incidents either are the product of the author’s imagination or are used fictitiously. Any resemblance to actual persons, living or dead, events, or locales is entirely coincidental.

~~~

Thanks for all your votes last week. I’ll be posting Wednesday’s episode early, later this evening, finishing Meredith’s three-part ‘Elsewhere’ flashback. The last three episodes of the chapter will deal with the aftermath.

If you’ve been reading Don’t Feed The Dark online and want to help support the cause, the best thing you could do to show your appreciation and let me know you’ve been enjoying this series is to help spread the word so that more readers find out about this long, dark apocalyptic series.

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~~~

~~~

She wakes to the sound of screeching seagulls from just outside the glass cage at the top of the lighthouse.

Meredith rolls her eyes and sighs. She doesn’t stretch to move her legs, knocking over whatever trash remains from last night’s bland meal. Instead, she covers her ears to shut out the annoying gulls, and the ebbing and flowing tides in the background, which have become a monotonous drone in her ears. Her belly hurts from over-eating whatever she had last night… doesn’t matter. She’s sick of food, the lighthouse, the beach, the relentless, unchanging ocean surrounding the dull island, serving as her prison walls.

It’s a new day!

It’s the same day.

And Meredith is sick of living in it.

She doesn’t bother staring over at Toby’s empty sleeping bag. He’s never there when she wakes, no matter where she sleeps. They talk about the same meaningless things every evening beneath the same boring stars above.

Rinse and Repeat!

“We’ve just arrived, Meredith!” she says to no one, her words loaded with contempt.

Instead of walking down the lighthouse steps, she closes her eyes and transports herself just outside the lighthouse door. She feels the sickening warm sand sinking beneath her feet… again. Now she’s wearing the most exaggerated high-heel shoes she can imagine. They’re red this time (Were they green before?). Doesn’t matter. It’s the same result. She starts to wobble standing in the sand, reminding herself how stupid high-heeled shoes are. Now she’s wearing sandals. She doesn’t turn around to stare up at the lighthouse. She knows what it looks like.

Meredith stares down the beach, towards the boy who is obsessed with driving her insane with the same annoying requests and acting like he’s never asked the same questions again and again.

“‘Want to help me build the lion this morning, Meredith?’” she mocks in her best imitation of Toby’s excited whine.

He will ask… and she will refuse. That is their ritual.

She denies him more out of spite now. His obsession over the lions are as monotonous as breathing in this sandy wasteland where the sun never stops shining and the weather is always so… darn… perfect!

They have done everything children can do under the sun on this beach… several times over. Limited only by Meredith’s lack of imagination and understanding of her so-called ‘magic’ on this island, they have gone on numerous make-believe adventures and exhausted every playtime activity they could think of except for three things:

They have never gone to the other side of the island. Oh, they have tried. No matter where they walk or what they do, the shoreline on their side of the island never seems to end. And forget cutting across the center, past the dunes and higher jungle forest terrain. That never ends either. They always end up exhausted trying to climb over the top of the only mountain on the island. Toby always looks at her when they’re about to give up, and says, “I don’t understand it, either. We should be there by now”.

They have not crossed the endless ocean and finally escaped this marooned existence—boats, rafts, inflatable inner tubes—doesn’t matter. Anything Meredith has imagined that could float has always ended the same. The strong ocean current always pushes them back to shore. Only once did she consider making a plane. But due to her lack of imagination, since she’d never flown in one and being deathly afraid of falling out of the sky, she scratched that idea. Every time she asks why they couldn’t cross, Toby just shrugs his shoulders and flashes that same stupid smile, claiming ignorance.

And of course, the last thing they’ve yet to explore together is Toby’s crazy notions that the lions will come back one day (this same endless day), and that, only together, can they defeat them. Every time she blows him off, he never gets mad, never sulks, and is always willing to do what she wants to do instead.

“Just once, Toby,” she whispers with gritted teeth at the sandy boy’s back as she approaches. “Just once, I dare you to get pissed at me and admit that you’re doing all this. Just once… and I’ll know how you really feel.”

She stops twenty feet behind the boy and stares up into the face of the lion. That has never changed. Even now, after seeing it again and again, the lion is still just as terrifying as the first time. No matter what she tries to tell herself, it always looks like it’s thinking behind those sandy eyes. Thinking about her, and the many ways it would like to devour her.

Toby turns, surprised to see her standing there. He looks at her sundress and smiles.

Why does he do that, she thinks. He knows I’m coming. How could he not know? And that stupid smile! He knows I got bored changing my clothes a long time ago.

“Hey, Meredith,” Toby says, shaking the sand out of his hair. “You come to help me with the lion?”

“Do I really need to answer that?” she snaps.

Toby nods and puts his hands on his hips. “Okay. What do ‘you’ want to do today?”

He always puts emphasis on the ‘you’. She absolutely hates that. “Nothing,” she says flatly. “I don’t want to do anything.”

“O-kay. Are you hungry? Should we have break-”

“Why can’t we go to the other side of the island?” she interrupts.

Toby looks toward the mountain and scratches his mangy hair. “Well… we could try it again, if you really want.”

“You know we can’t,” she says. “Stop pretending you don’t know why that is.”

“Maybe I should ask you,” he defends. “You’re the one with the magic, remember? Why don’t you just whisk us over to the other side with a single thought?”

She crosses her arms. “You know I can’t do that since I’ve never been there before! For all I know, I’d transport us right into the ocean.”

He shrugs his shoulders and smiles. “Well… I guess you’ve answered your own question, then.”

“I want to leave this place. Why can’t we leave? Or, why can’t I just… change it into something else?”

“I don’t know, Meredith. Perhaps deep down, you’re not ready to leave.”

“That’s stupid. You know I hate it here.”

“You don’t have to be mean about it,” Toby says. “I didn’t bring us here. You did.”

“But you said you’d been here long before I arrived,” she accused. “You said that, I know you did.”

“Yeah, but I also said time doesn’t matter here. I’m surprised that you still think that way.”

“Shut up.”

“Sorry.”

She turns toward the ocean and sulks. “Can’t cross that either. Maybe I should just start swimming until my arms and legs get tired and then just drown. Maybe then, I can leave.”

“You know that won’t work,” Toby says, turning his attention back to the lion. “The ocean will just push you back to the shore.”

“And why is that again, Toby?”

“Don’t know, Meredith. Maybe you should stop blaming me for all your troubles. This place really isn’t so bad, is it?”

“I hate it here. It’s like one long day that never ends.”

Toby shrugs his shoulders. “Where are you trying to go so badly, anyway? You keep saying you want to leave. Well… where would you go?”

Alarmingly, Meredith doesn’t know how to answer. Aside from the island, she can’t remember what her life was like… before.

“How long have I been here? And if you say one more time that we just arrived, I’m going to punch you.”

Toby laughs. “Then I won’t say it.” After a long pause, he adds, “Maybe the lions are keeping us here.”

Meredith turns to the boy. That’s new, she thinks. Usually he just dodges these types of questions. “Explain that.”

He turns to her, shaking the sand off his hands. He sits cross-legged in the shadow of the lion, giving her a deep long look. “You think what I’m doing here is silly. I know you do. You wonder why I’m so obsessed with this lion stuff, but you’re so afraid, you never really ask me why.”

“Well… you told me already,” she says. “You think they’re going to find us, and you want to be ready when they do.”

“Yeah, and that I need you to help me fight them,” he adds. “That’s the only way we’re going to beat them.”

“They never come, Toby,” she says with a heavy sigh. “Day after day after day… and they never come.”

He points at her and says, “You always forget, we’ve just arriv… sorry… we haven’t been here that long. For the lions, it’s not a matter of when they’ll get here. They only need to turn their heads the right direction and find us. And that will be at any moment… as soon as they find this one.”

Meredith rolls her eyes. “What do you mean, ‘the lions are keeping us here’?”

Toby nods. “Maybe they’re the ones keeping us right where we’re at. That way, when they do finally look in our direction, we’ll be easy to spot. They can’t control this place from here, but maybe out there,” he stares out beyond the ocean and finishes, “maybe out there, they control all the magic.”

Meredith stares back out at the dark waters. The ocean seems more menacing now, like it’s alive and taunting her. A chill seizes her as she rubs her arms. “What is this place, Toby? What is it really? And what’s beyond the ocean?”

“I’m sorry you don’t remember,” he says. “That happens here. It’s the same for me. I don’t remember before… just now.”

“So, what is… now?” she asks.

“It’s a place, Meredith,” he says. “It’s a place full of magic that doesn’t work under the old rules… from the old places.”

“I don’t know what that means.”

“It means that we have only this moment… whatever it is. But we won’t have it for long if we’re not ready.”

“Are we dead?” The question falling from her lips surprises her. She immediately covers her mouth and regrets speaking.

Toby stares at her for a good long while. Finally, he says, “What is death, Meredith? I’ve been mauled by lions more times than I can remember, and yet, here I am, with you.”

“That’s not an answer,” she says. “Maybe we both died… in the before. Maybe the real reason we can’t leave is because there’s nowhere left to go.”

Toby laughs. “Well… if that’s true, I can think of worse places to end up. Don’t you think?”

She smiles. “I’m being dramatic, aren’t I?”

“No. You’re just afraid. You’re afraid because you don’t understand. You don’t understand because you fight this place… this moment… in the only way you know, by the old rules that don’t matter here.”

“And because I’m not making sand lions with you,” she adds sarcastically. “That’s ridiculous, you know that, right?”

“I know there’s an enemy,” he says, with no hint of amusement. “Even if I don’t know my enemy, I know that you need to prepare if you’re going to face it. Perhaps, that’s the only old rule that still applies.”

She stares up at the lion. “Explain to me why you make them again?”

“To remember its face, Meredith. To remember its face reminds me of my fear… and that I need to confront that first.”

“Just looking at that thing scares me to death. Sand or not, it looks alive.”

“It’s what I can do, Meredith. That’s my magic. I can make it look real. But I can’t make it real. Only you can do that.”

“Why would I ever want to do that?” Meredith is stunned. “Is that what you expect me to do? You make these… molds… and then I’m supposed to bring them to life?”

“Element of surprise, Meredith. If you know your enemy is already hunting you, why not hunt them back and strike first?”

She points at him. “You want to bring them here! That’s been your plan all along! You’re not trying to hide from them, you want them to find us!”

Toby gives her a sad, faraway look. “No, Meredith. I want to fight them on our terms. If they find us their way, they’ll be more lions on this beach than stars in the night sky. Even as strong as you are, I don’t think we’d stand a chance against them like that.”

Meredith is shocked into silence. She considers Toby’s words. She is surprised by her next question. “Even if I helped you… bring them to life… how would we fight something like that… even just one?”

Toby’s face lights us. He’s smiling from ear to ear. “Finally, I thought you’d never ask!”

“Shut up and just answer my question. I didn’t say I’d help you. I’m just… weighing our options.”

“Fair enough.” Toby rises to his feet and steps up beside her. He turns her attention toward the ocean and points. “We make them together… and then send them… one at a time… out there!”

Meredith stares at him, confused. “What… you mean drown them in the ocean?”

He nods and laughs like a giddy ten-year-old boy. “Not exactly. But if we send them beyond the ocean, it will be the same thing. I believe we control the magic on these shores. The lions control the magic from wherever they come from… probably from some place like this one. But that ocean, no one controls that. We’ve tried, and so have they.” He turns to her and finishes, “You asked me about death. Well… I think Death controls the ocean… and it owns all the magic out in the deep.”

Meredith stares back out at the water. “So, we bring them here, one at a time, then send them across the ocean… to die? Can it really be that easy?”

“Have you ever seen a lion swim? I haven’t. Yes, Meredith, I think it’s that easy. But only you can do it. You control all the real magic here.”

Meredith nods. “What’s beyond the ocean?”

“Think of it as the edge of the world. There’s us, here, then Death… then… nothing.”

“Nothing? I’m supposed to drown them in nothing?”

“Nothingness,” he clarifies. “After death, which is still something… there’s only the end of existence.”

“I don’t understand that.”

“You don’t have to. Just send the lions far across the ocean, as far as you can… into the Nothingness. They will cease to exist in our world… or any other. That’s as dead as you can get.”

Meredith stares out at the ocean, trying to imagine what becoming nothing might feel like. A chill seizes her as the thought of drowning in the ocean seems much more humane.

“Will you help me make the lions?”

After a long pause, Meredith finally says, “If we defeat them… we can leave?”

“I really believe we can,” Toby says. “They won’t be able to return from beyond the ocean… alive or dead.”

“Then… yes. I’ll help you, Toby. I’ll help you make the lions.”

~~~

Meredith’s fear as she approaches the next morning feels tangible and alive. It’s the first time she’s reluctant to vacate the monotonous lighthouse as her stomach is reeling from the anxiety of finding Toby building another sand lion. She considers avoiding the excitable young boy, claiming sickness, rather than listening to him babble on about the stupid lions and the dark adventure she’s agreed to join him on.

“You can do this, Meredith,” she hears him say in her mind, remembering the end of their discussion last night after dinner. “Just picture them from your dreams, from that field where we first met.”

“You mean those nightmares,” she’d corrected.

“Picture them in your mind, like the lighthouse, the seashell, and all the other things you’ve made in this place since arriving, and then just use your magic, snatch one up out of that field, and bring it to the beach.”

“But… how will I get back to that dream place? I don’t even know where it is?” she’d asked.

Toby had smiled and said, “That’s my part, Meredith. That’s what the sand lion is for. Just focus on the sculpture—capture every detail of it in your mind—then use it to reach out to them.”

“Like the doll,” she’d said. “You want me to use the sand lion just like the doll in that basement… to make the connection.”

Toby had raised his eyebrows in surprise. “You… you still remember that?”

She’d nodded. “There’s a lot I’m foggy on now. So much seems to be slipping away the longer we’re here, but I do remember the doll.”

Toby’s face had become unreadable. He hadn’t said another word about it other than, “Yeah, just do what you did with the doll… it’s the same thing… except you’ll be connecting with them.”

“That’s a terrifying thought,” she’d said.

“You’ll be able to sense them, Meredith. Just like you sensed me the first time. Just remember, once you’re there, come back quickly. I don’t want you to get… lost.”

“Lost?” she’d said. “You sound like you already know where they live.”

“I told you,” he’d said. “They live in another moment like ours… but different. But you still have to search the ocean to find it. Think of it as two islands surrounded by the dark waters. Theirs and ours. And I know, you know what the ocean represents.”

“Death,” she’d said flatly.

“Yeah,” he’d nodded. “And I also know that your magic, the magic you’ve always possessed, takes you through that place, too.”

Meredith had sighed. “I don’t like it over there. It’s dark and terrifying. So much death… I can hear them all in my head if I don’t shut them out.” Then she’d stared at Toby. “Why do I need to cross the dead places to get to the lions?”

Toby had ended the conversation abruptly. “Don’t read too much into it, Meredith. I don’t have all the answers. Let’s just… let’s just keep it simple, okay.”

“Okay,” she’d agreed.

Afterwards, he’d been quick to depart before she could ask anything else. “See you in the morning, Meredith,” he’d said over his shoulder. “After you wake up, I’ll meet you down by the lion on the beach.”

And now… the morning had arrived.

“I’ll just stay in the lighthouse,” she told herself. “What’s one more day going to matter, especially in this place?” She knew that it was the fear talking. The young woman stood up and announced to herself, “Let’s just get this over with, Meredith. The sooner we do this, the sooner we can get off this darn beach!”

She exits the lighthouse.

Meredith finds Toby in his usual spot. She isn’t prepared when she gazes up into the sandy face of the eight-foot tall monstrosity looming over the young boy.

The sand lion is sitting up on its back legs, front legs fully extended outward as if it’s about to swipe one large paw down at the boy’s head. Its mouth is wide open, revealing sharp sandy teeth. It’s face, partially obscured by its large mane is wrinkled and extended, as if frozen in sand while attempting to let out a terrifying roar. Even its tail, slithering around its back side like a snake, seems alive and ready to strike down the foolish adventurer.

At first, Meredith doesn’t know whether to shout a warning toward the boy, or just run, knowing that Toby was already doomed the moment he conceived of making this beast.

Toby turns, sees the frightened girl, and immediately rises to his feet. “It’s okay!” he says, raising his hands. “It’s not alive.”

She sees Toby’s amused smile and relaxes a little. She attempts to move her feet toward Toby, trying to regain her composure as the blood returns to her face. “That is… that is truly disturbing,” she says, still watching the lion, believing it is about to strike them both down. “Why did you make this one like that?”

Toby turns toward the lion and scratches his sandy head with a laugh. “I’ll admit, I might have outdone myself with this one. It even looks real to me.”

“But it’s… it’s attacking! For a moment, I thought it was going to kill you!”

Toby stares into the lion’s face and flashes it a proud, wicked little smile. “Yeah, it does, doesn’t it?” He turns to Meredith and the smile is gone. “I just wanted it to look… inspiring.”

“‘Inspiring’?” Meredith shakes her head at him. “It’s terrifying! The amount of detail makes it look so real. How are you able to do that with sand?”

Toby shrugs his shoulders. “It’s my thing, Meredith. My magic. It’s not much, in this place, but it’s what I can do. I didn’t mean to scare you. I just thought that by making it look like this, it would be easier for you to finish it.”

“‘Finish it’?”

“Yeah, you know, make it real.”

She points at the lion. “You want me to make ‘that’ real? Are you insane? The moment I make this thing, it’s going to strike us down! Why couldn’t you put it inside a sand cage or something?”

Toby sighs. “It needs to be accurate, Meredith. The lions are ferocious creatures… they’re savages. We can’t underestimate them for a second.” He turns back to the lion. “This is how they’ll be when they come for us. This is how they’ll be if they find us first and they hunt us down. The only difference this time is we’ll have the element of surprise… but it will still be dangerous. Once you bring one here, it’s going to feel like we just put it in a cage… and it’s going to get vicious.”

She shakes her head. “I don’t want to do this. I’ve changed my mind. This is foolish and reckless. This isn’t like making a lighthouse appear or pizza night, every night! You’re asking me to make something deadly that will want to tear us to pieces!”

The boy turns to her and says with a shy smile, “I don’t think I’ve been as clear about the magic as I’ve needed to be. This is different from the lighthouse or changing the appearance of your clothing. That was just training to show you what you could do with your abilities. In this place, you’re only limited by your imagination. But what you’re actually going to do now is bring it here.”

She nods. “I get that. I’m not an idiot! I know I could never create something like this. That’s why you’re making them and not me! I know what you’re asking me to do and that’s why I’m out!”

“They’re still coming, Meredith, whether you bring them here or not. I thought I made that part clear. They just haven’t found us yet… but they will.” His face turns grave. “And when they do, you’ll wish we’d done this my way, like this. Because when they find us… you will know then what ‘terror’ really looks like.”

Meredith stares into the young boy’s face and knows that he means it. “I don’t like you, Toby. I think you’re a dark and manipulative little shit!” She covers her mouth with her hand, immediately regretting her mean words.

Toby looks like he’s just been slapped across the face. He frowns, then says, “Fine! Forget it then! We’ll just wait here for them to come and kill us! Don’t look to me for help when they get here, though, because this ‘little shit’ tried to help you before it was too late!” Toby turns away, sulking.

“I’m… I’m sorry, Toby. That was mean of me.”

Toby refuses to look at her. He plops down in his sand hole before the massive lion and places his hands in the sand.

Meredith sighs, then looks up at the lion. “This is all your fault,” she whispers under her breath to the beast. She stares at Toby’s back. “Okay,” she says. “We’ll try it your way.”

Toby looks back over his shoulder. “Will you stop being mean to me?”

“Yes,” she says impatiently. “I already said I was sorry.”

Toby stands up before her and stares down at his feet. “And I’m sorry, too. I’m sorry for all this lion mess. Believe me, I wish we could just do something else… anything else… but they really are coming. I’m scared, too. But I believe we can do this… together.”

“You better be right,” she says, “about drowning them in the ocean. Because, if you’re not-”

“It will work, Meredith,” Toby says, looking up into her eyes confidently.

She frowns. “How do you know?”

“I believe in you, that’s how I know.”

She’s touched by the young boy’s faith. No one has ever believed in her before about anything. She smiles at Toby’s encouraging face. “You know I’m just a freak, right? That’s all I ever was before arriving here. No one believes in freaks. They just whisper with each other behind our backs and steer clear of the freakish girl who never fit in. Why on earth would you be any different?”

“Because you’re special, Meredith,” Toby says.

“I hate that word.”

“I know. I did, too. But it’s a powerful word once you embrace it and realize that being special means that the rest of those fools fear you.”

“Why is that a good thing?” she says. “It just means you never get to be normal.”

Toby laughs. “Now there’s a word to hate… ‘normal’. That’s an illusion the rest of them cling to, to make themselves feel better about how mediocre they truly are. They’re all just a bunch of fragile little creatures waiting to run and hide in their holes when the wind comes to blow their ‘normal’ lives away, like dust.”

Meredith trembles at Toby’s cold words. It’s not the first time she forgets that he’s just a stupid, shirtless kid playing in the sand, but it’s the last time she will ever mistake him for being a young boy. “That’s a bit harsh, don’t you think?”

Toby shrugs his shoulders. “Truth hurts, I suppose. All I know is that freaks are feared, and fear is a powerful weapon if you wield it… just… right.” He stares back up into the lion’s face.

Meredith rubs her arms as a much cooler, indifferent breeze blows across her skin. She has been here so long that the boredom has tempted her to start naming the grains of sand, but today… today is completely different. “So, how do we begin?” she says. “How do we kill this beast?”

Toby turns and smiles. “That’s on you now, Meredith. I’ve done all I can do to set this up. Now, it’s up to the two of you to finally meet.”

She stares up at the lion. “And just how do I do that?”

“You’re the freak, Meredith, remember? Just do what you do… what you’ve always done.”

She glares at toby, not appreciating the joke. “And if I don’t like where this is going… at any time… we just stop, right?”

“Right.”

“No more lions?”

“No more lions.”

“Just remember the ocean, Meredith,” Toby says, stepping back beside her. “I’ll be right here, when it happens. But only you can bring it here, and only you can send it across.” He points toward the crashing waves.

Meredith stares toward the water and takes a deep breath. “Okay, then.” Meredith focuses all her attention on the sand beast looming before her. “I can do this.”

Not understanding how she’s able to do it, only that she’s always been able to, Meredith opens her mind, aiming her thoughts toward the sand beast… and allows the darkness on the other side of its lifeless eyes to find her…

~~~

…The darkness is cold. There is no light. There is no substance, and yet the darkness feels alive, dense, and overpowering.

Meredith feels like she’s being slowly crushed beneath it.

She’s been here before, many times, but never by choice. This is the dead place. This is where they find her, reaching out across the void, through the cracks in her mind that she is far too young to understand or control yet. She’s has heard them speak to her, not in words, but in a collection of images that she tries to assemble like some macabre puzzle. To them, she is a sliver of light, out of place in the blackness. They are drawn to it—the dead—and they hunger for it. Sometimes they approach her like gentle nudges on the edges of her mind. Other times, they storm into her thoughts like mental rapists, assaulting and ripping what they can from her, trying to overwhelm her sanity. She is too young to understand what it is they all want. Too naïve to keep her mouth shut in the waking world, the world that fears her words when she speaks to people about their dead relatives. In time, Meredith Montgomery will understand how to manage it… and eventually, how to create a doorway to keep them out, or allow entrance through a small crack. But for now, she is a novice explorer on the edge of a precipice, standing before the abyss she has yet to realize.

But the lions, the lions are nothing like anything she has ever felt… or will ever experience again.

They do not remember the light. They do not recall their lives among the living at the sight of that sliver. They have always lurked in the darkness, despising the light. They, too, hunger for it, but not to return… but to destroy it… all of it.

She senses them clearly, feels their collective hatred for her. She has no right to be in this place, flaunting her strand of light in their faces. But they have been searching for an opportunity. Oh… for so long… they have waited for someone just like her to allow them passage into the realm of light.

And the hunger they unleash upon her threatens to overcome her in the darkness. The lions attempt to consume her flesh, but are frustrated, confused, infuriated further, because she is here without flesh, without the blood they so desperately crave. But she has gained their attention now. And they will never forget her.

Meredith finds one. The emerald lion appears out of the darkness, or the darkness takes on the form of the lion, she cannot tell. All Meredith knows is that she can feel the lion’s savage thoughts attempting to devour her mind. She quickly retreats.

The beast locks on to her foul scent, and follows…

~~~

…The resounding roar of the lion immediately destroys Meredith’s connection to the dead place. She falls over backward in the sand, the wind knocked from her as she gasps for air.

The sand lion explodes. A large beast with yellow fire for eyes appears beneath the scattered grains in the exact position of Toby’s creation. The rush of warm air across its black, not emerald-green mane, rips across its face. The bright sun above causes the lion to squint its eyes and turn away. The sound of the crashing waves makes it fall to all fours and turn toward the ocean, momentarily distracted by this strange place of light and substance.

To Meredith, the lion reminds her of charcoal as if it had been burnt to a crisp upon arrival. She stares at the beast, unable to move, unable to grasp the fact that it is actually here, ripped from the darkness within her mind like a nightmare made manifest. For a moment, the gigantic lion seems to shimmer in the hot sun as it starts to lose its shape, shifting into black mist momentarily before reforming.

Toby’s laughter is the mental slap across her face, causing both the young woman and the beast to accept what has happened.

“You did it! You did it, Meredith!” Toby cries out excitedly to her right.

She doesn’t have time to celebrate with the young boy.

Toby is dancing about in the sand, hollering like he’s just lost his mind.

The lion turns toward the dancing young fool and roars. It hunches down on all fours prepared to pounce at Toby.

Toby stops, the smile never leaving his face, and for a moment Meredith swears that she sees recognition in the horrifying yellow eyes of the beast.

Without turning to her, standing defiant before the looming lion, Toby shouts to her, “Now, Meredith! Send it across the ocean!”

Ocean? What is the ocean? She is paralyzed by the fear turning her limbs into driftwood as the massive lion turns its fierce gaze toward her .

It has found the source of the pain that had invaded its dark den on the other side, recognizing immediately that this young female bag of flesh and blood is the true threat… and the preferred prey. The charcoal beast roars once more, spinning in a circle, before assuming a killer’s stance before her, clawing once at the air before the girl as if testing her to see which way the timid creature might flee to. It drops flat in the sand, preparing to launch at the small meal.

Meredith tries to scream, but nothing comes out.

“Meredith! Do it!” Toby shouts, attempting to break through her paralysis. “The ocean! SEND IT BEYOND THE FUCKING OCEAN!”

At the last possible moment, her mental survivor defenses kick in. As the black beast charges straight for her, Meredith reaches out, takes hold of the beast in her thoughts, and… it vanishes it the air, leaving only a smoke-like shape of its leaping form, claws fully extended and inches from ripping off her face, before it dissipates into nothingness.

From somewhere out in the dark ocean, she does not hear the splash of the surprised beast striking the water, nor can she see it, but Meredith can imagine hearing its painful cries, echoing back to shore, sending chills rippling throughout her body.

“You did it!” Toby cries out, a hint of disbelief mixed with wonder clearly in his voice. “You really did it!”

Meredith starts to weep in the sand as if waking from a nightmare, alone in the darkness, but realizing that the disturbing dream, at least for now, is over.

Toby rushes to her side and kneels beside the fragile girl. “It’s okay,” he says, patting her on the shoulder.

Meredith flinches from his cold touch.

Toby removes his hand and sighs. “I know that was hard, but you did it, Meredith. You sent it away.”

“That was… that was awful,” she manages. “I never want to go through that again.”

Toby rolls his eyes but is careful to not let her see it. “It gets easier. The first one is the toughest.”

She turns her face to him, the look of disbelief in her eyes is unmistakable. “Again? Are you insane? That thing almost had me!”

He nods patiently. “Yeah… she was a fierce one, but you stopped her.”

Her eyebrows shoot up. “‘She’?”

“Yes. That was Sylvia. She’s very old, probably one of the oldest. I was actually surprised that you found her first.”

Meredith manages to sit up. “What are you not telling me?” she accuses. “You… it recognized you… I saw it in its eyes!”

He smiles and says, “Of course she does, Meredith. They all know me. I created them, remember? Grain by grain. I’ve even named quite a few of them, too.” He rises to his feet as if that should have explained everything. “We should get back, you need to rest. Tomorrow’s going to be a busy morning.” Toby reaches down, extending his hand to her.

Meredith stares at it, refuses the hand, then slowly stands up. She takes three steps back. “No. I’m done with this! No more lions. I want to go home.”

Toby lowers his arm and frowns. “You’re just tired. You don’t know what you’re saying.”

“I know exactly what I’m saying!” she fires back defensively.

“No… you don’t!” The intensity in the young boy’s face is surprising. “You want to go home, whatever that means, then you have to fight!” he says. “You have to fight, Meredith. Because now… now the rest of those monsters know exactly where we are!”

~~~

Next Episode 49-8

Previous Episode 49-6

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__________________________________________
“Chapter 49-7: Lions in the Dark” Copyright © 2019 Scott Scherr, from the novel, Don’t Feed The Dark, Book Six: Mother. All Rights Reserved.

No part of this book may be reproduced or transmitted in any form or by any means, electronic or mechanical, including photocopying, recording, or by any information storage and retrieval system, without permission by the author.

This is a work of fiction. Names, characters, places, and incidents either are the product of the author’s imagination or are used fictitiously. Any resemblance to actual persons, living or dead, events, or locales is entirely coincidental.

~~~

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~~~