The Curling Flames

July 7, 2013 at 12:00 AM
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This is the fourth entry in the By the Fire’s Light series.

“So,” Jared said, a sneer on his face. “I suppose you’ve come to find out why I did it.”

Connor looked into Jared’s face, at the sneer, the hate. He looked into Jared’s eyes, and saw, just for a moment, a flame flicker in them. “No,” Connor said, surprising himself and Jared. “No,” he said again, wonderingly. He put the phone down for a moment and looked around them. The guards were alert for any wrong-doing but they weren’t really paying attention to what he was saying. He picked the phone up again and turned to Jared. “I want to know why you took the blame.” — By the Fire’s Light

Jared Holloway was a solitary man. He was not anti-social by any means. But he did not feel the need to constantly be in the presence of his fellow man. The equivalent of a night on the town for Jared was a hike in the nearby state park. As he would tromp through the woods, listening to the sound of the wind blowing through the trees, the scampering of small creatures in the undergrowth, and the occasional crashing of much bigger things, a tiny spring of tension in him would release. There was no one to judge him out here. There was no one to demand he produce four thousand new lines of code in a single day after some idiot deleted the BIOS systems at work.

Which was exactly what had happened three days prior before Jared’s latest trip into the woods. Some moron in tech support had walked away from his work station without logging out. He was a high level tech with high level access. Well, had been anyway. Some other moron had messed around on the computer in his office. Jared wasn’t sure how he had done it, but he had managed to delete the BIOS of every computer on the network. It was either a work of great genius or astounding stupidity, and Jared was leaning towards the latter.

Some of Jared’s bosses outside ITS were under the impression he would need to write new code for the entire network, hence the demand. Fortunately, Jared had been prepared for just such a situation (perhaps not as dire as losing the BIOS directory on every computer at once, but still) and had a backup copy of the BIOS directory burned to a CD. One CD. That needed to hit hundreds of computers. After a few days of burning more copies and visiting many computers in tandem with the rest of his co-workers, they had restored relative order to the company. So, perhaps today he was feeling just a tad anti-social on top of his usual solitariness.

He stopped on the trail he was on and sat down on a large rock on the side of the path. He allowed his pack to drop next to the rock. Leaning back, he let the sun’s rays that filtered down through the leaves wash over him. He breathed in and out, shifting his shoulders as he did, trying to ease the tension out. As he did, the sound of laughter came to him from farther down the trail. He opened an eye and looked down the green path before him. It was the middle of June, so most of the schools were out. It sounded like a couple of younger men horsing around. Jared grunted to himself. He really did not feel like meeting anyone else out here.

Scooting down off the rock, he leaned over to pick up his pack. As he did, a scream rent the air. He dropped his pack and looked up. Another scream quickly followed it, this one shriller and more panicked. It was coming from the same direction as the laughter. Letting go of his pack, Jared took off down the trail. This wouldn’t be the first time inexperienced hikers hurt themselves while tromping around back here. The screaming, while growing fainter even as he ran forward, had a more terrified edge to it now. Commingled in with the screams were the yells of someone else.

Then, suddenly, it just stopped. Jared paused, leaning on a tree, his hand resting on a knothole in the rough bark, and caught his breath. He listened carefully. He heard what sounded like someone crashing through the forest. Jared knew he wouldn’t be able to follow them on sound alone though. He’d need to find where they had left the path.

Walking forward quickly but with an eye for breaks in the foliage, Jared continued on. It wasn’t long before Jared came to another abandoned pack on the path. Looking to his right, he could tell by the way the branches were bent which way the user of the pack had gone. “Hello?” Jared called as he stepped off the path. “Can you hear me? Are you injured?” He put a hand up to his forehead, trying to shade his eyes and get a better look ahead of him. The greenery was dense here and he picked his way slowly, following the trail of bent branches as best he could. A hint of red on the grass below him caught his eye and Jared stopped again. The red was shiny.

Jared bent down and lightly touched the red stain. “Blood,” he said to himself. He scanned the ground and saw a small trail of it leading forward. Holding his breath, Jared pushed his way further into the forest. “Oh my God.” Lying on the ground not ten feet from Jared was a young man. He was covered in cuts, dozens upon dozens of them, all of them a bright red. Jared quickly walked forward and bent down next to the body. Gently, he put a couple fingers on the neck of the young man where his jugular artery should be. As he did, he also watched the young man’s chest, hoping against hope to see it rise and fall even slightly. But both chest and artery were still. This young man, this boy, was dead.

As Jared stood, he remembered the laughter from earlier. There had been more than one person out here. He could tell that someone else had run away from here, and in a hurry. They had either killed this person, or were running from whoever had. Jared hesitated. Either way, there was likely a murderer at the end of this trail if he continued to follow it. He pulled out his cell phone, but he knew even before he checked it that there wouldn’t be a signal. It was part of the reason he came out here, so he couldn’t be called in. He’d have to track all the way back to the beginning of the park to get a decent signal, and that would take close to an hour.

He looked down at the young boy and noticed he had a pack on his shoulders. So, that meant the pack on the path belonged to someone else. And if someone had crashed off into the woods without their pack, it was probably because they were in mortal terror of something. With that, Jared made up his mind. He would not leave this person to their fate alone. He quickly sprinted back to his pack and unclipped his Gerber military style knife off the pack and then re-clipped it on his belt. It wasn’t much, but it was something.

Then, not quite running, but moving as quickly as he could without losing the trail, Jared ventured into the forest. He made sure to mark his progress as he did so he could find his way back when he was done.

Jared spotted a piece of cloth in a briar patch up ahead. Jogging up to it, he bent down to observe it. There was some blood on the cloth, and it looked like it was still wet. His head snapped up and he looked around himself warily. That meant he was probably close to whoever had fallen in here. He stood up slowly. As far as he could tell, the trail continued up a tall hill ahead of him.

Looking for debris and branches on the ground as he walked, Jared made his way up the hill. He drew his knife out and held it in his right hand. He stayed crouched as he walked so that when he crested the hill he wouldn’t be a noticeable target. The sun beat down on him uncomfortably, and he rolled his shoulders again trying to release the tension in them.

Coming to the top of the hill, Jared went down on his stomach and looked over the edge. What he saw made his heart stop. There was another young man with black hair at the bottom of the hill, lying unconscious (or so Jared hoped) in the middle of a patch of mushrooms. Standing over the injured man was a tall, skinny, bald man in what looked like a business suit.

Jared quickly debated with himself whether to yell down at Mr. Business Suit or not. Opting to move in as quietly as he could, Jared started to make his way down the hill. As he did, the injured young man started to scream, just like the screams Jared had heard earlier.

Jared sprung to his feet, adrenaline coursing through his body. He had to act now. “Whatever you’re doing, just stop right there!” he shouted, bounding down the hill. As he came to the bottom of the hill, he prepared to plunge his knife into Mr. Business Suit to make him stop doing whatever he was doing to the injured party.

Then, with his knife raised, Jared realized something. Mr. Business Suit wasn’t just sorta tall. He stood a good eight feet high, at least. And he had long slender black growths waving from his back. The knife shook in Jared’s hand as the man began to turn. Two seconds later the knife fell from Jared’s hand and hit the forest floor with a small plop. “Your face, where’s your face?!” Jared screeched backing away, hands outstretched. Then one of the black things on its back whipped forward and slashed towards Jared. Jared held up his arms and felt a stinging cut and he stumbled backwards. Red blood poured from his right arm, but the physical wound barely phased him. As the thing had made contact, Jared had a brief vision of fire and screams. Small children’s screams.

The thing towered over him and slashed at him again and again, each blow that landed giving Jared a clearer picture. Fire and death that wasn’t death and so many children. Fear was replaced with anger. This thing picked on children? Not if Jared had anything to say about it.

With a mighty roar, Jared sprang forward. The thing, surprised at this outburst, took a momentary step back. Swiping his knife off the ground, Jared rushed this monster, swinging for its chest. Jared had to stretch his arm up and above his head the thing was so tall. The knife sunk in to the hilt but no blood came. As it did, Jared felt like he had been hit by an electric shock. He saw and he understood. Oh, God, he understood what this thing wanted. It was like a demented Pinocchio and this boy this this–images and sounds flashed, fire and children and screams– Connor was his chosen vessel to help it be a real boy. He looked up into its non-face and realized this meant his death, or rather fiery non-death if he let this thing take him.

“Wait!” he screamed, springing away again. A tendril struck his face and he fell to the forest floor. A panicked sob escaped him. “Wait, I can be of use!” he screamed backing away. “You killed his friend! The cops won’t believe him if he says a faceless monster killed him.” He cowered, waiting for the next blow. When it didn’t come, he looked up into its eyeless gaze. It stood tense, its tendrils whipping, but it made no move at him yet.

“Y-you need someone to take the blame,” Jared said, arms held up over his head. Blood dripped from his right arm and spattered on the the grass in front of him. His whole body shook. “I can do that.”

Then the tendrils, looking for all the world like streamers in the wind, were plunging towards him. Jared screamed and covered his head. But, the tendrils did not slice into him this time. Instead, they wound around him, holding him tight. He let out a gasp as they squeezed harder and harder. Then they stopped. Jared raised his head and found the faceless thing leaning over him. Jared was completely in its shadow, the blackness blocking off all light. One final tendril raised in the air. It quivered and shifted back and forth slightly, as if unsure of its destination. It plunged with sudden decisiveness and buried itself in Jared’s left shoulder.

Jared tried to scream, but the pain was so great it was all he could do to unlock his throat enough to breathe. He felt the tendril burrow deep within his shoulder. As it went, he could see blood dripping from where the tendril had plunged in and surrounding the blood was livid, red, inflamed flesh.

He felt the tendril wrap around the very bones in his shoulder. He shuddered, trying to pull away, but was held fast. Visions began to pour into his mind again. Only this time it was different. He wasn’t just looking into the thing’s mind this time. This time he could feel it tearing into his own thoughts, ripping through his emotions and innermost psyche, laying his most precious memories bare. It was as if it was weighing them in its tendrils. Tears rolled down Jared’s eyes and he managed to stammer a whispered, “St-stop.”

After what felt like centuries, but could only have been a few moments, the thing released him. Jared fell to the forest floor, grabbing at his left shoulder and panting. He managed to raise himself up to his knees, still clinging to his wound. The faceless thing watched impassively and under its steady gaze Jared felt a burst of adrenaline. Without knowing what he was doing, Jared was off and stumbling up the hill. He scrambled along the ground, gripping branches and slender tree trunks to help himself up.

His shoulder burned as he ran, but he ignored it. He ran as if death itself was at his heels, and for all Jared knew, it really was. He smashed into the briar patch he had found the blood-stained cloth in, falling down not far from it. With a small whimper, he ripped himself up, covered in a dozen new scratches.

Breathless, tired, and frightened, Jared finally allowed himself to collapse by the body of the first young boy he had found. Crying quietly to himself, Jared curled into a small ball. “What am I going to do?” he whispered over and over again.

After a few minutes, Jared calmed down enough to uncurl and sit up. He knew he couldn’t stay here. Promise or no promise, he wasn’t going to wait around in a forest with that thing in it. He had to get help.

As he stood, a black shadow passed over Jared. Looking up, he found himself confronted by the faceless thing again. Freezing, Jared stared up at it. It was waving something in one of its tendrils. Eyes focusing on it, Jared realized it was his knife. Jared looked at it confused. Why did it have his knife? Surely it didn’t need any other weapons. With a small toss, the thing dropped the knife by the boy’s body.

“Oh,” Jared said, quietly. He looked up at the towering thing and wondered if he ran fast enough, if he could make it to the path.

As if sensing his thought, the thing turned towards him. As it did, Jared’s shoulder lit up in a fire of agony. With a scream, he dropped to his knees. White hot pain radiated from his shoulder through the rest of his body and he felt as if he had been plunged into flames. “Okay,” he managed to scream, “I’ll do it!”

The pain stopped as quickly as it had started. Trembling, Jared crawled over to the knife. He hesitated for just a moment, and then brought his knife down into the already dead body. He traced several of the cuts with his knife and made a couple of his own. He made sure to get the boy’s blood on his hands, and for good measure, he nicked himself with the knife and allowed some of his own blood to land on the boy. “There,” he said, voice cracking, “I’ll wait nearby and when they come looking for the boy I’ll confess.” He laughed, sounding slightly unhinged. “I’ll just pretend to be mad. Okay?” He turned, wincing as he did. The thing was gone though.

Jared stood up. A slight buzz in his shoulder warned him that though he could not see the thing, it most certainly could see him. Feeling as if he was in a dream, Jared forged an obvious trail away from the body. After about half a mile he stopped and waited. He sat on the ground with his knife and rocked on his heels, back and forth. The pulsing, droning buzz of cicadas in the afternoon sun was the only sound that came to him. No searchers. Not yet. Jared’s rocking slowed as he became more and more light-headed. His gaze turned to his still bleeding arm. He was covered in cuts but that first one on his arm was the deepest. He supposed he should cover it with something.

As he watched the red blood drip away the world began to blur and swirl around him. Heat engulfed him as he lost his balance and toppled over. Not the tearing searing heat from earlier, but a fuzzy warmth that shrouded him and dulled his thoughts. And then nothing.

After an interminable time, Jared opened his eyes and froze. The landscape had changed. He was no longer in a forest. At least, not the same forest he had started in. There were a few stray trees. But they were blackened and brittle. They looked as if a strong breeze would topple them and turn them into ash. The very ground on which Jared lay was black and coarse. As he shifted up, Jared looked at his arms and realized the cuts were gone. There was still, however, the livid, red spot on his left shoulder. He probed it and winced as pain radiated from it.

Placing his hand on the ground to help himself up, Jared paused. There was a reason the ground was black and coarse. It wasn’t ground, it was ash. Eyes widening, Jared dug his hands into the ashes. Deeper and deeper he reached down, trying to touch ground and failing.

Breathing heavily, Jared stood and swayed from foot to foot. “This isn’t real, it’s a dream,” he muttered, turning in place. An urge to run surged through him. But where would he run to? Raising his eyes to the horizon, he saw an orange glow. Every instinct in his being told him he did not want to see what was there. Deliberately turning his back on it, Jared ran in the opposite direction.

He slapped himself as he ran, hoping the pain would jolt him awake. He scratched at his face, pinched his arms, threw himself at the ground and twisted his ankle. Nothing worked, though, and he continued to stumble through the nightmarish landscape.

Then, suddenly, despite turning his back on it, he found himself on top of the orange glow. It wavered before him, and he heard crackling. Shaking, Jared stepped forward. The orange flickered and split around him, and he found himself in a sea of flames that oddly did not burn him. He could not say the same for the children surrounding him on every side. There were a few adults and older teenagers too, but for the most moaning and thrashing and screaming children twisted on the ground around him.

Jared put his hands to his head and fell to his knees. “Why are you doing this you sick fuck?!” he yelled. A small hand hit his leg and Jared turned to look at who had hit him. It was a young boy, no older than four with blond almost white hair. Jared reached a hand towards him and watched the flames part before his hand. He took in a small breath. Could he stop the boy from burning if he were to hold him close?

Without hesitation Jared picked up the small boy and held him close, protectively. The boy thrashed in his grip. “I’ve got you, I’ve got you,” Jared choked. He began to run through the flames, trying to find an exit.

The boy screamed. “No, no, no!” he said. “It hurts more!”

Jared stopped. He gazed slack-jawed at the boy. The boy thrashed harder and screamed, a long drawn-out wail. Gently, Jared put him back down. Flames covered him again, burning but never claiming the boy. And though he moaned and thrashed, he calmed, as if the flames were better than Jared’s touch had been.

Small black tendrils surrounded Jared and he looked up into a pale featureless face.

A burst of white light, and Jared jolted up on the forest floor. His arm throbbed, but someone had wrapped it in a now blood-stained cloth. The white light proved to be a flashlight pointed at Jared. Shading his eyes, Jared saw two uniformed police officers. One of them was holding a plastic bag. And in the plastic bag was Jared’s knife. He giggled. “Did you see my work?” he asked.

The officer’s stiffened, and he saw one’s hand stray to his holster. Jared tried to stand, but the officers barked at him to sit down. Jared ignored them. Maybe he could get them to shoot him. Then he could get away. Away beyond its reach. He took a step forward, his whole body loose and flowing, as if his joints no longer had any interest in properly working.

Before he could do anything more, one of the officers and tackled Jared to the ground. He struggled underneath his grip. This wouldn’t do. He needed to be at threat, a clear and present danger if he wanted to be shot. He snarled and twisted, trying to bite the officer’s hand. But the events of the day had caught up with Jared and then some. It was all he could do not to pass out as he felt his arms twisted and a pair of cuffs slipped on his wrists.

Jared heard the other officer speaking into his radio as the one who had cuffed him hauled him to his feet. “–possibly caught Kurt Kent’s killer,” Jared heard him say. Jared laughed again. Was that the boy’s name, Kurt? These fools should be grateful they had not crossed Kurt’s real killer. Even as madness threatened to engulf him, Jared retained enough of himself to realize that he had no wish for these officer’s to make contact with that thing. Not even just because of what the thing would do to him if they did. No one deserved to fall into that thing’s clutches. And the only way to protect them was to be convincing.

Jared pulled against the officer holding him. “Possibly nothing,” he said. He licked his lips and and gave a short breathless laugh. “That is, if Kurt Kent was killed by several dozen slashes from which he bled so scarlet red,” he said, his voice a sing-song. Jared felt the other officer’s grip tighten on him reflexively.

“Todd,” the other officer said, glancing sharply at the one who held Jared. “Don’t.”

“Yes, Todd, don’t,” Jared agreed, looking back at him. “Police brutality will just cloud your case.”

“You shut your mouth,” Todd said through clenched teeth. Todd jerked his head back towards the path. “Let’s get him out of here.”

“Agreed,” the other officer said, following Todd as he dragged Jared back through the forest. As they walked, just for a moment, Jared though he saw one of the slender younger trees bend over. Ignoring it, he turned his eyes forward and allowed himself to be dragged along.

***

Jared sat in the interview room, hands cuffed in front of him. He stared at the mirrored window on the other side of the room. A sullen and slightly demented looking man stared back at him. He was covered in scratches and abrasions, some with stitches showing. Bandages swathed the large cut on his right arm. His eyes were narrow and they never stopped moving, as if always looking for something.

Jared rotated his left shoulder, which throbbed very slightly. It would know. It would know if he told the truth. It had been three days since Jared’s run through the woods and he had slept little since then. Every time he closed his eyes it was waiting. Always he found himself in the land of fire and ash. He did not move anymore. He laid curled on the ground, waiting for wakefulness to claim him. He was beginning to wonder, though, which part of his life was the dream, and which part was the nightmare. Or perhaps it was all nightmare. He didn’t know anymore.

The door clicked open. A man who looked to be in his early thirties walked in. He wore a dull dark blue suit with a dull dark blue tie. He seated himself at the table across from Jared. He said nothing at first, merely setting a manilla envelope on the table followed by a digital recorder. He glanced up at Jared, pulling a card from his suit jacket pocket as he did. With a flick of a finger he turned the recorder on. “This conversation will be recorded,” he said, in an official-sounding voice.

“Of course,” Jared said, head nodding, voice full of false amiability.

The man did not react. He merely maintained a steady gaze with Jared. “I am Detective Carl Rourke,” he said. “And before we begin,” he said, looking back down at the card, ” You have the right to remain silent,”

“Oh, really, Detective, really?” Jared said settling back in his chair. “Must you?”

Rourke ignored him. “Anything you say can and will be used against you in a court of law. You have the right to talk to a lawyer and have him present with you while being questioned.”

Jared gave a long drawn out sigh. “No, no lawyers. They just draaag things out,” he said, gesturing with his hands as best he could. And Jared had no intention of dragging this out. None.

Rourke continued unperturbed. “If you cannot afford to hire a lawyer, one will be appointed to represent you before any questioning if you wish. You can decide at any time to exercise these rights and not answer any questions or make any statements.” Rourke locked eyes with Jared now. “Do you understand each of these rights I have explained to you?”

Jared nodded slowly and exaggeratedly.

Rourke pointed at the recorder. “Out loud please.”

“Yes,” Jared said, slowly and distinctly.

“Having these rights in mind, do you wish to talk to us now?” Rourke asked, never letting his gaze waver from Jared’s.

“Yes, very much so,” Jared said.

Rourke put the card back in his pocket. “Very well,” he said. He folded his hands and placed them on the table. “For the record, where were you at 2:30 in the afternoon on June the sixth 20–?”

Jared leaned back in his chair. “I was at Constitutional State Park,” he said. “I believe at 2:30 I was driving a knife into Kurt Kent’s body.”

Rourke raised an eyebrow. “Believe?”

“Oh, I beg your pardon,” Jared said. A slight twinge in his should nearly made him gasp. He resisted the urge to try and rub it. He was overplaying it. He leaned forward. “Let me be clear. On June the sixth, at 2:30 in the afternoon, I took my knife and I killed Kurt Kent. I stabbed and slashed him and watched as he bled out. I also tried to kill Connor Russell but he was able to run from me like the pansy he was. I did this. With full knowledge and consent,” he said, glancing at the recorder.

“Hm,” Rourke said, opening his folder. “It is true, Kurt was found covered in slashes with your blood on him and his blood on you. There’s just a few discrepancies I’d like cleared up.”

“Like what?” Jared said, sweat forming on his brow. His shoulder twinged more painfully. He needed to pull this off. God help him, he needed to be found guilty of this murder.

Rourke pulled out what looked like a report from his folder. “Kurt did not die from bleeding out. He died from a singular puncture to his heart. One that was not made by the knife found on your person.”

“Is that right?” Jared said, trying to sound nonchalant. Panic was rising in him as the pain started to radiate down from his shoulder again.

“And while several slashes on the body do appear to have been made with the knife, most of them appear to be post-mortem,” Rourke continued. He looked up at Jared again. “Can you explain this?”

Jared rolled his eyes. “Easily. What makes you think there was only one weapon?”

Rourke cocked his head. “Where is the other weapon? And what was it?”

Jared thought back to the thin hole in Kurt’s chest and of the black flowing tendrils. “Oh, just a little steel affair I had specially made. Very sharp, but it came to a very thin point. ” He shrugged. “I lost it while running after the other kid. Connor. I backtracked and tried to find it, but…” he shrugged again. “It’s a dense forest.”

“It is,” Rourke conceded, still neutral. He slid the report back into the folder. “And for what reason did you attack and kill Kurt Kent and attempt to kill Connor Russell?”

Jared rotated his head on his neck, trying and trying to ease the terrible burning in his left shoulder. “Because they were there.”

Rourke regarded him evenly. “That’s it?”

“That’s it,” Jared said with a nod.

Rourke looked down to the folder and back up again. “Mr. Holloway, you do realize you are being charged with first degree murder?”

Jared nodded and then remembered the recorder. “Yes.”

“And you realize you are pleading guilty?”

“Yes,” Jared said, sounding annoyed.

Rourke fixed him with a fierce stare. “Mr. Holloway I do not believe you are being frank with me. I believe there is more going on than you are letting on.”

Jared’s shoulder flinched involuntarily as it flared in agony. Jared saw the detective’s eyes briefly rotate to it. In his panic, Jared tried to cover. “I’m done,” he said.

Rourke looked back to his eyes. “I beg your pardon?”

“My rights, or whatever. I’m done talking.”

Rourke nodded. “Very well, this interrogation is over.” He turned off the recorder. He gazed at Jared again. “This is off the record. Nothing you say now may be used against you.”

“Okaaay?” Jared said, trying not to shift his shoulder.

“Mr. Holloway, why are you determined to be found guilty of first degree murder?” Rourke asked, putting his hands on the table and leaning forward.

“Because I am, dammit!” Jared exclaimed standing up.

Jared saw Rourke briefly wave a dismissive hand at the mirrored window. “Are you?” he asked, fiercely.

“Yes!” Jared shouted. “Why do you keep asking? What more do you want?”

“The truth,” Rourke said simply.

Jared stared at him for a moment. And then he laughed. He collapsed back into his chair. “No, no you don’t,” Jared said. He shook his head. “Take me back to my cell.”

Rourke stared at him for one more moment, and then he gestured again to the mirrored window. Two uniformed officers came in and took him to his cell.

****

The rest had been fairly straight-forward after that. If there were any niggling doubts about Jared’s “guilt” Detective Rourke had been the only one to notice. Or care. There was more than enough evidence to convict Jared and with his own confession to the murder it was something of a slam dunk.

Jared had waived both the right to counsel and the right to a jury trial. He had gone before a judge to plead guilty. There had been a lengthy question and answer session with the judge to make sure Jared wasn’t being coerced. Which of course he was, just not by the people the judge thought might be doing it.

What happened next surprised Jared. Even though he had waived the right to a jury trial, a jury was still called for the penalty phase of his sentencing. Jared had made no plea bargains with the prosecution, so the death penalty was still on the table. Which was exactly what the jury gave him after Jared made sure to act like an egomaniacal bastard in front of them.

Though his shoulder twitched now and again, Jared never properly saw the thing after the first couple of dreams. Oh, he still went to the land of fire and ash every time he slept (which was as little as possible), but he would just sit in place and wait to wake up. It was amazing what one could get used to.

Jared had worried about the the prisoners in the jail at first. These were real murderers and rapists and Jared was just… Jared. His fears turned out to be unfounded. As a murderer sentence to death, Jared found himself in a maximum security facility in a cell by himself. There was no recreation outside of occasionally getting to visit a larger cell with a television. There was no group recreation. It was just Jared, the guards, and a small but never unending burning in his shoulder. He worked hard every day, manual labor, that gnarled his hands and gave him a wiry strength that he had never had before.

Days blurred into month blurred into years. Even though he offered no appeals to his sentence, it took a very long time for Jared to make his way up death row, so to speak. His state was very paranoid about accidentally executing innocent men and it took the better part of a decade, at the fastest, for most men to see execution.

As they day of his execution drew nearer, Jared grew more frightened. Not of death, he welcomed it. He was afraid the thing would not let him have it, though. Honestly, there were nights he sat up wondering why the thing had never come for him. He had surely served his purpose.

Then, one day, the guards came to his cell. Said he had a visitor. Jared was confused. There was no one on the outside to visit him. His family had disowned him and he had had no friends close enough to want to be friends with a murderer.

The guards took him to an empty room with one chair, a large thick plastic window, and a little beige phone to talk with the person on the other side. As Jared walked with the guards, he had learned whoever wanted to see him had had to pull some strings to do so. As he walked into the room, Jared understood. Sitting on the other side of the barrier was the boy Jared had found at the bottom of the hill. Connor Russell.

As he sat, his shoulder flared as it had not in ten years. Ten years of learned suppression kept Jared from crying out. The thing did not want him to talk to Connor. That was easy enough, Jared just had to refuse to pick up the phone. But as Jared stared at Connor, he thought he saw something. It was indistinct, but if he looked close enough into Connor’s eyes he could swear he could see a flame flickering in them. The thing was very close to Connor, Jared could feel it. In a moment of rebellion against the thing that had haunted him unseen for ten years, Jared reached over and picked up the phone.

“So,” he said, composing a sneer on his face, “I suppose you’ve come to find out why I did it.” His shoulder felt like it had burst into flames, but he held the phone and himself steady. Something was wrong here. It was like that day in the forest. The thing couldn’t just see into him, he could see into it. Sort of. And it was desperate that he not talk to Connor.

“No,” Connor said. Jared raised his eyebrows in surprise. “No,” Connor repeated wonderingly to himself. Connor put the phone down for a moment and stared around himself. Jared used the moment to recompose himself. Though his shoulder still hurt the pain did not increase. Instead, visions were slowly sliding into his head again, visions from the land of ash and fire he visited every night. But he had been going there for ten years now, he could hold them off. For now.

Connor picked up the phone again. “I want to know why you took the blame.”

Jared felt panic rise in his chest, and he realized in awe the panic was not entirely his. In the space of a split second, in his mind’s eyes, he saw a puppet free of all its strings save one. His eyes widened briefly and then narrowed. “What are you still crazy? Crazy as when they found you after I lost you?” He leaned forward. “It’s simple. I took a knife and sliced your friend up. His blood still dripping from my hands, I turned on you and you ran like a little pansy. You got lucky and I lost you. End of story.” The panic and the pain mingled together, but Jared knew it was not going to be enough. The facade was crashing. The thing would be coming, for him and the boy. Not right this second but…

Connor leaned forward, intense, and as he did, it was like he pushed the stink of the thing before him. “Yes, that’s what you told the cops, the court, everyone. But it’s not true, is it?” he whispered.

The pain had stopped radiating and instead was now a single sharp point in his shoulder, that ached down to his very bone. The visions increased, breaking past his barrier, flooding his mind with flames, and the screams of the forsaken, and unending agony. And, somehow, through it all, his mind pushed for one final moment of clarity. He had to warn Connor somehow. “Look,” he rasped, a drowning man’s last breath, “If I say that’s what happened, it’s what happened.” He was shaking his head, trying to shake the images out. “I may be on death row, but there are things worse than death.” And then he slammed the phone down. He turned, signalling for the guard to take him back to his cell, trembling all the while.

Once back in his cell, he sat on his cot with his head in his hands. The pain had abated and the visions had stop, but he felt a ferocious anger and hatred at the back of his mind. He briefly considered ripping his sheets apart. He could try to hang himself from the cell bars. But even as he had the thought he dismissed it. Their cells were closely monitored for suicide attempts, and the sheets were purposely flimsy because of this. It would not support his weight, and even if it did, the guards would cut him down long before he had a chance to die.

He waited. Long into the night, long after the moon had risen and then set, he sat unmoving on his cot. But nothing came. As the sun began to rise, Jared finally lay down and gave in to sleep. He fell as he always did into the land of fire and ash. He expected to find it there, waiting for him. But it was not. There was only the brittle black trees, the coarse ash of the ground, and flames in the distance. All was still. It was a watchful stillness though.

The stillness followed Jared into the waking world and clung to him over the next week. He took to checking over his shoulder every few seconds. There was never anything there. Not even a shadow that retreated as he looked.

The guards came to his cell again and took him out. They did not respond to Jared’s questions of where they were going. They stopped before what Jared recognized as a private interview room. They pushed him inside and told him to sit. They cuffed his arms and ankles to the chair. The door opened again and Jared looked up. Standing there in a dull dark blue suit, with a dull dark blue tie and holding a manilla folder was Detective Carl Rourke. Save for a few gray hairs, it could have been a replay of that interview from a over a decade ago. “It’s alright, you can go outside now,” he said, nodding at the guards.

With a final long look at Jared, the guards nodded and walked outside, closing the door behind them. Rourke took a seat next to Jared, his back to the door. “We aren’t being recorded,” he said. “And I convinced them to turn off the cameras as long as we kept guards posted at the door. We have total privacy.” Rourke took a breath. “Connor Russell is dead,” he said flatly.

Jared bowed his head and sighed. Of course he was. So why wasn’t Jared? Rourke continued. “As is the only witness to his death, his psychiatrist, and the only witness to the psychiatrist’s death.” Silence.

Jared looked up. Rourke was staring at him, sizing him up. “I know you didn’t kill Kurt Kent,” he said, steadily. “I know what did.” Silence again.

Finally, Jared cleared his throat. “You stink of it too.” He shuddered. “You’ve seen it.”

Rourke nodded. “I have.” He flipped open the manilla folder. “I need your help.”

Jared laughed. He pulled at his cuffed arms. “I don’t think there’s much I can do for you, Detective.”

Rourke was moving photographs onto the table. “You can tell me what you know about it so we can stop it.”

Staring at him, Jared didn’t know whether to laugh again or not. “Do you think I would be here if I could stop it?”

Rourke held up a hand as he finished with the photos. Then he turned to Jared again. “It was just a monster to you. I actually know a little bit about it. Anything you can tell me, well us really, we could use against it.”

Jared’s shoulder burned now, burned as it did ten years ago. He swore he could feel the tendril wrapping inside him again. He gave a small cry and leaned forward. He couldn’t go far because of the cuffs. He felt Rourke’s hand on his shoulder, shaking him, calling to him. “It’s afraid of people that know it’s real, really real,” Jared whispered. “Except me, I don’t know why.” He shuddered. “I think that’s why it takes people that aren’t children.”

Jared heard Rourke sliding the photos across the table. “Jared,” Rourke said addressing him by name and still holding his shoulder, “It is taking children. Look. These are photos of twenty children who have gone missing recently, either in wooded areas or during fires. Their bodies have not been found. There have been no ransom notes. Look!”

Jared opened his eyes and stared down at the table. He saw smiles and bright eyes and laughter before him. He could hear the laughter twisting to screams in his head. “This is just in this direct area,” Rourke was saying. “I have a friend who cast the net wider, and, Jared, it scares me a little.” He paused. “This thing is growing and fast. We have to stop it. Do you have any idea why it takes these children?”

Jared was shaking his head. “No, no,” he said, and he was crying. He could see them now before him and every word he said made their pain worse. “I can’t. It won’t even let them die.”

“Jared, I don’t care what you’ve done or what you’ve seen. No one will know what you say but me, that’s why I had them give us privacy,” Rourke was saying kneeling next to him.

Jared felt his heart stop. Rourke was right. No one could see or hear them in this room. It was just them. “Oh, God,” Jared said, a horrible realization creeping onto his face. “We’re alone.”

Rourke knitted his brows and then the same understanding dawned on him and he was whipping around towards the door.

The thing was there, so tall it should have had to bend over. Somehow it stood straight and tall. A tendril sprang forward and wrapped itself around Rourke’s throat. It picked up him and pushed him onto the table, choking him. Rourke pulled at the tendril with his hands, but it did not even flex.

Jared opened his mouth, trying to shout for the guards, to summon help. As he did, a tendril wrapped around his throat as well. He closed his eyes and waited for it to crush the breath out of him. While it wrapped tight enough so he could barely breathe, it did not crush him. Jared felt the shackles breaking on his legs and wrists, and he opened his eyes, confused. What was going on?

The thing held him in place and he saw Rourke fumbling with something in his coat pocket as his face started to take on a blue tint. Jared suddenly understood. If he was free of his shackles, he could take the blame for killing Rourke. No else needed to know the thing was here. It could fade back into the shadows, and then, then it would come for Jared and all would be well.

Rourke was pulling out his gun and the thing tilted its head. He pulled the trigger, but instead of a bang and a bullet, a spray of water emerged from the end of the gun and hit it square where its face should have been.

The thing bucked violently and Jared felt its grip loosen. He ripped himself free and fell towards the floor. Rourke was beside him and pulling him up, yelling at him to hurry.

“Did that work?” Jared asked incredulously as Rourke pulled him up. A tendril blindly struck the wall above him.

“No, I think I just pissed it off,” Rourke muttered. The door was opening and the guards were coming in. They stopped on seeing the thing.

“Go, just run!” Rourke was shouting, waving for them to move it. They did not need telling a second time and fled the room. Rourke and Jared were doing the same. As Jared passed through the door, he felt something wrap around his leg and pull him back. With a gasp he grabbed the doorpost.

Rourke stopped and turned around. He brought out his pistol again, and aimed it at the tendril holding Jared fast. Faster than he could blink a tendril whipped past and crushed the pistol in Rourke’s hand. Rourke staggered back. Jared felt another tendril wrap around his waist, pulling him backwards. He locked eyes with Rourke. “Run,” Jared said.

“No, just hang on!” Rourke yelled, grabbing hold of Jared’s arm and pulling.

Jared felt, rather than saw, the tendril moving in for Rourke. Without thinking, he leaned forward and bit Rourke’s hand as hard as he could.

With a a yelp of pain, Rourke leapt back and the tendril impacted the floor where he had been a second ago. “Run!” Jared said again. Then, taking in a breath, Jared let go of the doorpost and allowed himself to be pulled backwards.

***
Jared fell into the flames and this time they did not part before him. He had thought he had known pain before, thought he had known what the fire felt like when his shoulder had burned. He had been wrong. The flames burned him in body, soul, and mind. They flashed across him, across all he was, and they took everything except this one eternal now of pain, and the flames, and the thing. He screamed.

And then, seconds or years later, Jared felt himself deposited onto cool, damp grass. Gasping he lay still. He was back in the forest where he had first met the thing. He didn’t know how he knew this, but he knew it was true. The memory of the flames licked at him and now he understood the blonde little’s boy’s words from so long ago. It hurt worse, now, because he remembered what life was like outside the flames and he knew he would have to go back.

Jared felt the thing loom over him and press a tendril into his shoulder. Images of Rourke and another woman he did not recognize flashed through his mind. He understood this thing wanted Jared to find these two for it. That if Jared did not it would drag him back to the flames right now. Jared cried, flailing wildly. He would do anything, anything, to stay out of the flames. “Yes, yes,” he said incoherently. The thing’s tendril withdrew and Jared looked up. It was gone. But it could still see, so Jared stumbled up and walked into the night, ready to begin his quest.

Credit To – Star Kindler

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