"You need to use the key," said the woman, her short raven hair encasing an alabaster face, her dark eyes haunting.
Jeremy tugged futilely at the door handle. The brown sedan defied him. "But itís Friday," he protested. He felt isolated, alone with this heavenly creature, this car, in the middle of nondescript forest, laboring at the Herculean task beneath the pewter sky.
"Itís sad," she said, referring to the car. Her hair was now red, curly and Irish. Jeremy felt his heart ache. "Use the red one," she continued.
Harsh sound of the alarm blared inches from his head. Cat-quick, his hand snapped out from dead sleep, hitting the snooze button before the second bleat of the god-awful sound. His mind felt numb, the skunk of morning lay dying in his parched mouth. With the atrophy of the newly awaken, he groggily swung his feet to the floor. He sat slouched, lap still covered in blanket, slack-jawed and eyes closed, burdened with a new day.
Jeremy clumsily stepped into his slippers and staggered to his feet. He went through the rituals, the cyclical morning revival, the phoenix rising. He transformed himself, religiously applying the alchemic salves of Colgate with Tartar Protection and LíOreal Studio styling gel.
Finished, he shuffled his way to the kitchen to brew amaretto-flavored coffee, a sweet aroma that wafted enticingly.
He left the company of the life-endowing nectar and returned to the bedroom, greeting the chattering alarm that chastised him for hitting the sleep button instead of turning it off. He did this every morning, and the same thought occurred to him each time, the comments from his only girlfriend he ever had:
"Jer, datís a wicked nasty sound," she would bray in her thick New Hampshire accent.
"Itís suppose to be wicked nasty," he would retort, "because itís suppose to wake you up."
A shame she cheated on him and left him for some plumber.
Stopping the alarm did not stop time, and he endeavored to dress himself for work. Pausing before the mirror, he stood as a beacon to business casual, the model for all database architects, the wizard at schemas, the warlord of relational and object-oriented databases, the keeper of script, and the master of data. Without him, the world ran empty, devoid of content.
Depressing, he thought. He sighed.
He sat at the kitchen table, the Atlanta morning light beaming through the patio door to soften him cherubic. Pursing his lips, he rose, went to the sink, dumped the remaining coffee, turned off the pot, and grabbed his satchel.
He flicked open his sunglasses with James Dean coolness, his only party trick. He grabbed the door handle and opened it.
Then wondered why something blocked his path, larger than the door. He looked up and saw a man of great size, masculinity of the tenth order, exuding the powerful nature of the patriarchal that made Jeremy feel lacking. A man dressed in chain mail, holding a great double-headed battle-axe in his gauntleted hands, a black helm covering the top of his head that left the shadows of eyes to peer at Jeremy with open disdain. The giant raised a finger, pointed to Jeremy, and jabbed outward.
A force as powerful as a rugby tackle knocked Jeremy backward. Stunned, his body sprawled on the floor and satchel across the room, arms and legs akimbo, sunglasses skewed, eyes locked onto the white, patterned spackle ceiling and dared not to even to imagine his death. The giant suddenly loomed overhead. The database architect continued to stare past, still locked on the pattern above. Then to the left of his vision appeared a tall, muscular, beautiful woman with flaming red hair. To the right, a person dressed in a robe with a deep hood that showed no hint of face or feature, only darkness. The three intruders examined him intently, remaining silent for a while. Jeremy felt strange and faraway.
He cleared his throat. "Greetings," he croaked. He felt very small, a quite truthful assessment compared to the giant and the woman. The hooded person seemed tall and yet not tall at all, and Jeremy contemplated how this could be. "Whatís going on here? Are you looking for-"
The lady with red hair lowered her face towards him. Her breath smelled fruity and sweet. "You must," she said, fingertip paused on his lips, "be quiet now." Her voice rang foreign, melodious, and deep.
"Where now, Awstene?" hissed the hooded one, gliding over to her, a sound both male and reptilian. Jeremy noticed that the robe of the man hid both head and hands. The way snake man moved disturbed Jeremy, caused his stomach to drop. "Can we do this here? Within the dwelling of the hated one?"
Awstene gazed upon Jeremyís apartment, her face twisted with grotesque contempt and fury. "I cannot stand this hovel. It reeks of our doom. We must take him to a place that speaks to our hearts, where we can be reborn into the age of legend." Jeremy saw in horror that she did not have her right breast. She carried a quiver upon her back, a bow slung over her shoulder, what appeared a sword in scabbard hanging from her left hip.
"The monument to heroes," hissed the robed man enthusiastically.
"The Mountain of Stone!" she raged.
The giant nodded his approval, paused, and then tilted his head quizzically to Awstene.
"Yes, Ghorhold," she replied, "we have no steeds, and Lashkian lacks the sorcery."
"My talents lie in other spheres," rasped the robed one.
"And they will be needed, my friend," she placated soothingly. She sneered downward at their captive, "We shall journey within the wagon of steel." Menacingly, she approached Jeremy.
The architect rolled onto his ass, scampered backwards so quickly his head smacked hard against the wall. A fireworks display of pain erupted at the rear of his skull. He ignored it.
"Get up," commanded Awstene. When Jeremy did not obey, paralysis gripping his limbs, Ghorhold approached. Jeremy sniveled, covered his face with arms crossed X, felt himself pulled up by his hair and screamed like a little girl. The giant slapped him around a few times. Screams lowered to muted sobs.
"Please," begged Jeremy. "Donít hurt me. I havenít any money. Even my credit cards are maxed out."
"We need not your gold," scorned Awstene. "We need your wagon."
"Take my keys." He reached into his jacket pocket and stopped dead when he saw Ghorhold tense with hands clenched upon the massive axe. Slowly, caterpillar, he inched out the jangling set and, hand shaking, presented them.
"We cannot tame the iron beast. We have not the skill."
"You canít drive?" asked Jeremy hysterical. Ghorhold growled and Jeremy shirked, keys falling to the carpet. "Listen, Iím really sorry. Really sorry. Goddammitall, I donít know what I did but Iím so sorry. Iím a good person. Donít kill me." His clownish face twisted in panic. "You arenít planning to, you know, molest me?"
Awstene rushed forth. Her hands clutched his shirt, yanked him up, and threw him into the wall, causing the drywall to cave in and leaving a vague impression of Jeremyís body and dust rising in the morning air. "By Artemis, if I could, I would gut you and leave your corpse for maggots and beetles!" she snarled. "But you cannot perish. Not yet. Not if you heed our commands." She let him go. He dropped to the floor, his body a sack of potatoes. He looked upward, eyes locked onto her eyes. He did not have to reply for her to understand that he would obey. Submissive, he picked up the keys.
Awstene grunted once and pulled him roughly to his feet. Angrily, she grabbed him by his arm and led him into the hallway outside. Lashkian followed silently.
Ghorhold paused, and then inexplicably, grabbed the satchel and took it with them
* * *
They sat in the car, cramped, bodies much too large for the Honda Civic. Jeremy shivered violently, feeling the crisp, fierce chill of a record-shattering cold snap. A cold he had long abandoned when he left northern climes. His jacket- leather, quite chic- felt very inadequate.
He started the car. Gu-huh-gu-huh-gu-huh. The roar of engine. "Where we going?" grumbled Jeremy, so lost in his misery as to lose the deference in his manner.
Awstene, almost gently, murmured, "The Mountain of Stone. The monument to yesteryearís heroes." She then calmly backhanded Jeremy sharply across his jaw.
"Alrighty-then," said Jeremy hurriedly, tongue flicked reflexively, eager to talk to forestall the inevitable bawling. "But hereís the situation. I have no idea what youíre talking about." Awstene leaned forward and he shied away. "Donít-hit-me," he pleaded.
"The Mountain of Stone," rasped Lashkian from the back. "You have knowledge of it."
Panic, daughter of fear and hopelessness, festered within his meek chest. "I must be slow this morning, since I really donít know what youíre referring to. Iíll take you anywhere you want to go if I only knew where exactly." With frantic eyes, pleading eyes, he continued, "I swear to God, I donít understand!"
Hand flexed back, paused statuesque, ready to strike again, Awstene glared icily upon the withered form of Jeremy. "You know the faces of the captains? The ones who fought the war of rebellion?"
Frosty haze issued forth from Jeremyís parted lips as he desperately assimilated the words. His jaw quivered. Then a smile, recognition unfettered within his mind. "Stone Mountain!" He almost clapped, tears of relief pooled within his eyes.
Awstene hesitated once more. Slowly, she inclined her head and lowered her arm.
Jeremy felt such excitement that he attempted to start the engine again, only to jump at the painful grinding sound. He smiled sheepishly as he put the car into reverse. Slowly he backed the faithful Honda Civic out of the parking space, turned the wheel sharply left, put the car into drive, felt the uh-uh-uh of the vehicle as it, too, labored under the wintry conditions. The engine roared to life, the sudden acceleration.
They came to the unmanned exit and watched the gate solemnly shift open. Jeremy floored the pedal, heard the squeal of tires, and spared a quick look left before a daredevil merge onto Cobb Parkway.
The gate closed behind. Ominously, of course.
* * *
They received quite a few stares from fellow drivers. Jeremy felt certain their appearance caused at least one accident. For some reason, the spectacle of driving down I-285 with the rejects from The Lord of the Rings arose within him tremendous embarrassment.
They continued onward to the pine-lined road called Route 78, eventually winding up at another gate. Everywhere a gate.
The old woman in the booth to Stone Mountain Park waited on them patiently.
Awstene leaned close, whispered in his ear. "Not a word. We are lost souls, doomed to fates worse than death. We will kill you if your utterances betray us."
Jeremy rolled down his window, felt the artic chill uncommon to area. Instinctively, he knew the threat not a shallow one. If he gave the slightest signal, he would expire immediately- painfully, even.
He smiled, teeth chattering.
The old woman looked down at him and his captors. Screwed her lips, arched an eyebrow, and viewed them disapprovingly. "Thaíll be seíen dollahs," she drawled. Abashed, Jeremy fished out his wallet, gave her a ten, and received the change with a map of the park. He muttered a thank you.
He tossed the pamphlet to Ghorhold, who stared at it distrustfully as it rested on top the satchel on his lap.
"Where now?" asked Jeremy as he drove slowly down Jefferson Davis Drive. To the left, he saw the white, granite mound of Stone Mountain peering through the trees.
"To the heroes," murmured Awstene, strangely subdued.
Jeremy obeyed. The road curved left. They passed the Plantation and Stone Mountain Inn. As the road curved right to become Robert E. Lee Boulevard, Jeremy exited into the Crossroads parking lot. On this cold day in the middle of the week, the lot stood almost empty, still a bit early for the shops to open. Even so, they had to wait patiently for a man, apparently a foreigner, struggling with a dozen children to filter their way before them. Dear lord, if I spawned that many kids, thought Jeremy, I would just run and never look back. Iíd rather have my testicles chewed off by pack of Chihuahuas.
"Park?" queried Jeremy. Awstene stared at him uncomprehending. "Stop the car?" he explained further.
She shook her head, "Halt not this iron wagon. Take the mount on by so we may taste with our eyes the legends."
"Whatever thou sayeth." Jeremy toured the car slowly around the lot. The pines blocked much of the view, but they still caught glimpses. President Jefferson Davis. General Robert E. Lee. Lt. General Thomas "Stonewall" Jackson. All captured in granite, striding forth magnificently on their horses. Jeremy read somewhere the depiction stood larger than Mount Rushmore.
"Itís difficult to see, being in the car, through all those trees," said Jeremy. "You sure you donít want to get out for a better view?"
None answered. Ghorhold eyes beheld sadness. A tear ran down the cheek of Awstene. "They are remembered," rasped Lashkian softly through the black abyss of his hood, seeming smaller and reverent. "So shall we."
Pity swelled within Jeremyís chest, and he knew not the reason.
The car crept slowly. A few of the children gawked. One little girl, inattentive, her wide eyes locked upon them, tripped over a cable barricade and crashed violently to the asphalt. "Ride onward," said Awstene. Jeremy rounded the car to the lot exit and crawled back to the Robert E. Lee.
With the mountain and train tracks to their left, the little Honda continued its trek on the tidy, modern road. Even in the unfriendly weather, a handful of hardy joggers blustered headlong through the gusty wind on Nike-friendly paths, red-faced, legs jolting awkwardly, determined to remain healthy even if they froze to death. The manicured park spoke gravely, darkened the corpses whom puffed hard and labored wearily in the shadow of fallen heroes.
They continued onward for another half-mile, leaving behind the few masochistic wanderers. As the road bent to the left, they passed a deserted parking lot on the right. "Halt!" commanded Awstene. Jeremy obeyed instinctively, stopped abruptly, his body lurched forth, breath restricted by a suddenly unyielding seat belt. He heard the "oof" of the one-breasted woman as she rammed into the back of his seat. Ghorhold braced his arms against the dash, the satchel and map on his lap falling violently to the floor. Lashkian, defying inertia, remained unfazed and stationary.
"Curse you, vermin," snarled Awstene.
Foreseeing her imminent strike, Jeremy protested, "You requested I stop!" He winced at the predicted blow, and was, was not disappointed when the skin-sickening slap arrived as prophesized. "Jesus!" he cursed. He bit his lip.
Awstene glowered a second longer and then moved her attention to the right. She peered past the form of the reptile man. She saw a parking lot, a restroom, and- beyond a barrier of chain-linked fence- a series of buildings. "Spur on the metal beast, you cur," she said, her eyes focused upon the scene. Jeremy winced again, wondered how someone managed to speak so awkwardly. He accelerated the car, slowly.
The road curved left again, becoming a one-way. To the right, Memorial Drive, another entrance to the park. On the left, a third parking lot, a smolder of memory reminding Jeremy the walk-up trail one took to the top. It stood barren now, too cold for casual hikers.
The road continued its arc, the mountain always to the left. Jeremy hazarded a guess that Robert E. Lee encircled the mountain. There must be something ironic in that, he thought, but his mind felt too numb to connect anything meaningful.
Roads shot off to the right, often blocked by forlorn barricades forbidding further passage. Jeremy glimpsed houses past the trees. Soon they approached another parking lot, this one to the right. "Dismount there," said Awstene sternly, motioning to the area. Jeremy, driving like an enfeebled grandmother, cautiously slowed and turned into the empty lot. He obediently parked neatly within the white lines, car facing toward the trees away from the road. He shifted the car into park and sat, quiet and observant.
"Let us make leave of the iron beast," commanded Awstene. Jeremy sighed, his body nearly imploding. He inhaled a haggard breath and turned off the ignition. He unbuckled himself and made ready to open the door.
And gasped in pain, Ghorholdís massive hand locked titanium upon his arm. The giant looked at Jeremyís hand upon the door handle. Mind slowly churning, the warrior experimented with the like handle on his side, tugged it, broke it off. The door swung open anyway. Satisfied, Ghorhold casually tossed the handle, grabbed the satchel, and stepped out, still clutching Jeremy with his other hand. The architect screamed involuntarily as his privates dragged painfully over the shifter.
Awstene stared perplexed at her door, the secret of its opening beyond her. Lashkian nodded his head toward her side, a murmured hiss, "Aaaabaaaashaaaa." A click and her door swung open. He repeated the command to his door with similar results. They exited. All left their doors open, for which Jeremy chose not to chastise them.
Shuddering, Jeremy hugged himself and gazed speculatively at his captors. The air was cold, so very cold. He glanced at the forest, swung his head back to Awstene. She did not deign to return his panicked gaze, his entreating eyes. Rather, she strode forth, determined. Ghorhold grabbed the architect, not roughly, but with a hold so powerful that it caused pain regardless, and followed. Lashkian trailed, glided behind. Jeremy, his worst fear realized, felt his legs buckle. Unaware, Ghorhold dragged him along, the ground and branches ruthless as they tore at his legs, knees, and one free hand. This is it, this is where I cease to be, thought Jeremy miserably.
Through it all, Jeremy felt the bite of winter permeating his body. He became dimly aware of his surroundings.
The land of death is neither black nor gray, but brown. Earth-toned as dead leaves, hard packed clay, dormant trees, the decay of fallen logs and muddy creeks, the twisted monotony of deranged mother goddessí palette. And unbearable cold, essence sucked right out. Even the dull green spattering of pine and moss and stark plant, flavored with the somber overcast, made the brown only seem more prominent.
He managed to gather himself onto his feet. Not an easy task, the giant never paused. He focused each foot, each step. Once, he twisted an ankle, cried out, yet somehow remained balanced and limped along pitifully.
His captors stopped, tensed. Awstene slowly crouched down. Ghorhold somehow managed to ease silently behind a stand of trees. Lashkian faded into the shadows of a log.
Jeremy, who possessed no cunning or idea of what he should be hiding from, stood frozen in the open, his eyes darting to the others.
Awstene motioned him to hide. He moved, cracked some branches, rustled some leaves, and guiltily looked up to see a couple of hikers about fifty yards distant, a man and a woman in bright colored ski jackets.
"Iíll be damn," murmured Jeremy. "Itís the coldest day on record, and theyíre out here hiking. Wonder if someoneís holding a knife to their throat, too."
The couple waved hello.
Jeremy sensed rather than saw Awstene pull out her bow. He felt her notch an arrow. "No," he screamed, dove and pushed her, just as the arrow let loose. Even with the disruption, it did not stray far. The shaft buried itself in a trunk of a tree just a few inches from the hikers.
The pair stood stock still for a long blink of an eye, then clumsily turned and fled the other way.
Ghorhold gave ready to pursue. "Let them be," commanded Awstene harshly.
Fearing another painful blow, Jeremy fell down prone, head covered in a donít-hurt-me-anymore position.
She snarled, "Get up, wretch dog." To the others, "Let us find safe haven. The cursed one has betrayed our presence."
Moving quickly, they came upon a large thicket, a bramble of dormant branches and thorns. Lashkian bent close, whispered through the gloom from the depths of this hood that never revealed. His hands remained hidden within the sleeves. The plant shuddered, moanedó perhaps it was the windó and opened shaking, an orifice not meant to be entered, a quivering sphincter. The hooded reptile man entered, followed by Ghorhold and subsequently Jeremy. Awstene glanced around warily, eyes keen and hawkish, and after momentís pause, herself entered.
The branches enclosed them. Claustrophobia and the associated terror gripped Jeremy in its vice, and he folded within himself.
The tactile specter of the insanity lingered as a powerful stench. Gathered together; an intimacy, the scents of Ghorhold, strong and musky, Awstene, sour and tangy, and Lashkian, gray soot of long dead fire, washed over Jeremy. Time lost itself. The day passed.
With the coming darkness, the air turned colder. The bodies of Awstene and Ghorhold kept Jeremy from succumbing to the overtures of a freezing death. The twisted, thorny nest of branches kept the brunt of the wind from tearing through him. Nevertheless, the tendrils of cold reached in. Numbed beyond coherency, his eyes fluttered, body sagged, and the thief of the night visited to pilfer his wakefulness.
Odd dreams. He floated down the river on a red car. Awstene beside him, suddenly beneath him, the feel of primal thrust inside her, the sense of wrongness with the act. Her hand faked a backhand. He jerked back.
He jerked awake. His neck and shoulder hurt. He felt thirsty and drained. His arm still bruised from the steel grip of the giant. "Time is upon us to tread forth," said Awstene in a hushed voice.
Jeremy sensed the hooded one nod in the pitch dark. "Soooohaaaaaraaaa," crooned the reptilian voice. The thicket shuddered again, its spasms causing the thorns to rake painfully against Jeremyís exposed flesh. Reluctantly, the bush opened, quivered, revealing the black of night. Awstene exited first. Jeremy followed next, pushed out unceremoniously by Ghorhold who kept close. Lashkian glided behind, this time the last.
The thicket of thorns snapped violently shut. Without understanding how he knew, Jeremy realized the plant would die before spring. "There is a cost," he mumbled unconsciously.
The nighttime did not hinder Jeremyís captors, although he himself saw nothing but the occasional far distant streetlight beckoning from unknown origins. The march went on as timeless as the night. Jeremy lost feeling in his extremities. So cold.
They found themselves before a chain-linked fence topped with barbed wire. It rustled metallic with Ghorholdís touch. Jeremy felt sleepy and slid to one knee. Awstene brusquely pulled him to his feet. "He will soon bed the frost queen," she hissed. "We must not tarry."
Ghorhold grunted. Jeremy dimly saw the flash of axe and the sound of the fence torn asunder. Using his powerful hands, the giant easily parted the rent made by his keen blade and motioned the others onward to the other side. Inert, Jeremy felt himself pulled by Awstene. A jag of metal link tore his jacket by his shoulder.
They entered an area once known as a petting zoo, now abandoned. The buildings stood empty but sturdy, void of the aroma of animals and hay, relic and forgotten. In the darkness, the company found a small wooden building. It must have been a shop, or an administrative area. Ghorhold tried to push the door open, but it remained locked. Lashkian muttered something arcane. The door shuddered and swung open. True black greeted them, a maw of darkness that made the nighttime seem brilliant in comparison.
Inside there was nothing, no tables, no chairs to sit. Just two rooms open before them, with a couple small windows that offered scant light. Awstene dumped Jeremy into the corner. Ghorhold threw the satchel next to him. Inside, it felt even more frigid. Vampiric, it nibbled away at Jeremyís remaining essence. He no longer shivered.
Unexpectedly, Awstene produced a heap of furs and threw them upon the freezing architect. She had not carried these with her, and Jeremy in his daze wondered where they came from. I must be dreaming, although the thought brought no comfort. He saw sparks, heard the sound of rock on steel, and then a slow burning of a torch began to alight the room. It sat in some kind of crude holder in the center. The glow was feeble, flickered, and cast mad shadows upon the wall. The oily smoke rose demonic and filled the air with a heavy stink.
They huddled around the shack. All eyes turned to Jeremy. In the devil light, they appeared wicked, their features sharpened by contrast. Slow as dawn upon a new world, the warmth made its reluctant return. It came as a shudder, nearly epileptic, his body wracked by seizure, his teeth chattering. Painful, this rebirth from coldís depths.
The shivering stopped after a while, and a blissful presence filled him. He felt infantile, wrapped in the fur womb. He gazed with languished eyes at his captors, and they seemed far away. His eyes began closing. His mouth hung agape. His head tilted.
The slap of Awsteneís hand upon the hard, wood floor woke him abruptly. She held him with predator eyes. He tried to speak, croaked, tried again, "Where are we?" He knew the answer even when she did not respond. They sat in the buildings seen earlier, when he stopped in the road and earned the womanís harsh, physical rebuke.
Fear, it returned, pricked him incessantly. "What do you plan on doing now?"
Awstene crept closer, bestial, a cat approaching its rival. "Scribe," she purred, her gaze intense. Jeremy huddled within his furs and refused to understand. "Scribe," she said again, louder. He only stared, terrified. She grabbed the satchel, threw it at him, and shouted mightily, "Scribe!"
"You want me to write something?" he asked meekly. "Something on your behalf? I must confess, Iím not much at taking minutes."
Furious, Awstene said aloud, "Leave us." Ghorhold and Lashkian obeyed, their forms phasing into the darkness beyond.
Awstene tore away the furs, the raw air surging through him. Jeremy held out his arms instinctively to fend her advance, this silhouette of death before him. She grabbed one of his hands, small and callous free, and roughly pulled him forward, her hot breath on his face, his fingers now buried in the warm, damp place of her crotch, feeling her femininity even through her leather loincloth. She took her free hand, grabbed his genitals crudely at the same time. "For payment if you scribe," she pleaded as she massaged him.
Jeremy froze, shocked. He lost himself in her eyes. World within world, down to the furthest reaches, felt his manhood engorge. This performance that terrified her immensely, that displayed the great necessity that forced her to into desperate act. He saw revulsion, and a bit further, a simmering, resentful love.
His erection faded. Compassion pooled within.
Then sudden realization of the wrong reaction, the one thing she could not tolerate. Enraged, she threw him across the room, somehow missing the flickering torch. He tumbled helplessly and bounced off the wall. As he struggled to his feet, the edge of a paper notepad careened painfully off his ear. He winced, ducked his head. A pen flew scant inches from his nose and buried itself point-first into the lumbered wall, vibrating for an instant before it clattered to the floor.
She stood at the other side of the room, seething, a great hulk, with fists that clenched repeatedly. "Scribe!" she commanded.
Jeremy nervously turned the pad to an empty page and grabbed the pen. He glanced upward at his tormentor, the tears falling free from his eyes, making the page seem blurry. Pathetically, he wiped them away with his arm. The pen hovered above the page, the knowledge of what to write lost to him.
He panicked. He mewled. He implored her. Awstene sprang forward, the light now behind her, her form immense in outline, towering above Jeremy. "Scribe which that has been ordained to us!" she screeched.
He laid the pen down to the tablet. A little squiggle pulsed to his heartbeat. Blip, blip, blip. Then, the following:
I, Jeremy, admit to the following crimesó
Awstene roared, suddenly an animal. She kicked the notepad and pen from his hands, beat down upon him, clawed him, stomped him. He covered his head, fetal position, as the blows hammered down.
She pulled back her onslaught. "Ghorhold!" she yelled. Instantly, the great warrior materialized beside her, a powerful apparition, full of malevolence. Cold and calculating, Awstene peered down, her disdain cast upon the sobbing form of Jeremy. "Torment him, Ghorhold. Hurt him to Hades and back again."
* * *
Darkness, a pit of eternity, slowly engulfed Jeremy. He heard the voices of Lashkian and Awstene, far away, an echo of echo, long going.
"He passes away to the shadow realm."
"Ghorhold, you were not to slay him! All is lost now!"
"He is not to blame. The accursed has chosen. He runs away, coward to the end. To flee us he would seek Acheron. He would survive if had the will."
"We must summon Aninakaan. Only he can forestall the inevitable."
"Time works against us. I fear the end has come."
"Forsooth him. For scant arrowís flight. Give me but that brief moment until I can beseech the holy one."
"I will do what I can."
Jeremy felt chill claws encase his head. Something pried open his eyes. With the last of his life, he gazed upwards in stupor into the dark depths of Lashkianís hood. Suddenly, a cold blue flame lit within that blackness, pinpoints of where eyes would lie. Jeremy saw a flash, a burning azure illumination.
Showed not a face, but a skull.
Jeremy opened his mouth to scream, locked in horror, watched in slow motion the hood pulled backed with skeletal hands. The blue flame encased the skull. The bone fingers reached down, past flesh into the soul. A gurgled sound escaped Jeremy then, a primal scream, a wail of banshee fear.
The darkness overtook him, but not the darkness of death. Not yet.
* * *
"Awaken," said a soft, masculine voice. It sounded old but firm. "Awaken but do not rise. You are weak still."
Jeremy flopped his head to the left. He saw an old man in white robes sitting on a chair next to him. The architect lay in the same building where Ghorhold had relentlessly beaten him. Gray light of early morning filtered its way into the room through the two small windows and gave dim luminance. He then realized he rested on a table. In the normal causality of everyday life, the fact that a table, a chair, and an old man in holy garb suddenly appearing would, normally, give rise to a number of interesting questions.
Not anymore. He no longer required primary keys to index his tables on sanity. The database corrupted, everything a garbled mess, reinstall not an option.
"Hi there," greeted Jeremy weakly. He ran his tongue through his mouth, expected to find missing teeth, not surprised again when they appeared whole and apparently unblemished.
"You gave me quite the effort," said the old man jocularly as he pulled out a mug from beneath the table.
Jeremy liked him instantly. "They gone?" He took a swig from the mug and tasted cold, pure water. He felt the crevices of his stomach filling.
"Your teeth? No, they are whole again. Awstene and the others? They have embarked... to another place."
Jeremy rolled his head back to stare at the ceiling, mug resting on his chest. He felt numb. "Did I dream that they tortured me?"
The old man coughed. "No, definitely not a dream. It took all my skill to bring you back. You were far gone."
"Aninakaan," muttered Jeremy. "Thatís you, right? Aninakaan?"
The stranger smiled, displaying a zesty flash of Hollywood perfect white. "Yes, that is I. Iím a healer by trade."
"You sort of remind meó you seemó"
"Yes!" Jeremy looked back to Aninakaan. "You all do. Or did."
"Yes, and not surprising."
"To you, maybe. Itís all a fucking puzzle to me. I havenít been this confused since Matrix Reloaded. Everything seemed so real, but not real."
Aninakaan stood up and walked to the window. He remained silent for a while. "Tell me about me," he requested softly, changing the topic.
Jeremy stared at the ceiling. "Say again?" he asked after a lengthy pause.
Aninakaan glanced over to him, the eyes sharp and piercing. "Go on, tell me about me. Who am I? How did I come to be here before you?"
"I have no clue who you are or why youíre here."
"Make something up then. Letís see how close you get."
Jeremy sighed in frustration. In anger, he blurted, "I donít know. Maybe you grew up as some poor kid that liked to take in sick animals and fix them up? Annoyed your parents to no end."
The healer laughed, a bark, sincere, a shine to his eyes. He returned his stare to the gray outdoors. "My father, what was he like then?"
"Your father? An old farmer type. Raised pigs. Yes, that and chickens. Always need to have chickens on a farm."
"A good man?"
"He raised you, didnít he? I bet he wore homespun clothes. Smoked tobacco, liked to run with a crew cut. On hot summer evenings, he sat on the porch with you and ma and just played the fiddle. A-whooo-heee! Knew how to lay down dat sound, playiní olí dem rockiní oldies."
"But he never quite understood the healing arts. He was a simple man."
"No, he didnít. But like any good parent, he understood it was what you had to do..."
"...and sent me to the temple to learn. But the fields always needed tilling..."
"...so you worked during the day and went to the temple at night. You had a knack for it. More skill..."
"...than most of the elders in just my few moons of training, which caused some jealousy. The hands of the gods had reached down..."
Together: "...through you/me to touch all those that needed, a light from above."
Jeremy swallowed. "Okay, Iím feeling déjà vu in reverse. Can someone explain to me what just happened?"
"All our past is what defines us. All what the future is but our potential. Our lives, when lived, a path of ramble and mist, the horizon clouded, the steps bringing us to intersections and forks and twisting roads. Tell me, did you ever seem to notice what the others were thinking? Perhaps not exactly, but a premonition?"
Jeremy chewed on this for a bit. "You know, I sort of knew when they were about to slap me. Itís as if, in my head, I said, ĎPlease donít hit me!í, and they, you know, did."
"And they seemed to know what you were doing."
"Yes! Most definitely. I tried to trick that fat bastard a couple times, but there was no fooling him."
Aninakaanís eyes turned sad. He faced Jeremy, "And why do you think that was?"
Jeremy paused, thought some, and shrugged.
Aninakaan bit his lip, hands held behind him. Carefully, "They were quite upset with you."
"They wanted to kill me."
"No, they could and would have done that quickly, if that was their motive. They mocked you, derided you, and yet, they needed you. What does that remind you of?"
Jeremy, completely lost, took a wild guess. "No idea, like some spoiled children?"
"Yes. Children who are angry with their father."
Goosebumps danced along Jeremyís body. "What do you mean?"
"But children who have not been born yet."
"What the hell are you blathering about? What are you saying? That those maniacs are my kids from some distant future? If so, why the hell did they dress like something from the ancient past? And what the heck was Lashkian? That guy was not human. Unless he was anorexic. Really anorexic. And why were they pissed off at me? Am I abusive? Am I a terrible father? What am I saying? Iím not even older than them!"
Aninakaan sat down wearily in the chair. "This will be hard to explain. You are both father and mother to them. You conceived them within your mind. They float in your subconscious. That is why they seem so familiar."
"So they should be grateful."
The healer frowned and shook his head roughly. "You conceived them, but they remain unborn. They cannot obtain true existence. Did they not seem a bit brutal?"
"No. They seem extremely brutal," retorted Jeremy as he propped himself on his elbow. His head swam. "They didnít get that from my side of the family. Weíre pretty laidback."
"Well, yes, they did get it from you. They touch your darker side. Unfinished, they are basic in nature. Brutal. Savage. Incomplete. Of all your creations, they are the ones to take form, to confront you."
"Okay. I have now crossed over into insanity. Iím talking to you as if this makes sense." Aninakaan did not reply. Jeremy continued, "I guess I created you too? You fairly basic? I guess so, old man, white beard, healer. A stereotype. I think you would have been more interesting with a bit of a wild streak or some Einstein-like hair, but I never possessed much of an imagination."
"The power of your imagination is beyond reckoning."
Jeremy dismissed the comment with a wave of his hand. "I feel more like God than a parent."
"What is a parent to an unborn child but God?"
Jeremy snorted. Then his face turned grim. "Anyway, I donít know what Iím suppose to do. Do I wave a wand? Cast a spell? Sacrifice one of your dadís chickens?"
"No. Quite simple. You must write about us. Tell our story. As the words flow, our lives shall become realized. We will become complete."
Jeremy whistled. "I know a writer. You know how hard it is to get published?"
Aninakaan smiled, "It does not matter if it is published. The importance lies in the act. It will unlock your imagination. It will be the key to our true existence."
"Scribe," Jeremy muttered. "So thatís what she meant."
"Yes," agreed Aninakaan, "in her coarse way she was trying to get you to write."
"So sheís my daughter?"
Jeremy thought about his very physical encounter with her. It excited, nauseated him. He groaned in disgust. His face, sour, turned to the healer. "I have serious reservations, old man. Those creatures... I donít know if they should even exist. I mean, setting them loose on the world? Wouldnít that be like opening Pandoraís Box?"
"Irregardless," he persisted, abusing the language. "I mean, there are other thingsó peopleó in my head. Maybe I should look out for them, so they donít suffer as I have?"
Aninakaan laid his hand upon Jeremyís arm. "As time goes by, their world will come into being. More and more, it will be less of creating the worldó"
"Than scribing it?"
The old man flashed another Hollywood smile. "Yes! You understand."
Jeremy shrugged, "No, not really. I really donít. But deep down, Iím thinking perhaps I really donít need to." He sat upright. "Okay, well, itís time to go home now." Jeremy looked expectantly at the healer.
Aninakaan sighed, "I will fetch her. But afterwards, none of us shall return. Only the dire need, and your unconscious knowing of it, allowed for Awstene and her companions to take form in the first place. Once you begin writing us, we will be in a place where we can only be reached through your thoughts."
"Yeah, yeah. But itís the least you can do. Stop arguing with your father and go get her."
Aninakaan sighed one last time and stood up. He approached the door, hesitated, and slowly turned the handle. What stood on the other side was not the empty petting zoo, but a light of purest white. The outline of a form stood within the emanation, beautiful, pure, feminine, touched by the divine. An alabaster face.
"The angel," whispered Jeremy in awe.
The form stretched out her hands. The light seeped forth, encompassed him tenderly. It cradled him. The white intensity increased, infinite, boundless, until Jeremy became one with it.
To take him home.
* * *
Jeremy had pleaded ignorance when the police had called and notified him that his car had been found abandoned in Stone Mountain Park. The vehicle apparently undamaged, but the doors opened. A mile or so away, which may or may not have been related, someone had torn open the fence to the deserted petting zoo, one of the buildings broken into. Lastly, a couple hikers reported that two strangers had accosted them at a point between the parking lot and the zoo. One a woman dressed like Xena who shot an arrow at them.
"Do you know anything about this?" asked the police officer over the phone.
"Why no. Not at all. I was out sick the last couple days, havenít left the house. If I had known the car was missing, I would have reported it stolen. Iím embarrassed to say this, but I donít even know any women. Iím not much into the whole dating thing right now." Jeremy prayed they would not investigate too deeply. The old woman at the booth would identify him in a heartbeat.
"You sure you donít know anything about this?" pressed the police officer with obvious distrust.
"No officer. You sure the car hasnít been damaged?" Thatís the ticket, thought Jeremy, get them on the defensive.
"No sir, not from what we can tell. It was towed, but you can pick it up at the impound. You can fill out a report that it was stolen." He gave Jeremy the address and number. "Alright then, sir. We may call you back if we need more information."
They never called back.
It took Jeremy a week to get his life back on track. He spent a couple more days away from his job. He got a coworker to help him retrieve the car. He cursed bitterly at the cost, but chose not to fill out a police report. Some things better left a mystery.
Finally, one night, he sat at his table, the laptop opened, the pale glow washed over his face. He opened a blank Word document. The cursor blinked at the top of the page. He steadied himself, then typed:
Ghorhold gingerly dismounted from the roan horse. He was a massive individual, two heads taller than a tall man, with shoulders as broad as two. His arms hung muscled, the fists the size of cantaloupes. A mercenary by trade, he had killed countless men over his lifetime. The scars crisscrossing his body spoke of his triumphs in battle.
For fifteen days he rode through the rugged terrain, the army scattered and defeated. He still needed to travel many more days, perhaps a full month, before he found safety in the old lands. He did not fear the trackers or the bounty hunters, or the great wild beasts that roamed the lands. The lack of fresh water did not bother him, nor did the absence of regular game. The sun that beat down he ignored, a man carved in granite. No, none of these things worried him. What did cause most powerful concern, that made him curse with every jolted step of the horse, was the affliction that he had picked up from a nameless whore back at the camp. The searing agony that caused his loins to ache and burn. An unbelievable pain, as if red-hot tongs gripped his balls and acid flowed through his pecker.
Tears almost welled in his eyes as he reluctantly remounted. He still had many more leagues to go.
Jeremy chuckled, with a most evil and satisfied of grins, "That will teach you for beating up on your dad, you sonofabitch."
Authors note: I originally envisioned this to be set in the deep woods of the North Georgia mountains. One day, on a whim, my girlfriend and I visited Stone Mountain park for a little hike. It was every bit as cold and dreary as Jeremy experienced in the story, with temperatures surpassing record lows. I knew that if I searched for a dark place for a soul, it would be there, on that day, where "[t]he land of death is neither black nor gray, but brown". Oh, also, my girlfriend suggested it as an appropriate setting. How could I say no?
Jaimie Elliott currently resides in Marietta, Georgia, where he spends too much of his time working as a project manager for IBM. His first love is fantasy, although he writes poetry and literary fiction as well. He recently won first prize in the short fiction category in the Georgia Writers Association yearly contest, which was published in the GWA anthology.
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