The Gods Are Always At The Gates / The Famine King

The Gods Are Always At The Gates / The Famine King

- CHAPTER FIVE -

Abernathy gritted his teeth and pressed the accelerator down, descending into the bonfire glow that filled the night sky. His headlamps lit the world on fire, torching the oaks and pines that lined the road from Sam’s place back to the main highway. The trees writhed in flames a painful arc-welder blue. He blinked away the glare and burst from the dense forest onto the main road, jerking the wheel and fighting the tail as it tried to crawl around the side of the car. With more room and straighter tarmac, he opened the throttle.  

From inside the cabin, the Charger’s throaty roar seemed like a demon angrily trying to chew its way through the engine wall and get at his tender flesh. The console lights flared and poured scorching laser light from the LEDs.

Outside the car, every light source and lamp burst like incendiary grenades that forgot to stop exploding.  Abernathy took slow, deep breaths and forced himself to believe that the hellscape unrolling across his vision wasn’t real.  The streetlights didn’t care about his belief and continued to vomit flame. It took a constant effort of will to prevent himself from slipping beneath the delusion. Inside Abernathy’s skull, he could feel the Nightmare Egg’s oneiric whisper, This is real, Stay away from the lights, The lights will only cause you pain, and so the flames poured.

The clock burned 1:33 when he rang Mazzy on the cell, 1:39 when he rang Ray and told him Mazzy would pick him up in ten minutes, and 1:45 when he finally dialed Paige. She picked up on the second ring.

“Hey there, Sheriff. Change your mind?”

“Where are you?”

Silence.

“Where the hell are you?!” he shouted.

“I’m at the fucking hotel!” she shot back, “Where the hell should I be?”

Abernathy took a deep breath and bottled the irrational gout of rage and distrust that struggled to spill out of him. “Paige, I need you to get back to the station and see if you can find a way to combat the fungus and mitigate the effects.”

“Abe?”

“I’m infected.”

“What does it feel like?”

“What?”

“What does it feel like? Do you have any joint pain, stiffness in the neck, fever or flu symptoms?”

“Fuck, Paige. I don’t know...” he struggled to inventory his parts, “I’m... my neck is sore, yeah, and there’s this pressure inside my skull, like the start of a migraine.”

A sudden commotion rattled through the phone’s speaker and Abernathy watched Carol smashing through Paige’s hotel door, ruin-faced and wolf-mouthed.

“Paige! Are you okay? What happened?!”  

“What? Yeah, I’m fine. I’m looking for a pen.”

With a feeling like whiplash, he realized that there was no way he could have seen Carol smashing through the door. He raked a hand through the short stubble on his head and took a deep breath.

“Okay, sore neck, headache, anything else? Are you hallucinating yet?” the excitement was evident in her voice.

Abe gritted his teeth against the phantom pain and locked down the panic that threatened to overwhelm him as silvery flames splashed the inside of the car from a street corner gas station. “Yes. Powerful hallucinations. Everything the light touches looks and feels like it’s on fire. I have to keep reminding myself it’s not.”

“Makes sense. All the subjects have shown extreme light sensitivity.” She said more to herself than to him.

Bright red blood flowed in crisp pristine lines from her fingertip where she’d chewed the flesh away. The bone scratched coarsely across the paper.

Stop.

Deep breath.

Abernathy reminded himself he wasn’t there and that fingertips do not flow blood like ink.

“Abe?” Paige sounded concerned. “You’re breathing heavy, are you having trouble breathing?”

“I’m fine.” he forced himself to say, still focusing on the road. “I’m fine...”

“Alright. I’ve been reviewing my data from earlier today and I think I understand some of how the organism works, but it’s all speculation and it’s pretty rough.”

“Can I use it to take the edge of these hallucinations?”

She hesitated, “Probably not, but if you can find some more of the tainted moonshine I think you can reduce the fear and anxiety effects. I can’t verify it without a lot more testing, but there is precedence in nature for what I think we’re seeing.

Part of the organism produces the psilocybin while the other part produces alkaloids that stimulate the fear and paranoia responses. That’s a nasty combination. The two have an antagonistic effect on each other though, the psilocybe side inhibits the growth and production of the lethal and fear causing fungi. I think there is something in the organism's life cycle that triggers the flip from immature hallucinogen to its mature lethal form and from the little data I have, it seems to be related to the quantity of the immature stage of the organism or some chemical it produces. The mass spec couldn’t identify everything in the samples, but there were some significant differences between the life stages I tested.”

“Okay. So, if I can find any more of the moonshine, I should drink it?”

“Yes? I don’t know Abernathy, but that’s my best guess based on limited data. I’m on my way to the station right now to keep working.”

“Thanks, Paige.”

* * *

Abernathy could not help but stare in fascination as the succubus ground her pelvis against the letters spelling out “The Devil’s Grin.” He had never paid much attention to the sign despite the countless times he’d been here on business. Never appreciated the urgency in her face or the canine quality to the D, the L, the G and the N as the two words stacked on top of each other in simulation of a toothy smile. Now as she winked and licked her lips at him...

No.

It’s not real.

He punched the steering wheel and the sharp burn of a blown blood vessel gave him something to focus his attention on.

“Dammit,” he growled and shoved his door open. He was momentarily grateful that the infection had no effect on his equilibrium. After another moment’s contemplation, he pulled his gun from its holster, ejected the clip, then the round in the chamber. He pocketed the bullet but fed the magazine back into the gun. Abe couldn’t justify putting another of his officers into harm’s way by going in unarmed but, he also didn’t trust himself to have a round chambered. The decision might cost him his life, but it would hopefully provide an additional split-second of reflection before he chambered a round and pulled the trigger.

Stuffing the gun back into its holster, he climbed out of the car and gently closed the door. He passed Mazzy’s Bronco on his way into the two-story lodge that acted as the area biker gang’s pressure release valve. The hood was still warm. Mazzy must have arrived moments before he had. Other than the beat up 4 X 4, the gravel lot was entirely empty which felt wrong for the hour.

The door rang an old-fashioned bell that Eric had affixed above the frame. Inside, the lights were still low, for which the sheriff was grateful. Eric sat at the bar, facing the front door. Dark congealed blood covered the left half of his face leaking from a deep cut just below his eye and bridge of his nose. His head was lolled back, and his chest was slashed open. In front of him, the succubus from the front sign took her time feasting on the open gash in his flesh. Ray and Mazzy stood by impassively in civilian clothes. Mazzy waved at him.

Abe settled a hand on his pistol and Eric raised his head.

Still slipping.

Breathe.

“Hey Abe, glad you could make it. You’ll have to excuse the mess.” He slurred and sloshed his head toward the end of the bar. Abernathy removed his hand from his weapon and tilted his head to get a better view of the direction Eric had indicated. A pair of denim-clad legs and black boots rested motionless with the rest of the body disappearing from sight behind the bar. Jenny sat up straight from where she’d been hunched in front of Eric and flexed tension from her spine.

“It ain’t the best work I ever done, but it’ll do. Tommy?” she called into the cavernous silence of the dark bar.

Now that Jenny had moved and Abe had fully entered the bar, he could see that the splash of blood covering Eric’s white button down and black leather vest was not his own. The young woman, whom Eric had all but adopted, had been stitching closed a long slash across the proprietor's shoulder. She sifted through a small plastic medical kit on the surface of the bar. “Tommy, did you find that second medical kit?” she shouted again.

Eric took a sip of amber from a shot glass and set it back down on the bar over his injured shoulder. “It’ll do quite nicely, lass.”

Suddenly another man was there at the base of the stairs that led up to the second floor. A matte black crown rotated slowly over his clean-shaven skull. Abe’s hand was on his pistol again. Foxfire danced in the man’s eyes and a lithe tension filled his movement, revealing him for the predator he was.

“Abe, you’ll want to be removing your hand from that pistol if you don’t mind. I think me and mine have spilled quite enough blood on the floor; we don’t need you putting any additional holes in one of us.”

Relax.

Relax.

Stay with it.

“Thanks, Tommy.” Jenny grinned at the man who had not broken eye contact with Abernathy but had handed off a second white plastic kit with a red cross on its cover.

Tommy, he noted.

He forced himself to relax, “No offense meant, Eric.”

“None taken, Abe.”

Jenny said, “hold still, and close your eye,” then set to work closing the cut on Eric’s cheekbone.

Mazzy twitched his head, and the sheriff walked over.

“You don’t look so hot, Abe,” Mazzy said under his breath, low enough that Ray wouldn’t hear, despite his proximity.

Abernathy pinched the bridge of his nose and squeezed his eyes shut even as Mazzy’s pupils fluoresced. When he opened them again, he had marshaled a little more self-control but did not meet his partner’s gaze. “Any other bodies?”

“None that we’ve seen, Ray and I just got here.”

“What’s your take?”

Mazzy rubbed the back of his neck and considered.  “Looks to me, the 419 over there,” Mazzy indicated the pair of boots poking out from behind the bar with his chin, “picked a fight with our resident wolf and wasn’t up to the task. Judging by the nature of his injuries,” inclining his head toward Eric, and back to the boots, “and his, it was a justified self-defense killing. Meanwhile, ‘Tommy’ has got a lot of blood on him and not a scratch that I can see. Still, no other bodies. So, nothing to go on.”

Abernathy nodded. “Alright. I need you both to get vests on, and Mazzy if you’ve got a spare sidearm in your gear, please equip Officer Lovett with it. Ray, consider yourself certified.” Mazzy and Ray both nodded, though the young officer’s face had hardened, and left to gear up. “Alright Eric, so what happened here?”

Jenny was cleaning up the medical detritus, and Tommy poured another single malt for Eric. Butterfly stitches and superglue sealed the long cut under his eye and across the bridge of his nose. The Wolf sipped his preference of painkiller. “Paul and a couple of his cronies were here working themselves up to something. You can always tell when boys are trying to convince themselves and each other that they’re men. They drink too much and too fast to do any serious work. They get loud and loose. Paul was bragging about how he’d killed Evert because of something he stole or something he lost.” Eric paused, “Is that true, is Evert dead?”

Abernathy nodded and Eric clicked his tongue.

“I heard them talking about sacrificial lambs and some altar they’d built around the old Haversham Coal mine. Sounded like they meant to snatch somebody and do them some serious harm. This is my little corner of our kingdom and I’m not the least bit fuzzy about our arrangement. Seems the Hightowers have gotten fuzzy on the pact they made, they’ve let some of their goons on too long a leash, or they’ve been making pacts with somebody they think more profitable than with honorable men like ourselves.” He finished off his glass and set it down on the bar.

“Tommy.”

Abernathy suppressed a twitch. He had all but forgotten the athletically built bald man standing behind the bar. Tommy was shorter than he remembered him, seated on the bike outside the station, and up close there was a nagging familiarity about him that Abe could not shake nor pin down. He had forgettable boyish good looks that would have cast him as a superhero sidekick. His appearance was probably disarming to the vast majority of people who met him. Behind his eyes, still luminous under the Nightmare Egg’s influence, lived a weapon.

“The good sheriff here will be in need of a new deputy this evening, I would consider it a favor to me if you’d volunteer for the position and show him the way.”

“Consider it done.” Tommy’s voice lacked the leaden harshness Abe had expected as well as any trace of a southern accent.

Abernathy raised an eyebrow. “Eric, I don’t think that will be necessary, besides I don’t want to involve anyone else in this mess, certainly not a civilian.”

“Abernathy, have you ever known me to hand out favors when I didn’t need to?” Eric smiled with one side of his face. “Hightower’s will have called in a few extra enforcers after the mess we made here. You’re gonna need the help.”

The sheriff grimaced, “What did happen here anyway?”

“The lad currently having a lie down on my floor was mistaken as to the purpose of his blade.”

Abe could have pushed the issue, but he knew he wasn’t in any condition to have that fight. “Tommy, was it?”

The bald man nodded.

“You from around here? You look familiar.”

“Nope, just in town visiting my sister.”

“Is that so?”

“Yup.”

The bell at the front door rang as his deputy and junior officer walked in, torsos covered in bulletproof vests. Ray’s had a holstered Glock strapped to his chest. Flames curled and writhed around their bodies, looking like a pair of avenging angels. Mazzy took his firearm from its holster at his thigh, checked its load, then fingered the toggle on the barrel mounted flashlight. A blazing sword lanced from the tip of the gun and Abernathy’s head tried to come apart in pain. He gave up interrogating Tommy and squeezed his eyes shut against the tiny sun held in his partner’s hand.

“Abe?”

He turned toward the back of the bar, “It’s nothing.” A cold sweat coated his forehead. With an effort, he was able to force his eyes open, though his head still throbbed with pain. Using one hand on the bar to steady himself, he walked around to where the dead body lay.  

The dead man’s neck was laid open where Eric cut him, using the man’s own knife. Ends of muscle and tendon were visible through the gash that started high on the left side and stopped halfway through the big man’s windpipe. Both of the biker’s eyes were open, though one was sunken and bloody. A thick, grip-molded handle protruded from the underside of his jaw, offset to the left and who’s tip was likely responsible for the sunken eye. The details started to reconstruct themselves in Abernathy’s mind, made real by the Egg.

The biker had been fast, slicing a quick line for Eric’s throat where they argued at the bar top. Eric failed to entirely stop the attack, but shrugged a shoulder in the way and blocked the muscle severing power of the blow with his opposite hand, then turned the attack back on itself across the throat and into the biker’s lower jaw—

You weren’t there.

Abe shook his head clear and patted down the dead man’s pockets. Nothing in his jeans. Empty sheath at his hip. Nothing in his jacket. Abe checked inside the lining, still nothing. His heart sank. He had hoped the biker had a flask or something to take the edge off the drug’s effects.

The dead man’s eyes rolled down, full of firefly light, “looking for this?” it said in a Scottish accent.

Whiplash.

Something hard with liquid sloshing in it slapped his shoulder. He looked up to Eric handing him a black leather-clad flask. “Chester had the same look about him that day he stumbled in here.”

Something cracked inside him—

“No.”

The command hit him like a slap and left him stunned, though Eric’s voice never changed pitch or volume.

“Men like you and I don’t get to show the chinks in our armor. I’m not giving you this because I pity you, I’m giving you this ‘cause I think you’re the man who’s gonna get this done, and I’m guessing it will help. If you don’t think you can then I’ll do you the favor of sparing you the next three days of agony, kill you and your officers now, and I’ll finish whatever this is myself. It won’t be as neat and tidy as if you do it and this town will be lesser for it, but I will get the job done.” Eric sank to his heels, one hand extended with the offered flask and the other resting loosely on the hilt of the Blaylock knife resting at his hip.

Abernathy tightened his jaw and took the flask from Eric’s hand without releasing his gaze, then stood. “How did you know about the moonshine, Eric?”

“I can do criminal arithmetic with the best of ‘em, Sheriff. You don’t give your enforcers a poison without an antidote. And if you’re especially clever, you give your hounds a reason never to bite the hand that feeds them, then you don’t ever have to pull their teeth.” Eric grinned, flicking the flask with a fingernail. He stepped over the body, then gently slapped the bar top with both hands. “Now. I think you’ve got a party to attend, and I’ve got some cleaning up to do before the meat wagon arrives.”

Tommy lifted a small black overnight from the far end of the bar top and nodded to Eric. “Ready when you are, Sheriff.”

A glance showed him Ray and Mazzy were ready too. Ray was compulsively checking his vest and firearm for the fourth time.

“Alright,” said Abernathy, “let’s head out.”

* * *

The biker and his deputy exchanged some directions, then they all loaded into Mazzy’s Bronco. Abe and Tommy climbed into the back while Mazzy and Ray got into the cab and the engine cranked up. They pulled out of the parking lot and started down the empty roads toward the old mine.

Setting the bag on his lap, Tommy unzipped it and began removing bits of gear from inside, placing it in a neat pile next to him. He shucked the light leather vest he’d been wearing and slipped on a heavier one. As he zipped and sealed the front he paused, meeting Abe’s gaze. Moonlit shadows wormed and writhed across the interior. The Nightmare Egg, despite its constant scratching anxiety, had the benefit of making the dark perfectly comfortable. For all the trouble the low light gave him it may as well have been mid-day, though all the color was washed out of the world like it had spent too many summers baking under the sun. Not Tommy’s gaze though. His eyes swirled and flashed across the spectrum, sharp and bright across the distance.

The bald man inclined his head and continued strapping gear to himself, “We’ll be in the thick of things in the next thirty minutes. If you’re going to drink that liquid courage, I recommend you do it now.”

“It’s not—” Abe began, then stopped. “Nevermind,” he breathed then unscrewed the cap and took a long pull. Rotten fruit sweetness mixed with roses flooded his mouth and nose, turning his stomach but he forced himself to swallow. A small glowing ember slid down his throat and burned in his stomach.

The ember dimmed rapidly, then burst, harpooning tiny shards of searing metal through his stomach lining and into his internal organs. Gray mycelium pulled taut and lifted an ebony crown out of his stomach acid. Hoarfrost crept along the strands into his—

It’s just high proof.

It’s just high proof.

Now take a deep breath.

“That good, huh?” Tommy knotted a black bandana behind his head covering his pale scalp.

Gritting his teeth, Abernathy purged the smell of roses wafting up the back of his nose with a fresh breath of air, then fished around in one of Mazzy’s gear bags and came back with a squeeze bottle of water. He sprayed it into his mouth, swirled it around and spat it out the back of the cab, closing the glass hatch again. When he turned back, Tommy was rifling through the contents of the bag.

Tommy reminded him of a South African merc named Caden that he’d rubbed shoulders with in Somalia. His loadout was like a hick ninja— ugly, efficient, rugged, utterly lethal. His hallucinatory fugue must have been longer than it felt. Before he’d drank a slug of the moonshine Tommy had a vest on, but nothing more, now he had an asp strapped to the outside of both thighs, a Blaylock buck knife molled to his vest and where the solemn wolf patch starred out from before there was only naked velcro now. Abe drifted back to a time when he was given command of a squad of marines to quash an incident involving a young warlord before it built any momentum and Caden had asked to come along.

‘Hey friend, think I’ll tag along if that’s okay with you, promise I won’t get in the way.’ he said. At first, Abernathy had protested— A man not under his command accompanying him on his mission— the Brass wouldn’t have it— but by this time Caden was something of a good luck charm to many of the men on his squad, so he allowed it. As was Somalian SOP, shit went sideways. Someone had tipped off Kooshin, the aspiring warlord,  that Abernathy and his squad were on their way, and he’d responded with a care package containing an IED and a choke point. Caden had been the one to spot the homemade claymore and raise the alarm, but by then whoever held the claymore’s trigger had deemed them close enough and detonated the device. Everything from that point was chaos. Caden was nowhere to be found, presumed dead. The squad, through superior numbers, better training, and adequate supplies, won the day. Thing of it was, when they got to the warlords compound they found a dozen dead men with full clips of ammo and Kooshin’s body sitting casually with his head literally in his hands. That night, Abernathy ran into Caden sitting in a bar doing cocaine with a pair of tall beautiful Ethiopian women. ‘Abernathy!’ he said ‘glad you made it out of that mess alive. After the IED, I couldn’t find you guys again, decided it would suicide to take on a warlord by myself, and headed back to camp. How’d the operation go?’ Abernathy had wanted Caden up on charges, dereliction of duty, compromising a military operation, something. His gut told him that Caden had been involved in the massacre at Kooshin’s compound, but logic said it was impossible, plus Caden had the Ethiopians as alibis. In the end, Abernathy’s superiors strongly recommended he drop it or he would be in danger of violating a direct order for involving Caden in the operation, to begin with. ‘Besides’, they argued, ‘who cares how the job got done so long as it got done.’ they even gave him a commendation.

The snarl of duct tape tore him out of his revery and he watched Tommy wrap a road flare and can of “Deep Forest” strength bug spray together.

The last time he thought of Caden was five years ago during a case involving another wanna be warlord with the Dead Knights and Eric’s adoptive daughter, Jenny.

Tommy rapped his knuckles on the cabin’s window and Ray slid the center panel open.

“My stop is coming up. You’re gonna kill the lights, slow down to about fifteen or so, then crank back up to thirty-five and go for about another three minutes. Keep your eyes peeled for a gate on the right where old man Euler’s horse barn used to be. Ditch the car, then head straight west and you’ll run into a gravel drive that will lead you to the main office for the mine. Don’t dawdle once you ditch the car. Listen for my distraction, then the rest is up to you.”

Mazzy nodded sharply, “Copy that.”

Ray’s jaw muscles lurched.

The man in black picked up the makeshift bomb, stuffed it in his shirt, then shifted to the tailgate and opened it while Mazzy slowed.

“You sure you’re not from around here, Tommy?”

He looked back with scintillating eyes, “Oh, don’t get me wrong, sheriff. I grew up in this fucked up town, but now only Eric and Jenny keep me coming back.”

“When this is all over, we should talk.”

“No, sheriff, I don’t think we should,” then he leapt off the tailgate.

Abernathy watched him fluidly roll to a stop, get to his feet and disappear into the treeline, headed west.

He looked down at his watch, 2:33 AM. For a moment, the incongruously cheery thought that tomorrow was a Sunday and that he’d get to sleep in occurred to him. With a grimace, he shook the life from it and waited for the vehicle to slow a second time.

The Bronco jostled him back and forth in the back as they rolled to a stop and Ray got out. From the enclosed truck bed he could see an overgrown structure through the windshield.  In the light of the full moon and under the Egg’s influence, he watched the not-quite-shed-not-quite-barn plead with its decaying cyclopean shutter and a gaping mouth for reprieve under the forest’s amebic consumption. His junior officer moved the gate out of the way, and Mazzy eased the car forward. Suppressing the panic that clawed at the back of his eyes from the scratching and dragging noises as the foliage raked the undercarriage, Abernathy collected himself. He checked to make sure nothing had oozed out of him and that all his limbs worked as he expected them to, then double checked the straps on his vest, his shoelaces, and his gun. The chamber was still dry.

With the vehicle fully within the abandoned structure, they gathered at the back of the Bronco, took their bearings and headed silently west.

* * *

Though it had been a decade since he called these woods his playground, few things changed, and he was able to navigate the old growths with relative ease. Some twenty minutes after he’d rolled to a stop in the 4X4’s dust wake he found himself at the treeline to the mining encampment, a stone’s throw from the distant guard shack.

Well, a throw anyway, he thought, fishing the “bug bomb” from his shirt.

He twisted off the flare’s cap, struck it, and hurled it through a window, then moved to his next position.

* * *

Ray, Mazzy, and Abe crept west through the woods, until the headlights of a truck driving dangerously fast down an unmarked and out-of-use mining trail bounced into view. Flames spewed from the headlamps, spreading wildly across the trees, only to die shortly after they’d taken purchase.

Paul, Mazzy mouthed, pointing to the disappearing tail lights.

The other men nodded and they hurried forward, staying within sight of the moonlit gravel road. Game trails ran everywhere around them, subtly worn paths among the undergrowth. Abernathy took the lead and guided the men along the forest highways. Ferns bloomed red, unfurling into bright green fronds all along their path, while light green and blue luciferian throbbed inside the jack-o-lantern and oyster mushrooms growing out of the fallen trees that littered the forest floor. A cold wind slid over them and set the foliage into motion as they raced toward the mine. Abernathy’s breath caught in his chest and a tremor rippled across his skin as the undulating ferns and winking mushrooms transformed their path into a gently rolling sea. He forced himself not to slow despite the pressure of the waves, the icy chill of the water and the fact that somewhere ahead, lurking beneath the surface, Abe could feel the drop off gaping like a hungry mouth waiting to swallow them whole.

Twice more, they saw vehicles roar down the mining path, ghost ships howling toward the maelstrom. They watched the second of the two slam on its brakes as it came upon a wooden building not much bigger than the shack they’d stashed the Bronco in. A pair of men got out, went to the back of the truck and dragged a trussed body from the bed.

Ray started forward, but Mazzy set a hand on his shoulder. The young man looked back, eyes blazing like a pair of coke ovens. Mazzy shook his head, and hand signaled, wait.

The body was hooded and limp, requiring both men to carry it by hooking an arm under each armpit. The two hurried past the house and disappeared out of sight.

A minute passed, and no one had come back so Abe nodded to Mazzy and they crept forward, edging toward the treeline. From their position, Abe could just see inside.

He motioned for them to huddle, and he relayed as quietly as he could, “I see two men inside, it looks like the guard shack Tommy described. We wait for Tommy’s signal then enter the house. Mazzy, you go left, I’ll go right. Ray, you watch our backs. Hopefully whatever the distraction Tommy has—”

A loud CRUMP and tinkle of glass punctuated the night.

The men in the guard shack leapt up immediately and bolted out the back door, stopping at the far corner of the house where the cars were parked. They stared into the distance where several men shouted in confusion.

Abe and Mazzy rushed forward into the opportunity, years of partnership coordinating their movements. They loped from the treeline and crossed the few meters to where the guards stood in relative silence. The last meter was filled with gravel, but it was too late to slow their attack. Crunching stones beneath their feet caused one of the men to turn.

Mazzy struck him at full speed with a blow to the liver, then wrapped an arm around the back of the man’s head and stifled the man’s cry with his opposite hand. He twisted violently from the hips and took himself and his man down to the ground.

Abernathy drove a sharp downward kick into the side of the second guard’s thigh and looped his arm beneath the man’s chin as he crumbled. The man let out a squeak before Abe cut off his air and blood supply. He rag-dolled in Abe’s arms as the shock in blood pressure from the choke shut off the man’s consciousness like a switch.

Gravel crunched behind Abe and he pulled his weapon.

A figure made of shadow crept around the side of the truck they crouched behind, a wet gurgle bubbled through lipless jaws, dripping oily green bile onto the ground. It raised both its hands, tipped in fleshless boney claws. “Sheriff?”

He squeezed the trigger. Nothing.

Mazzy’s hand was on his gun, pressing it gently down.

Abe blinked. Officer Lovett stood in front of him with his hands up. His face was pale and his eyes were wide, but he hadn’t frozen. “Shit” Abernathy breathed, then holstered his weapon.

Mazzy gave him a look full of steel and jerked his head toward the inside of the house.

A gun barked like a frantic dog in the distance, and they dragged their subdued captives into the shack. The air smelled like dust and bird shit. A card table was set up with a couple bags of chips and a brown sack translucent with grease. On the other side, upturned milk crates served the purpose of chairs. An LED hurricane lantern provided painful white light for the single room.

“You’re infected,” Mazzy hissed.

Abernathy pressed his lips together and didn’t meet his eyes.

They laid their prisoners on their stomachs and bound their hands with riot zip ties they’d brought with them. They alternate the guards’ feet then zip tied those too.

“God Damn it, Abe! How long have you known?”

“Since a little before I called you both,” he admitted.

Ray sat on his heels against the wall, staring at Abernathy’s gun.

Mazzy slugged Abe in the shoulder, “You could have—” He clipped something off. “I’m your Partner.”

“And you’d have tried to keep me from finishing this.”

“Fuckin—” Mazzy shouted, then remembered himself and hissed through his teeth, “fucking right I would have!”

“You can’t do this with just you and Ray, and you wouldn’t want to risk anyone else in the squad either, Mazzy.”

Mazzy glared, then looked away and sucked his teeth.

Silence settled in, “Let’s hope that silence means Tommy was successful, and that he’s avoided capture,” Abe said.

Mazzy’s knuckles creaked and he uttered a curse. “Ray, get that light will you, let’s have a look outside.”

The junior officer hopped up and switched the light off, then they huddled up to the window facing the interior of the camp.

The guard shack backed up to a central processing field, overgrown with weeds, but still crisscrossed with the skeletal remains of rail lines. Four rusted and forgotten ore carts grazed the high grasses, spaced widely apart like antisocial sheep. Apart from the carts, the processing field was empty. Three other shacks were visible from the back window. Far off to the left, in the direction of the explosion and gunfire, was a dark long mess hall or dormitory. To the right, two other buildings stood, painted in harsh monochrome moonlight. The closest was a stable with five split and hinged doors for what was presumably beasts of burden, though two-by-fours and stained plywood covered the doors, preventing any of them from opening. The other was a tall two-story barn with a pair of huge barn doors, shut tight with a large wooden beam, and a smaller door set into the wall next to it.

Abernathy tried to focus on the tactical details, the shattered windows in the far building, the sliver of light painting the ground in metallic flames around the ill-fitting door of the stable, the tentacles of smoke that quested about in the night air from black pipes jutting from the barn’s wall, but the hungry black gash in the mountain demanded his attention. His forehead touched the chill glass and he drew back, the entrance to the mine called to him, urging him to come inside. Welcome home, it whispered.

They were silent for several seconds before Ray spoke up. “We gotta get this done, right?”

Abernathy took a breath, realizing he’d been holding it and Mazzy nodded.

“And Sheriff, you knew you were hallucinating, so you didn’t condition zero your firearm, ‘cause you knew there was a chance you might confuse a friendly for a hostile, right?”

Abe nodded grimly, “Excellent reasoning, Ray.”

Ray concluded, “I don’t think we can finish this thing with any of us handicapped.”

“We gotta split up,” Abe said.

“No way.” Mazzy came back, shaking his head vigorously.

“Mazzy, Tommy’s taken care of the shack to the west. That leaves three places to search and we know there’s at least one hostage these guys are planning to kill. We don’t have time to search them all individually, and we all need to be able to react without hesitation.”

Mazzy looked out the rear window, then down at the two unconscious men. He rubbed his face and raked his hands through his short cropped hair.

“We’re not going to be able to strategize out of this one, Mazzy. I’ve done the math. Worked all the angles. We wouldn’t risk our own people on this. Outside Agency backup has left us out in the rain. I’m infected, and you two have had the second greatest exposure, like it or not. We’ve got a job to do and innocent Crossers on the line. There’s no telling—”

“Alright!” Mazzy spat, took a deep breath, then set his jaw, “Alright... Let’s do this.”

Abernathy nodded, “Ray, you’re on the stable. Mazzy, you got the barn. I’m headed into the mine. You keep your eyes peeled for hostages and hostiles alike.” He reached out and squeezed their shoulders, then they moved quietly into the night.

* * *

Through the newly cleaned circle of glass, Paul watched three figures slip from the guard house and into the night. He swallowed involuntarily and winced at his bruised adam’s apple. Two of the three figures were unmistakable even in the moon’s half-light. For weeks he’d been weaning himself off the Skeleton Key, but even still his night vision was sharp enough to clearly make out Mazzy and Abernathy. Abe and another figure split off,  the sheriff headed for the Temple, while the other shadow went for the Pens. Mazzy, on the other hand, was coming straight for him.

Paul turned to one of the new out-of-town recruits, who stood rocking on his heels nearby, clutching a splitting maul to his chest. His eyes swiveled like crazed marbles in their sockets. Sometimes it took a solid month sleeping in the Pens before the recruits were used to the Skeleton key and could be trusted not to scratch out their own eyes. Greg had decided this guy, what was his name? Brad? Tom? Rob? Rob. Greg has decided that Rob was ready.

“Hey.” The guy snapped his head up and fixed Paul with his attention. A chill rolled through him, the way the guy looked at him, eyes like black saucers. “Watch the door. I’m gonna go check with Geoff to see what his order are.”

“Yeaaaah.” he breathed. “Got my eye on the Gate...”

“Sure, look. Just make sure anyone comes through that door,” he pointed to the door next to the big set of barn doors, “gets greeted with this,” Paul slapped the black iron head of the maul. “I’ll be right back.”

“Right... back.”

Paul ran to the back door of the barn at the opposite side of the structure. He had to shield his face from the heat radiating off the second stage boilers, currently distilling a batch of the mushroom brew. Finally, he picked up a Glock from a table next to the door, and grabbed the handle.

“Lucky,” the recruit slurred through a dreamy smile.

“What now?” Paul hissed, “I told you to watch the other door.”

The grin widened on his face, “He’s watching over you, Paul.”

“Sure is,” Paul sneered, “Now get back and guard the fucking door.”

The other man turned back and shuffled toward the front door moving in awkward flicks of his calves, like slow motion bunny hops. “Got his eyes on you, Paul. Won’t be long  now.”

Paul stuffed the Glock down the back of his pants, twisted the knob and slipped outside, “Fucking creeper.”

The chill wind coming in from the treeline turned the sweat trickling down his neck to ice and send a shiver through him. He checked around the corner of the barn, making sure there was no one who would see him flee, then he moved from the shadow of the building into the deeper shadow of the forest.

Garfield’s Crossing was done for him. Now it was just a matter of picking up his cache of moonshine, the packets of Skeleton Key spores that he’d stashed, and the wads of cash he’d been skimming from his pick ups while selling the Hightower’s usual stuff. He always had a sixth sense for when it was time to get out of a scam or racket he’d worked his way into. Months, or weeks after the cops always busted whatever it was. This time things had gotten too far too fast.

Evert. Bastard.

Didn’t matter now, he was home free, he just had to hike out to his spot, then get outta town. There wasn’t anything left for him here anyway. Not after tonight, not after Carol.

Dammit.

A muted handful of gunfire, like a dozen stones thrown into a steel drum, echoed around the trees. Somebody was having a bad time.

Paul smirked. “Better you than me, pal,” he thought of the wack-job Geoff had assigned him to help with the boilers.

Foliage crunched behind him and he ducked around a tree, jerking the pistol from where it was pinned against his backside. The crunching leaves and snapping twigs came in a slow deliberate rhythm.

He held his breath, trying to control his pounding heart.

The steps continued plodding forward, now coming from almost immediately behind the tree he was using for cover.

His lungs and heart demanded air, diaphragm flexing involuntarily. Paul pulled his shirt up and pressed it over his mouth and nose, forcing himself to let out a long silent breath, then sucking in fresh air through the muffle of the fabric and his hand. The world shifted a little around him as his oxygen-starved brain protested having huge lungfuls of air withheld.

Paul held the gun in close to his chest, but pointed straight toward the sound, then stepped back from the tree so he could have a clean shot.

The crunch stalked forward, right behind the cover the tree, then another step.

He flinched and twitched the gun but managed to avoid pulling the trigger. The forest air was empty. He wheeled on the other side of the tree, he must have misjudged the direction. In his chest, his heart spasmed violently, adrenalin flooding heavy into his bloodstream.

CRUNCH.

The sound was right in front of him, he should be able to see whoever was making the noise but the air was empty save for the smell of roses.

He swiveled back and forth, frantic for a target.

Foliage crunched again, past and heading deeper into the darkness.

Paul forced himself to take a deep breath and calm down. In all the excitement he was probably having a flashback of one of the Skeleton Key trips.

“Fucking shit,” his shoulder’s trembled and his guts turned like he’d eaten something bad, intestines full of battery acid. The stalking hallucinatory crunch was further away by the moment and he sagged in relief.

A crash like a whole tree branch falling to the forest floor burst behind him and he turned to face the muzzle of a monstrous sixteen-point buck, luminous eyes swimming with hellfire.

Paul ran.

He leapt over fallen trees and tore himself free from thorny vines that wrapped around his limbs and cut like chainsaws.

Deer filled the forest around him. Bucks, and does, and fawns were everywhere he looked, every direction he tried to flee. They all stood motionless with foxfire turning in their eye sockets.

Scrambling up an ancient fallen oak, Paul slipped on thick green moss, crushed beneath his foot and tumbled to the floor. The wind burst from his lungs and he sucked hard to get in half a breath.

The sixteen-point male rounded the torn up roots of the tree and Paul squeezed the trigger over and over. “No! You’re not gonna get me! I’m free of the stuff,” then scrambled to his feet and ran again.

Suddenly his foot met nothing but air and he tumbled head over heels down a steep slope. The fall turned the forest into a whirling smear punctuated with snapshots of pain followed by insensate numbness. A tree smacked him in the face and the world went black.

* * *

The Beretta 92 felt uncomfortable in his hands, too small for his grip, unnatural. Ray checked the load one last time as Abernathy, Mazzy, and he split off to their respective targets. The moon gleamed off the tin of the shell casing and a sliver of copper grinned at him from the rear of the barrel. He let the slid back to its rest position and checked the hammer again, making sure it was all the way back.

He checked his surroundings, left, right, back to center. Mazzy and Abe were gone melted into the shadows. A shiver rippled up Ray’s spine and he flattened himself against the stable wall. The wood was still warm from the day’s heat and felt seductively good radiating through his clothes. For a long moment, he rested there, not daring to close his eyes on the abandoned mine yard. His heart throbbed steady and fast in his chest. He knew if he waited any longer the adrenaline buzz would start to overflow into the shakes and his teeth would start to chatter.

Turning from the wall, he lifted the latch on the door and pulled it open quietly. Warm amber light filled the interior. He slipped in and closed the door behind him again. The antique smell from years of occupancy by large animals mingled with the rancid smell of human waste and the tang of vomit. Three deep bowl barn lamps with low wattage bulbs hung from the ceiling and spread pools of soft light onto a wooden floor, littered with straw. The whispering of languid motion through straw came from the nearest pen. Other noises filtered into his ears as he scanned the long hallway for any threats. Quiet sobs. A low groan that ramped up into dry heaves. Several voices whispered frantically, individually he might have been able to make out what they were saying, but in the chorus, it was so much grey noise.

He heel-toed quietly as he could up to the pen immediately next to him and saw a man in grease-stained jeans and a Wheeler’s Auto Shop work shirt trussed and squirming sluggishly on a pile of hay. A black sack was over his head.

Once he secured the building, then he would start freeing people.

Ray crept to the next pen, and a painfully thin naked man turned slowly from his hunched shoulders, to face him. The man’s thumbs were pressed to his temples and his fingers were frozen into gnarled arthritic claws.  He was filthy, covered head to toe in smudges of grime. Scratches and bruises grazed his ribs, elbows, chin, and forehead and colored his skin, through the dirt it was challenging to tell where one bruise started and another began.

Ray let go of the gun with one hand and put a finger to his lips, “stay quiet,” he whispered, “I’m gonna get you out.”

The man’s eyes went wide and he shrieked,  “Demoooon!”

Ray shushed urgently, “It’s okay, I’m here to help. I’m not going to hurt you.”

“Demon! Demon!!” He hopped up and down, screaming.

“Sir! Be quiet, someone’s gonna hear.”

He screamed accusations, devolving into a manic cackle.

“Horrus!” a gruff voice shouted, “Shut the fuck up!”

Cold pricks of sweat covered Ray’s face, and he put both his hands on the gun again as Geoff Hightower stepped out of a room at the end of the hall. Geoff and his younger brother Greg were big men. Both played as defensive linemen when they were in high school, and though they were now in their forties, time had only seemed to harden them. Geoff was not a classically handsome man. His head was blocky and roughly the same width as his railroad-timber-neck and his nose had the squashed and crooked look of a boxer. Where he lacked the appeal of good looks, he exuded the confidence and animal magnetism of an apex predator.

Geoff froze, put up his hand slowly and grinned in a way that reminded Ray of a shark.

“Hello, little lamb. How did you get in here?”

Ray straightened and put as much steel as he could into his voice. “Geoff Hightower, you’re under arrest. Stop where you are, lie face down on the ground, and lace your fingers behind your head.”

“Come on, pretty little lamb, like you gonna arrest all of us?” Geoff stepped forward.

“You have the right to remain silent. Anything you say can and will be used against you in a court of law.” His voice squeaked.

The big man stepped forward again, elbows sinking to his sides, though he was still showing Ray his palms, “Think about it kid. How are you gonna bring us in? We got a dozen people up here.” He paused and the grin fell from his face, “No, I think you were confused, thinking you were a wolf when really, you’s just a pretty little lamb.”

“Stop right there,” Ray shouted, steel back in his voice. “Get on the ground or I will be forced to shoot.”

Geoff took another step and Ray pulled the trigger.

The gun twitched down with the anticipatory flinch of recoil but the trigger wouldn’t move. Ray cleared the chamber, slapped the magazine and pulled the trigger again, it wouldn’t budge.

His opponent rushed forward.

Ray back peddled, cleared the chamber again and pulled. Nothing.

Geoff was almost on him, he grabbed a pitchfork from where it rested against a wall and gripped it like a baseball bat, still charging.

He turned the gun and looked down. Safety. Ray thumbed the toggle and the trigger moved.

Geoff planted his feet and swung.

The gun barked then the pitchfork’s handle cracked into the firearm and sent it flying away.

Ray’s hands buzzed with the trauma of having the gun batted from them.

“Alright now.” Geoff heaved, brow shiny with sweat and pupils as big as saucers. Blood dribbled from his ear, where the bullet had grazed him, taking a bite from the cartilage. “This is your last chance. You give up, and I’ll make sure we use a sharp knife when we bleed you tonight. So sharp you won’t even feel it. It’ll be like going to sleep.”

Ray backed up a pace and raised his hands in front of him.

“But you keep pissing me off and I’ll pin you to the wall with this pitchfork, and I’ll make sure we show you what you look like inside when we sacrifice you to the Famine King.”

He gritted his teeth and planted his feet, bile threatening the back of his throat. “You have the right to an attorney.”

Geoff gripped the wooden shaft in both hands and rush Ray with a battle cry.

Ray sunk down, ready for the impact, then stretched out his right hand, arm stiff, muscles tight as steel cables and impaled his palm on the fork’s center tine. He closed his hand around the crossbar and grabbed the shaft with his left. Using all his strength and Geoff’s own momentum, Ray Lovett shoved up with his right hand, cranked back with his left and drove the nine-inch spikes through the Hightower’s jaw and out the top of his head.

One of Geoff’s eyebrows climbed higher and higher on his forehead as if it was trying to escape its body’s fate. He sneezed and blood fountained from his nose, then he fell backward, dragging Ray with him.

Somewhere in the distance, people were exchanging gunfire.

* * *

Inevitability. The feeling had hit him as soon as he’d given his men their orders, then redoubled when Mazzy and Ray disappeared from sight. It wasn’t resignation so much as a feeling of immediacy.

This IS.

This can BE no different.

He felt empowered. Charged. Right.

Blood roared in his ears as he crept up to the rail cart closest to the mouth of the mine. From its cover, he could make out a wooden gate sealing the mine off from unwanted visitors. A man in a sleeveless t-shirt and dark pants crouched behind a lawn chair and card table to one side of the door. Lit in relief from the light leaking through wooden slats of the gate, Abe could see him cradling a Kalashnikov and keeping watch.

Abe looked around for a line of approach. Thirty feet from the mine’s entrance in every direction was clear. Even the weeds, creepers, and grass had been cut back and provided a clear 180-degree view from the gate. He looked at his feet and felt around beneath the weeds surrounding the cart. Rough rock grazed his knuckles and he pulled a stone half the size of his fist free from the flora. Hidden behind the cart, Abernathy hurled the stone back and to the left. A sharp crack echoed from the exposed mountain rocks. He waited, then peeked around the bottom corner of the cart. The guard had pressed his rifle’s butt to his shoulder but had not moved.

Abe found another stone, turned to face the cart, and threw it directly at the guard. He flattened himself to the ground with his gun thrust out in front of him while the rock tumbled through the inky night.

The stone banged hard on the card table and the guard spun in his direction, leapt to his feet and jogged out into the moonlight. He sighted down the barrel of the gun and swept his aim across the forest. “Gotcha,” he said, then squeezed the trigger.

Four bright lances of fire burst from the top of the gun and bullets twanged and pinged off of a nearby cart, but not Abernathy’s.

The guard stalked closer, veering to the left and closing in on the place he’d fired at. He was twenty feet away, but going out of Abe’s line of fire, hidden behind the cart’s steel bulk.

Moving as quietly as he could, Abe crawled forward to get a better position. Uneven rocks shifted and settled beneath him with a loud crunch and the guard spun on him, squeezing the trigger again. Abe threw himself forward and onto his side, scraping his exposed arm on the rock and took aim.

A scythe of bullets cut through the air. Two pinged and ricocheted off the cart, then Abe felt the bite and punch of a bullet slam into his stomach then chest.

Abe shot the guard in the pelvis, and again in the chest as he rolled to his back. The gun fell from the guard’s hand and he collapsed to the ground. Pain radiated from Abernathy’s torso and sucking in air felt like trying to breathe honey. He looked down expecting to see a gaping hole in his chest and belly. One dull, squashed, wad of lead was embedded in the ceramic plate in his flak jacket, the other bullet left shards and curls of itself on the frayed hole in the kevlar where it made it through. Beneath the hole, his guts ached and burned savagely. He gritted his teeth against the pain and picked the single bullet out of the material, dropping it to be lost amongst the weeds.

He got to his feet, growling quietly against the pain in his belly, and went over to the guard, keeping him covered with his Glock. The man sprawled out on the ground like a frog awaiting grade school dissection. Abe checked his neck but found no pulse. He frowned and moved on. The mouth of the cave was calling him again.

The temperature dropped noticeably with each step closer, and by the time he reached the gate, he could see his breath in the air. He paused at the door and listened. Someone shuffled impatiently behind the wooden barrier.

Breathing was easier now, though each breath hurt to take. He drew a calming breath, took aim and jerked the door open. The dark-suited and no-lipped man stooped in the low ceiling facing him. His skin was porcelain smooth and white, where before it was livid, raw and ragged.  Where his eyes should have been, there were cups of smooth flesh. Their shallow bowls transitioned smoothly into an aquiline nose and high cheekbones. Perfect needle fine teeth grew seamlessly from his top and bottom jaw, the two halves fitting neatly together like so many laced fingers. The sable crown still rested comfortably on his head. Effulgent streamers gathered around the crown then were sucked inside as they crossed the event horizon a few inches from its surface. The Famine King crooked a bone-tipped finger and beckoned, then turned and disappeared into coal dust.

The gun rattled in Abernathy’s hands but he forced himself to descend into the mine. Orange caged work lamps were strung from the ceiling every hundred feet, turning the black slime slick walls into an oil fire tunnel to hell.

You’re jumping at shadows.

Light is just light.

Finish this thing.

With renewed purpose, Abe stalked down the gently sloping tunnel. Every few hundred feet on either side of the shaft there was a boarded up passage, a tunnel where the vein had run dry or the mining had become dangerous. The smell of musty roses was thick down here and suddenly he was back in the bus. The walls of the cave were lined with repeating rows of grain filled carboys and desks, carboys and desks, carboys and desks, carboys and desks, carbo—. Indistinct voices and laughter skipped and echoed through the tunnel. To his left, the Famine King’s head and beckoning hand were visible in a narrow passage where several boards had been removed.

His pant leg was warm and wet, and he frowned in shame. Even in the worst parts of his military career, he’d never pissed himself, but then he looked and saw his jeans were shiny with blood. He pressed his lips together and leaned against the tunnel's wooden frame, suddenly very out of breath.

Pull it together.

You’ve had worse.

Come on.

Stooping and groaning through the pain in his stomach he stepped through the hole in the side passage. The tunnel was mercifully devoid of the hellfire lamps. Standing on the other side he pressed a palm against the hole in his vest and started forward. The tunnel descended more sharply than had the main shaft, but the ceiling climbed away out of sight as if the miners had broken into a natural cavern. High above in the black, a small galaxy of blue stars winked and twinkled. Abe shuffled along the wall, transfixed by the spectacle. His feet sloshed through water as he came to the lowest point of the tunnel, then he felt the angle start to head back up. A moth fluttered away from the wall and snared itself on a sticky string of glow worm line. It struggled, swinging wildly, colliding with more and more snares. When the blue diamonds of light started winking out from the top down as worms descended on their prey and the Famine King’s face grinned back from the encroaching black Abernathy stopped watching.

* * *

Paul woke to pain and the taste of copper. He opened his eyes. Then squeezed them shut again. Suppressing a whimper. “You’re not real,” he said through a knot in his throat and he felt his chin wrinkle. He opened his eyes again.

The hooves were still there in front of him.

Shaking his head he shouted, “You were never real. You’re some bad trip!”

The giant buck lowered his head, huge nostrils flaring to take in deep chuffs of breath.

“You’re. Not. Real.” as if his conviction could make the beast evaporate into the nightmare it was. His voice quavered.

Velvet lips peeled back revealing yellowed ground down teeth designed for chewing plants and stripping bark. Wet popping and tearing noises came from the deer’s face and its teeth began to retract along with its lips.

“It’s all a dream. It’s all a dream. It’s just a dream!” Paul screws his eyes shut again. Something wet pattered onto the leaves in front of him and he opened his eyes.

Exposed bands of striated muscle and bleach white bone glistened where the deer’s face had retracted. Saliva and mucus streamed down the not-a-deer’s jaw, slicking neat rows or interlaced teeth. Horribly, the jaws opened, flexed, then in a jerk dislocated and opened further.

“Please don’t,” Paul whimpered.

* * *

The world spun dangerously around Abernathy and he stumbled in the dark. His hand slipped on the slime slick wall and he fell forward. The tunnel had taken another downward slope and Abernathy tumbled in scrambling stops and starts, unable to halt himself, curled around his injury and trying to protect his head.  He splashed to halt in a pool of water that smelled of oil and mildew.

Warm soft light emanated from somewhere above his head.

“Speak of the Devil, and he shall appear.” Greg Hightower said in a sing-song fashion.

Abernathy struggled to rise but found his wounded stomach refused to lift him.

Someone was walking closer, then sloshing through the water. A pair of strong arms lifted him under the armpits and dragged him into the light, setting him down onto a chair.

His eyelids were heavy but he forced himself to open them.

He found himself in a large circular chamber, one side of which had been converted into living quarters and study with rough cut bookshelves, a large portaledge pitoned into the walls and ceiling, and a desk made of wood and saw horses. Electric lamps turned to their minimum setting provided soft enough glow so that it did not hurt unless he looked directly at them. The other side of the chamber was arranged as a primitive shrine. A doe’s head with Nightmare Egg pods sprouting from it was mounted on a low alter, much like the bus, though with more reverence. The area on the floor in front of the altar was laid out with wrinkled brown paper packages in a shape that resembled a truncated malformed starfish. Two rows of benches were arranged in a semi-circle around what was evidently a sacred space.

Greg dragged another camping chair up and sat in front of Abernathy. Like his older brother, Greg was a big man, but unlike the cro-magnon brutishness that his brother typified, Greg was chisel jawed, roguish, and dripped charm. Now into middle-age, his hair had started to recede on either side of his head, leaving a peninsula of chocolate brown hair. The younger Hightower inspected Abe from a distance then scooted forward and reached out.

Abe tried to slap his hand away but was too sluggish and Greg chopped his arm sharply, leaving his hand tingling.

His host gently pried his eyelids open and pursed his lips, nodding to himself, then unstrapped the top strap on the bulletproof vest.

Abernathy reached for his gun but it wasn’t in his holster. He couldn’t remember where he’d put it. His mouth was dry and he desperately wanted something to drink.

Greg had jerked the vest open all the way down one side and had peeled it back. He whistled and tutted, then let go of the vest and met Abernathy’s glare.

“Abe, I hope you don’t mind me saying this, but you don’t look so great. Judging by that hole in your stomach, I’m guessing it's gonna take more than moisturizer to fix you looking so ashy. Was that you making all that racket up there?”

Abernathy worked the spit around in his mouth. “Greg, you’re under arrest. This has gone on long enough. I should have shut you down years ago, but now this business with the Nightmare Eggs has gone too far.”

He looked puzzled for a second. “Nightmare Eggs?” a light went on in his eyes, “Oh you mean the Skeleton Keys. Though I admit, Nightmare Egg certainly does have a ring to it. It’s all about framing though. You tell someone how you have this thing that opens all the doors and draws back the veil so they can see what's really going on behind the scenes, then you call it the Nightmare Egg... They ain’t never gonna drink that.”

“What the hell are you doing here Greg? Moonshine wasn’t enough?”

Greg heaved a sigh and helped Abernathy up. Pain exploded in his stomach followed by an icy numbness. “Come on big guy, I’ll walk you through it. No sense in you crossing over without all the facts.” He walked them over to the shrine and with the proximity Abe realized in dawning horror that the arrangement of packages on the ground was a mummified corpse, shriveled and shrunken. Where once its head had been there was only a thick mycelial network that climbed up and into the Altar.

“Say hello to Daddy, Abe.” He sighed dramatically, “As you can plainly see, there ain't much left of the mean old son of a bitch. All used up.” He sat Abe down on a bench. “It’s really a shame we’re leaving after tonight, You’d be a perfect replacement.” He chuckled and shook his head, “I tell you, we were really struggling there for a little while, Geoff and I. We knew Daddy was almost used up, and we just weren’t having any luck with anything else growing the Skeleton Keys. Deer works for a single harvest, but even then the first stage of the Key’s life cycle is over too quickly and the second stage is only fit for sacrifices or keeping pilgrims in line.”

In front of the altar, the ground around the mummified remains began to swirl and vibrate with black mist, like water sitting next to a giant speaker.

“Romans 11 verse 33, ‘Oh, the depths of the riches of the wisdom and knowledge of God. How unsearchable his Judgements and how inscrutable his ways,’ except I’m wondering about the credit there. See, I was pissed when I found out that Evert had stole a bunch of the Communion. I would have killed him myself if I’d have gotten my hands on him.”

From the undulating mist, long thin arms unfolded and the Famine King hauled himself bodily from the swirling pit.

“Then a little birdy told me about Chester and I understood how wrong I had been to keep the gift of the Key’s to Garfield’s Crossing. You could say the last day or so has been transformative.”

The Famine King stalked around the altar, he tilted his head as if bemused and probed the deer’s head with a boney claw.

Abernathy shuddered, “You’re insane, Greg.”

It’s in your head.

It’s in your head

It’s. Just. In. Your. Head.

Abernathy could not drag his eyes from the Famine King as he hinged his jaws open and slowly sank its teeth into the doe’s skull. A shiver traveled through the porcelain flesh and black suit alike.

Greg looked around and a brilliant smile lit up his face. “You can see him, can’t you, Abe?” He leaned forward, “and I’m guessing by your reaction this isn’t the first time you’ve seen him is it?” Greg stood and twirled on the spot. “You know what Famine is, Abe? It’s a crucible. It separates the weak from the strong, the careless from the disciplined. Look around you. You know! The world’s sick. Why? Cause there’s too many weak and undisciplined. Famine’s gonna fix that. And what’s more, the world has been begging for it for thousands of years.” Greg was pacing now, back and forth in short little arcs.  “There’s 5.5 Billion people in this world praying to somebody they can’t smell, or touch, or see. These people squabble between each other, spill each other’s blood over land some faceless god ‘promised them.’ Waste resources, waste energy, poison and brainwash generations.” the Hightower stopped in front of Abernathy and cupped his face gently in his hands. “I’m going to show them a god that listens. A god they can see and feel and experience. They will crawl over each other to receive the Famine King’s Blessings and we will cure the world of its illnesses.” a gentle smile was on Greg’s lips and his eyebrows crinkled his forehead.

The Famine King removed his teeth from the doe’s skull with wet sucking sounds like trying to pull one’s foot from mud and Greg stood up. He set a hand on Abernathy’s shoulder and walked around behind him.

Abe wanted to fight. Wanted to grab Greg’s hand and break his wrist. Drag him to the floor and put him in cuffs. Force him to answer to his victims and his victim’s families. He was so tired though and his arms were so heavy.

Greg put his other hand on Abernathy’s opposite shoulder and squeezed reassuringly. “You’ll see Abe. We’re going to make the world a better place.” The Famine King stalked over to them. “All that is demanded is the occasional sacrifice.” Slowly, almost gently, Greg wrapped his arm around Abernathy’s neck then placed his opposite hand on the back of his head and started to squeeze.

Adrenaline spiked Abe’s bloodstream and a final rush of strength flooded into his limbs. He scratched and clawed at Greg’s arm. Threw fist after fist back at his attacker’s face,  trying to loosen the iron grip.

Greg shushed him, “It’s okay. This is noble. You are becoming a part of something greater. I’m envious, really but my role is to spread the word.” The Famine King folded his hands in front of him and leaned over the pair.

Abernathy’s ears were ringing and the strength drained from his arms.

The Famine King opened his mouth again. Wider and Wider.

Red and black swam in Abernathy’s vision as his brain started turning off the lights. Somewhere in the distance, he heard someone shout “Garfield's Crossing Sheriff’s department, let him go.”

The Famine King lunged forward and the sound of his jaws snapping shut was a thunderclap. Warm blood splashed over Abernathy’s head and down his back. Greg Hightower’s grip loosened, then fell away. The black figured in front of him straightened and grinned down at him.

BE SEEING YOU.

Abe slid off the bench and as the lights faded he heard a man’s voice shout, “Ray, I found him. Get over here!”

* * *

The smell of roses filled his nose and Abernathy snapped to full consciousness, sitting bolt upright in bed. It felt like someone slugged him in the stomach and suddenly it was hard to breathe. Mazzy was by his side, arm under his shoulders and hand on his chest, helping him back down on to scratchy sheets. Mingled with the roses was the strong smell of antiseptic. A bouquet of multicolor roses with a big “Get Well” card stuck in it was sitting on a table at the foot of his bed.

“Take it easy, Abe, or you’re gonna pop a stitch,” Mazzy said through a grin.

Abernathy laid back against the incline of a hospital bed and Mazzy pressed a cup of water with a bendy straw in it into his hand. He accepted it gratefully, realizing how raw his throat was. Sipping carefully he took in his surroundings. The room was painted a soft off-white edging toward blue. Overhead, the fluorescents were mercifully dark, but indirect light gave the room peaceful serenity, judging by the shadows the lights were probably hidden behind his headboard. Looking around confirmed this and showed him half a dozen medical monitors, all of which trailed wires leading back to a bundle that passed down the wide V of his hospital gown.

A nurse in green scrubs opened the sliding door to his room and smiled widely at him. She nodded to Mazzy who accepted Abe’s cup and stepped back out of the way. “Welcome back to the land of the living Mr. Jackson, you had us worried there for a few days.” She talked while she noted his chart, made a few adjustments to the medical monitors, checked his IV’s and he noted with interest to other bags hanging off the side of his bed. “A tech will be by in a little while to change some of these bags out for you and I think we’ll remove that feeding tube now that you’re awake.” She smiled once more and stepped out.

Mazzy pulled a face, “yeah, I wouldn’t move around to rapidly if I were you. They got you full of tubes.” He beamed, “Damn man, it’s good to see you awake.” his partner squeezed his shoulder then grabbed a thick redweld from the floor next to his chair. “Some light reading for you. Next time, mind if I take the bullet so you can handle the paperwork?”

Abernathy grinned and thought about saying something,  but the tube snaked down the back of his throat made him reconsider.

“Hey, look. I gotta go call Sam. If I don’t tell her you’re awake she’ll kill me. Don’t give me that fucking look. Of course, I know. Half the damn station does, Abe. She wanted to be here when you woke up by the way, but Ray and I made her go home and get some sleep.” He patted Abe’s knee. “It’s good to see you awake. Enjoy the reading.” Then Mazzy slipped out and let a pair of young med techs in wheeling a cart piled with fresh bags of fluid and other trappings of long-term care.

* * *

Reading the reports, Abernathy pieced together the rest of the case. Mazzy and Ray had radioed for backup, then come after him once they’d arrested, subdued, or otherwise neutralized any potential threats. They’d followed the sound of Greg Hightower’s fanatic ramblings and caught him in the act of trying to strangle Abernathy. Mazzy had been forced to kill Greg when he refused to release Abernathy. They found Carol in the portaledge, drugged to the eyeballs on what was later confirmed to be what the Hightower’s cult was calling Communion, a fermentation for the mature Nightmare Egg’s. Paige had been given access to the journals lining the Hightower’s bookshelves, and through her head start and their meticulous notes she was able to formulate an experimental treatment. Three of the eight total victims held in lockup succumbed to the mushroom’s infection and died, Philip Henderson had been among the three. The others are expected to recover, though the long-term psychological effects are still a big question mark. Paige was quick to point out that in a way it was fortunate that they had died, otherwise she would not have been able to formulate her treatment as there were no other samples of the Nightmare Egg. Shortly after their conversation, some very uptight assholes in suits showed up at his bedside wanting some answers about a fire that destroyed the bus and Carol’s house. They threatened gross negligence and criminal charges for interfering in a federal case, but Abe knew it would never come of anything. Meanwhile, no one had seen Paul since. He was presumed to have escaped.

When he was released from Emory hospital after spending two weeks in their care, he’d paid Eric a visit and shared a drink, sharing the details they each felt relevant to the other man. Abe asked if Eric had seen Tommy since that night but received a negative, not that he expected any different.

To his surprise, Paige was still camped out in Garfield’s Crossing and promised to be for a  few weeks more. After she reported her initial findings, Georgia State and the CDC had parked a mobile lab in the GCS Office parking lot. According to Paige, this fungi was going to change the world, and Abernathy had to suppress a shiver every time she said it.

* * *

Ray woke up with a start, gasping for breath. He had been running through the mines again in his dreams. Gingerly, he slipped an arm out from underneath Paige’s neck where she had fallen asleep and slid out of bed.

He walked into the on-suite bath and used his good hand to splash water on his face. His other hand throbbed and he fished his bottle of pain pills out of the medicine cabinet, then headed to the kitchen to make something to eat. Theoretically, he could take the pills on an empty stomach, but then he got terrible heartburn.

Sandwich made, he popped a pill then picked up his plate and walked back to the bedroom, chewing his first mouthful. He was about to sit on the bed when he noticed the covers were turned down and Paige wasn’t snuggled beneath them.

Her voice purred from the bedroom doorway and he turned to see her standing naked, pale skin painted blue in the half-light from the kitchen, “I’m so hungry Ray, can’t I have just one bite?”

The plate fell from his hands and shattered on the floor.

 

THE END

 

The Ghost of Red Line Road

The Ghost of Red Line Road

The Gods Are Always At The Gates / Chapter Four

The Gods Are Always At The Gates / Chapter Four

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