Jackson opened his eyes in a void, with no remark or existing evidence of any location he has ever heard of. Pure black void stretched in every direction like an ocean of nothingness. The simpleness of his mind triggered itself, and thoughts reached back into him.
"Not this desolate void again!" he thought to himself.
Then suddenly, he wasn't alone. Right beside him grew a horrid sight. Pale white skin with vertebrae stretching the very skin of its back. The long nails for claws it bore resembling that of which he'd only seen in horror movies. Black, beady eyes matching the void in which he was floating, with the same morbid shade.
Back legs stretch from it just as well, with the same terrible claws as the front pair. His mind faded again after seeing it, only to recover immediately. This was death? This is what he had been waiting for? The black void of no existence but himself and a twisted figment of his own conception?
The right hand of the creature stretched forward, and his own life flashed before his eyes. Joseph and Natalie, his personal interests, and events that made up every bit of him, revisited. The talons made a small cut on his forehead, and surprisingly, he still bled. He must have seen his life flash before his eyes countless times, but it never seemed any less disturbing.
"Is this the end? Is this death?" he thought.
As if reading his mind, the creature smiles and nods its head.
"Is this creature really God?" His mind asked nearly seconds after seeing the creature's apparent response. The being gave no movement or sign of any response.
"Or is it my Satan?"
The creature looked at him again, but didn't move a single muscle. The shock of the recent arrival filled him with nothing but hatred, surprisingly, and the blood from the cut on his forehead reached the bridge of his nose. The creature seemed fully intent on watching the blood drop, as it dripped clean off his nose.
The blood seemingly went down forever, disappearing out of his eyesight. Jackson went to move, but the creature let off a blood stopping snarl as he made his attempt. A few seconds passed, and a small dose of warm liquid hit his head, shocking him into closing his eyes. Upon opening them, the creature took a swipe directly for his neck.
A cold chill went down his back, and warmth seemed to touch everywhere but his head.
January 2nd, 2014.
Freezing rain and snow blew in the strong winter wind, through the thick of Cook Forest State Park. The trees moved and swayed with the wind; the snow and freezing rain covered their naked branches, as the snow and freezing rain pushed forward. The cold elements started to reflect the light pollution of a small town far south west of Marienville, called Tutelo, as they began to brush up against a white house, seemingly built around the 1950's, retaining a vintage look. The snow and rain were halted, but the chilled wind carried on through the cracks of the window frame.
The chill pushed its way into the bedroom of Jackson Wilkerson, as he pulled the blankets even higher to his ears to stay warm. Each and every night- the same void, the same creature, and the same questions. It was starting to get to him. Keeping his eyes closed, Jackson began to hear a creaking noise from his darkened room- his door.
The creaking sound of walking came into his room. It sounded like too many footsteps to be a normal person. The lights flicked on just as he opened his eyes. It took a few seconds, but his eyes adjusted. There stood Natalie Sutton and Joseph Kaufman, long time friends of Jackson's.
Joseph was wearing blue jeans with a red long sleeve shirt, with a promotional poster for the movie Them printed on the front. Joseph had short, wavy brown hair, he had just breached six feet tall. He was one of the tallest in his entire grade, at only fifteen years old. Born on the 5th of November, he was the youngest of the group, with Natalie's birthday being just two days before his.
Natalie was shorter. With long blonde hair laying over her shoulders, she was dressed in grey sweat pants, and a yellow, slightly bulky coat. She was just about five feet and four inches, and was also fifteen years old.
Unlike the pair, Jackson had short black hair that was usually slicked back. He had more of an odd sense of style, and was only a few inches below six feet tall, at five feet and eight inches. He was born a year before Joseph and Natalie, in 1997. He was 16, but still within their grade. Unlike Natalie and Joseph, his birthday was July 17th, as opposed to a date in November.
"Wake up, lazy bastard. Just because school's canceled doesn't mean you get to sleep all day," said Joseph, stepping closer to Jackson's bed.
"You two would not believe the dream I just had," he said, still laying down with his eyes fully peeled.
"Did any of us die in it?" Natalie joked with a laugh, still standing beside the door.
With a comical sigh, he stood up slowly from his bed, stretching his back. He was almost fully clothed and only missing his shirt. Joseph tossed him a white short sleeve shirt he had laying on the computer desk beside the door. He caught it, putting it on right away.
"I should probably catch a shower, maybe grab some things before we go anywhere."
Natalie cocked her head backwards and let out a sigh.
"As if not showering ever stopped you before," she joked. "Come on, Joseph and I waited for like, 15 minutes outside of your house before we even got tired and came in. Can we please just go? No one is going to judge you!" she said, laughing lightly when she was done.
Jackson stared forward for a second, obviously thinking something over. A smile stretched over on one side of his face, as he forward and grabbing his black hoodie that he had hanging on his door, and putting it on.
"Fine. Let's go, then," he responded, even more annoyed.
Right outside of Jackson's room, the stairway to the bottom floor was visible, just to the right. The trio walked down the stairs together, Natalie in the front. They were halfway down when she started conversation.
"So, I was watching this documentary last night, and it was talking about how people have a built-in recognition for a god. It has me thinking, you know?" Natalie said, out of the blue.
"Well, maybe it's just our minds not capable of understanding the universe, or us wanting to believe that we aren't the greatest thing out here. Think about how big space is, Natalie. Think about how much time has passed, too. It's safe to say almost everything possible, has, will, and is happening out there. Maybe we're the deity to something else? Some day, that is," Joseph added. It was clear he had thought of this in-depth before.
Jackson laughed at the two. "Getting all philosophical already? A bit to early for that, guys... I chose the strangest friends."
"Yeah. YOUchose US. Alright." Natalie remarked sarcastically.
They made their way through the dining room, to the living room. A fairly traditional setup. A television against the wall, couch at the other facing it, and a doorless opening leading to the kitchen. The entire house had this traditional setup, and Jackson was sick of seeing it every morning for what felt like forever. Natalie was already opening the front door.
As the door opened, it allowed a small gust of freezing wind to brush against them. Joseph's body let off a bit of a shiver, which he exaggerated with a burrrr. Stepping on to the pourch, Jackson was the last one out, closing the door behind him.. A small metallic cling ticked under Joseph's shoes, drawing his attention downward.
A shimmer of light reflected off whatever he was looking at. Bending down, he picked it up. A seemingly bronze, flat object sat in his hand, roughly the size of his palm without the fingers. He studied it, while Natalie and Jackson stood beside him. It looked like an emotionless face with something coming out of the right eye. The mouth almost appeared to be cut out, jagged and twisted. Other than that, the object was detailess.
"It kinda looks like a face, right?" Natalie asked, confused.
Joseph responded, copying her tone. "I don't know, but I didn't see anyone throw it... did you?"
Jackson came and grabbed the object out of Joseph's hands and tossed it as far forward he could, down the long road.
"It's just litter someone tossed from their car. It happens here. Call it an art school project or some bored kid with some scrap metal." he said unamused.
"Strangest piece of litter I've ever seen," corrected Joseph.
"You'd be surprised at what people make with almost nothing. It pays to be creative, yeah?"
Joseph smirked at Jackson's surprisingly hostile responses.
"So, are we going to Natalie's place or mine, douchebag?"
"Natalie's house. It's less of a walk," added Jackson with a smirk.
The trio stepped off the porch, and began to walk down the sidewalk next to the only main road in sight. Tutelo was a pretty average town- at least for that connects into a national park. Approximately 7,000 citizens, all of which very productive, but that didn't always fill the streets. It wasn't the largest town, and it didn't connect into another for a few miles, but it was home. The walk was mostly silent, with Jackson took the lead and was occasionally stretching, while Joseph and Natalie talking about another one of their friends, Richard Polley, behind his back comically.
They took a left to the dirt and cobblestone path that acted as a shortcut into and out of Cook Forest to Natalie's house. This path was commonly used, especially by bikers, as it lead right to where the other side of town curved into. The cobblestone peaking out of the packed dirt clicked with each of their feet stepping against it.
"This walkway's always so serene. I feel like it's only place to really get away from it all, you know?" Jackson said openly. He tilted his head back, and of course neither one of them heard it. To busy talking away their life, he guessed.
Amidst their laughing and joking, a light clink sounded beside their feet. A ringing, metallic sound clicked beside Joseph's shoes. Looking down, there it was again. The bronze face, mocking him.
"Jackson, what the hell?" He yelled, annoyed.
Jackson spun around, fist clenched to relieve anger, or at least that's what Joseph thought of it.
"What the fuck are you blaming me for now, Joseph?"
Joseph bent down and grabbed an object as his feet, holding it up over his head.
"Look what found its way back to us. Why would you keep it? Thought it was just stupid litter?"
Jackson seemed even more angry, but deep within his eyes, there was some shock.
"I'm in front of you, genius, you would have seen me throw it backwards, you retar-"
He cut his sentence off halfway through the incoming insult.
"Jackson? Hello?" Natalie questioned, turning to see what he was looking at that was apparently so important.
She didn't notice anything at first, until Joseph opened his mouth.
"The sun is setting? We left no longer than 15 minutes ago!"
Joseph and Natalie had the same idea at once, and pulled their phones out to check the time. Joseph threw the small bronze face deep into the trees at his side.
"7 pm exactly," said Joseph, with a traumatized tone.
Still looking at her phone and not knowing how to respond, Natalie looked around confused. "There is no possible way, guys!"
They stood there thinking about the last 15 minutes, or 7 hours according to the rest of the world, until the silence was broken by the sound of snapping twigs. Joseph twitched his head to the sound, feeling extremely uneasy.
"We need to turn around, now," Jackson said, certainly applying more pressure to the situation.
Without so much as waiting for a response, Jackson started walking back where they came from, waving Natalie and Joseph to follow him. They both followed close behind him. Natalie acted as the voice of reason, when it had been gone.
"It's possible our clocks were wrong when we woke up Jackson? That he slept it, and the sun was actually beginning to set and we, for some reason, thought it was right above us? We can go back to the main road and continue our way to my house, and I'll have you both just stay the night or something."
Joseph answered to Natalie, with a very direct and critical tone.
"That's all extremely unlikely as well. Look, it's all just a coincidence of some sort, but it doesn't change the fact that it makes us uncomfortable as hell."
The sound of wood being struck with metal echoed through the air, coming from the woods. The twigs snapping that followed filled their minds with paranoia and suspense. Lightly, sticks snapping taunted them from the trees, before it came to a sudden stop.
Natalie was the first to sight the strange man standing just beyond the trees of the forest.. He wore blue jeans with a black hoodie, and a silver mask. It looked almost like a hockey mask in a way, but with prison cell-like bars covering the mouth and eyes. The silver was reflecting the setting sun's light, putting off an orange hue.
The man said nothing, and remained perfectly still. Jackson and Joseph both saw him at this point, and Joseph slowly started to back away, step by step. Jackson stood his ground, and even curled his fists at his sides. He was also the only one to talk in the silence.
"What the fuck's your issue? Just like standing around and watching people?"
The man, not giving him any direct response, raised his right hand and threw something into the sky, which all three raised their heads to look at. When the object started to come down, they traced it with their eyes. The man was gone. No sound, no time. He was simple gone. The object hit right where he was standing.
Jackson was the first to walk forward, the other two only moving behind him. Observing the spot, he sighted the same bronze face item as two times before, sitting on top of a wood board with chains connecting the front of it to the dirt. He picked it up, admiring the design at eye level. It fit perfectly in his palm, and the haunting expression seemed to look right through him. The other two approached him cautiously, with Natalie looking around for any sign of the masked man.
"It was at my house, it was on the trail," he said, staring intently at the object. "Joseph, keep it. Just put it in your pocket."
He put his hand out, Joseph grabbing it and inspecting it.
"Why me? Why not you?"
"It was thrown at your feet, wasn't it?"
The two looked at each other for a moment, sitting just on the line of confusion and animosity, before he put it in his pocket. The next item of attention- the wooden board.
"Help me open it?," Joseph said sourly.
A little spark went off in Jackson's eye. Whether it be from simple curiosity or adventure as well, he was more than happy to slip his fingers under the wood, followed by Joseph's on the opposite side, and the two began to lift. The door was obviously waited, taking a great sum of strength to even raise.
Instead of moving directly upwards, it tilted back with their lifting, and was accompanied by the sound of rattling metal. Natalie was more than uncomfortable with the idea, but there was no way in hell she was walking home alone after everything that just happened.
"I see chains connecting the board to the wall towards me... whatever's down there is also made completely of cement or stone," Natalie said, trying her best to see what was below.
"So, a trap door?" questioned Jackson.
"Yeah, but it's too dark to make anything out clearly," she added.
Joseph had the answers he wanted, and so he was ready to let go of the door. Jackson, whom was still attempting to hold it, began a countdown from three. At three, their hands left the wood, and it shot down to the ground. The echo was eerily similar to what they had heard earlier.
Natalie recoiled a bit at the idea. Was what they heard earlier the man coming out of this door? Perhaps he was putting something inside of it? Or maybe that's how he disappeared so fast? If so, then why didn't they at least hear it when they all looked away?
Without warning, a loud screech filled, coming from the trees on the other side of the dirt road. The screech was so bestial, so high pitched, and so excruciatingly painful, it forced them all to cover their ears, Joseph letting out a pained scream. Jackson's vision went blurry as he bent over, but he could still clearly make out blood leaking from his nose, dripping unto the ground.
Natalie was covering her eyes at this point, as they feel as if they were about to burst from their sockets. When Joseph looked over at Jackson to see how the others were doing, he saw the man once more, standing behind them. This time, the masked man was holding a steel pole, roughly four feet long, with one side sharpened like a makeshift spear.
Jackson spun around when he saw Joseph frantically fall to the ground in shock, only to be struck at the side of the head with the non-sharpened side of the pole. He fell to the ground unconscious, blood slowly coming from the side of his head.
Given no time to react, he used the momentum of his previous swing to raise the blunt side above his head, striking Natalie unconscious with a diagonal swing across the face. Approaching Joseph, he waited for a second, letting him get off of his ass and stand. When the two were eye-to-eye, Joseph had no clue what to do. He couldn't even move his lips to ask what the man was doing. Fear ran through him more than his own blood.
The masked man slowly raised his pole, tapping Joseph in the side of the head with it lightly. The uncanny stench of dead meat and copper that stemmed from the man was as repulsive as it was intimidating, and almost as confusing as the fact the man was wearing the same attire as Jackson, just aged more. Has the man drew the pole to the right with both hands, Joseph also noticed the similar height, build- nothing. A state of un-being.
In a flash, the pole collided with the side of his head, knocking him out.
Joseph opened his eyes- revealing only a swirling blur as he forced himself on his feet. All he could hear was a constant ringing in both ears as he forced himself on the wall behind him. The air was humid and thick, and the stone was even colder.
A possible concision was the least of his worries, however. As his vision returned, he could see his surroundings. They were at the end of a hallway, kept alight only by the light of Natalie's phone, and many oil lamps dotting the hallway's ceiling. Above him, the trap door, chains connecting it to the wall in front of it, to prevent it from opening. That, and the fact it was nine feet above him.
"He's up, Jackson," Natalie said, as the ringing came to fade away, and then stop.
Joseph's eyes wandered to the voice, where he saw Natalie and Jackson both sitting on the ground, Jackson holding the side of his head with both hands, and Natalie frustratingly attempting to get a signal. Before them was a single hallway, with four wooden doors at the end- two on each side.
"That's just fucking great!" Joseph exclaimed, kicking the wall in anger and disbelief.
Natalie gave up her attempts to receive a signal, turning her phone off to conserve power.
"We could check the rooms down the hall... maybe find something we can drag over here to stand on and open that trap door enough to slide out... best fucking option we have," Jackson said, with the distinct tone of melancholy in his voice.
Natalie simply put her finger over her mouth and turned off the light of her phone.
Jackson stood up, Natalie with him, gaining his balance as the world seemed dazed for a brief moment. He waved the others to follow him as he walked forward to the first door on the right, an estimated forty feet away. They followed behind, Joseph gripping Natalie's hand to keep them both calm.
Jackson reached the door a few moments before them. It was rotted to the point it could hardly perform its task of being a door. A large hole allowed him to view into the room when Natalie, and Joseph in hand, reached him, taking out her phone once more to provide light into the hole.
The room was an absolute mess. There was an old, torn up green couch with something wooden peaking up from the top, a table rotten beyond use, split pipes on the walls, and empty pill bottles were littered all over the room.
"A hideout for drug addicts?" Joseph questioned.
All three grew silent, as they heard Joseph's voice echo through the pipes, and slowly fade away.
"That screech we heard... imagine if it was through a pipe like this. An attempt to get us to run away- or come down here. When we didn't that guy just showed up," Natalie said, her mind running wild with ideas.
Both Joseph and Jackson stayed silent for a moment, before Jackson turned his attention to the door directly across from this one.
"We'll gain no more by making theories, than we would actual progress", he said, as he began walking to it.
This door was far better at its job than the other, as it wasn't rotted beyond belief. Opening the door, the raw look of disgust formed on his face. Natalie and Joseph behind him, they peaked over his shoulder to see what the big deal was. Natalie let out a scream of terror, whilst Joseph choked back his puke.
In the middle of the room was a rotten body, nearly a skeleton due to flesh decay. Wearing jeans and black hoodie with their color almost entirely gone away long ago, except for small patches. A silver mask laid on its face, bars over the eyes and mouth, covering the face of the corpse.
A mind-shredding screech filled the concrete halls, as if they were being scream back at. Jackson's nose started to bleed once more like a running faucet. Grabbing on to Jackson's shoulder, Joseph pulled everyone into the room, releasing his grip on all of them. Natalie slammed the door closed behind them, as they could hear what sounded like metal against stone, and a pair of growing footsteps.
The room was kept lit with one single oil lamp hanging in the center, right above the corpse. An old metal locker, which was rusted to all hell, was to the right of the entrance, and a bed was to the left. Jackson and Joseph instinctively ran to the bed, jumping over the corpse. They were hardly able to both fit, but they made it work- legs bunched up against the wall.
Natalie ran for the locker, closing the rusted door in front of her. Snapping rust was not the most comfortable thing to hear at this time. The shutters allowed her to look around the room, including its entrance. Joseph and Jackson watched on from under the bed. The footsteps were close now. There were too many for it to simply be one person.
When the door slowly creaked open, she had to fight back the bowel-hitting urge to scream by biting down on her own finger. The smell of mixed rotten meats and utter filth filled the room as an unknown being crawled into the room on all fours.
Only the pale hands were visible at first. Long claws that she estimated to be around a 5 inches long extended from five frail and skinny fingers. As it slowly crept forward, it was apparent these claws were making the awful scraping sound against the stone. When the hairless, sickly head came into view, all she could see on its face where black, beady eyes, and a slot nose that plagued what should have been a face. The mouth was filled with teeth so out of place and jagged, some of them prodded out of the closed mouth.
She closed her eyes extremely hard to fight the noises so desperately wanting to leave her mouth, opening them a few seconds later. At this point, the creature was almost done entering the room. Its back legs were exactly like the front arms, but with two joints, like a canine. The pale-white skin was peeling away and covered brown spots, as if it was suffering by every skin disease imaginable. It looked malnourished, completed with a near-skeleton like build. The skin seemed too tight, even on the tail, which ended with a six inch, thin barb at the end.
Having completed its entrance, the creature stood just before the corpse in the center, motionless. The stomach didn't move to indicate breathing, its eyes didn't blink- it simply stood as if it was a statue. No one had any choice but to look on in horror.
Then, without any indication or warning, the creature twitched its head towards the locker. The white horror slowly stretched its right arm outwards, pulling the rest of its body behind it. The nails clashed with the floor, echoing through the room like a blade on a chalkboard. Each scrape caused all three to squint their eyes, as Joseph but down on his bottom lip as hard as he could without puncturing it.
Natalie had no room to move, watching this ghastly wretch make its way to her. The shutters of the locker broke up the view of the creature creeping towards her a little bit, but the foul body of this twisted demon couldn't be countered with a solid wall, let alone a shuttered viewing area. Closing her eyes once more in an attempt to choke back coming tears of fear and to keep as much of her sanity as she could in her rusted coffin, she opened them only to see the black eyes, lacking anything but darkness, looking right through the shutters at her own eyes.
A string of vicious drilling pains stung in Natalie's right forearm when she looked into the barren wastes of soulless oblivion. Unable to properly lift her arm, she was forced to look down to see what was happening. Worms. A mass of swirling worms, no less than twenty in number and four inches in length, twirled and spun around her forearm, burrowing and feasting their way into her young and tender flesh.
She began brushing and brushing her arm in a fit of phobia-induced panic, but the worms just wouldn't fall. They wouldn't stop their hellish feast on her. She could feel them ripping their way into her, mixing and competing with her veins for space. Her fingers began to move around involuntarily. She grabbed her arm and tried her best to stop it, which in turn caused her to knock into the door, causing it to open just before the creature.
Joseph could feel Jackson start to move around in his spot as Natalie saw the ghoul start to rise. It was beginning to stand on its two, shaking feet. When it was standing upright, it was mere inches in front of her face. She stopped worrying about the worms, as her eyes began to water. The being moved its mouth to mimic her face as she choked back tears, and then suddenly switching to a dream-slaughtering smile.
Jackson, in a startling pulse of either courage or stupidity, crawled out from under the bed and ran to the being from behind, delivering a punch to the side of its head. The creature hit the ground and let out a shriek of raw and uncontrolled anger. Jackson jumped in place whilst it yelled in fury as if he was hyping himself up, before turning and running out of the room.
The fiend returned to its four legs and looked back at Natalie, but seemed to have already made up its mind on its prey. It sprinted after Jackson, the door slamming behind it by itself. In the distance, once the footsteps disappeared, they could hear Jackson's distant voice yelling just about every profanity imaginable, before fading away into silence. Joseph crawled out from under the bed, and approached Natalie carefully. He made sure not to step on the corpse.
"He... he did that for me... for-" Natalie tried to say, lifting her hand and looking at her forearm.
Nothing. No worms, no holes, no wounds- not even a scratch. Joseph grabbed her shoulders lightly, pulling her close. He was cautious, and even in shock himself.
"Jackson's going to be fine, Natalie. He's always fine..." he tried to assure her. "He wanted you to be safe. Don't worry about him, Nat. He's always been a quick thinking. He can defend himself and run forever. We'll find him and get out of here... I promise you."
He pulled her in for a quick hug, but that quick embrace became greatly prolonged when they realized just how much they needed the comfort. Everything they had seen so far had taken a toll on them. They needed to support each other if they wanted to get out alive. Or if they wanted to stay sane.
Visions into the Great Beyond
They stayed in their embrace until Natalie's breathing and heart rate both returned to a somewhat normal pace, and both of their heartbeats settled. Other than their breathing, the entire facility seemed to be silent. There were no footsteps or a taunting Jackson on the other side of the door.
"He'll be fine," Joseph whispered once more in her ear, before pulling out of the hug.
When she pulled back, both fright and dread were gone from her face, instead leaving a blank and otherwise overthinking expression. She was thinking of ways to get out and leave without being detected, hopefully saving Jackson in the process, which he noticed when she repeatedly locked on to the door with her eyes before snapping back to him.
He nodded his head up and down lightly, not saying a word, before shifting his attention to the door. Making sure not to walk flat-footed, he made his way over to it and pressed his ear against it. Nothing. No sound at all. With one large breath, he put put his hand on the doorknob and began to turn it to the side, slow and quietly.
When he pulled the door open just a bit, it flung open with great force, as the sound and force of tree-tipping wind pushed his way. His cloths blew behind him like he was in front of a tornado, yet he stood still as he looked on past the door. Natalie, on the other hand, got behind the locker and covered her ears, and after that nothing else, as she seemed to freeze perfectly in place as if time around her had come to a halt.
In front of him was an open, circular field of dark purple and black flowers- with a thick forest surrounding it. The trees and flowers all swung wildly and chaotically in seemingly random directions, even though the wind only pushed towards Joseph, standing in the doorway. Why, the sky was a swirling vortex of many shades of purples and blues, complete with an eye in the center where nothing but bright red shined through.
He watched as a large mass of what looked like black smoke shot down from the red center of the sky's vortex, crashing down to Earth, or wherever he was. Now, he was literally unable to move. His fear wasn't the only thing prohibiting his movement. He simply could not move no matter how much he tried.
When the smoke hit the dead center of the field, it clouded up the area in a thick haze before clearing completely, revealing the creature he had just seem moments before inside of the facility. There wasn't enough time to process the situation before it turned into a much smaller amount of the black smoke, which moved right in front of him before manifesting back into the horrible creature.
He could feel the bronze icon in his pocket begin to resonate with just enough heat to discomfort him. His arm took on a mind of its own as it reached into his pocket and pulled out the icon, to which the fiend responded with a smile. He watched in shock and awe as his arm extended itself out of the doorway and into the strange beyond.
The being erected itself momentarily as it reached forward and curled its fingers around the top half of the icon not in Joseph's grip. Joseph's arm let go and pulled itself back to his side. In that moment, he could hear the devil spoke. Its mouth didn't move, but its voice echoed in his head as they shared their gaze.
"This is Panthalassa, child. In terms you might understand, it's an alternate version of your Earth, given structure by the will of those that hold the mantle of humanity alone. You have been here longer than just these passing minutes."
The voice was eerily calm, organized, and if he wasn't completely aware that it was harboring negative intentions, he would have even thought it was loving. It was deep and flowed like water. He couldn't think on what he had been told, no, instead he was busy thinking of what this demon- this Tormentor, would do to him. Yes, that was the name he'd give it. The Tormentor.
"How l-long have I been here?" Joseph asked, hoping to get at least one answer he could understand.
The Tormentor's closed mouth became a grin as a rectangular portal ripped into the air beside it. On the other side, Joseph could very clearly make out Jackson's porch. The door was just closing, as the Tormentor threw the icon threw the portal, landing just outside Jackson's door. Exactly where it was when they found it.
The sky shifted a few shades darker for just a few seconds outside of Jackson's house, then returning to normal. The portal closed just as fast as it opened.
"Since this exact moment"
Joseph didn't know what to think of what he had just witnessed. A few levels above human comprehension, perhaps. Or, perhaps, he was simply overthinking it. Overthinking, under-thinking, the contrast between possibilities was simply chaotic.
The mask tore off of the corpse in the room and flew just past Joseph, landing in the field beyond the door. Upon looking back at where the mask had fallen, he extended his arm forward once more, which, without making any contact with Joseph, pushed him to the ground. The door to the alternate world slammed itself shut, before it slowly began to creak open once more.
Joseph forced himself on his hands and knees, and then slouched standing with his hands on his knees, in case he had to protect himself against something on the other side. That's when he noticed the best worst news of his life.
On the other side, there was no "Panthalassa". There was only the rest of the facility.
Majesty Elected from Within the Pit
Natalie peaked over from behind the locker to Joseph. She had not heard the discussion he had just had, nor had she seen any of the events that had taken part in that brief moment of time. In fact, it was as if that entire period was gone from her mind. She had simply heard the fierce winds start and finish, with nothing inbetween.
She saw Joseph with his hands on his knees, breathing heavily. She got out from behind the locker and stepped over the corpse- noting that the mask was now gone. The face was decayed and sat like wet leather, but the mouth remained in a final smile, ear to ear. When she had approached Joseph, she laid a hand on his back.
He couldn't know if she had seen or heard everything he did, but he stood up straight and took her in for a hug one more time, this time pulling away after just a few seconds. They stood their for a moment, Joseph's hands on her shoulders, looking each other in the eyes as if asking for conformation that the other was alright with opening the door.
Neither of them objectified. Neither exactly volunteered, but they certainly didn't objectify. They walked a few steps over to the door, Joseph in front, where he put his hand on the knob. Looking back at her and taking in a deep breath, he ripped the door to himself as fast as he could. No fierce wind, no "Panthalassa", no Tormentor. Just a wall in front, and two more to each side. What was once an exit was now an entrance to what looked like a closet. An empty space. At least, it seemed to be before the ceiling in the empty space began to lift, revealing itself as another trap door hanging overhead.
A brilliant light came down from beyond the trap door, but when their eyes adjusted, they saw the clear image of the mask that was once on the corpse- and the man that attacked them, looking down. Behind the man was just another hanging light and more stone. The trap door hit the floor above them when it was completely open, and the man bent over and extended his arm down, offering to lift them up. Natalie looked behind in disbelief. Yes, the corpse was still there, though still without its mask. The masked man was silent and completely untrustworthy, but this was quite literally the only way out.
Cautiously raising his hand, Joseph grabbed the hand of the man. He felt the man's hand curl around his own, before he covered that hand with his other. He began being pulled up, feet against the wall to make the load easier. Before long, he was at the top, where the man backed up to pull him over the ledge. Once Joseph was over, the man let go.
Joseph stood up and looking the man up and down, not saying a word. Both stood silently, eye to eye, just looking. He could see a sharpened metal pole on the ground against the wall- the same they were assaulted with earlier. The man mad no attempt to reach for it. Instead, he walked back to the trap door and leaned down, offering his hand to Natalie. She was just as cautious before she grabbed it, waiting until she could once again see Joseph standing above her.
Once Natalie had crested the top, the man pushed his shoe under the trap door, flipping it up and closed, slamming and sending an echo throughout the facility. The masked man put his hands to his face, sliding his fingers underneath the mask, pushing it up into his hair. Before both Joseph and Natalie, the face of Jackson Wilkerson sat behind the mask.
"Jackson?!" Natalie yelped, in a burst of shock.
"In the flesh," he answered. "It's a good thing I found you two when I did, before it all changed again."
"Before it changed?"
"I'm sure you've noticed this place changes within the blink of an eye. Stairways going up but yet never breaching the surface, doors not leading back to the same rooms, entire hallways appearing where they don't belong- that sort of thing."
"How did you manage to get away from that thing?" Joseph cut in.
"I ran like a motherfucker. Any turn I found, I took. When I realized that they didn't loop back to where they should have, I grabbed the sharpest fucking thing I could find in case I ran into it. Found it poking out of a pile of scrap metal in a trashed room. One of the two we didn't get to check at the start. As for the mask, found in the same room. Looks a lot like a rundown workshop. The bastard that attacked us was already wearing the same cloths, I figured I might as well confuse him if he's going to try to kill me."
"You found your way back to the d-doors from earlier? That means you were right beside the e-entrance, right?" Natalie asked. She stumbled over her words in excitement at the idea of an escape.
"Yeah, which is why I'm happy I found you when I did. If the place changes again, it means we have to restart."
Jackson pulled the mask back down on his face, before bending down and grabbing the weaponized pole. Without anything more than a hand signal, he began to walk down the hallway behind them, their only option. Though it was littered with branching hallways on both sides, he simply kept walking past them. They all made sure not to walk flat footed. It'd be suicide to create too much noise in this place.
Eventually, he took a sharp right, splitting off into one of the cast-off hallways. This hallway was kept far brighter than the rest, with many more light sources hanging from above. This hallway was not very long, only a couple of meters maximum. At the end was a large metal door, crudely painted red, rust piercing through the rushed coating. To the right of that door, was a small staircase leading upwards.
"Are we going through the door?" Joseph asked when they reached the end.
"I can full-heartedly recommend never opening any door of that sort in this building." Jackson said, looked back over his shoulder.
Instead, Jackson began working his way up the stairs, Natalie behind him, and behind her- Joseph. Only ten stairs were counted, and yet again, it led to another hallway. A dimly lit hallway with a single steel door, hanging wide open. It appeared to have a large lever locking mechanism that would close it from the inside, but details were hard to make out from this distance.
All three began walking forward, before they heard the distinct sound of a heavy metal door scraping against the floor from behind them. Joseph turned only to see the bottom of the red door (the only part visible due to the ceiling above the staircase) opening, and still opening even further. Jackson pushed Natalie into a full sprint for the door at the end of the hallway, following her at a matching speed. Joseph started running behind the both of them.
They could hear the claws of the Tormentor beginning to give chase to them, working its way up the stairs. If it wasn't adrenaline fueling their run, it was unfiltered fear. None of them looked behind them, but they could hear the large claws tapping against the floor behind them, heavy footsteps followed only by the taps themselves.
Natalie ran through the doorway, with Jackson just behind her. He spun around to see Joseph sprinting towards him, the Tormentor behind him. There was some distance between them, but not enough that the Tormentor couldn't close it quickly. Jackson threw his pole to the floor beneath him, and when Joseph reached the door, he grabbed him by both the shirt and head, pushing him out several.
Despite Natalie's pleas to let him in, Jackson pulled the door closed, its weight requiring a pretty large amount of strength to close. As a final step in safety, he pulled the lever on the inside of the door downward, sliding a large metal bar into the wall beside the door, locking it in place.
Natalie made an attempt to run for the door in a moment of bad judgement, to which Jackson shoved her back. She fell unto a steel surgical table in the center of the room, holding her face with both hands. Jackson walked over to the only object of interest in the room, besides the single light hanging above it, and a wooden door rotted beyond service in the corner. He bent over and picked the iron pole back up, twitching his focus back onto her.
Joseph looked as the door closed in front of him. He heard the latch flip closed on the other side, and knew with that, there was no way he was opening it. He slowly turned around to see the petite pale figure of the Tormentor slowly approaching, no longer running. As it walked towards him, tail dragging on the ground behind it, he backed up at the same pace. In just a moment he felt the steel of the door smack against his back. Nowhere to run.
He watched the Tormentor grow closer, knowing any attempt to strike it from this position would likely end in mutilation. Once it reached him, he saw it begin standing upright once more. As it moved, it seemed to sound as if the very muscles within it were snapping and straining themselves in the process, until it was in a hunched, almost human-like stance. Its movement was rugged at best, twitching its way up to almost eye level, where he could feel its hot, rancid breath against his neck.
He saw it begin to lift its arm to his face. He wanted to look away- the urge was incredibly strong, but any uncalled movement could mean death. Instead, he watched on, closing his eyes slowly and softly, as the claw reached over his eyes and onto his forehead. With a quick and immediate pain, he felt a shallow cut embrace his skin before manipulating and tearing it. He could feel the blood bunch up and drip out of it, but when it left the wound and hit the floor, he heard the voices of many young women's soft, caring voices, and many men's deep, aggressive voices.
Once it dripped off of his forehead, he heard a terrible voice form right beside his ear. In what seemed like two voices, one with such a pitch it hurt to hear, and the other so deep it rivaled wild bears, the Tormentor seemed to quietly whisper right into his ear.
"Eli Baltuti ImaIdu Mituti. Should he fail, you shall live. If he succeeds, you shall join me in death."
With these words he collapsed onto the floor, where nothing remained.
Natalie looked at Jackson in complete disbelief at what he had done. Though his mask blocked his face, she didn't feel he was sorry. The way he looked at her holding the pole, the way he stood still and simply looked at her, it was all very discomforting.
"It was one or three. I'm sure you understand," Jackson said, completely emotionless.
His monotonous voice sent chills through her body. She took a quick glance around. There was no obvious exit except for that single wooden door. Jackson saw her look over at the door, and more importantly, her terrified and panicked state. Slowly and carefully he bent down and laid the pole on the ground.
"You're confused and uncomfortable with a choice that had to be made... I get that, I really do," he said, raising himself back up. "Joseph's a good guy, but he would have done the same. Hell, with any luck, he'll be fine and we'll find him on our way out! Wouldn't you call him resourceful?"
He began slowly approaching her, and she truly didn't know how to act. He laid his hands on her shoulders, causing her to jolt in her spot, but his grasp was soft. It was comforting, in some way. His eyes showed through the mask's barred eye-holes, and for a moment they showed some sort of kindness.
Within an instant, his hands both slid up from her shoulders and onto her neck, applying a great sum of pressure and closing her airway. She grabbed his wrists and began tried her hardest to pull his hands away, but it was futile. His grip was too strong, his eyes too evil, and his mouth offered a smirk to top it all off from behind the mouth's covering bars.
He pushed her back, where her pelvis hit the edge of the surgical table, and pushed her backwards onto it. He never loosened his grip, even as her eyes began to feel as if they were going to burst outwards from the pressure building up behind them. The skin on her face was beginning to take on new colors, burning the entire time.
"Sometimes life forces you to take a path you were meant to take, but wouldn't have on your own," Jackson said softly, almost like a parent putting his child to rest. "...Do you believe in pre-selected paths? Destiny?"
Her tongue felt like fire in her own mouth, dancing behind her locked teeth. She felt one of Jackson's hands lift off of her throat, and the other seemed to purposefully unblock the airway for just a moment, allowing for her to take a deep breath before it was blocked again.
"I want to see every little muscle in your face twitch and tense up as I feed my sadism with you-I'll show you what has been selected for you."
She felt his hand begin to drift downwards, resting on her stomach. Her abdomen tensed up at his cold touch, to which he responded by pressing down as hard as he could, pushing the precious air- and by extension, her time to fight, back out of her system. Even within her thrashing, she could see the smile behind his mask as he caused her pain. The pleasure he seemed to get from just the smallest amount of pain he caused as as pure as corruption could be.
His hand rubbed its way downwards again, this time sliding into her pants. She felt his hand sit over her womanhood. In a moment of trauma she managed to get her head a few inches off of the table, before being slammed back down by the neck with one hand. She felt his fingers slide into her womanhood, no matter how much her attempted screams and trashing legs attempted to protest.
She, in what she knew would be her last clear chance, pulled her leg back as far as possible, and kicked him in the throat. His hand left her neck- and the other exited her, instead opting to cover his own. In her small window of time, she rolled off of the table, almost passing out from the first giant breath of oxygen. She forced herself to quickly stand and limp her way to the door, flipping the locking mechanism.
Jackson had removed his hands from his throat, but she wouldn't simply let him get ahold of her again. Picking up the pole he had dropped, she pointed it at him. He kept his composure and walked towards her leisurely.
"S-stop, or I'll-"
"Or you'll what? Kill me and continue to live your life knowing what you two saw really exists out there, and that it'll always be hunting you?" He cut in, so sure of himself and what he supposedly knew.
"Please! Why are you doing this, Jackson?! We were best friends!"
"You were friends with a character- a false personality. You never knew a fucking thing about my personal life or who I really was."
She could not, and would not, give him another chance to strike. She saw the pole was lined up, and she took the opportunity. Lunging it forward, it was met with great resistance, and then none- piercing right into Jackson's shoulder before she let go of it. His mouth began to twitch between a smile and a threatening show of teeth, but his eyes remained static. Completely unmoved by the pole as he fell to one knee, grasping the pole with both hands.
Behind her, she heard the door began to open, pulling aware from the room. On the other side was none of than Joseph himself, standing, yet leaning on the door for support. She turned and saw his eyes widen upon seeing the impaled Jackson, but more importantly, he saw a petrified and crying Natalie that had just impaled him. He could piece together a bit of what had happened, especially when taking in what the Tormentor had put in his head moments before.
"He was g-going to ra-," She couldn't force the rest out. Not so soon after the attempt. "He tried to kill me, Joseph! For the love of god believe me!"
"You'll explain the rest to me once we get out of here," Joseph said, extending his hand for Natalie while starring at Jackson to monitor his movement.
She took a hold of his hand, and he pulled her up and beside him. He watched as Jackson let out a pained shout as the point of the pole exited his shoulder, though he didn't expect him to immediately begin standing, holding the pole with both arms. Joseph pushed Natalie a few steps behind and met eyes with the manipulator.
Jackson took a rugged step forward and swung the pole at Joseph, cutting lightly through his shirt and into his arm, hitting the door afterwards. Joseph took his opportunity to take a hold of the pole and pin it against the door. He pulled on the weapon hoping to free it from Jackson's grasp, but watched as Jackson simply held on with one hand, not fighting back, yet not losing his grip on the weapon.
Jackson bent his head to the side like a confused puppy before just letting go of the pole, almost sending Joseph on his ass. Joseph stepped into the room and swung the pole away from the door, but to no avail. Jackson ducked under it as the razor sharp edge crossed over him, coming back up with a punch to Joseph's face. Another punch was sent into Joseph's ribs before he swung the pole back again, with Jackson yet again ducking under it, this time with added laughter.
Jackson hit him in the stomach when he came back up, forcing him to bend over the pushing fist. When the first retracted he bent over in pain, but a moment of opportunity exposed itself. He slid his hands halfway up the length of the pole and came back up swinging the blunt end, which hit Jackson at the right temple. When he staggered backwards, vision blurry and knees bent, Joseph put all of his strength into one hard step on his left knee. A disgusting crack echoed through the room as Jackson let out a pained grunt, though rage seemed to be the most expressed emotion in it.
He wasted no time. Turning and running- still holding the pole in his right hand, Joseph grabbed Natalie's shoulder to turn her around, as they broke into a full-scale sprint down the hallway. They heard another large snap echo from behind them, but neither would look back. They both jumped down the stairs to save time, thankfully landing on their feet. Just as Joseph expected- the red door he saw the Tormentor come from was still open.
On the other side, the four doors from earlier, and down the hall was the trap door they entered through. This door was not at the end of the hallway the first time they were in it, but neither cared. This was a time to escape, not ponder. As they continued running for the end of the hallway, Natalie looked to the left to see the room littered with pill bottles pass beside her. They were really back.
Upon reaching the end of the hallway, Joseph crouched down and put his hands together, dropping the pole beside him. When Natalie got to him, she immediately stepped on his hand, where he boosted her up. She pressed on the trap door as he pushed her up, and as a pleasant surprise, it began opening. It was incredibly heavy, but a mixture of adrenaline, a will to survive, and a will to see the outside world made it possible- even on Joseph's wobbling hands.
The cold air of the outside world pushed against her face, the aroma of chilled dirt and wet grass being a pleasure to every sense. It was dark on the outside world, around midnight she would assume, but the darkness was nothing when compared to the light of escape. Before it was even fully open, she moved her hands to the ground and began to pull herself up, Joseph helping to raise her feet, pushing the trap door up more against her back.
The slight breeze was pure bliss against her skin, and the dirt, oh how wonderful the dirt felt as opposed to concrete! When she reached the surface, the turned around, back to the ground, and kicked the trap door with both feet. It flew backwards, slamming flat on the ground, fully open now. In a moment of defiance, Joseph heard something heavy hit the ground down the hallway. Taking a quick view, he saw Jackson had fallen down the stairs, and was laying on his side on the other side of the door.
He saw as Jackson sprinted towards him, even beginning his sprint as he pushed himself up from the ground, and continuing through his terrible limp. Joseph took his chance and jumped upwards to Natalie, whom had her hand extended for him. When their hands met and their fingers entwined, she both used their other hands to secure the grip, as she pulled him up and he pushed himself up using the wall.
Just as he crossed into the moonlit forest above, Jackson had reached the underside of the trap door. Joseph got up and took in a deep breath- that of pine and frigid air, and felt the barrage of senses the surface world provides for what felt like the first time. That was before he heard the repeated crashing of metal against the stone below. Looking down with Natalie at his side, he too saw Jackson standing below, hitting his head, bronze mask still equipped, against the wall just below the trap door. After ten or so hits, he stopped.
"Enjoying the outside world?" Jackson asked, with what almost seemed like pain was behind it, or that he was choking back a tear.
They both remained silent. They had plenty of things to ask, but eerie enough, didn't have the ability to ask it. Perhaps it was the feeling of betrayal? Perhaps the shock the events below had installed within them?
"If you're thinking I'll take this pole and start stabbing up at you, you're wrong," Jackson remarked, taking in a deep breath afterwards. He took his head off of the wall and looked up at them. "I'll see you both soon enough. I'll get my chance at both of you... I'll slaughter you like pests. Disturbances in the natural order. After that? Families, friends, people you've walked past on the sidewalk, people you've bought produce from that allowed you to live... people you've fantasized about, dreamt about- I'll cut them down as they deserve, and I'll make sure they know it's because of you."
Something went off inside of Joseph, but it didn't seem to be anger. It almost felt like fear- as if his twisted threats were a real world possibility. Natalie felt the same. He lifted his hand as if to give her the honors of putting it all away for good, to which she denied. Shrugging his head, he walked over to the other side of the trap door, Joseph, with all of his might, lifted it and slammed it shut with all of the force he could gather. As it slammed closed, Natalie and Jackson both starred into each other's eyes, both emotionless except for the raw contempt that festered in them both.
Jackson turned and looked into the hallway as the hanging lamps all went out, offering only impenetrable darkness ahead. He heard fierce wind, but felt none- and he knew exactly what that meant. Soon, when the wind's howling cut out, he had confirmation. Even in the darkness he could see the vague shape of the Tormentor right in front of him.
He saw the Tormentor pushed its arm to the side, preparing the strike. He tilted his head back and closed his eyes.
"Whatever the fuck you have to do, lord."
He heard the muscles pull apart as the Tormentor stuck one finger outwards, claw ready.
"One day, our titles will be reversed. That's a fucking promise."
He felt the claw slash across his neck before the Tormentor faded away into the shadows, out of his physical manifestation. Grasping his gaping wound, Jackson stumbled into the darkness of the facility ahead.
Written by ShawnHowellsCP