H. David Blalock has been writing speculative fiction for over 40 years. His work has appeared in novels, novellas, stories, articles, reviews, and commentary both in print and online. Since 1996, his fiction has appeared in over two dozen magazines including Pro Se Presents, Aphelion Webzine, Quantum Muse, Shelter of Daylight Magazine, The Harrow, The Three-Lobed Burning Eye, The Fifth Di, The Martian Wave and many more. He served as editor for parABnormal Digest from its inception until the end of 2012, for Hermit Press on the NovoPulp anthology series, and currently serves as an editor at Alban Lake Publishing. His work continues to appear on a regular basis through multiple publishing houses.
Personal website: www.thrankeep.com
end game - short story
It was dark behind the dumpster. Dark enough to hide from it, Guerrero hoped as he pulled his tattered jacket closed. Desperately, he struggled to control his breathing, to stifle his gasping. He wiped at a dribble of sweat that hung from an eyebrow. It seemed he had been running forever, with that thing always just around the corner behind him, hunting him, stalking him.
Small it was, only about four feet from crown to toe, with an oversized head, lifeless black eyes, and pointed ears with tufts of filthy hair sprouting from them. At first he’d thought it was just a small man, huddled there over his meal in the darkened alleyway that shadowed it from the infrequent night traffic along Third. Guerrero had watched for several minutes to be sure the man was alone, noting the comings and goings of the other street people and how they either ignored or didn’t notice him. Guerrero knew the backstreets and byways of downtown Memphis intimately, but it never occurred to him he hadn’t seen this particular denizen of the streets before. Had he known then what that meal really was, he would have run screaming down Third to the safety of the Greyhound station on Union. But he hadn't known. All he’d known was he was hungry, and the little fellow didn't look like he could put up much of a fight. His odd appearance didn’t matter to Guerrero. The food held all his attention.
Guerrero had lunged for the meat it clutched in its spindly fingers, actually succeeding in snatching the morsel from its surprised grasp, then had broken off in a dead run for the nearest corner with the thing in pursuit. Somehow he had gained enough time on it he could pause to attack his prize, his stomach grumbling in anticipation.
In the glare of the street light he had stared down at the remains of a human foot.
Instantly, he had dropped it and wiped his hands on already grimy jeans. The foot hit the sidewalk with a sickening thud and began to ooze unspeakable fluids into the concrete. He remembered trying to vomit, but his empty stomach would not comply.
Then it had rounded the corner to his north and, with a squeaking cry, had hurtled towards him, misshapen hands outstretched, clawing for him.
Guerrero had run then, screamed and run like all the demons from hell were on his heels. And maybe at least one was.
It was turning cold now. This late there was nearly no traffic on the downtown streets nightly abandoned to Guerrero and his like, left to eke out a less than meager existence on the leavings of a major southern metropolis. He lived in a perpetual twilight, either from the shadow of the buildings during the day or the glare of streetlights at night. He couldn’t remember the last time he’d looked at the sky, or when last he’d really been warm, or when he’d last had a good meal. He shuffled through the streets, invisible in the crowd. Once in a while, a passerby would make eye contact and he’d remember he was a person, too. For a moment, he was almost Doctor Jaime Guerrero, with a successful pediatric practice in Germantown. He would feel his back straighten, catch a whiff of his own body odor. But then the person’s eyes would unfocus, he would lose his identity to the street again, and he was just another gutter rat.
Guerrero sniffled and wiped his running nose on the back of his sleeve. The familiar twist in his middle reminded him he still hadn’t eaten. He strained to listen for evidence of pursuit. When he didn’t hear the characteristic pattering of the thing’s paws against the sidewalk, his heart slowed and his breathing settled out.
"Things are bad and gettin’ worse."
He held his breath and listened to the voice that wafted to him from somewhere down Third.
"You’re just paranoid," a man's voice grew from a mumble to nearly normal. Guerrero could hear the footsteps of a couple of people against the sidewalk. "You watch too much TV."
"Maybe," another man's voice rumbled. "But there’s gotta be somethin’ to those prophecies. You know, there was this program on Fox the other night…"
The voices began to fade as the men moved off, and he considered following them; safety in numbers and all. He could stay at a discreet distance, just far enough away not to alarm them but close enough to cover his movement toward the bus station. He was fairly sure the thing would not attack in the open. It seemed to shy away from to public contact. ‘Course, he’d never actually tested that particular assumption. For all the knew, the damn thing might grow eight feet when it got mad and bend steel bars to get to its prey. Guerrero peeked out from behind the dumpster to look north on Third. Immediately, he knew that whatever he was going to do, he had to do it now.
A mere block and a half away, the thing was crouched low to the sidewalk, head bobbing left and right as it crept southward. He slipped out of his hiding place, and, keeping as much as he could to the shadows while moving as quickly as he dared, headed south.
Ahead the two men disappeared around the corner at Union. Abandoning his cover, Guerrero made a break for the station, not daring to look back. He crashed through the doors and into the lobby, drawing scowls from the few people standing in line at the counter. He drew up short and adjusted his clothes to try to look as presentable as he could, avoiding the glare of the security guard who was even then trying to determine if he wanted to chuck Guerrero back into the street. He ducked left, into the waiting room, where about a dozen people huddled against the benches, wrapped in their own problems, casting bored glances at him that never actually focussed on him.
He found an empty corner and hunkered down to wait out the night, keeping an eye out for the security guard and trying to ignore the grumbling of his empty stomach. A small boy appeared a few feet away and frankly watched him until his mother came to shoo him back to his seat. Guerrero watched her scold him, casting fearful glances at him to see if he’d followed. He smiled his best at her, but her reaction was to gather their things and drag the boy farther down the bench.
The little boy was about the same age as his own child. He closed his eyes and tried to remember the face of the son he never saw any more, but all that came to him was a blurred outline of an infant’s form cradled in his arms. A twist closer to his heart reminded him of a deeper hunger that he had no hope of satisfying. He had made too many mistakes, and the consequences were too dire for him to face. Once he had lived in a three-story, five-bedroom house, with a wife and a child, a dog and a Beamer. Once he had spent summers in Europe, wintered in Aspen. Once he had been a success.
Then he had discovered cocaine. It had stolen his house and Beamer, the vacations. When he could no longer afford cocaine, he had turned to alcohol. It had stolen his practice, and finally his family.
There was the rumbling of a bus outside, bringing many of the people in the room to the glass doors near the arrival gate. Guerrero watched idly as people streamed in. Most were working-class types, clad in discount store shirts and jeans. They carried or dragged their luggage with the air of boredom that marked long travel. There were a few in uniform, khakis and camouflage, all their belongings stashed in the duffels over their shoulders. One of the military scooped up the little boy who’d been watching him earlier and tossed the kid into the air before giving his mother a peck on the cheek and towing them both away. The crowd flowed toward the lobby, pulling most of the people who’d been in the waiting room with them. Soon, Guerrero was left almost alone.
He became aware of someone watching him. Guerrero couldn’t remember if the man had been in the waiting room when he arrived, or if he had appeared with the bus. Dressed in dun colors and a slouch hat, the man sat with long legs stretched out before him, showing dirty, heavily scuffed boots. His face was lean, with eyes that cut into Guerrero like diamonds, forcing him to look quickly away. The stranger stood and walked directly toward him. Guerrero stood uneasily and was already gauging the distance to the exit when the man spoke.
“Want to make a fifty?” The voice was slightly accented, not foreign but not southern.
Guerrero eyed the man suspiciously. He edged a little toward the exit, watching to see if the man moved to block him. When he didn’t, Guerrero paused and looked at him again. “Why?” he had to ask.
“I have a job needs doing, and I need someone who knows the city. You do know the city?”
Guerrero nodded uncertainly.
“Then, I’m sure you’ve probably seen what I’m after. It’s about so high,” and the man held his hand palm down at about four feet above the floor, “has big eyes and pointed ears.”
Guerrero blinked in surprise. His reaction wasn’t lost on the man.
“You have seen it,” he said, a statement now, not a question. “How long ago?”
Guerrero gulped and glanced toward the exit again. The sight of the grisly meat flashed in his memory. “No way, man,” he said. “I don’t want nothin’ to do with it.”
The stranger reached into his pocket and pulled out a wad of bills wrapped in a rubber band. In spite of himself, Guerrero gasped at the sight. The large oval with Benjamin Franklin’s picture stared back at him from the outer bill. The stranger snapped the rubber band off and opened the package to give Guerrero the full impact of what was there. Guerrero couldn’t take his eyes off the money as the stranger pulled out a fifty and offered it to him.
“One night, maybe two, to get this thing. That’ll get you fifty. If it takes longer, another fifty.”
Without thinking, Guerrero snatched the bill from the stranger’s hand. As he gazed at it, he backed away until he bumped into the wall. The impact brought him around to see the stranger tucking the roll back into his pocket.
“Now, how long ago did you see it?”
Guerrero wet his lips and pushed the fifty into his own jeans pocket, keeping his hand on it to reassure himself. The stranger was expecting an answer. Hell, maybe this guy could catch the thing. How long could he go on running from it? The stranger had an aura of confidence about him that poured new courage into Guerrero. The feel of the fifty in his pocket bolstered his courage even more.
"Just a few minutes ago," Guerrero told the man. He motioned to the door obsequiously. The man made his way towards the front of the bus station.
It seemed as if no one noticed the stranger, in spite of the fact that he cut a figure that Guerrero could not ignore. They made their way into the street with no problem. People seemed to part before them as if walking around an obstacle that was beneath notice: a column, a road sign.
When they were finally outside and Guerrero had to face the possibility of meeting up with the thing again, some of his courage abandoned him. He looked nervously left and right on Union and north along Third trying to determine whether he really wanted to do this. The stranger noticed his distress and, to Guerrero's dismay, seemed amused by it.
The stranger produced a small pistol from somewhere within his garments and handed the weapon to Guerrero. Guerrero looked blankly at the thing, unsure what to think. The weight of it in his hand was considerable.
They made their way up Third, past Madison and Adams, all the way to Washington without seeing anything other than a few of Guerrero’s peers rummaging through dumpsters or watching them warily.
“The time is very short,” The stranger startled him with his softly accented voice. "You can tell by their awareness."
Guerrero squinted at the man out of the corner of his eye. He had no idea what the man was talking about, and he didn't feel like asking questions.
“Life begins to become more precious in ways not consciously understood," the stranger went on, as if Guerrero weren't there. "Finally, too late, it is appreciated, and its end perceived and feared.” The stranger now seemed totally self-involved, oblivious of his surroundings. "So little time is allotted, so much squandered."
Guerrero had stopped listening to the stranger’s soliloquy. He had spotted the target about a half block down Washington, near the I-40 overpass. It was busy with something he couldn't make out in the dark. Tentatively, he placed a hand on the stranger’s arm. The man was surprisingly thin under his clothing, almost alarmingly so. The stranger stopped his musings and followed Guerrero's pointing finger. Immediately, he began walking onto Washington and Guerrero, after a brief hesitation, followed reluctantly.
It was as he remembered it: small, stinking, and horrible. As they drew near, he could see it was deeply involved in dismembering a small animal. The carcass was so mutilated it was impossible to determine what it had been in life. The dwarven figure muttered to itself in a squeaking voice as it worked, so it didn't hear their approach. Guerrero held the gun on it with both hands, barrel pointed at the thing best he could. He watched in amazement as the stranger fearlessly walked up to it and reached down to touch its oversized head.
The reaction was immediate. The thing spun on its heels, the animal carcass flying from its grasp as its clawed hands swung to meet the threat. It faced the stranger with murderous intent, its fangs bared and eyes wide. The stranger stood calmly before it, unresponding to the display. Guerrero braced himself for the kick in the pistol and squeezed the trigger. When the weapon went off, neither the stranger nor the feral thing flinched. Guerrero, convinced he had missed, pulled the trigger again and again, the shots echoing off the concrete of the overpass, deafening him. The stranger looked at him from under the brim of his dark cover and laughed with a sound that chilled Guerrero to the bone.
"You may stop your pleading," the stranger told him. "I have no intention of taking it."
Guerrero stood stunned and confused. The beast was untouched, though he was sure he had hit it at least twice. But more frightening was the way the stranger stroked the beast’s snarling head, as a master caresses his pet. In its turn, the beast shivered under his hand, stealing fearful glances at the man. Guerrero looked from it to the stranger.
"Is that yours?” he asked uncertainly.
The man looked down at the beast that quivered under his hand. “In a way, I suppose it is.” He looked at Guerrero. “You would call it a ghoul, a thing that feeds on carrion. As such, it isn’t much different from yourself, wouldn’t you say?”
“What?” Guerrero blurted in confusion.
“You live on the refuse of your society. True, what you consume is less noisome than our friend’s diet, but everything is relative.”
Guerrero couldn’t quite get his mind around the concepts the stranger was throwing at him. He remembered somewhere hearing about ghouls, but that was just Halloween nonsense to him. Stuff to scare kids and watch on horror movies. It wasn’t real.
Then again, very little of what was happening to him had the edge of reality to it any longer. He realized that, since falling in with the stranger, a kind of haze had settled over his consciousness. He knew this should alarm or at least concern him, but he didn’t feel like resisting it. It seemed to soften the harshness of life. Still, there was enough curiosity left in him to ask, “Who are you?"
The stranger considered this question for a moment before answering. "Call me Mort," he said with a low chuckle.
Unaccountably, this revelation sent a mind-shattering fear through him. Guerrero dropped the pistol and turned to run. Mort’s voice stopped him.
Somehow, more than anything else that had happened, the fact this man knew his name terrified him, sent a coldness through him that almost made his teeth chatter. He froze and looked back to see Mort’s smiling face.
"You're forgetting the other fifty," Mort reminded him.
"Keep it," Guerrero said, waving it away. "It's okay."
The genial edge went off of Mort’s voice. "Oh, but I insist. Besides, I have another task for you."
"Um," Guerrero stalled, trying to edge into the shadows, "I ... I just remembered something."
Faster than he ever believed possible, Mort grabbed his arm in a viselike grip. Guerrero knew better than to struggle against it. He knew it would be a wasted effort.
"Now," Mort said, tucking the fifty-dollar bill into Guerrero’s shirt pocket, "now we're going to find an old friend of mine. "
"Old friend?" Guerrero stumbled. The thought of anyone being this man's friend was hard to feature. Since the bus station, Mort seemed to have changed. He was, if possible, taller and thinner, his eyes more sunken and face more sallow. Any friend of his must be equally frightening, and Guerrero disliked taking this any farther.
“He lives nearby," Mort informed him, "in a house near the river. Or rather, he used to."
Guerrero thought about the riverside homes and condos. "There are some apartments south of Tom Lee Park ..."
"He lived right on the river, but that was some time ago." Mort lifted his head and cast about as if trying to get his bearings. "No matter how often I come here, I never seem to get the hang of these streets." He faced west. "What's that way?" he asked.
"Well, not much. Some businesses, government buildings, the Pyramid…"
Guerrero nodded dumbly.
Guerrero, keeping Mort between himself and the ghoul, set out cautiously. He still didn't trust the thing and had more than a little trouble trying to watch it and the darkened street at the same time without stumbling over his own feet. Mort seemed to have forgotten the beast, which glared at Guerrero with baleful, nearly luminous eyes and grinned nastily.
Finally, the huge black silhouette of the Pyramid Arena rose before them, cutting an angled shadow against the sky. The lights of the city made the blue metal skin glow oddly. Mort strode ahead so quickly Guerrero and the ghoul had to nearly run to keep up. Again, Mort seemed to have changed. His figure was taller still, nearly eight feet, his strides consuming the distance to the arena with the speed of a sprinter. Guerrero gasped and struggled to keep up, aware of the thing loping at his side, its own breathing coming in quick snorts. He chanced a quick glance at it to see it had dropped on all fours and trotted beside him like a misshapen dog.
They clattered to stop at the gate to the arena complex where Mort stood scanning the ground ahead. The gatehouse kept lonely vigil before the parking area, empty and dark, the barrier’s arm sticking stiffly out from its side in a vain effort to prevent their intrusion.
Mort stepped over the barrier and moved toward the main building without a word to his companions. Guerrero was beginning to wonder why he was still following Mort, then realized his small cohort had disappeared. He spun to see it slowly making its way up Washington toward him, everything about it giving him the impression it was again involved in the hunt and Guerrero was the prey.
He jumped the barrier and scurried after Mort, not needing to look back to know the ghoul was on his heels.
Mort led them around to the river side of the arena, following the base of the structure as if looking for something. Guerrero ran up beside him before hazarding a look behind. The ghoul trotted casually up to them and crouched, quietly watching as Mort scuffed at the ground with a dusty boot. "This is the place," Mort mumbled. "So long ago. . . "
Mort leaned down, his hand disappearing into the manicured grass. There was the sound of shifting metal and a rustle of earth followed by a heavy creaking as Mort lifted the lid of a trapdoor. The metal was dulled with rust, the hinges moving with great objection. Mort stood and pushed the lid over to the ground, then stepped around to descend a stair that fell into the darkness. Guerrero stayed close to him, controlling an urge to kick the ghoul that nuzzled his leg as the blackness settled around them.
The smell of rotten earth cloyed in Guerrero's nostrils as he carefully made his way down. He could hear Mort’s steps, confident and steady, pulling ahead of him but he couldn't gather enough courage to speed his own descent. Visions of falling headfirst into the abyss with the scavenger waiting for him to crack his skull kept his pace conservative.
There was the sound of a door opening on unoiled hinges. A wan light that emanated from a room at the bottom of the stairs split the blackness. Mort’s thin shadow crawled off the steps and Guerrero broke into a gallop to catch up before the door closed.
The room was large and well furnished, lit by several oil lanterns that stood at strategic points. Guerrero was reminded of the sitting room of an old Southern mansion as he stepped across the threshold. In front of a nine-foot sofa stood a heavy oaken table laden with trinkets dating back to the last century. At either end of the table were two wingback chairs lit by lanterns placed on end tables laden with books. In the far seat was an old man dressed in turn of the century garb: white shirt with a high, stiff collar, paisley vest and dark breeches over fine boots. A gold chain ran from his vest pocket to a crucifix pin. He rose to meet them as they closed the door.
Mort walked toward the man who squinted myopically at him. As Mort rounded the great table, recognition dawned in his eyes.
"So," the man said, nodding his white-maned head, "I have been expecting you. "
Mort placed a hand on the man's shoulder and said in a soft tone, "I’ve not come for you, old friend. But you're right. The time is come."
Guerrero found he could not take his eyes off the hand that rested on the old man's shoulder. It was the hand of a demon, skeletal and pale, large enough to cover the old man's shoulder from neck to armpit, though the oldster seems not to notice its weight, as if it were a little more than a feather. The old man sat back in his chair and gazed blankly forward.
"My Lord," he said, in a stunned voice. "I never thought I would see this."
Mort sank his now considerable bulk into the sofa. "You knew it would come eventually."
"Yes," the old man said, closing his eyes tiredly. "I taught on it often enough I suppose I should have recognized the signs. "
"The signs are always there," Mort said in a deepening voice that began to shake Guerrero’s insides. "Sometimes they're seen and things change. Sometimes the awareness of those in power is sufficient."
"Is it so bad?" the old man asked in a hollow tone. "Is there nothing to prevent it?"
Mort’s huge shoulders rose and fell briefly. "I only know that when the signal is given, we must carry out our tasks."
Guerrero followed this interchange without understanding. Though he didn't follow the meaning, he caught enough to know that something serious was in the offing.
“What’s going on?” he asked, not that he really wanted to know. It just seemed important all of a sudden.
The old man looked at him as if seeing him for the first time, then cast a questioning look at Mort.
“The third,” Mort explained, to which the old man nodded.
“My name is… was… Elias Hazelton. Reverend Elias Hazelton,” the old man began. “I understand your confusion, but you may take solace in the knowledge that all will become clear very shortly.” He motioned to the other chair. “Please, be comfortable.”
Guerrero took the proffered seat and watched the ghoul fold itself in front of the sofa on an oval rug wrought with intricate designs.
“At the beginning of every millennium there is a gathering,” Hazelton said. “From each city, town, hamlet, settlement, a group of three selected individuals are drawn together to await the judgment of mankind. I had the honor of being selected ahead of time, and given a life long enough to reach the appointed time.”
Hazelton went on as if Guerrero had not spoken. “Each millennium there has been a last-minute reprieve. We only recall the last few: the righteousness of Noah, Abraham's fidelity, Christ's sacrifice, the reclamation of the Holy Land... But, well," Hazelton frowned and shrugged. "So little is revered any longer. The concept of self-sacrifice is ridiculed; moral turpitude is rife. The last century has deeply scarred man's group psyche. World wars carried off many devout in Europe and Asia. Communism stifled moral teaching overseas, science stifled it in America. Psychology took the spirit of man and dissected it on the altar of secular humanism." Hazelton’s voice was bitter, his face grim. “As man’s moral structure suffered, his laws and perceptions of right and wrong became warped. Murder was legalized; atrocity became a political expediency. Then, in the last few years, all moral structure collapsed as world leaders, reflections of their national peoples, revealed themselves as philandering, promiscuous, and ruthless.”
Some of what he had been came back to Guerrero. He felt the comprehension of Hazelton’s words and at the same time he felt he saw a flaw in the argument. He held up a hand to halt the man's diatribe. "Wait just a minute! Not everything has gone downhill. What about the thousands of charity organizations? The humanitarian efforts of civil rights organizations? What about simple family relationships?"
Hazelton smiled at him indulgently. "Too little. In the centuries mankind has had since the last judgment over seventy percent of all people who have lived have fallen to disease, war, or poverty. In spite of this, man has made no organized, common effort to improve his own lot. Billions have been spent on war and its machines. Trillions have been spent on political and economic issues unrelated to the human condition. Where was the concerted effort to feed the starving, house the homeless? Where was respect for elders? Where was compassion for the ill and crippled? Gone, gone along with respect for God and fellow man. Gone along with the value of human life and virtue."
"You’re being too hard," Guerrero complained. "No one person can make those kind of changes."
"Of course not. Just as no one person could kill six million Jews. Just as no one person could drive thousands from their homes. Just as no one person could enslave millions for hundreds of years." Hazelton waved at bony finger in the air. "Yet, all these things came to pass. Now, who do you suppose is responsible?"
Guerrero sputtered for a moment. "But, how can you hold people responsible now for what happened then? That's unfair. It's unjust."
Hazelton’s voice was that of a schoolteacher talking to a backward child. "Men are judged on the basis of their own actions. None of the mistakes of the past are hidden, although there has recently been an effort to rewrite history to expiate the sins of your fathers. No, the fact that mistakes have been made does not justify their continuance, nor does it excuse condoning similar actions under the guise of following legal precedent. That is a basis for judgment."
"But, how are we to know what is truly right and wrong?" Guerrero dissembled. "There are so many opinions, so many concepts of truth."
"There is only one truth, and every person instinctively knows the difference between right and wrong." Hazelton shook his finger at Guerrero. "You know the difference. There can be no argument of ignorance. That is simple evasion of responsibility, another basis for judgment."
"Your expectations are unrealistic."
Hazelton said forward sharply and his eyes were afire. "Is it unrealistic to expect honesty? Is it unrealistic to expect compassion? Is unrealistic to expect courage, or mercy, or simple respect?"
Guerrero sank back in the seat. "You maintain then that there is no merit in man's existence?"
"Merit? What do you mean? Merit in that there is a benefit to man's existence? In and of itself, the only benefit is to itself, yet even that has been compromised," Hazelton responded. "The merits of man's existence are outweighed by its vices. This is another basis of judgment.”
Guerrero looked from Hazelton to Mort, then down at the ghoul. The beast was watching the men with an idle interest, scratching its belly and making odd noises to itself.
"And what about these," Guerrero asked, indicating the ghoul. "What merit is there to its existence? Or that of any beast? Why is it so different for man?"
Hazelton tapped his own temple. "It's what's in here that makes the difference. The God-given ability to choose, consciously, to work for or against the benefit of one's own race." Hazelton reached out to touch the ghoul on its bent shoulder. The animal turned to look him but did not resist the contact. "Our little friend is not burdened with such choices," the preacher went on. "He responds to the basic instinct of survival, nothing more. The question of merit in his case is meaningless."
Guerrero lapsed into silence again, musing at what he had heard. All his life he’d been what he'd thought was a "good man". Even after his medical practice had collapsed, after he’d lost his family and home, even when he’d taken to the bottle, he still had seen himself as a good man. But everything Hazelton said sat inside him like a burning coal, fueling the guilt he carried within. That guilt had been born from his failure as a doctor. Now it swelled to include his failure as a human being.
From somewhere deep inside, maybe dredged up by the memory of what he had been, strength he didn’t realize he still had flowed. He resolved to do something about that failure, to absolve himself and make the life he'd come so near to wasting into something with meaning.
"What can I do?" he asked Hazelton and Mort. "If one person can make a difference, what would that be?"
Mort stirred for the first time since taking his seat on the sofa. Guerrero blanched at he saw. Mort’s figure was stretched about over both ends of the nine-foot sofa, his feet well past the end cushions. Guerrero doubted the low ceiling of the room would allow him to stand upright any longer.
"You have asked the question," a somber voice rumbled from Mort. "The answer will shortly be given."
An electricity was in the air of a sudden, a sense of anticipation. Guerrero lifted his head and looked toward the door that stood quietly shut. The ghoul stopped its muttering and sniffed the still air. Hazelton raised the hand to wipe his face.
"My lord, my God. . . " he whispered, the sound clear in the silence.
There was a rumbling as of distant thunder that rolled ever closer until, with a bone-shattering roar, it shook the dust from the room’s ceiling. The old man rose in response to its call and made his way to the door. Guerrero heard Mort’s sepulchral voice intone words vaguely familiar.
“And I saw when the Lamb opened one of the seals, and I heard, as it were the noise of thunder, one of the four beasts saying, Come and see.”
Guerrero watched fascinated as the old man’s figure grew in stature, filled out and regained its vigor. He marveled at the returning youth, the smoothing of the lines, the softening of the angles into curves of muscle. He watched in awe as the thin hair grew so thick and white it glowed in a halo around the man’s bronzing visage. His eyes began to clear and sparkle with a fire that burned deep inside them. When the man, now transformed into the image of a conquering angel, looked at him, Guerrero felt the vitality flowing from him like something tangible, a power undeniable and irresistible.
“And I saw, and behold a crown was given to him and he went forth conquering and to conquer.”
The roaring thunder crackled again, beginning far away and ending in a massive report seemingly overhead. Guerrero, shielding his eyes from the light that beamed from the vision, turned his head to look at the animal he had been fleeing for so long. The ghoul was growing, its skin hardening and transforming into a crimson armor.
“And when he had opened the second seal… there went out another…and power was given to him… to take peace from the earth, and that they should kill one another.”
The beast’s talons lengthened visibly to curl black, shiny, and razor-sharp out of its fingers. Its back hunched forward, then, with a sickening crunch of bone and sinew, it stretched itself upright to tower over Guerrero and gaze at him from its now proportional head. Its eyes were still dead black, pitiless and terrifying in their lack of vitality. Guerrero staggered away from it, scurrying to put the table between them. But the beast had lost interest in him, opening its fanged mouth to utter a cry of pure rage that sent a chill to Guerrero’s soul.
Again the peal of thunder began, but this time Guerrero felt it deep inside himself. It was as if a door was opening within him, releasing power long dormant. He was no longer simply a man, a vagrant, scratching for existence in the streets of Memphis. He was no longer a bum coughing his life out on the concrete before an unheeding and uncaring city.
“And when he had opened the third seal…I heard a voice in the midst…say, A measure of wheat for a penny, and three measures of barley for a penny…”
Guerrero felt a white-hot ball within him turning his flesh into myriad scales, serpentine cells, each of which he knew contained enough venom to poison a thousand men. At the same time, he knew this poison would not kill, would not allow the ease of suffering through ordinary death. It would sit in the gut like a stone, allowing no nourishment, no satiation, fomenting a hunger that could not be satisfied. It would consume the flesh and muscle, distend the middle, blind the eye and parch the throat. It would make those who had ignored his pleas for help, those who had turned their heads from him when he lie starving, to feel that same pain, only a thousand times worse. Worse, for their hunger would never be relieved.
“And when he had opened the fourth seal…I looked, and behold…Death, and Hell followed with him…”
The four stepped out of the darkness beneath the Pyramid and began the trek along the river side. With each step, they grew more a part of the city, growing and dissipating like mists that cast a pall over the area. Grass withered in an ever-increasing perimeter. Rats swarmed out of their hiding places, driven by irresistible hunger to attack anything that moved. People long given over to the despair of living in the streets turned on each other and anyone nearby, responding to an unreasoning and uncomprehended rage that drove them to undreamed of atrocities.
The circle expanded.
“And power was given unto them over the fourth part of the earth, to kill with sword, and with hunger, and with death…”