When nearly an hour of daylight remained, Marcus felt the uncomfortable sense of urgency again and knew it was time to move on toward his appointed task. He took his suitcase into the bedroom he had occupied as a child and began to unpack it carefully, laying each item on the bed as he did so. He sighed as he looked at the bed, an ancient four-poster on which sat the same feather mattress he had slept on for so many years. No pillow top, adjustable, waterbed or any other mattress ever felt as comfortable as that lumpy sack of goose down and a sudden weariness washed over him as he realized that it would be some time before he would be able to rest in it again, if at all.
He continued to unpack, looking over each item as he decided what to bring with him. He knew from experience that certain things would not carry over in any form, but others would, although in a somewhat different shape or material. He dressed for comfort, there would still be a mile trek through the woods to reach the cave and he knew what he wore during that part would matter little once he entered. He strapped a purple Nike fanny pack around his waist, thinking of how much it would make him look like an elderly visitor to Disney World. The only other item he elected to take was a hunting knife sporting a nearly ten inch blade and a leather sheath which he strapped to his belt. The knife handle, made of ivory, showed the signs of extensive use in its yellowed color and worn places, but he smiled as he secured it, patting it like an old friend he had not seen in many years. The blade, left to him by his father, had made the trip many times during his youth and Marcus felt reassured that it was ready to accompany him once again.
The only item remaining in his bag he felt some conflict over was the handgun. He had carried a concealed weapons permit since his twentieth birthday and usually left the gun, a vintage Colt .45 revolver, locked in his desk at home. Heather had never been comfortable about having one in the house, particularly in a room downstairs where a burglar may reach it before they did, but she had relented on the grounds that he disposed of it should they ever decide to have children.
Marcus stared at the weapon, which he only fired once or twice a year during the occasional trip to a firing range near Gatlinburg with some of the other managers from SportsWorld. He had always shown a remarkable proficiency with it, particularly during simulation and quick draw drills, but decided to leave it in the suitcase just as Heather entered the room. She did not knock, causing Marcus to feel a spike of resent as she invaded the only place in the world, this world, at least, that he considered to be just his. Still, he needed to set that aside in order to try to reach her, to convince her to go along on this silly game of his to the cave where all her questions would be answered.
“What are you doing?” she asked as if she had walked in to find him masturbating. “You can’t be going out there now, it’s raining?”
“I’ve been rained on before.” He kept his back turned to her, scanning the items spread across the bed on last time. Satisfied, he turned and looked at her. “You want to know what all this is about?”
“Well, yeah,” she answered.
“Then you need to get whatever you think you’ll need and join me outside.”
He stepped past her and strode out the door without looking back. His grandmother waited for him by the door, her arms crossed and an expression of worry on her face.
“Please be careful, Marcus,” she said.
“I will, Gran,” he assured her. They hugged tightly for a long moment and between the pats on his back he thought he heard Heather frantically rummaging through her things in the back bedroom. He put on a light jacket his grandmother offered and stepped out of the house into the rain.
Walking to the corner of the house, he scanned the edge of the woods, dark and forbidding a few hundred yards in the distance. His vision only penetrated a few feet into the trees, but he knew enough light was left in the day for him to find his way to the cave with relative ease. As he stood staring at his destination, a mixed bag of feelings swept through him, ranging from nostalgia to delighted anticipation to dark dread. He took a deep breath, smelling the clean scent of the rain all around him, and started forward.
“Marcus!” Heather came dashing out the door, carrying a small black bag similar to those he had seen carried by doctors in old movies. She wore a bright pink raincoat, certainly his grandmothers, and he smiled at the sheer vibrancy of it in such bleak weather, and such bleak circumstances. He wondered idly how it would change on the other side.
She turned her head in his direction and hurried to catch up with him, though he had stopped walking, and nearly fell face forward into the wet grass as she slid to a stop. He caught her in his strong arms and for a moment she glanced up at him with an expression he did not at once recognize or expect. Hope. Hope and anticipation. He saw then that regardless of her doubt or suspicion of his motives, she perhaps wanted to believe him because, despite the seemingly terminal problems in their relationship, she still loved him.
Marcus felt himself return the smile involuntarily and watched Heather’s vanish almost immediately. She had been caught with her guard down and the vacant expression that took up residence on her face said that she would not let it happen again.
Marcus wiped his smile off just as quickly, but remaining grinning inside.
“Okay,” he said, letting go of her. “Let’s go.”
Turning on his heel in the wet grass, Marcus walked away from the house toward the dark line of the woods. He heard Heather’s small feet splashing behind him, remaining a few steps behind as though she wanted to keep an eye on him, make sure he had no opportunity to play a joke on her. He walked along faster, his longer strides opening such a lead on her that she had to jog to keep up. She caught up finally just as they reached the trees.
“All right,” she said, trying unsuccessfully to hide a note of apprehension in her voice. “Where are we going?”
Marcus did not look at her. “I’ve already told you where we are going.”
She circled in front of him, standing between him and the dark woods. “Okay, I’ve played along,” her voice rose with impatience. “I’ve walked out here and now I want to know what this is really all about and I don’t want to hear any crap about some imaginary friend.”
Marcus could only look at her, prying his eyes from the dark shadows beneath the trees ahead. A dozen responses came to him, some calm, most not, and he decided the best road would be the silent one. Stepping to his left, he walked past her and entered the woods.
The woods looked as dark and forbidding from inside as they had looked from the outside. Thin, gray light filtered in the through the canopy of leaves providing dappled luminescence by which they could navigate through the thick trunks. As they entered, all sound seemed to be muted and the air took on a heaviness that had nothing to do with the weather. The rain could still be heard falling above before it filtered down through the leaves to settle in dark pools scattered about in the underbrush.
Marcus saw that little had changed since his last visit. Over ten years had passed, but he could see the faint outline of the path he took back and forth during his many trips as a child. He thought the underbrush had grown thicker, probably from a lack of foot traffic and a few trees he remembered standing now lay on their sides, victims of the violent thunderstorms that sometimes ravaged the area or disease.
He kept his hand on the hilt of the knife at his side as he walked. Packs of feral dogs sometimes roamed the woods and, while they usually fled from humans, he had heard of some, driven mad by rabies or hunger, that had attacked humans, although he had never heard of one of these attacks that did not involve a young child.
Heather trailed a few feet behind again, sighing from exasperation. Marcus felt thankful the the path was so narrow, allowing them to pass only in single file and preventing her from circling around him again to slow him down.
Marcus began to feel a strange pulling sensation coming from ahead of him. It was as if someone had wrapped a rope around his chest and was pulling him forward. The sense of urgency nearly overwhelmed him now and he had to fight hard against the urge to run along the path that he knew so well, leaving Heather behind to fend for herself. The thought that he needed her to accompany him grew in proportion to this need to hurry and he could not risk her turning back.
Behind him, Marcus could hear her mumbling to herself. He distinctly heard the words “snipe hunt” and had to stifle a snort of laughter. He wondered if she actually believed he would drive her hundreds of miles and lead her out in the pouring rain to perform such a crude practical joke, then decided, considered the state of their relationship, she probably did.
They walked on for nearly half an hour before Marcus stopped at the edge of a small clearing. Heather stopped behind him and peered around to see what lay ahead.
“What the hell is that?” she asked, glancing up at Marcus.
Marcus took a step forward into the clearing and did not answer. The mouth of the cave, smooth and round, opened up from the side of a small hill like a great yawning maw. Thick strands of moss-covered ivy hung down like dark green tresses of hair and twin oaks, the only ones in this stretch of woods, stood silent duty on either side like guards at Buckingham Palace. The grass in the clearing looked trampled, as though many feet had marched through here not so long ago.
Marcus saw none of these details, however. His attention lay fixed on what he, and Heather, saw in the center of the clearing.
“What the hell is that?” Heather repeated, more insistent now, a note of confused fear in her voice.
Marcus again declined to answer. Instead, he stepped forward into the clearing and knelt down beside the small object, no larger than a child’s ball. He tentatively reached down to pick it up out of the grass and shuddered when he saw his suspicions confirmed.
It was a skull.
Marcus, who had played with the idea of becoming a forensic anthropologist before catching the “retail bug” as he called it, knew from its size that the skull had come from a small human, probably no older than fourteen or fifteen. Staring at the facial features, he saw nothing that indicated trauma, no bone fractures or missing teeth. Then, he rotated the skull forward to examine the cranial bones and his eyes widened with shock and horror.
Etched into the bone, words were written. The tool used to produce the letters had obviously been sharp, but little care was taken to write neatly on such a medium. Marcus read the passage as Heather peered over his shoulder and stepped back again with a strangled scream.
HERE LIES ERASMUS, the words read, MAY HE REST IN PIECES.
Heather continued to walk backwards until she had returned to the edge of the clearing. She placed her back against a tree trunk and struggled for breath.
“What the hell is going on here, Marcus?” she asked.
Marcus placed the skull gently back on the ground, as though it were made of expensive crystal. He caressed its top lightly, his fingers lingering over the indentions of the letters, and stood suddenly, turning to look at Heather.
“He’s dead,” Marcus told her in a mild, unaffected voice. He looked down at the skull at his feet and felt tears, warmer than the rain falling against his face, sliding down his already soaked cheeks.
“I was too late,” he said softly so that Heather barely heard him.
“Marcus, let’s get out of here, I really don’t like this.”
Marcus looked at her as she had looked at him so many time over the past two days, like she had gone mad.
“Don’t worry,” he said, “we’re leaving, but we’re going through there.” He pointed at the cave.
“I don’t want to go anywhere near there.”
“Then I’ll go alone!” Marcus yelled. “How can you stand there and expect me not to do something after they’ve done this,” he pointed at the skull, “to my friend?”
Marcus strode to the mouth of the cave and stopped, turning to see what decision she would make.
“But . . . but . . .” Heather stammered. “He’s not real.” Still holding on desperately to her doubts, she looked at the anguish and determination on Marcus’s face and felt them start to crumble between her fingers.
“He’s not real,” she repeated, pleading to him.
Marcus looked at the skull lying at her feet, then looked back up to her with his red-rimmed eyes. He turned away and walked to the side of the cave. Heather watched as he pulled a metal ammunition box from his pack, the words United States Army printed in black upon the lid. Taking off his watch, he placed it inside and shut the lid, sliding the box into a small natural shelf in the limestone wall.
“He’s real to me,” he said and stepped into the cave, disappearing into the shadows beyond.
Heather stood alone in the clearing waiting for Marcus to reappear. Time passed very slowly as she watched the mouth of the cave and gradually realized that he was not coming back. The sounds of the forests, twittering birds and buzzing cicadas, already muffled by the density of the woods, were drowned out completely by the pounding heartbeat she heard in her ears. A feeling that she was being watched swept over her and she looked down at the grinning skull. She had bumped it with her foot and now its cavernous eyes stared up at her in silent anticipation of what she would do.
“Damn it,” she muttered, sounding more scared than she would admit, even to herself. She ran forward and plunged into the cave, slowing only as the darkness grew around her and she lost all sense of where she was. She could hear water dripping, but with the echo her sense of direction failed to tell her where the sound was coming from. The ground under her feet seemed solid enough, and smooth except for the occasional snapping that she hoped came from a piece of wood rather than the bones her imagination told her lay scattered about the damp earth. She felt eyes on her again, this time many sets, and wondered briefly if bats dwelled in the cave, preparing for their nightly forage for insects.
She paused to look back, but no light could be seen from the clearing she had left only a few yards behind. Finding herself alone now in complete darkness, Heather felt her resolve begin to break. She made a quick, full turn which completely disoriented her in the blackness and as she fell she let out a scream of terror.
Strong arms caught her as she fell and she collapsed into them. A faint wisp of Curve, the cologne she had bought for Marcus their first Christmas together, reached her nose and she sobbed in relief, clutching at his arms to pull herself to him.
“I’ve got you,” he told her, pulling her in and holding her reassuringly. “I’m sorry I left you, but you don’t understand what I have to do and how important it is that I get started immediately.”
“Why?” Heather asked. “If he’s dead, why do you still have to go through with it? What if you die, too? What will I do then?”
Marcus held her close to his chest, feeling the her shake from her crying. Warmth spread in a patch across his shirt as her tears soaked through. In the dark, he allowed himself to smile, aware that she could not see him to put up her guard once again. He had convinced her at last, he knew. Now, at least, that difficult task was completed.
“Come on, let’s go. It’s not much farther now,” he told her, wrapping his arm around her to lead her through the complete darkness.
Heather seemed to recover a bit once they began moving. “How do you know where you’re going?” she asked.
“I can feel it, like that other world is pulling me along toward it.”
They walked forward for several steps, unable to see even each other’s eyes in the lightless cave. The ground remained mercifully flat and smooth and Marcus walked with the confidence of a blind person within the friendly confines of his own home, a sharp memory and repetition allowing him to see the safest path.
A faint light began to grow up ahead. At first, Heather thought it only a phantom spot of light that some people see in areas of complete darkness or, worse, her mind imposing an optical illusion, making her see light because it so desperately needed to see it. Instead, the light grew brighter as they approached and the smell of fresh air began to replace the damp, earthy smell of the cave. Faint bird songs floated in on the breeze and Heather found herself first jogging then sprinting toward the opening. Marcus yelled something to her, a warning by the sound of his voice, but she ignored him, answering only the call of her mind to be out of the darkness and into the light of day.
She burst out of the end of the cave into another small clearing, nearly identical to the one they had entered the cave from on the other side. Only here, bright sunshine fell through the opening in the canopy instead of pelting rain and a stiff breeze blew her hair back in light brown waves.
She stopped at once when she heard the movement around her and realized her error when she caught a smell that brought back memories of her childhood.
“Horses,” she muttered as a large shape emerged from the trees, blocking out the sun. She strained to see what approached her but was momentarily blinded. All around she heard hoof beats as they closed in from all directions, enclosing her in a tight circle.
Heather stared in disbelieving horror as her eyes adjusted. At first, she thought she had stumbled upon a hunting party of men on horseback, but the figures surrounding her were not men, nor were they horses. A sleek horse’s body stood before her, but where the neck should rise up to the majestic animal’s head, the short fur blended seamlessly with the upper torso of muscular man. Dark, turbulent eyes stared down at her from a height of nearly eight feet and a crooked grin made the face look feral and wicked.
“Look what me’s found, cents,” the centaur said to its companions, now blocking every means of escape from the clearing. A rowdy chorus of chuckles sounded from the others.
The centaur reached down, its massive hands looking as they could crush her with the slightest squeeze. Heather fell back, landing hard in the grass, and started crawling backwards to escape the beast. She had managed only a yard of clearance before she ran into something solid and felt herself being lifted off the ground by her waist. Kicking and screaming, she fought desperately as the centaur lifted her high into the air and, with remarkable dexterity, turned her writhing body around to face him.
This centaur was considerably larger than the first that had tried to pick her up and obviously older. Whereas the first had short light brown hair that matched its fur, this one sported a shaggy black mane, striped with gray that also appeared in its salt and pepper fur. A necklace of bones was the only adornment it wore and this was partly concealed by the thick black beard cascading in tight braids down the front of its expansive chest.
The black centaur regarded her for a moment, then spoke to the others. “She be a might pretty worm, the way she wiggle. May hap we should toss her in the river and catch a fish.”
This suggestion was greeted with a gruff cheer from the others, stamping their hooves in their excited amusement.
“If I was you, Beorgan, I’d put her down and apologize,” a voice from outside the circle of centaurs said.
A flurry of hoof beats sounded as the centaurs turned to see the speaker. Arrows were notched onto bow strings and pulled taut, ready to fire at this threat emerging from the cave.
Heather could not see where the voice had come from, but knew that Marcus had spoken and was now trying to rescue her. She nearly sobbed again with relief, but her agitation over his delay in reaching her cut the cry short. She twisted her body, trying to see if the centaurs would shoot him down like a rabbit, but the large centaur held her firmly.
“I’ll put her down when I’ve a mind te,” Beorgan said, his eyes narrowing. He tucked Heather under his arm like a newspaper. “And who be ye te tell me what te do?”
Now Heather could see Marcus and she gasped. He was no longer wearing his hooded raincoat and blue jeans. Blood red robes fell down to nearly his feet which had shed their Columbia hikers for supple, leather boots. A black hooded cloak was fastened about his throat with a silver clasp in the shape of a four-pointed star. His hazel eyes scanned the clearing, seeming to count the centaurs.
“Have you forgotten me so soon, Beorgan, after all I did for you in past days?” Marcus asked.
Another centaur stepped forward, its sandy blonde hair falling into its eyes. “Ye look familiar, but ye can’t be the boy. He has gone for good.”
The other centaurs stared hard at Marcus, as if trying to decide if they knew him or not. Beorgan stepped forward finally and looked down, bending so that Marcus could feel his breath upon his face. “If ye are who ye say ye are, prove it,” the black centaur said, regarding Marcus skeptically. “Show us ye power, boy”
Marcus kept silent for a long while, staring into the wild eyes. Fear leaped up from his stomach and nearly erupted from his mouth in a stream of vomit. This was the one thing he had hoped to avoid until he had ample opportunity to test his power. He wondered if the abilities he possessed as a young boy remained with him as a young man. If he attempted to find out now, and failed to produce, the centaurs would kill him where he stood and carry Heather off to serve as a slave, at best.
He looked at Heather, staring at him with unabashed wonder and hope. After all their arguments and hard feelings, they were now in danger of losing not only their relationships, but their lives. He thought that if he died, how he would never have the opportunity to prove to Heather how much he really cared for her. The last thing he wanted now was to fail her, or himself.
Beorgan continued to stare at Marcus, waiting for some fantastic proof of his identity.
Marcus swallowed his fear, showing it would mean a quick death. “If you value your life, Beorgan, you’ll prefer I not show you anything.” His voice softened, but remained clear and confident. “I have not come back to fight with you, my old friend, but to seek your help.”
The black centaur raised up slightly, continuing to look at Marcus. He seemed to absorb them into his mind and turn them over with all his cunning, deciding whether to believe Marcus or pound him into the ground with a hardened hoof.
Marcus struggled to find something to prove who he was, some convincing piece of evidence that would not require him to display the power he was not sure he still had. His mind raced and finally settled on a memory, one that seemed to be only from a dream.
He took a step forward toward the centaur holding Heather. “You may recall, Beorgan, that I saved your life,” he said.
The centaur recoiled slightly, but recovered quickly, unconsciously drawing Heather a little further away from Marcus.
“As you lay dying from a poisoned arrow from a rival tribe, it was I who found the remedy to save you before you passed on,” Marcus continued. “Your powerful body was writhing in pain, weakened beyond even the youngest of your kind. You waited for, no, begged for death, when I arrived with the antidote and then when you recovered you pledged to return the favor.”
He stepped directly in front of the centaur and, to his own amazement, bent forward allowing the centaur an unobstructed view of his exposed neck, leaving himself fully at the large centaur’s mercy. “Now, I return to this land and I ask you to fulfill the vow you made those years ago.”
For a brief moment, nothing happened. Marcus still doubted the memory that he hoped would save himself and Heather and expected the centaur to laugh just before crushing his skull upon the hard ground. Instead, he heard a much softer footfall as Beorgan lowered Heather to the ground.
Heather rushed forward and engulfed him in her arms. Her head dove in quickly as though she was about to kiss him, then stopped. She looked at him intently, staring deep into his eyes, then smacked him hard across the face.
The centaurs stood stunned, then broke out into raucous laughter. Marcus fell back, more stunned than the centaurs and looked at Heather in pained confusion.
“What the hell was that for?” he asked.
She charged in again and attempted to strike him again, but he caught her hand.
“Why did you bring me here?” she sobbed, collapsing into a heap on the grass. “Why did you bring me here?”
Marcus could only stare at her, muted at the depth of her fear and humiliation. He searched for some answer, some wise reasoning behind his decision to bring her to this world. He found none. He knew that telling her he did not know why he needed her here, only that he did, would only infuriate her further.
The centaurs milled around nervously. Marcus knew that such displays of emotion such as the one Heather now engaged in were considered a deplorable show of weakness and they whispered to each other in their hoarse voices, watching the scene before them all the while. He also knew that they hoped he would do something to further provoke her anger enough to lash out at him again. While they could not comprehend the grief and fear Heather displayed, physical violence and retribution they understood with absolute clarity.
Marcus knelt down beside Heather and took her hands in his own. This created an excited murmur that buzzed through the whispering voices like electricity through a high voltage line. He ignored them and their desire to see the sense smacked out of him again. He lifted Heather’s hands to his chest and squeezed them gently.
She looked up at him again, this time with an expression of questioning anger, still waiting for an answer to her question. Tears streamed down her cheeks creating wet channels in the dust that had settled there over the past few minutes. She started to draw her hands back, but Marcus held them firmly.
“I . . .” he started to give the I-told-you-so speech, but swallowed it back, afraid to push his luck any more than he already had. “ . . . I can’t do this without you. I know it’s a lot to ask, for you to come to this horrible place and all the risk that comes with it, but I need you with me, because I can’t do it alone.”
Marcus kept his voice low and wondered how well centaurs could hear. He felt hot tears lining his own face as he stared into her chocolate eyes, not from any stress of his own, but as a reaction to her stress, a deep feeling of empathy that saw her pain and wanted to do something to acknowledge it.
Heather stared at him for an eternity, then allowed a thin smile to soften her features. Again, Marcus was struck by her simple beauty and felt his heart give a solid thump against his chest as he looked at her.
“I guess I should have believed you, huh?” she asked, allowing him to help her to her feet.
“I wouldn’t have believed me, either.”
She wiped her eyes with her sleeve and for the first time since exiting the cave, she realized that her clothing had changed. A cotton blouse, a pink so light that it appeared to be blushing, had replaced the raincoat and loose cotton pant flapped around her legs in the slight breeze instead of her blue jeans. Her own Timberland hikers had, like Marcus’s, been replaced by supple leather boots of indeterminable make. Even her hiking pack, the first item she had bought for herself at SportsWorld, now appeared as a large leather satchel, hand-stitched and worn. She twirled once like Cinderella after her rags had been changed into a ball gown, and looked again at Marcus, studying the robes and cloak.
“You look ridiculous,” she told him.
“You look pretty damn hot yourself.”
She smiled at him again, this time in amusement. “I don’t know,” she said, turning. “Do these pants make my butt look big?”
Marcus sighed and said nothing. He stepped past her and looked up at Beorgan who had watched the entire scene with detached impatience.
“Will you please lead us?” Marcus asked him. “I wish to know what I can do to help you and your kinsmen.”
Beorgan nodded. He turned and walked to the edge of the clearing and into the trees, muttering to one of the other centaurs. Marcus caught the word “humans” and “weak” in the discussion, but let them form their own opinions. Putting his arms around Heather’s shoulders, he followed the black centaur into the woods.