An old man’s form laid in the shifting fog. He was shirtless and dirty, his body battered and bruised. A shock of white hair ringed his bald crown. Beneath him, the ground blinked in and out of existence. The sky swirled with pale streaks of color; red, orange, blue, gray. The suffocating emptiness and silence bore down on him, crushing his will to live. An incorporeal being flashed into existence, hovering in front of the unknown man.
“Soon, I will have what I need.” The ethereal form’s voice seemed to come from everywhere and nowhere.
“No matter what you do to me, I will not help you hurt that child,” stammered the man on the ground.
A slight chuckle echoed away from the faceless figure. “You already have.”
Their surroundings transformed from the empty, ethereal nothingness to that of a large house on a stormy night. Through the haze, the man could just make out the shape of a young boy sitting on a bed. The man snapped to attention as he recognized the setting.
“No! That’s my house!” He stood up with wide eyes, his mouth agape.
His vision sharpened as his eyes adjusted to the haze and he inched closer. He could make out the details of the scene before him. The boy was holding a wax seal in his hands. He stumbled and fell to his knees as his eyes settled on the object in the boy’s lap. It was a wooden box with an intricate carving on the lid.
The image shifted, and the boy was now holding the seal above the box. He carefully lowered it towards the carved box. A cold bead of sweat dripped down the man’s spine as he crawled backwards and fell onto his back and elbows as a memory entered the forefront of his mind.
He recalled himself opening that box for the first time and the ecstasy he felt. He thought he had discovered a way to explain the afterlife to all mankind and bring hope into a world in desperate need of it; he was wrong. Instead of containing hope to be released to the world, the box prevented a nefarious being from bringing destruction and despair to the world.
A fear so powerful he felt the need to flee from its source in self preservation replaced the joy he remembered experiencing. The memory faded, but it served a purpose. He knew he couldn’t allow that box to open again. He sat up and raised his hands in front of him with splayed fingers.
The man fought to his feet and half ran, half fell toward the boy, flailing his arms, but he was too late, the box was open. The moment it opened, the hovering figure let out a satisfied sigh as his form became slightly more substantial.
“Yes!” It hissed, “I can feel my power returning!”
Trembling, the man looked from the figure to the boy. “Stop, please!”
He lunged forward to close the box, but an invisible wall stopped him from reaching the child. Heedless of the pain, the man banged on the force holding him back. Startled, the boy raised his head from the box and looked toward the man.
“Yes! That’s it!” He smiled as he turned to look at the floating monster. “He can hear me! I can stop this!”
He banged on the unseen barrier again.
“Your efforts are futile. I will not allow you to hinder my return a second time.” The phantom edged forward.
His breath caught in his throat and his eyes widened as he realized the demon would stop him. His body hummed as though electricity had replaced his blood and flowed through his body. He spun back to the scene before him. The boy was right in front of him, looking right at him. The man hit the barricade again. Perspiration dotted his forehead as he peered over his shoulder and saw the wraith still coming closer.
“Don’t open it!” The veins on his neck bulged and he slammed his fists again and again. The devil reached the man and threw him to the ground. The vision disintegrated as the man fell and the cold, desolate surroundings returned.
The spirit looked down on the man, who was on his knees again with his head in his hands.
“I will not fail again. It has already begun.”
The man shook as his body racked with sobs. He lowered his hands and stared with his tear-filled eyes at the bodiless creature before him.
“What have I done?” He raised his eyes and looked to the dim, moonless sky as the colors swirled across it.
He lowered his head and stared at the thing before him once again. He stood to his full height, straightening his aged shoulders. He puffed out his chest and pointed a shaking, arthritic finger.
“I will not let you do this!”
“You can’t stop fate.”
The words washed over the man like ice water. Goosebumps covered his body. He turned his face away from those words and grabbed his upper arms in an attempt to rub some warmth and courage into his aching bones. His thoughts turned to the anguish he had felt since coming to this place.
He knew he had made a terrible mistake. His personal sacrifice had been for nothing. This thing was still in control. He thought of the horrors his tormentor would unleash upon the child and the world unless he prevented it. His skin flushed as his hatred for the monster before him rose to unbridled levels.
“No! No! No!” He shook his head for emphasis. His hands fell back to his sides as his body quivered with rage, his racing heartbeat visible beneath his frail chest. He stopped shivering as the anger that had built in his chest melted his fear.
“No. I was weak, but now I know what you are.” He took a step toward the ghostly being.
“I know what you want with the boy. You will not do this.” The muscles in his jaw flexed with determination.
With a strength and athleticism he hadn’t felt in forty years, and determination steeling his spine, a primal noise grew deep within him and passed his lips.
Believing it would be the last thing he ever did, he rushed the apparition. Completely unfazed by the sudden aggression, the vaporous figure raised a single hand, stopping the attack before it even began. All the air in the man’s lungs escaped as his chest contracted from the invisible grip of the evil creature. His muscles froze, preventing him from so much as blinking.
A cold breeze covered him as the specter came closer.
“You can’t stop this, Arthur. He will release me.”
Black lines crept outward from the center of his chest. They coursed down his arms and legs, branching as the went. They travelled up his neck and spread across his face. A single tear rolled down Arthur’s cheek. The sprite dropped its hand on his shoulder and Arthur knew nothing but blackness.