"There has to be an easier way of doing this," Susan Aisling complained. She tossed a strand of dark blond hair over her shoulder and adjusted her glasses, then hastened to keep pace with her three classmates. Further along the trail, David led Diane and Jason through the woods to complete their group project. Twilight had begun to set in, and an icy wind blew from the north.
Canadian air, Susan thought to herself, and hugged her arms against her torso. Late autumn in Darnell, Vermont meant days of overcast skies, skeletal trees, and dead brown grass. There’re so many better things I could be doing. There’s the script for the new play at the community theater, or-
"Is the great queen of the stage afraid of the forest at night?” Jason Calhoun taunted from up ahead. The broad-shouldered teenager turned back to grin at her, and she could see his sharp cheekbones and chiseled jaw in the dim light.
She recalled him and several of his football cronies throwing rotten fruit at the stage in the middle of last year’s theater club production of Richard III, before they ran off chortling at their prank. Susan had received her first major role as Queen Margaret in that play, hence the nickname.
Susan took the bait. "Oh, so I’m the one who’s afraid? From what I’ve heard, you’re the only football player in the school that refuses to shower with the team.” She smirked. “So what are you afraid of, Jason? That you’ll get a boner in front of all those guys or that they’ll laugh at you for being so small?” Jason’s face purpled in the dim light.
"All right, cut it out you two,” Diane Shula interjected, and Susan bit her lip to keep from firing a retort at her former best friend. Diane shot her an exasperated look before turning back to Jason. He puffed out his chest beneath the letterman jacket he wore, and Susan figured he must have been showing off. Jason was known for his throwing arm, not his subtlety.
Susan turned to David Sanderson. “So what's so special about these woods?" She asked him while noticing that Diane had slowed her pace so she walked closer to Jason. Susan scowled and looked away. David fumbled in his sweatshirt pocket for his flashlight, and then turned it on to illuminate the rocky, overgrown path ahead of them.
"We have to visit a historic landmark and make a poster for a class presentation, right?" David asked them.
"Yeah, that's what we're supposed to do. But I don't think this is what Ms. Ghastly had in mind," Diane replied. Ms. Ghastly was the long-standing nickname for Ms. Gasney, their pale, hollow-eyed history teacher.
"Well, Ghastly likes to give extra credit for creativity and initiative,” David answered from up ahead. “I've got a landmark that no one else will be able to find, or would even think to use." David turned the corner of his mouth up in a grin that Susan could barely see in the fading light. "How many of you have heard the legend of Joel Callahan?"
Susan realized that although she had seen David almost every day in school, she knew little about him. David's companions were his classmates, not his friends. They wouldn’t be with him now if it weren't for the group project he had volunteered to lead. He kept to himself, and Susan had seldom seen him in town during summers. During the school year he walked home as soon as the bell rang, traipsing in solitude amidst the forest through which he now guided them.
The others watched him bend his tall, thin frame through the twisted silhouettes that comprised the forest at dusk. David pushed back a strand of straight brown hair and aimed his flashlight down the trail. He made brief eye contact with Susan, and then turned back to the path.
David remained quiet, waiting for an answer to his question about Joel Callahan. Susan noticed that Diane and even Jason seemed a little intimidated by him, and she felt disconcerted as well. This was David’s element, and while he might have appeared withdrawn at school he possessed an aura of confidence here.
"I've heard a little about him. Didn't he go insane or something?" Susan asked into the silence.
"Or something," David answered with a secretive smile. "At the center of these woods lies a bridge that predates all of the colonial settlers. The natives in the area shunned the bridge and refused to drink from the river that flowed beneath it. The settlers found the structure and thought of it as more of an oddity than any kind of threat. It’s made of a wood unlike anything anyone has ever seen, black and hard as stone, almost as if it were petrified. Once people started vanishing, the settlers began to wonder about it. That’s where Callahan came in.”
"People vanished?" Diane asked with an anxious expression, and Jason found his excuse to put his arm around her.
"Tell us more about this bridge we're searching for." Susan addressed David, ignoring the other two.
"We're not searching, I cross it every day on my way home from school. But I didn’t learn about its dark and tragic history until a couple of weeks ago. People regard it as more of a myth now, but it’s all in the town records and old archived issues of the Darnell Harbinger. Some of the story remains unconfirmed, but there’re enough historical facts to satisfy Ghastly."
“Come on, out with the story already,” Susan commanded with a roll of her eyes, but she couldn’t hide her curiosity. Diane was trying to feign disinterest but kept shooting glances at David’s back. Even Jason now looked at him with a mixture of fascination and contempt, although Susan figured he had just come along for the chance to hit on Diane. Why else would an ignorant jock like him care about an urban legend? Susan shook her head in disdain.
"The original settlers of Darnell ignored the superstitions of the Native Americans and built the town near the forest and close to the bridge,” David began. “For a while the new town prospered. The first issues of the Darnell Harbinger emerged from the town’s new printing press, along with other businesses. But then an old man who lived on the edge of the forest disappeared. A week after, his body washed up on the banks of the river. It was well preserved, except that the man's face was gone. From chin to forehead, not even the bone beneath the face endured, and no brain tissue remained inside his skull.” He paused, and the group held their breath.
“A few months later the barber's wife disappeared, but the villagers whispered that she had run off with another man. The barber had been known to be violent when drunk, which was pretty much every night.” David stopped and directed his flashlight at the path ahead before continuing in a low voice.
“At around this time several people reported that they felt like an ominous force watched them from above, and no matter how long they stared into the sky they couldn’t find the source. Talk of demons and monsters glimpsed in the woods began to circulate within the town.” He paused to navigate a treacherous branch-strewn segment of the path, and then resumed.
"Two weeks later a farmer went missing, and for that nobody could come up with an explanation. He had a wife and three children, and was well liked throughout the town. His family said he left one night and never returned.” David stopped and turned to look back at them. “The villagers found a hat he had often worn around Darnell snagged on a tree branch near the bridge.” He began walking again.
“Then an entire family of four disappeared in the middle of the night. Indistinct tracks led from the house into the forest, but did not lead back out.” David paused to draw breath.
“After the family vanished, the townsfolk began to speak of witches. Soon accusations began to fly,” David continued, glancing back to gauge his audience’s reaction. He met Susan’s gaze, and an unreadable expression passed across his face. He turned back to scout the path.
"A woodcutter named Joel Callahan led a group of men with weapons and lanterns into the forest, hoping to solve the mystery of the bridge and lay the villagers’ suspicions about witchcraft to rest. By the reports available today on Callahan, he stood at about six and a half feet tall and could lift even large logs by himself. The burgeoning town often looked to him as a leader.”
“Because brawn and muscles are great leadership qualities, not, you know, intelligence.” Susan interjected with a glance at Jason.
“Hey, it’s not a bad way of doing things,” Jason replied with a grin. He flexed his arm, and Susan saw Diane give him an admiring look. She frowned and turned away.
“Well, I suppose it’s debatable whether Callahan should have been the de facto mayor of the town,” David replied. “But at the time the people needed someone like him, I think. He led the expedition to the bridge, and they found it in the center of a silent clearing. No insects, no birds, not even the water made a sound, a survivor of the expedition would later report.” David glanced ahead, and Susan thought she saw a flicker of uncertainty pass across his face.
"At the bridge, Callahan raised his axe and swung it into the strange black wood, hoping its destruction might evoke whatever menaced the town,” David resumed. “The blade sunk into the rail, and then stuck. The woodcutter heaved on the handle, but it wouldn't budge. For a time each of the men tried to remove the axe, but the bridge wouldn’t give it up.” David looked back at them, the shadows of the forest caressing his lean face.
Diane huddled even closer to Jason, and Susan wondered why she even agreed to join this group. She had thought Diane invited her because she wanted to reconnect, but she had spent the entire time flirting with Jason Calhoun, the school’s star quarterback. Susan remembered a time when Diane couldn’t care less about football or guys with muscles, she thought as she watched them out of the corner of her eye.
“At that point, they realized that one of their companions, a horse merchant named Benjamin Cavanaugh, was no longer with them. Callahan said that he thought Benjamin had gone back to the village, but the rest were unsure.”
Jason stumbled over a fallen branch, interrupting the story. David turned with his flashlight to help illuminate the path for his classmates. He continued the tale as he walked backward. David must have walked through these woods so many times he knows the path by heart, Susan thought to herself. Or maybe he knows this part of the forest better then the rest. That thought disturbed her, and she tried to push it out of her mind.
“That was the last event anyone in Callahan’s group remembered with clarity. Over the next few days the party returned, often dehydrated, malnourished, and dazed. None of them seemed to understand that several days had passed since they had departed. The only ones who didn't return were Joel Callahan and Benjamin Cavanaugh.” David paused. "Look! We're here."
The bridge stood before them in the pale glow of their flashlights. Night had fallen, and the wood of the bridge appeared to glisten under the illumination. Unlike the elegant covered bridges that Vermont was renowned for, this bridge was open to the elements. Spindly, jagged posts held up the crossbeams, but the surface looked sturdy enough.
The gray waters of the small, unnamed river flowed beneath the dark underside. She shivered. This was what she needed to photograph and then draw for their project. She took out her camera and began snapping several pictures with her night lens. She snapped a couple shots of Diane and David, but not Jason. Wouldn’t want to profane the film, she thought with a sneer.
“I’m gonna go check it out up close, I’ll be back in a bit.” Jason chimed in, and then scuttled down the bank before anyone could stop him.
"Finish the tale," Susan urged. Diane looked anxious, and Susan considered going over to comfort her. But if she liked Jason so much then she could wait for him to come back, Susan decided.
"The men of the expedition returned, but days went by with no sign of Callahan. The people of Darnell went about their business, but murmurs of leaving and going elsewhere spread. Callahan's young wife, pregnant with their child, wept each night while some of the village women consoled her as best they could. Benjamin Cavanaugh was given up for dead.”
David paused and illuminated his face with his flashlight in an effect that might have been cheesy in any other situation, but at that moment it sent a chill down Susan’s spine.
“Two weeks from the day of the expedition, Callahan returned to the village. Only his stature and the axe he carried gave a hint to his identity. He must have recovered his weapon from the bridge at some point, and he looked as if he had been wandering the forest for days.” David idly shined his flashlight around the bridge, drawing emphasis to it. Despite whatever social flaws David might have, he seemed to have a flair for oration. Susan wondered if she could convince him to join the theater club after the group project was finished.
"Callahan looked almost skeletal when he returned, with flesh stretched tight where there had once been muscle and sinew. He appeared as if he had aged thirty years, and his eyes were sunken and haunted. He spoke one word, ‘Ialu’, and he repeated it many times each day. His clothes hung from his sparse frame in tatters, and the doctor found small, half-healed cuts all over his body. His hair had gone white as bone.” Diane looked around for Jason as David continued speaking, but he hadn’t returned yet.
"He was brought to the village doctor, and his cuts began to heal. But Callahan's mind remained broken. He still would not speak beyond the one nonsensical word he knew, and his eyes retained their haunted appearance. He returned to his wife, who did her best to make accommodations for him.” David gazed at his audience, and both girls held their breath. David smiled before resuming the legend. He ventured out onto the surface of the bridge, and the two girls reluctantly followed.
“One night Callahan left along with his axe,” David resumed. “He was never seen again, but the disappearances stopped and with them the sensations of being watched from the sky. After a whole year went by without any strange occurrences, the villagers decided that Joel Callahan had saved them at the cost of his own life. They built a memorial in his honor, but it was destroyed in the fire that-”
"Jason!" Diane interjected in a panicked shriek. Susan looked away from David, snapped out of her trance by Diane's panicked cry. "He’s been gone for over five minutes, he should have been back by now! Jason!"
Susan was about to dismiss Diane’s panic as just another plea for attention, but something in the other girl’s eyes unnerved Susan. She had seen that look before, when Susan and Diane had been younger and far from the rift that high school would bring. Susan was about to go over to her when the three of them heard movement on the riverbank below, and Diane darted off the bridge and scrambled down the slope.
"Diane, wait!" Susan called out, a heavy feeling descending into her stomach. The girl shrieked at something they couldn’t see, and the two remaining students exchanged glances. Diane’s screech fell flat in the night, as if the air warped around the bridge so that no sound could escape. Susan heard a scraping sound, and then Diane’s voice cut off with a yelp. David and Susan looked at each other in shock.
"We have to go after her," Susan told him, forcing courage into her voice. "Come on."
"We can't go down there!” David exclaimed. “Who knows what might be-"
"You brought us here, the least you could do is help them!" Susan hissed with a glare.
"I've been here hundreds of times, nothing like this has ever happened!” David protested. "It was a legend. I was just trying to scare you and Diane, Jason said-“
"I don't care what that muscle-bound moron said. Although I guess we should try to find him too." She grabbed his thin arm through his sweatshirt. "Come on, we're wasting time." She hauled David off the bridge and down the embankment.
“Okay, I’m coming! I wasn’t going to let you go down there alone, I just…never mind.” Susan released her grip on his arm, and he followed her down to the river’s edge. The water lapped at the bottom of the bridge, but nothing else moved. Susan noticed something sticking out of the wood and leaned over to inspect it.
She gagged and grabbed David’s arm again, this time leaning on him for support. She saw several scarlet gouges in the wood, and the remains of one pink press-on fingernail. Diane must have been clinging to the bridge as something jerked her down with hideous strength. Susan let go of David’s arm and sank to her knees, crawling a few feet away to relinquish her lunch on the freezing ground.
“What…the hell…” She panted between coughs.
“Susan, listen to me! Please, this wasn’t-”
David stopped talking as movement beneath the bridge caught his attention. A shadow lunged at him, and the two figures struggled. The anonymous figure kicked David in the back of his leg, forcing him down. David glanced over at where Susan sat too shocked to intervene, and she saw the stark terror in his eyes. Then the figure shoved him face-first into the river. David tried to scream for help but something unseen pulled him beneath the water.
The shadow slid towards Susan, who raised her flashlight in trembling hands to illuminate David’s assailant. Jason stood there, grinning at her. He had removed his shirt and jacket, and on his torso Susan saw burn scars in the shapes of bizarre symbols, as if he had been branded hundreds of times by a lunatic cowherd. His hand shot out and gripped her by the hair, forcing her towards the water with incredible strength. Her flashlight fell to the ground and rolled, stopping just at the edge of the water. His eyes glinted with an intelligence she had never seen before.
"You- you arranged this…"
"Yes. As a child I found a book beneath the false bottom of a steamer trunk, a whispering book with covers of obsidian. It called out to me, and I rescued it from its prison. It is a book with a name no human tongue can speak, a tome brought to Earth from afar when our species still festered in the primordial sludge. The book awakens the bellowing gate to Ialu.” Susan managed a glance at Jason’s face, and his smile was icy in the light of the fallen flashlight.
“So the whole dumb jock thing…” Susan coughed out.
Jason grinned in response. “Listen to the song of the gate, Susan!” He roared into the air. Susan began to hear a low, hungry growl emanate from the structure. It sounded different than any animal on Earth could produce, savage and merciless.
“Joel Callahan got a few things wrong,” Jason continued in a calmer tone as he held her in place a hair’s breath above the water. “That family, the barber’s wife, the farmer…Joel came in the night and forced them to the bridge. It took them all the same, but it didn’t count, their trust had to be betrayed. One must reject the moralities of Earth in totality before one can be accepted into the realms beyond the gate.” Susan heard him sigh with frustration.
“The men he brought with him into the forest all ran after the bridge took Benjamin Cavanaugh,” Jason continued. “My ancestor only managed to offer one true sacrifice while the Children of Ialu chased the others.”
“Callahan…Calhoun…” Susan’s eyes widened as she put the pieces together. “Joel was your ancestor! All these years you’ve just been-”
“Acting,” Jason finished, and Susan felt an absurd desire to laugh at the irony. “I did enjoy ruining your play, you conceited, possessive bitch.”
Susan struggled, but his muscular arms were like chorded steel. She craned her neck to look into his eyes, and saw a mixture of madness tinged with hatred. She wondered if that book had done this to him, turning a curious child into a fevered madman through years of imparting its hushed council.
“David liked you, did you know that? It was my idea to use the bridge for our project. I mentioned that if he told the legend with enough panache it would impress a theater nerd like you, and that idiot practiced for days.” He forced her closer to the surface of the water.
He gestured at his mutilated torso with one hand while he held Susan down with the other. “When I reached adolescence I burned the sacred sigils into my flesh, as the book instructed. My ancestor feared that his wife, then his fiancé, would betray him as a witch if he completed that part,” Jason recounted with a glower.
From this view the river seemed impossibly deep, as if it went down for miles. She shouldn't have been able to see that far down, but a source of pale yellow light shone from the bottom. The waters began to stir and then froth. Something down there gave off an unearthly glow, and it began rising towards her from the obscured bottom. As Jason pushed her further into the water, she saw its true form. Her screams grew muffled as she lost her balance and tumbled into the turbulent river. Seconds later, something ripped her from the surface and pulled her below.
Jason didn’t glance at the water as Susan disappeared beneath the waves. He threw back his head and gazed with fervor at the stars, which grew brighter and began to pulse. For just a moment, he felt something looking back at him across the vast expanse of the night sky.
“Jaggi garthen iaki! Ithgen Caarn!” He began a lengthy chant in a harsh, guttural language, and then finished by screaming out “Ialu!” In his voice the word became an ululating shriek that echoed through the trees and hovered over the bridge in a cloud of vicious sound.
Jason fell to his knees, and his head banged against the gleaming wood of the bridge, the energy drawn from him. He felt his body pulled towards the water by some unseen force. His last bit of willpower left him, and he dropped into the water from the embankment.
The river, which had always been slow and lazy before, now flowed faster than any mountain rapids. The water swept Jason beneath the structure and held him suspended in a whirlpool. As he looked up at the underside of the bridge, he saw distorted shapes moving about with large, bulbous orange eyes. They didn’t blink, only gathered around to stare. Then the vortex wrenched him down.
Darkness swallowed Jason, and the numbing embrace of the river stilled his body. The water dropped away, and he found himself flying through an unfathomable void. Dim stars faded into oblivion, and the emptiness seemed infinite as it surrounded him. Jason hurtled towards a distant cluster of clashing light and shadow at the edge of the abyss.
He found himself lying flat on his back in the center of a field, staring up at a kaleidoscopic sky. The stars appeared too large and bright, and they were the wrong constellations, shapes, and colors. Titanic worm-like creatures with hundreds of gnashing mouths floated in the sky, trailing clusters of pale tentacles. They wove their way between dark, pulsating orbs that drifted among strands of strange yellow clouds.
Something that he could not see stared down at him from the crazed horizon. He could feel it, the same presence that had watched him in the forest, a being whose gaze could span the cosmos. The whispering book had alluded to a creature known as the Gatekeeper, which manifested when one opened the portal without making the requisite sacrifices. He glanced upwards and shuddered. His ancestor must have seen that entity, and it had destroyed him.
Jason was naked, cold, and he felt heavier than he had on Earth. He couldn’t breathe, but he found that air wasn’t necessary here. His heart didn’t beat, yet he remained conscious and aware. The world around him roiled with hideous sights and sounds that unsettled his senses and wracked his body.
He pushed himself to his feet with considerable effort. The grass felt wrong; the texture was strange and unpleasant on his bare flesh. He was heavier than he had been on Earth, and his neck began to ache as he gazed around. A large, flat building stood in the distance, surrounded by peculiar colored lights.
The Gatekeeper hovered above him but remained invisible in the sky. Jason shivered beneath its immense, inscrutable gaze.
"I was supposed to be rewarded with the secret knowledge of the stars! I sang the chants, made the sacrifices, and opened the gate! It was written…" Jason trailed off. His words fell around him, dropping like stones as if they possessed a physical weight.
Across the field, a group of figures approached, cloaked in darkness. As they approached, Jason saw that they wore masks of human faces. The eye sockets in all of the faces were empty and dark. They stood taller than any person, and skeletally thin. Bizarre mutters filled the air as the figures conversed over his head. They did not speak English, or any language heard on Earth, but Jason understood them nonetheless.
"Beyond the stars, a hidden path, devotion sung anew…
“Three betrayed, passage paid, across the bridge to Ialu…”
“And eager we are, for the pleasures…”
“Callow conjurer, heedless sorcerer…”
"Insatiable lust, unrivaled zeal…"
“Shrouded wisdom, seething heart…”
"Abyss-Gazer, All-Watcher, Gatekeeper at the Threshold..."
The whispers shot back and forth, faster and fiercer, the words losing meaning as the forms hissed with increasing ardor. The figures spun around him, a whirl of dead faces and twisted shapes. One of them wore Diane’s face, and another displayed half of David’s face. A miasma of raging colors comprised the other half.
They transformed while they moved, becoming less and less recognizable as they spun. They twisted and turned in ways that defied biology and geometry alike. Strange appendages with talons lashed out, striking each of the symbols Jason had burned into his flesh. Knowledge began to fill his mind, and his blood flowed into the fallow plain of Ialu.
The alien stars burned, and the entity above shifted and began to reveal itself. “No! I made the sacrifices! Why?” Jason whispered in a desperate voice. As the Gatekeeper showed itself in full he found the air in his lungs to scream, a shrill sound that pierced the thick atmosphere. The figures paused in their mad dance.
They turned to the sky and echoed Jason's scream, but for them it was not a sound of terror, it was a sound of exultation and worship. Jason continued to bawl after the air in his lungs expired, his voice echoing through the vile field beyond the material clutches of time and space.
Long after the figures had departed, long after Jason's body should have given out to hunger, thirst, or old age, his bawls continued and on through the unending night. His shrieks twisted and built upon each other, taking form and reverberating back and forth across the land in a frenzied dance of their own.
When Jason’s cries faded to whimpers, his body and consciousness disintegrated and flew back across the abyss. This time he saw things there, beings hidden in foul niches of the void that grasped at him but could not find purchase. He landed back on the bridge less than an hour and more than an eternity after he had been dragged beneath. His jeans dripped with frigid river-water beneath his emaciated, bleeding torso.
He stared into the water that reflected not the image of a teenager but a lacerated, gaunt old man with bone-white hair and the barest trace of youth in his face. Within his haunted, dark-rimmed eyes now lay the forbidden secrets of the cosmos.
Susan tried to swim away as the pale, worm-like creature encircled her body with its pink-tipped tentacles. She felt a sharp pain around her ankle, and looked down through the murky water to see that the creature had bitten down on her foot with one of its gnashing, circular mouths. Her lungs began to ache, and she felt faint.
A figure floated in front of her, pulling at the massive limb that clutched her body. She focused her eyes and saw David beating on the extremities of the thing. As she looked closer, she saw that he had not escaped unscathed. Half of his face looked as if it had been chewed on or burned, and one of his eyes was milky. His good eye held more emotion than she had ever seen him display.
He bent over in the water and sunk his teeth into the tentacle, tearing off a strip of the rubbery, putrid flesh and releasing a stream of ichor into the water. Then he inserted his hand into the appendage and ripped the soft innards apart. The beast loosened its grip, and David grabbed her arm and pulled her to the surface, away from the flailing thing.
He snagged a tree branch that extended over the embankment, and pulled them both out of the water and onto dry land. Susan coughed up water as David watched with his one good eye. Jason and Diane were nowhere to be seen. Susan finished coughing and lay on her back trying to catch her breath. Her foot still throbbed where the creature had bitten it, but it no longer burned. The river calmed, and the creature lurking beneath the surface disappeared into its depths.
“I’m sorry I got you and Diane into this mess,” David averted his gaze as Susan looked up at him. “I didn’t know, but I think I understand now.”
“Jason said you had a thing for me. Is that true?” There were several questions she wanted to ask, but somehow that one leapt to the front.
David remained silent for a few seconds. “I’m not all that great with people. It’s why I never really talked to anyone at school, I was too shy to make friends.” He paused. “I went to a couple of your plays, and I thought it was cool how passionate you were about that stuff. I liked hearing you sing, too.” The look in his eyes told her the rest.
“Is that why you chose our group when no one else picked you to be in theirs?” David nodded, and Susan laughed bitterly. “I almost didn’t join Diane’s group, but when she asked me I thought she wanted to work things out.”
“She was someone special to you?” David asked.
“She was my best friend since childhood. She was the girl that lived next door. But then we just…grew apart, I guess. It wasn’t her fault, I wasn’t ready for things to change.” It struck her as ridiculous that this conversation was even happening after what they had been through that night, and she wondered for a brief moment if she were still unconscious.
The moon had risen, and it illuminated David in its glow. Susan realized that his body didn’t cast a shadow.
“It bit into my skull and drowned me in the river, but some part of me managed to escape. For a little while, at least.” David looked away.
“But how did you…save me?” Susan asked in a hesitant voice.
“I think it might have to do with the bridge, it allows for things that should not be to manifest here.” David paused. “It cost me a lot of energy, though. My feelings…” Even in his current state Susan saw color rise to his cheeks. “I think they gave me the strength.”
“Now that I’m dead, the bridge looks different. It’s not really a bridge; it’s a portal and a horrid, gaping maw. I can hear its howl.” David’s face took on an expression of loathing as he gazed at the structure. “Leave this place, Susan. Go, and don’t return. Never speak of what you saw tonight.”
“I won’t tell anyone else, but I can’t run away yet. There’s something I have to do.” Susan turned as movement caught her eye, and she saw the pale, translucent figure of Diane. They gazed at each other for several seconds.
“I’m sorry, Suzy Q,” the other girl whispered, and Diane’s old nickname brought a faint smile to her face. “I should have seen Jason’s true self sooner.”
Susan felt hot tears rush down her face. “None of this was your fault, Diane! I shouldn’t have reacted the way I did. Jason was right about that, at least. I was being selfish and immature, and now you’re...”
Diane drifted over to Susan, her translucent form passing through several trees. She enfolded the living girl in her arms, and they stayed that way for several seconds. Her embrace felt like a gentle flurry of winter snowflakes swirling around Susan’s body.
“I know what you’re planning,” she murmured in Susan’s ear. “Do it,” she whispered, and then became smoke in the glare of the moon.
Susan turned back to David, who now looked less substantial. “Thank you. For doing what you did, for fighting that thing. I’m sorry that I blamed you for everything at first.”
“It’s okay. I’m glad that I could at least save you, but I must go now. The harlequins of the Gatekeeper summon me to cavort in the bowels of Ialu. I must join their cruel troupe, and Diane with me.”
“There are some things that should not be described, and the realms of Ialu are first among them. Forget all that you can, or else it will haunt you until the end of your days.”
He glanced up at the sky with a look of despair on his face. There seemed to be more stars out tonight than usual. “He will return soon, I can see him through the gate. You survived, and his incantation failed.” David met her gaze. “Goodbye, Susan Aisling. I wish I could have gotten to know you better.”
“David…” He flashed her a nervous smile, and then faded away. Susan let herself fall to the ground, where she rested but remained alert, waiting with a thick tree branch in her hand. Every couple of minutes she lifted her other hand to wipe a stray tear from her cheek.
A short time later she saw the waters of the river swell to encompass the bridge. They receded after a moment, depositing a scrawny, white-haired man onto its surface. With a shock she realized it was Jason. She held her breath and staggered up behind him.
Before Jason could turn, Susan swung her makeshift club into the back of his head, sending him sprawling onto the slick black surface of the bridge. He looked up at her, surprise tainting his now ancient features.
He tried to stand, and she bashed him in the temple. She leaned over Jason and straddled him, then dropped her weapon and wrapped her fingers around his neck. She squeezed as hard as she could, and Jason’s eyes bulged.
As she choked the life out of him he stared past her, up at the sky. “Time, it…never ends…and never…began…” Jason coughed out, either oblivious or indifferent to his encroaching death. Susan tightened her grip on his throat.
A jolt passed through Jason’s body, and he snapped out of his stupor. “No! I won’t! I won’t go back!” He began to grapple with renewed fervor. Susan dug her thumbs into Jason’s throat. She crushed his Adam’s apple, and a jet of crimson spurted from his mouth. As they continued their silent struggle, Susan thought of Diane and David, lost forever beneath the muddy waters of the river. She steeled herself and met Jason’s gaze as he gasped his final breaths.
In his eyes she saw a field of misshapen masked figures capering beneath a sky rampant with giant worm-like things, and beyond them…Susan turned away as the visions assaulted her. She received only a glimpse of what lurked above the pale worms, and even that hint sent a shudder of revulsion to the core of her being.For a moment she almost felt sympathy for Jason. Beneath her, she felt the last bit of life drain from his body. Susan waited a full minute, then released him and stood up. Her injured foot ached from the pressure of standing, and she shifted her weight to her other foot. She cast one more glance at the waters beneath the bridge, then began the long trek back to town.