Suddenly, one of them unfurled its cloak and flew from ground level to a nearby walkway. Wings! All this time I assumed they wore black cloaks, when instead it was only a pair of black wings which they keep folded around their bodies.
Another joined him, flitting to the same walkway from a stairwell on the opposite side of the passage. They seemed to converse. What could they possibly talk about? What does small talk between monsters sound like?
“You know, it’s funny” I muttered, mostly to myself. “When I was little, I was afraid of monsters. Zombies, ghosts. Shadow crows. That’s what really terrified me. When I grew up a little more, I feared what I thought were more realistic threats. Terrorists, burglars, gang bangers.”
John nodded thoughtfully but said nothing, so I continued. “But really, those are still fairly fantastical threats. It never even occurred to me to fear losing my parents. Wasn’t even on my radar. There wasn’t any time to come to terms with losing them, either. A car horn honked, I heard a tire screech, then…then they were gone. Just like that. How can it happen that way?”
We walked in silence for a while. I didn’t mean to dump all this on a stranger, I just had to get it out. It struck me as strange that we’ve been walking all this time, yet I didn’t feel tired, but only briefly. Made me wonder again if I can even die here.
At last the tower loomed large before us. The winged throngs packed the passage below from one wall to the other. Milling to and fro, sometimes flapping their wings as if impatient. Some nameless fear bubbled up within me as a pair of immense gates slowly swung open, permitting the anxious mob to pour through into a vast circular courtyard around the base of the tower.
Little by little they joined hands to form a huge circle. A series of torches sprung to life, their flame a deep, rich red rather than the color fire ought to be. A line formed, comprised of figures wearing the cloak but not the skull.
Even from this distance I could tell, by the differently colored hair, that they were human. The line advanced slightly, depositing the fellow at the front into the circle. Six of the creatures wheeled out a huge egg. As I watched, it hatched and a squirming baby crow emerged.
They pounced on it, producing jagged knives with which they methodically beheaded the pitiful little thing, then scraped away all of the skin. Finally they cut a hole in the bottom and scooped out the brains. The freshly cleaned, emptied skull was then gingerly placed on the head of the new recruit.
“This…this doesn’t feel right” I whispered. “We shouldn’t be here. Something’s about to happen, isn’t it? That’s what they all came for. We have to get out of here.” When I turned around, I couldn’t understand what I saw.
John faded and split. Warping, deforming as something emerged from within his body. Casting it off as a butterfly does with its chrysalis, the empty skin fell to pieces as Croctaw hatched. I toppled backwards, choking on a scream. Then I scrambled to my feet and ran for it.
The pieces finally came together in my head as I ran, though far too late. Why he would go to such lengths to help me escape the city, why he led me here. Nausea forced me to slow down somewhat, but I could not stop because of what I knew for certain was not far behind.
A thundering caw split the air, shaking my very bones. I covered my ears in agony, though it did nothing. At the first chance, I ducked down a stairwell and into the interior of the wall. Outside, a vicious wind picked up and a tremendous shadow passed overhead.
When it passed, I waited for the wind to settle down just to be sure. Then I curled up in one corner and wept. It’s just too much. How did I get here? What is any of this? Even after the old man betrayed me, I was so foolish as to trust John. What a foolish thing it is to trust anybody.
Just then, I heard someone call out my name. Couldn’t be, I thought. Couldn’t be. I ignored it and retreated ever further into misery. But it came again. From the shadowy corridor at the far end of the room, two figures emerged.
I winced. This is it, surely? They know my name. They’ve come for me. But I did not run. No more energy for that. All I cared to do was lay there and wait to be taken. Only…once clear of the shadows, the two figures weren’t wearing skulls, such that I could see their faces.
Mom and Dad. I blinked and sputtered, unbelieving. Then crept towards them bit by bit, fearful that this cruel mirage would vanish before I could reach it. Up close I could see they wore no clothing, but were covered everywhere except their hands, feet and head by glossy black crow feathers.
I reached out and plucked one of the feathers. “Ouch!” I recoiled in shock. Dad laughed. “It’s me alright.” I started blubbering. The two knelt to either side of me, gently rubbing my back as the tears refused to stop coming.
“But if he’s here” Mom whispered to him, “doesn’t that mean…? Oh dear. Oh, what have you done.” Through the tears I recounted as best I could the story of how I met Doctor Travigan. “So…it’s just some sort of device? You’re not…?”
I shook my head. “J-just sleeping. He…he was supposed to wake me up by now.” The two puzzled over that for a moment. Then Dad spoke. “So…you’ve just been wasting away in the shed? Watching my old tapes?”
I nodded, wiping tears from my puffy red eyes. “That’s not…I mean, I used to think about how hard it would be on you when your mother and I passed. I just expected it would be of old age, so there would be time to prepare you for it. I never wanted it to destroy you, surely you realize that.”
While I pondered that, he wrapped his wings around me. Mom followed suit, wrapping her own wings around myself and Dad. “You can’t go on like that. That isn’t the life we wanted for you.” I ached inside, even having found them at last.
“I just…I can’t do it” I murmured. “I don’t want that life.” He suddenly scolded me. “There isn’t any other! You must never think that way. Everything we did as parents was to prepare you to survive without us. Not just materially but emotionally. We weren’t going to live forever, even if not for the car crash.”
He seized me by the shoulders and lifted me to my feet. “I’m not about to let you wallow in this desolate, forgotten place. Our time is over, but yours is just beginning.” Bewildered, I asked why they didn’t avail themselves of the exit, if indeed they know where it is.
They looked at each other. Then at me, mournfully. “You know why, don’t you?” Mom softly inquired, stroking my cheek. “You’re alive. You can still return to the waking world. The world of color, wind, sunshine and life.”
The tears started up again. “I’m not leaving you here!” She held me close as I sobbed. “You have to. We are of this place now. There is no return for us, it doesn’t work that way. But for you, there is hope. You can still pass through…and you must! If not for your own sake, then for ours. We can only endure this knowing that you’re out there, maturing into a wonderful young man. Laughing, loving…living.”
I could no more bear the thought of going on without them now than I could before I came here. But nor could I deny her plea. “It’s just…it wasn’t supposed to happen like this. I was supposed to find you two, then…I don’t know. Get you out? Somehow? So we could be a family again.”
Mom shook her head slowly. “You were always like this, you know. I remember one Christmas when you were ten. You threw a fit because we packed up the presents into the car and drove to your aunt’s house to open them.”
She gestured to Dad. “He was so furious! He thought you were upset because you wanted to open the presents right away. But it wasn’t about that, was it? It was about Christmas not unfolding the way it always did until then. You’ve always had this fixation on events occurring in a familiar, logical order, according to your own notion of how it ought to be.”
I still couldn’t see anything wrong with it. Her wings now hung at her sides but I dare not let go of her, lest she still somehow prove to be an illusion. “You need to let go of your plan for how you expect your life to be, so that your real life can happen. So you can move into and embrace it instead of fighting it, or hiding from it.”
Stay Tuned for Part 16!