Chapter 4: The Revelation
They climbed, resting when they could at the ever-decreasing sleeping gateways, their bodies becoming more and more susceptible to the scorching updrafts. Debilitated as his own body was , Hal could only watch when Amelia began crying, screaming as a large rent burst open across her back. He watched, too, as Doc Turner slowly began losing ground until he was barely keeping pace with Hal at the back of the group. And he watched all the troubled, dangerous glares directed at Amun from Father Donahue every time they gained a portal.
Hal didn’t know how long they had been climbing when he began to hear the hauntingly out-of-place sound of singing superimposed over the boundless echoes of weeping and wailing. He imagined he must fully resemble one of the blackened souls from the depths by now, but that sound, that beautiful, chilling sound, renewed his struggle, and he pulled himself onward up the rocky cliff with strengthened resolve.
Amun, too, seemed to sense the end of his journey, and his pace increased so much to the point that they climbed right past a gateway cave, the sweet, cool breath of life issuing from it nearly enough to make Hal abandon the party and run cowering for its depths. He stayed on Amun’s tail, though.
Fortunately for Amun.
They were nearly at the crest of the rise when Amun, wailing like one of the bodies from the edge of the lake, missed his grip. He tried to catch himself, but the skin on his palms, blackened and peeling from the searing rock, simply sloughed away beneath his grip, and with a cry like a thousand screaming souls, he toppled backwards, flailing and reaching to his utter limit.
Doc Turner reached for him but missed. Hal though, shot his arm out just in time to catch the shrieking creature’s ankle as he tumbled past.
Hal gripped his rocky handhold with all his strength and heaved, rotating Amun’s body around so he was lying against the rock face. He could feel the squirm of Amun’s flesh growing beneath his hand as the creature leached off his touch. Gritting his teeth, Hal looked down.
Amun was dangling limply in his grip, the strands of tendon and sinew worming out from beneath Hal’s palm in ropy bands as he held on. Suddenly, Amun’s body contracted, knees bending and abdominals flexing, curling along himself like a snake as he reached out for Hal’s wrist. Amun’s hand made contact with him, and Hal’s vision went white.
A girl wearing all black with pink-tipped, black pigtails on either side of her head bounced up the steps of the bus. Two black-haired, black clad teenage boys with dead eyes followed her in. They took seats only a short distance away from where Hal sat, for once not driving. She wore a silver cross around her neck, and Hal grunted an ironic laugh at the sight.
The girl saw and frowned in his direction. “You got a problem?”
Hal raised his brows in innocent mockery. “Nah, it’s just… shouldn’t you be wearing a pentagram, or a goat, or something? …You don’t exactly strike me as a choir-girl, is all.”
The girl glanced down at her cross. “I can still be a Christian and dress like this,” she said venomously. The boy seated across from her looked away and rolled his eyes, but not at him, Hal thought—at her.
Hal shook his head, not wanting to argue—or cause an argument, either. He simply lifted his brows in mock humor and looked away. “Whatever you say, sweetheart.”
Hal blinked as the blaze of heat returned and looked down to see Amun reaching toward his shoulder. Raw bone gripped his upper arm.
A shock of electricity ripped through his body. Hal gasped, unable to move. The jolt tore through him again and he coughed, finally opening his eyes to the blinding glare of fluorescent lights. Another light, even brighter than the ones overhead, passed in and out of his vision.
“Pupils equal and reactive…”
Hal squinted and rolled his head to the side, the sound of measured beeping loud in his ears. A crucifix hovered before his vision, and he stared at it in puzzlement. Blinking, his gaze finally cleared to reveal the blurred image of a priest.
Licking his lips, Hal rasped, “Don’t waste your breath, father. There wasn’t anything on the other side.”
Amun reached with his other hand, the charred bones of his fingers wrapping around the front of Hal’s face.
The beeping was monotonous, and the nurse, the only interesting thing that had graced his room in over an hour, was long gone. Hal stared with indifferent attention as the young doctor spoke to him in buoyant words about how lucky he was and how he had a second chance. Hal waved his encouragement away with a tubed hand.
The doctor gave him a frustrated look. “I literally just saved your life. The least you could do is act happy about it.”
“Sorry to be the one to disappoint you, Doc, but your career is gonna be made up of one ungrateful son-of-a-bitch after another. Hope you weren’t expecting a pat on the back.”
Hal was shaking by the time Amun’s hand left his head. A scaly foot on his shoulder announced the wretched creature climbing free of him, over the rise to the landing, but Hal couldn’t move. He hung there, grasping tightly to the rock as he shook, his face cold despite being pressed against the burning stone.
It was Father Donahue’s voice that called down to him. Hal slowly looked up, feeling the jerkiness in his motions and imagining the look of terror that must be written across his face.
Father Donahue’s eyes darkened as he realized something had happened. “Keep climbing.”
Hal just hung there, though—shaking, weeping inside.
“Just. Keep. Climbing.”
Hal wasn’t sure if he could, but… One hand. He moved one hand. Reaching up, he grasped at the next rocky spur. Then the next. Then another.
Eventually, he gained the rise. Father Donahue’s hand gripped his wrist for the last few inches, pulling him onto the rocky precipice. Hal rolled onto his back, weeping from both pain and shame. Rolling his head to the side, he saw Doc Turner splayed out on the ground in a similar state, Amelia hovering anxiously near his head.
“What happened back there?” Father Donahue asked. “I thought you were going to lose your grip for sure. Either that, or jump. What happened when Amun touched you?”
The priest doesn’t miss much. “I’m…” he gasped, swallowing back the choking sobs. “I’m the reason you’re all here.”
Father Donahue furrowed his brow in a sympathetic sort of way.
Hal felt himself grow unexpectedly angry. He didn’t want this man’s sympathy.
“You can’t blame yourself for how each of us chose to live our lives, simply because you were the catalyst that ended them. We all make our own choices.”
Hal shook his head. He didn’t understand, and Hal didn’t feel like explaining it to him; he hadn’t been talking about wrecking the bus.
Hanging his head, Hal elbowed himself up, wiping a hand over his eyes as he cleared his mind of the disturbing memories. It’s all my fault…
The sound of singing came back to him then, and he tipped his head in the direction it was coming from. Hal licked his peeling lips. “How is there singing in Hell?”
“I do not know,” the priest murmured, also looking in the direction of the incongruous sound. “But I have a feeling that’s where we’re headed. Come on, we don’t want to be left behind.”