There was an annoying beeping noise. I opened my eyes a little bit. I was lying down in a narrow bed, covered in a bland blanket. There were big blinking machines surrounding me. A hospital room? I pushed myself into a sitting position. Ouch! My hand.
There was an IV stuck in the vein of my left hand. I stared at it, trying to figure out what was going on. The last thing I remembered was being stuck in some kind of really strange version of “Little Red Riding Hood,” with Azazel as a wolf or something. There had been a lot of blood.
“Jason, you’re awake!”
I looked in the direction of the voice. It was Marlena, across the hospital room, getting up out of an easy chair, one hand on her very pregnant belly.
“Marlena, what’s going on?” I asked.
“You were shot,” she said. “You’ve been in a coma for over a week.”
I rubbed my face with the hand not punctured with needles and tubes. So it had all been a dream, then.
“It’s been touch and go,” she said. “We nearly lost you.”
Maybe that was why all the people in the dream had been trying to convince me to die. Had I had a near-death experience or something? Where the hell had the white light been? “How did you get me to a hospital? What about Kieran and Eve? Where’s Azazel?”
Marlena looked at the floor. “Azazel’s in a coma as well. They shot her too. Kieran and Eve didn’t think you were much of a threat anymore, and now that they know where Chance is, they let us take you to the hospital.”
Well, I guessed that made sense. But it still royally sucked. I really wanted the two of them dead. They were really screwing with my life these days. I shoved aside the hospital blanket, swinging my legs over the side of the bed. “Take me to Azazel.”
“Jason, you’ve just woken up. I think we should get a doctor, or—”
“I’m fine.” And I did feel great, really great. I was wearing a seriously unflattering hospital gown which kind of made me feel a little girly, but other than that, nothing really ached or hurt. I stood up. “See?”
Marlena scampered over and found the pole holding my IV. It was on wheels. She pushed it over to me. “Well, okay, I guess so. She’s down the hall.”
I felt like an idiot dragging along an IV wherever I went. I considered ripping the sucker out of my veins. But I knew that would freak out Marlena, so I didn’t. We walked down the hallway to another hospital room.
Hallam met us at the doorway. “She’s awake,” he said, hugging Marlena. Then he noticed me. “You’re awake too.”
I pushed past them to get into the room. Azazel was sitting up in her bed, also with an IV sticking out of her arm. Her hair was mussed up and flying out in all directions, but I didn’t think she’d ever been quite so beautiful. I sat down on the bed next to her, gathering her in my arms. “You okay?”
She nodded. “I’m great. It’s funny, because Hallam said I’d been shot, but it really doesn’t feel like it.”
“Yeah, I feel great too.”
Azazel put a hand on her head, feeling around. “Whoa.”
“What?” I said.
“I don’t have a…wound,” she said. “I don’t even have a scar.”
I inspected my own head. “Me either,” I said.
We looked warily into each other’s eyes.
“I was having this really weird dream,” Azazel said.
“So was I,” I said. “Were you living out ‘Little Red Riding Hood’?”
I let this sink in. “It wasn’t a dream, was it?”
“Maybe not.” She pushed aside her own covers and stood up. “Agnes said we had to go through a test to get our powers back. Do you think we really did? I mean, was all that real? The Spiritus Mundi, jumping around in time, me smoking cigarettes?”
I stood up too. “I guess we should test it and find out.”
Marlena and Hallam came into the room, arm in arm. They were both smiling. Suddenly, Hallam began patting his head and rubbing his stomach at the same time.
I gave Azazel a funny look. “Are you doing that?”
She grinned. “Yep. I’ve got my powers back. You try something.”
It had been such a long time. I could hardly remember what I used to do with them. I focused on Marlena, pumping my own brand of ecstatic joy into her. That was what I did, wasn’t it?
Marlena rushed over to me. “Oh, Jason, I’m so glad you’re awake. Is there anything I can do for you? I want you to be happy. I’d do anything—”
I shut off the power. Yeah, that was it, all right. Why had I ever thought it was a bad idea not to have this power, anyway? It made people love me. How could that be a bad thing, really?
Marlena shook herself. Hallam stopped rubbing and patting. They both glared at us.
“What was that?” Hallam said.
“It’s hard to explain,” said Azazel, “but while we were in a coma, we traveled into the spirit of the world and went through a series of tests to get our powers back. Agnes helped us.”
“Agnes?” said Marlena. “Didn’t she get us into this mess in the first place?”
“Kind of,” I said. “She said she’s an incarnation of Darkness, and she wanted us to get our powers back so we’d cause chaos and pain.”
“Well, that sounds wonderful,” said Hallam. “Because I remember how absolutely wonderful everything was the last time you had your powers.”
“Hallam!” said Marlena. “This is good news. They can stop Kieran and Eve now. Things can go back to normal. Everything was only bad before because Jason and Azazel were fighting with each other. And now they’re together, so everything will be really great.” She beamed at us.
Was that really Marlena, or was that still a shred of my powers talking? It didn’t really matter, I guessed. If Hallam kept being worked up over it, I could always pump him full of my juice, and he’d come around too. Everything was going to work out.
“We don’t have to do anything like what she said,” Azazel said. “We’ve had people telling us we were evil incarnate for years now. They haven’t been right about us.”
“Haven’t they?” said Hallam.
I was really considering using my powers on him and soon.
“Look, we’ll worry about it later,” said Azazel. “The first order of business is Kieran and Eve. And getting Chance back. We don’t know what they’re doing to him.”
Suddenly, there was a commotion in the hallway outside the room. We all ran out to see what was going on. Nurses, doctors, and patients in their gowns were running in and out of rooms, clutching their heads and shrieking.
“What the hell?” said Azazel.
We tried to stop someone and get some answers, but all anyone would say was, “The pain! The pain!”
“Do you think it’s Kieran and Eve?” asked Marlena.
Azazel yanked the IV out of her arm. “We’ve got to get there now.”
The four of us raced out of the hospital. Outside, it was pandemonium, just the same as inside. People ran every which way, all screaming. We couldn’t get a cab, but there were several abandoned on the side of the road, so Hallam got in the driver’s seat, and we all piled in. He drove us to the White House, where Kieran and Eve lived, scooting in and around cars that had been left on the road, their drivers running about in pain.
At the White House, security was nonexistent. Everyone was in the same state as the rest of the people, apparently. We tore up the steps and inside, stopping anyone we could to ask about Kieran and Eve. They weren’t much help, but someone did cry out, “Dead, they’re dead!”
After hunting through practically every room in the building, we finally found them. They were lying on the floor, face down. Neither was breathing. Mina and Chance were both in the room. Mina was on the floor, holding her head and sobbing. Chance was sitting on the floor, bright eyed. I snatched him up in my arms. He looked exactly the way he had when I’d left him in Jasontown.
“Jay!” he said in recognition, popping fingers into his mouth.
I covered him in kisses. “You’re okay, Chance. You’re okay.”
We finally got Mina calmed down and all of the people out of the White House. We left Kieran and Eve’s bodies inside the room. Once the world had a chance to get back in order, we’d get someone to take care of their remains. Until then, we didn’t see any reason not to stay where we were. After all, the White House had plenty of rooms.
After some discussion, we thought we had a pretty good idea what must have happened. When Azazel and I got our powers back, we must have taken Kieran and Eve’s powers back from them. After all, they were our powers to begin with. Without the powers, they’d simply died. They’d apparently become very reliant on them. That had left all the people in the world without Kieran and Eve brainwashing them, forcing them to be happy all the time. It was understandable that they’d all gone nuts.
It was going to take some work to rebuild the world, but everything was finally okay. I had Chance back. Kieran and Eve were dead. Azazel and I had our powers back. The world was back the way it was supposed to be.
Chance was understandably attached to Mina, who’d been raising him as her own. Even though I was glad to see him, and I wanted to be part of his life, I wasn’t going to take him away from the woman he thought of as his mother. So when we all turned in for the night, after an extraordinarily eventful day, I let Chance and Mina take their own room. Marlena and Hallam found a place to sleep as well.
And Azazel and I sat on the landing of the steps, both feeling a little awkward. We’d been though all kinds of weird stuff in that vision/dream thing, and we’d been pretty intimate. We both felt as if we were together, really together, but after everything that had happened between us, we felt as if we needed to talk it out before we actually shared a bed. It didn’t turn out to be that long of a conversation. When we went to bed, we held each other, cuddled close, but that was all.
“Do you think the powers are going to make us evil, like Hallam said?” Azazel asked me, snug in the crook of my arm and shoulder.
“Nah,” I said. “I think everything’s going to be fine.”
“I do too,” she said. “We deserve a happy ending, don’t you think? After everything we’ve been through?”
“Definitely,” I told her. “And I think we’ll get one. Everything will be perfect now. We’ll be together. There’s no one to fight us or chase us.”
She laughed. “You’re right. We killed them all, didn’t we?”
“Damned straight,” I said. “And I’d do it again, if it meant you were safe and mine.”
“I’m always yours,” she said.
“And I’m always yours.”
We drifted off to sleep pleasantly. It felt good to be at peace for once.
I awoke to the buzzing of flies. They were all over my body, settling on my eyelashes, swarming around my nostrils. They hummed to me, beckoned me. They wanted me to get up. I followed them, not questioning. The flies seemed to make sense. Their humming whispered to me that all was not completed, that there was one thing left to do. I didn’t know my way through the darkened hallways of the White House, but the flies did. They flew and buzzed about me, showing me the way.
They led me to the White House kitchen, a sprawling room filled with stainless steel tables, a huge stove, and industrial sized sinks. Everything was pristine and clean inside. I had to clatter through the drawers until I found the thing the flies wanted me to find. A large knife, just like the one I’d had in the “Red Riding Hood” dream. I tucked it into the waist of my pants and followed the flies out of the kitchen, back into the dark hallways.
The flies took me to a closed door. It wasn’t locked, so I went inside. It was Chance and Mina’s room. They lay snuggled together in a queen-sized bed. Mina’s mouth was open. The flies flew to her, perched on her lips, and crawled inside her. They hummed strongly at me. I knew what I had to do.
I didn’t waste a lot of time with Mina. She was asleep, and she wasn’t really the point anyway. The flies had told me that I must prove myself to the Darkness. It was the only way to really receive its blessing and be filled with power beyond all imagination. Mina was in the way. I covered her face with a pillow and pushed down. She woke up midway into it and struggled a little, faintly. Spasms went through her limbs. She grabbed for me. But she was hardly in any position to fight, and I had very little trouble subduing her. I held the pillow in place for quite some time after she stopped struggling, just to make sure she was really gone. Finally, the flies were satisfied, and I was satisfied.
I turned to Chance. He was so tiny, his wispy red hair standing straight up from his head. He was sucking on one of his small thumbs. He looked content and perfect. I bent down close to him, inhaling his baby scent, so innocent and sweet.
The flies buzzed.
I gave them a pleading glance. Did it have to be Chance? He was so small, after all. Certainly, they could find something else—someone else. Certainly someone larger and stronger would prove to be more of a challenge. A better way to prove myself.
The flies weren’t having any of it. I had to be committed. I had to sacrifice. This was the only way I could prove it. And I was primed for this. I was ready. I’d never be more ready.
Sighing, I took the knife out from where I’d tucked it.
I rolled Chance over onto his back.
His eyes popped open. “Jay,” he whispered.
I backed away. Something was tugging at the back of my brain, some strange feeling. I couldn’t quite place what it was. Dread, perhaps. Shame. I knew it didn’t feel good. It threatened to become worse if I did this thing.
The flies assured me they’d take care of that. If I did it, they’d make it so I never had to feel it again. It would be gone forever. I’d be free and powerful. They fluttered around me, buzzing at me to get on with it already. The longer I hesitated, the harder it would be for them to help me not to feel.
I showed Chance the knife.
His face scrunched up, and he started to wail.
Crap. I couldn’t let him make this much noise.
I brought the knife down.
It only took one thrust. After all that, it had been easy.
I left the room and went back to my bedroom. Azazel wasn’t in bed anymore. That was strange. I wondered if she’d gotten up for some water or to use the bathroom. Maybe I should just go back to sleep, and she’d come back to bed in a minute. I started to lift up the covers.
The door opened, and she came inside. She was holding a bloody knife. She let it clatter on the floor. Her pajamas were streaked with red. She grinned at me. “Hey.”
I went to her, kissing her on the forehead. “You had me worried. You weren’t in bed when I got back.”
“Just taking care of Hallam and Marlena,” she said.
“Oh,” I said, giving her a quick hug. “Everything go all right?”
“Perfectly,” she said. “What about Chance and Mina?”
“Took care of them too,” I said.
She rubbed my back. “Excellent.”
“Excellent indeed,” said someone behind us. There was also the sound of a person applauding ferociously. Azazel and I turned around. Agnes stood in the doorway. Beyond her was the same black room we’d come from before going into the forest. “You’ve both done a fine job.”
I was confused. Hadn’t we woken up from our comas? Hadn’t all of that been a dream? Was I dreaming again now? Maybe all of that stuff with the flies had been a dream, which would make sense, considering flies didn’t really talk or convince you to kill your own child.
There was something upsetting about that, wasn’t there?
“Come back in and sit down,” said Agnes.
Azazel and I shrugged at each other and walked out of the bedroom in the White House and into the room of black couches and black roses. We sat down. Agnes did too.
“So, we’re still dreaming,” said Azazel.
“You’re not dreaming,” said Agnes. “I explained to you before. You’re inside the Spiritus Mundi. You’re on a sort of vision quest, and you’ve proved to the powers of Darkness that you deserve to have power. So they’ve given it to you. You are both wildly powerful now.”
“Wait,” I said. “We didn’t wake up from our comas in the hospital? That was all—”
“Part of the test,” said Agnes. “Which, may I say again, you passed with flying colors.”
I tried to let this sink in. We weren’t awake. We hadn’t taken care of Kieran and Eve. We were still stuck in whatever strange alternate world we’d been stuck in before. “So none of that actually happened?”
“Depends on what you mean by actually,” Agnes said, smiling.
Of course it hadn’t been real. In the test, Chance had still been a baby. It had been five years since I’d seen him. He was a little boy now. If it had been real, he’d have been able to talk and walk and throw baseballs and—
“I don’t understand,” said Azazel. “Why did we have to do those things? Why the Red Riding Hood stuff? Why killing Hallam and Marlena?”
“And Mina and Chance,” I said. “Why did I have to kill them? They aren’t actually dead, are they?”
“Do you care if they are?” asked Agnes. “Honestly?”
I had to think about it. “I should care. Shouldn’t I? Isn’t that what all of this is about? Saving Chance?”
“Whatever you have to tell yourself,” said Agnes. “I think deep down you understand that this is really about reaching your true potential. You’ve always had the capacity for this kind of greatness within you. We just had to bring it out.”
“The capacity for murder?” said Azazel.
“Didn’t it feel good?” Agnes asked.
Azazel sighed, remembering. “It did feel good.” She reached for my hand. I took it, gazing at her. I loved her. She was so beautiful. And there was something amazing about the way she looked with a knife in her hand. She was terrible and wonderful. I kissed the back of her hand.
“So, does it really matter?” asked Agnes.
Azazel shrugged. “It was all really weird, that’s all. I don’t understand what the point of it was.”
“The Spiritus Mundi speaks in symbols,” said Agnes. “You both connected immediately to the duality and sensuality of the Red Riding Hood story. Symbolically, when you went into the woods and let the wolves take you, you let the Darkness in. Then you showed that you wouldn’t fight your own dark urges when you killed your families, both your blood families and the families you’d adopted. Once the Darkness could see you were willing to sacrifice anything and everything for it, then you had passed the test.”
Okay. Well, like Azazel had said, it had been weird, but it made a twisted sort of sense. Everything in this place was totally strange. I’d be happy to get out of here. “So what now?” I asked. “Now do we get to wake up for real?”
Agnes’ expression grew sad. “I wish it were that easy. You see, we emissaries of Darkness are in an age-old struggle against forces that call themselves the Light.”
“The Light?” said Azazel. She turned to me. “Is it me, or are you getting the distinct impression that we’re working for the bad guys?”
I shrugged. “Haven’t we always been the bad guys?”
“Those forces are intent on killing you,” said Agnes. “Agnes worked for them. Michaela Weem did to some extent. Azazel’s grandmother. The Sons of the Rising Sun. Everyone who’s ever caused you trouble has been affiliated with those forces. And, unfortunately, they are a very real fixture of the Spiritus Mundi. They’ve trapped you here, and they want to force you to die, even now. They’re very powerful, but you now have the currents of Darkness running through you. You can fight them. You can beat them.”
“Okay,” I said. “And then we wake up for real?”
Agnes nodded. “And then you wake up for real, with strong powers, powers that will enable you to destroy Kieran and Eve. To destroy anything and everyone you want to destroy. To remake the world to your own liking.”
I smiled. Killing Kieran and Eve sounded awesome. “I was kind of disappointed that Kieran and Eve died out of nowhere in our test or dream or whatever it was. That isn’t going to happen in real life, is it? We’ll get the chance to actually snuff them out, right?”
“Of course,” said Agnes.
“Good,” said Azazel. “I felt cheated out of that too.”
“The forces of Light will have difficult tests awaiting you,” said Agnes. “You must successfully navigate every single one, and then you may leave this place and return to reality.”
“Are we going to be in more fairy tales?” I asked. “Will Azazel be wearing that sexy outfit again?”
“Oh, you liked that, did you?” Azazel asked me. “That corset thing was so freaking uncomfortable. I couldn’t breathe.”
“Well, you looked hot.”
She rolled her eyes.
“I have no knowledge of what the Light has in store for you,” said Agnes. “They’re tricky, however. They’ll use anything in their power to try to stop you, even your own emotions. Even your feelings for each other. Your power thrives on conflict, but you derive your strength from your deep connection to each other. You must allow your anger to fuel your desire for each other, not to rip you apart. You did a very good job of that in our test, when you were eating steak in the grandmother’s house. Fighting will make you stronger, but only if you come together afterwards. Use that anger. Turn it into passion.”
Okay, great. I was starting to get a little nervous. For quite some time, I hadn’t felt negative emotions of any kind. I felt free and excited, mostly, eager to see blood or be with Azazel. This sounded as if it was going to take some concentration.
“We can handle it,” Azazel said. At least she was confident.
“I’ll take you as far as I can,” Agnes said. She snapped her fingers, and the room we were in dissolved around us. We were again outside, at the edge of the woods. But it wasn’t the same place we’d been before. Instead, the woods were at our back, as if we’d already walked through them. Ahead of us was a tall stone wall. Agnes pointed to a crumbling opening. “If you safely navigate this maze, you’ll come to the edge of the world spirit. There you’ll be able to break through into your world, where you can use your powers to demolish and destroy. First you must move through the maze, tackling whatever danger you find in each room. You may lose your sense of where you are or what is happening, just as has happened to you already. Stay steady and stay close to each other. You will succeed.”
Azazel and I exchanged a glance, looking to each other for reassurance. Then we joined hands and walked towards the opening in the stone wall.
“Stay steady!” called Agnes.
We ducked inside the stone hole.
Everything around us phased out of sight, eclipsed by a blinding white light.
This book is being posted on Tuesdays and Thursdays beginning 1/17/2012. To access other chapters, check out the Onset Posts Archive, here.