[Mysteriousheartland.com] Mike smelled the musk of stale wood as the giant skeletal horse, built from driftwood and animated by some unknown force, pressed him against the wall in the foyer of the Clark Arts Center. The petrified “bones” of the creature rattled in his ears, and his muscles strained to hold back its assault. As he fought for his life, his mind involuntarily wandered to thoughts of Saint Sebastian College in Maine, where all this trouble began. He searched for an explanation for how his life might end at the hands of an elaborate piece of modern art.
He recalled finding “the book,” just before Saint Sebastian burned. The book was similar to the one he had just picked up at Illinois State University. A French missionary had written it in Latin in the seventeenth century, and its contents led the Fallen to Illinois in search of a portal that opened to the astral plane. That was more than three years ago. All they had to do was find the portal buried among the haunted places of Illinois. How difficult could it have been? But a group of zealots found it first. Even though the Fallen had thwarted the zealots’ effort at the summit of Monk’s Mound, they accidentally unleashed an ancient demon that was now on a mission to destroy them.
Suddenly, he snapped back to the present, and the petrified horse collapsed before his eyes. As the wooden pieces clattered to the floor, he saw Aurelia standing in the hallway with a queer grin on her face.
“Simple animation spell,” she said. “Easy to remove.” She wore military-issue camouflage pants, black combat boots, and a black tank top. She tied her short, dark brown hair in such a way that it looked like a giant paintbrush stuck out of the back of her head. Mike jokingly referred to this as her “poof.”
A door slammed. “What are you doing?” Misa yelled as she burst into the hallway from Maddox Theater. “You’re wasting time!” She had tucked her long, black hair carefully behind her misshapen ears, and her eyes burned with uncharacteristic intensity.
“Calm down,” Mike said as he brushed the dust off his black t-shirt and faded jeans. “Take a deep breath.”
Even Aurelia arched her eyebrows as Misa perched her hands on her hips like a housewife scolding her children. Misa weighed 100 pounds soaking wet. When Mike and Greg met her in New Orleans, she had not displayed much fortitude. Every shadow terrified her, but that was nearly a decade ago. Forced to fend for herself after Mike and Greg slew her vampirous father, she worked her way up the Mississippi River to Memphis. There she began to hear rumors through underground channels that a group calling itself the Fallen was stirring up trouble in Illinois. Curious, she tracked them down and, to her surprise, found out Mike and Greg were its organizers. Still feeling herself in their debt, she decided to warn them of the dangerous forces gathered against them. A year later she was in Rockford, feeling like a babysitter.
In the lobby of Maddox Theater, in the shadow of a half-dozen mannequins donned in Shakespearean dress, Emmet, Greg, and Davin carefully made their way toward the door that opened into the theater itself.
“Was I not clear in October about how little I wanted to come back to Rockford?” Emmet asked rhetorically as the trio entered the theater and began walking down the aisle toward the stage. The room was dark except for the emergency lights and the red exit signs above the doors.
“Don’t you have more pressing concerns than some girl who dumped you over a year ago?” Greg retorted.
Emmet grumbled, “Considering the circumstances, I wish I didn’t.”
The three froze as they heard a crash, but they could not tell from what direction it came. Their eyes and ears played tricks on them in the darkness, and at times it seemed like the shadows moved on their own.
Emmet, of course, knew that was an illusion. There were times when he wondered why he kept coming on these adventures, especially when they were so dangerous. Lightning nearly struck and killed him on Monk’s Mound, just after he had finished giving his friends a mouthful about how much nonsense Mike’s notion of the paranormal was. It was a lecture he found himself giving more often since Misa showed up. She had convinced herself, and Mike and Greg, obviously, that she was a dhampyr, a half-vampire. Emmet knew it was crazy. Still, they were his friends. He could not imagine the trouble they would find themselves in without someone to knock sense into them. Now they were all risking arrest by being in this building at night—something Mike swore only a few months ago they would never do again.
The faint ring of a bell broke the silence. This time, Emmet, Greg, and Davin knew this particular sound came from backstage. They nodded to each other and cautiously climbed the steps to the proscenium, just in front of the heavy, red curtains. Props sat on stage for a coming performance. The three friends weaved between a fake plant, a park bench, and a cardboard streetlamp. They strained their ears, but it was not long before they heard the
sound again. This time, the jingle was louder and more distinct.
“I know you heard that too,” Davin said, directing his assertion toward Emmet. “I’m not imagining that.”
“I hear it,” Emmet whispered. “The question is, what is it? I’ll bet you a hundred bucks it isn’t a ghost.”
Greg, who wore his usual outfit of frayed cargo shorts and an olive green shirt, hesitated. “I’ve got a bad feeling about this,” he said. “Let’s hope it doesn’t turn out to be something that was alive.” The three never had a chance to find out. Greg’s cell phone vibrated in his pocket. It was a text message from Mike.
[Mike]: Get the heck out here, right now. You won’t believe what just happened.
“We just got new marching orders,” Greg announced with a touch of sarcasm. “Mike wants us out in the hallway. I think he might have an explanation for that crash we heard a couple of minutes ago.” Emmet, Davin, and Greg took one more look backstage to see if they could detect the source of the sound of the bell, but gave up after a few seconds. They headed back down the aisle to the lobby. There they met Mike, Misa, and Aurelia, who were standing over a pile of driftwood.
Mike smiled. “Would you believe me if I told you this giant sculpture of a horse came to life and attacked me?”
His friends were speechless, but Emmet raised one eyebrow in a defiant, “No.”
“Something is trying to keep us away from here,” Aurelia said.
“Yeah, common sense,” Greg replied.
“We came here for a purpose,” Misa growled. “Stop screwing around. We have to get some of those ceremonial tools they have stored here. My contact says they are in a storage room in the basement, but she didn’t know which one.”
The Fallen followed Misa down the hall to the stairs, and Mike flicked on his electric torch. “Crowley’s ass,” he cursed. “I can’t see anything.” As if to stress the point, Greg stumbled into Emmet, nearly bringing the entire group down with him.
“That better have been your flashlight back there,” Emmet said after he regained his footing.
After a few minutes, the group found themselves in another hallway. This time Aurelia took the lead. She paused at each door to feel the vibrations from the other side. Finally, she came to one that nearly knocked the breath out of her. “This is it,” she said. “This is the room.”
Mike tried the handle. Locked. Impatient, Greg pulled a small sewing kit out of his cargo shorts. Wires and paperclips of various sizes were inside. He selected a few that looked promising and went to work picking the lock, with Mike providing the illumination. What seemed like an eternity passed before he heard the lock click. Greg threw open the door, and the Fallen poured into the room.
“Be careful,” Mike said. “We need to take a ceremonial bowl and one of those dolls, but it can’t look like we were ever here.”
Misa examined the centuries-old items filed in drawers, wrapped in newspaper, and stacked in boxes. Finally, her gangly fingers found a clay bowl with several strange symbols painted on the side. She motioned for Aurelia, who hesitantly came over and stared at one of the kachina dolls. After mumbling an incantation, she wrapped it in a specially prepared cloth and placed it in Greg’s backpack.
Mike breathed a sigh of relief. “Let’s get out of here before campus security notices,” he said, allowing himself to smile. “We’re closer than ever to the end, and it can’t come soon enough.”
Finally, Emmet found a reason to agree.
[New episode every Friday…]
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