Still Standing

Ten years. Searching. Hunting. Baiting demons so subtly that they didn't realize they were the ones being stalked. Building traps and performing drawn-out exorcisms that tried his patience even as each dying demon gave him some precious bit of new information to guide his quest.

Now he had his reward, hidden in a makeshift cairn here, at the edge of the desert, where the dry winds sucked the moisture out of anything left too long.

The corpse was gray and desiccated, little more than skin stretched over bones, and the rotting tarp it lay on had been its only covering. His eyes went automatically to the hands, seeking confirmation that this was the one. Only the thumbs remained, the bones poking sharply through the leathery skin; the other fingers were long gone. There was a gash across the chest, the edges pulled apart as the skin dried and cracked. Beneath that, he knew, was a hollow that once had cradled a heart.

He had held on to hope until even other hunters, people who were professionally crazy, began avoiding him, began whispering of having him committed. As long as the locks of hair, the photographs, the severed fingers kept appearing mysteriously in his motel rooms, taunting him, he clung to hope: that his brother, while no longer whole, was still alive; as long as he was still alive, he could be saved.

Hope died on Sammy's thirtieth birthday. That was the day the neatly-wrapped package on the nightstand contained not a finger, but a still-warm human heart and a photo of the bloody, tortured body of its owner.

If the demons had expected it to stop the hunt, they had been sorely mistaken. It had only made him more determined.

He knelt beside the body. The hair and beard were long and shaggy; undoubtedly the only time they'd been cut during the long captivity was when someone clipped a lock or two to send to him. The dark mottlings under the skin might be bruises, or might simply be byproducts of accidental mummification. A rusted metal ring was still locked around one wrist, the chain connected to it crumbling. The legs were misshapen between knee and ankle, signs of misaligned bones, but there was no way to tell if the breaks had happened before or after death. The old injury in his own leg, one of the fractures he'd suffered the day they captured his brother, ached dully at the reminder.

The demons had had to bury him under half a mountain to remove him from the fight. And still he'd staggered after his brother, trying to stop him, trying to help him, until blood loss and pain and the grinding of bone against splintered bone sent him spiraling into unconsciousness. The trail was long cold by the time he woke. Colder still by the time he could walk again.

"Sorry," he said to it, just in case the spirit still lingered nearby, pulling a knife from his boot. "I have to make sure."

He sawed through the skin, eased it gently away from the bones beneath. The day after he had burned the heart, he had bought a basic anatomy book and rented a house in a college town to take a few classes, all in preparation for this day. "At least you don't stink," he said, because he still couldn't resist a wisecrack. This quest may have made him old, but it hadn't taken that away from him.

Sarcasm and an antique Impala. Everything else was gone.

Ribs cracked, but none missing. Lungs. Spleen. Liver. Stomach. Intestines. Kidneys. All the internal organs were intact, except for the heart.

In another lifetime, the sheer relief he felt might have manifested as tears, or laughter. Now it meant only that he was nearly done. Eight fingers and the heart were not here, but they were accounted for, salted and burned years ago. Only one task remained.

Wood. Kerosene. Corpse. Salt. More kerosene. Seven years he had prepared for this.

His brother was not going to be trapped here, on this plane, as a ghost or poltergeist or any other kind of spirit. He had sworn to himself, looking at that heart, that he would hunt down his brother's remains. If he couldn't save his brother's life, he would make damn sure he was at peace. He owed him that.

He struck a match and tossed it onto the pyre. Flames leapt skyward, whipped by the rising wind.

In a way, that was good. He was forced to stalk around the pyre, watching for sparks, rather than stand staring at the fire, blaming the smoke for his watering eyes. There was no one around who would question those watery eyes, not anymore, but old habits died hard.

The hunt continued tomorrow. Not for vengeance. If there was one thing he'd learned, and learned hard, it was that there was no point to vengeance. Hunters overcome by revenge made mistakes, made bad decisions. Died young. Like Dad. Like Sammy.

He was still standing because he had overcome that. Still wanted it, but didn't let it consume him.

Revenge meant nothing to a dead man.

the end