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The Face in the Flame

a short story
by Matt Spencer

I heard the thunder in the forest all the way from my room, faint and far off. Maybe I thought it was real thunder, that a storm was coming, which is close enough to true. I think I figured out, though, that it was coming from the ground. In retrospect, it's strange that I heard it from such distance. Then I forgot about the thunder in the woods because of the thunder down the hall, which came from someone banging on Jonas' door.

With the banging came, "Open up. Brattleboro Police."

Jonas was a pockmarked scarecrow of an old hippie who lived in the same boarding house I did. I hung out with him partly because he was entertaining -- full of the somber, loopy, verbose philosophy and spirituality of too much acid in the sixties -- and partly 'cause he was always willing to get me smoked up. Also, I guess it was because I couldn't figure him out. A lot of people took him seriously, including plenty of Brattleboro's sweet young hippie girls, and I think he got more of them than I ever did. Something in his weed crop worked as an aphrodisiac, I guessed. I'd heard rumors that he'd been dealing, but didn't much care since he always smoked me up for free. The smoking didn't matter enough to the landlady to stop turning a blind eye, but dealing would, just as it was a more active target for the cops. I didn't know if she'd called them, or if they'd come knocking with the warrant.

It didn't matter much, not to me. What mattered was, I didn't want to be here if my name came up before they hauled him off. Too bad the long hallway to the stairwell went right past Jonas' door. I knew some commotion would start, so I put on my shoes while I waited for it, then I opened my window quietly as possible and slipped out. My room faced the backyard, and the backyard faced the woods. Outside the window was a short slant of roof where I sometimes climbed out to smoke, drink and think. I stretched out and looked for the best way down. Then I slid off the ledge, hung by my fingers so my feet went halfway to the ground, then I dropped and landed in front of the door to the laundry room. Fortunately no one was out doing laundry. The drop hurt worse than I'd hoped, but I rolled with it well.

One of those chilly Vermont falls had set in, and it was even colder at night. I wished I'd thought to grab my coat, but I knew what deep Vermont winters were, wanted to not be in jail when the coming one arrived, so I sucked it up and dealt with it.

I knew on some level that I didn't have much to worry about. Even if my name did come up, this would blow over easier if I simply wasn't home during the bust. That was just how things went in Brattleboro. The landlady would half-heartedly interrogate me next I saw her, but I could bullshit my way out of that easy. If I was there when it happened, though, the cops might just decide to fill the other half of their backseat with their dealer's nearest partaker. So it was into the woods. I could cut through to the highway, circle around to the nearest bar, and wait it out for a couple hours. Then I'd wander home and hear from one of the other tenants how Jonas had been busted.

Before leaving, I couldn't help peeking around the side of the house, up the slope to the street. Sure enough, I saw the nose of a cop car parked on the curb. I ducked back quickly, not because I was scared of being spotted -- I was deep enough in shadow back here -- but because my eyes were adjusting to the darkness, and I didn't want to the street lamp to kill that. And I'd need my night vision for this trek. I passed under the nearly bare branches, and my feet found the spots that weren't completely buried in dry, crackling leaves. Still, each of my steps crunched loud enough to make me tense up. The further I got, though, the less this bothered me. If the cops had figured I'd slipped them, if they figured which way I'd gone, I'd have heard them at my back by now. Then I started getting edgy for other reasons. It seemed the deeper I went, the less light came through the clouds and skeleton trees, and the ground grew lumpier and craggier. Several times I tripped and almost fell, catching myself on low branches, and I bruised my shins pretty good on a fallen log or two.

Where the hell was the highway? I should have reached the highway by now! I'd never explored these woods much, but I knew the highway was on the other side, and it hadn't seemed possible for there to be such a stretch in between as I'd crossed. The forest felt huge and captivating, bound by another set of dimensions than the rest of the town. Within such dimensions, it might go on endlessly, keeping me as long as it pleased.

I shook myself against the cold, against the hooting, chirping, cackling night noises, against the superstitions they'd set loose in my already rattled skull. Then came the thunder.

At first I thought, Fuck. Didn't get caught by the cops; now I'll get caught by a storm in the middle of the woods.

Almost instantly, though, I knew this was no sky thunder, that it was in fact the sound of human activity somewhere in these woods, somewhere very close. I quickened my pace towards the road, veering away from the sound, or so I was sure. But my ears must have had their directions screwed up, 'cause the thunder only drew closer, like it was following me and gaining ground. And it was still ahead of me, always in my path. It seemed like the thunder swerved to block me, but at least now I knew that this was my imagination. Maybe some self-destructive curiosity in my subconscious actually made me seek out the source, while my conscious mind tried to steer me clear. Whatever the case, a light appeared ahead through the trees. It was a small light, but in such darkness as a nighttime autumn forest in Vermont, the smallest light shown brightest. And it gave my trail the glow it needed to move on competently, the better to bypass the source quickly and quietly as possible. After that, the road couldn't be far.

Again came the thunder, and this time it was close enough to be deafening... There it went again: rolling, echoing, grinding... and metallic.

I started around, giving the sound and the light many yards, though not as many as I should have. Why didn't I keep as much distance as I should have? The answer is obvious in how I kept casting sidelong glances towards the light, letting my head turn further and further, seeing less and less of the path ahead, peering ever harder through the trees to my left, trying harder and harder to see through to the source...

Then I passed a spot where the trees were thin, letting me see into a large clearing. The leaves had been pushed out of this clearing, revealing smooth ground and green grass, and the light source was a large red old-fashioned lantern that rested on a tree stump at the center. Past this, at the far edge, there was a great, sprawling pile of rusty scrap metal and rotted boards. A shape moved through the pile, giving off sounds of clanking rummaging. Finally the shape moved into the light. It was a hunched form draped in rags with its back to me, coming backwards in a grotesque, lurching crab scuttle. Before I realized it I'd moved forward, in time to see the hunched, ragged shape turn in its course, dragging a large, ribbed, rusty sheet of tin that looked like it had once been part of a barn roof. Over trash and earth and rocks, the sheet groaned and echoed as it was dragged... letting its thunder out into the night. This close, the real source seemed far weaker than the echo. The figure dropped the sheet at the edge of another so the two lined up, the new addition turned at an angle so it faced the junk pile.

I continued on quicker, but going quicker meant making more noise, and when I next looked back, the clearing was more visible than ever. And the bum had turned, I saw that he was a gaunt, black, gray-bearded mummy of a man, and he was looking right at me. I should have been too far out for the lantern to catch me clearly, but something in those deep, stern, half-mad eyes told me of no good will, maybe outright anger. Probably he was pissed at being spied on in his weird camp site, in the middle of his weird ritual. So I turned back and continued on. I'm a pretty strong young man, and I'd fought down crazy bums sturdier than this one. But something about those cold, mad eyes, staring from that glowing clearing while the rest of his body moved as though uninterested, sent a shiver through me of primal, ghostly nighttime dread, leaving no room for bravado.

Several paces on, I looked back and the man was still looking at me, only now he'd moved silently out of the clearing, lurching in my direction. I kept walking, eyes forward again, my ears perked for his quiet tread in case he stayed on me and closed the distance. I didn't hear him yet, but I shifted my shoulders and loosened up my frame in case I had to start slinging my fists. Leaves and twigs crackled not far behind me, and I turned. He was less than ten feet from me, his gait hadn't changed, and though I couldn't see his eyes, I knew they wouldn't have changed either.

I kept my movements smooth as I faced him, and I said in a stiff, dull, mannered voice, "Hey, how you doin'?" There was no more pretending disinterest, but I'd at least keep pretending civility 'til he made that impossible.

"Me?" he rasped. "I just tryin' to keep warm. What the fuck you doin' in these woods?"

"Just cuttin' through."

"What you takin' the woods for?"

"It's quicker than goin' all the way around on the road."

He hacked up an "Ah," then grunted, "So what you tryin' to get to? Ain't nothin' down that way but highway. You runnin' from the cops or somethin'?"

I started, tried to contain it, but knew he'd seen it. Oh well. He was a paranoid old bum living out in the woods. He was the last person in the world, or at least in Brattleboro, who'd have sympathy for the cops.

Still I said, letting him hear defensiveness, "No, I'm headed to see a friend. His house is down that way."

"Ah," the bum hacked again. "So why you come pokin' around, starin' at me all nosey an' shit? This ain't no circus freak show, boy."

My voice stayed stiff and civil. "I saw the light of your lantern, plus I heard you rattlin' that junk metal, so I peaked to see what was goin' on."

"Well, ain't nothin' goin' on but my business!"

"Fair enough..." I suddenly felt silly, letting this worthless, broken little man interrogate me, get me so shook up that I'd let him bully me, and I thought about beating the shit out of him on general principle. Our dark, isolated surroundings had let me get scared. They should have been his reason to be scared of me.

I shoved my hand into my pocket for my smokes. Maybe he'd think I was going for a weapon, and he'd get spooked and make the first move. I'd done too much running scared tonight. It was a big improvement, this savage eagerness for a head-on fight. But the bum just watched intently and let me get my smokes. I lit one and he asked:

"Hey... got another one of those?"

I shrugged, handed him one, then held out my lighter to light it for him. I sparked it, he cupped the flame against the wind, and the touch of his grimy, leathery hands made my face twist in distaste. He didn't seem to notice.

"So you was curious about what I was doin' over there, huh?"

I shrugged and nodded. "Well, yeah. I figure you're puttin' some kinda shelter together from all that crap?" I pointed with my cigarette towards the clearing and the junk pile. "Hey, that's cool, man."

The bum smiled strangely. "Hell, man, you're alright! Nah, it ain't shelter I'm buildin', not exactly. Y'wanna see what I am doin' with all that crap?"

"Sure. What, you need some help puttin' it together?" Maybe I sounded a little more condescending than I'd meant.

His smile twisted some. "Thought you said you had a friend to go see."

"Aw, hell. I was just gonna drop in, see what he was up to. I'm game for whatever." ...Whatever would take up some time, as shit continued blowing over elsewhere. And whatever else, this would definitely be distracting enough. And hell, my curiosity was up!

I followed the bum back towards the clearing, and my imagination conjured all sorts of nasty traps that might lie waiting. I hadn't gotten a good enough look to know for sure that there weren't more crazed bums, crouched in the shadows, ready to jump me all at once. Or maybe just this one had a log or a metal pipe or a long wooden beam, waiting to brain me from behind the minute my guard dropped. Hell, I'd already let down more defenses than I'd planned, just going this far. But my paranoia was alive and well, and that was one defense I didn't see going anywhere.

We stepped into the clearing, and I watched him walk past the lantern on the tree stump, back towards the junk pile. He chucked his cigarette butt carelessly, but I still ground mine out and put it in my pocket, out of respect for the woods.

The bum said, "You said you wanted to help out, man? Well, come grab some of these big tin sheets, help me haul 'em. Careful you don't cut yourself. They rusty as shit."

I followed him to the junk pile, my senses on high alert, casting a glance around at his odd little campsite. I could now see the shape the tin sheets were forming, though it was obviously incomplete. It looked at this point like he was laying out a circle that would ring the clearing once finished. Right now, it looked a little less than half done. At the top was a six-foot gap, with more sheets running up from it, forming a bottleneck. At the bottleneck, there was one less link on the right than on the left. The bum dragged over his latest find and dropped it with a dusty, rocky thud. He scooted it around obsessively with his foot 'til it lined up perfectly with the left. I now saw that it formed a sort of entry path into the clearing.

The bum looked up at me. "Well, you gonna help me out or what? If you jus' gonna stand around gawkin', I don't need that shit 'round here botherin' me."

I realized that I was, in fact, just standing around gawking. Minutes ago, his belligerent tone would have pissed me off further, but I'd lost myself in curiosity. So I would play by his rules while I was on his turf, long as he didn't get out of line. He started back towards the junk pile, and I fell in step next to him.

"So what you makin' here, anyway?" I asked. "Some kind of art piece?" I gave a laugh that was supposed to sound camaraderic, but it came out small and maybe nervous, and I felt silly for it.

"You'll see what it's s'posed to be when it's done," he said, eyes forward, not sounding interested in my stupid laughter one way or the other.

I glanced back at his masterpiece-in-progress, had my doubts, and shrugged.

"We only need two more sheets," he went on as we passed into the junk pile. "Try to grab a good'n', one that ain't too full of rust-holes, about to split in half."

I nodded, but he wasn't looking at me. He hopped into the pile and climbed the clutter with a new agility, like a monkey through the trees. I almost got caught up watching again, then set to rooting around. I stayed closer to the edge of the pile than my companion, who seemed freakishly at home here. My guard was back up, since he had me at a disadvantage, having to go so gingerly as I did, trying not to get snagged or sliced on anything in this jagged, splintery darkness. But the sky had cleared up a lot, and the moon was brighter, so I found my way easier than expected. The more I looked around, the more apparent it was that this had, in fact, been a barn once, though it had rotted or been torn down decades ago. Along with the pieces of roof and the timber of smashed walls, there were bits of farm equipment: the planks of a fence, a split metal ban still clinging to the remnants of a barrel it had once held together, the wheel of a cart, the head of a shovel with about a foot of broken handle remaining.

I went on rummaging, then noticed the weirdest thing so far. On almost all the bits of wood, the broken edges had been burnt hard and black by some intense flame. I kept digging out new pieces and looking them over, and yes, they were all like this.

I shook off a nameless shudder and asked, "So there used to be a farm here, or what?"

"Yep. More of a big shack, really. Keep lookin'. We only need two more sheets. I already pulled most of the good'n's, but there still oughta be some left."

I could almost make myself ignore the creepy thing about his tone: the way he talked about the old shack like he actually remembered it from its prime. Hadn't he said the remains were almost a hundred years old? Burnt edges or no, these boards should have been rotted a lot further to hell than this. The old guy was just crazy, I told myself, and I went further on the alert.

I found the long side of a tin sheet, pulled my sleeves up around my palms before handling the edges, then gave the metal a hard yank. The metal resisted then slid free, vibrating violently with new freedom, giving off a shrill hum. I lost balance, started to fall, then shifted my feet and dug in my heels. Some metal edge brushed my ankle, I looked back, and I saw that I'd waded in further than I realized. I looked again at the bum and saw him watching me from the top of the pile. At first I mistook his attitude for gruff scorn, then I realized, no, he'd only be interested in the tin sheet I'd found, in whether or not it was worth a damn.

I looked it over and called up, "I think I found a useable one!"

"Good. So did I."

I held mine up. "This the right size?"

"They all the same size. C'mon, let's go haul 'em into place."

Great, I thought. Now the bum's art piece would be complete, for no one but me to see, and I may as well stick around and listen to him explain it. That was assuming he would explain it if I asked. Maybe he was one of those artists who strictly insisted their work speak for itself, and if you didn't get it right off, he wouldn't dignify you with an explanation. He struck me as the type. That was also still assuming he didn't go wacko on me.

I dragged my sheet from the pile, and the thunder sound I'd heard from afar rumbled up around my feet, mingling with the bum's as he dragged his sheet. We reached the near side of the semi-circle, the one that ran shortest from the entry path. The bum dropped his sheet and kicked it into place as he had the last one. Then he nodded and gestured to me.

I said, "Huh?"

"You got the last piece. You put it in place." He stepped in sharply, too close for comfort so I tensed again to defend myself, then he used the toe of his worn-out shoe to draw a line in the dirt from the outer corner of the metal. "Line it up with that," he said, then stepped back so I could.

I followed instructions, though I squatted down and used my hands to arrange the metal. When I stood up, the bum was smiling warmly, and the warmth was more jarring than the gruffness had been.

"Alright! Yeah, you done good, man. Yeah, that's real good..." He turned and gazed at the clearing. "Now take a look at what we did!"

I looked, and my eyes went first to the red lantern on the tree stump. It looked brighter than before, brighter than it should have been able to shine, with a flame that was purer and whiter than a battered old contraption like that should have been able to produce. I told myself my eyes were playing tricks, then I noticed that both ends of the semi-circle lined up perfectly with the lantern on the stump. And every one of those tin sheets caught the gleam of that flame, clean and clear as polished silver. I started to ask the bum what it was supposed to be, still kidding myself, then the air itself changed.

When I'd first started out, it had been cold. When I'd found the clearing, then when the bum started following me, it had still been cold but I'd stopped thinking about it... in the heat of the moment, so to speak. Then there'd been physical labor, small and short though it had been, and that had warmed me up some. Now it simply wasn't cold out, at all.

I turned to the bum and said sharply, "What the hell is this?"

His grin split wider. "Come look at the entrance! Then you'll see. It's ready, an' we done good. They'll be here soon!"

Suddenly fighting to hold my wits, I walked towards the entry path, meaning to take a quick look, then split in the other direction -- my original direction. Suddenly I really wanted to reach the highway, reach the warmth of the bar, but not as badly as I wanted all those beers I'd start slamming when I got there. Then I looked out through the entry path, and I'd have known I wouldn't be seeing a bar tonight, probably not ever again... would have, if I'd still been thinking about bars or beer or anything from reality as I knew it on a daily basis.

Minutes ago, grass, leaves and dead brambles had covered the ground in the bottleneck, and there'd been no path beyond that, just a forest as thick with trees there as it was all around. Now a path of smooth, bare earth ran up through the entryway, then as far out into the forest as I could see, 'til it wound and wove out of sight. I spun and faced the bum. He grinned a grin that was reverently joyful as a Pentecostal churchgoer, dopey with faith. I wanted to shout, what the fuck was going on here, but words kept catching in my throat. Besides, I wasn't sure I wanted to hear his answer. Hell, I knew I didn't want to hear it! I didn't know how this old bastard was pulling this trick, but I was sick of it, so I turned the other way, to get out of the clearing before things got any weirder. I stopped. Except for where the new road ran, all the trees still stood in proper place, only they weren't the same trees anymore. I'd never seen trees like this before, their trunks and branches twisted like jumbled vines, giant leaves thick, pulpy and glistening like drooping, webbed hands. Distant childhood dreams flickered at the edge of my consciousness, telling me I had seen these trees before, that I knew this phantom forest, as if my brain were trying to create a context just so I could put all this in context long enough to get through it. I didn't know if that would work, but I strained to remember the dreams anyway, agonized over them like a puzzle, because it was something to do other than go crazy from helpless terror.

I heard the bum say, "You can't go yet, Mr. Harris. You step out of this clearing, them things livin' out there, they'd eat you right up."

Out in the shadows, I heard the things he spoke of moving around. All around, new night noises chirped, cackled, gibbered... and growled. Beyond the edges of the clearing, slouched, hulking, ape-like shadows moved. Mostly they were hidden, though every now and then the lamplight pierced the gloom and caught a gnarled, clawed hand, a bulging arm or leg, a foaming mouth spiky with fangs. The flesh of these creatures was slimy and smooth like the skin of a bullfrog, except it was bright, iridescent blue. I spun to face the bum again.

"Yeah," he went on, "I know your name, as I was told you'd be showin' up, and you'd help finish buildin' the King's sacred space." He paused. The mention of this 'King' made the fuzzy childhood dreams pulse a little stronger. "I really hope you are Sean Harris... I ran you through all the tests, getting your reactions, as I was told to make sure -- "

"Told?" I jolted a pace towards him, but he gave no ground. "Who told you? Who's this king?"

The bum went on, "You'd better be Sean Harris, 'cause if you ain't, well... it's gonna really suck to be you, boy!"

I moved closer. "It's gonna really suck to be you in a second, you don't give me some answers!"

"Hell, boy! You ain't Sean Harris, it's gonna really suck to be both of us here in a second. So is you Sean Harris or ain't you?"

"Yeah, I'm Sean Harris."

From somewhere far up the strange new road came the rumble of a car engine, then the glow of headlights through the trees.

"Well, Mr. Harris," the bum said, "this feller comin' here, he should be able to answer a few questions for you."

I walked in near hypnosis towards the edge of the entry path as the lights drew closer and closer. All around me, the alien night noises echoed louder.

You can't go yet, Mr. Harris. You step out of this clearing, them things livin' out there, they'd eat you right up.

No, I wasn't going anywhere, but here at least came answers, maybe. So I sucked up my dread and got ready to meet whatever was coming. Whatever lay far behind, in those childhood nightmares that kept flickering on the tip of my brain, it must have registered as more real than I'd realized, imprinting permanently somewhere, because how else could I keep it together this well? I'd almost convinced myself I was ready for anything, then the car pulled to a stop in front of the entry path.

And it was a police car. Fuck.

Two cops got out, both big men, the one from the passenger side big with fat, the driver with compact muscle. The fat cop said, "What the hell are we doin' here? Sam, where the fuck did you turn, anyway?"

"I didn't turn anywhere," the cop called Sam shouted back, his voice already shaking as he looked around. "We were just headed up Main Street towards the station, then... shit, I don't get it! Shit, what is this place?"

Before his partner could answer, the bum lumbered indifferently past them towards the car. They started for him, looming with their well-practiced tough-cop authority. They laid it on extra thick, probably in a last futile stab at convincing themselves they were on turf they remotely understood or controlled, that they had any authority left here at all. The bum's hand shot sideways, striking the fat cop's chest so he toppled backwards against his partner. Both cops toppled and sprawled in the dirt, then stared in frozen disbelief at the bum. I stared too. The little man opened the car's back door and helped out a scarecrow of a man with a skeletal pockmarked face, mad beady eyes, and brown hair like dry straw.

"What the fuck?" I barked. "Jonas!"

Jonas was silent for once, splaying his arms as if to say, the one and only.

"Where are his cuffs?" shouted the cop called Sam. "I slapped those cuffs on him myself!"

Out in the shadows, the clawed, fanged, ape-like beasts shifted and tensed and growled low, in response to all the shouting.

"I tried to tell you, officers," Jonas said. "The King won't let things like your handcuffs into his domain... None of the King's followers may go shackled while in his realm."

The fat cop started for his gun and found it still in its holster. Before he could pull it, though, the bum grabbed him from behind and twisted his arm against his back. The cop's face went tight and livid, teeth bared in agony, his shoulder looking close to popping out of the socket. Maybe the bum had pulled it from the socket, and I'd missed the popping sound somehow. I watched the big man struggle futilely in the grip of the stick-thin black mummy, and I was glad I hadn't started a fight with the latter like I'd thought of doing. The other cop moved sharply, as though to rise and act, then he saw Jonas coming towards him. He looked at his helpless partner, looked back at Jonas, then fell on his ass and scuttled backwards. Finally he managed to scramble to his feet. Then he ran past me, ran past Jonas, back to his car. He ripped open the door, started to climb in, then stumbled back.

"The keys..." He stared at Jonas. "What the hell did you do with my fucking keys?"

Jonas didn't have time to answer, because the cop kept stumbling backwards 'til he'd stumbled off the path. The shadows of the forest embraced him, and so did a pair of giant, slimy arms with clawed hands. Next came the cop's death shrieks, which weren't loud enough to drown out the sound of claws and fangs doing their work. The shrieks died to a whimper, then a gurgle, then wet ripping and crunching were the only sounds left. His partner cried at the sounds and bucked impotently against his captor.

The bum ignored the thrashing and looked at Jonas in bemusement. "You could have stopped him, you know."

"It doesn't matter. We only need one of them." Jonas looked right at me. "Isn't that right, Sean."

He said it like I actually should have known, and somewhere in those far off flickers of childhood dreams, it felt like I did. Still I said in a shuddering growl, "What are you talking about?"

"It's time to prove yourself to your King, Sean."

"You're not my king, you crazy fuck!"

"No, I'm not. We're both children of the Dark Lands, Sean... and we're never free anywhere else, not 'til we find our way back to our King, and we earn our true freedom within His lands. Now you'll earn yours... by taking the life of this officer of that false, corrupted world... the one who came to jail me, the one who'd have jailed us both, if you hadn't run."

I backed away. "Hey, Jonas, hold up! You were fucked! You got caught! I couldn't have done shit! I -- "

"You did no dishonor, Sean. You ran from what you couldn't control, and you found your way home, to the Dark Lands. Like you said, you couldn't have done shit. Here you can shed that weakness forever. Or you can starve, trapped here in this clearing. Or -- " He cocked his head to the shadows behind the clearing " -- you can run out there and die like that officer did, in a realm you could have walked freely in as master."

I took a long, deep, heaving breath and got the shakes under control. All I wanted was out of this place. Except those half-grasped memories of dreams whispered, No, it's not. You want what he offers, because it's yours by right... by birth. Either way I said, "Fine. What do I need to do to prove myself?"

"I already told you. Kill this one here. The rest of it -- the rewards -- will then be yours to discover."

The cop's struggle had reduced to squirming. He redoubled it at these words, but the bum tightened his grip, subduing him further.

"You gettin' off easy," the bum said to me, "just bein' asked to kill one shit cop. Me, well... The ruins of that farm back there? That used to be mine. So did all the animals an' crops an' such that brought in a livin' for me an' my family. But I built all that on the King's grounds, not realizing he'd been drawin' me back, an' I'd taken a family that wasn't invited. So He asked of me them and all I'd build for them, as my toll."

I remembered the burnt broken edges of the wood in the pile, remembered my second thoughts while routing through it, and I muttered, "Ah, fuck..."

Jonas walked to the center of the clearing and reached behind the stump. From there he drew a jewel-hilted ceremonial knife with a serrated blade, then he walked back over and offered it to me. It was maybe the most beautiful archaic piece I'd ever seen. I accepted it in a dazzled daze, walked over, and stood above the prostrate cop. Two sets of eyes bulged up into mine, the bum's and the cop's, one eager, the other petrified. I felt the knife's heavy haft against my palm, I looked deep into the cop's eyes, and my head cleared. For the first time, all this madness was perfectly, calmly, lucidly real to me, with no more notions that I'd gone crazy, that it was all a dream or a drug-vision, that I experienced anything but plain reality. It was simply a new awareness, of a new level of reality, one that had always been there behind the tricks of light that formed the mundane daily world. Somewhere in my childhood dream-wanderings, part of me had found its way here, had responded to the energies and been accepted, and I'd been marked for this night. I wanted to keep denying it, but acceptance had crept in while I wasn't looking, while I was busy trying to make sense of it.

And now, if I killed a helpless man in cold blood, this new reality would be mine to master, as it had for -- for who, for Jonas and the broken old bum? Yeah, right, these two looked like their King had made their lives just great. Maybe I'd do better to follow the first cop's example. From the darkness beyond the clearing, I heard the ape-like monsters roaming and snarling, remembered the death screams, and I thought better of it. So there was only one option, yet when I looked at that tear-streaked, petrified face, I couldn't take that option... even if it was some nasty pig cop who would have busted me if I'd stuck around.

I felt bones wrapped in thin, rotted leather touch my arm, and I realized it was Jonas' hand. "If you're still having doubts, Sean, perhaps you should go have a few words with your King."

I spun and faced him, brandishing the ceremonial knife like I might use it on him. Maybe I was thinking about it. "Yeah? So where is your precious happy-horseshit King? Where's He in all this? Why hasn't He shown up to throw in His own damn two cents?"

"Oh, but He has," said Jonas unperturbed. "He's been right here through all of this, just waiting 'til you were ready to go talk to him." Jonas pointed to the lantern on the tree stump, and I eyed him doubtfully. "In the world of day you've known, the shadows are the only rifts through which you might glimpse the Dark Lands. If you listen at the rifts, you might hear the workers of the King whispering to you... but in the Dark Lands, the King's light is the only light, and it rules all it touches."

I was about to tell him where to go, then I glimpsed the flame, the glimpse became a full, long look, and the flame somehow didn't look like just a flame anymore. I walked over and looked into the glow. I stared deep, and suddenly there was no longer a tree stump or a lantern, just a giant raw blaze, purer than any I'd imagined possible, bigger than this clearing or this forest or the town beyond. And the shape of the flame was of the tall, strong frame of a king, his razor-feathered wings spread wide about him. I looked at the face of this king, and I finally knew what the half-remembered dreams had been trying to tell me, because I saw my own face looking back at me. Except in the eyes, I saw a berserk freedom and surety I'd never felt in this life. The more I looked, the more the feeling of it filled me. I felt the power, the limitlessness of the King, and I felt all His lands surrounding me, beneath me... because they were my lands. It was all mine to command, mine to take pleasure from, mine to destroy as I saw fit... yes, destroy, as I would that shit cop who would have busted me... as if the fucker ever could have! I turned and strode back to where the sacrifice awaited, my body on fire with the power of the Dark Lands, and I slashed his throat so wide that I felt the knife scrape the bone and the head lolled back nearly severed. Blood sprayed my face and clothes, and my mouth gaped to catch the sweet, salty, coppery splash. The body sagged in the bum's arms, and he'd hauled it unceremoniously to the edge of the clearing and tossed another meal to the monsters beyond before it stopped shaking. I strained to see the monsters feast, monsters that were now mine to command... but I saw only the cold, deep-fall-dead Brattleboro forest. The junk pile was still there, the junk pile that had once been the bum's barn, but the bum was gone with the corpses and the monsters and the weird, drooping trees of the dark lands.

I spun round, blinking rapidly, and there was only Jonas. And he was already prying the bloody blade from my cold hand. He walked back to the stump where the dying lantern still rested, and he drove the knife back into the earth behind it. He left the lantern burning and walked to the police car. He opened the front passenger door and leaned in. It looked like he was removing something from the glovebox. Trees surrounded the police car, and there was no clear path by which it could have reached the spot where it now sat. Above, the night sky was turning dark blue.

Jonas walked over and clapped me on the shoulder with his leathery, bony hand. "Can we go home now, Sean? I'm starting to get cold." He didn't speak to me as he would his King, but I felt too dull and shaken to care. And I was getting cold, too. I stared dully at him, and he continued, "Don't worry about the landlady. She'll be asleep. When she comes knocking, we can deal with her."

I nodded and let him lead me back through the woods. And the back of my mind muttered, Yeah, why shouldn't I let him guide me back? I'm his King, after all, and it's been an exhausting night for the King of the Dark Lands... the King of the Dark Lands, born into the flesh of this illusion world of illusion light, and I haven't even started to --

As if reading my mind, Jonas said, "You saw your own face in the flame, didn't you, Sean? Yeah, you know, that's what He shows everyone, and you know, it's not a lie. It's really the only way to give you an idea of what He offers. In the Dark Lands, we're all kings. But it's the one blazing King of Kings with his mirror for a face who governs all. You'll discover His will, and what it demands, as time goes on. But I'm tired now, and I'll bet you need sleep as bad as I do."

My chest and stomach were particularly cold. I realized this was because my shirt was sticking to them, still wet and red. I rubbed my face, found it thick and sticky.

Jonas reached in his pockets and dug out what he'd taken from the police car glovebox: the small glass pipe and bag of weed the cops had confiscated from him. He packed the bowl and asked in an excited whisper, "Hey... you wanna smoke?"

© Matt Spencer 2007.
This story is published here for the first time.

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