"Where the hell are we?" I heard Sophia ask fearfully.
Slowly, I opened my eyes. My whole body throbbed with agonizing pain with every beat of my heart, like my consciousness was being turned inside out. Every fiber of my cells screamed of fear and hate.
"Caleb, get up." I felt someone's hand latch onto mine, I think it was Quentin's. I grabbed it tightly and used all my strength to lift my body as he pulled me up.
"C'mon, Caleb," he said.
My eyes focused into view.
"My god," I said.
All around us was fire, bright and orange as the sun. The skies writhed and seethed aflame like a great sea in the air, enveloping us with its choking heat. Yet at the same time the chill of a lost wasteland iced my bones cold and hard as marble. The friends in front of me rippled like they were submerged in water. I could feel beads of sweat begin to form on my forehead. The pungent odor of cheap plastic and dead flesh continually burned for centuries cleared my nostrils as I breathed it in. Tortured screams and groans of a thousand souls sealed in an eternal nightmare echoed back and forth. Explosions and thunder alternated between the screechings of death. My ears filled with the sounds of unrivaled pain and though they felt like they might burst, I could not force myself to shield them.
The rock on which we stood was made of the weakest stone. With every shift of my feet I could hear fragments crumbling beneath me.
"Looks like we're not in Kansas anymore," I said.
"No shit!" Josiah added emphatically.
Sophia took a step forward and felt a large piece of scaffold fall away.
"Jesus! We're just floating on this thing."
"Don't move, anybody!" Josiah said.
We all froze. No one said anything. We were too scared to move, too scared to speak.
"Are we in Hell?" Quentin asked.
"How did we get here? We just did the same thing we did before," Sophia asked.
"Except that we did it in Caleb's shed," Jo pointed out. Everybody looked straight at me.
"Don't look at me," I exclaimed.
"Did you know there was something up with that shed?" Sophia asked angrily.
"I've never even been in there before in my life. You all saw the weird crap that was in there."
"Yeah, how do we know that? How do we know that wasn't your shit?"
"How do we know this wasn't some voodoo curse or something," Quentin said.
"Enough, enough, we'll argue about whose fault it is later," I said. "Let's just figure out how to get out of here."
"I'd be much obliged if you'd show me the way out, Caleb," Jo yelled sarcastically.
Suddenly, the vaporous form of a dark-eyed skeleton soared past me, screaming a wail that equaled the harshness of metal scraping against metal.
"There's something you don't see everyday," I muttered.
Another ghost skeleton rose from below the stone, arced over our heads, and dived back under us. Soon many of these translucent, tortured souls began orbiting our rocky vessel.
"What the hell?" Quentin said curiously.
"Get out! Get the fuck away from us!" Josiah began swatting at the ghosts, but his hand just passed through them, leaving a vapor trail behind.
I looked over the edge of the platform and saw that several of them were pressing against the rock.
"Hey, these things are pushing us," I exclaimed.
"Pushing us where?" Sophia asked.
"There," Quentin answered.
I looked ahead to the front. My eyes widened at the awesome sight of the great temple, almost six stories high, structured like a medieval cathedral. Two grand pillars stood tall on each side of the entrance, holding up the sloping roof. The opening archway was a consuming, black hole of darkness... beckoning to us, embracing us in its horror.
"Is that... the Hall of Epiphany?" Quentin asked.
"Guess so," I said.
"Wow, isn't that the coolest thing you've ever seen in your life?"
"Shut up, Quentin," Jo said. I must admit I also could not share Quentin's morbid enthusiasm.
The souls drove us closer and closer to an outcropping of rock leading up to the temple.
"Hey, are we going to hit that?" Sophia asked.
"If we do, this thing is going to fall away," Quentin said.
At the speed we were going, I thought he was right. Our rock was going to crash into the outcropping and shatter into a million pieces.
"OK, we're going to have to jump off," I said. We neared the island, and I prayed its land was more stable. "One, two... three!"
We all jumped onto the landing as the platform collided. Cracks spread quickly through our rock vessel and it crumbled away into endless void. The souls who served as our guide circled once more and drifted off.
We turned our attention back to the great building before us. Its still, ominous form seemed out of place amid the fiery swelling maelstrom. The screaming voices echoed through the temple as we approached the gaping archway ready to receive us.
Just as we neared the entrance, two blue, blazing eyes blinked open and stared straight into us with a threatening gaze. The being stepped forward into the orange light, revealing a hideous, ten-foot tall, stone gargoyle monster. Its body was a crack-ridden mass of muscle, no doubt capable of crushing anything effortlessly. Its hands and feet ended in razor sharp talons. Its stone wings stretched to the ends of the archway. Its face was the most hideous, a callous, soulless expression pervaded its glare, nose upturned grotesquely. Its mouth was a thresher of long sharp teeth dripping sticky saliva.
But its eyes kept staring. Never blinked, never moved, never stopped looking.
It stood there, staring at us, perfectly still for about five minutes. We knew it was alive because it breathed, but we and it just stood face to face. Until finally Josiah stepped in and said "Are you gonna move or what?"
The gargoyle's lip curled into a sneer as it turned around and started walking into the hall. We followed, though I'm not sure why. We kept a good distance behind him.
The click-clack of its claws against the floor made me twitch. The hall was deep, pillars lined the walls which rose up to long balconies. In between the columns stood statues of gargoyles in menacing poses, their eyes seemed to follow us. Everything was silent and despite the heat, shivers ran through me.
The great door at the end of the hall opened as the gargoyle approached it. Inside was a very small foyer with another large door. The monster stepped in, but did not open the next passageway. Instead, it turned around and stared at us again.
I didn't know about anyone else, but I sure didn't want to get tightly packed into that little room with that huge beast. Neither did anyone else. It just stood there, waiting...
We all jumped at the sound of his voice. It scared me to death, I mean it, I didn't think I was going to recover from that jolt.
Needless to say, we went in right away. As soon as we entered, the gate behind us slammed shut. So now the four of us were trapped in this very tiny room with this huge monster looking down at us.
He sneered. "THE CHOSEN..." laughing to himself.
"What?" Josiah asked.
"YOU WEAK MORTALS. YOU SUMMON THE ONE THAT BINDS, BUT COWER IN HIS PRESENCE. YOU DO NOT DESERVE THE HONOR OF THEIR LEGACY."
"Dude, what the hell are you talking about?"
"DO I NEED TO WRITE IT IN YOUR BLOOD? THE HEIRS TO THE CHOSEN, YOU FOOL."
"The what?" Jo replied attitudinally.
"YOU DON''T KNOW!? HA, HA, HA, HA, HA, HA, HA," he roared uncontrollably.
"Don't know what?"
"Jo, shut up," Sophia hushed.
"YOU ARE THE DESCENDANTS OF THE CHOSEN ONES. THE DARK ANGELS, THE GENERALS, THOSE WHO ARE TO STAND BY HIS SIDE AND INHERIT THE EARTH."
Oh god, all that stuff about the Chosen was true.
"THE ONE THAT BINDS, THE DREAMING GOD, THE DEVOURER OF SOULS. HIS NAME IS SPOKEN IN WHISPERS, HIS PRESENCE IS FELT MORE THAN SEEN, HIS REIGN MEANS ALL WILL LEARN THE TRUE MEANING OF SUFFERING..."
"Yeah, but who is he?"
The gargoyle raised his hands and arced his fingers.
The door behind him burst open. A blazing rush of hot air hit us, almost knocking us over.
The gargoyle turned around, his wings brushed close enough to make us jump. He began walking into the newly opened room. We tip-toed in and were amazed at what we saw. The walls stretched far into the blackness of eternity, fading to where we couldn't see anymore. The walls were flooded with thousands of millions of bottles shelved on racks. Each bottle held a green glowing orb that pulsed like a heart. At the back of the room a hunched over man wearing a long, brown hooded robe was arranging a great structure that looked like a contorted fireplace shaped like a great grinning mouth. In the fireplace was a wavering bright green firelight, the only light in the room.
The gargoyle approached him.
"SOULKEEPER, IT IS TIME."
"Cheogh, mavano cheba?"
"AS MUCH AS THEY WILL BE."
"Cheogh, nou-shan domo mektet. Tan ki bet Takara do gero dorra mektet ligounai."
"YOU WILL RESURRECT THEM NOW."
"Ge nawa bhuuesco pallexen, do dorra cruentu praaNsilenux-"
"...Ena, agamat," he sighed.
WHOOSH. BOOM. Chains burst out at us. Big, black, clanking chains with hooks. It happened so fast. Somehow I threw myself out of the way. The chains hovered in the air, flailing and grasping for a body that wasn't to be found. Sophia and Josiah also barely missed the chains.
But they hit Quentin.
His screams of agony echoed through the chamber. The hooks dug into his flesh and tightened, pulling his skin out. The other chains meant for us found Quentin and bored into his arms and legs.
"Get them off me, get 'em off me!" he wailed. The irons wrapped around his body, pinning his bleeding arms. His feet jerked together and he fell on his face.
The chains retracted, dragging Quentin screaming to the fireplace. The last sign of his existence as he was pulled into the hellfire was his shrill cry, ringing in my ears. And then silence.
"Noooo, you bastards!" Jo yelled. He leapt forward and tackled down the monk. Straddling the man, he began pounding away at his face.
"You fuckin' bastard, I'll fuckin' kill you." He flailed away at him, repeatedly pummeling him with his fists. But suddenly he jumped up and staggered back. "Oh, shit!"
I saw why Jo had retreated. The monk's hood had been knocked back, revealing a grotesque, disfigured, bloody face.
The gargoyle suddenly came to life and grabbed Jo.
"Aah, let go of me, bitch." He slammed his fist into the monstrous stone hand, but only received a sharp pain for his effort.
Without a word, it grabbed Jo's torso with its other hand and ripped his body apart. Blood poured from his newly separated halves, drizzling like red rain on our heads.
I grabbed Sophia's arm and ran back to the hall as fast as I could. The immense doors that led to the foyer were open, but the ones leading to the hall were still closed.
Sophia and I pushed with all our might to open them. I could hear her grunting and shrieking her strength out as fast as she could. The doors started to give way and that was all we needed. We formed a gap just big enough to squeeze through and I jumped in. I turned around to pull Sophia with me. She had her arm stretched out through the opening, grasping for me. I yanked with all my might, praying I wasn't going to rip her arm off.
"Aaaah, there's something on my leg!" she screamed.
I kept pulling even harder and she fell through. Holding onto her leg was a hand, just a hand, clutching the back of her leg.
"I'll swallow your soul, I'll swallow your soul."
"Aaaah, get it off me, get it off me!" she shrieked.
"I'll swallow your soul, I'll swallow your soul."
I grabbed it and flung it off. It smacked against the wall, making a splatting sound. It quickly recovered and stood up on its fingers, crawling like a spider towards us.
"I'll swallow your soul, I'll swallow your soul."
It drew closer, I raised my foot.
"Go back to Uncle Fester."
Sophia struggled to her feet and slammed the second door. "Let's get the hell out of here."
We found ourselves not in the same hall as the one we entered. The wall on the right was made of rotting plaster, with twisted, macabre paintings staggered across. On the left, pillars and stained glass windows alternated. I could hear hushed, whispering voices, but as hard as I tried, I could not make out what they were saying, there were so many.
The eerieness impelled me to creep down the hall instead of run. I just felt something was going to burst out and attack us any second. Sophia clutched onto my arm for protection. I wished I had an arm to hold on to.
Down we went, looking all around us, front, side, back, side, ready for anything.
I felt crumbs falling on my head. I looked up and saw the ceiling was cracking and something was poking through. I didn't know what it was, and I didn't want to know. I grabbed Sophia and pulled her forward.
The ceiling burst open, the surprise tripped me, Sophia and I fell to the ground on our faces. We turned our heads simultaneously to see what had broken through.
There was a giant spider climbing down the hole on a silken thread. It landed and began crawling toward us, making the most piercing shrieks of horror.
"Get up! Get up!" I shouted. My feet pedaled desperately to grab ground. We ran for the door, but when we reached it, it wouldn't open.
"Come on, open you stupid door."
The spider came closer and closer, hissing as it crept toward us.
Sophia leaned into the wall to push it open, but slipped and fell on her stomach. The spider grabbed the chance and sunk its pincers into Sophia's leg.
She cried in pain, "Aiiiiii!"
The spider began pulling its prey into its clutches. Immediately I grabbed her outstretched arms and pulled as much as I could. The spider wrenched back, at first I was winning, but the giant arachnid increased its strength and resisted.
"Aaaaaaah," Sophia yelled, "Let go of me, you're pulling me apart!"
The spider began retracting its silken cord into its spinneret, pulling itself up into the ceiling and taking Sophia with.
I held on, Sophia's cries of fear gave me strength as I heaved. The spider climbed up into the hole. Sophia was dangling upside down and I was pulling on her with all my body weight. I could feel my hold start to slip down her arms. This couldn't be happening, she can't leave me.
A mighty tug at the other end lifted her into the ceiling and out of my hands as I fell back to the floor with a cold thud. I looked up and there was only the darkness of the jagged hole, and an echo of Sophia shrieking my name from far away.
Gone. She was gone. I couldn't believe it, why did I have to let her go, why couldn't I have just held on a little longer. Now, I was all alone in this horrendous, forbidding place.
Not knowing what else to do I stood up, and continued on to the door. It creaked as I lifted the brass handle and opened it.
The first thing I saw was a great throne, fashioned out of wrinkled, patched-up, rotted, bloody flesh. As I moved in I saw the walls were made of stretched skin and hinged by the bones that once supported it, forming a gory circular arena. The whole room seemed to pulsate and writhe rhythmically as if the tissue were still alive and breathing. Strained whispers permeated through the dark haze around me.
I stepped in, only because there was nowhere else to go, and walked up to the front of the throne. It was the only light in the entire room and it reflected back down to the area where I stood.
"WELCOME... I HAVE AWAITED YOU."
I jumped from the booming sound. "Who is that?" I was really sick and tired of surprises for one day. "Show yourself, asshole!"
The throne breathed in and a form faded into the seat. I could barely describe it. It was like a giant meaty skeleton of a bull-man. Bits of dry, red, bloody flesh hung from his yellow bones. His long arms tapered down to skeletal talon fingers. Twisted horns protruded from his head, curling around his skull like a ram. His eyes gleamed yellow in a feverish incandescent glow, like the very heart of a fire, and blue tendrils of electricity danced over his body.
"Are you Tchernobog?"
"YES. I AM THE DREAMING GOD, THE ONE THAT BINDS, THE DEVOURER OF SOULS. I RULE THIS WORLD AND I WAIT UNTIL THE TIME COMES."
"The time for what?"
"THE TIME WHEN YOU, THE CHOSEN, WOULD RETURN TO ME AND WE WOULD AGAIN BE UNITED."
Surprisingly, I wasn't as scared as I thought I would be if something like this happened (not like I thought anything like this would ever happen), maybe because of my confusion.
"Why do you call us the Chosen?"
"YOU ARE THE LAST OF THE PUREST BLOODLINE OF THOSE WHO WERE THE DARK ANGELS BY MY SIDE."
Oh, no... I just realized something.
"HE WAS MY MOST ESTEEMED GENERAL, THE LEADER OF THE CABAL. BUT MUCH TIME AGO, HE AND THE OTHERS WERE DISAVOWED TO SECURE MY REIGN ON EARTH BY THE POWERS OF BLOODLUST THEY WOULD BRING BACK WITH THEM. YOUR ANCESTOR WAS THE ONLY ONE TO SURVIVE, BUT RETURNED TO AVENGE HIS DAMNATION. HE SUCCEEDED, BUT DISAPPEARED TO A PLACE BEYOND MY REACH. I HAVE WITHDRAWN HERE TO SHIELD MYSELF AS I RESTORE MY FORCES BOTH HERE AND ON EARTH."
"So why do you need us?"
"YOU, THE DESCENDANTS, HAVE INHERITED THE SOULS OF THE CHOSEN. WITHOUT YOU, MY STRENGTH REMAINS INCOMPLETE."
"So you need our souls to max out your power."
"And for that... you need to kill us."
"YOU SEEM RESISTANT TO DEATH. YOU WERE THE MOST BLOODTHIRSTY OF ALL. HUNDREDS OF THE CABAL WERE LOST AT YOUR HANDS DURING YOUR RETURN."
"I've had a few generations to think about it."
"YOUR LOYALTY HAS EARNED YOU MANY REWARDS. WITH YOU AT MY SIDE, MY POWER WILL ENCOMPASS ALL DIMENSIONS OF EARTH. COME... LET US UNITE ONCE AGAIN, AS WE WERE DESTINED TO LONG AGO."
He held out his bony hand to me. I stepped back. "I'll die before I join you."
"DEATH HAS NEVER DIED. COME TO ME, MY CHILD. LET US EMBRACE."
I stepped back further. "Go fuck yourself."
Tchernobog paused. "PITY... YOU ARE MUCH LIKE YOUR ANCESTOR. BUT ANCESTOR. BUT UNFORTUNATELY, YOU HAVE NO CHOICE." He stood from his throne. "YOU WILL JOIN."
The god took another step down from his pedestal. I immediately spun around and ran back to the door. But when I reached the wall, I couldn't find where the door was anymore, it had molded into more flesh and bone wall now. I looked back, Tchernobog was slowly approaching me, putting one foot down at a time.
Fuck! I strafed across the room fast and ran back behind the throne in fear and confusion. Fuck! Fuck, fuck, fuck! What am I going to do? I've fallen down into Hell, I'm trapped in this room made out of human flesh. There are stone gargoyles and severed hands walking around. Huge giant demon that I've been sacrificing people to now wants my soul so he can take over Earth. All my friends are now ripped apart, char-broiled, or being sucked on by a giant tarantula.
I'm not getting out of here alive.
I realized that. There's no way I'm going to get out of this and still be alive. I'm in Hell right now, I'm already dead for all I know.
Urrrk. His giant bone-hand grabbed me by my torso and lifted me up to his platform.
"NOW WE WILL BE ONE." He grabbed me with both hands, his yellow eyes staring into my soul. I was trapped, I could feel my energy draining away from me. I thrashed and clawed desperately with my pinned arms, but they were pressed tightly against my body.
I felt something round and hard in my jacket pocket. The spray can - Sophia's spray can!
I fumbled for it as best I could as the dark god leaned back, absorbing my life force. Finally, I had the cold, metal cylinder in my hand. I took out my lighter and held it on top of the can, igniting it like a Molotov cocktail.
Tchernobog jerked his head and looked down at my hand with the flaming aerosol can.
"How 'bout a little fire, scarecrow?"
The last thing I saw was a giant ball of flame envelop me.
The portly man pulled back the curtain and looked out the window. The sun shone brightly on the neatly cut lawn, birds flittered about between trees. He turned around and came back to the reality of the funeral wake, people milling around the hall between the pews and the coffin, talking to each other about someone they didn't even know.
His daughter's funeral had already occurred yesterday, after he had done quite a bit of schedule rearranging and mixing. It was there that he learned his daughter had been spending a lot of time with a young man named Caleb, the owner of the shed in which both of them, along with two other boys, were found.
This man had come here today to find out about this boy, if he could have been responsible for his daughter's death. He would have hired a private investigator, but they were so damn expensive these days. The cops were already working on the case, but bureaucracy was the great Satan of efficiency. It had been the downfall of many of his deals, certainly.
In any case, he was trying to find Caleb's mother or father, and for some unfathomable reason, neither of them had shown up yet. What kind of parents wouldn't be here for their child's funeral? He knew he'd have no problem spotting them, he had an eye for identifying people, it's what made him such a good businessman. If he could talk to them, he could get a better idea of how Caleb was raised, find out what kind of person he was.
And then he spotted her, standing just inside the parlor. She was being talked to by a teary-eyed woman who was speaking between sobs and wearing a classic black dress and black hat with a parted veil coming down over her face. The bawling woman departed and he immediately approached her, hurrying before someone else got a chance to console her.
"Mrs.... Mrs...." Oh, damn. He had just made a major faux pas: he didn't know her name. He quickly recovered. "Are you Caleb's mother?"
"My name is Geoffrey Price, I work at Gallivell & Associates Investment Banking." Instinctively, he reached for one of his business cards and gave it to her. She accepted it.
"I'm the father of Sophia, the girl who was found with him."
She nodded without expression.
"It was my understanding that your son spent a lot of time with my daughter..."
She didn't say anything.
"Do you know anything about that?"
Well, this was getting him nowhere fast.
"Well, if you do find out anything, or want to talk to me about it, just give me a call on that card there."
"Thank you, please take one of mine."
She went into her purse and retrieved a small card for him, then she entered the parlor to join with its grieving inhabitants.
How odd, what kind of mother gives you her business card at her son's funeral? She was a strange one all right, but maybe her company needed some financial planning. He turned over the card and read it.