Spoilers ahead! If you haven’t read the novel, then I would suggest you stop reading this now!
(My editor asked me to cut out a scene in the middle of this chapter, which detailed Valerie getting over her own guilt. My philosophy on why Hell existed for the novel was due to humans feeling guilt more than anything, and I felt she needed to complete her character arc by finally overcoming her own demons, so to speak. But my editor demanded I cut it out since she felt that poor Valerie had already suffered enough. Anyway, here it is!)
Valerie Mendoza sat at the bow of the boat as she continued to stare into the murky waters that surrounded them. Not long after they reached the riverbank, a small wooden boat had approached them. It looked like a rowboat that was made out of gnarled, rotting bark. A being stood at the back while it guided the boat using a long pole. It was a man and looked very similar to the wanderer, with his unkempt beard and tattered black cloak. For a brief moment Valerie almost thought they were identical twins. The wanderer produced a silver coin from the folds of his cloak and offered it to the ferryman just as the boat touched the shore. Soon enough, they were helped onboard and were now travelling slowly across the calm, dark waters. Time had seemed to pass, but Valerie was unsure since the river drifted endlessly onwards as the distant mists obscured the surrounding lands.
She turned and took a look at the old man who was sitting behind her. “The ferryman, is that Charon, the boatman who travels the underworld?”
The wanderer shrugged. “He goes by many names. But your description is correct so I must assume that you are right.”
“Where is he taking us now?”
The old man looked out into the fog shrouded horizon. It was not quite daytime, but it wasn’t night either. It seemed like a perpetual, grey twilight. “This river travels and branches out in multiple tributaries, it is probably the best way to travel the wastes.”
“Where did you get the coin to pay Charon with?”
The old man smiled slightly. “Oh, one does find coins and other things every now and then. Sometimes these things just get washed up on the shores since the ferryman throws them over the side once his service is done. He really doesn’t have much use for coins or other riches, you know.”
Valerie stared past the old man and looked at Charon. “He seems to look just like you. You’re not brothers or anything?”
The old man giggled a bit. “Once you’ve been here long enough, everybody starts to look the same. The people that you see are nothing more than mirrors to your mind’s eye. You may recognize a few souls here that you may have met in your previous life, but it may very well be your mind that projects an image of someone that you want to know.”
“So all the people here might be someone else, depending on who is looking at them?”
The wanderer nodded. “Correct. Many have drunk the waters of Lethe, the river of forgetfulness. They lose all memories of their past lives, but there is a spark in them that retains some sort of primordial essence, a small piece of themselves that remembers what they have done to deserve eternal punishment. It is what motivates them to relive their own suffering as they are constantly killed and then resurrected in order to renew the cycle.”
Valerie looked away. “This is all just so insane. I worked for the police when I was back on earth. I enforced the law. I brought criminals to trial and then the judges mete out their sentencing. But nothing back there is like the masochism that is all over the place here. Every single punishment here is totally cruel and unusual. That would be against the very laws I swore to uphold.”
“You are correct,” the old man said. “The endless punishments here are worse than anything beyond imagining. But perhaps there is a purpose to all of this.”
Valerie frowned. “You said it yourself. A punishment cannot be endless or else it really serves no purpose other than continuous torture. Where’s the purpose in that?”
“Perhaps it is a reminder to always obey the gods, yes?”
Valerie shook her head in frustration. “But don’t you see? These people are all dead. Whether they deserve punishment now is pointless since they can’t affect the living on earth. Maybe if they get born again, but if they forget all the memories from their previous lives then how can they possibly learn their lesson? Punishment ought to be temporary and it ought to mean something.”
“One must look at the nature of suffering,” the old man said. “One must ask if suffering is caused by the gods, and if it is true, then one must ask why. In my life, we were taught to serve the gods. We were instructed to keep quiet lest our noise bring upon another great deluge that would kill us all. My people would enact many rituals on a daily basis to placate the gods. We believed that the gods created us in order to serve them. There were many times that we would pray to the gods for a bountiful harvest or to spare us from the ravages of disease. The gods served us just as we served them. When I was struck down by illness and all my friends turned against me I asked if I had done anything wrong. One of the gods answered me and brought forth a sorcerer to heal me. It was then that I praised Marduk.”
Valerie as confused. “Marduk? I thought you were Job?”
“Job? Who is he?”
“I read the Book of Job a long time ago,” Valerie said. “It’s about a kind old man who had a big family and lots of possessions. God makes a bet with the devil to see just how righteous Job is. Then God kills Job’s family, kills his animals and puts a disease on him but Job never falters, he refuses to denounce his god. In the end, God restores Job’s possessions and gives him a new wife and family.”
“This God you claim to be in this story, what kind of god is he?”
Valerie pointed to herself. “In my religion there is only supposed to be one god. He is lord and ruler over everything. I thought you were Job.”
The old man shook his head. “Oh no, the story of my life is different. I worshipped many gods and I thought I placated them all equally. But it seemed that I offended Marduk and he cursed me with an affliction and made me lose my job, among other things.”
“Marduk? What city were you from?”
“I was born in Sumer.”
Valerie’s eyebrows shot up. “You’re Sumerian then? Oh, I thought you were Job, a Hebrew. Paul told me that the Sumerians were considered to be the world’s first civilization. Many stories from the bible were transplanted from Sumerian sources, he said. I guess it makes sense then.”
“What makes sense?”
Valerie sighed. “That the story of Job was copied and then changed over the centuries. So I guess you’re the original Job. Or the Sumerian version, at least.”
The old man stroked his beard. “Yes, I can see the similarities in the story. It seems that these Hebrews you mentioned changed the story so that instead of multiple gods there is only one. But that begs the question, why would a single god inflict that kind of cruelty to his most loyal worshipper?”
“Like I said. It was a bet. A wager.”
“So in this story my entire family was killed over a wager? That seems even more cruel and pointless.”
“Yeah,” Valerie said softly. “It just shows that the gods can do whatever they want and we just have to keep suffering for it.”
“In my world we have many gods,” the old man said. “We can pray to one god if another is cruel to us. We can ask another god to intercede on our behalf in order to right the wrong. But if there is only one god, then it is he who is responsible for everything. Tell me, what did this Job learn at the end of his story?”
“Nothing,” Valerie said. “God tells Job to suck it up and that’s it. Yeah, it’s a pretty sad story. And if there is just one god behind all of this I can see that he isn’t a just god at all. He’s a brutal and evil monster is what he is.”
The old man pursed his lips. “Yes, that is indeed a very cruel tale. But that brings us back to the nature of suffering. Cause and effect. When I suffered, I asked myself many times and I assumed that I was guilty of some sort of offense against the gods. That there must have been a cause as to why these cruelties were afflicted on me. But there were no signs as to what kind of offense I had ever done, and as to which god I had done it to. I had thought perhaps that I had offended Marduk since it was he who sent a healer to cure me. But as I think of it further, perhaps it may be another god that I had offended and it was Marduk who took pity on me, that it was his magic that overcame the curses of the other. In all my time travelling these wastes, I have never found the reason for the offense. It is all a mystery to me, the ways of the gods are ever mysterious, their own motivations impossible to understand. But if you look at it from the point of view of our own existence, then it becomes clear.”
“What becomes clear?”
The old man pointed to her. “People can be evil and good, because the gods made us this way. Perhaps the reason they made us is because we are so much like them. You see, the gods need us too. They need someone to worship them, to placate them, to acknowledge their presence. They are prideful creatures and that is their weakness. Without us, they are but forgotten and pitiful. They may have the power to rule the earth, but to rule over nothing is not in their nature. Perhaps that is the reason why these hells were created. To fulfill our own inner desires.”
“What do you mean?”
“Do you remember what Beelzebub said? He said that his world is a reflection of human desires,” the old man said. “Perhaps it is not the gods who want to inflict the endless cruelty on us. Perhaps it may be just us.”
Valerie looked down at the wooden floor of the boat. She thought about it for a minute. “Are you saying that all this, all this unlimited torture is being done on these sinners because they feel that they themselves deserve it?”
“It does make sense if you think of it this way,” the old man said. “Almost every one that I encounter in these forsaken lands doesn’t want to leave. A part of them seems to think they deserve to be here. Could the gods have created this blighted place to serve their worshippers innermost desires for self punishment? Perhaps they must go through an endless cascade of pain in order to experience something before they are reborn again? Or perhaps as a way to cleanse the stain on their souls?”
“You’re saying that it’s humanity’s collective guilt that’s created Hell? Surely people don’t want this. I just can’t believe that.”
“Perhaps they say they don’t want it. But deep in their hearts they feel that it is what they deserve,” the old man said.
Valerie snorted. “That doesn’t answer why the righteous ones suffer though.”
“Perhaps the righteous ones were never fully righteous.”
Valerie looked at him blankly. “So even the most pious of people still deserve punishment because of some deep down desire of being guilty of something? What about children? They get killed all the time. They don’t know any better yet they suffer as much as adults. Where do you draw the line?”
The old man looked down. “I’m afraid I don’t have the answer to that. And that is why I am still journeying across these planes.”
Valerie crossed her arms. “Good luck. If you haven’t found the answer up until now then I really have doubts that you’ll ever know.”
Loud clanging noises could be heard out in the distance. The sound of banging metal and trumpets were punctuated by howls of derision and screams of pain. They could see that there was a riverbank in the distance. The fog had given way and an endless shore of blackened sand revealed itself. The far horizon was an endless wall of fire, it was as if the borders of the world was a gigantic furnace, and one that traveled far enough would be burned by the flames that reached out into the sky.
Not far from the riverbanks were endless armies of half dead creatures. They looked like blackened, burned out corpses but they were clearly alive as they moved and screamed like men. Each of them were armed with swords, spears and every weapon known to man. Hordes of them would continually form up and attack each other, using their blades and clubs to tear into one another. Valerie gasped as she saw one of the creatures get decapitated by another, only to see the headless creature bending over to pick up its severed head and place it back onto its shoulders before turning around and fighting once more.
The wanderer stared blankly at the carnage by the shore. “We have now passed into Acheron, the river of woe. This is a place of endless bloodlust, of constant battles between armies of what were once men.”
Valerie shook her head in disbelief as she kept staring at unceasing butchery that unfolded. “My god, what are they fighting for?”
“They fight for the sheer pleasure and anger of it,” the old man said softly. “The ones who die will get reborn in a vast smoking pit of ash not far from here. After that they will try to find weapons before rejoining the battle. There are plenty of armor and swords lying around. The ones who lived and ruled by violence are condemned here.”
“None of them ever want to get out of this?”
“A few,” the old man said. “Occasionally one does lose their nerve and tries to get away. But the others sense the cowards in their ranks and they will torture the victim for a long time before killing them. Once the victim returns to the pit his memories have been forgotten, and the seasons of murder shall begin again for him.”
High above them was a stone city that seemed to float in the air, hundreds of feet above. Valerie could see smooth walks of black basalt that formed a sort of outer wall. The city seemed to be attached on top of a gigantic boulder that was several hundred miles across as it lay suspended in midair. Valerie immediately had a tingling sensation at the back of her neck as she stared at the city above them.
“Oh my god,” she said. “Paul’s up there! I can sense him! We need to get to shore so we can find a way up there!”
“That is the city of Dis,” the old man said. “It is a place of torment for those with malice in their hearts. Cruel words and malignant lies all have their place within those floating walls.”
Valerie’s heart began to beat rapidly. Sweat started to form on her forehead. “We’ve got to get up there! I have to get to Paul!”
“If we get there, you will be subjected to the cruelty of words. These will be like daggers of sound and they will be aimed at your heart. You will be consumed by despair and guilt,” the old man said.
Valerie grimaced. “I don’t care! All this, this whole nightmare of a trip is nothing if I can’t get to Paul! I’m not leaving Hell without him!”
The old man gestured at Charon to take them closer to the shore. “Your dedication to your loved one is admirable. I felt the same way when I searched for my second wife here.”
Valerie kept staring at the shore as they got closer. Her determination was building up. “Oh yeah? Did you find her?”
The old man nodded slowly. “I did. But it was too late. She had drunk of the river Lethe and she had forgotten about me. She didn’t want to travel with me, despite my insistence. So in the end I let her go and moved on. It was the hardest thing I ever had to do.”
As soon as the boat touched the shore, Valerie immediately jumped out and started running towards the floating city, only to stop in mid stride. She realized that she had no idea on how to get up there. Valerie turned and looked back at the old man who slowly placed one foot onto the sandy shore and then another. Valerie’s impatience nearly caused her to lose her temper but she was able to hold it in check. She had managed to calm down by the time the old man got closer to her.
Valerie kept looking up at the city in the sky. “Please, we have to get up there.”
“Very well,” the old man said as he started a low whistling tune that she didn’t recognize.
Two black dots appeared in the ash colored sky. Within moments these objects started getting larger. Valerie saw that they were creatures that vaguely resembled men, but they had bat-like wings and naked, muscular torsos. Their man-like faces were twisted and deformed into perpetual fanged grins of hatred. What was most horrifying of all was that they didn’t seem to have any eyes, just a blackened depression beneath their skull-like foreheads. The two demons landed less than ten feet away. Strange, glowing symbols that signified some sort of infernal writings were magically suspended at the top of their heads, as if they were written on air. Every time the creatures moved, the luminescent symbols would follow.
“Ah, who is it that calls upon us but our old acquaintance, the Righteous Sufferer!” the first demon said.
Valerie turned to look at the old man. “Is that what they call you?”
“In this world, yes,” the old man said. “But I do have many names. These two beings standing before us are the Malebranche, part of the order of the fallen ones who attend to the souls in this plane.”
“What is it that you wish of us, o Sufferer?” the second demon asked.
The old man pointed to Valerie. “My companion here has a loved one that is trapped in the city above. I must ask you to take us there.”
“A task requires a price,” the first demon said. “And we are sick of gold coins.”
Valerie took out a small plastic bottle of holy water from her jacket and offered it to them. She had been keeping it with her ever since the demon Dantalion pulled her and Paul into the underworld. “Here, maybe this would be worth something.”
The first demon took the bottle into the palm of his clawed hands and laughed. “Ah, water from the earth! How foolish is it that men think that the fallen would be vulnerable against such a liquid. Very well, I shall carry you up to the city of Dis.”
“And don’t forget to wait there for her, for she will come back down once her task is completed,” the old man said to the demon before turning to look at Valerie. “I am sorry, but all I have is another gold coin. It will mean that I shall have to stay here and wait for you.”
Valerie nodded. “I understand. I’ll be back soon.”
“And now it is time for us to depart to the walled city of Dis,” the first demon said as it grabbed Valerie by her shoulders and leapt up in the air. Valerie shrieked at the suddenness of the demon’s flight and nearly pulled at her gun before she was able to calm her nerves. The demon laughed maniacally as its flapping wings made them both ascend hundreds of feet in the air in a matter of seconds. The second demon waived at them from the ground before it began to converse with the old man. As Valerie and the first demon flew higher up, the ones on the ground soon became nothing more than dots on the landscape.
Within moments, the demon had flown parallel to the dreaded black walls of the floating city. Valerie thought that the city walls were featureless at first, but as they got closer, she could see human like forms and faces were etched on the façade of the rock itself. Valerie immediately sensed that they were lost souls of the damned that were somehow embedded within the rocks.
The demon that carried her sensed her curiosity. “The foundation of these walls are what we call soul slabs. The city of Dis had its walls carved out from the souls of doomed men. It is through their suffering that allows the city to float above the lands below us.”
Valerie pointed to a distant black tower that looked like a stone skyscraper. “Over there, take me there.”
The demon laughed as it shifted its body so that they changed direction as they headed for the tower. “Oh, you will like that one, mortal. Your agony will help power the city.”
“We’ll see about that,” Valerie said as they hovered above the tower. “Put me down slowly on the top level.”
The demon giggled as it let go of Valerie as they floated thirty feet above the apex of the black tower. Valerie screamed as she fell but she was able to hold out her arms to angle herself. She landed at the edge of the top part and her momentum nearly made her roll off the side of the roof. Valerie grimaced as she dug her fingers into the blackened stone so she wouldn’t slide off. The demon continued to laugh as it circled above her. Valerie stood up and gave the creature her middle finger before looking around the roof for a possible way inside.
Sure enough, there was an opening in the middle of the top floor. It was a smooth hole with steps that led downwards. Valerie hunched her shoulders and started to make her way down. The stone steps were winding and it made her dizzy as she descended deeper into the building. The walls around her started to change as she continued on. The blackened soul slabs were suddenly transformed into white painted concrete as she heard the pitter patter of rain and sirens out in the distance.
She had reached some sort of landing and as she turned around, Valerie realized that she was back in Baruch Houses, an apartment block in Manhattan. The whole place was dark and abandoned. She could see the corridor where she had run into, just before the cult of Aztec worshippers had attacked her and scarred her face. Did she go back in time somehow?
Valerie pulled out her Glock pistol as she remembered the incident. The demon must have transported her back into New York City, and now the events of the past must unfold again. She could see that the city was bathed in a rainy night as she looked out the window near the stairwell. This time she wouldn’t make the same mistake twice. She would go back down and tell her partner that there was an ambush waiting for them up here.
“Val,” a nearby voice said. It seemed to be coming from one of the corridors in the same floor she was in.
Valerie’s mouth hung open in shock. She recognized the voice. It was her partner, Myron Jones. He was already here! She needed to warn him before it was too late. She turned and started running towards the corridor where she heard his voice. “Myron! We gotta get out of here, it’s a trap!”
As she made the turn into the corridor, she saw him just standing there at the far end of the passageway. He was still wearing his long raincoat and his back was towards her. The flashlight was in his right hand. A tinge of hope began to seep into her body. It was so good to see her old partner again. Perhaps everything that had happened was all just a dream.
Valerie walked closer to him. “Myron, I think I just had some sort of weird premonition. Something bad is gonna happen so we have to go back down and wait for backup.”
Myron turned to face her. That was when Valerie let out a strangled gasp. The skin on his face had somehow been loosened and he wore it like a mask. She could see the bloody musculature underneath as the folds of skin hung loosely over his face. She was too late. Myron had already been skinned alive and wore his own flesh as a mask.
Valerie took a step back. “Oh god, no.”
Myron moved forward until his loosely hung face was a few feet away from hers. His voice was like a plea. “Why didn’t you listen to me, Val?”
Tears started streaming down Valerie’s face. “Oh, Myron, I’m so sorry! I didn’t know!”
Myron held his hands up. The skin had been scraped away, leaving his bloody, skeletal talons exposed. The peeled skin hung limply along his wrists. “I was your mentor. I taught you everything. But you didn’t listen. You just didn’t listen.”
Valerie sobbed as she fell down on her knees. The Glock pistol fell from her hands and clattered on the concrete floor. “Please, Myron, forgive me! I-I just didn’t know!”
Myron stooped lower so she could smell the blood that stained his suit and coat. “If you hadn’t been so rash, I would still be alive. Now here I am, in the land of the damned. And it’s all thanks to you.”
Valerie shook her head violently. Trails of mucous poured out of her nostrils and her cheeks were wet with salty tears. “Noo! I tried to help them, I was doing my job! You told me to protect the innocent, Myron, and that’s what I tried to do!”
Myron’s voice was like a soothing whisper, though his words were anything but. “If you had just listened to me, Val. Everything would have been fine. I would have gotten back to my wife that evening. I just wanted to hear news about my boy. Now, it’s all gone.”
Valerie clenched her shaking hands but the emotion was too intense. The feelings of guilt that she had repressed gushed over her like a waterfall of bitter bile. Her constant crying was making her lungs heavy. “I told you I was doing my job! Just like you taught me to do! How can you blame me for this?”
“Because I’m dead, Val,” Myron said. “I told you that you should always listen to my advice. But you ran up the stairs and so I followed you because you were my partner. You were not mindful of the danger not just to you, but to me as well.”
Valerie’s mouth trembled as she tried to come up with the words to defend herself. “H-how could I have known? I was trained to respond to trouble and that’s what I did. How could I have known?”
Myron tapped his foot lightly on the floor. Valerie remembered his habit of doing that every time he got angry. “I’m dead, and I’m not the only one. A whole bunch of others. Paramedics, other cops. They all died trying to save you.”
Valerie moaned as she closed her eyes in despair. As the sadness overwhelmed her, she sensed something else. It seemed nothing more than an inner spark in her subconscious, but then it started to intensify. The image of Paul Dane began to form in her mind. That was when reality came back to her.
Myron’s voice was a continuous drone. “Val? Are you still listening to me? Can you not hear the screams of the others who tried to save you?”
Valerie opened her eyes, wiped away her tears and stood up. She looked at the thing with the loose skin in front of her as she dug her nails into her thighs. “No. I won’t listen to you anymore. You’re not Myron.”
Myron seemed shocked as he took a step back. “It’s me, Val. Look at me. Who else could it be?”
Valerie’s voice now had a renewed confidence. “You’re one of these demons. The Righteous Sufferer warned me about this. He told me that the ones who are stuck in these godforsaken hells are the ones who still have a form of guilt over what they did and what they could have done. But I’m through with all that. I got over this already. The real Myron is dead, you’re right about that, but he isn’t in Hell. If there is a heaven, and I hope to god that there is, then he’s up there, and not down here.”
Myron’s once soothing voice turned to anger. “Do not deny your guilt! It is your fault, Val! You deserve to be here, just like the rest of us!”
“That’s not for me to decide,” Valerie said as she crouched down and picked up her gun before placing it in her hip holster. “I’m still alive. And I’ll find Paul and get him out of here too. Whatever happens after that ….well, I guess we’ll have fate decide on that later.”
Myron howled with frustration. The darkened corridor began to blur as he turned around and started walking away from her. Valerie could no longer sense the night air as everything began to swirl and change shape. Within moments, the world around her changed and she was now standing in a small room.
The walls seemed to be made of mud and brick. It was daytime, but she couldn’t tell where the light was coming from. As Valerie looked around, she saw that she was in fact standing on where the ceiling was. Her shoes crunched the dried straw roofing as she took a step forward. Up above her was a wooden table and two chairs that seemed to be stuck up at the top. A bowl of fruit was on the table, but it was suspended above. It seemed like a part of some ancient house, but everything was upside down.
Valerie saw a wooden doorway and she made her way towards it. As she entered the adjoining room it looked like a sort of bedroom. A rickety wooden cot was suspended in the ceiling along with a small table and crude blankets. Sitting in the middle of the room above her was a man. He had his back turned to her as she could see he was wearing a modern day sweater. His thinning hair had streaks of grey in it. That was when she knew.
“Paul!” she screamed out loud. As she tried to reach out to the top of his head, her hands were too far. She tried to jump but it seemed that she couldn’t launch herself. Her feet seemed to be stuck.
“Paul!” Valerie said again. “It’s me! I’m here!”
Paul Dane looked up at her briefly before turning away. He had been sitting on the edge of the cot. His arms were crossed over his chest. His face seemed expressionless, his body language had an uncaring sense about it. “Go away,” he said softly.
Valerie was confused for a moment. “Why? What’s wrong, Paul?”
Paul just stared out in the distance. “Elizabeth will be coming back soon. I have to wait for her here.”
Valerie sighed. “But Paul, Elizabeth’s dead! You’re still alive!”
Paul shook his head. “No, you’re wrong. She’s nearby. I saw a glimpse of her every time I turn my head. It’s like she’s hiding from me, just around the corner of my eye.”
Valerie frowned. It looked like he was under some form of spell. She needed to break him out of it. “Paul, you’ve gotta listen to me. Elizabeth is dead. She died a long time ago. You and me, we got sent to Hell because of that demon. This place is playing with our minds. It somehow increases the guilt we feel and turns it against us. That thing you’re feeling about your dead wife is part of the power in this place. You’ve got to be free of it.”
“Go away,” Paul said softly. “Just leave me alone.”
A sudden sense of despair swept over her and Valerie tried her best to get it out of her mind. For a brief moment, she sensed that Paul was already lost and she might as well give up on him. But the flood of her memories with him was able to turn her dark thoughts around and it thrust her back into the present once more. “Paul, I know it’s hard to think about anything else but you’ve got to try. You need to let go of the past and focus on what’s happening now. You remember being pulled into the darkness don’t you? Right after you summoned that demon. You remember now?”
“It pulled us in and it killed us,” Paul said. “It sent me into this place. There was fire all around me and I was in pain. It’s over. We tried and we lost. Time to let it all go.”
“No! We can still fight this! You’re a mythology professor for chrissakes! If there’s somebody who can find a way out of Hell, then it’s you,” Valerie said.
Paul seemed to be in a daze. “Dante. When he described the inferno it gave me nightmares. But now that I’m here, it’s worse than I ever imagined. If this is where we end up, then what’s the point of it all?”
“We’re not dead yet, Paul! I came from another part of Hell just to find you! I traveled across so many different worlds, along a river pulled by Charon just to get to you! If I can do this, then so can you!”
Paul just stared blankly into space. “But it’s all hopeless. In the end we will be here again. So what’s the point of going on? The only guarantee in life is death. That will bring us back to square one.”
“The point is that we keep fighting, Paul! People are depending on us! The whole country is in big trouble and we can help them,” Valerie said. “You remember the two kids that you saved from that wendigo? They’re with my mama and they need us. They need you.”
Paul shook his head slowly. “I…I remember. But what good am I to them? I haven’t done anything to help anybody. Everybody is dead because of me. Sometimes they come into this house to visit me. All of them. My graduate assistant, that professor I met in England, even those two guys from the embassy. Let’s not even mention all the cops and soldiers that were under me in the museum. All gone. Because of me.”
“That wasn’t your fault,” Valerie said. “You tried your best with the limited facts that we had at the time. But it’s not too late yet. We can still help the country out.”
Paul looked up at her. Hs mouth began to tremble. “I-I can’t do it, Val. I don’t want the responsibility of having all those people risking their lives for something that I may get wrong. Then once the crap happens, the blame will go to me. It always does.”
“All we can do is try,” Valerie said softly. “And you won’t bear this burden alone. I’m with you. I didn’t come all this way to give up now. And I wanted to tell you something.”
Valerie smiled at him. “That I love you. And I will go to wherever you are just to find you and be with you. Not even all the demons of Hell could stop me from doing that.”
A spark of hope was in his eyes. She could feel it. Paul smiled back as he stood up. Valerie pushed her heels as high as she could go and stretched out her arms. Paul hesitated at first, but somehow he was able to summon his inner reserves as he pulled himself up from the cot and reached out to her. The moment their hands clasped the room began to swirl around them. The wind suddenly picked up and a monstrous howl seemed to come from everywhere. Valerie grimaced as she used all her effort to pull herself closer to him. Paul sensed her devotion as his own willpower picked up and he held on tighter. This time they would not be separated, he swore to himself. The vortex intensified as everything around them began to lose cohesion. But by that time they both were in each other’s arms, their love had developed its own kind of power that shielded them from the increasing chaos all around.
When they both came to their senses they found themselves lying on a white sandy beach. Paul got up first as he pulled Valerie to her feet, their clasped hands never loosening their grip. The sky above them was a multitude of colors that swayed like a daytime aurora borealis. They both could feel a soft breeze that came from somewhere in the endless blue skies above.
“I must congratulate you,” a voice behind them said. “I have never witnessed this before.”
They both turned. Valerie realized that the old wanderer had been standing behind them. The old man’s bony hand held his tattered cloak closer to his body as he smiled at them.
Paul still wore his glasses and he adjusted them slightly as he stared back at the old man. “Who are you?”
Valerie giggled as she hugged Paul tightly. “Now that’s a long story.”