The Tempter Comes

24) The Cave



24   The Cave


The Master we serve is the one we most believe



The entire gang set out: Thomas, Toni, Sarah, Russell, Jocum, and Seth. Tim being the only one who knew where the grotto was led the way. He brought a lantern that he had at the store. The entire time he jabbered about how he found it the first time and how he even went in a little bit. The four were quite excited. Jocum and Seth clearly were the most nervous.

Once they reached the point to where the path entered the woods Tim said, “This is it. You should be able to follow the drawing now.”

Toni looked around. “So tell us again, how in the world did you find this place?”

“I was out in the woods exploring when I heard something several hundred feet away. I didn’t know what it was and I heard about your snake in the woods so I ducked behind a bush. I saw this guy striding determinedly. I thought that I had seen him around town so when he was almost out of view I started following him. A few times I thought I was going to be done in.”
                “Why, what happened?” asked Thomas.

“He stopped and it was obvious that he was listening. When he didn’t hear anything then he would slowly turn and scan the woods. Twice he stopped and stared right at me. I almost swallowed my tongue both times. But then he turned back and continued down this barely existent path.

“I managed to follow him all the way to the cave although, I must admit, as I got closer to it I felt more and more creeped out. It’s the same feeling as if you’re in the dark and you just know that at any second someone is going to grab you, but there is nothing that you can do about it.”

Toni turned from staring into the woods and looked back at Tim. “How long ago did this happen?”

“About two weeks ago.”

Russell shot back, “Two weeks ago! And you didn’t tell anyone?”

Tim looked at him with a come-on look.

“OK, OK, and you didn’t write anyone?”

“I didn’t know that it was such a big deal. In fact, I still don’t know what the fuss is all about. As far as I know some weirdo went into a cave.” Tim paused thoughtfully. “Is he hiding guns or drugs in there? Is that what this is all about?”

Thomas answered, “No, no nothing like that, at least as far as we know.”

This mollified Tim’s previous apprehension. “I have to go back now. I have work to do at the store and I just killed my entire lunch hour getting you here.”

After many thanks and another hug from Toni the group stood at the edge of the woods.

Jocum declared, “Every battle starts with warriors who are granite but ends with men who are dust. I think that it would be wise to go back and think this through again. You don’t know what you are getting into. You know what happened the last…”

Sarah interjected, “This is it. Are we going to go for it or are we going to slink away?”

Everyone just stared at the woods. The path was like any other nondescript deer trail. The only way to even tell that there was something there was that a bird skeleton was nailed to a tree. Russell shuddered.

Seth proclaimed, “If a skeleton is not a bad omen then I don’t know what is. In all wisdom, forget about being heroes and let someone else handle this.”

Sarah took a deep breath, said, “Plans are created to be acted upon and not just talked about,” and ventured into the woods. Everyone else just stood there, but when she was already twenty feet in front of them with no sign of stopping they all rushed to catch up.

They crossed into woods that many had not been in before. The woods where Russell’s birdhouses were to the north were welcoming; the air was crisp and it was more colorful. These woods were those captured in fairy tales where witches gobbled down children and wraiths watched from dark skies.

The further in they got the quieter everyone became. The only time anyone would speak would be to confirm Tim’s directions and even then it was with the most guarded tone. They followed a path of marrow colored clay. The wind wrestled with the trees. Overhead, the clouds resembled bones in a sagging sky. After a mile everyone stopped as if on a silent signal and caught their breath. It was not that they were walking fast but that it seemed as though something was snatching at their breath.

Sarah inhaled deeply and gingerly started walking although much more slowly. The woods seemed to be getting thicker. Leaves were falling and spotting the ground like a pox. Everyone followed.

Here the earth did not breathe.

Toni, who was holding the map, stopped short. Everyone followed suit. She looked up at a particularly gnarled tree; black moss covered its nakedness. At its foot was the deflated carcass of a squirrel. She rubbed her arm to flatten the goose bumps. Then she whispered, “According to Tim’s map this is where we veer off to the left.”

Sarah spoke in a loud whisper that almost made everyone jump, “Then to the left it is.”

The sun here crawled as if dragged by hooks through mud. Its sunlight sporadically fought its way through the tight canopy of misshapen branches but more often than not it lost. Moss covered tree trunks like a green rash. Every footstep sounded unbearably loud. Thomas was thinking that they might as well be clanging bells yelling, “Hear ye, hear ye, we’re approaching.” Seeing a python in every tree, a scorpion on every branch Russell had to remind himself that scorpions do not climb trees—or do they? Despite their brave striding they all hoped that at the end there would be nothing and they could return home satisfied that they tried.

Finally Toni said, “I think that this is it.” They all stopped and stared ahead. There was a small hill with gnarled roots like fingers coming out of its side. There was no other vegetation except for a couple of bushes at the base. Behind the bushes there was unending black.

Jocum said, “We’ve found the cave. Now I think that it would be prudent to go back and tell your pastor.”

Seth affirmed, “I agree; we should all go back now.” He took several steps back down the path with Jocum, but the others ignored them. So with a heavy sigh they rejoined the four.

As they cautiously approached the opening Thomas said, “I think that everyone else should stay out here and wait while I go in alone.”

The others looked at each other with a “huh.”

“Oh no you don’t mister hero,” Toni jumped in. “We’re not splitting up now. We’ve all had to pull you out of some deep waters lately and we’re not going to let you drown this time.”

Toni was so overwhelmingly firm that it rather surprised Thomas. He could also see that everyone else was in agreement with her. All that he could stammer was an “Oh, OK” but in truth he was relieved. He did not even know why he made such a stupid offer to begin with.

“I am going too and that is firm,” said Jocum.

Russell just looked at the ground. Everyone knew that it might be difficult for him to maneuver in the cave but since no one felt the need to point this out, nothing was said.

“I’ll stay out here with the rest.” Seth put a hand on each of Sarah and Russell’s shoulders. Sarah tried to squirm away but Seth’s hand was firm. “We need to make sure that no one traps them from behind.” This suggestion of defense placated Sarah and she stopped wiggling. No matter what was said or who did what Russell was just glad to be on the outside.

“We might as well go before it gets too late,” said Jocum with an air of resignation. He held out his hand and Toni gave him the lantern.

The three approached the bushes and hesitated. Toni looked back at the others who were remaining. It was difficult to tell which group was more scared. Jocum stepped forward and pushed aside some branches revealing a much larger opening than first appeared. He went in a couple of feet and then lit the lantern. Thomas and Toni looked at each other and then gathered closely behind him. The bushes snapped closed.

The cave went straight and level for about ten feet and then it made a sharp turn. This was not what they had envisioned. They were hoping for a quick and wide opening and something obvious in the center that they could snatch and run. Then all would be done, nice and neat, town saved.

Jocum took a deep breath and walked. The others followed. Toni and Thomas stayed close behind Jocum. At times they even held onto the back of his shirt. They got to the turn and stopped. Jocum leaned into the turn preceded by the lantern. He peered around the corner and then he stepped forward. Thomas and Toni quickly bounded behind him fearing to lose sight of him for even an instant. Around the curve the cave was more like a tunnel—long beyond the end of the light but consistently six feet wide and with smooth walls and floor. It sloped downward. It seemed unnatural.

As they walked further, the tunnel curved slightly. They could not see through the darkness ahead of them and behind them was a grave blackness. It was as though, as they walked, the cave was silently being filled in behind them. The effect was like fingers tight around their throats, a pillow pressed against their faces. Though the air was cool a rivulet of sweat trickled down their faces. But they did not know if it was sweat to wipe away or something else; something, perhaps, with legs. They were so focused, that time meant nothing to them. It was as though everything else had ceased to exist and that their entire lives had been in this cave from birth to death. Thomas and Toni had a creepy feeling like something was groping at them from behind just inches away. Both kept glancing behind, occasionally brushing their backs as though something was on them or had touched them.

After going a couple hundred feet Toni whispered with heavy breath to Jocum, “Could we just look behind us real quick?”

They knew that nothing was there but they needed the reassurance that comes from actually knowing. Jocum swung the lantern around.

All three mouths sagged open; hope ran like a startled deer. Filling the cave behind them, going back beyond the curve of the cave were hundreds, if not thousands, of angst-feeders. At the intrusion of the light many opened their mouths wide revealing a gaping darkness but none disappeared. All stared intently unwaveringly, never blinking, their large black eyes riveted on the three. They were feasting.

Toni nearly fainted. Jocum grabbed her by her shoulders as she staggered. For an indeterminable number of seconds both parties stared at the other although it was clear who the dominant force was. There was clearly no turning back now.

Jocum, realizing that his two charges were faltering, said, “Come on, we must keep moving.” He put his huge arm around both of them and turned them around along with the light. “Let’s go. We can deal with them when we are finished here.”

“Deal with them?” Thomas thought.

Jocum got in back of them and pushed them forward. He quickened the pace. They could not linger.

Eventually they could see that the cave opened into a wider area. As they entered this dark cathedral none of the walls or ceiling could be seen since the light of the lantern was unable to reach that far. At first they paused but then remembering what groped behind them they shuffled in further. The air was no longer cool but was even a little warm.

They stopped in a tight, small group. They were afraid to wander in too far and get lost and not be able to find the tunnel out again. Though they tried to control the loudness of their breathing it was unavoidable. Jocum kept turning the lantern in every direction to ensure that nothing was creeping in on them.

“So… we have some uninvited guests.” The voice was low and deep but rather melodic and came from the side opposite from where they came in. Jocum swung the lantern in that direction. There stood a dark figure barely cutting into the edge of the light. In fact, many of his features were still in darkness. No one moved. Finally when the three of them felt as though their breath was going to be snatched away he spoke again.

“Now that you are here, we must make do.”

Then, as if on cue, the cavern lit up starting at the dark figure and racing up the walls. The three watched the edges of this growing illumination. The cavern was far larger than they suspected. Even as rapidly as the light traveled it still took many seconds before it simultaneously met at the top.

But by then they were no longer awed by the vastness of the cavern but, rather, were terrified by what lined it. Everywhere they looked was crawling with layers of Niss. There were easily millions of them as they slithered excitedly over each other. They apparently had great anticipation.

Thomas and Toni’s knees went slack. It felt as though their body was drained of blood. They knew that they were without hope. Even Jocum would be no match for them.

After scanning his pets, the figure looked back at them with a well-pleased grin. “Yes, this is how your young lives will end. You will be filled with so many of them that you will either destroy each other in a mad rage or you will destroy your own selves. Your hatred and fury will be so intense that you will be unrestrained in your attacks. Hmm, perhaps it will be both. Last one standing tears his own flesh apart. Oh, I haven’t had so much fun since the last civil war that I started.” He looked artificially pensive. “Oh my, but that was only a few months ago.” He grinned broadly. “One can never have too much death, can one?

“And now here we all are,” said the dark man with flare. “You may or may not recognize some of your new townsfolk.”

He stepped back and pointed to the snake-man. No one had previously noticed that he—it—was even there. “Here is Senesareg, or as you know him as—Peter. He is very good at temptation.” And then with a twinkle in his eye he looked at the two teens, “Oh, and yes, he is also very good at bending pipes and summoning very large—what you seem to call—rats. If you weren’t about to die soon you would probably come to appreciate his many talents; not to mention his startlingly good looks.” The snake-man’s body rippled with slithering snakes.

“And over here is Rehpitop. He was known to you and especially to Floyd as Alexander.” He nodded at a horror that had skin the color of fog stretched tightly over the form of a person. There were no eyes, mouth, or other features, just a diaphragm of skin. But in dozens, if not hundreds, of random places all over this creature arms, legs, and faces all the size of small dolls momentarily pushed out against this skin as if to escape, but then quickly sank back into the unseen interior. The arms were always grasping outward, the faces always screaming in anguish. It was as though his skin was boiling. “Rehpitop is a collector of the damned. He keeps thousands of them inside.”

At that, this terror took several strides closer to the three. They cowered back. He reached out towards them an outstretched palm and then slowly curled the fingers back into a fist, which he then thumped and held against his chest. Then he slowly stepped backwards to where he was originally standing all the while eyelessly staring greedily at the three.

“He wants to add you all to his collection.”

Behind the collector were several other monstrosities.

There was one like a burnt corpse. “This is Chemosh. She was good friends with Dan. She started out bringing him magazines. Eventually she just brought herself.”

Another was like a large blob but three-quarters of it was an opening rimmed with several layers of overlapping blades, all of which were bent inward at 90 degrees. “This lovely is Milcom. She made wonderful friends with Jackie.” When its name was mentioned all of the blades silently sprung open wide and then slowly closed back in again. Its flesh was the color and texture of lungs.

The man stepped to the side revealing a hideous creature. It was almost seven-foot tall and very thin. Its four arms were like a praying mantis’ but at the ends were long strands of flesh that hung to the floor like whips. Its head was twice as wide as tall and was dominated by two huge multifaceted eyes. It stood, though, on two ordinary legs. “It is too bad that our dear Sarah isn’t here. She might recognize this lovely from their encounter in the library. They could sit and reminisce and then he can crush her to death. It would only be appropriate since she denied our dear Ashtoreth the pleasure the first time. He and Joey shared many a bottle together.”

“And here is Adrammelech. Patrick’s best friend.” This demon looked quite human until he ripped open his torso with both hands exposing all of his organs moist and glistening. Then he reached into himself with one hand and tore out his pulsating heart. He held it to his mouth and savagely ate chunks from it. “My, my, Adrammelech simply does not know his manners. He didn’t even offer you any.”

“And last but certainly not least is Nergal. She, so to speak, and Melinda loved to spend time together talking about everyone else’s faults.” This creature was grotesquely obese but had what appeared to be chains wrapped so tightly around its body that they pulled the flesh in a good six inches. From the flesh beneath these chains oozed something black and foul. Nergal would bend its head down and with a terribly long tongue lick the ooze.

“And behind you,” all three quickly turned and then Toni and Thomas’ knees went weak, “are my beauties.” All along the wall several deep were the angst-feeders. They stood drooped over and glaring with their abnormally large, black eyes. Some of their tongues licked the air. “They are ready to fatten themselves on your fear.”

The man pointed with both hands at the three; his eyes were translucent. “This is going to be so much fun.” Then he straightened up and said, “Let it begin.”

Jocum gathered Thomas and Toni to himself with a confident defiance. He said softly, “Resist the Devil and he will flee from you. Do not fear. God is with you.”

Thomas and Toni felt every muscle in their bodies droop. “The Devil!” they both thought. This was far more than they had bargained for. Throwing matches at rats is one thing; confronting the Destroyer is on a scale infinitely worse.

“Thomas!” The Devil began pacing but all the while kept his eyes on Thomas. “You, more than any of the others, should have known what and who you are up against. You’ve had your chances to back out. But you refused all of them. And now I will plow your soul into the earth. But,” He paused momentarily and elongated the silence. Then he started pacing again. “Because I’m not as bad as you want me to be, I will make you one last offer.”

Jocum tightened his grip on Thomas and whispered, “Steady.”

The Devil said, “How does this appeal to you?”

The floor in front of them became a moving picture. It was Thomas and Jill in an obviously romantic setting. They were in a garden of lush greenery with sweeping palms and brilliant orchids whose colored flowers stretched like fireworks frozen in air. She was stroking his hair with one hand and feeding him dark chocolate truffles with the other. Her eyes were seeking out his. Her sensitive fingers would touch the nape of his neck. There was the sound of a waterfall. They were sitting on a Victorian bench besides a peaceful pool where koi swam like orange angels.

Then the picture rose straight up becoming three-dimensional. Exotic birds with long, colorful tail feathers flew out and gracefully evaporated several feet away. The fish splashed playfully. It was tranquil, serene, and perfect.

The Devil spoke, “Your heart is empty, Thomas. And in that void it is collapsing in on itself. You long to embrace perfect intimacy. In gym class you run faster when Jill is watching. You make yourself more gregarious and popular with those around you when she approaches in the hall. In math class that you share with her you answer the questions more authoritatively. Imagine if you didn’t have to do any of that to impress her because you knew that she was completely and forever yours? Every rapacious appetite immediately satisfied. Her touch soft on your flesh. Rich chocolates melting sensuously in your mouth. The rest of your life could be so pleasant.”

For a minute Thomas stared at the scene. He felt his entire body flush with blood. His fingers ached to touch the leaves closest to him, to feel their reality and then to step into the body of that Thomas and stay there forever.

And then the scene was gone in an instant. Thomas gasped.

The Devil continued, “Or the rest of your life can be so short. Consider the alternative. You are too young to perish. You have so much left to do in your life. Why choose ash when you can be glowing with life, envied by all? I have set before you life and death, choose me and choose life.”

Thomas wavered. His eyes teared up. His emotions and thoughts stumbled.

Jocum sensing this whispered, “Remember that the Devil is a liar and the father of lies. It will never satisfy.” He tightened his grip. “It’s like cotton candy. It looks good and tastes sweet but it quickly melts in your mouth and is gone. God is offering you a feast. Do not be tempted by that which is fleeting.”

The Devil merely grinned.

Toni and Jocum showed great concern for Thomas. He had begun to falter. They tried their best to encourage him. He merely stared at the floor waiting—hoping—for act two. Finally in a bare mumble he said, “No, Jocum’s right. It’s not true. It’s as fake as the image that was before me.”

“Humph.” The Devil turned and walked a couple of steps towards the wall. Then he paused and slowly turned back towards them again. This time his head was lowered but his black eyes were fixed on Toni. His eyes narrowed.

Little bits of Toni began pulling away from her like droplets of water dripping from a faucet or like an amoebae unequally dividing. At first it was just a dozen or so but then it became hundreds. Each “droplet” would pull away as if stretching a long tether and then it would break as if escaping with the attached part silently snapping back into Toni as if nothing had happened. The loose droplet would form a sphere and quickly float away. These droplets came from all over her body: her feet, her face, fingers, eyes, hair.

Toni was clearly horrified, as were the others. Thomas and Jocum staggered away. She stood there with her arms held out watching as it appeared that she was bubbling away to nothing. But though hundreds and perhaps thousands of these pulled away from her she never diminished and so gave the impression that this could go on forever.

She wanted to grab at the pieces but even her very fingers were doing the same. It was as though her entire body had become liquid.

Yet perhaps even more curious was what the droplets did. Though each one pulled straight out from her they all eventually coalesced in a spot between the group and the Devil. The ones coming out from her back looped around like a boomerang to join the rest. As the drops gathered they were forming something, an image. At first it was murky, like a paint-by-numbers that was only started. But it grew rapidly as the drops came faster and faster.

After several horrifying minutes the pulling apart stopped and in front of everyone was a perfect replica of Toni wearing what appeared to be a military uniform. She was at a marble balcony with her back to the three and was waving but not the kind of wave you use with your grandmother. This was a wave of authority. She was greeted with thunderous cheers. In front of the balcony was a large crowd of admirers, hundreds at least, probably thousands. They were clearly enthralled. Many held up posters with Toni’s picture on it. In the middle of the square was a heroic bronze statue of Toni, but no one dared climb the statue out of sheer reverence. The cheers morphed into the chant, “Toni, Toni…” Toni continued to wave in the same detached manner, turning from side to side and smiling. There appeared to be a pistol in a holster at her side.

The Devil spoke, “Who remembers the peasants of history? Can you name one slave who built the pyramids? But you remember whom they contain. The common, the masses, the sheep die in obscurity. By the third generation even the photographs have crumbled and no even asks anymore, ‘Who was that?’ Their lives are like clothes: worn out and discarded and easily replaced. One nameless worker dies and another is waiting to immediately step into his spot. They are like messages on an answering machine: listened to once and then recorded over. What is their legacy? They have none. Theirs are the sad faces of the factory workers, the laborers, the middle class, and even the pretentious rich.

“But who does history remember? The kings, the presidents, those who built monuments. And even the emperors whose kingdoms have long crumbled, we still write poems about them and study them. These are the men and women who control multitudes, whose name is cheered or feared. They speak and it is brought forth. They are gods on earth. The unknown build their statues and print money adorned with their visage. They are true power and are envied by all.”

In the image, Toni turned towards the three and walked several feet in from the balcony. As she did so the crowd broke into thousands of tiny droplets. They quickly floated towards the three passing through the Toni image and everything else. They formed a chair and the end of an elegant wooden table. Both had ancient carvings. The chair was decorated with plush red material embroidered with a coat of arms. Near the table was an important looking man wearing a uniform weighed down with metals. On the table were several papers and gold pens. The man pulled the ornate chair out and Toni sat down. He showed Toni one of the papers and handed her the pen. As Toni signed the paper from out of view many cameras flashed. The man carefully took the pen. The same ritual occurred two more times with the other papers and each time the pen was placed inside a finely carved box as a memento. Then Toni sat up straight to pose. She assumed a serious yet well-practiced compassionate look. The flashing was almost solid.

The Devil continued, “This is your calling, Toni. You can step out from your luxurious palace and overlook your people from your balcony or you can die young and unfulfilled on the damp floor of a cave.

“I set before you life or death, immortality or ignominy. I can elevate you to heights yet unseen by history or I can skin you like an apple. What will it be? Time is running out.”

Then the table, man, balcony doors, and the uniformed Toni broke up into thousands of droplets and dissolved into nothing as they scattered on the floor.

                Toni stood with her mouth open. The question penetrated her like a thousand needles. She did not look down or move in the slighted but she consciously felt the floor with her feet. It was indeed inhospitable.

                Then she felt Jocum’s warm hand on her shoulder. “The Devil does not nourish; he devours. How many kingdoms has he offered and how many men and women have been slain in accepting them?”

                Toni did not strengthen up; rather, she slumped a little more. The battle was taking its toll. Toni was on the edge of collapse. Jocum and Thomas gathered to her for support.

                “Sharing hugs and precious promises,” mocked the Devil. “So what will it be? Will you settle for a pat on the head by your doomed friends or will you seize majesty and power? Will your life end as a name and dates on a cheap tombstone or will you be immortalized by monuments and chapters in history books? Quickly now, my friends are growing eager.” He narrowed his gaze even more. “With that much power think of all the good that you could do.”

                Toni inhaled deeply but did not exhale. The floor seemed even colder than before.

                She looked up slightly at the sound of a faint quivering voice, “Toni, Toni, don’t do it. No good will ever come out of it. We need to stick together. We’re friends.” It was Thomas. His voice was as pale as he was. It was not much, but it was enough.

                Toni could not raise her head but managed a weak, “No.”

                The Devil crossed his arms in front of his chest. “There are others. Your sacrifice will accomplish nothing. You will not die a hero.” He walked a few feet to the left and then stopped and faced them again.

                The three were jolted to attention by a small flash and quick electric sound. It was a few feet away from them and eye level. Then quickly there was another off to their side and then another and another. They were coming quickly and from all directions, even above.

                Flash, flash. Each flash was anywhere from the size of a thumbnail to that of a fist and every one of them was accompanied by a sound like an unfortunate bug meeting its demise on an electric bug zapper.

                Flash, flash. As each flash faded there was left in its place an image hanging in the air-or perhaps more correctly, a piece of an image as though a jigsaw puzzle were being assembled all around them.

                Flash, flash, flash, flash. They came so quickly now that all three were forced to squint and cover their ears. It was like being surrounded by hundreds of excited paparazzi each one thinking that they have found their front-page picture.

                But this was no photo session. No one’s actions were going to be exposed on the cover of a tabloid. This was more diabolical and what was being exposed was far deeper and painful.

                Finally the last few flashes completed the picture. And then there was silence. They were completely surrounded within a dome. The puzzle was complete.

                In front of them like a photograph were two white statues of rearing stallions. In between them was a Rolls Royce Silver Shadow on a patterned brick driveway leading to the front of a mansion. The mansion was greater than anything in Jabesh. Its sides extended beyond their view. The portico was framed by a series of white pillars. It was at least three stories high with multiple gables.

To the left of the car the scene blended into a spa with its profuse bubbling as static as a painting. Marbled floors surrounded the spa and tables with silver trays were loaded with sweets and pastries, most were chocolate. Hanging over the spa were palm trees. The center of the ceiling was a circular domed skylight. Several servants were waiting for their cue.

                As they continued to turn counter-clockwise around the dome there were ornate French doors with stained-glass sidelights. The doors were open and led to a deep white beach with waves hovering in mid-crest. On the beach was a small Japanese pagoda as the beach house. It was red with sloping green tiled roofs. Pillars framed the sliding doors. Two dogs were frozen in play as though dipped suddenly in liquid nitrogen.

                In front of the French doors were fruit trees that extended across the top of the dome. Oranges so realistic that Toni reached up to touch one hung in abundance. A spider monkey was motionlessly swinging between two branches. There were dozens of orchids.

                Further to the left and now opposite the car stood a wooden table with inlaid woods forming squares. Chairs on either side of the board were empty. Chess pieces were stranded in the midst of a game. One side was dragons and mythical monsters: chimera and basilisks, griffins and centaurs. The rooks, however, bore a striking resemblance to Rehpitop. Medusa was the queen. The king was actually quite radiant and oddly majestic. There was something about him, though, that seemed familiar. The opposing side, which had fewer remaining pieces, had mostly angels and several nymph-like woodsy creatures. The queen was young and frail, the king old and bent.

Beyond this chess set was the fore of a magnificent gymnasium with basketball hoops, a weight room, and an elevated running track. On the left side of the gymnasium there was one opening which led to a billiards room. There was another opening on the right side into a room where pinball machines lined all of the walls.

                The edge of the gym, like all of the previous scenes, cut away into the final picture. As all three turned they faced a large oaken table. There was a plate of grilled steaks, another with poached peaches flowing with chocolate sauce, candied yams, sticky spare ribs, and Eggplant Parmesan dripping with mozzarella cheese. On the wall hung the largest flat screen television imaginable with a crystal clear, nearly lifelike video game in mid play. At the end of the table facing them was a frighteningly realistic figure of Thomas holding the game console. The walls were covered with mahogany and silk with majestic paintings of war. A chandelier illuminated the feast.

                They continued slowing turning around the dome with their mouths open when—with a start—all of the scenes simultaneously broke into motion. The dogs jumped and romped, the Medusa’s hair writhed, the young queen cowered in fear, the monkey finished his swing, and the video game burst into dizzying play.

The waves roared as they splashed on the shore. The monkey screeched and the video game gushed its electronic cacophony.

A servant clad in a black tuxedo brought a dish of piled nachos and laid it on the table next to Thomas who was swaying back and forth as he triumphantly defeated all that opposed him in the game. Yet everything remained two-dimensional.

                Toni (or at least a very good rendering of her) in a light, blue swimsuit climbed out of the spa and toweled off. A servant entered with what appeared to be the softest, most plush robe ever seen. It billowed as he carefully put it on her before settling gently against her skin. Vicariously, the real Toni rubbed her shoulders.

                A chauffeur dressed to match the elegance of the car came into the picture as though walking through the wall of the dome. He maneuvered to the side of the Silver Shadow and opened the rear door. Toni shimmered across the border of the two pictures and stepped into the car. The chauffeur authoritatively shut the door and went around the back of the car and got into the driver’s seat. The car started with a powerful rumble and came right at the three of them. They made to leap out of the way but it never left the plane of the dome as it sped forward.

                Thomas, meanwhile, was savoring a Napoleon while continuing to master his foes on the screen.

                Then came the voice penetrating the dome and causing Thomas and Toni to huddle like lambs hearing the wolf’s growl at the edge of the door. The words seemed to exhale poison.

                Not seeing where the Devil was at made the whole effect ever that much more horrifying. His voice seemed to come from every picture in the puzzle.

                “Throughout every day of their lives the great mass of humanity drags with them the burdens of their tedious jobs, selfish family members, deteriorating health, and growing doubts thinking that they’ve finally made some progress only to find those same troubles lying at their feet again when they wake up from a frustrated sleep. There is no meaning, no glorious triumph, only bleak survival and momentary reprisals from pain. Even those few who obtain luxury, strain to keep it and guard it with a paranoia that will ultimately become their relentless master. Life consists of little more than grabbing from others and clutching tightly to keep others from snatching back. These people are worms in clothes, beetles with shoes. Dignity is like a winter leaf. In their toil and frustration they weep only to have their cries melt into the impersonal dark abyss. This too is your fate. You have no power to escape.

                “In your youth you think that you can accomplish anything. You will be the one who changes the world, who does something that matters. But as you age your dreams are gutted by banality and heroism is carved into splinters by the sharp knives of debt and doubt. Why will you be different? Are you so much more intelligent, that much more clever, or outrageously beautiful? Hardly. You are just two more ants scurrying about hoping for a loose seed or a precut piece of grass to bring back to the nest so others can fatten up.

                “But you both, unlike all of the others, have a choice.”

                The jigsaw Thomas stretched contently. He had skillfully defeated another level. He rested the controls in his lap and looked over the table. He reached for a tender chicken morsel, dipped it into a sauce, and pleasantly ate it.

                Meanwhile, Toni appeared on the beach, the chauffeur carrying a tray with a pitcher of lemonade. She stretched out in a beach chair and drank from the glass placed at her side. The dogs ran over and nuzzled her arms. Her hair rippled gently in the ocean breeze.

                There was a blinding flash. All three yelped and quickly buried their faces in their hands. The brightness of the flash made their hands look like red transparent cellophane.

                There was a chuckling from several feet away. Once their eyes adjusted, everything was the same as it was before the dome. However, the Devil was only three feet away staring with great pleasure at them. Encircling them several feet deep were the angst-feeders lustily lapping up the fear. Many of their tongues were licking at the air.

The three were so shocked at this nearness that all three stumbled backward and nearly fell to the ground. Jocum caught himself and held up the other two. When they looked up again, only a couple of seconds later, the Devil was back at his original place twenty feet away with his servants peering intently at them from behind him. The angst-feeders were back along the wall. The Niss squirmed greedily along the walls and ceiling.

                The Devil was clearly enjoying all of this. He stepped closer and spoke again with a great sweeping voice. “I am giving you more than escape; I am giving you elevation. You both can have everything that you saw. And in return,” and here he spoke like it was such a trifle, “is something that you can’t even see. You can’t touch it or feel it. In fact, you wouldn’t even know if it was there or not.” He paused and smiled long at them. “It is merely your soul.” There was another slight pause. Toni and Thomas stood there like they just let past the winning goal in overtime. Jocum scowled at the Devil.

                “How could you even miss it?” he continued. “Tell me, what would you lose? No, let me answer that one; it is too easy. You would lose drudgery, banality, commonality. You would lose the anthill.”

“And what would you gain? You would be the ones with the morsels. You would gain choices. What choice is there when you must go to work at the same time to the same job to do the same work each day? What choice is there to see the same measly paycheck barely pay the same bills every month? What choice is there to go to the same places, to eat the same food, and to talk to the same boring people about the same ridiculous subjects?

“Yield to me and you will be able to go anywhere you want, buy everything that catches your eye, meet anyone you want. That my two friends, is freedom and, yes, it does come cheaply.”

It was not hard to see that Thomas and Toni were faltering.

The Devil went in for the kill. His chest swelled with grandeur. “Does anyone really know what a soul is or does? And so what is the problem if you lose yours anyway?” He was very animated and spoke with fervent gusto. His hands swept across the room as he spoke

“But a fancy car you can see and touch. You can taste wonderful food. You can smell the ocean breezes and feel the salty air against your face.”

Toni and Thomas’ heads dropped. They stared blankly at the floor each replaying their scene from the jigsaw.

Then Jocum spoke out loudly. “True freedom is not being a slave to your greed and desires. True freedom is being able to do what is right. It is something that does more than satisfy a temporary lust. It gives you peace and joy deep into your bones.”

The Devil looked annoyed at this intrusion. But it also got Toni and Thomas to look up and break out of their trance.

But then the Devil put on the charm again. “As though, Jocum, living well is somehow immoral? As if being poor is nobler than being comfortable? That need is more spiritual than fulfillment? Is it holier to drive a cheap, broken-down car than a nice one? You know that isn’t true, Jocum. And these two know that isn’t true either.

“When you see how weak his argument is then you know how strong my case is.” Then he added quickly, “Enough of this foolish bantering. It is only delaying the inevitable. I have forces to gather. Come, choose the obvious.” He took one more step closer and spread out his arms.

Jocum spoke again much to the Devil’s even greater annoyance. “And is 80 years of comfort for an eternity of torment an even exchange? When in your equation, Satan—the great deceiver and liar, is there an accounting? Do you evenly exchange a fancy car for the sacrifice of the Son of God? Does eternal life and a tangy dipping sauce match up evenly? Do your lies have any weight against the real truth? What you are offering is not choices but self-centered lust that has no end, no final fulfillment. The 62-inch TV will soon not be good enough, then the 82-inch will be too small. Then when you have a TV as big as a wall you’ll need a theatre. At the end of the day what was your accomplishment? You killed all of your pixilated enemies and drained that pitcher of lemonade. Do you go to bed feeling deep satisfaction and joy? Have you improved the quality of anyone’s life including your own?”

The Devil paced with growing agitation.

Jocum continued. “Or when you support the helpless, encourage the faint-hearted, bring friendship and concern to others, then this brings true abundance right to the depth of your soul. At the end of the day you may not bring home a bigger toy but you do bring home satisfaction.

“You are right, Deceiver, there is no real choice. When someone has all of the facts before them the decision is obvious.”

Both Thomas and Toni stepped closer to Jocum. Toni put her arms around his waist and buried her face into his side.

The Devil spoke, “So is that your final decision? And I do emphasize the word ‘final’ in more ways than one.”

Jocum answered, “I think their silence tells you what you need to know.”

                Rather than being infuriated, the Devil appeared resolved. “There is nothing special about you. You are just two out of billions. Losing you means nothing. I’ll have forgotten about you even before you are finished being devoured. This town will once again be mine and the loss of your pitiable lives will not have slowed down the triumph by even one second. Danielle was right. Unfortunately for you the steamroller is right at your toes.” He turned and walked back to the cave wall. The Niss writhed greedily. The Devil looked up at the millions of them and smiled.

                Jocum shouted frantically to Thomas and Toni, “Get down on the floor! NOW! Lay flat on your stomachs as close together as you can! Cover everything! HURRY! NOW! Do not think!”

                They quickly obeyed covering their ears and shutting their eyes tightly. The snakeman stood with clenched fists while his body was a riot of scaly motion. The other monstrosities hissed and growled. The Devil looked at the three of them. “You cannot save yourselves. All hope is gone. Breathe your last.” With that he raised his arms. The Niss flew. The ones at the top came first. They flew in a giant vortex that narrowed as it came closer to the three. It was a dark, thick swirl, greedy and ravenous.

                Fully expecting Jocum to stand over Thomas and Toni and fight off the Niss he did something quite unexpected. He lay on top of them face up with his massive body nearly obscuring theirs. He stretched out his arms from his sides and leaned back his head.

                The tip of the funnel was getting closer and angrier. Those halfway down the cave walls had now peeled off and joined the fray. They were rushing downward.

                Just as the Niss were nearly upon them, Jocum closed his eyes, took a deep breath, and opened his mouth wide. The tip of the funnel went straight into his mouth. He twitched and then stiffened.

                The thick, ugly funnel roared as it grew and spun faster. All the while it continued to pour into Jocum’s mouth. He convulsed violently but never moved his head from that one receiving position.

                Thomas and Toni were oblivious to what was happening just inches from them. Toni simply let out a continual high-pitched squeal. The Devil watched all of this with intense and perplexed interest. This was not at all what he expected. The demons behind him were restless. The angst-feeders were writhing.

                This continued for several long minutes as every single Niss flew inside Jocum. When the walls were cleared of Niss and only the top of the funnel remained it seemed as thought the Devil realized something. He took a few steps back until he was against the wall. And then he went pale. The snakeman watched him with concern. The Devil said in a low voice, “no!”

                The last Niss entered Jocum’s mouth. After a few seconds he stopped convulsing but remained stiff, his back arched.

                The Devil said again, “This cannot be.”

The snakeman fluctuated between demon and human.

Jocum went limp and for several seconds everything was frozen in silence. Toni and Thomas were aware that something had happened but they did not know what.

Then Jocum began to sink into the floor as though Toni and Thomas were not even there. He passed right through them. It was not as though the floor opened up but, rather, as if he was a ghost.

The Devil uttered, “I have lost. How can that be?”

Now, only Jocum’s knees and part of his face could still be seen.

“Everything was perfect. This cannot be,” the Devil continued in a low, disbelieving drawl.

Finally Jocum was gone. There was complete silence except for Toni and Thomas’ belabored breathing. No longer feeling him on top of them Toni and Thomas both turned their heads slightly and slowed opened an eye. Seeing nothing that was an immediate threat they opened both eyes and scanned everything. Then they sat up.

“Where’s Jocum?” whispered Thomas to no one.

“And where are the Niss?” said Toni in the same hushed, cautious tone.

For a full couple of minutes they stayed sitting on the stone floor and searched every shadow. There were too many evil things out there to proceed with haste no matter how much they wanted to get up and run. They both expected some horror to spring at them from beyond the darkness. But nothing came.

Toni said in a whisper, “Maybe Jocum left.”

“Impossible,” replied Thomas, “he would never abandon us.”

“So where is he?”

“I… I don’t know. I just hope that nothing happened to him.”

Finally Thomas saw the Devil against the dark wall. He gasped and pushed away with his feet. But then he squinted and looked harder. The Devil appeared weak and almost shriveled. He stood hunched and leaning against the wall as though he needed it to support him. He was gulping for air.

Thomas turned partly to Toni while still keeping an eye on the Devil. “Look over there, the Devil; doesn’t he look strange to you?”

Toni leaned over and stared intently. “Something is strange. He looks sickly. In fact, he looks like he is barely alive.”

Sensing that something dramatic had occurred much to their favor they stood up and brushed themselves off. They did not dare get closer because even one-percent of Satan would be too much for them. But still, they somehow felt safe although not enough to speak to him.

The Devil broke the silence in a very halting, barely audible voice. “Do not… think… that you… had any… hand in this. A small… set back. Your town… is… yours again.” He choked and spit a long tar-like substance onto the ground. He heaved a few times and then looked up at them. Though his body was wrecked, his eyes were still filled with evil and carved into their souls. They shrank back. “My… victory… is… still… to… come.”

With that he and the snakeman and the others seemed to sink into the wall and disappear.

Toni, in utter exhaustion slumped to the floor and just sat there staring blankly ahead. No one spoke for a while. All that had just occurred was too quick and too momentous to register.

Finally Toni looked up. “How are we going to get past the angst-feeders?”

Thomas scanned the wall behind them. “The angst-feeders are gone also. I… I think that we’re the only ones left.”

“Let’s hope.”

“And pray.”

Toni weakly struggled to her feet with help from Thomas. He held up the lantern but it was losing power. They turned and stared in the direction where the tunnel was from which they came in. It was too dark that far away to see anything. Toni lowered her head and closed her eyes for several seconds. She was muttering something. Then she said “We might as well go forward.”

“Suppose we can’t find the exit or it is blocked?” Thomas was panicked.

Toni put her hand on his back. “I have confidence.”

They shuffled towards the far wall. As they got closer they could see the entrance to the tunnel. And then the lantern flicked and went out and they disappeared into its blackness. Without light, Thomas had to feel along the wall while Toni clung to his other arm. They both fully expected at any moment for claws to dig into their flesh and tear them apart. But if there was anything in there it did not bother them. At least, so they thought, not yet.

After what seemed like the most dreadful elongation of time the air smelled less heavy and dank. Without quite realizing it this buoyed their spirits. They continued to push on.

“Is it getting a little lighter?” asked Toni. “It must be,” she answered herself, “I can make out the walls a little.”

Indeed, they were approaching the exit. Like swimmers escaping from a deep wreck it was like seeing the surface of the water from out of the murky depths.

They stepped up the pace and now stood before the bushes that covered the entrance. Subconsciously they both inhaled deeply and even managed a slight smile. But the thought that they entered as three but were leaving as two muted any burst of joy.

“Perhaps Jocum is outside,” whispered Thomas. “Maybe there was a bigger problem outside so he had to rush out there.”

“Or perhaps,” added Toni, “he led the Niss and the angst-feeders away. Maybe that’s why they were gone.”

“Could be,” shrugged Thomas. “We’ll find out in a second.”

He pushed aside the branches. They did not scratch as much or were as violent as when they came in. The two of them blinked from the burst of light. They hesitated until they heard familiar voices cry out.

“They’re here! They made it!”

As their eyes adjusted they saw two dark and blurry figures jump from a fallen log and rush towards them. Had they not recognized the voices they would have leaped back into the tunnel.

But in a second there were hardy slaps on the shoulder and assistance out from the cave to where Seth was standing. He seemed stunned.

“Where’s Jocum?” stuttered Seth. He seemed very concerned and shaken.

The exuberance of the greeting quickly settled.

Toni looked over at Thomas who was staring at nothing. “I don’t know,” he finally managed to get out. “We thought that he might be out here.”

“Did he come out?” asked Toni.

“No, no one came out until you two,” answered Russell.

Toni and Thomas looked at each other. Seth, still quite pale, took a step back. He appeared exhausted and almost frightened.

Sarah asked, “So where is he? Did you leave him behind? Is he hurt or… worse?”

Toni replied with her eyes fixed on Seth. “No, we don’t know what happened to him.”

Seth gasped hard. Everyone turned to look at him. He was quivering. He mouth was slightly ajar and his eyes were stretched out wide.

Toni reached towards him, “Are you all right?” But something held her back from walking towards him.

There was a deep rumbling from deep in the ground. Everyone looked down unsure to run or what to do. It was not a single sound but was the consolidation of many. The rumbling became louder and closer to the surface and, as it did, the sound formed discrete patterns. Finally it became distinguishable as words.

“You have failed!” came a deep, harsh voice as if spoken by stone.

Thomas, Toni, Sarah, and Russell held their breaths. The hair on their necks stood up. They moved into a tight group and stopped breathing.

“You must now suffer!” came the voices from the earth.

To everyone’s shock, Seth cried out, “NO! NO! It’s not fair! How was I to know he would interfere? I did everything you told me to do! I tried to keep them away! Give me another chance!”

“Failure has only one consequence and mercy is never it! You must return!” spoke the voices now much closer to the surface than before.

It was now plain that it was not one voice but many speaking in jagged unison.

At that instant bursting violently out of the ground at Seth’s feet and grabbing him tightly at his calf was a long, thin gray arm with a very large clawed hand. The claws sank all of the way through his flesh as the hand curled around his leg.

Seth staggered and tried to pull away but was unable. Noooo!” Dark, ugly blood flowed over his shoe.

Two more hands with multiple layers of knobby fingers facing each other on both sides of the palm grasped both of his ankles. Seth struggled violently. A fat tentacle with barbs instead of suckers wrapped around his waist.

“It’s not fair,” he screamed. “It’s not fair.”

More and more grotesque appendages burst out of the ground. Some had large hooks that dug into flesh like meat hooks. Others had multiple claws. One like a leech with a round mouth and circles and circles of sharp teeth swallowed his left arm up to his elbow. All were pulling down.

As each arm erupted through the ground it grabbed one of the few parts of Seth that was still untouched. At this point almost nothing of Seth could be seen except for his wild, panicked eyes.

He was pulled down into the ground like it was quicksand but it remained as solid as ever. The three could tell that he was fighting furiously but that his cause was futile.

All the while the voices screamed out, “You must return! You have failed!”

There was one more muffled yell from Seth and then he was gone. All that remained was a swirl of dirt and silence. Several brown leaves settled onto the ground where Seth had been only seconds earlier.

The four of them stared with paralyzed horror at the spot. Then Sarah yelled, “Let’s get out of here.”

Obedience was quick in coming. They all ran back towards town. However the other three were careful to stay at Russell’s pace. Telling him to “hurry up” or to try to pull him along would do no good and so they did not.

                They were less than halfway home when they all ran out of breath. They could not even merely slow to a walk; they had to stop and either bend over or put their hands on their hips and walk in a tight circle. Russell’s leg was burning. Even above their labored breathing they listened for noises beneath their feet. There were none.

                Eventually they were able to commence walking albeit at a slow pace. Their sense of safety was uncertain as long as they remained in the woods. On the one hand they felt that the attack on Seth was directed only at him. If it/they wanted the others then they were as easy as a bird in a cage. On the other hand, there was the idea that “things” lurked everywhere underground and could be right under their feet at any time. The fact that Seth was not standing at any kind of special place was even more unnerving. It was not as if he was in the middle of a bull’s eye. Was anyplace safe? Could these things suddenly burst through the floorboards of the house and drag them to… where? They were all wondering the same thing but no one dared voice it because actually hearing something being talked about sometimes makes it all that more real.

                Perhaps even more disturbing to Toni and Thomas was the thought that perhaps that is what also happened to Jocum.

                No one spoke.

                Finally they reached town and were at the point where they either had to agree to go somewhere together or head to their respective homes. Since no one offered the first, they all did the latter in silence. Sarah split off and headed down her block. Russell just stood there like he was in a town where he had never been before. Thomas put his hand on Russell’s shoulder and gave it a gentle squeeze. Russell tapped it a couple of times and turned towards his house.


                Russell nearly fell in through the front door. He sighed loudly and with his hand on his forehead dragged his feet across the dilapidated carpet as though there was a federal law against lifting your feet off of the ground. After all of that running his bad leg was even less cooperative than usual.

The curtains were drawn as was typical and the room was dim. As he neared his bedroom he was startled to see his mother sitting quietly in the living room chair.

                “Mom, are you OK?”

                She stared off to the side momentarily and then looked back at Russell. Her face was half in shadow. He felt too weary to endure another “Do you realize what you are doing to me?” speech. He was about to wave her off when she said, “Please sit down” with a dignity that he did not recognize. He sank into the couch and waited. She folded her hands in her lap. Then softly and calmly she spoke.

                “I don’t know where you’ve been, but I can see that it didn’t go well for you.” Russell looked like someone suddenly let some air out of him.

“Wait,” his mother said. “Let me finish. It’s obvious that something has been going on this last month or so. You’ve come in dragging more than usual. There’s been a lot of strangeness happening in town what with the Niss and all and somehow I feel like you’ve been in the middle of it.” Russell squirmed and stared at the floor.

“I know that I drive you and Danielle to madness with my worrying.” Russell froze as if shot. “I can see how exasperated you get. It may look like I do nothing but fret and worry about my problems but I’ve always got my eyes on you and Danielle.” Russell slowly looked up at his mother. “There is nothing in this world as important to me as you two.” Russell’s face softened. “And I worry because I want everything to be well for the both of you.

“As you know, your father walked out on us ten years ago. He claimed that he couldn’t take me anymore. I don’t know. But it left us in a tight spot. I work at the best job that I can, but it barely pays for what meager expenses we have. I try to protect you from our money issues. I don’t want to feel that you’ve got to help out somehow. I’d rather that you enjoy your teenage years without any burdens. There will certainly be enough later on.” She paused and looked away. Russell continued to look at her. She turned back once again. “One last thing. I see what you do with Danielle and how you guide her. I appreciate that and I want to tell you that you’re doing a great job.” Even in the dark both sets of eyes glistened. “Now you go upstairs and get yourself cleaned up. You look like you’ve been in Hell.”


                When Toni and Thomas were getting close to her house Toni said weakly, “Perhaps we should stop someplace and gather ourselves. If we walk in like this, Mom will ask all kinds of questions and I don’t think that either of us are in good enough shape to come up with clever answers.”

                “You’re right,” replied Thomas. “Maybe we should treat ourselves to an ice cream. We certainly deserve it and it would be a nice return to normalcy.”
                “But do we want to walk a couple of more blocks?” Toni asked through great exhaustion. “And after all of that can we eat anything?”

                “For a coffee, chocolate chip cone? —You bet.” He tried to sound enthusiastic but he really did not have it in him. None-the-less, he was persuasive enough.

                At the shop while licking their cones Toni asked, “Do you want to talk about any of it?”

                Thomas took a few more licks but much slower. “Maybe not right now. I think that we need to get our heads straightened out a bit before we dive back in. I feel like I’m still coughing up water. Besides, maybe it would be best if we all got together and went through everything. But right now I just need to chill.”

                After the cones had disappeared they just sat and watched the people walk by. Some said “hello” and they both faintly smiled and waved. This was good practice. After all, the best way to appear normal is to act normal.

                After a while Toni said, “Supper is going to be ready soon. We’d better head back home because if we are late then no matter how calm we look there’ll be questions.”

                At home Mrs. Donnelee’s sharp eyes led her to comment, “Boy, you two are sure dragging in slower than a slug with a salt shaker on its back. Did you have a rough day?”

                “It was… um, very busy,” answered Toni perhaps a little too quickly. “We had… a lot of ice cream to eat.” And wanting to divert the topic she added, “And yet we still are sure hungry. I hope that you got some good vittles a waitin’.”

                “Whether they’re good or not is yours to judge. But they are a waiting,” Mrs. Donnelee said still keeping a questioning eye on them.

                She put out three plates and filled the middle of the table with bowls of steaming food. Everyone helped themselves.

                Toni and Thomas both lacked the energy to eat at anything resembling even a normal pace. This elicited another comment from Mrs. Donnelee. “I thought you two were so hungry?”

                Thomas looked up and smiled, “We’re savoring it. It would be a crime to gulp food as fabulous as this.”

                “Yea, right,” said Mrs. Donnelee with a disbelieving smirk.

Copyright Bob La Forge 2011        email: