Chapter 5: Blowback

Mortification wasn’t the right word for the emotions he felt when he returned to the hotel, only to find Heather waiting for him. But it was the best word he had. The dark-skinned woman smiled kindly as he got out of the car. “Tough day?” she asked, as he stood in his briefs, his slashed tie hanging around his neck.

“You could say that. I’m sorry, but I really should get inside and change-” She laughed, and he was acutely aware of just how exposed he felt.

“Ariel plays rough with the boys she likes. Tell you what. Give me the damaged clothes. I’ll see if I can repair it for you. Sound good?” He flushed a bit. The offer was, to say the least, generous.

“No, it’s alright, I-” He stopped, as he saw the kind smile on her face. He took a deep breath. “That would actually be really kind of you. I can’t turn down your generosity.” Her smile became even brighter, as she walked over to him, undoing the knot of the damaged tie. It gave him a chance to feel the atmosphere around her. She was surrounded by the soft taste of clean spring water. The gentle gurgle of streams and water. Maybe that was what she was. Like Pearl, like Ariel. He considered asking her, and something, some intuition, told him it wasn’t the right time. He would have ignored it like he usually did, but intuition had been the only thing keeping him from getting himself killed for the last day. Something inside of him quavered at the idea of asking for more power from the strange women.

When Nash entered his hotel room, there was an envelope slipped under his door. ‘From Pearl’ was printed across the top. It contained a road map, with a spot marked on the beach. ‘Shack’ was written next to it in an elegant, angular hand. The route to the shack was a tangled and meandering forest road, leading out to the beach. It appeared to be built on the bluffs overlooking the sand. He frowned. There was a small-town charm to that sort of thing. Old, forgotten buildings where kids would get together for the foolish little private liaisons of youth.They probably had some really cute name for it. He sighed softly. He’d never had anything like that. But his own lack of love life wasn’t important at the moment.

He changed into fresh clothing. The training, exhausting though it had been, had reinvigorated him. Despite his lack of sleep, he found himself full of energy. Of course, he also was sore like few times before in his life. His legs were aching from the walk the day before in formal shoes. His face was scratched and stinging whenever he sweated. His knees and back ached from the blows that he’d taken. It had been a remarkably difficult couple of days. And in spite of it all, he felt strangely cheerful as he started the car. It was a bright, sunny day. The morning mist had dissolved under the sun, and now it was warm, but not unpleasantly so, and the sky was a fierce and magnificent blue. And he was going to track down the people responsible.

The main street branched off into a gravel road. The gravel became dirt. The dirt gave way to a rutted path through tall grass. And then sand, and two police cruisers. Officer Dio, a pair of deputies, and Pearl were visible, studying the shack. It stood on top of a small bluff. Large, jagged rocks were visible at the base of the hill, jutting out from the sand. Lake Ontario stretched out into infinity. The bluff was grassy, with a handful of trees providing shade and a windbreak from the lake. The shack itself was actually quite beautiful, made by someone with an eye for craftsmanship. It hadn’t been painted in a long time, but inside it was clean, dust-free, and the few pieces of furniture looked comfortable and well-cared-for.

Police tape surrounded the place. Bright yellow, it marred the romantic atmosphere. The deputies were busy, searching the inside of the shack. He grabbed a couple of latex gloves from a box atop a police cruiser hood, and joined them. It was slow, tedious work. Gathering hairs and flakes of dust that might be skin, dusting for prints. There was a small bed, stained with something that Nash wouldn’t particularly like to speculate about. Little things, that might give a hint of what had happened in this place.

“What does this place tell you, Nash?” Pearl asked, as she worked alongside him. “I know some of what happened here, but not the specifics. No naked flame to show me how, exactly, things went down.” He eyed her. That was a very interesting statement.

“Well, the shack obviously sees a lot of traffic. The grass outside is nearly trampled flat, so people must come by frequently. It looks like it’s has been cleaned recently, since there’s little dust on the surfaces. Not to mention that stain seemed relatively fresh. This would be a lot easier if we had gotten here right after the murder, though. We’ve got a week’s worth of decay.” He sighed. “You checked the footprints? Can you make heads or tails of them out there?”

She nodded. “Looks like they’re still somewhat fresh. There are three sets of shoe-prints out there, so we have at least three people here.” She shrugged. “It’s not exactly a distinctive piece of evidence. No way to place anyone on the scene. And no sign of a body being dragged anywhere, so if something happened to Dean in there, he was carried out bodily.” She sighed softly. The afternoon was still bright, and he gave her a bracing smile.

“We’ll give genetic evidence a shot. The people in this town have DNA, right?” he asked. Nash stopped for a moment, and considered the question he had just asked. It was amazing the kind of insanity you could get used to.

“Yeah. At least enough that they should be recognizable. They might raise a few questions if anyone studies the evidence a little too closely, but those can be smoothed over. It’ll give us an opportunity to prove who’s been here recently.”

“Alright. Next up is possible suspects. Ariel mentioned six people who had the kind of power necessary to animate the dead. Whoever did that was probably the one who tore open the police station and stole Dean Constantinou’s body. Even if they’re not, they would almost certainly know them. Who would have been physically powerful enough to actually do what was done to the station, as well as sic those skeletons on me?” He turned on his small flashlight, running the beam under the bed. The floorboards were in quite good shape for an old building like this. A small suspicion blossomed in his mind, and Nash frowned.

“Well, the Hell-Hound is Officer Crupky. She’s our jailer. She wasn’t in yesterday, she’s been out on leave lately, but I suppose that it’s entirely possible she was responsible. Physically, anyway. Mentally… She’s pretty rule-abiding. Izanami is the coroner. Both of them, however, have keys into the building. It would be odd for them to cause all that destruction. Particularly Izanami. Old lady Wendigo… She’d be strong enough if she’d eaten recently.” Pearl saw Nash’s expression, and smiled. “She doesn’t make her own meals anymore. Part of the truce. She… Well, I understand that she visits certain less-than-reputable mortuaries around the state.” Nash shuddered. That was more detail than he’d ever wanted to hear. “But why would someone want to bring the boy back?”

“Guilt. Trying to cover up their tracks. They owe someone a favor. They just want to try to fix this in the most direct way that they can. Whoever was trying to bring him back wasn’t having any success.” He shook his head. “We’re going to have to visit all three of them after we’ve checked this place out. Anything further that you’ve found?”

“Not yet.” The search continued late into the afternoon. As the sun began to set, Pearl yawned. Nash smiled. It was interesting to see that even a goddess could get tired with the tedious realities of police work. Maybe even a little endearing.

“I think we’ve picked this place pretty clean, but we’ll give it another look tomorrow. We’re also going to need to go interview the other kids at the school. We’ve only scratched the surface of this case. We’ll have to get in touch with those three…” He took out his keys. “Have one of the deputies drive my car back to the hotel, would you?” He looked around the shack. Three rooms. The bedroom, overlooking the lake. A small kitchenette with a camp stove. A larger living room, a pair of couches and an old book case stacked high with reading material. They’d looked through them, and nothing had stood out. Pearl frowned at him.

“You’re not going to come with us?” she asked, raising an eyebrow slowly. He grinned.

“I’ve got a hunch. I’m going to spend the night here. If there’s anyone still coming by this place, they’ll know we were here. It might spook them into removing something from the place if they think we’re gone. Don’t worry. I’ll stay safe.” He looked out. Across the lake, storm clouds were visible. “By tomorrow, whatever evidence is on the grass outside will be gone. Make sure that you’ve taken some pictures, at the least. We can use it as a comparison. Then…” He removed his jacket. “Give this to Sergeant Dio. In evening light, he might pass for me.” The gun hung reassuringly heavy in the holster under his armpit. Pearl frowned at it. Of course, it had been completely worthless last night, but habit was a hard thing to break. “I know. I don’t intend to fire it. But it might make our culprit think twice.” She nodded slowly, and frowned.

“You’re taking a hell of a chance here, Nash. You’re not ready for a real fight. You struggled against old bones, animated with a puff of necromantic energy. You’ve got a long way to go before you’re going to be able to stand up to anything in this town.” Nash bit back the anger and irritation. She was right. Even though it galled him, even though it burned in his chest. He hated feeling weak.

“Don’t worry. I’m not going to fight. If I wind up in a confrontation, I’ll just bolt. Run all the way back home.” He laughed softly, the sound echoing weirdly in the confines of the shack. “The gift of breath seems uniquely suited for something like that. I guess it really knows the kind of person I am.” He gave her an encouraging smile. She didn’t return it. She just stared at him for a few seconds, and shook her head softly. The look on her face was unfamiliar, but it might have been an expression of concern for his safety.

The deputies, Dio, and Pearl left the building, returning to the cars. There was the sound of engines turning over, and the crunch of tires on the sand. Then, the world went blessedly quiet. Nash took a book from the bookcase. He smiled. An anthology of some comic or another. He didn’t recognize the artist, but he sat down in the kitchenette, hidden behind the wall. He took a seat, and breathed deeply, letting the tension drain out of him as he blended into the shadows. He could see out of the window, but here, nobody would see him. He began to read from the book, letting his mind drift while he waited. He was following intuition more than logical thought, at the moment. But there had already been one attempt at a cover-up. It seemed likely that another attempt would be made. And so, he let time pass.

He was rewarded when the shadowy figure detached from the trees three hours later. It glided forwards up the bluff as he watched. A gray hoodie was pulled over a young person’s figure. Slender, their identity disguised by the deep shadow of the hood. They didn’t look like either the robed figure that had appeared in the graveyard last night or anyone else that he had interviewed, but the evening was well into twilight, and it was difficult to make them out. Nash frowned, and placed the comic book down, withdrawing his gun from the holster. The figure was carrying a large jerrycan. He smiled, and wished that it didn’t feel like quite such a predatory expression. The door opened with a soft click. He stood out of view, and listened to the footsteps. There was the sound of liquid being poured out across the floor. He crossed his arms, leaning his head back against the wall as he checked the windows. If they started a fire right now, he’d be able to get out even if he was cut off from the outside. Then, he heard them walk into the bedroom. There was the sound of floorboards scraping. The smile grew a little wider, and he stepped through the doorway, drawing his gun.

The muzzle was leveled at the figure’s chest. A pink book was in one hand. The jerrycan was in the other. The figure froze, hands moving into the air, clearly shocked by his sudden appearance, and frightened by the gun. “Well. Seems that you thought there was something incriminating enough to be worth committing arson over. You know, the thing that really bothers me about this is that you’re taking this place away from the future. Think of all the kids who aren’t going to have a make-out shack.” He paused for a moment. “Hell, give me the book and the match, and I’ll burn the place down myself. I’m sure the parents of the town will thank me for the drop in teen pregnancies.” The figure was shaking like a leaf. They couldn’t have been older than a teenager. They were terrified of the suit-clad stranger with a gun, cracking awful jokes at them with no regard for their safety. What was possessing him to make jokes in a situation like this? “Alright. I’m going to make you a deal. You don’t turn into some kind of horrific monster, and I’ll put the gun away. Let’s talk.” He slid the gun into his shoulder holster. “What’s your name?” The figure was silent. He sighed. “Look, you’re clearly in some big trouble. You’re trying to destroy evidence, and that pink book looks important. Were you the one who killed Dean Constantinou?”

“No!” the figure whispered, outrage making their voice harsh. “He was my friend!” The whisper was urgent, hissed out between teeth. It gave no hint of gender, rasping in the darkness. “He wasn’t supposed to die, it all just-” The figure pressed their lips tightly together in the darkness. Soft lips. Feminine? Or just androgynous?

“Then you’re trying to protect someone. That’s a noble thing. But this isn’t the right way to do it. The longer this goes unsolved, the worse it’s going to become. There’s already a lot of people who are enraged about what happened. If they don’t get answers, they’ll start blaming people around them. Everyone will get hurt. I’m sure that’s not what Dean would have wanted.”

“What the hell do you know about it?” asked the soft voice, hissing. There was quite a lot of hiss in that voice, now. Nash could feel the tension growing. Snakebite. That was what killed Dean Constantinou. “You want the book, keep it.” The figure tossed the book. Nash moved on reflex, grabbing it out of the air, and the figure struck him in the midsection in a diving tackle. They were much heavier than they should be. There was a flash of lightning, and the heavens opened up. Rain began falling violently, hammering the shack’s roof, rattling the windows as thunder rolled through the clouds. In the brief flash, Nash saw the way the figure’s legs were melding, fusing, flowing together like wax. They grew together into a tail, massive, scaled, and terrifyingly strong. It swooped around him, and he pulled his knees up to his chest.

It was probably the only thing that saved him from having his body snapped in two. With his legs straining against the tail, he managed to keep his ribs from cracking under the pressure. White teeth gleamed in the light of the flashes of lightning. Tears were painting his assailant’s cheeks. That made him feel bad about what he was about to do. The figure leaned over him seemed powerful as their snake-tail wrapped tightly around him, squeezing him to death. But those fingers looked awfully delicate. His assailant was young. They were scared. They were trying to protect either themselves or a close friend. But he could feel his spine creaking and groaning under the pressure he was under. And the rage blossomed forth inside of him, washing away any hesitations or uncertainty. He reached out and fastened his fingers around the teenager’s right pinky.

There was no gradual bending, no slow extension of the joints to give the snake time to rethink their actions. He twisted his wrist sharply, and was rewarded with an agonized scream from his assailant. He wondered if they’d ever before felt the kind of pain he had just inflicted on them. But the coils loosened, giving him room to breathe. He twisted the finger further, and felt the tail unwind from his midsection. The teenager was sobbing. He let go of the finger, and that proved to be a terrible mistake, because the snake lunged forward, and sank sharp teeth into his arm. He let out a cry of anger, his blood boiling as the teeth pulled free. Something green and fizzling dripped onto the ground.

Nash had heard about snakebite. It was supposed to be extremely painful in most cases, though this was not. As the figure stretched and grew in front of him, he slipped the pink book into his pocket. He’d never heard of a hallucinogenic snake venom. But as the hoodie flared like a cobra hood around the figure’s head, revealing a face full of rage and pain, tears streaming down their face, he suspected he might not be able to trust his eyes. He raised his hands, feeling his fingers flow together and separate like hot, melting wax. “Son of a bitch,” he muttered. That was going to make identifying his assailant difficult.

The figure was female, but he couldn’t be sure how much of that was imagination as she was also now ten feet tall. Her head was surrounded by a vast scaly hood with two large white eye-shapes visible on it, and the tail ended in a rapidly shaking rattle. His mind was doing loops, trying to interpret patterns, and making an almighty mess out of them as it did. She lunged, and grew rapidly as she did. The perspective was screwed up. First she was ten feet tall, then twenty, then fifty, then a hundred, until one of her sharp fangs was as large as him. He braced himself. Even in the midst of the hallucinations, his reflexes were still sharp. He seized the tooth with two hands, and twisted his hips. It was a tremendous effort, but he swung her up, into the air, and over his shoulder. The doorway from the bedroom into the living area of the shack had changed. It had become a vast, cyclopean door, and the massive snake-woman flew through it, landing in a crumpled heap in a shallow sea of slick rainbows that filled the room. She stood up, and panted, facing him, her hands up, nails sharp like talons. The jerrycan had changed, becoming a tremendous skull, more of the slick rainbow liquid dripping out of its empty eye sockets, and from between its teeth.

Behind her, the woman in red stood, smiling. She ran a finger across her throat, winking suggestively. He swallowed hard, and screamed defiance at her. “I’m not going to kill her! You can’t make me do that, you psychotic bitch!” The woman in red’s mouth opened in a soundless laugh, as the snake woman stared at him, obviously perplexed. She tilted her head, as he started approaching her. She slithered back, her eyes opening wide. “Surrender. For your own good. I don’t know what you are, but you can still walk away from this.” Uncertainty filled her eyes. Then, he saw it. The woman in red grinned. Her dark skin contrasted with that bright red hair, as she took out a book of matches. “No!” The snake woman looked surprised, even as the woman in red lit the match. It flared into life, a screaming inferno surrounded by wailing souls. The floorboards of the room screamed in terror, the faces of ten thousand memories of happier times watching in horror as the match tumbled through the air. The snake woman bolted away from him, towards the entrance. Fire erupted, volcanic heat pounding through the shack. The rainbow liquid ignited instantly, and a crackling fire of many colors filled the air. It was crawling towards the skull at a lightning pace. Nash turned, and ran to the window, shattering the glass with the butt of his gun.

He stared down. A black abyss awaited him. He knew that it couldn’t have been that far to the sand below. Twenty feet? Thirty? Fifty? More? Not that it mattered with the flames behind him. He leapt from the window, just as the flames reached the skull. A howl of despair filled the air, so loud it went beyond sound, and became pain and a bone-rattling vibration. He swirled in the air, tumbling into the abyss. Time stretched out impossibly. He should have landed by now. It was further than he thought. He was going to fall on his head. He’d break his neck. He’d die, and he would never know why all of this was happening. He had fucked it all up, and now, he was going to pay the price for thinking he could make a difference in the world. That was what always happened to humans who thought they had control. That was what he deserved. He closed his eyes, and waited for karma to take him.

Silas Nash stopped falling. It was a much gentler landing than he expected. He opened his eyes slowly, and found himself in Ariel’s arms. The slender young woman seemed to have no trouble catching him, and she set him on his feet with equal ease. Her usual outfit was gone, replaced with a slender white toga. Rain was falling, cool and soothing on his fire-flushed skin. He was stinging from the explosion, but he was alive. He stood among the rocks at the base of the bluff. They seemed to stretch up around him like spires, and he couldn’t see the top of the bluff, the small hill disappearing into distant clouds in his poison-twisted brain. Lightning flashed around him, as the rain splattered against his face. Ariel smiled softly, as she stood next to him. “Why do you hate me?” he asked. It was a rather foolish question to ask a hallucination, he knew. But something inside of him yearned to know. She laughed softly, an angelic noise. There was no mockery in it. She leaned forward, and pulled his arm over her shoulder as the two of them began walking. It was a long way into town.

“I don’t hate you, Nash. If I hated you, I wouldn’t be protecting you. I would have let you break your neck on the rocks. I am angry with you. You don’t believe in people. You don’t care about people. You don’t leave yourself vulnerable enough to be hurt that way. You fold when someone confronts you emotionally, and how long can you go, cringing back from that? Why is the only time you’re honest about who you are when you’re fighting for your life?” She laughed again, and was gone.

He walked. It seemed to take an eternity to reach the place where the cars had been sitting. Pearl was standing there. She was wearing a solid bronze breastplate with an exaggerated man’s muscular physique, a centurion’s helmet under her arm, a plated skirt covering her legs. Sandals were strapped around her legs, and a weary smile clung to her lips. He kept walking, and she fell into step next to him. He watched as she walked, and began to imitate her. The smooth, swaying movements of the legs came easy, a steady pace that took all of the strain off of his movements. A policeman’s proceeding. Not something they taught at Quantico. Together, they walked along the small, rutted path through the forest. He could hear the roar and crash of waves fading in the distance, as rain fell from the sky. Trees lined the path on either side of them. Darkness seemed to well up out of the deep forest, slinking along the ground like mist. It poured over the edges of the dirt track, and sloshed around his feet like insubstantial oil.

“Why don’t you help?” he asked, as the two of them walked. She smiled softly.

“I do help. I help in all the ways that I can. But there are rules. They’re a part of me. They keep me from acting. You’re a human. The only rules you obey are the ones in your head, and you can discard them any time you like. The rules that tell you killing is wrong. The rules that tell you that you’ll never achieve anything. All of them. The rules in my head… They’re not mine. They’re the rules you’ve imposed on me.” She sighed. “It’s so hard watching humanity suffer. I would make it all better, if you’d let me. Warm those who are dying in the cold. We could help all of you, if you’d just believe in us.”

He snorted. Something inside of him rebelled at that offer. Of being coddled. “What, we should pray to gods to help us? You don’t think we can accomplish it on our own?” He looked over towards her, and to his surprise, tears were running down her cheeks, even as she smiled. She rubbed at them with one hand.

“Of course you can accomplish it on your own. You don’t need us. Not in the way that we need you. But can’t you let us help you? We want to, you know.” She was silent for a moment. “I want to.” He felt horribly awkward as she kept crying. He couldn’t reach out and embrace her. The heat that bled off her would consume him. So they simply walked together in the cold downpour. The tears began to mix with the rain, and then, they seemed to disappear. “We’ve always been there for you. Every tool that humans made. And I was there right from the beginning. I’ll tell you the story of it, someday.” She smiled. “You don’t trust us. That’s alright. Because I trust you.”

“Why?”

“Can’t tell you.” And with that, she was gone, leaving him standing in the darkness, wondering whether she couldn’t tell him because she wasn’t allowed, or because she didn’t know.

He walked on for another eternity in the night. It might have been a whole ten seconds. His heart was growing slower, and pain stabbed at it with each step. Dean Constantinou was sitting on a rock by the side of the path. Megara Drakos, her eyes downcast, stood on the other side. They weren’t looking at one another, but as Nash walked past them, they fell into line with him, flanking him on either side. “She never loved me, you know,” said Dean. It was the voice of a young man, petulant and angry.

“I was as good a mother as I knew how. And I have had more experience than anyone in motherhood. The boy simply did not understand the nature of this place. He did not understand why his father could find happiness with me, after his birth mother had died. He was an ungrateful child.”

“She didn’t tell me. She’s the reason I’m dead.” Dean spoke accusingly. The boy had a brooding look, his skin pale with death. The scent of entropy lingered around him like rancid nothingness.

“Why did you die?” Nash asked, looking at Dean.

“Because I didn’t know enough. Be careful, it’s a contagious kind of death.”

“Was he supposed to die?” Nash asked, looking to his other side, towards Megara. Her eyes were those of a snake, golden, slitted, predatory.

“Yes.” Nash frowned at that answer.

“Did you kill him?”

She turned her eyes towards him. They showed the truth. She was tormented beyond words “I did. I did not want to, but I did. He died because of me. How can I live with his father, knowing what I have done?” Her voice was empty, haunted. There was a bark of laughter from Nash’s other side. He turned, and no one stood there, Dean already vanished like a mist. He looked back, and Megara was gone too. His heart was beating very slowly, now, despite his exertions. He didn’t have long. His fingers were twitching constantly. He could feel a bit of saliva running down his chin. He was losing control of his body. The poison inside of him was doing its work, slowly but surely. He kept placing one foot down in front of another. For another subjective eternity, that was all he did, lost in the constant movement.

“He was going to be a great man when he grew up.” Nash lifted his head. Harry stood in front of him. Broad-shouldered, a log was slung under one arm, the axe at his side. He wore a lion’s skin over his shoulders, the empty eye-sockets of the big cat meeting Nash’s. Shaggy black hair emerged from the mouth of the lion like a frozen spire of oily vomit. He turned to walk beside Nash, as the two of them strode. “They say no man should have to bury his son. But every time I live, I marry, I love, I have children, and they are taken from me.” The man laughed, a sound that was unexpectedly hearty. “They say that one cannot be a hero without adversity. And life delights in giving me adversity.” The man looked askance at him. “If I were to ask you to bring him back, would you think it an unreasonable request?”

The question was absurd. Dean was dead. But Nash thought about the question. “Is there a reason that he should live? So many other people die every day, murdered, their lives stolen away. What makes your son different? Why does he deserve to have life, when nobody else does? When my mother didn’t?”

Harry was quiet for a long time, as they walked. “I suppose that is a good point. I am used to tragedy. I cannot claim a right to be excepted from it. But there is someone out there with a worthy need for Dean to be alive. His murderer. Consider it, not for my sake, but for theirs.” Nash’s head sank. Could the real Harry have been so forgiving?

“You’re dying.” He looked up. The robed figure from the previous night was walking next to him. “That’s a shame. You couldn’t have done that a little earlier, when I could have saved you?” The voice was still indistinct, gravelly, with a strange echoing effect, as though the same words were being repeated by a dozen people at once. “Do you even know why you are here? It is not for justice. If you had never come here, then that boy would already be alive again, in my tender care. Why do you fight? Why not just lie down, and die?” He had to admit the voice was persuasive. His body certainly seemed to think so, as his legs gave out from under him. He didn’t fold. He simply collapsed forward, landing face-first on the thick gravel of the ground. His face hurt. He lay there for several long minutes, his heart beat slower, and slower. He could hear it growing weaker. The poison finally taking him. What was the point in struggle?

“It should have been me.” A soft voice whispered. He recognized it. The soft, tearful voice of Isabelle. She rested a hand on the back of his head. “It should have been me who died. You are a decent man, Mister Nash. Please, stand up. You need to get up. You need to make things right. I cannot. Nobody else can. Please!” Her touch disappeared, and he listened to the lack of sound where his heartbeat should be, as the world grew cold around him. It wasn’t his problem. It wasn’t his responsibility. This awful, horrible place had killed him, far from home, without ever meaning anything. He didn’t owe the people a god damned thing.

A hand tightened around his shoulder. He was pulled upwards, hauled to his feet by someone inhumanly strong. But who here wasn’t inhuman or strong? Then he caught a glimpse of red hair. Luminous red hair. He struggled weakly in the grip, and was set on his feet. He faced the woman in red, and she smiled. Shining steel teeth, stained red with blood, lipstick, or both, glittered in the night. “Come and get me,” she whispered. Her voice was filled with the clash of steel on steel, the concussion of explosives, the ringing of tinnitus, the screams of men. It was a nightmare voice, the voice that incited him on to violence. He lunged, his heart pounding like a kettle drum, and she danced backwards out of his grip as he stumbled and tried to keep on his feet. The anger inside of him made his heart pound a staccato beat against his ribs as he ran. She laughed like a hyena, a wild and untamed sound. He reached out for her, as his feet crunched on gravel. The two of them ran together through the forest, through the shadow that sloshed across the ground, and between trees that reached into the sky, tearing open jagged, bleeding wounds in the velvet-black flesh of the night sky. She stayed always just a little beyond him, and he raged as she did.

The forest parted. Before him, a great conical tent sat in the midst of a great grassy lot. Fires burned within, lighting the place of healing. He stumbled towards it as smoke rose from an open flap near the top. There was an aura of holiness that surrounded the structure, calling to him gently. There, standing in the entrance, was a woman. She wore a white leather hide, the hide of a buffalo, across her shoulders. A long pipe was held in one hand, a bowl at its tip, smoke dancing upwards in elaborate patterns. She turned towards him, her head tilted. “Jesus, are you alright?” Her voice was gentle, with a bit of gravel in it. He stumbled towards her, and fell down. He could hear shouting, and then nothing.

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