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Scoundrels Chapter 104: San Jonas Undivided

I am The Bard, who has observed a strange thing in the minds and hearts of men. It has been put into them that the real is a rather small and nasty thing, and that a great many true things are mere illusion. That all the hurt and evil and tragedy of the world is what is really real, the pain of childbirth, the horror of war, the brokenness of the whole race. That these are the real things, and that hope is an illusion, faith a farce, and love merely chemical response to sexual attraction, and that to believe in such things is “unrealistic” or “childish”.
This is quite frankly a load of claptrap and nonsense put out by devils and unhappy people to justify their unhappiness.
It is indeed childish to see the world only as goodness and light, though this is the most endearing quality of those naive souls. That sees only a part of the story, but it is equally adolescent to view it all as grime and darkness. Both are fragmentary parts. Indeed, there is brokenness in men, but also beauty. Death and horror of battle, but also a great deal of courage and selflessness, which is the best quality of men. There is the pain of birth, and the joy of life. There is a hell, and we make a good deal of work to make earth like it too often, but there is also a heaven.
Therefore, depart from adolescent materialism and nihilism, they are unserious philosophies for boys. Remember thusly, that faith is real, love is real, and hope most real of all, and all the lies of devils and all the evil of man cannot unmake that which is everlasting. For all the suffering and wickedness dies, for it is corrosive. But these things shall remain, and even the smallest portion of them is worth more than an ocean of the former.
As Keelah rested, Lamora and Hathor surveyed their situation. Raymond’s distraction was still going, pulling enemy forces towards the north to contain it. The cyclone appeared to be growing larger and louder as the night kept on as more died and added to its power. “It’s rather impressive, very efficient, but he can’t keep that up forever.” Hathor observed. “Even feeding off of our enemy’s ritual, he’ll burn out.”
”Then we use the time we have well.” Lamora replied. “Max, keep an eye on Keelah. Anyone with medical experience, to there, we’re a ways off from the main lines, so we’ll find somewhere to set up a temporary hospital for the wounded.”
The small group nodded, but there was little movement. The mad dash through the sewers and stress of the night was getting to them. Furthermore, it was growing late, and the dark and fatigue were setting in quickly. “It’s going to be a long night yet. Rest, drink if you have any water.” Lamora ordered, and began to think.
She was not a commander of men, and this fight was hardly the sort she was used to. Even when she had served, she was a scout and a sniper, operating on the fringes of larger engagements, and she certainly knew nothing of urban warfare or organizing troops. Even the engagements with the scoundrels had by and large been far smaller in scale. Fear and tiredness began to creep at the edges of her mind, but she kept them back. It was going to be a long night yet.
”Our first step will need to be ensuring communications. I need an amplifier. Divine, not arcane.” She acknowledged, and looked about the skyline for a church steeple. Then, she spied it, a golden sun atop a nearby church, most likely of Pelor. “Not perfect, but it’ll do.” She muttered, and took the form of a condor, flying up towards it.
Placing a hand on the great statue, she focused her mind, compartmentalizing her fear and reaching outwards into the mind of the city. What she found there was an echo of her own dread and exhaustion, only amplified. In their fear, the people of the city, particularly the southern half, were barricading themselves inside of their houses, weapons towards the doors. It was a natural instinct, to remain in an area one felt secure in and try to defend it as best as they were able.
Unfortunately, it was exactly what was planned. The citizens of San Jonas were armed, and many of them were veterans, but isolated, facing coordinated death squads with magical support, they were being picked off one by one. Furthermore, the air had been filled with a thick miasma of dark magic, feeding off of and amplifying fear, encouraging people to stay locked down, so that they could be taken one by one.
The situation was dire. The center of the city was gone, entirely impenetrable to her gaze. The western side of the city, where they had just fled from, was falling quickly. The Black Lions had concentrated their forces there, against the university, and quickly smashed apart any resistance. The east, by contrast, seemed eerily quiet, not the quiet of peace, but of predators hunting one another. She tried to pierce through, and was met with searing fire. Ah, so that was where they had taken Anathema. Matlal and Elsior would be there, but gathering forces in that quadrant would mean facing the elites of the elites, something her militia would stand no chance against.
That meant they were, in all essence, cut off from the north by the forces of the lions, and Raymond’s distraction was working. The yuan-ti forces were concentrating towards the north of the river, heavily fortifying the bridges, and concentrated in a defensive semicircle clearly bent towards keeping the undead out of the center of the city. But once Raymond became exhausted, the undead would disperse and those forces would be free to spread out and crush the rest of the northern quadrant.
Therefore, only the southern side of San Jonas, between the university in the east, the river and inner city to the north, and the elven quarter to the east remained standing. Death squads had penetrated from the inner city and were moving southwards, but their progress was slow. The southern quadrant was highly armed, and held a high population of hobgoblins. Neighborhoods further south, and further away from the nexus of dark magic to the center, were beginning to gather into small groups. Even to the north some sections held for now. But without greater coordination and overall strategy, any areas of defense would become islands, pinned by enemy forces until a Black Lion could smash them apart.
At the moment, pockets of resistance had formed in the elven sector, where the terrain was better suited, and their decreased need for sleep allowed them to fight all the harder. There were also the beginnings of primitive fortifications and barricades going up on thirtieth street, where there were a fine selection of dwarven breweries, and a dozen smaller groupings around taverns, inns, theatres, and other community gatherings.
She considered her options. Linking the various groups directly might be possible, but even so they represented a minority. The majority of the ordani were locking down in their own homes rather than risking moving outside to link up. Understandable, given the circumstances, but potentially fatal. To resist the Black lions would require coordination and a plan, and defenses would have to be prepared for when the north fell.
Lamora paused, trying to think through a strategy, to consider what the correct decision should be, and what she really could do. Her powers had grown substantially, but direct telepathic relay across the entire city would be impossible, and even if she could contact a hundred at once, it would take too long. It would have to be generalized and simple, most likely so simple that words could not be used. Then initiate direct telepathic communication with the leaders of existing cells to coordinate them.
She began with antipathy, drawing and concentrating the fear and despair of the city into great walls. The first she put on the edge of thirtieth street and stretched as far north as tenth avenue, where the fortified Brewer’s Guild Hall was. The second she stretched across tenth avenue to fifty-second street, just on the other side of the elven district, and then place the third antipathy barrier there. Fear of anything beyond that would fill the minds of men, and cause them to retreat back behind these lines.
To counteract this, she concentrated forth two great psychic banners, which she cast forth into the minds and dreams of the Ordani. The first she set above the southernmost gate, a great caduceus. The fortified gatehouse would serve as a hospital, and refuge for the wounded. If all other places failed, it would be the last to fall, and if the barrier were to drop, the least of these would have the first chance to escape peril.
The second she placed with great care, for it would mark the rally point for all to gather and organize, determining the headquarters of their resistance. It would have to be large enough to hold many, able to be fortified, centrally located, and ideally would have another divine amplifier similar to the statue she was currently using. After a few minutes of searching, she found it.
The temple of Flthargn was one of the most visited in the city, partially because it was also the city’s largest hotel. Standing on the main road running north to south, it served as a wayhouse for all those who were traveling the union. Any trip across the union would almost inevitably come through the great city, and so the temple of the traveler god grew in both popularity and size until it was one of the more impressive ones in the north. Large enough to accommodate substantial forces, commanding a view of the surrounding gardens, multiple stories high, with balconies for snipers, and only a single entrance through gate and then door, it was perfect.
So to any who looked to the heavens, there they would see the second and more potent banner, a cry to rally and unite them all. Symbol of their home and nation, the flag of the seven taloned eagle now flew over the hotel. Radiant in the minds of all those loyal, but hidden from all those who would betray the union and seek her destruction.
Therefore, Morrell saw it also, and recognized what was coming. He had kept his men out of the south thus far with good reason. He smiled, and pulled them northwards instead. Best to shadow and control that soulstorm first, let the snakes go and die.
Thus, the night of terror and death became lit by the light of hope. What would have been a black rebellion, and a day of uprising turned from slaughter to struggle, as the banner of the ordani lifted high, and they rallied to it.
Thus began the third battle of San Jonas, when the Ordani shook off the poison which had dwelt near their heart for one hundred and fifty years.
For they came, first in a few, then in dozens. Entire families, men and women, elves and dwarves, men and goblins. The wounded filtered past, moving towards the gate, but those who would fight were many, and they were ready.
The various holdout groups fell back behind the antipathy lines, and began to assemble barricades. In a moment, they found themselves standing within the hotel, or at least an illusion of it. Lamora waited there, a serious expression on her face, before a table with a representation of their territory on it. “Gentlemen, welcome to the resistance.” She welcomed them.
Several seemed suspicious at first, and others merely disappointed. “I know you were hoping for a paladin, but I think given the situation we can say there are none left in the city. Furthermore, as some of you have no doubt seen, the Black Lions have betrayed us and allied themselves with the serpents. The university is fallen, and the east is no haven either.”
”Not to mention the monster up north. Where did they even get that thing?” One of the dwarven leaders grumbled.
”He’s on our side.” Lamora corrected. “But he is just a distraction. Sooner or later he’s going to grow tired and then they will come for us in force. We must stand undivided and prepare our defenses or we will all be swept aside.”
The others nodded, and together they began to plan their defenses. They prepared three lines of defenses, each of which would be set up using barricades. The outermost section of the defenses would be more porous, small barricades which could be set up quickly and then abbandoned. There would not be enough of them to cover all the outer ring in time, so they would be set up to confound and funnel the enemy into kill zones, slowing them down and dragging them across nails as they advanced.
The second line of defenses was to be built up in a ring with the hotel at its heart. Already preparations were in place to transform the building into an improvised fortress. This second line would be far stronger, meant to hold fast against the enemy and break their teeth upon. Here they would concentrate far more of their efforts to deny the foe.
If and when this second line fell, they would fall back to the final line, concentrated in a small area around the southern gate, using that gatehouse as their final citadel. There they raised up the barricades as high and sheer as the city walls and buildings, so that nothing short of potent sorcery would be able to break through them. Work began on the outermost defenses immediately, but their time was about to run out.
Far to the north, Raymond breathed heavily, leaning on his staff as he pressed forwards. The vengeful ghosts had come willingly, but providing the energy to sustain so many was exhausting, even tonight, even on his own home field. Dead yuan-ti surrounded him, shuffling outwards to protect the rest of the north. His power was all but spent, and the enemy just kept coming. He was unsure how many his forces had slain, but they had been fighting for almost two hours now, and he was reaching his limit.
”Lamora, if you can hear me, I’m running out.” He whispered into the air, praying she would hear it.
”I hear you Ray, you brought us the time we needed. The southern defenses are coming into place now.”
”Good, good.” Raymond said, sitting down on a bench. His eyes felt heavy, his limbs weak. “Any word from El and Matlal?”
”None.” Lamora replied. “The east is dark, but Anathema is certainly there.”
”Then make sure you have something ready when they get it.” Raymond said. “Knowing El, once she gets it, she’s going to throw herself straight at the enemy.”
”More than likely.” Lamora admitted. “Ray, fall back to the southern gate and rest there. You’ll need your strength.”
The necromancer complied, and slipped into shadow. The spirits continued to rage, and the dead still patrolled to protect the loyal living, but any who fell now would remain fallen, and it was only a matter of time before the enemy discovered he had retired for the moment. Time was running out.
But the scoundrels no longer fought alone
The Ordani rose, and fought for their city. It began with the outer reaches of the defenses. As the death squads pursued the fleeing citizens, they charged directly into traps. The resistance made its presence known with a thrown stone, imbued with a light spell so it shone. The dazzling flare blinded the subterranean serpents for a moment, and highlighted them in the dark. Crossbow, longbow, and musket sang in a chorus, splattering the overly agressive enemy across the stones.
One squad moved around a barricade and headed down another street, only for a unit of dwarves to detach from the shadows. The doughty folk let loose with tunnel guns, short-barreled weapons that fired many iron pellets, shredding the lightly armored snakes and routing them. Elsewhere, dwarven shield walls flanked behind an enemy who found their path blocked by a barricade and crushed them against it.
The smallfolk did their duty admirably, moving dangerously far out and reporting back on the movements of the enemy. If confronted, they met the foe with a storm of sling bullets, daggers, and shortswords, hurling themselves upon the foe with sudden fury. The surviving kobolds were the most furious of all, moving through their sewers to emerge among enemy formations to butcher them without mercy.
Across the whole of the defenses, men and hobgoblins kept up the rank and file. Musket and crossbow was a poor substitute for elven snipers armed with bow and rifle, but they were good enough. Pike and halberd walls blocked as effectively as any barricade, and were of particular use in securing the sewers when paired with arcane backup.
The commanders of the resistance assembled in the hotel, and continually worked to manage the many conflicts across the southern area. Runners came and went constantly, as even Lamora’s prodigious psychic powers could not maintain the whole communications network herself. Those two old to fight built the barricades further back even higher, as those young enough to be trusted ran messages, food, and water to the front. For the enemy would not spare either the young or the old, the women or the children. It was a fight for survival against an utterly genocidal foe, a monster that would wipe their people and their city from the face of the earth given the opportunity.
The storehouses of the city were opened, and all freely gave food, water, bandages, weapons, and ammunition. The smoke of chimneys rose from a hundred homely kitchens as meals were prepared and copious amounts of coffee brewed. Behind the third line, clerics labored to heal the wounded and cure poisons, and a certain one eyed kobold awoke from her rest and took up her crossbows once again.
As for Lamora, she was not found coordinating the defenses. She was no commander, and did not pretend to be capable of leading anything more than a small squad. She did not even do this, as her unique talents meant she was best used as a mobile response force unto herself. Armed with blade, shield, and also a borrowed elven rifle, she flew on black wings across the front. From rooftops and alleyways she struck, the fine elven firearm barking out rapidly as she targeted enemy commanders and mages in particular.
Whenever the enemy threatened to break through and overrun the defenders, she was there. In the form of bull and bear she crashed through enemy formations to break their momentum. Fleeing ordani suddenly split into dozens of images, each traveling in another direction. Barricades appeared out of nowhere, halting the foe, before the defenders suddenly turned and fired through the illusion to shred their pursuers.
And when the Ordani were truly broken, hope descended with the condor’s cry. Out of heaven she fell like a goddess or angel, blade brilliant in the dark night. Her longsword was living light, an elegant weapon of a heroic age. Her shield warded against all blades, turning arrows and spells back upon their caster with flashes of mirrorlike light. The heroine of a thousand faces held up the line wherever it was threatened, and by her example brought forth the great heroism of her people. Her touch healed the wounded, banished poison and illness, and restored hope to the despairing, and so the defenses could not be shattered.
Speaking of mages, Hathor was a similar one-fiend army, flying over the battlefield and obliterating death squads with freezing blasts of ice, torrents of electricity, and walls of fire. Entire squads vanished under his gaze, as the arcane might and cunning knowledge of the librarian was turned to the utter slaughter of the enemy.
In the next hour of the battle, the Ordani reaped their vengance upon the enemy. A score of death squads were slain to the last, two hundred serpents falling like wheat before the scythe, in exchange for a tenth of that number. The sudden organized nature of the resistance caught the enemy entirely off guard, and fear took their hearts as rumors of angels appearing on the battlefield spread.
But the victories won in that first hour were ultimately of small consequence. Relatively few forces had been fed into the south, the majority concentrating on defeating the enemy to the north. But as word reached Morrell that the necromancer had retired from the field, the black lions deployed to defeat the undead. With this threat attended to, all the fury of the yuan-ti was free to fall upon the resistance to their south.
Lamora watched from the rooftop, as the gates of the inner city opened, and forth marched six thousand yuan-ti, thirty times the force which they had initially opposed. And this would not be comprised of the easily isolated and destroyed death squads, but a full and organized legion of the unholy. So, she did what she could.
She checked her amunition, reloaded, and took a brief glance to the east. Ray would be out of commision for at least another hour, and Keelah had apparently left bed rest to bring her fury onto the foe. By now, Matlal and Elsior surely must be drawing near to Anathema. If that blade could be obtained, then the barrier would fall, and the enemy might lose heart.
Until then, she thought as she raised her rifle and fired another shot, slaying yet another serpent sorcerer. Keep reloading, and make them bleed for every inch.
submitted by LordIlthari to The_Ilthari_Library

I was found on Halloween, 1993. No one could figure out where I came from. This is my story.

On the evening of Halloween, 1993, a family on their way to Cheyenne stopped their station wagon in the middle of a desolate road after seeing a ten-year-old girl walking by herself. They had been alarmed at the sight of the kid wandering around without her parents in the middle of nowhere and wanted to give her a helping hand. The child was dressed in a Halloween costume, a skeleton to be precise, and was later described to the police as disoriented and confused. When the family asked the child what she was doing on the road all by herself, she said that she was trying to find her way back to her hometown, Ataraxia Springs. The father in the family brought out his map from the car but soon realized that there was no such town in Wyoming.
That child, walking by herself on that fateful Halloween night, was me. The events described above are well documented, and no-one is contesting the way I was found, but how I ended up on that road all by myself was never fully explained. There had been no missing children reports filed fitting my description, and they were never able to locate my parents even though I told them their full names and phone number.
All they had to go by was my own story about what happened that night. A story that they couldn’t believe. In the end, after several years of therapy, I didn’t believe it either. I accepted the fact that I had most likely been kidnapped by sex traffickers, or perhaps even been born into that horrific fate, and chosen to forget it and replace it with my own version of the truth. I was taught that when memories contradict reality, it must be the memories that are wrong and not the other way around. It made sense to me, and I slowly came to terms with the fact that my childhood memories were false.
It wasn’t until last week that I had reasons to revisit these memories of mine. Something happened that made me doubt what all those years of therapy taught me. That’s why I’ve decided to share my story once more. Partly for my own sake, just to make my memories merge with physical reality on the paper, if that makes sense, but also to reach out to others who might have experienced something similar and might also be wondering if that old, strange memory of theirs might in fact have happened after all.
Some of the details in this story are based on the diary entry that I wrote down after I had been found, but I still remember most of what happened vividly. And I remember Ataraxia Springs. It was built around an old tuberculosis sanatorium that had been closed down after the discovery of antibiotics in the late twenties. This detail was drilled into our brains during school since our town took its own history very seriously. The sanatorium itself was built across the lake beside the town, where it was still standing. The older kids had a lot of ghost stories about the rundown building, stories they loved to tell around the campfire on the beach with Ataraxia Sanatorium casting its frightening shadow on the water from the other side of the lake. Other than this piece of history, the town was your average American town.
My parents – not my foster parents, but the ones that were never found – were good to me and my older sister. They gave us a happy childhood in a nice neighborhood and as far as I can remember, if it is a memory at all, nothing was out of the ordinary. Not until that night…
Halloween was a big deal in our neighborhood, and everyone always tried to outdo each other with their costumes. This year wasn’t any different. The air was filled with excitement, and I really loved the skeleton suit my dad had bought me. My sister was a bit too old for trick-or-treating, but she had promised to do it with me so that our parents could stay home and hand out candy to the other kids (and most likely have some time to themselves).
It was all going well until my sister’s punk rocker friends showed up on their bikes. I hated them. They were Ryan, Johnny, and Ashley. They gave the neighborhood a bad reputation – or so everyone thought – and they always teased me.
“Hey, Marjorie!” Ryan shouted to my sister. “Are you babysitting tonight out of all nights?”
Ryan continued and said that they were going to the sanatorium. I don’t remember which words he used exactly, but he said something about it being the perfect night for it and that it was a shame that she had me tied around her ankle like a shackle. I was already afraid, looking up at their tall bikes at the end of the cul-de-sac, because I knew what was coming next. I looked up at my sister and grabbed her hand. Back then, I thought of her almost as an adult even though she was just a teenager. She hesitated, and there was some arguing back and forth until it was decided that she would bring me with them.
“C’mon Melissa,” she said and looked at me as my heart sunk into my belly. “What’s the worst that can happen? It will be fun for you too, just like one of the adventures in your favorite movies.”
I said no, but she told me not to be such a cry-baby. She didn’t want to miss out on her friend’s adventure, or on some quality time with Ryan. I was an inconvenience, and although my sister tried to convince me that it would be fun for me too, I remember feeling like a fifth wheel.
My sister left me with her friends for a few minutes while she sneaked into the garage to grab her bike. It felt like hours. Ryan lit a cigarette with his Zippo. I couldn’t understand what my sister saw in him. With his black mohawk, combat boots, and leather jacket with “FUCK YOU” painted on its back, he looked more like the villain in the Disney movies I loved to watch than the prince. My sister wasn’t like him at all, she was one of the popular girls at school who everybody loved and aspired to be like. And to my mind at the time, it just didn’t compute how someone as sweet as my sister could have a thing for someone like Ryan. It infuriated me. I wanted to run home and tell my mom, but I knew it would just lead to an ugly fight.
My sister put me on the carrier of her bike and told me to hold on to her. We took the shortcut through the woods, which meant a bumpier ride. The sun was already setting, and the closer it came to the horizon the faster my heart beat in my chest. Their laughter echoed between the trees, like hyenas on the hunt. I was so mad at my sister, but also at myself for letting her take me along.
The water on the lake was still this night, reflecting the dark clouds above. They left their bikes in the sand. Marjorie grabbed my hand and followed the others to the old boathouse at the edge of the beach. I tried not to look across the lake, where the sanatorium rose up from the treetops like an evil castle from the movies.
There was an old rowboat inside the boathouse. A wind was building up outside, sending small waves inside that lapped against the side of the boat. I felt a lump in my throat. Water wasn’t my element. I could swim, but if I couldn’t reach the bottom with my feet I used to panic. So, sitting in a fragile, old rowboat with a bunch of renegades didn’t sit well with me. I held my sister’s jacket as tight as I could in the boat. Ryan kicked the boat out of the house and grabbed the oars. There wasn’t that much space, and every time the boat rocked, I closed my eyes and tensed up in anticipation. Marjorie’s friends teased me when they saw how scared I was, especially Ashley.
“Many kids have drowned in this lake,” she said. “There’s something living at the bottom that feeds on little girls like you.” She laughed. “Let’s hope it’s sleeping tonight.”
“Don’t be mean,” my sister said. “I don’t believe in any of those stories.”
“There have been some strange things happening in this area, though,” Johnny said. “My dad told me that a couple went missing around the lake like twenty years ago.”
I didn’t want to hear about it. He sounded serious; not like he was teasing. I looked at my sister to see if she believed him, but I couldn’t tell. And then Johnny continued:
“They were never found.”
“Maybe they just decided to ditch this boring town,” Ryan said with a smirk.
“Sure,” Johnny said, “but their disappearance isn’t the strangest thing about this… While they searched for them, they found this old, naked dude wandering around in the forest who claimed he was the guy who had disappeared. He was taken in as a suspect since he was way too old to be that guy. They never got any answers from him, though. He hung himself in his cell before they could question him. My dad was the one who found him hanging from the top of the bunk.”
We reached the other side of the lake, just beneath the sanatorium. It smelled old seaweed and rotten eggs. Decaying reed crunched under our feet as we stepped ashore. A couple of ducks flew away, scared by our presence. I held my sister’s hand. The sky was covered in heavy clouds, and a rumble spread among them. This was the first time any of us stepped foot on the other side of the lake, and I could see that my sister was afraid as well even though she tried to hide it behind her exaggerated smiles toward Ryan. He lit another cigarette.
“Let’s go,” he said. “I’ve always been curious about this place.”
We followed him up an overgrown road. Something rustled in the bushes. I asked my sister what it was, hoping she would calm my nerves, but instead Ryan answered:
“There are ghouls hiding in there, so don’t go too close.”
“Don’t listen to him,” my sister said, “it’s just birds.”
But I was already terrified. It wasn’t just the scary noises, but the entire atmosphere around this place. It just didn’t feel right. Something in the air felt off. Ordinary things came off as strangely unfamiliar; the leaves on the ground seemed too large, the trees too tall and the sky too vicious.
The courtyard was covered in gravel, but there was dead grass sprouting up from it here and there. Slowly, we approached the stairs to the entrance.
“Can’t we go back now?” I asked my sister in a whisper. “Do we have to go inside?”
The doors were locked. Ryan pulled at them as hard as he could, hoping that the old doors wouldn’t stand a chance against his strength. But they wouldn’t move an inch. It made me relieved, but Ryan was relentless. He insisted on trying to find another way inside. We walked around the building, struggling through the brushy terrain, until we found a small rusty door at the other side. The purpose behind this door was difficult to figure out since it was almost completely inaccessible. To my great disappointment, it was open.
As soon as we closed the door behind us, the thunder outside intensified in an instant and hard rain banged on the door. Ryan lit his Zippo, revealing a small corridor inside a large cellar. The cold air smelled musty. There was graffiti on the walls, dating back a long time by the looks of it. Ryan slowly moved his lighter across the wall, reading a text that had been sprayed on it with a blood-red color: “If you closed the door, it’s already too late.”
“What’s that supposed to mean?” Johnny said.
Ashely, scared for the first time this night, tried to open the door again but it wouldn’t budge.
“C’mon guys, I can’t get it open!” she said, just as if she suddenly sensed some kind of danger. “Help me out, would you?!”
Ryan and Johnny joined her, but no matter how much they tried the door remained closed.
“Marjorie?” I looked up at my sister. “What’s happening? I’m afraid.”
“I-I don’t know, I–”
“It was unlocked just moments ago!” Ashely yelled.
Everyone was freaking out, yelling at each other, until Ryan raised his voice:
“Enough!” He paused to make sure everyone was quiet. “Let’s just find a way up to the main entrance and exit from there… worst-case scenario we climb out one of the windows. Jesus, relax!”
My sister relaxed her grip around my hand, clearly calmed down by Ryan’s words.
“I have a really bad feeling about this place,” Ashley said. “I don’t know, it just washed over me like a fucking tsunami… this strange feeling of, I don’t know… just a scary feeling.”
“…of dread?” my sister asked with a shaky voice. “I felt it too.”
“You’re all getting worked up about nothing,” Ryan said. “Get it together!”
“It’s all your fault!” I said. “You shouldn’t tell us what to do. This was your stupid idea.”
“Shut up, Melissa,” my sister said, blushing from embarrassment.
“What?” I said. “Mom is right, your friends have a bad influence on you.”
“Shut up!” my sister yelled. “My god, Melissa.”
Ryan laughed. “It’s okay,” he said. “She’s just scared.”
“Mom’s suck,” Johnny added with a smile, but still shaken up just like the rest of us. “I hate my mom. She’s always telling me what to and how to dress and what to think and whatnot.”
I crossed my arms in anger at their attitudes that had clearly gotten us into trouble. “Well, if you listened to your mom maybe you wouldn’t be trapped here, would you?”
"We aren't trapped!" Ryan said and led the way through the dark corridor.
It felt like we walked around the cellar for more than an hour without finding a staircase, and when we did it didn’t lead to the main floor but rather to the floor above it. It didn’t make any sense. We came to a ward filled with old beds. The windows were large but too high up for any of us to reach them. In that sense, the room reminded me of the church downtown. The windows vibrated for every lightning strike outside. Johnny pointed to one of the beds. Unlike the others, it wasn’t empty. We approached it carefully. My sister covered my eyes when we came close enough to see what it was, but their scared voices and Ashley’s screams told me all I needed to know.
“…she must’ve been dead for decades,” Johnny said. “I mean, the body is mummified.”
“Oh my God!” It was Ashely. “She’s wearing my watch!”
“Your watch? It’s a coincidence, I mean–” Ryan said but was interrupted by Ashely.
“What does it mean?! Why the fuck is she wearing my watch?!”
“We need to get out of here,” my sister said. “It’s a dead person, we need to call the–”
“Where did the lower part of the body go?” Johnny said. “Looks like it was ripped–”
“No, no, no,” Ashely cried. “It’s not a coincidence, it’s my watch.”
“But you’re still wearing it!” Ryan said. “Marjorie is right, I think we need to report this.”
We left the room, all scared to the bones.
“I know I’m wearing my watch, but her watch had the exact same crack on the glass and everything… I know it doesn’t make any goddamn sense, but that was my fucking watch.” She cried, holding on to Johnny. “What does it mean?”
“It doesn’t mean anything,” Ryan said. “It was just a freaking coincidence!”
We kept trying to find a way out, but the inside of the building was like a maze. My legs ached after walking so much. Another terror erupted from my core and spread out to my skin in the form of a cold shiver. By now, I understood, our parents must have begun to worry, maybe even gone out to look for us. I felt bad for having disobeyed them, and I feared their punishment even though they would probably just ground me for a week. Had I known that I would never see them again, I would probably have felt something else entirely.
We took some rest inside a small library that must have been used by the patients back in the day. The shelves were still filled with books, but they had all decayed over the decades. I sat down next to my sister on what had once been a luxuries divan.
“Are we in danger?” I asked. “Are we going to die?”
“No,” my sister said. “It just looks scary, there’s no one here, we just need to find–”
“What’s this?” Ashley said, now a bit calmer than before. “It’s beautiful.” She removed a newspaper from the floor and picked up a golden sphere the size of a cannonball. “It’s pretty heavy. If it’s real gold it must be worth a fortune!”
We all placed ourselves around her and watched our reflections in the shiny surface of the sphere, transfixed by its perfection. That’s when we heard a crash from further up the hallway outside of the library, followed by a scraping sound just as if something large was being dragged over the floor. I froze in fear when I heard that it was moving in our direction.
“What the hell is that?” Johnny said. “Ryan, go and check it out.”
Ryan hesitated, unable to decide if to be brave or listen to his instincts. He gave my sister a quick look, and she shook her head as if to tell him not to go. The most horrifying sound I’ve ever heard came from whatever was slithering through the hallway. It sounded like an oversized pigeon, but also like the snickering from an old witch.
“Dude, I’m sorry,” Ryan said, “there’s no way in hell I’m going out there.”
We retreated to the next room, a recreational room with a pool table. Ashley still held the gold sphere in her hands. Another crash, just outside. It sounded like the entire door and some of the walls to the library had been completely destroyed. The cooing and the snickering intensified. There was excitement behind it, the same kind of excitement you would expect from a starving hag in a fairy tale who’s just about to feast on an innocent child.
We were all standing behind Ryan, looking into the library. A shadow appeared on the floor, followed by an enormous, gray hand with black claw-like nails. We all screamed in unison and backed up against the pool table, but there was nowhere to go from here. The hand grabbed the floorboards and dragged whatever body it was attached to closer to our room. I was so scared that my knees were shaking. The menacing cooing was so loud now that I had to put my trembling fingers in my ears. My sister repeated the prayers she so reluctantly told in church. There were tears in her eyes. Another giant hand, dragging its body even closer, but still not into view outside the room.
“Help me out!” Ryan said.
He picked up a few books from the floor and lit them on fire with his lighter. Johnny joined him. I’m sure my sister would’ve helped as well, but she had to take care of me. Ashley dropped the sphere and hid behind the pool table, crying hysterically. Slowly, the monster dragged itself into view. My sister released a guttural scream. I wanted to look away, but I was paralyzed by fear. The creature faced us. It was nothing more than a giant, saggy head that pulled itself forward with its long arms that were attached to its temples. A few long strands of black hair grew on top of it and it had a long, crooked nose above its terrifying mouth. It was enough to make it the most dreadful thing I’ve ever seen, but what made it even worse were its eyes; two enormous, expressionless golden spheres. We could see our own reflections in them. It went coo-coo-coo and licked its gray lips with its black tongue. It was just about to stick its arms inside the doorframe and rip it apart when Ryan and Johnny began throwing the burning books at it. It backed away, screaming like an oversized infant.
“Come on!” Ryan called out. “Let’s go!”
My sister picked me up in her arms. We ran past the monster while it was still deflecting the flames, but Ashley was too late. The second she appeared in the door, she was grabbed by the legs and pulled into the mouth of the monster. She cried out for help in a state of utter panic. The sharp, large teeth cut through her legs. The crunch when they went through her bones were blood-chilling to hear. Johnny stepped forward and grabbed Ashley’s hands. He pulled until the threads still attached to her legs separated. We dragged her into the hallway, leaving a trail of blood on the floor, and continued into another ward. Ryan and Johnny put her in a bed. She was still alive. The old sheets quickly turned red from the blood pouring out from beneath her waist.
“We’re back,” she said. “Ca-can’t you see?”
Johnny cried at the bedside. “No, we’ll get you to a hospital.”
The cooing echoed through the hallway.
“N-no,” Ashley said. “This is it for me… I-I love you. Now… go.”
Johnny kissed her face as she lost consciousness. “No, no, no… Don’t– I love you too.”
“I’m sorry,” my sister said. “But it’s almost here. We have to get the fuck out of here!”
The monster spat something out that landed with a bang outside the door. It was one of the golden spheres. Coo-coo – mmm! – coo-coo. It sounded hungry. We ran for our lives. More hallways, more staircases, more wards and offices. But no exit. However impossible it may sound; the building was bigger on the inside than on the outside.
The cooing died out behind us. We slowed down. My sister put me down on the ground and let me walk by myself. She was too tired to carry me any further.
“This place goes on forever,” Johnny said. “It’s a nightmare. There’s no end to it. That text on the wall, it was right. Too late! We’re just running in circles. Going back in time?! My god, Ashley… It was really her that we saw.”
“There’s a way out,” Ryan said. “We just haven’t found it yet.”
“What’s wrong with this place?” my sister said. “It’s like the laws of nature don’t apply here, and that horrible thing back there. Are there more of them? It’s must have come straight out of hell! It spat one of those balls out, did you see that?”
“Hell is a place on Earth,” Ryan said. He tried to lit a cigarette, but his hands were shaking too much. “Those golden spheres looked like its eyes…Perhaps they’re eyes too. It spat them out to see further, you know. It appeared when we found the first one, and it sped up after it had spit out the second one.”
I screamed.
“What is it?!” my sister asked.
“Bugs!” I said. “Look, around that crack.”
Hundreds of them were crawling around a crack in the floor, small black beetles with green spots on their backs. I hated bugs.
“It’s okay,” my sister said. “Just don’t step on them.”
“I’ve never seen any bug like that before,” I said.
We moved forward until we came to an empty swimming pool. Several golden spheres lay at the bottom of it, shining in a strange moonlight coming in through the windows at the other end of the room. The faint cooing started as soon as we saw them, now coming from several different directions. I cried, but not because of the cooing. I was seeing something in the corner of the ceiling, a black shadow that slowly unfolded itself.
“There are more of those heads,” Johnny said. “Can you hear it?”
“What is that?” Ryan said as soon as he saw the shadow.
One leg after another extended out of the shadow until eight long, monstrous legs had appeared out of its body like an enormous spider. We ran next to the pool to get to the exit at the other end of the room. The spider quickly came down from its hiding spot, climbed down the pool, and continued toward us. The legs weren’t attached to a body of their own, but to the back of a decaying human body. I screamed for my sister to pick me up, but there wasn’t any time for that. I had to run, faster than I had ever run before.
“Holy shit!” Johnny said. “Oh, God no!”
The spider was just about to pierce me with one of its legs when we entered the door, which fortunately was too small for the spider to enter.
“Holy fuck, that was close!” Ryan said as we ran further away from the swimming pool.
“No, no, no,” Johnny continued, tears forming in his eyes. “How is this possible? It can’t be!”
“At least we got away from it in time,” Ryan said. “Let’s hope we won’t end up back–”
“It’s not that!” Johnny said. “The body…” He cried now. “The dead body attached to those fucking legs… It was wearing my jacket. Oh, God… No!”
“Maybe it doesn’t have to happen like that,” my sister said. “Maybe we can avoid it.”
“It didn’t work out so well for Ashley, did it?” Johnny said. “And besides, how do you avoid something like that? We don’t know how it could happen in the first place!”
“Calm down,” Ryan said. “Let’s stay focused on the here and now, okay? I’m feeling a breeze, are you feeling it too?”
He was right. We all felt it. Thinking it was an exit, we ran in the direction of its source. But it wasn’t a way out, at least not the one we had been looking for. We came to a large balcony with open doors, looking out over an unimaginable view.
“I told you,” my sister said as we stepped onto the balcony. “We’re in hell!”
In front of us, a landscape made out of living flesh and bones spread out all the way to the horizon beneath a scarlet sky. The ground itself was moving as if it was breathing, and the leafless trees moved their branches like tentacles. Enormous creatures walked across the surface, fighting each other, and the flesh of the screaming birds above us was exposed to the weather. A strong scent of rotting meat and brimstone filled the warm winds. Slowly, a dark gas giant with violet clouds rose to the sky like a black sun, and the monsters howled excitedly to the sight of it.
“I don’t know about hell,” Ryan said. “But it definitely isn’t Earth!”
Millions of bugs erupted from large pores in the ground, swarming in front of the colossal planet climbing the sky. A few of them landed on the balcony. It was the same type of bugs we had seen earlier. And then Johnny sneezed, followed by what looked like a panic attack.
“Fuck!” he said. “It crawled into my nose!”
“Seriously?” Ryan asked.
“I can still feel it crawling around inside my sinus,” Johnny said while trying to blow it out through his nose. “Help me, please, I think it’s eating its way–” He sounded dizzy.
“Let’s get back inside,” Ryan said, even though we were already running back.
We didn’t get far until Johnny fell down on the floor, convulsing and foaming at the mouth. My sister picked me up, knowing full well what was about to happen, but Ryan sat down next to Johnny and tried to help him in whatever way he could. But there wasn’t any hope for Johnny. The convulsions turned into jerks and jolts erupting from his back. Ryan stood up, pale from the sight of his best friend shaking uncontrollably in front of him. After about a minute, the seizure stopped abruptly. Johnny opened his eyes, a bit groggy.
“W-what happened?” he said. “Why am I on the floor?”
“Are you okay, man?” Ryan said, smiling. “I thought you were going to die!”
My sister wasn’t convinced and took a few steps back with me.
“Yeah,” Johnny said, smiling back and trying to get back up on his feet, “I feel fine, but that was a wild–” A sudden jolt spread through his body. “Wait…”
And then he screamed. He touched his back. It was covered in blood. He screamed again, much louder now. I heard his jacket being torn apart from the inside, and a slimy spider leg grew out from his back. He begged us to help him as his face twisted in pain, but there was nothing we could do. Ryan backed up to my sister, grabbing her hand. The process was quick. One leg after the other shot out from Johnnys back as he was screaming. He tried to crawl away, but the legs wouldn’t let him. Instead, they stood up, carrying Johnny above the ground.
“Help me!” he said as the legs began walking away with him. “No, don’t let it happen – please! – help me.” The legs walked away from us with him, and none of us dared to do anything. “I’m still alive,” he cried, “there must be a way.” The legs climbed up the wall and walked into another hallway. “No!” we heard Johnny yell as he struggled, fruitlessly trying to grab the wall with his fingernails. “Please, no!” We stood frozen in our places until his screams faded out completely, leaving us with a faint echo of his last words between his sobs: “Mom, I’m scared! Mom!”
It wasn’t until the cooing increased that we began moving again. Standing still was a death sentence in this place. My sister kept me close to her, and herself close to Ryan. We reached a small room with an old piano standing against one of the walls. It was a dead-end, but there was something going on behind the piano that my sister insisted on investigating. A flickering light, bright and warm like sunbeams. My sister sat down next to the piano and tried to see what it was.
“It’s a way out!” she said. “I can’t see where it leads, but it smells like the outside!”
“Oh, really?!” I said, happiness spreading to my body. “Can we finally get out of–”
Something heavy bounced against the floor outside the room and slowly rolled into view in the door opening. My relief was immediately replaced by dread. It was one of the golden spheres.
“Help me move the piano!” my sister said. “Now, Ryan!”
I looked at them struggling with it. The monster dragged itself closer and closer while snickering and cooing louder and louder. I screamed when it appeared in front of me. Ryan and my sister used all of their strength to push the piano up to the door, blocking it. It wouldn’t last long, but perhaps long enough. My sister returned to me, but Ryan wasn’t so lucky. The monster reached above the piano with its long arm and grabbed him. He didn’t have much time to speak, and he knew it. He picked his word carefully. Perhaps he hadn’t said them before.
“I love you, Marjorie.”
I looked up at my sister and her trembling lips in an attempt at avoiding the sight of him being pulled out into the hallway and eaten, but I could still hear it loud and clear.
The hole in the wall wasn’t so much a hole as an unstable rift in reality. There was a forest on the other side, but just for a few seconds before it changed into a desert that in turn changed into a beach. The beast outside pushed the piano into the room. There was no time to think. My sister picked me up and threw me through the rift. I landed on a forest floor, but not the one we had seen at first because in this forest it was dark outside. I saw the rift floating in the air. My sister was just about to jump through it – the monster’s hand reaching for her – when the rift vanished.
I stumbled through the woods until I came to the road, trying to find my way home to Ataraxia Springs. The rest is history. As I said: over the years they convinced me that my story was nothing more than a manufactured memory, made in a subconscious attempt at coping with some trauma. But something happened, and now I think that the coping strategy might actually have been to let myself be convinced this never happened. Last week I received a letter. It wasn’t sent by mail but delivered by a middle-aged man who claimed that he had found it among his great-great grandmother’s things somewhere in Paris. I sat down at my kitchen table and looked at the envelope. “To be delivered to my sister, Melissa Johansson, in case she’s ever found after I’m gone.” I opened the envelope with shaking hands. It was dated 1970. Tears ran down my face as I read it. It told the story of a teenage girl who had mysteriously appeared in Wyoming in 1889, claiming to come from a small town called Ataraxia Springs. She had gone on to live an adventurous and fulfilling life; surviving two world wars and seeing civilization go from horse and carriages to men landing on the moon. She had married, had a son that she named Ryan, and spent the rest of her life in Europe.
“She was known for searching for her sister,” the man said, “but she never told anyone this. I thought it was fiction or the result of a well-hidden mental illness, but when I found the old reports of a young girl in Wyoming telling people she came from a little town known as Ataraxia Springs… Well, it can’t be a coincidence, can it?”
By now I was crying my eyes out. But it was bittersweet tears. This meant I would never see Marjorie again, but it also meant that she survived that horrible night and that she lived a good life. The letter ended: “All these years, and I still think of you every day. I miss you.” And between my sobs, I whispered: “I miss you too."
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