I dragged my fingers through the loose, red curls of my long hair, pulling it out of my eyes and back into a loose ponytail. I gritted my teeth and thought of just how good it would feel to punch him right in his omnipotent nose. A smile flittered across my lips at that pleasant thought.
The wind had picked up slightly, turning from a warm breeze to a cooler gust. Goosebumps rose on my bare arms and I momentarily wished that I had worn something heavier than a green T-shirt and faded blue jeans. Yet it wasn’t the weather that was chilling me. It was the raw sense of power surrounding me.
I stared at the slightly dented can of Mountain Dew, my green eyes seeming to shine with a strange light and the sense of power rose like a tidal wave within me, stretching to the sky. I felt as if I was a lighthouse, a mighty glow lighting up my pale skin. The can teetered, shifting around in a skittish dance and nearly tipped over. It began to tremble and was suddenly ripped to pieces. It exploded in a cloud of confetti with a sound similar to a gunshot ringing throughout the woods. I looked up at the night sky spilled with stars and sighed. “It’s no use.”
“You must stop thinking about Romo.” Rush said. He brushed pieces of the can from his light blue suit. Aluminum debris stuck to the pastel yellow shirt. He was trying to help me learn to direct this Immortal power that I had inherited from Romo, a God-like being much like Rush. I thought I had given it all back to him when we kissed but obviously not. It flared up every once in awhile and I had absolutely no control over it. Like the one morning I was sipping tea with my best friend, Kayleigh Desiree, and remembering fondly the horses that I used to ride as a child in my father’s country of Evermore, when suddenly a horse popped into my kitchen.
Ever try to blink away a horse? I watched it start nibbling on the fruit from the crystal dish that sat in the middle of my kitchen table and sighed. I glanced back and saw Kayleigh was still focused on pouring herself a steaming cup of sugar with a little coffee mixed in. She hadn’t noticed the horse yet. Thank the goddess for small miracles.
I felt like I was stuck in a bad episode of Bewitched, except that Samantha would have been able to blink away the horse with a simple twitch of her nose. I just sat there, staring into large, brown eyes and thinking go away, go away, go away.
Finally I did something right and the horse vanished just as Kayleigh turned around, chattering on about the latest news at the Dark Horse bar where she sang and about our new sheriff, Daniel (Don’t call me Danny) Anderson. I just slumped into my chair, relieved.
That evening Rush and Midnight showed up. They had been gone for a few days, off on one of their little adventures together. What they did or where they went, I had no idea. Midnight would never tell me, acting all secretive and aloof and… well, you know, like a cat.
Rush was delighted that I still held some of Romo’s power and volunteered to help me learn how to control it. I gladly accepted his help because I was afraid that I was going to end up thinking the wrong thing and hurling someone to the bottom of the ocean.
Which is how we ended up in a windswept field in the middle of the woods at nine o’clock at night, trying to crush cans with my mind like some telekinetic redneck. I had not managed to crush a single can. But if I ever needed to explode a beer can or turn a can of soda into a frog, hey, I was good to go.
There was only one can left, perched on a log lying in the clearing. Rush pointed at it with his walking stick, that was elaborately carved with a silver lion’s head on the tip. “Try again and this time, Poppy, really concentrate.”
“She’s probably thinking about Caffee and getting all hot and bothered.”
“See how cranky she gets when she isn’t getting any?”
“I’m warning you, hairball.”
“At least I don’t have to listen to them tearing the room apart and screeching like a group of howler monkeys. I got no sleep that night.”
“Midnight, do you want to see how well my foot will fit up your—“
“Poppy!” Midnight said, horrified.
Rush just shook his head, probably thinking that it’s like raising two kids.
I focused my attention back on the can.
“Poppy, can I have a pet?”
“What?” I bit my bottom lip, feeling the faint tingle in my fingers.
“I want a hamster.”
I looked back at him, frowning. “You want a hamster sandwich. I don’t think so. Now shut up.”
Midnight grumbled something that I’d just as soon not repeat.
I started to say something but Rush interrupted. “Let’s get back to the matter at hand, shall we?”
I nodded, though I just wanted to scream. I fixed the can in my sight, narrowed my eyebrows, gave a push of power and watched helplessly as it shot straight up into the sky. Midnight paused in his hourly ritual of bathing himself to watch it fly. “I think it just went into orbit.”
I sat down on the ground, disgusted with myself and now wanting to kick Romo in the ass and put him into orbit. Rush came to stand behind me, staring up at the sky. “Well, at least you got some movement out of it.”
“Yeah,” I muttered. “NASA would be so proud.”
He looked quizzically at me. “Who’s NASA?”
I shook my head. “Never mind.” I stood and paced in a circle. “I have to learn how to master this power before I end up hurting someone or worse. Maybe I could use it against Romo since it’s his fault I’m like this now. I’ll turn him into a cockroach. That’d be poetic justice.”
“Wouldn’t that be a step up for him?” Midnight asked.
“Perhaps we should try another exercise.” Rush motioned to the log. “Try levitating that.”
I sighed and shrugged. “Why not, I need some firewood.”
I relaxed my shoulders (they were all bunched up and as hard as rocks. Who me, nervous?) and let the power flow through me once more. I could feel the familiar tingling in my fingertips as it resonated up my arms and then down the line of my body, like warm breezes caressing me until I felt a tightening low in my belly. The power was there, waiting to be called up, coiled and waiting like a snake, ready to strike when I least expected it.
A few months ago I hadn’t even been able to feel it like this. It would just spark up and short out in split second moments, usually at the worst times in the worst places. Like the time I turned Danny Anderson’s patrol car into a cow. He just stood there, staring at the bovine that used to be his police cruiser as it chewed on his ticket pad, his head shaking. His lips had moved as if he wanted to speak, but no sound came out. This would definitely send him in for a few more years of therapy. Maggie May, our town’s psychologist, would be happy and rich by the time Danny finished.
The log jerked and one end lifted two inches from the grass. It spun around in a lazy circle and I had another nice image of torturing Romo. The log began spinning wildly until Midnight said he felt dizzy. I shut Romo out of my mind and focused. I summoned up a touch more power and stopped it. I tried again and lifted the log, clearing the ground by a good three inches. “Wonderful.” Rush breathed, excitement in his voice and his eyes lit up like a child’s. “You just might get the hang of this after all.”
Hey, maybe he was right and I was finally getting the hang of this. I mean, the log was still in one piece and not in orbit around the planet, right?
And then Midnight leaped onto the log.
My focus automatically switched to the cat. I didn’t mean for it to happen but it did just the same. The log fell to the ground with a thump and Midnight began floating up. He looked down, saw the ground about a foot away, and then looked up at me. “Poppy, I don’t want to go to the moon.” He started as Rush stepped up beside me.
“Set him back down, Poppy. Nice and easy.”
The sudden image of Midnight exploding into a million pieces raced through my frantic mind. I couldn’t breathe. Rush read my mind. “Don’t think it. Your very thoughts can become your actions. Think happy thoughts!”
I swept the image from my mind and desperately tried to think of something else, anything else. Midnight started, “Oh sh…”
And then he was gone. Vanished. Into thin air.
“What have I done?” I asked, “how can I undo it?”
I was shaking him so hard that he had to push me away. “Calm down, Poppy! He is not lost to us. Just think of where you sent him and bring him back. Very simple really.”
“I don’t know!” I exclaimed, trying to recall what I was thinking when he “poofed” away. Had I subconsciously been entertaining more thoughts of zapping Romo?
“Then we may have a slight problem.” He retrieved his walking stick and held it tightly until his knuckles turned white.
“A slight problem?” I was screaming, “I blinked Midnight into oblivion! That is not a slight problem!”
Rush slapped me across the face lightly. “Screaming at me isn’t going to help our current situation! You must calm down and try to bring him back.”
“And if I can’t?” I waved my arms frantically in the air, feeling the bottom of my world falling away. Midnight was my best friend! No, he was more than that. He was family.
A somber expression settled on Rush’s soft features, stilling my jackrabbitting heart. His voice was less than a whisper. It was funeral quiet. I didn’t like the comparison. “You must. Or he is truly gone.” Tears welled up in his blue eyes.
I closed my eyes to concentrate and to block out the image of the grieving immortal. I tried to picture Midnight safely back with us. I pictured him safe in my arms, a plush ball of fur. I tried and tried until I was exhausted and my head throbbed with the onset of a headache. But it was no good. My Immortal powers had fled me once again, choosing to lie dormant for Goddess only knew how long.
Damn it! I had managed to do what I had feared the most, to hurt someone I loved. Even Rush tried to conjure Midnight back but as he explained if I didn’t know where I had sent him, neither one of us would be able to retrieve him. I fell to my knees and felt tears stinging my eyes.
Midnight popped back in.
He sat before us, his white fur black as soot and covered with mud, smelling like a New York sewer in the middle of summer. He did not look happy. I didn’t care. I scooped him up in my arms, hugging him tightly, not caring how dirty he was getting my blouse. I laughed and cried at the same time and whispered his name over and over.
“Bravo, Poppy, bravo.” Rush said, the joy rising in his voice.
Midnight put one mud-smeared paw on my shoulder and fixed me with a stern expression. “Do you have any idea of what you just did to me? DO YOU?”
I shook my head as he continued. His voice rose with each word until he was nearly screaming. “The mother of all sewer rats was waddling after me down a long, dark, stinking tunnel of crap! I was being chased by what I would normally consider lunch!”
“At least you’re back, tuna-breath, even if you do stink.” Rush beamed.
Midnight shot him a furious look. “And you! I haven’t even started with you yet!”
Rush tried to hide a smile. I covered my mouth as a giggle escaped. Midnight flashed angry eyes at us. “Oh, you think it’s funny, do you? Well, I don’t!” He jumped from my arms, stalking away from us, muttering, “Ass deep in alligators and sewer rats and they’re laughing their butts off!”
He kept his back to us, twitching his tail. We breathed a collective sigh of relief. Then we heard the sound of leather hitting leather. We all looked into the darkness as a tall man stepped out of the tree line, clapping his hands together slowly. He was wearing a wide grin at the sight of the flustered cat. He paused by Midnight and looked at him. “What’s wrong, Fleabag? Rat got your tongue?”
Midnight snarled and raised a paw. “I’ve often wondered what you would be like as primordial slime. I suspect there would be little or no difference, however.”
“How rude.” Romo replied, looking insulted. He crossed his arms. “I would have thought that a couple hundred years as a feline would have taught you some manners and respect for those far infinitely superior to yourself.”
I stepped in between them before Midnight could begin a spell. “What are you doing here, Romo?”
Romo had the nerve to actually look affronted. “Is that how you greet me? A long lost friend comes to see you and you bite his head off? What do you do when girl scouts show up at your door? Rip their limbs off? Feed their tiny bodies to the wolves?”
“I’d prefer to knock you flat on your ass.” I hissed at him. “Look what you’ve done to me!” I pointed at Midnight. “I very nearly killed my cat!”
Romo’s smile grew wickedly longer. “Oh, that. Relax. You didn’t do that, Poppy, love. I did.”
“You what? And don’t call me love!” I wanted to hit him. No, I wanted to do worse. “You made Midnight vanish?”
He bowed. “Guilty.” He stretched his arms out in a mock surrender. He could barely keep the smirk from his face.
Midnight hissed and a blue spark sputtered in the air, like a wire just shorted out. Romo raised a finger to the outraged feline. “I think not.”
“What did you do to my magick?” He asked, waving a paw around and producing only tiny, blue sparks.
“I didn’t think you’d be too happy about me saving your life so I put a block on your magick.” Romo smiled smugly. Here could be an even more dangerous part of our trade. I got some of his Immortal power and he got some of my magick. A magickal Immortal. Scary, huh?
“But if you do not appreciate my generosity then so be it.” With a snap of his fingers, Midnight’s magick returned.
“Prepare to be punished.” Midnight twitched his tail, emitting a very impressive display of sparks.
“Why are the trees dancing?” Rush asked, pointing at the trees in the distance that had uprooted themselves and were spinning around each other in a square dance.
“My magick must be off. Hold on.” Midnight twitched his tail again.
“Now they’re doing the hustle.” I said.
Midnight zapped the trees back to normal and met Romo’s eyes. Or at least he tried to but the Immortal’s eyes were shut as he laughed himself silly. “Now I got it.”
Another Romo appeared to the left of the first one. And another Romo blinked in to the right of the first one. We all looked at the three Romos standing before us.
“You’re supposed to punish him, Midnight, not us.” I said.
“I didn’t do it.” Midnight scowled. “He did.”
“Just be careful that you choose the right one.” All three of them stated, then they began laughing.
Midnight blinked; angry, frustrated and confused. “I must have had a bad can of tuna. This has to be an awful nightmare.”
“I agree.” I said. “One Romo is a frightening enough concept. Three is just abominable.”
The first Romo frowned then said to the second one. “You see what I’m up against here?”
“Deplorable.” The second Romo shook his head. “How do you even stand these wretched beings?”
“It must be pity,” piped up the third Romo. “Though you should just show them mercy and blink the entire race out of existence.”
“I know,” sighed the first Romo. “I guess I just have a soft spot for inferior beings. I mean, really, they can’t help it. They’ve barely just evolved beyond grunting and drooling.” He sighed wistfully. “Seems like it was only yesterday that they discovered fire.”
“True,” the second Romo agreed. “One cannot expect much progress in such a short span of time.”
“We could always accelerate their evolution,” the third Romo proposed. “One-thousand years into their future is much more exciting.”
O.K. I was getting dizzy watching the three Romo’s talk. I’ve had screaming, wake in cold sweat nightmares that were much better than this. “Nobody is doing anything. Romo, get rid of those other… two.”
“You’re right, Poppy.” He snapped his fingers and the other two vanished. “You can barely handle one of me,” he said in a low and suggestive tone of voice.
“Thank you, Poppy.” Midnight said, arching a paw, stirring up blue flames before him.
Romo bent over to Midnight. “I could always put you into the belly of the Sewer Rat.”
Midnight hissed as an explosion of yellow light hit him. When the light cleared, I noticed Midnight had been turned into a hamster. He squeaked indignantly.
“Stop it, Romo!” I warned.
“Very well.” Romo blinked Midnight back to feline status.
Before Midnight could retaliate, I told Rush to take him away and get him cleaned up. The dapper Immortal quickly picked the flailing furball up and blinked away with the screaming cat in tow.
I looked back at Romo. He was dressed in his usual attire. Black pants of some silky material that I knew did not exist in the natural world, and they molded to him tightly, outlining strong legs and…What am I thinking? This is Romo, not some sexy hero in a romance novel. Still the white shirt clung flatteringly to him as well as the floor-length duster that swept around him as regally as a cape. He wore black boots that came up to his knees and his hair was spiky as if he had used a whole can of hairspray on it but it was how his hair normally looked. Not that the word normal could ever apply to this omnipotent, self-proclaimed, arrogant, prankster God.
It had been six months since his brother Jafe (a.k.a. Halloween Jack) had been dispatched to the Dead City, under the careful eye of Sorrow (a.k.a. Caffee, former Immortal), the onetime lover of me, Poppy (a.k.a. beleaguered witch).
I searched Romo’s handsome face (OK, Poppy, what’s wrong? You do not find Romo attractive. My hormones must be out of whack). “Why did you do that to Midnight? And to me. I thought I had killed him.”
He shrugged. “And you well would have if I hadn’t intervened. He was well on his way to an airless moon around Jupiter.” He arched an eyebrow at me. “Is that where you would like to send me?” He snickered at this, greatly amused.
“Stop reading my mind.” I said through clenched teeth.
I took a deep breath and counted to ten. Thousand. I wasn’t going to let him upset me. I was not going to let Romo get me going. Sure. And then I was going to flap my arms and fly to the moon. I could feel the headache coming on stronger now. Or maybe my headache was standing in front of me. I sighed. I could take away the symptom but not the cause.
“So where’s Jean-Tou?” I inquired, as curious as a cat (forgive me, Midnight). Jean-Tou was half-cat, half-human and had obviously been somehow engaged with Romo in a secretive love affair. She had saved the then human Romo and me as he was being Vampire-raped. Try as I might, I could never get anything from the elusive Immortal about this relationship.
“How should I know?” He looked away, darkness creeping into his colorless tone.
“Well, you are a God, as you like to point out. Or are you not as omnipotent as you claim?”
He shot me a dirty look and then waved the subject away with his hands. “She’s out looking for her family or some such thing.”
“Why aren’t you helping her? You could find them immediately.” I poked him in the chest with an accusing finger. “For some unfathomable reasons, she seems to really care about you. Or need I remind you that she did save your life?”
He scowled. “You just enjoy dragging up the whole being human thing, don’t you? You are as shrill as a barking Chihuahua. If you don’t mind, I would just as soon forget that I was ever a dreadful little biped. I would still be having nightmares. If I slept, that is.”
“And I would love to forget that you even exist but life is not that kind. Why are you here, Romo? And don’t tell me this is just a social visit.”
Romo settled his intense gaze on me. “An old friend has returned.”
My first worst thought was that Halloween Jack had come back. My heart thudded loudly in my chest. I watched him as he turned around, his face all serious. I didn’t like it when Romo became serious because that always meant trouble and I never liked the kind of trouble that he usually brought with him.
His black coat swirled around him and I noticed that he still wore the Katana sword strapped to his back. It was the sword that the Demon Hunter had given him. Why an entity as powerful as Romo chose to still carry that around was beyond me. He could easily just blink people away or make terrible things happen to them. I should know. It could of course be vanity or maybe, just maybe, he still had some fear roaming around in him from his once vulnerable state. I motioned to the sword. “Why do you still have that thing?” Yes, I’m well aware that I was changing the subject. I wasn’t sure I was ready to meet another of Romo’s “old friends”. They tended to be nasty and mean.
He unsheathed it and sliced the air open with it, weighing it carefully in his gloved hands. “I don’t know. It just feels right.” I smiled. “Feels right?” I quirked an eyebrow at him. Romo had feelings?
He sighed. “I will never be what I once was. I may never be the grand and wonderful Immortal that you know and love. While they may write songs about me and tell tales of the legend of Romo, alas, I will only be a shadow of the perfection that was I. Some of the pieces are still missing.”
Meaning me and some of his powers that I still carried within me. I didn’t know how he felt about that. Did I really want to know? Not really.
“Who is it? Who has returned?” I asked, tired of stalling.
“Perhaps a drink first.” With a snap of his fingers, we were seated at a table in the middle of the field. A pitcher of lemonade and two glasses sat on a silver serving tray.
“Lemonade?” I asked, incredulous.
“You’re right, of course. You will need something stronger.” In a dazzling burst of light, the pitcher of lemonade was replaced with a bottle of wine. I couldn’t read the label. I didn’t recognize the language. The bottle floated up and tipped itself over, filling up the two wineglasses. Romo smiled.
I looked down and saw that I was no longer wearing my jeans and T-shirt. Now it looked as if I had been poured into an elegant, tight evening dress the color of deep red, lush roses. My ample cleavage was pushed up and I was afraid if I as so much as breathed, they would spill out of the dress. Of course, who could breathe with this corset cutting off my circulation? Why did men always want women to wear such uncomfortable undergarments?
“Now that is more flattering.” He made a point of lingering upon my heaving bosom. But it wasn’t heaving with desire and lust. It was heaving with barely controlled rage.
“Did you know that you are angry when you are beautiful, Poppy?”
“Put me back in my clothes. I have no interest in acting out your sexual fantasies.”
“Oh, if we were to entertain my fantasies about you, Poppy, they’d look more like this.” A wave of his hand and I was decked out in a leather catsuit, with a long, flowing satin cape as black as the night.
“I am not amused.” I clenched my fists.
“Are you this uptight during sex?” Romo shook his head. “It is beyond me how Caffee ever had his way with you. I mean, if you won’t give in to me, as sexually magnificent as I can be—and I assure you, it is an event of cosmic proportions—why would you give yourself to a brute like him? Did he have to pry your legs apart with a crowbar?”
“You are one thin second away from me turning you into the tiny parasite that you really are.” I slammed my fist down on the table, knocking over my glass. “Change my clothes back!”
“If you insist.”
I looked down at myself and saw that I was back in my jeans and shirt. The table was gone and we were on a boat in the middle of a lake. “Now this is much more romantic, I think.” Romo leaned back, grinning seductively at me.
I closed my eyes and wished my Immortal power would come back just so I could send him hurtling through space and time. “Romo, nothing is ever going to happen between us.”
His eyes brightened. “A challenge? I do enjoy a good challenge.”
“Who has shown up, Romo?”
“Back to business, I see.” He wore a look of heartbreak upon his face. “Very well.”
“WHAT is this?” A female voice shrilled.
Abruptly we were back in the field. The boat and lake were gone. A rather tall and willowy woman was standing in front of Romo. She wore a long dress that moved like silken water over a voluptuous body. The dress was a simple black adorned with pinpoints of stars. Upon further inspection I noted that the stars were real! Her hair flowed around her face and across her bare shoulders in a shimmering rain of blonde tresses. She was, in a word or two, heart-stoppingly beautiful.
Romo rolled his eyes. “Go away, Tara!”
“I will not go away.” She crossed her arms over her chest. “Not until you explain your fascination with this…human.” She spit out the last word with such distaste.
“Let me guess.” I said. “Another Immortal?”
“Bite your tongue, you talking monkey.” Her tone was icy. “I am not something as appallingly lowly as an Immortal.”
“Then what are you?”
“I am Aranthime.”
Oh. Well. That clears everything up. “Are you of a race like the Immortals?”
“The Aranthime are far superior to Immortals, if you must know. How can I explain this so your tiny little brain might be able to comprehend?” She creased her brow in contemplation. “The Immortals are children and the Aranthime are the wise parents, if you will. We are the Watchers of these pesky beings.”
“Yes, yes, yes. Thank you for the lesson in omnipotence, Tara, now if you don’t mind, blink yourself back to your corner of the multiverse and pester someone else.” Romo made shooing motions with his hands at her. “Go away. Scat.”
“Now, my head is hurting.” I buried my face in my hands and hoped that this was all a bad dream induced by Kayleigh’s chili dogs smothered in onions and coleslaw.
Romo shook his head. “Jealous females.”
“Me?” Tara exclaimed. “Jealous of this?” She pointed at me and laughed merrily. “Oh, you do flatter yourself, Romo, really you do.”
“Why do you insist on following me around?” Romo asked.
“It is my job. I was assigned to keep an eye on you.” She looked away. “Trust me, I could find far better things to do with my eternity than to keep you out of trouble.”
Tara looked at me. “You have no idea what a havoc he can create.”
“Oh, I have a pretty good idea.” I said, remembering how I had literally died trying to save his miserable life.
“Obliterating whole races, blowing up planets.” She shook her head. “I begged not to be assigned to him but They felt this was appropriate punishment.”
“It is working.” Romo said vehemently. “I am truly being punished!”
“It is not your punishment, Romo. It is mine.”
Romo’s eyes lit up. “Yours? Whatever did the perfect Tara do?”
“None of your business, you intergalactic cockroach.”
“Oh, I love it when you talk dirty.” Romo smiled beguilingly.
Tara was not interested. “I will be keeping a very close eye on you, Romo.”
And without warning, Tara vanished into the night.
What else can happen, I asked myself.
As if reading my mind, Romo looked up at me and said, “Surreal is back.”
The structure itself was composed of five long black buildings connected in the middle by a large Lobby and Recreation Room. The very outlay of the building, if seen from above, would suggest a circle of power. Vile power. A fifteen-foot wall of black marble surrounded the Sanitarium. Barbed wire and electrical sensors lined the top of the wall. Looking at it gave you the sense of something dreadful and ominous going on within. If you could imagine a place as being alive, as possessing an essence, a life force of its own, then the demeanor of Balin would make you think of the worst evils that could exist. It was like the souls of the worst monsters had been sealed into the mortar of the walls when they had been erected, and they were still banging on the rocks late at night, screeching to be loosed from their spiritual prison so that they might wreak havoc upon the world once again. All right. I won’t be sleeping for a week after tonight.
I had only ever seen the place from a distance before and in photographs. Just looking at it now, with the night hanging like a heavy shadow over it, pressing down against the building and against us, wanting to crush the very breath from our bodies, I could feel every instinct in my body tighten and whisper run away run away run away. Sound advice. So why wasn’t I taking it?
A long, winding road cut through the acres of neatly trimmed grass, leading up to the large, iron gates that served as the only point of entry. Romo told me that a wealthy man who wanted to use it as a summoning point for Hell had originally constructed the place, drawn from blueprints of a fever-induced nightmare. After it had been finished in the late eighteen hundreds, this man had slaughtered his entire family within its mazelike interior.
“He strung their intestines from the ceilings like party streamers,” Romo said in a hushed whisper. “He turned their bodies inside out and… defiled them. Then he used their blood to anoint the circle.”
I noticed Romo seemed disturbed by this. Seeing Romo with emotions was going to take some getting used to. “Then what?”
“The townspeople discovered the truth about the place. They forced their way in and found the remains of the family. Many became disoriented and lost in the many twisting corridors and dead ends. Not everyone who went in came out again. Those who were able to find their way managed to capture the wealthy man and drag him from the house. They ripped him to pieces for what he had done to his own flesh and blood.” He looked at me. “Right about where you are standing.”
I unconsciously took a few steps back before I caught myself. I frowned at him. “Did he ever call up Hell?”
He nodded. “And he left the doorway open.”
Romo also told me how the town dried up and the people began to turn up dead in gruesome murders. Some just went missing. Neighbors turned on neighbors, feasting on one another like cannibals. Before long the last few remaining people moved away and the town ceased to exist. It was closed down until the late nineteen-sixties when esteemed scientist Ethan Faxton acquired it through a Government study and began using it to examine the powers of the human mind. He populated the dark place with gifted people, at first, dabbling in telekinesis, clairvoyance and other similar talents. Parlor tricks, Romo called them. There were many places like it at the time and to tell you the truth, I was never really impressed by them. I mean, after all the things I had seen in nearly two thousand years, I tended not to be too awed by a six-year-old who can levitate a chair. It was like bad magick. You knew there was a catch but you just couldn’t quite figure it out. Real magick was hardly ever seen and Ancient Magick was never seen. It was a law among the Witch Council to keep it that way.
Soon the Military quit funding Faxton’s research and Balin became a Mental Institution, housing the worst of Society’s psychotics. They also took in more common and less violent cases but the history of blood and depravity had soaked into the very structure itself, tainting the minds and souls of the residents.
“How are we going to get in?” I asked the Immortal as we stepped up to the closed gate. It ran the height of the wall and easily towered over us. It was late and everything seemed to be shut down for the night. I realized just as I asked that it was a pointless question. This was Romo I was talking to, after all. He merely waved a hand and the gates vanished. After we walked through they appeared back in place, undisturbed.
Inside, Balin was completely different. It was filled with color. The walls were a soft powder blue and the floors were a light green. Psychedelic paintings adorned the walls, which I discovered later, were paintings done by the patients. One in particular was very disturbing. A child floated in the air in a white room as gray smoke billowed from her eyes, nose and mouth, pouring out of her fingertips and feet and body orifices. This picture gave me a bad chill. I don’t know why but it seemed familiar.
I passed by the painting, trying to shake the image from my mind. Despite the attempt to liven up the interior and remove the cold, sterile appearance Mental Hospitals usually held, I could sense something corrupt just beneath the surface. Something dark and oily waiting just beyond the reach of the physical world, looking for a way in. The twisted souls trapped in the stones perhaps.
“Won’t we be seen?” I looked at the nurses on duty and a few interns milling about the Nurses Station, sipping cold coffee and idly chatting as their meaningless conversations were occasionally punctuated by a distant shriek.
Romo gave me that look that said I was just a simple child to his eternalness. He shook his head. “Think of us as ghosts, Poppy. We only exist if I wish us to.”
Leaving it at that I let him lead me down one of the long buildings. We walked past doors with tiny windows embedded into them. We passed a doctor gazing in at a patient, speaking in a low tone into a pocket recorder. I recognized him as Dr. Leighton, having seen his picture in the newspaper on more then one occasion.
We left him muttering away and turned down a corridor. Here the lighting was dim. Romo stopped before a door at the end of the hallway and motioned for me to look inside. I looked into his soulless eyes, searching for some clue, some answer as to what I was about to see but they were hard and black, revealing nothing.
I looked in the window and saw Surreal.
She was crouched in a far corner, her eyes glassy and her dark hair tangled and wild. Dark circles lined her eyes. She looked as if she hadn’t slept in days. She wore a white, sleeveless gown that stopped mid-thigh, revealing her pale legs and the scars that ran the length of her limbs. Her face was scratched up and I wondered briefly if someone had done that to her or if she had done it to herself.
She looked emaciated, her arms like sticks. She held a black marker in her left hand and was writing on her arms. I noticed the walls, the floor, even the bare mattress that she slept on was covered with writing. One word, over and over.
My name stood out against the white walls in small, cursive writing and in bold, tall letters. She was still scribbling away furiously though she seemed disconnected from her surroundings.
“Surreal.” I whispered her name.
She stopped writing. She looked around, her eyes darting about the room like those of a trapped animal. Her eyes were bloodshot and her hands began trembling violently. “No no nonono…” She wrung her hands, twisting herself around in jerky, spastic movements.
She pressed her back against the wall, her face full of terror. She mouthed my name as she stared at the door, at the window. At me. I pressed my hand to the metal door, only to feel my fingers slip into the surface. The door rippled like water. I looked back at Romo but he was gone. I turned to Surreal. She began beating herself in the stomach while screeching my name repeatedly.
I took a deep breath and walked through the door.
I could taste her fear. The room stank of urine and feces and I could see in the corners where she had relieved herself. Why had no one cleaned her or her room? Anger simmered in my belly. Surreal picked up on the emotion rampaging through me and screamed, falling to her hands and knees, cowering like a beat dog.
Hot tears welled up in my eyes. I had done this. I had put the fear of me in her. I just wanted to run away and hide as I saw how afraid she was of me. Urine ran down her legs as she shook in fear. I could feel a deep, sharp ache in my chest as my heart broke. I walked slowly across the room, holding out my hands in a gesture to show that I wouldn’t hurt her. She whimpered and curled up into a ball, trying to get away from me. To her, I was the monster now. She began rocking on her heels, singing a lullaby that our mother used to sing to us as children, a song to keep the darkness and the things that moved within the shadows at bay. I touched her and she drew away with an awful shriek that didn’t even sound human. It was pure animal.
Her fingers hooked into claws and she swiped at me. I backed away, tripping on my own feet. I fell and she leapt on me. She sat on me, staring down into my face. She raised her hands, twisted into terrible claws and made a guttural moan. Drool pooled at the corner of her mouth and spilled over, landing wetly, thickly on my cheek. Her voice was slurred and slow, as she fought through heavy medication. “No more, Poppeeeeeee.”
She sat on top of my chest but she made no move to hurt me. Long minutes passed and I remembered to breathe. She cried tears of blood. Six months ago she had joined forces with an evil, omnipotent being to kill me. She had wanted me dead more than anything, operating on a deep well of hatred.
She took my hand and put it to her cheek. “Pleez forgive me, Poppeeeeee…”
What had been done to her? Touching her skin, I caught blurred images of violence and agony.
real is naked and being beat with whips and chains with metal hooks that bite into her raw flesh. Faceless creatures in leather suits toy with her, dining on her suffering…
She slid off of me and wept, holding tightly to my hand. “I forgive you, Surreal,” I whispered, raising my other hand and stroking her hair. She flinched at first and then clung to me and her body was racked with sobs. I held her as if I would never let her go. I would never let her be hurt like this again. I didn’t care if she hated me once. No one deserved this kind of torment.
“What a touching moment. Gets me right here.” Romo stood by the door, touching his chest and blinking back imaginary tears.
“It would if you had a heart,” I said. “What happened to her?”
“She has been stripped of her magick. She is as human as any other mortal is. Perish the thought.” He shuddered at the thought, obviously remembering his days as a human.
“Who did this?” I asked, though I had a pretty good idea.
Romo would not meet my eyes. He clearly did not want to answer my question.
“Who did this, Romo?”
Vega. Queen of the Immortals. A shiver ran the length of my spine. She was even more frightening than Halloween Jack was, though I had only met her once. Trust me, once is too many times with her. “Why? What gives her the right?”
He sighed. “You still don’t get it, do you? She can do whatever she wants. She is, after all, of my bloodline.”
I had had enough of Romo’s family. Halloween Jack. Vega. This world had enough monsters. They tipped the cup. “I am so tired of your psychotic family! Why don’t you do something about them? Or are they too much for you?”
His eyes flared with uncontrollable anger. “They do not, nor have they ever, answered to me. Nor I to them. I have no command over them. They are Gods, like me. If you want them dead, then by all means, try, my Little Witch. Try your foolish heart out. Hell, I would even help you, if I thought you stood a chance!” He jabbed his finger in my face. “But don’t ever presume I turn a blind eye because I do not! I am the only thing that stands between them and this world’s limited future.”
“They hurt my sister.” I spit at him.
“She wanted you dead, Poppy. She very nearly succeeded in putting us both in graves, don’t you remember.” He bit off each word. I had never seen Romo this angry. It was unsettling.
“I don’t care what she did in the past. She is still my family.” I felt Surreal tremble furiously in my embrace.
“You are crazy, Witch!” He whispered emphatically.
He vanished in a dazzling burst of light, momentarily blinding me. Great! If he’s disappeared, how will I ever get back home? Balin Mental rested at the bottom of the state of Arkansas and River Falls, my home, up towards the top. It was a hell of a long walk.
I stood and was at once thrown to my knees as a wave of power crashed over me, leaving me open-mouthed and gasping. I looked up, staggered to my unsteady feet as the floor rumbled and threw back the unlocked door. I reeled out into the corridor, crashing into the far wall and crumpling to my feet as bile rose in the back of my throat.
A circle of power had just been evoked.
We were not alone.
“Someone or something has evoked a circle of power.” Brimstone filled my nose. It was a very distinct stench, the foul odor of suffering and death. It reeked of Hell.
Using the wall for support, I rose unsteadily to my feet. Surreal clung to my T-shirt, standing with me. Where the hell was Romo? Now would be a really good time for that Immortal, (supposing there ever was a good time for Romo). I did not like the idea of being stranded in Balin Mental with the Hounds of Hell snapping at my feet.
Surreal found my eyes and the hopeless despair I could see swimming in them nearly knocked me back to my knees. “They’re coming for me.”
“No, they’re not.” I said, holding her hand tightly. “Not as long as I’m here.”
She looked at me, truly lost and puzzled. “You should hate me, Poppy.”
“Maybe,” I replied, “but let’s get out of here alive first. I’ll hate you later, I promise.”
This actually brought a small smile to her lips. The temperature of the air dropped several degrees. I could see our breath forming clouds before our faces. This was not a good sign. The common misconception of hell was that it was a lake of fire. Well sometimes it was. Sometimes it wasn’t. Sometimes it was ice so cold that it burned. Wick, sometimes known as Lucifer, had a lot of tricks up his smoking sleeve. I noticed Surreal’s bare feet were turning blue. She would be suffering frostbite within the hour if I didn’t get us out of here.
Where could we go? It didn’t matter, I knew, because no matter which corridor we took, which hallway we twisted and turned down, the same monster would be waiting. Hell liked to play games and I wasn’t fond of the games it liked to play.
Ice was forming on the walls and the floor. The soles of my shoes were sticking to the ice, making it an effort to walk. Surreal’s fingernails were steadily digging into my arm with each step we took.
The Nurses’ Station was empty. In fact, the whole place felt empty, which meant the residents and staff, were dead. Or worse. We reached the main lobby and Recreation Room. We weaved a path through the overturned chairs, walking silently on little cat feet, trying to reach the lobby door. We were so close.
Surreal gasped and let go of my hand, backing away. She pointed above the television, towards the ceiling. I followed her finger and nearly lost my lunch. Floating in mid-air was one of the mental patients. A naked woman. Her belly was gashed open and her bowels hung to the floor, frozen. Icicles of blood dangled from her face, which had been beaten to a bloody pulp. Her intestines had been turned into a noose from which she hung.
It was then that I noticed other patients scattered around the room. Some decapitated, some crucified, and some just simply torn limb from limb. I noticed a large, hulking figure leaning over one of the bodies. I could hear teeth gnawing wetly on flesh. “Dear Goddess,” I murmured.
It heard me and craned its head around slowly, looking at me. It had obviously been a Doctor here once for it still wore the tattered remains of a white lab coat but it’s face was stretched obscenely, resembling that of a hairless rat. It snarled at me.
“Hell Rats,” Surreal whispered.
I nodded. Damn. Why can’t I ever get something harmless? Why can’t it ever be a six-foot hamster that I have to battle? Something I can just scratch behind the ears to take away the violent, haunted glow in its beady, little eyes? Just once, why can’t a monster be cute and innocuous?
Hell Rats were nasty things. The stench of this one was particularly repulsive, smelling of decay and blood. It opened its narrow jaw and shrieked at me, waving its arms in a frantic display. Its ears were flattened against its skull and I prepared for the attack I knew was about to come.
I tried to call upon Romo’s power within me but I couldn’t feel anything. The pit of my belly felt hollow and cold. Was something blocking my power or was it simply just lying dormant again? I quickly scanned the room but it offered up nothing to fight with. Just chairs and magazines and somehow I didn’t think a rap on the snout with a rolled-up issue of an US WEEKlY magazine was going to be very effective.
I tried to feel my magick but the Circle was obstructing it. I was pretty much defenseless against Rat Boy and he was beginning to squirm on his haunches, readying to spring at us. Spittle of blood flew from his mouth as he shook his head, still bellowing. I caught movement in the shadows around us and I knew there were more of these things scurrying nearby.
The Hell Rat leaped and its jaws widened. I could see the yellow fangs lengthening as it flew towards us. I threw up my hand in a meaningless gesture of self-defense and the Hell Rat’s head exploded in bone shards and pieces of brain. It fell at my feet, jerking and wriggling as its body slowly came to the realization that it was dead.
I stared at my hand in disbelief.
“What did you do, Poppy?” Surreal stared in fascinated horror at the stump where the Rat’s head once was.
Exactly just what I was wondering.
Read more in BLOOD MOON coming in 2003!