Chapter 3: Dead Air

In the night, Silas dreamt. It was the same dream he always had when he was unsettled. A woman screaming, a sharp knife falling to the ground. The soft bitter smell of gunpowder in the air. The sight of blood running down his fingers as he desperately tried to hold her life in. Staring into those bright, green eyes, as the woman died in his arms. The shame. The horror. The knowledge of what he had done, eating away at his gut. He knew it was a dream. He could wake up at any moment. But he didn’t. He was too busy staring at his hands, as the blood dripped down across his fingers.

He awoke with a start, jerked out of his dreaming state into reality. His room was stifling hot. He was dressed down to his underwear and his socks, lying on the bed. The dream-catcher leaned against the wall. He slowly pulled himself out of the bed. The room had a pair of large windows in the back, facing out towards the forest. He’d left them closed, but the temperature was unbearable, the hotel sultry with the summer heat. He wiped his brow. He might take a shower after he got the windows open. He pulled the curtain aside, and leapt back as though he’d been stung, the fabric falling back over the window.

It was his imagination. The furious rush of his brain trying to find patterns. The light on the edge of the forest had not been illuminating the woman from his dreams. She was not standing out there, waiting for him to open the window, with the knife in her hand. She was not going to be there. He approached the window, resisting the urge to go get his gun. That was completely unnecessary. That was the kind of thinking that had led him to where he was today. No need to freak himself out. Everything was fine.

Once, when he was young, Nash had watched Terror at 20,000 feet. He’d had nightmares for years. There was one scene in particular, where William Shatner, after steeling his courage to look out the window, opened it, only to find the horrific creature pressing its face against the window. Monkey-like features, staring mad and wild. Sometimes, he’d seen that face in his nightmare, laughing wildly as he tried to protest that he wasn’t crazy. That something really was there. A very frequent fantasy on the part of the schizophrenic. That they were right, that there was something out there. That it was everyone else who was wrong. He took a deep breath, and stared down at his shaking hand. It had been years since he’d been frightened of the dark.

He pulled the curtain aside. She stood right outside his window. Her skin was dark, contrasting with fiery red hair, and bright green eyes. She was dressed in an elegant red dress. She always was. “Please, no,” he pleaded softly. She smiled, and trailed a finger down the window. The knife was visible in her other hand. Calling it a knife was an insult. It was not a sword only because the grip was too small. It might be a machete. Its edge was jagged, stained with brown flakes of old blood. “You can’t be here. I’m better. I’m not sick anymore. Please, just go away,” he whispered softly. She reached up, and rested her free hand against the glass. Then, she turned away.

He was still dreaming. He had to be. He went to the door, and took his pistol from the holster. Check the safety, slide the gun in the leather holster, pull the strap over his head. Just because it was a dream didn’t mean he was stupid. God only knew what other nightmares were waiting in the woods, and the gun was his source of power, a defense against the fears that waited. He pulled on his pants, shoes, and the shirt, leaving his jacket and tie behind. It was a dream after all, he wasn’t trying to impress anyone. He looked over his shoulder, towards the bare window. She was halfway to the woods. Her hair almost seemed to light up the night, like a fire. He opened the door, and walked out into the night. The small alleyway provided a way to the back of the hotel, and the forest.

The smell of pine surrounded him. He spotted her hair, glowing around her, as she entered the forest. It blazed like a small earthbound star. He followed her, slipping between the trees. The path she used was well-worn. There was little underbrush, and the bare black earth was visible in the not-quite-light of the night. He was beginning to regret not having a flashlight. The forest was terribly dark, pines growing close together and blotting out the moon. He would catch a glimpse of her hair, the only light in the world, and keep following her until she disappeared. Then he would walk blindly in the dark for another few minutes. Finally he would catch another glimpse. After perhaps twenty minutes, it occurred to him that he could be getting lost. The dreamlike state was beginning to fade, and he was growing more alarmed by the second.

Then, the forest opened. He was at the top of a hill. The red-headed woman had disappeared, and there was no sign left of her. The hill-side was bare of all but a few trees. Instead, there were hundreds, maybe thousands of grave stones. They stretched out across the valley, glittering in the light of the half moon. There were so many of them, arranged in neat rows. The further down the hill, the more archaic and ancient they looked. Silas didn’t consider himself a particularly superstitious or fearful man, but the sight sent ice running up and down his spine. Reality was cracking at the edges. He had wandered into the woods, thinking he was in a dream, and safe from harm. And now, he stood on the hillside over an endless parade of marble and epitaphs, and he was cold and aching. It wasn’t a dream. The world was fracturing slowly around him, and bleeding. He looked up. The opposite hillside glittered with countless dots of white, where the markers were placed. Tens of thousands. Maybe more than Arlington. The sky was clear as glass, stars twinkling around the high half moon.

He’d taken the anti-psychotics so recently. This couldn’t be his mind playing tricks on him. Could it? Could it all just be insanity? His own mind fooling him into thinking that he was well again? The fantasies could feel so real, he knew. They could feel exactly this real. He was starting to hyperventilate. If he had gone mad without ever noticing it, then what could he trust? This was the thing he despised about the madness. You couldn’t trust anything when you were immersed in it. He sank down against a tombstone, pressing his forehead against the cold marble. He sat there for nearly a minute, before he realized that someone was speaking.

The words were unfamiliar. They weren’t a language he knew. He couldn’t even hazard a guess at it, as he leaned against the stone marker. Whatever was happening, it wasn’t supposed to be happening. That was the kind of thought he could take hold of. He could concentrate on it. Somewhere, a crime was being committed. With that, he could overcome the uncertainty. The world was going mad around him, but he was here for a reason. He knew it. He peeked over the tombstone.

Silas had once heard a description of synesthesia. A violin’s trill playing itself as brilliant green lines across someone’s vision. The scent of cheese as an earthy gray-green waveform. The scent of a lover’s perfume as splashes of pink spirals. It sounded uncomfortably like hallucinations to him. The kind of things he was on medication to avoid. But he could smell something on the air, drifting over the graveyards, coming from the dark figure. It was a scent of death, of rot and decay. It smelled deeply unhealthy. Like the bad-breath calcium scent of a tooth, rotted from the inside out. Like the fetid stink of rotting flesh on a still-living body. Like the ripe scent of corruption and putrescence on fruit gone too long. The scent carried, farther than it should’ve, on the wind. It smelled the way pitch black looked.

The figure was clad in a dark robe. There was no way to see its face, but that scent would remain with Silas. He couldn’t ever forget it. He stared, as the figure hunched over a body. Silas carefully slid out from behind his hiding place, ducking forward, keeping to cover. He stayed low, hiding behind the next gravestone. On reflex, he slid his gun out of its holster. He checked the safety, making absolutely sure it was still on. The voice kept speaking, in unfamiliar syllables. He could swear that there was something familiar to it, but it might as well have been Sumerian for all he knew.

Green fire swirled around the figure. His jaw tightened involuntarily. Fire wasn’t supposed to be that color. It was more insanity. Nonetheless, the flames formed a halo around the robed person, and though the verdant inferno flickered in front of the hood, there was no sign of a face within. It was black as ink. His eyes began to water, pained by the violent green. The sense of madness was all around him, but he knew that whoever this was, they were doing something terrible, wrong. He took a deep breath, and kept creeping down the hill. The figure was a hundred and fifty feet away. A hundred. Fifty. Twenty. Silas pulled out the clip, checking it quickly. He checked on the figure. He was just outside of the ring of sickly green light.

The body was familiar. Dean Constantinou, naked, tattooed with marks that had not been there earlier that day, lay sprawled across the grass. His legs were spread, as were his arms, and Silas turned his eyes away from the young man. The figure’s chants were reaching a crescendo. Then, there was a flicker of movement in the young man’s fingers. Silas turned back to stare, his blood going cold, as the young man began to move. Arms and legs jerked sporadically, as green light ran through the tattoos. The figure’s chanting grew more intense, its movements more animated, as Dean Constantinou shook on the ground, beginning to stand. His movements were jerky, like a marionette, or a spider, sudden explosive movement mixed with stillness. The corpse stood, slowly opening its mouth.

And then, it screamed. That was one word for what happened. Much as a nuclear weapon exploded, or a tornado blew. It was a word that made a mockery of the true intensity of the situation. Under the bright moon, the scream echoed through the hills, reverberating horribly. It was a sound of pain unlike anything that Silas had ever heard. There was fire and iron in that voice, and suffering, and Stygian blackness. It was a scream that made Silas wish he were deaf, so he would never hear it again. His body shook as the scream lengthened, extending out beyond the limits of human lungs. And then, in a moment, it ended. The body fell to the ground.

Silas stood up, his gun drawn, aimed at the figure’s head. “Silas Nash, FBI. Put your hands up. You are under arrest for…” His eyes went to the body. “Desecration of a body, and probably breaking into police property, and likely quite a few things besides that. You have the right to remain silent-”

“You fucking idiot.”

The voice was alien. Twisted, and distorted. Inhuman and strange. There were half a dozen voices conflicting together in one, filling the voice with a strange rumbling harmonic. They ran the gamut, so he couldn’t tell for certain what their gender was. It didn’t sound like anyone he’d met today. What a time for hallucinations. And yet, that voice had been so down to earth. It was comforting, to be sworn at. It put him back in touch with reality. “No need to curse. Now, hands up. I don’t want to shoot you.”

“I’m trying to bring the little prick back to life, you fool. You are distracting me at a critical juncture. Now-” Silas raised his weapon, and fired, knocking out a chunk of stone from a headstone. He was breathing heavily. He could feel the anger swelling inside of him. The dark fury. It was treating him like a joke. It wasn’t listening to him. He could feel the rage choking his throat, and his hands shook, eager to make claws, to sink into its throat. “Pathetic.” It turned towards him, and started walking. He fired twice, striking the slender figure in the chest. He adjusted his aim, and sent a round into the darkness of that hood. That one might have missed. The two large holes in the chest of the robe had certainly been clean hits, though there was no sign of blood welling up in the pallid green light.

The pistol wasn’t supposed to be a handcannon. It was designed for ease, dependability, accuracy. It wouldn’t throw someone across a room. It would even be hard-pressed to knock someone on their ass. But it should’ve at least staggered his target. “Tools of men. Useless. You’re not even a hero.” It swung its hand through the air, green fire trailing like its nails had ripped open fissures in the air. There was a moment of silence, and then the earth rumbled. The sound of crushing and grinding stone filled the air for a few seconds. He frowned, leveling the gun again. Then something grabbed his leg.

Skeletal hands thrust up from the earth. No flesh on them, just polished white bone. A skull leered as it pulled itself free. It would have been better if it were zombies. They were impossible, of course. But they would’ve had sinew. Muscles. Flesh to hold it all together. Its animating force would be inexplicable, but there would be an animating force. The grinning white skulls tearing free from the earth shouldn’t have held together. But they moved, like something out of Ray Harryhausen’s darkest nightmares, arms swinging like scythes. The one grabbing his leg pulled its torso free of the clinging black earth, and opened its mouth. A sibilant hiss escaped its mouth, like a colossal snake. It was a very human skeleton. He stared, mute, at the grinning white teeth.

He yanked his foot away. The grip was like steel, but the fingers skidded along his pants legs as he backpedaled. He fired twice into the grinning skull. Bone fragments flew through the air as two holes appeared, and a dozen teeth were knocked out of the grinning jaw. It didn’t even seem to inconvenience the skeleton. It just kept coming. More of them were popping out from each grave. Dozens of them. Bones ranging in color from a polished white to a sickly yellow, gray and lichen-stained green. They were converging on him. The figure waved a hand, and vanished in green flame, along with Dean’s body.

Seventeen bullets were gone so quickly. None of the skeletons fell as he fired. He tried to keep his footing, but roots and skeletal fingers grasped at his feet. He backed away wildly, shifting his gun back into his holster. If he was going to make it out of this, he didn’t want to file a report about losing his service weapon. A hand grabbed for his ankle, and he stumbled backwards, arms cartwheeling. His back struck something stone, nearly bashing his skull against the unyielding surface. He turned his head. A tall stone marker, ten feet on a side, was standing behind him. A depiction of the angel of death, skull-faced, scythe-wielding, black-robed, loomed over him. A mocking grin on a bare skull. There was no retreat. He turned to face the bones of the dead.

He took a breath. He could feel the world around him. The way his feet rested on the ground. The stance. Aikido was a passive, receptive art. Both partners learned how to accept. The defender learned how to accept the attack, and turn it against the attacker. The attacker learned how to receive the defense, and lessen the damage. He should have been calm. He’d always heard that the state of true mastery was in being calm. But he wasn’t. His heart was pounding. His feet were aching. His back stung where he had struck the stone. He could feel the sweat dripping down his forehead. He was angry. He was so enraged that it burned inside of him. He felt the cold fingers reach for him, more than he saw them. The skeleton lunged forward, clawed fingers reaching for his throat. There was a moment, felt more than seen, when the balance shifted on the skeleton’s toes, and it committed fully to the attack.

“Die, you filthy son of a bitch!” He heard the words, and didn’t realize who had said them until he felt his hands close on the bony arm. He dragged the skeleton forward, and its lunge turned into a wild flail. It struck the hard edge of the granite, right where its arm was weakest. The ulna snapped, a green-stick fracture. There was a violent crack-snap-hiss, like a fuse blowing. Green smoke bled out of the broken bone, and the skeleton collapsed to the ground. Another blow was felt rather than seen. Clumsy, wild, the thing reached out for his cheek, trying to rake his eyes. He grabbed the wrist and drew it out, pulling the skeleton off balance. His knee rose, and met the skeleton in the hips. The skeleton pitched forward, tumbling helplessly. Its skull struck at an angle on the ground, popping off, dragging several vertebrae along with it. There was another snap of released energy. And still dozens more were coming.

Nash’s forehead was throbbing. His heart was pounding violently. He could feel the rage inside of him, begging to be let out. He didn’t hurt a bit. The skeletons were clumsy in their attacks, wild, committing to them easily. They weren’t intelligent foes. They were strong, they could have ripped him in part if they could get a hand on him. But he felt their blows coming. The wind carried the scent of grave dirt and bonemeal, and he met every blow, turning it into a broken limb. Like circuits, he realized. Knocking a hole through the skull didn’t incapacitate them, but shattering a bone did. Even so, he should have been losing his breath. Anger was quick, and easy, but exhausting. His lungs should have been burning, unable to keep up with his exertion. Yet each breath brought air deep into his lungs, providing him with fuel to spare.

But they kept coming. Fatigue was filling his bones with lead. He kept striking. Bones were piled around him, a grisly mound that did part of his work for him. Advancing skeletons struggled through the thick piles of bones around him, and he capitalized on their clumsiness. But he was getting hemmed in. He couldn’t stay balanced on top of the corpses, and they were restricting his movements. He could feel death laughing at him. His heart pounded, his teeth bared like an ape’s. A skeleton approached him, and then hesitated. He strode forward, and the corpse withdrew from him, backing away, as he waded out of the pile of bones. His hands reached out for it, and twisted, snapping two delicate ribs. It fell to the ground, motionless.

And no more came forward to attack. The bones lay thick on the ground, tumbling and rolling down the hillside with a hollow rattle. The assault was over. He was safe. He sank to his knees in the thick earth, his breath coming out in ragged heaves. He had taken a loan from his body to hold back the fatigue and the pain and the terror, and the crippling balloon payment had just exacted its revenge. He could barely move. He simply sat, his head hanging down, and stared at the bones of his final victim. Anonymous, just like all of the others, except for the ring on its left hand. A beautiful little emerald shimmered, green and perfectly shaped into a rectangular cut.

Silas reached out, and stopped his hand just before he touched the memento. He considered, for a moment, not desecrating the body. Then he seized the ring, pulling it off of the corpse’s finger. The only identifying mark that had survived death, and decay. He looked around the graves. He had no way to tell which marker the bones had come from. He bent forward, and was heartily sick. He’d chased the bones down, and broken them, in a rage. The same insane rage that seemed to rise in him every single time he saw the red haired woman. The thin remains of his meal last night glistened on the bones as he slowly heaved himself up onto his feet. His body moved on autopilot, slipping the ring into his pocket. He’d take the time to examine it once he was back to safety. He stared around the woods. There was a distant light in the sky, the beginnings of dawn, still an hour away. He shook as he stepped over the bones, feeling the dread inside of him. More at what he had done than the fear of being attacked again.

His mother had taught him Aikido. The simple maneuvers, the principles. He’d never been much good at it, and he’d never practiced it as much as he should have. He was no expert. He shouldn’t have stood a chance against the strange creatures. And yet, in the heat of the moment, he had been able to feel the attacks coming. The knowledge had been so vivid, it was almost painful. It brought back memories of his mother, and he winced. They weren’t happy memories. She had never wanted to hurt him, he was sure. She just hadn’t been able to help herself.

The walk back to his hotel room was long, and unpleasant. Every time he began to think that perhaps, it had all been a dream- perhaps he had just imagined it- he took out the gun, and took a breath. The smell brought it all back to him. The sharp memories of the fighting, and the adrenaline, and the horror of it all. He felt the acid crawling up the back of his throat, desperate to escape onto the forest floor. In the weak glow of the not-yet-dawn, the path was only barely visible. Yet every step he took, he could feel the wind around him. The scent of it, full of pine and fresh air, made the walk slightly more bearable. It washed away the nausea, and restored a little feeling back to his numbed arms.

When he finally broke out of the woods, and saw the hotel, mist was rising off of the ground. It lent the already surreal situation an otherworldly tenor. Long, clammy tendrils clung to his clothing as he walked through the small back lot. The hotel room door opened. He walked into his room, and collapsed on the bed. The empty pistol and its holster slid off, and onto the floor. He lay there, his eyes closed, and thought, for a long time.

Nash’s previous experiences with his episodes had revolved around the sense of paranoia. Seeing faces watching him from around corners. Strange sensations. Strange emotions. Even in his worst nightmares, he had never sleepwalked. He had certainly never been attacked by anything. Either he had gone utterly, gibberingly insane, hallucinations eating through his brain… or it had been real.

If he was insane, beyond help, then there was nothing for it. He couldn’t trust anything. He couldn’t do anything. That didn’t seem like a very productive course of action. If he had really seen everything he thought he had seen out there, on the hillside, then he was neck-deep in shit, and he was the only one who didn’t know what was going on. Pearl and her little hints and warnings. Ariel and the kiss that still lingered sweetly in his memories. Cassandra and her little freakout. Anger bubbled up inside of him. Not the murderous rage of the fight or flight reaction, but mundane, everyday aggravation. They’d been leading him along.

Sleep came, eventually. A couple of precious hours which, like an appetizer, only sharpened his exhaustion, turning it from a dull ache into a shockingly present need. He crawled out of the bed slowly, and into the shower. Hot water ran down his skin, soothing away some of the exhaustion and the aches. He slipped on a fresh set of clothing, and sat on his bed, pulling the suit on. He had three pieces of evidence to vouch for his sanity. First, the cuts and scrapes and tears in his clothing from the fight with the skeletons. He had not been badly injured, but the damage was distinctive. It could have been caused by something else, but he felt it counted. Second, his gun. Its clip was empty, and he spent half an hour of pre-dawn filling out an incident report. When it came to determining what he had been shooting at, he sat silently for ten minutes before filling in ‘wild animal attack’. Explaining this was going to be tricky. He would have to figure out a good, convincing lie. Telling the truth seemed like it would be a terribly fruitless endeavor with anyone outside of the city. Even in the city, he was going to have to be careful.

Last was the ring. He reached into the pants, and slid the delicate silver band out. There was an inscription on the inner edge. Age had worn it smooth, but he could still make out a bit of the carving in the metal. ‘To my dearest-‘ An illegible scrawl blanked out the next word- ‘I will love you in this life, and every other. Megara.’

 

3 thoughts on “Chapter 3: Dead Air

    1. This is in fact something I learned looking it up for a later story for clarification. I’ll chalk it up to a particular consequence of the mysterious figure’s powers, because I think that says something interesting about it.

      Liked by 2 people

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