AN EMPTY PLACE, Chapter Eleven - "Return to Rock"

The climax

Chapter Eleven - Return to Rock

The short black hairs of Materbelius' hide bristled on Holm's neck as he tightened the skin around him.

Now I know, he thought.

The shadow of the mountain fell over them and he saw on its surface a million scratches and loops written in light, moving, erasing, rewriting. The surface itself was more purple than black, like a thick velvet moss, absorbing and reconstituting the scrawls like facial muscles. So familiar, those lines, that procession of symbols, like a children's book read to him as a boy that had passed into a half-memory, as if it happened to him and not the characters in the book. The collection of memory in his head obscured what he would have seen immediately if his mind was empty and groping for meaning: he'd seen these shapes before - they were with him always.

The were the sigils in his head, reflected on the mountain face, burnt there as they are on his brain, and he laughed aloud that he did not realize it at first. It was like he was looking at the inside of his skull. He had been drawn here. Always the inner compass pointed towards this place. His hand was drawing circles and lines absently. Then Tad began to cough. He was so intent on the silvery script written as if by the hand of God on the mountain that he didn't hear her at first. The intensity of her wracking and the strange soft sound of it in her hands drew him to her. He put his hand on her shoulder to turn her towards him. 

A jolt of the car interrupted him as they crossed the threshold into the tunnel. The hum of movement through the air outside shifted to a hollow drumming sound, and his ears popped with the pressure of the rock above them. It was darker; the dreary daylight drifting away with their distance from the opening, though some lights from above occasionally spit a blue glow down on their faces. They slowed and stopped. When the doors slid open he had forgotten all about Tad's coughing spell.

The platform was damp and slick with shining water. Spectacularly cold drops fell on Holm's head, shocking him even through his thick mat of hair. He readjusted the skin around him and tied it in a knot around his neck. Looking up he saw that the tunnel was just the entrance to a much larger cavern, and above some hundreds of feet were gigantic flood lights penetrating through a thick mist.

"You hear that?" Darling said, putting her hand on the wall of the platform. "It's like a piston."

Holm did hear something: a quiet baritone throb coming from somewhere deep in the rock. Tad, who was already descending the wide staircase that twisted around the rocky outcropping from which the platform was cut, raised her voice to them, "Hey that sounds like a pulverizer! We had one of those at Settlement-Out-Six. We used it to dig for oil when the derricks stopped." 

"Drilling . . . if the administrative building was abandoned, what about here?" Darling said, watching her hand shake on the platform wall. The whole structure was no more than a twelve-foot square of plaster tiling set into the vast stone.

"If someone is here, I doubt they're going to come to meet us," Holm said to her as he followed Tad down the stairs. 

Having no sense of their destination the descent was long, slow, and unsure. The chiseled sharp surface of the mountain eventually gave way to hard tiles and winding hallways, the occasional door locked with a magnetic bolt, and red and yellow emergency lights that illuminated the pale green metal of the stairs. 

Holm found himself hypnotized by Tad's movements, rising and falling as she thrust her feet down, her shoulder blades and their muscles brushing against the back of her jacket as she swung her arms. She coughed and almost slipped, and she tightened her dark hair behind her neck with a squeeze from her hands. Her neck was strong and taut through dirty grease over raw pink. Holm saw Rachel in his memory. He saw her lying on the floor, her body crushed between the door and the jam, her wrists cracked, her hands smashed and bloody. He thought she had dark hair when her image had flashed before him foreign and mysterious, like during the operation that excised the parasite, but that was just the blood. It stained her brown hair a sopping black. He shuddered.

He thought of her in an orange and white polka-dot nightgown and he almost slipped on the wet steps in the dim light. He leaned in to kiss her fresh face when he was shocked by hands groping him from under the gown. It was Harry, no more than three years old. Holm scooped Harry up and kissed Rachel, squeezing his body against hers so he could feel her breasts on his torso. 

"End of the road," Tad said when they reached the bottom of the stairs. Backtracking up to the previous corridor Holm had to resist grabbing her and holding her next to him under his dog-skin. He thought of how strange the other stuff that came back with his memory is to him: desire, fear of death, doubt. He had not missed these feelings.

"Everything is so clean," she said running her finger along the long corridor's wall.

"Doesn't feel clean," he said as he shivered. The moisture beading along the walls and floor was so thick that when she brushed against it with her fingers, they left long streaks like gouges from a claw. Their footfalls resounded in a queasy tremolo, and Holm needed to wipe his hair from his forehead and stroke his beard to pull the condensation out. Darling was persistent in trying the occasional door, all with the magnetic locks, all dark inside, but none would open to her efforts. The only clue to their direction was the pulsing drum, still beneath them, guiding their march. 

The corridor ended in another set of stairs, these narrower, winding back under the hallway. The moisture dissipated gradually as they went deeper into the bowels of the facility and the rock itself became more porous. The stairs led to a wide and low-ceilinged lab space separated by glass walls and populated by computer terminals and memory bays.

It was in the inner labs that they found the bodies. 

The labs were sealed by a set of black double doors in a thick black wall. Darling pounded on them in frustration then moved in a huff to one of the shorted computers. She yanked it away from the wall and removed the back panel. 

"What's up?" Tad said, clearing her throat into her fist. 

"Making us a key," Darling said tearing out some of the circuits and tossing them on the floor, then reaching deeper into the machine's guts. 

"Can't you guys just cut one of these doors open? You know, with those knives you've got?" Tad pulled on the handle to one of the doors. It seemed less hefty than the others they had been unable to open. 

"Every door? It's exhausting. This will do fine." Darling extracted a thin piece of metal coiled up and ending in a flat copper point. Straightening it in her hands she approached the doors and inserted it in the gap between them. "These aren't magnetically sealed. It's no use cutting through everything if whoever . . . whatever is here has been alerted . . . Ah!" There was a click and Darling pushed open the doors. She turned with a smile and presented the open room to them. She didn't look to see what was inside until after Tad gagged and turned away.

The corpses, if they could be called that now, lay on twenty slabs coated in thick white ice. The room itself was not so cold, Holm thought, otherwise why did sweat break out all over his body? He was glad for his cloak. Darling turned and groaned in despair as her eyes fell on the disintegrating flesh, starting in the torso so that their chests were cratered and spreading to the extremities like insects burrowing out from their central hive. The soft tissue; eyes and cheeks, their bellies, were the most inhuman. The soot fell off the slabs in pyramidal stains. The teeth, sockets, ribs and pelvises, all still recognizable though gray and crystalline like they would shatter if touched. Indeed as the air from the opening door swooped into the room the brittle skeleton on the nearest slab toppled into a heap. Holm felt the throb of the distant pulverizer - if that was what it was - and it made his limbs weak. 

Tad was dazed but overcame her shock and slowly walked to one of the slabs. She reached out as if she was going to touch the skull, hair flowing off of the remaining scalp in a decrepit mane, but she hesitated with her palm over it. She looked around the room with an unreadable, distant expression.

Darling moved to a door on the right side of the room and cleared away the wet film of soot on its interior window. She looked back at Holm and said, "This must be the morgue. There's another body in this room."
"Something is wrong," he said, feeling the throb, a bolt of cleansing white in his head. "Something is here." The throb intensified and the fluorescent lights dimmed and crackled.

"It's not a pulverizer. What is that noise?" said Tad. The room shook violently and she was nearly knocked off her feet. She reached for the slab in front of her and hissed in pain as she touched the freezing table. With one final quake the corpses exploded and sent a cloud every-which-way in the air, blinding Holm. He covered his eyes with the dog-skin. 

"Are you alright?" he called out to the women. Tad was coughing in a deep heave so he tried to find her by the sound, bumping into the slabs, kicking a decapitated head and stumbling over mutilated legs and arms. The throb stopped but the quiet was worse. The soot sizzled in his ears like mosquito's trying to infiltrate his skin and suck out his fluids. 

He found her doubled over on the floor, her body covered in the soot except where her wincing tears had cleaned a path down from her eyes. When she saw him through the cloud she tried to hide a pile of black bile on the floor beside her. 

"You have some on your chin, Tad," he said as he collected her in his arms. 

"I'm sick Holm."


"Look, damn it, look at this!" Darling shouted from her position by the other door.

"Look at what? I can't see anything." 

"Not here," she screamed, "The shales!"

Holm closed his eyes and let the scratches on brain arrange themselves into a doorway.

"Okay, just a second," he said and then dived through to an empty place, unbound by shape or form, in the shales naked and strong . . .

The shaleform moves his hand and, like a bird diving into a river to pluck its prey from the water, the void collapses in on the room, through the atmosphere, through the mountain top, down into the cloud of plague soot. Not a cloud. Black jackets flow from the pale, maniacal faces of the Legless Ones. They collect as cocoons around the dead and living alike. Darling grapples with three of these discarnate things. He sees from afar her blue blade working its way in a field of black, disappearing and reappearing like a fish jumping out of a storm-thrashed sea. She is in trouble. She tries to work the athame around but a spiral of ash whips around her wrist and her hand is paralyzed. Another limb snakes out from the flapping coats and the Legless Ones grin as Darling ascends, kicking at the air, her face frenzied and shaking.


The word bellows from between her teeth and the demons disintegrate into spores of glistening black. Darling hits the floor on her hands and knees. But it's not over. The soot solidifies and becomes denser around her and the faces of the Legless Ones elongate. They become scaly and reptilian, eyes molten silver dread, their mouths open like the jaws of a white alligator. Their teeth are like clear glass. Two wrap their slinking arms around her as another lowers its dragon-head. She tilts her head weakly at the last moment before it chomps into her shoulder. She screams.

The shaleform sees Holm's body cloaked under the skin of the wolf Materbelius next to Tad. She shields herself from what must seem to her a swarm of nattering insects. Strangely Holm's dog-skin repulses the shaleform. The hands of the body glow red. Dust collects on his skin, coating him totally.

See. The Moon Rises!

From the center of his being rumbles the voice of the cat. He looks above the Legless Ones through the space where he has passed in the shales. The sky is like the mountain but smooth where the Talus shines in an all-encompassing peel of light. Not bright but filtered like through the skin of an animal with veins proceeding out from the inverted range. These veins are red like Telebast's skin. They gird the whole plane save one spot, one space; a hole in the world that cannot be observed. It is a cyst spewing the soot everywhere; a drain sucking the life from the Talus. Opposite this like an eclipse preparing to heave itself over the offending light is Telebast - here with Holm, under the mountain, ready to rise.

The great cat rears up and holds its paws up over the Legless Ones. They cower from it like shadows thrown from their source, flattening themselves against the shalescape. They release Darling and her athame's light dwindles as she loses her focus and returns to the world. But in the last moment before she passes back she sees Telebast - Holm - both together. 
The cat breathes deep and slow. A long throaty inhale mirrored darkly by the Legless One's screams. The soot is driven into his mouth like cattle through an abattoir, unwilling but incapable of escape. When the Legless Ones are completely in his mouth he swallows.


Holm was hungry. His spell left him aching and drained. He rested on a cold slab, trying to orient himself to the reality of the morgue against the freedom and power in the shales. The ice melted and dribbled down his neck under the dog-skin. 

Darling groaned in pain as Tad tore her jacket away from her arm. The wound from the Legless One traveled back with her shaleform. She lay prostrate against the wall sucking in labored breaths. The tooth marks seemed bloodless at first, but then they began to seep parallel red rivers down her arm and breast. Tad used the shreds of the jacket to wrap the wound, cinching the fabric tight under Darling's arm. 

Holm patted his grumbling stomach as the old scar from the parasite throbbed. He needed some kind of nourishment. Turning his head Holm licked at the icicles on the slab. With the soot cleaned out and the corpses mostly disintegrated he felt comfortable assuaging his thirst in this way.
"That's awful Holm," Tad said. She apparently was not reconciled to his craving and the length he would go to feed it. 

"Thirsty," he said in between slurping licks, "I'm just so thirsty right now. And hungry . . . but there's nothing to eat."

When Holm finished he wiped his mouth on the back of his hand and realized his lips were numb.

Doesn't matter, he thought, this is just the beginning of what I need. He stood and moved to help Tad lift Darling to her feet.

"Thanks for having my back," she said, wobbling for a second before nodding them off and moving to the door of the adjacent room. "I'll be fine," she insisted. The bleeding had slowed and she covered the make-shift dressing with her opposite hand to make sure she did not lose any more. "Let's just get on with it."

The air inside this room was even colder than the other; their breath sparkled and froze in their nostrils. In the center of the room a single slab held a body covered by a thick plastic sheet. The walls were white and set evenly with lights under frosted glass to reduce their heat. An opposite door was the only other exit.
Darling walked gingerly to the slab and lifted the sheet with her good arm. She looked down at the face of the dead man.

"Oh my God," she said. She was scared. Holm had never seen Darling scared. Not like this.

"What is it? Another one infected with the plague?" Tad said. Then she looked too. She covered her face, "What?" she said into her hands. She shook her head in disbelief and turned to Holm. He didn't understand her expression.

The cold got to Holm and he couldn't move, or maybe he didn't try, but in either case he stood rigid, famished, and confused. Vents on the ceiling sent another blast of impossibly cold air into the room which fell to the floor as artificial snow, dotting Tad and Darling's hair, settling and melting on the raised sheet.

"I didn't believe them," Darling said. She wouldn't look at him. Her eyes were fixed on the face of the corpse.

"Who? Who didn't you believe?" he asked.

"The hunters, the ones who said they followed you from beyond the barrier." Darling lowered the sheet and walked with her hand out to Holm like someone who would tame a strange dog. "You don't have to look." 

"Alright, that's enough." He stepped forward struggling against the heaviness of his limbs as if he was walking through muck, "Let me see." Darling put herself in between him and the slab, hand on his chest, pleading.

"No, we have to keep on. This is nothing, it doesn't matter." She sniffed and he thought she might cry. She summoned strength to hide her emotions . . . her grief. He had to see.

"Get out of my way," he said. Tad backed away from him as he came to the head of the slab. He touched the sheet, hesitated, and then tore it violently from the body.

The man had been dead for some time. His extremities were blue and black and his penis had shriveled in a curl like burnt meat. There was no sign of the plague on him. His skin was clean and whole with one exception. The left hand was gone, severed at the wrist. He looked at the man's face, clean-shaven, thin jaw proceeding down from a hard and grizzled forehead. He didn't recognize him at first. 

"Who are you?" Tad asked him looking between Holm and the dead man. 

"I-" He stopped. Suddenly he couldn't speak as if his voice was snatched out of his throat by a ghost. 

The man on the slab was him. He was the man on the slab. Holm Aegis. Adept of Hundun.


A weight fell on his brain as if he had been thrust deep into an ocean. With some effort he made his tongue move, to collect words in his throat, he stuttered, he spoke. But the words are foreign to him and what he said came from a dead place in his mind, unknown until uttered:

"I was . . . I had run out of options. My boy was sick and I knew Heles was responsible. They broke through something in the Talus, wounded it I think, I don't know exactly. The sickness escaped through the generators and across the continent in The Cord. 

"I was tracking the spread of it, trying to determine if a cure was possible. We could slow it down, take away some of the pain, but we couldn't cure it. I didn't realize that the plague was intelligent. No one did. When the Paternach evacuated the enclosures by way of Bank Two, their policy included pre-quarantines. It was like they knew where the sickness would strike next. So I took . . . I got a hold of the management. You know our methods. They confirmed that the Paternach was responsible. They blamed Heles and a bad mining operation in the fallen mountain. It was right around this time I got to missing my family."

Holm paused as a pang of hunger shot through him and he bit down on the inside of his cheek to keep from wincing. Tad shivered against the wall, coughing into her hand. He remembered what she said. She was sick. No surprise to him, not after what they had done to Rachel . . . to Harry. Darling couldn't keep her eyes off of the corpse. Holm continued, "I don't know if you felt this way when you were recruited, but leaving the ones I loved behind was something I never completely resolved with our mission. Why lose the very things you are trying to protect? What good is that? Now I know that I killed her when I went to visit her. They were already onto me, ready to use my love and twist it, hurt me until I suffered enough to betray Hundun. My son was sick." He swallowed the bile that rose in his throat, "The Contractors infected the whole eastern array of enclosures to make sure they got him. I was crazy, delirious with fear. I took him to the root."

"You broke one of our most sacred laws. You brought this on us," Darling said as if she had always known. Now she had no doubt.

"Yes, and I didn't give a damn. It didn't matter. The root couldn't help him. Nothing could." Holm looked at Tad but her expression had not changed.

"So . . . well, I turned." He waited for Darling to berate him but she was silent, "I set up a meeting with the Heles administrators, offered to do whatever it took if they would just help my boy . . . Ha! Saying that now it sounds absurd. But . . . they needed something from me, I can see that now, and it was no small thing. They wanted me to steal the root. I couldn't think what they could possibly want it for since the Paternach controls access to the Talus, they have all the fallen mountains guarded and segregated from the people. The root is just a remnant, barely capable of keeping us adepts going. 

"I went deep in the shales, longer than I ever had before. I went to the edge of that reality where I found the range, the place between the worlds, where everything intersects. Beyond that was the Talus. Telebast came out from the stone's foundation and he showed me the tree where the root had been cut. He said the root was the only thing that could bridge the underworld to ours, and ours to the shales. That's why Armando seeks it. Telebast called him the Traveler."

"The Traveler?" Darling's hands were shaking. She rubbed them together hard and fast as if to keep them warm.

"He's the boss. I think he calls himself 'The Lid'. And the men without legs are his instruments. The plague is just another part of his body, the part that lives in the physical world, the part that devours it. He needs the root to come over completely. He wants to blot out the Talus and take its place at the center of the universe."

"Incredible," Tad said.

"After that I changed my mind about giving them the root."

"Obviously," she snorted.

"Right. So they took my boy."

"That doesn't explain this." Darling swept her hand over the corpse.

"I infiltrated this facility once before, but they were waiting for me. I killed maybe forty or fifty of the Contractors before Armando struck me down. I escaped somehow, fled out of the city pursued constantly by his wraiths and by the Contractors. I was out of my mind but I found a safe house and an acolyte tended to my wounds. I cut off my hand and gave it to him, so I could cast one last spell. Then I went back to face Armando. I was weak, already defeated. Really I went to die. 

"And I did. Here I am. My plan was simple: the acolytes would fashion a new body from the mud of the forest and imbue it with my likeness. The body waited in the wilderness for my shaleform, and with the piece of flesh I had sacrificed it recognized me and inhabited me. So my quest could continue. But Armando wasn’t through with punishing me. He tainted the athame with that parasite and it came back with the shaleform as an infection. With my body hijacked, and my mind blank, I scrambled on in the dark. That's it, I suppose."

Holm put his hand on his first body's chest. He felt its lifelessness and its familiarity. He ran his fingers around a long bloody scar under his right breast which extended around to his back. The death blow. Reaching over the body he picked up the wrist of his left arm, examining the stump. He looked at his own left hand and balled it into a tight fist, so tight that he felt the blood flowing through it and shook with the pumping life. 

He felt the roaring pang of hunger again. He began to salivate. He knew the next step. He understood the ramifications of his death. He needed fuel . . .

"Mm," he grunted as if presented with a sumptuous meal; his stomach rumbled audibly. Tad had overcome her fear and came to him. Darling touched his arm gently, consoling. He wanted to tell them to get away from him. He wasn't sure if they would listen to him now, or ever again. But he had to try. They wouldn't want to watch.

"Turn away, please don’t look," he said, shaking with the voracity of his hunger. They hesitated. He couldn't wait. He bit down on the end of the gory arm, his mouth wide, saliva wetting his chin. The flesh wasn't hard despite the temperature of the room, so his teeth slid through the forearm with ease. 

"Oh!" Tad covered her mouth and buried her head in the nape of Darling's, "What is he doing? What the hell is he doing?" she cried. Darling shushed her and pulled her away as he began to feast. He heard a door open and close, and as soon as they were clear of the room he sprang onto the slab with the corpse and tore at its flesh. With each swallow the hunger was abated and he began to feel whole. He finished the left arm, gnawed to the bone, before he moved to the bicep. Next came the fatty part of the shoulder. He disfigured the face with his hands so that he couldn't recognize his old face any more. He plucked out the eyeballs with a rubbery pop and savored them on his tongue before they slipped down his throat. He chewed through the fatty sweetness of the lips, licking his own like the aftermath of a messy kiss. Then the intestines. These were crunchy and melted with the softness of pudding in his mouth.

"So good," he said. His belly bulged hideously over his pants, round flesh visible between the buttons on his shirt. 

When he was done the corpse was stripped of its parts. Black blood streamed down Holm's face and over his suit, and he cleaned himself with the dog-skin. Then he laid the hide out over the remains. The feet, which he did not touch, poked out from underneath. He brushed away the hunks of flesh that he had missed during his gory repast. 

"Okay, I'm finished," he called back to the women, who came into the room. They kept their distance from the slab and its dog-skin shield, and Tad winced when she saw Holm's shirt and the bloody smear from his neck to his groin. 

"Finished?" Darling said bitingly.

"Look, I had to complete the ritual. It's not pretty, but otherwise I could crumble at anytime. And I'm not ready for that yet."

"Tad told me she's infected."

"Then she said the root wouldn't help me," Tad shrugged, "I'm kind of wondering if I'm fucked."

"Not if we can stop the Lid. Armando," he said.

"Is it that easy? What about Harry?" Tad said. She coughed into her hand. He saw the cloud of black painting her fist.

"He's part of it . . ." He trailed off trying not to consider his son's death, but even in the effort to block it from his mind a needling terror punctured through. He remembered the deal he made in the diner. He hoped he could break it. He pointed at the opposite door, "That's the way to the mining operation."

"What are we waiting for?" Tad hurried to the door, anxious to be out of the room with the corpse.


The monstrous hulks of drills and extractors greeted them like an honor guard at the entrance to the cavern. Small orange lights like eyes winked on and off at their control consoles. The flickering light did not reach the edge of the huge gouge in the mountain, only sketching the humanoid machines in bare outline like an ancient painted tableau.

"The Contractors came at me here," Holm said. No sign of them now. Just dust and dirt scraping under their heels.

The three had come through a hatch that was designed to hermetically seal off the site, but the huge round piece of alloyed metal was swung open uselessly against the tunnel interior. A pair of vehicular drills the size of buses were parked underneath a low outcropping of stone. Further on a pulverizer hung immobile with its massive hammer limp between the triple struts. An open locker near the door held four large extractor skeletons, twice the size of a man with a five-rung ladder on their legs which led up to the cockpit in their airtight, spherical heads.

Tad brandished her gun nervously though she was careful to keep it pointed at the ground. Darling held the paper bag over her heart as if she was expecting something to jump out of the dark and snatch it away. Tad started when a groan of metal or rock shook the cave and a torrent of sandy debris came down from the ceiling.

"Maybe somebody is waiting for us . . . another trap?" she said. She swung her gun around her in wild twitches and Darling tried to calm her.

"It's below us, Tad, there's nothing to shoot here." Her words came without surety. 

The mountain closed back in after fifty yards and the large staging area with the two tractor drills, pulverizer, and extracting suits did not throw the light that far. 

"Wish I still had my duffel. I had a flashlight in there." Tad's eyes glinted with what shine remained from the machine's console lights.

"And that dress. Remember that dress?" said Darling with a half smile. Holm remembered. He wondered how she would have looked in it. His stomach ached with its fullness. 

"Here," he said as he felt the ground change under his feet. When Darling walked over it her soles clicked on metal. "They've sealed the well where they broke through to the Talus." He got on his knees and arranged the sigils in his mind to call upon his athame, which unsheathed glowing white, brighter than before as his need was not to kill but to see. Its light shone on a metal plate set into the rock. He ran his free fingers around its edge. 

"Holm, are you alright? You don't look good." Darling knelt at his side. He hadn't noticed he was panting; his breath whistling in his chest. His stomach lurched and Darling must have heard it, because she tilted away from him a little.

"Oh, that's disgusting . . ." Tad's face was beyond the rim of light, but he guessed the shape of her grimace. 

"Wha-" He saw his belly move through his shirt. It was not like the parasite, it did not pain him, but a second later he felt a decisive jolt in his side like he had been punched in the gut. A wave of nausea hit him and then a gurgling, like water filtering over river rocks. "Something is happening," he said.

"No shit. We don't have time for you to poke at that seal. I'll be just a sec," said Tad, hurrying back to the staging area. They watched her jog towards the extractor suits. 

"Do you know how to use those things?" Darling shouted after her. There was no response until they heard a mechanical wheeze as the extractor suit revved up. A green glow filled the spherical head and made Tad's face seem distorted and fish-like under the pressurized orb. The machine's footfalls were loud and clumsy. It didn't move fast, but more importantly its hands lit up with super hot welding flames. The twin fiery brands grew hotter with each step, the battery routing power to intensify the fire. 

"Ooh!" Holm sucked in a breath, "It seems my meal doesn't agree with me."

"Why did you have to eat it?" Darling said as they waited for Tad to trudge back to them.

"Only room in this world for one Holm Aegis, and that's me now. Trust me, it had to be done. I was . . ." he paused to burp suddenly, a long deep belch that shook his distended middle, "Compelled."

"Out of the way," Tad shouted, "Hot stuff behind you." Her voice was hollow as if from underwater.

"Are you going to make it? It's not much further now," Darling asked him as she dragged him off of the plate. The light from the welding flames was more than enough light for Tad to work by so Holm sheathed his athame. The metal bubbled as she leaned the fire into the plate. He was hypnotized for a moment by the sparks. 

"Yeah," he said finally as she finished a rough circle the size of two men abreast in the seal, "I'll be fine."
Just as he spoke the seal separated from the rock. Not the inner portion that Tad had been working on. The whole thing. Tad had leveraged the right foot of the extractor on the plate to get her hands close enough to the metal. The weight of it must have been too much for the hastily placed barrier.

She fell through with a clang. The top of the suit smashed against the rock and she disappeared down the well. Darling shouted and leaped after her. It was no use. She couldn't have lifted the suit even if she had caught it. Holm scrambled to the edge of the hole and the two held hands as they heard the explosion of metal and rock as she hit the bottom. 

"Tad!" Holm bellowed with his neck straining out into the well, holding on to the rock with white fingers.

"Don't you fall in too," Darling said, pulling him back by the shirt collar. He wrested himself away from her and dug deep in his lungs for breath and screamed out:


A kick in his belly almost did send him to his death. 

"For God's sake!" Darling's voice was deep with shock. They listened as his voice echoed back to them, cracking at the end, hoping against hope. The well was like the opening to hell - devouring their friend, stealing their hearts. 


Had he heard her? Or was it an illusion latched to the tail of his own voice as it sang in his ears? 

"Tad?" Darling shouted. She sounded winded and old.

"I'm okay! This suit saved my ass!" It was Tad. She stubbornly refused to die. Holm whispered a prayer to himself thanking who ever would listen. 

"We're coming down," Darling said. She turned to Holm with a small smile and a weary look, "We need to find a rope or something." 

"Hurry up! I'm stuck . . . and . . . . there's something down here!" Tad hollered and then a swell of coughing rose out of the hole. Darling stood with a hand on Holm's shoulder, taking every precaution not to slip into the abyssal well. 

"Gotta be some tubes or something we can use. Hold this," she said giving him the paper bag with the root crumpled inside. He took it and put it inside the inner pocket of his sport coat. "C'mon, you can pull on me." She held out both of her hands to him, and he didn't hesitate to let her strength help him up. His belly was growing and as he stood two buttons tore off from his shirt. 

"You're fucking heavy!" she said between grunts of effort, putting his arm around her shoulder. 

"Heavy enough for two men, right?"

"It's always something with you isn't it?"

She dragged him to the drills, then let him rest against the body of the cabin, holding onto the sill of the window, while she moved out of sight to the back of the machine. He heard her rummaging in the thing's engine before she reemerged with a coil of fuel tubing wrapped around her arm. She had tied it off around back and was slowly letting the tube off of her arm, only stopping to reclaim Holm from his position, his belly rumbling like a rock slide. 

When they returned to the hole, Darling prepared to swing the coil down. No more than twenty yards of it remained. She exchanged a glance with Holm that spoke of their shared hope; either it was long enough or they would spend their last moments dangling from the end of it. 

"All right, Tad, we're throwing down a rope." Darling said, cupping her mouth with her hand.

"Okay. It's so hot . . ." She said, but her voice was barely audible.

Darling let the tube drop and listened for a scrape or impact. There was only silence. Darling waved Holm to her side and handed him the rope. Carefully she lowered him into the hole. His hands were wet and shaking but he was determined to descend. She let go of his elbows and he dropped into the darkness of the well. He flung his feet out to the wall. Something to indicate he was still in the world and not the belly of a beast. He stuck against it and sent himself swinging. 

"Careful, Holm. Get your legs around the rope," Darling said from above him. The glimmer of the machine lights in the cavern cast the slightest sheen on her face. As soon as he had gotten a firm grip he started to let himself slide down. Darling climbed down after him. The heat from below swirled around him. Sweat began to drip from his brow into his eyes. He tried to wipe it with the cuff of his jacket but almost slipped and had to tighten himself around the tube quickly.

Darling was faster and had to wait for him several times. His belly kept obstructing the rope from laying straight across his body. The hot, moist air felt like a river flowing over him. When his legs touched the ground he could hardly believe it. The rock was just as dark or darker than the abyss above.

The heat was insufferable. Darling came down after him and patted him on the back. "Good work," she said. Then they stepped into the darkness. 

"Tad?" Holm said keeping his voice low, unsure of what awaited them. No answer. 

The heat came in waves like a bellows feeding flames. Darling's athame crackled into life and a gray pall filled the narrow corridor. There was an open space beyond. The extractor suit lay in a misshapen and deflated heap a few feet away. Empty. Holm put one hand on his huge belly and groped furtively for Darling's other hand as she raised the athame like a torch over her head.

Ducking under a sharp overhang of chiseled stone they came into a great antechamber. Set into the wall at the far end was a magnificent wheel. Tad was there, her legs bruised and bleeding, hopping on her right foot. She stared up at the wheel at something in the center of its five thick, serpentine spokes. A small child hung suspended, bound by black tentacles that grew out from the spokes, body bloated and pocked with the plague. It was Harry.

Behind his son the hot breath of the underworld pored from a hole bored into the earth. With each exhale the tentacles writhed and grew and their grip tightened.

"Finally," a voice from the dark slithered into Holm's ears, "You've come."

A tall man in a tan coat stepped into the light from under the wheel. He wore dark sunglasses that covered most of his face and a long scarf wrapped around his shoulders, neck, and mouth. His voice carried like a sharp bite from a snake. 

"Armando," Darling said. Her athame dimmed and the color began to shift from the brilliant white to beaming red. Holm drew the sigils for his own athame and it leapt to life in his hand. 

"Oh no. Don't do that," Armando said holding out his hand. They froze in fear awaiting some spell, but none came, "You have come to fulfill our deal," he said evenly. He looked up again at Harry. The boy's head rolled around and he moaned pathetically. 

"Let him go!" Holm said raising the athame between him and Armando. The tall man shrugged and laughed. 

"That is the deal, Holm. That is why you've come?"


"No," Holm said. He was defiant but his strength left him. His belly grew by the second and jostled him. He dropped to one knee.

"I see you've brought my pet with you. He will ensure your cooperation, I think."

He thinks it's the parasite, Holm thought. Darling helped him to his feet. She whispered to him:

"What do you want to do?" 

Holm shook his head and gasped for air, "Wait, just wait a minute."

Armando stepped closer. "Give me the amplifier," he said. The air seemed to tremble and escape from his words. 


"I know you have it. It's in your pocket."

"The root."

"Yes. And then we will replace your boy with you. Someone must bridge the gap . . . it's your choice," Armando said. He was convincing. After all, what was Holm but a husk, a shadow of his real self, a vessel to save Harry from damnation?

"Alright," he said letting his athame snuff out. A blast of heat from the bore knocked Tad onto her ass and Darling had to struggle to maintain her balance with Holm hanging on to her.

She felt his shape against her and knew he would do it.

Oh, Holm.

A bellowing laugh carried on the wind. He closed his eyes and filled the bags under them. 

"No, Holm, it's a trick. It must be," Tad said, her own tears flowing, "Don't abandon us!"

"Holm, listen to me," Darling said as a second howl attacked them. She smelled burning hair. And flesh. "He's not your son anymore. He . . . it's just the flesh that's alive. And the only reason that's possible is because of the trace of the Talus left in him from when you took him to the root."

"I can't believe that. I came for him," he said, "Let me go." 

He took his arm from around her and stepped towards Armando, who chuckled silently to himself. Holm held his belly in two hands as it rumbled. 

"That it," Armando said holding his long arms open in an embrace, "You're a good father, Holm."
A click echoed behind them. Tad coughed loud and long as if in protest.

"I'm sorry Holm," she said.

She raised her gun firm and steady in her hands. She fired once. The soft spurt of the bullet entering flesh guided her aim. She fired two more times. The small, frail body in the center of the wheel bounced after each hit. Dancing like a doll on a string.

Holm stared wide-eyed at his boy. Then he turned his gaze to Tad. His face was savage and unrecognizable.

"Idiots," Armando whispered. But the whisper grew to a whirlwind, wrapping around his clothes, which were not clothes, but a thin disguise over his true self. The coat stripped away as a third impossible breath rushed from the bore, singing its cloth, and his scarf came undone around what had appeared to be Armando's face. The sunglasses cracked and were swallowed into oblivion as The Lid rose from Armando's husk.

Its body inflated and its flesh bulged out like rippling muscles but having not the shape of muscle, but of fat. From the center of this mass a thousand waving hands spit out of its mouth, its eye, its whole being. The smell of sulfur, sugar, and phlegm overpowered Darling. She grabbed her neck as she started to choke. The Lid rose up on an invisible pillar roaring and flexing. Its monstrous pupil oozed plague soot. 

"Come see your old friends! Come see Rachel! Come see James! Darling, do you remember your parents? They live with me, below. Don't you want to see them again?"

It approached them and opened its toothy maw. 

Holm raised his hands over his head, so as not to see his death.

"Holm, you're burning!" Darling said. A wisp of smoke sprouted from his chest.


"Your pocket, what's in your pocket?" Tad cried out.

"The roo-" Darling began but the sound of a roar sheared through her words, and a flash of brilliant white light shot out from Holm's chest. The bolt traversed the distance between Holm and The Lid in an instant. 

The Lid froze. Darling's heart sprang with hope and she ran towards its gibbering body, lifting her athame to strike. Tad fired the gun, and where the bullets squelched in black soot poured like blood. But it was not finished. It grinned and stared. 

"Come out, my pet!" The Lid said, his voice seething, his joy maddening to witness. His thousand hands waved a sick come-hither.

The root burst into flame and began to feed on Holm's body. At the same moment his belly began to glow.

Red. Like a lantern. In the shape of a cat's eye.

Holm had been using both hands to try to snuff the consuming fire but now dropped them to his stomach, feeling the heat, feeling the claws that tore at him.

His belly is a mountain top.

The root is the burning moon. The Talus.

With one last effort he collected the sigils that populated his mind since his resurrection and completed the spell he had come to cast.

"See!" Holm screamed with glee, "I'm a father again! The moon rises!"

A pop in his belly, blood exploding everywhere as the fire consumed his beard and then the rest of his hair, and his skin turned to char. A cat, red like the harvest moon fed by the flames of Holm's body, huge and growing with its fuel, leaped out at The Lid.

"You don't belong in this world!" The Lid whined.

The cat was on the demon rending and clawing, its red beard filling with filth. The hands tried to defend The Lid and choked the cat. Some beat on its body with tiny balled fists. But The Lid fell to the cold floor of the mine and its movements slowed, and then ceased, as the cat tore and chewed.

Tad watched the feast in awe and grief.

Darling turned to the wheel. Her athame still burned as she climbed the spokes. She slashed at the tentacles. Harry's body fell to the ground and she climbed further still until she could peek over the lip of the hole and into the bore.

She saw a flat, smooth rock face glowing orange. The Talus. On it a small cyst throbbed. Tiny veins grew from it into the holy stone. She reached in and with a flick of wrist cut the cancer with her blade. A puff of spores, like puss from a burst blister, leaked out. They hung in the air - collected for a moment in a grasping form - and then dissipated into the air.

The Talus' light grew.

The cyst disintegrated with one last hot wheeze.

"Darling!" Tad called to her, "The cat is leaving!"

Darling looked over her shoulder from where she hung in the bore and saw a red outline disappear into a second tunnel. She scrambled down.

"My name is Laura," she said grabbing Tad's hot hand, "In case we die here . . . I wanted you to know." 
They took a last glance at the deflated mess that was The Lid and Holm's burnt and bloody corpse, little more than a blackened char. Then they followed Telebast. Up, into the mountain.


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