2 minutes, 23 seconds later . . .
Behind us we hear the thunderous roar of thick plumes of steam rising into the cloudy sky. The ground is alive with shakes and quivers, shuddering plants, and vibrations that keep us all quite aware that our time is precious. And I don’t mean that in a philosophical sense.
If we don’t get this taken care of, we’re all going to be barbecued.
I’m kneeling over the body of the bad-mouthed Russian girl. I try to relax, as much as is possible given the unsettling scene we find unfolding around us. Mr. Green is making sure that none of these Evil kids try and pull a runner on us. Juan is still laying down, gathering his strength. He’s stable, but he’s going to have a monster neck ache for some time. It’s not every day that a toddler takes a bite at your throat.
I look at Mr. Green, You trust me?
“I have to at this point, don’t I?”
Just then Ricky walks towards the fire as he tends to the woman’s head. Turns out Juan never killed her. It was all a bluff to get the man to start talking. Now they’re holding each other as Ms. Josephine reunites them with their two children. I’m sure glad we didn’t start pulling his fingernails apart.
“I have to perform a kind of ritual,” I say to them. “And it might get a bit creepy.”
“More creepy than child vampires drinking human blood?” Mr. Green counters.
I close my eyes, breathing slowly, and trying to focus on what I need in order to make this happen. It’s no small thing I’m about to do.
And I’m counting to myself with each breath in and out.
1 . . .
2 . . .
3 . . .
There’s a rustling sound in the trees around us as the wind picks up.
4 . . .
5 . . .
6 . . .
7 . . .
The sound of crunching leaves and things dragging starts to encircle us. I can feel the hair on the back of my neck stand.
This is about to get interesting.
8 . . .
9 . . .
. . . And I finally open my eyes.
“Jack!” Mr. Green says nervously. “What in God’s name are they?”
Oh, they’re the farthest thing from God, I say.
All around us, from the darkness, they have come. There must be 50, maybe 60 of them. Their long sinewy arms. The birdlike way they move. Their stocky, squat bodies.
Can you see them, Mr. Green?
“You mean all the fucking monsters?” Mr. Green says unsteadily. “Uh . . . yeah.”
It must be this place . . . the forest. It must skew everything just enough for you to see what I always see. Everything here is either dead or dying. I guess that makes sense.
“None of this makes sense! What are they, and do I need to shoot them?”
They’re gatherers, I tell him. And I wouldn’t do anything to make them angry. They’re here to help me harvest the souls. The Evil souls.
“What line of work are you in, again?”
You don’t want to know.
“Is this going to give me nightmares for the rest of my life?”
“Then this is like Ghostbusters,” he whispers.
No it, well . . . maybe it is. Damn it.
The gatherers make their way closer and closer to us until they’re within feet . . . then inches. Almost touching us.
I warn Mr. Green and Juan, This may look quite horrible. It’s just the way things are done. You’re not supposed to see any of this.
I extend my arms to the sides, opening my hands, my palms facing upwards just like Uriel said. Slowly, eerily, I feel the weight of knives as they’re placed in my hands. The knives, they’re so cold they burn in my palms. They’re like dry ice.
The gatherers—the shadow creatures that rip souls from their earthly bodies—have given me their tools. And this is exactly what Uriel said I must do. The ritual that I, and only I, can perform.
It must be me, he told me over and over.
I was the only one who could do this.
This is a one man performance.
I gather my strength as I take the heavy black shadow blades, their points facing the stomach of this possessed child. I lift my arms, my body growing tense as I prepare to plunge the blades downward into this forsaken soul.
From my stomach, through my chest, up through my shoulders, biceps and triceps, every muscle in my body is charged.
Dear God . . . please forgive me . . .