The realms of the dead, p.23
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       The Realms of the Dead, p.23

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  Control nodded and he pressed his palm against the door, pushing it with minimal force. Though the door swung open easily, its hinges protested. The noise, however, was not the squeal of metal scraping against metal. Instead, it was a sound that had recently become all too familiar: the slow creak of rope against wood.

  The interior of the office was so dark it seemed as if the doorway led into a black hole from which even light could not escape. There was no ambient glow, no light seeping in from the hallway; there was only a straight line on the floor, perfectly delineating the realm of illumination from complete and total darkness.

  Part of Chuck’s mind insisted that the moment they crossed the threshold, he and Control would plunge into a bottomless void, falling in the cold blackness of an abyss from which they could never escape. For something about the darkness felt vast, as though it existed in a dimension that could not be restrained by walls and ceilings. Yet he reached for her hand anyway and together they took that first step.

  They didn’t topple into nothingness; but they didn’t exactly enter Chuck’s office either. Their feet crunched overgrown grass so dry and brittle that it disintegrated into a cloud of dust around their shoes. Overhead, the sun was a hazy disk obscured by an overcast sky. Its rays sliced the heavens like gleaming blades and colors bled into the atmosphere slowly, as if the incisions were deep enough to coax reds and pinks from the bruised clouds without draining them completely.

  Despite the hues in the sky, the rest of the world was bathed in a greenish glow. The color brought to mind images of infection and radiation, of all things sickly and poisonous, and it was easy to imagine the atmosphere itself had ushered in this world’s death. For dead was truly the only word that could adequately describe the vista laid out before them.

  Wildflowers drooped from flaccid stalks, their blooms as shriveled as mummified flesh; any color the petals might once have possessed had long since wilted away and the scent they now released was the musty stink of mold and decay.

  Scattered among the withered flowers, carcasses littered the ground. A fallen army of birds and puppies putrefied in the oppressive heat, their bodies looking as if they’d somehow deflated. Blackened flesh dipped into hollows that would have been round and full in the living and rib cages erupted through the shrunken tissue. The bones looked as though they’d been stained with tea and globs of gristle clung to muscle strands that had dried to the consistency of leather. Surrounding each carcass was a halo of fur or feathers—depending upon the species—but no flies swarmed around the desiccated remains. It was as if even the insects had died off in this place, leaving the potential feast to the ravages of time.

  Control squeezed Chuck’s hand and said something, but her voice was muffled and distant, no more than a faint buzzing in his ears. He felt as if he’d been rooted to the spot and doubted he could take another step even if his life depended upon it…which very well could be the case.

  It wasn’t the gruesome surroundings that had paralyzed him, however. It was the overwhelming certainty that he’d been here before. He tried to imagine the world as it had been before entropy had taken hold, to envision it as a vibrant land teeming with life. Before Death’s scythe had mown through the fields…before the sky had been battered into submission…

  “Chuck!”

  Control yanked Chuck’s arm so roughly that pain exploded from his abdominal wound, derailing his train of thought in a cacophony of agony. Gritting his teeth, he grimaced and doubled over; freeing his hand from hers, he cradled his midsection with his arms as he bit back a scream.

  Control darted forward and puffs of dust billowed around her ankles, leaving perfect footprints in the pulverized grass. For the first time, Chuck noticed familiar items nestled within this macabre realm. To his left, a Buddha fountain gurgled and burbled as water streamed through its workings; and there, slightly ahead of him but off to the side, was the sofa he stretched out upon whenever he journeyed into Crossfades, its throw pillows seeming comforting yet surreal outside the usual trappings of his office.

  But was it truly outside his office? The furnishings were exactly where they should have been, spaced apart so perfectly that it was as though two different dimensions overlapped one another, blending into a composite of Space-Time where each reality was just as real, just as valid, as the other.

  Control ran toward the nearly completed Faraday Cage, her voice breaking as she shrieked the word no, and Chuck clamped his hand over his mouth as his eyes widened with horror. He’d been so entranced with the sense of déjà vu all else had practically ceased to exist. Now, however, the blood drained from his face and his veins felt as though ice water was surging through them. His mouth gaped open in an attempt to form words, but his throat felt so tight that even drawing a breath was a taxing effort.

  A single thought surfaced as his eyes stung with tears.

  We’re too late…

  For sprawled across the grass was the motionless body of a little girl, her outstretched hand reaching, even in death, for the screwdriver that would have served as her only weapon.

  Chapter 14

  Chuck ran to Control’s side as she seized Marilee and shook the girl’s shoulders. Tears streamed down his partner’s face and a wordless moan bubbled deep from within her throat. Chuck clenched his fists as a stream of curses flowed through his mind, his muscles demanding to lash out, to vent grief and frustration in one well-placed punch. The primal surge of emotion, however, was short-lived.

  Marilee rolled over, her eyes blinking as she pushed herself into a sitting position.

  “Hey.” Her voice was thick with sleep and she yawned while stretching. “What time is it? I wanted t’ finish before you guys came in, but I guess I dozed…”

  Marilee’s voice trailed off as she took in her surroundings, her dark eyes scrutinizing every blade of grass. Her gaze lingered briefly on the animal carcasses and her nose wrinkled a fraction of a second before her head whipped toward the Faraday Cage. As soon as she saw the box, the girl’s shoulders slumped with relief and she pulled a metal box to her chest, cradling it in the way another child might hold a baby doll.

  “Damn it,” Control laughed, “you’ve got to stop doing that to us!”

  Snatching the screwdriver with one hand, Marilee scrambled to her feet and looked again at the world in which she’d awakened. Her attention, though, seemed to mainly focus on the objects that had followed them from the real word, silently nodding as she studied the couch and Buddha fountain.

  “Makes sense,” she mumbled. “Makes perfect sense.”

  “I’m glad someone thinks so,” Control admitted. “Because, quite frankly, I have no idea where the hell we are.”

  “We’re in Mr. Grainger’s office,” Marilee replied, her tone as casual as if she were discussing plans for lunch. “I know it doesn’t look like it. But we are.”

  “Then Chuck needs to find himself a new decorator.”

  “It’s a Bleedover,” she explained. “But not fully manifested. I think it was feeding off me before. Using my power to form. Now that my chip’s gone, it’s not as strong. Don’t get me wrong. This is still bad. Very bad. But it makes sense.”

  “I hate to bust your bubble,” Chuck countered, “but this kind of thing started happening before I even knew who you were, Marilee.”

  The girl looked at Chuck and smiled.

  “No, Mr. Grainger. Not exactly. Before we met, the Bleedovers formed while you were sleeping. In your subconscious. Still impressive, but not like this. Actually, if I’m not wrong, the only time you were pulled into a Bleedover while awake was the day we met. When you were walkin’ into this office.”

  “But Nodens…” Control countered, causing the child to wave her hand dismissively.

  “Even low-level NCMs can cause poltergeist activity. No big whoop. But forming a reality that entirely overtakes the living’s perceptions? That takes a lot of energy. Massive amounts.”

  Chuck thought of his déjà vu and vent
ured a question.

  “Could Lewis have pulled this place from my memories?” he asked. “I’m positive I’ve been here before.”

  “Possible, but not likely. Were any of the other Bleedovers places you knew?” Chuck admitted they weren’t and Marilee nodded before continuing. “Didn’t think so. This place feels personal. It’s like every inch of it’s imbued with anger. Hatred. Rage.”

  Control placed her hand against the Faraday Cage and looked up and down, taking in the box as she pursed her lips. A black cord led from the back of the box and snaked across the grass. Several feet away, the cord rose from the ground as if preparing to strike but its end gradually faded into obscurity. Logic told her that the cage had been plugged in to a wall outlet they were no longer able to see.

  “This thing’s plugged in,” she noted. “Is it done?”

  “Almost.” Marilee hoisted the metal box she was holding in her left hand, drawing attention to it. “I just hafta wire up the invertor, flip a breaker, and the NME-1289 is online.”

  “What do you say we finish this thing up so we can be done with this once and for all? This place gives me the creeps.”

  While his companions were speaking, Chuck’s attention had been drawn to the horizon. The door through which they’d entered this realm was no longer visible and the gently rolling hills stretched out to meet the sky for as far as the eye could see. He thought he’d seen something move out there, off in the distance. He’d only caught it peripherally at first and thought he may have been mistaken; but with his focus purely on the landscape, there was now no doubt.

  “What the hell is that?” Though speaking mainly to himself, his question caused both Marilee and Control to follow his line of sight.

  Cresting a knoll that appeared to be a mile or so away was what looked to be a massive, gray cloud. It lay close to the earth and rose only a few inches from the ground, but what it lacked in height was more than made up for in width. Swirling tendrils followed the contours of the land like a nebulous wall, churning and stirring in the air as it seemed to grow larger.

  “Is that coming toward us?” Control moved to Chuck’s side and cupped her hand over her eyes. “I mean, it looks like it’s coming right at us…doesn’t it?”

  Chuck had to admit his partner’s observation seemed accurate. As the cloud rapidly approached, its depth became apparent. The cloud that hugged the ground wasn’t simply a narrow, smoke-like line; it rolled over the landscape for at least five hundred yards toward the horizon, thick and dense; the rear of this mass seemed to keep pace with its front, as though the cloud were a single, living entity rushing toward them.

  “This,” Chuck mumbled, “can’t be good.”

  As the cloud grew closer, a new detail emerged. Close to the grass was a thin strip of darkness. It ran the entire length of the cloud and seemed to be solid, yet somehow ever-shifting, as though made up of millions of smaller particles.

  Marilee wandered in front of Chuck and Control, squinting her eyes to get a better look. As her feet shuffled, the brittle grass disintegrated and puffs of dust rose from the ground. At the same time, a sound emerged from the cloud, faint at first but gaining strength with every passing second.

  Chuck’s heart fluttered as it struggled to meet the supply his sudden rush of adrenaline demanded.

  “What’s that noise?” Marilee asked, as she glanced over her shoulder. “Sounds like…clicking.”

  It wasn’t smoke racing toward them. It was the atomized remains of grass rising into the air as a multitude of black, hard-shell insects cut a swath through the landscape. Chuck rattled off calculations in his mind, estimating distance and speed as he simultaneously spun around.

  “Run!”

  His voice echoed even as his body was already in motion. Panic honed the words to a sharp edge, severing further conversation or questions as Control and Marilee bolted after him. The field blurred by as they ran, but Chuck tried to keep his attention focused solely in front of him. Even though he sprinted so quickly that wind rustled his hair, the objects from his office seemed to keep pace with them. It was as though the Faraday Cage, fountain, and sofa remained stationary while the rest of the world scrolled by at a dizzying pace and the effect caused waves of nausea and vertigo to flood over him.

  The last thing any of them needed was to stumble or trip, for the clicking and clacking of the insects grew steadily louder, gaining ground with each beat of his heart. Within seconds, the scuttling bugs drowned out the sound of feet slapping against the earth and the haggard breathing of his companions.

  The urge to look over his shoulder was nearly irresistible. He knew the insects were gaining ground and visually confirming this would be futile. Besides hearing them, Chuck could also sense their presence: The air at his back seemed to crackle with static electricity, as if the friction generated by a billion tiny legs charged the atmosphere and his hairs stood on end as he fled.

  Control and Marilee flanked him on either side and he stole quick glances to ensure they were keeping up. Their skin glistened with a sheen of sweat and Marilee’s pigtails bounced against her shoulders. She still held the inverter and screwdriver and Chuck wanted to call out to her, tell her to be careful. He could all-too-clearly imagine her tumbling over something hidden in the grass and impaling herself on the tool’s shaft; but his throat burned with exertion and he panted for breath so heavily that there simply wasn’t time to form words.

  The swarm was so close to them now that the ground vibrated with the flurry of movement and the clacking of legs and shells was deafening.

  Though they’d been running in a straight line, the sun had somehow shifted positions in the sky. Directly in front of them, its rays burned through the clouds and Chuck squinted against the glare. It was as though the environment itself was reacting to their flight, forcing them to run blindly in the hopes one of them would slip on the decaying body of a dog or bird.

  Marilee shrieked as a black insect scurried up her leg, its movements frenzied yet somehow seeming to have purpose. It scuttled up her thigh as the girl frantically used the screwdriver in an attempt to brush it away.

  Simultaneously, Chuck felt a tug on the back of his sock and knew one of the creatures had latched its barbs into the fabric. His ankle tickled as the insect crawled up his foot and revulsion shuddered his body as he remembered his nightmare: black bodies cramming into his mouth and nose, forcing themselves deeper into his throat and cutting off airflow as tightly packed thoraxes squirmed and wriggled within his mouth.

  He had no doubt that at least one insect was already scrambling over Control as well. The swarm was simply too fast, too intent in its purpose.

  Unless they did something soon, they would be completely overtaken. Their bodies would disappear beneath a mound of black exoskeletons, their individual screams dampened by the teeming insects as they writhed beneath the colony.

  But what could they do? Other than the Faraday Cage, what real weapons did they have?

  No, all they could do was try to force their bodies past the limits of endurance. To ignore the stitches of pain in their sides. To demand even more from their taxed lungs and hearts. To run even faster.

  That option, however, was quickly taken from them. It was almost as if the trio had run headlong into an invisible barrier. Pain flared through Chuck’s shins as his legs were cut out from under him. He hit the ground so hard that the thud jolted through his knees and tingled his hips, the sensation similar to striking his funny bone against the edge of a table.

  At the same time, Control and Marilee also fell to their knees, each one releasing a shriek of pain and fear as they collapsed. Kneeling like a prisoner before execution, Chuck bowed his head and prayed that it would at least be quick for the girls.

  There was no time to stagger to their feet. Crawling away on all fours would be futile. The swarm was upon them, leaving but one option: to die with a modicum of dignity.

  Chapter 15

  With his eyes closed, Chuck Gra
inger awaited the inevitable. The swarm of bodies, however, never came. In fact, the field fell silent. Marilee and Control gasped for air and his own pulse pounded an almost tribal rhythm in his ears, but the clicking had stopped so abruptly it almost seemed as if the entire colony had simultaneously winked out of existence.

  Angling his head over his shoulder, Chuck peeked through one eye as he held his breath. Far from being gone, the insects were still there. Their shiny, black bodies covered the field like a living carpet, but they no longer thronged. Instead, each one reared upon its hindmost set of legs. With pinchers raised skyward and fully opened, they stood motionless, calling to mind an image of supplicants at prayer, exulting their dark deity.

  But why had they been called off? The end had been a foregone conclusion. He, Marilee, and Control had been defenseless and totally at the mercy of their pursuers. Mercy he suspected the insects did not naturally have.

  As if an answer to this question, the creaking of a rope sounded and Chuck tensed. As often as he’d heard that noise, it had never before been this close; in fact, it sounded as if whatever made that noise was directly in front of him.

  Lewis.

  That was why the insects no longer swarmed. In the shadow of he who had made them, they had no choice but to revel in the triumph of his will. The deranged lunatic had always considered himself a god. Why would it be any different in this place?

  The rope creaked again and Chuck threw his shoulders back as he faced forward. Though on his knees, he would not grovel. He would meet his nemesis eye to eye and would die in defiance and insolence if it came to that.

  Sunlight stabbed Chuck’s eyes with pain and the brightness washed everything out in a blinding glare, but he did not flinch or blink. He kept his eyes open and squeezed his hands at his sides.

  After several seconds, either the light dimmed or his eyes adjusted to it. Either way, he was able to see again. But what met his gaze was not what he’d expected.

 
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