“I’m leaving, Graydon.”
“You can’t. Rebecca needs you.”
“I can. I have to. What I can’t do is sit and watch her waste away.”
“You’re being selfish, my dear.”
She gently touches my cheek.
“You’re a good man, Graydon, and a great father. But there’s nothing anyone can do for her. At some point you’re going to have to accept that.”
“I can’t. I won’t.”
“Then it will destroy you too.”
I enter the shadow steeped room, the only illumination a soft glow from a small nightlight on the far wall. Silently I creep across the floor, mindful of making any noise; the last thing I want to do is wake her. At last, I reach the bed and gently lower myself next to my daughter. I gaze at her. The bandanna wrapping her head to hide her baldness does nothing to detract from her beauty, her features light and delicate as a bird’s wing.
Once I was unsure I wanted to be a father, but Olivia was insistent and, eventually, I gave in to her desires. Any doubts were shattered the first time I held Rebecca to my chest, her eyes still closed tight, hands clutched into tiny fists. She was the most perfect thing in the world, and in that moment I knew there was nothing on heaven or earth I would not do for her.
My worst fear was realized six months before her fifth birthday when my darling child was diagnosed with leukemia. Olivia and I resolved to fight. Treatment has achieved a blessedly high success rate in recent years, and I was confident Rebecca would soon be on the mend.
We proceeded with an aggressive cycle of chemotherapy. Months later all traditional treatments were exhausted, including two new drugs my own pharmaceutical company had only recently developed. The disease was unaffected, the only casualty my darling’s golden hair.
My relationship with my wife became more strained, our early hopes slowly shifting towards despair. Arguments became frequent as we lashed out, desperate to dispel our pent up emotions. We changed tactics and volunteered Rebecca for experimental stem cell injections. Even these held no salvation as something about the disease defied description. The doctors struggled to reach a consensus as to why treatment was so ineffective; the one thing they agreed upon was that Rebecca had only months to live. With nothing to do, they recommended we bring her home.
Rebecca’s fifth birthday came and went. Knowing it would be her last, I made sure it was a grand affair, all the presents and decorations money could buy. Late in the evening I found myself holding my daughter in my arms, her head resting in the hollow of my shoulder, frail body exhausted from the tolls of treatment and excitement of the day. As I stood slowly rocking her, tears sprang to my eyes, the thought of losing this child too much for my heart to bear. How much worse, then, when thought turns to reality?
Now there is only waiting. The failure of man’s power reminds us that we are not gods, less in our hubris we lose our humility. Olivia is gone, unwilling or unable to watch as our little girl succumbs to the cells devouring her from the inside. In the darkest fairy tales when a ravenous monster gobbles the child who has snuck from her bed, the fear is momentary, the pain fleeting. For my darling, there is no such mercy.
As I sit beside her, Rebecca’s expression shifts into a pained grimace. I place my hand upon her head, gently stroking her brow until her face relaxes and she settles more deeply under the covers, a small sigh escaping her lips. I stay a while longer, making sure her discomfort doesn’t return before carefully leaving the room, shutting the door behind me without a sound.
I move downstairs to the study where I pour a neat bourbon. I fall heavily into one of the armchairs beside the empty fireplace where I contemplate my drink, thinking dark thoughts. It says something about my state of mind that I only become aware of the man sitting in the chair across from me when he pointedly clears his throat. I start violently, my surprise so great that I almost fall out of the chair, my drink spilling down my front. Finding my composure, I lunge for the poker sitting by the hearth. Raising the instrument I turn to the intruder.
“You have ten seconds to convince me not to kill you.”
The man cocks an eyebrow, one corner of his mouth lifting in a smirk.
“I mean it!”
His face becomes stone. “Yes. I suspect you do.”
The man’s nonplussed attitude is decidedly out of place. Confused, my resolve to commit murder somewhat drains away. I keep the poker held above my head, unsure how to proceed.
He nods. “Lower your weapon. Please.” His voice is deep, a rumbling bass that carries an audible weight beside an inherent yet unspecifiable danger.
“And why,” I ask, “would I do that?”
His lips draw into a thin line, the edges curling slightly.
“Such an attack would be ineffective.” He smiles in full, his lips opening to reveal a line of sharp white teeth, “And contrary to your interests. I am here to offer assistance regarding your … delicate situation.”
Ice cold rage slips through my veins. Olivia and I had kept Rebecca’s disease quiet from even our closest friends. The only ones aware of her condition are the doctors, and they wouldn’t talk for fear of a lawsuit. A sheen of reptilian anger slides through my field of vision as my assessment of the man changes from possibly dangerous intruder to something else.
“What do you know about it?”
The words are hardly decipherable as they escape my lips through teeth clenched hard enough to crack walnuts.
His cold, dark eyes observe me for a moment. He gestures to the chair I had previously been sitting in. I only now realize he has yet to move from his own.
Still clutching the poker, I carefully lower myself into the chair. I take stock of the man across from me. Even sitting I can tell he must be a giant, well over six feet, his solid frame unmasked by the dark suit he wears. I note he smells of something sweet, almost sickly, overripe fruit left in the sun just now beginning to fester with maggots. The shaved cap of his skull gleams in the flickering light from the fire, the pale skin of his gaunt face paradoxically smooth and tough, like marble. I start involuntarily. The hearth, now burning merrily, was cold when I first sat down. The man steeples his long fingers before him, his nails pointed and wicked, the dangerous bass of his voice rolling from the tongue behind his sharp white teeth.
“I will be brief, Mr. Marx. My name is Creed. I represent a certain party who, having become aware of your daughter’s plight, desires to offer assistance and has dispatched me here to that end.”
I wait for him to continue, but he falls and remains silent, unmoving.
“That … that’s it?” I ask, flummoxed.
He inclines his head slightly.
“You’ve told me nothing! A disease the best minds and medicine can’t touch and you swoop in and propose to just, just, just … I don’t know what, magic it away?”
“Yes, Mr. Marx.” Creed’s face is deadly serious. “Precisely.”
My head reels, the implications striking me full on. I’d almost started to accept that my time with Rebecca was coming to an inevitable close. If there is something that could be done to change that …
“How do I know?” my voice is almost a whisper, “How can I be sure you’re telling me the truth?”
“You can’t,” Creed acknowledges, “But what other choice do you have?”
I pause. He’s right. There’s nothing I won’t do for my daughter.
I speak almost to myself. “It can’t be that easy, so simple. There has to be something more. Some catch. A payment.”
I turn my gaze to the silent Creed and see the answer in his unnaturally dark eyes. Of course there’s a payment. Of course there’s a catch.
In a flash the man is on his feet, towering over me. He removes his suit jacket and carefully lays it across the chair. His fingers deftly undo the buttons of his shirt which he sheds and places on top of the coat. His torso bare, I see his chest and back are completely covered in fine, etched tattoos that appear to be some kind of ancient writing, their meaning indecipherable to me. He turns.
“I am required to confirm that you accept.”
I pause, wary.
“What is the payment?”
I sense a flash of anger through his dark eyes, quickly smothered.
“Two parts,” he says. “The first, a task. There are no limits but that it be within your capabilities. Any attempt to renege will result in reprisals.”
“And the second?”
His hand moves, a small orb filled with a wispy substance appearing in his palm. As I watch, the vapor writhes and congeals until it forms recognizable shapes. Olivia’s image looks back at me, hair unbound, joy in her smile.
“Love for love. Death for life.”
I hesitate, his meaning clear. Can I sacrifice my wife for my daughter?
The voice in my head winds insinuatingly about my thoughts.
She abandoned her.
My decision takes only a moment.
“Anything” I tell him. “Anything in my power. Just save her.”
The small smile on Creed’s face is sharp as a dagger. He moves to the staircase with long, powerful strides, making his way to the second floor. I cast aside the poker and hurry after him. He stops before my daughter’s closed bedroom door.
“Attend. The rite has driven some mad.”
Creed reaches into his pocket and hands me a small likeness of a woman, carved from white stone.
“Hold this. It will direct you.”
I peer at the exquisitely detailed figure.
“Who is she?”
“The All-Mother. She who will hold your debt.”
His hand pauses on the doorknob.
“Beware what you observe. Your senses lie.”
He pushes open the door and moves inside. I follow behind and step into chaos.
Gone is the familiar space of Rebecca’s room, replaced by the empty void of space, filled only by the twinkling light of distant stars. A narrow path of solid dark stone traverses the abyss, terminating some fifty feet from the doorway at an enormous circular platform suspended by unknown means. Cautious of the infinite drop on either side, I make my way across the bridge. Arriving at the platform I take note of several features. Near the center are two large pillars spaced perhaps a dozen feet apart. Passing between them I see several metal rings have been driven down their length. The side of the platform opposite the path rises in a low dais topped by a large stone altar. Creed walks toward the altar, his voice raised in a low chant, the language unknown to me. His words are echoed and by squinting my eyes against the darkness of the void I can just make out a circle of robed and hooded figures spaced evenly around the circumference of the platform.
Returning my attention to the focal point of the ceremony, I suddenly realize that resting on the altar is Rebecca’s still form. With a cry I rush to the dais and up the steps towards her, only to be stopped as Creed catches my arm in a grip of iron. I fight against his restraining hand.
“Let go of me, you son of a bitch!”
“You must not touch her if you value her life,” he hisses through clenched teeth, “Observe.”
Temporarily ceasing my struggle, I turn back to Rebecca. Focusing, I can barely distinguish the darkness around her has somehow taken on life, convalescing into the shape of an enormous humanoid beast. As I watch, the dark thing lowers its head towards my daughter, its behavior nothing so much as a dog cautiously investigating an unexpected odor. Suddenly, it lunges forward, dark maw open wide, and begins to devour my child. I scream, fighting desperately but in vain, struggling against Creed’s grip. Finally I drop to my knees, sobbing in frustration and horror. I divert my eyes, but am unable to shut out the slurping sounds as the beast savors its meal.
Creed whispers in my ear, “Remain here. Do not interfere.”
He releases my arm and again takes up the chant, continuing the last few feet to the altar, his voice gradually rising. I remain where I am, utterly defeated. Abruptly the dark hymn stops, the empty silence deafening. Looking intently at the creature, Creed shouts a single word, incomprehensible to me. The thing’s head snaps up as if called by a bell, blood red orbs glowing where I would expect its eyes to be. Creed shouts the word again, his voice ringing with unmistakable authority. The creature responds with a low growl, the malice of its intent clear. Unintimidated, Creed shouts the word a third time.
The creature howls in defiance. My hands fly to my ears as the thing’s scream threatens to destroy my hearing. Still, I keep enough of my wits to see the dark thing melt into liquid blackness and rush at Creed. The man throws his arms wide as the thing pours itself into him, gushing through every opening and orifice it can find. It is several long moments before I realize I too am screaming.
Finally, the last of the creature’s inky substance disappears into Creed’s mouth with a wet pop. Standing before the altar, he turns to face over the platform and opens his eyes, now glowing the same red as those of the thing he assimilated.
“Prepare the sacrifice.” Though Creed’s voice is still the same dangerous bass I had come accustomed to, it is somehow different, fuller.
My attention is drawn to the path I had earlier traversed across the abyss where two of the dark robed figures are leading a third, dressed in white. As it is forced along, dragged by the manacles securing its wrists and ankles, the shake of this third figure’s shoulders suggests it is quietly weeping, though the hood pulled over its head prevents me from being able to tell outright. Reaching the pillars the captors deftly feed the prisoner’s chains through the affixed rings, making them tight to pull the captive’s limbs spread-eagle. One pulls a knife from within the folds of its robe and makes several expert cuts, the white garments falling to the platform about the prisoner’s feet, while the other removes the captive’s hood. Collecting the torn scraps of garment, both figures withdraw into the blackness at the edges of the platform. Creed moves down the dais, his steps slow and controlled.
I follow behind him. We stop at the pillars where Olivia is chained, naked and trembling.
“Gr…Graydon? What’s happening?” Her voice is shaking. “Please, who are these people?”
Creed steps forward.
“Your husband made a choice, Mrs. Marx. Your life for your daughter’s. Take heart. It is a sacrifice many parents wish they could make.”
He turns to me, teeth sharp behind his smile, red eyes blazing.
“Time to play your part, Mr. Marx. Love for love.”
It isn’t until now that I realize, through everything that has happened, I still hold the small white figure in my hand that Creed gave to me before going through the door. It seems to gently pulse with a soft warmth, somehow conveying to me what must be done. Though my heart is heavy, I am resolved. Wordlessly, I remove my own clothes, carelessly piling them to the side. Closing my ears to her pleas, I step before my wife and, without passion or malice, enter her one final time. Her begging turns to curses as she tries to fight against me, but her restraints offer no leverage. She tries to bite my neck, but I tightly grip her hair, pulling her head back sharply. She continues to struggle until Creed approaches from behind and forces himself inside her. Olivia’s scream is choked off as he clamps his hand over her mouth. For several minutes the only sounds are our rough, animal grunts accompanying my wife’s sobs.
At last, I feel myself approaching that blissful edge. Intuitively, I know Creed is as well.
Tilting her head, Creed seals his lips to Olivia’s and the darkness he absorbed flows from his mouth down her throat, filling her to burst. With a cry and a final thrust I pour myself into her as Creed does the same. His hand reaches under her left breast, burrowing into her while the wicked nails of his right hand slash a deep line of crimson across her throat. She makes a wet, choking sound, but instead of simple blood flowing from the wound, the same inky darkness that had earlier invaded Creed pours out, entwining about her. I step away as Creed continues to dig in her side, at last pulling free as the darkness fully envelopes her body, her still beating heart held in his hand. It glows with a faint etheric light. The husk that was once my wife collapses upon itself, consumed by the darkness smothering it until nothing remains, the empty manacles falling noisily against the pillars. Creed turns to me. His eyes have returned to their normal unnatural darkness.
Without waiting for me to respond, he strides back toward the dais holding Olivia’s faintly glowing heart. He begins to chant, again accompanied by the surrounding acolytes. After a moment I follow behind. Reaching the altar, he places the heart upon it, its luminescence growing in intensity. As the chant reaches its climax, the heart practically explodes with light before turning fluid and formless, a glorious counterpoint to the inky blackness of the earlier rite. The light gathers and flows, slowly assuming a vaguely human shape before finally solidifying into a familiar countenance. Rebecca. Her body pulses with the aftereffects of the strange energy until the glow gradually subsides and my daughter again lies upon the altar, not moving but unharmed.
Creed turns to me with a small, satisfied smile.
“Death for life. We are finished for now, Mr. Marx. Do not forget the rest of our bargain.”
Without warning, he seizes me by the arm and, turning in a half circle, throws me bodily off the platform into the waiting abyss.
Plunging into utter blackness I flail wildly, the platform soon lost above me. I fall for what seems a very long time. Even the distant stars have disappeared and I am left to my own thoughts as I continue my descent through complete darkness. Abruptly, my eyes catch a tiny pinprick of light far below me, growing ever larger the farther I fall. Soon I am close enough that the darkness has been replaced by intense light, so bright I have to shield my eyes from its blinding intensity.
I wake in my chair, the light of the early morning sun streaming through the study window directly onto my face. My bourbon glass lies spilled at my feet, the fireplace cold. The poker stands next to the hearth where it always does, and I realize I am wearing the clothes I last remember abandoning on the pavilion. For some time I sit and consider the events of the previous evening, realizing that a rational mind would attribute the whole thing to an overactive imagination, stress from dealing with Rebecca’s condition. During my musings my hand absentmindedly wanders to my pocket. My blood runs cold.
I am unsurprised when Rebecca bounds into the study not long after, more alive and energetic than ever since before we had started her treatments. I am even less surprised when I take her to the doctors and they confirm her leukemia is, miraculously, in complete remission. Indeed, the only surprise I receive is a phone call that informs me that Olivia, not found dead as I had anticipated, has been admitted to a nearby psychiatric ward, practically comatose. My wife lives, if only in the strictest medical definition of the term; it is as if her spirit no longer resides in her body. Indeed, I knew the events of that night had occurred, whether in the reality I am accustomed to or within some other, strange existence, as soon as my hand happened upon the small white figure of a woman in my pocket.
Now I am left to wait and wonder. The first half of my fee to that fiend Creed and his mistress involved the literal rape and theft of my wife’s soul. What then when they come for the second? Is there any task so horrible that I will refuse payment? With the promise of retribution, do I dare? As I gaze upon my darling Rebecca playing quietly in the other room, healthy and whole, I realize I already know the answer to those questions.
Of course not. I will do anything for her.
Written by Shadowswimmer77
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