[Mysteriousheartland.com] A full moon lit up the thin layer of snow that coated the rocks, valleys, and crags of Starved Rock State Park. A bluish hue reflected off the naked and dormant branches of the deciduous forest. Despite recent snowfall, the temperature was crisp but bearable. The air was still. Heavy footsteps trampled through the frozen underbrush without regard for the noise—the travelers moved like they were on a mission and were far enough from the nearest home to care.
Misa, a gangly young woman dressed in a flowing, knee-length coat, led the way. She moved swiftly but awkwardly; dodging and weaving through the trees like she was always off balance. Her appearance was deceptive, however, because she was neither helpless nor directionless. Her senses thrived in the dark. She heard the rustle of the owls in the trees and smelled the strangers who had tracked her friends since they left their car.
Aurelia was also keenly aware of their pursuers, but not through any of her five senses. She felt their power—their rage. The feeling soaked into her bones, and it got stronger the closer they came to the cliff.
Mike, Greg, Davin, and Emmet were oblivious. They moved with caution, instinctively finding sure footing on the snow- covered forest floor. Still, they lagged several yards behind Misa and Aurelia.
“Are you sure this plan is going to work?” Greg asked between heavy breaths. Fog puffed from his mouth.
“I didn’t spend a year preparing for this to let it fail,” Mike replied. He tied his thick, black leather trench coat tightly around his waist. “There are two parts to my plan, which I guess I have to explain to you again because you were asleep last time.” He paused to see if Greg would lodge a protest, but none came. He continued, “First, we need to attract this demon, or whatever it is, and let it know that we’re here. It’ll come after us, of course, and that’s when we’ll destroy it.”
“How come all your plans risk getting us killed?” Davin asked, but Mike ignored him.
“Man, no one said this was going to be safe,” Greg replied with a chuckle.
“Not to throw a wrench in your little delusion you have going on here,” Emmet interrupted while racing to catch up with the others. “If this creature escaped at Cahokia Mounds two years ago, and it has been trying to destroy us this entire time, how come it hasn’t done it yet? I mean, what’s it waiting for? This is the worst demon ever.”
“We’re just that good,” Greg said. “I mean, I am, anyway.”
“It isn’t strong enough,” Mike said, not trying to disguise his annoyance. “Spiritual beings have a hard time interacting with the physical plane, since they’re technically in another dimension. That’s why it needs acolytes to do its bidding.”
Emmet wanted to laugh uncontrollably, but he held his tongue.
Greg leaped over a log and ran to Mike’s side. “Why did you pick this place?” he asked. “Why not go back to Monk’s Mound, where it all started?”
“First, this is more remote,” Mike explained. “Cahokia Mounds is too close to the city—there’s too much of a risk of someone interrupting us or of civilians getting hurt. Second, it doesn’t have exactly what we need for my plan to work.” He grinned as the trees opened to reveal a sandstone cliff, formed millennia ago by the inexorable course of the Illinois River. Misa, who had arrived at the spot moments earlier, stood at the edge of the cliff, bathed in moonlight. Her skin appeared porcelain white.
Greg put down his backpack, pulled out a blanket, and spread it out on the ground. Carefully, he removed a weathered book with silver lettering pressed into the cover, a clay bowl, a plastic bag filled with ash, and a borosilicate glass beaker filled with murky water. He laid the items out on the blanket.
Alongside these items, Mike added a calumet pipe, which he had been keeping in his trench coat. Five eagle feathers dangled from the head of the red pipestone at the end of its stem. “So, a whole year’s worth of searching has led to this,” he whispered.
Every member of the Fallen, even Emmet, let out a long, slow breath.
“Let’s go,” Aurelia said. “We don’t have much time. Those guys will be here any minute.”
“What guys?” Davin demanded.
“The acolytes that have been after you— they followed us here,” Misa replied, matter-of-factly. “You didn’t think they would let you do this without a fight, did you?”
“Don’t worry,” Mike said. “We need them. There’s a specific reason we’re here at this cliff.”
“Isn’t this ‘lover’s leap’?”
“Exactly. A demon of this size needs sacrifices to remain in this realm. It needs it, like you and I need food. That’s why it hangs out here, at Starved Rock. Have you ever wondered why we call it Starved Rock? Because an entire tribe vanished here, but you don’t sense their spirits anywhere, do you? Add the murders in 1960 and all the young couples who have thrown themselves off this cliff. Why do you think they chose this cliff out of all the others?”
“Because it’s a long way down?” Emmet interrupted.
“The creature lured them here so it could feed off their souls.”
Emmet rolled his eyes and mumbled, “That’s the most logical explanation, of course.”
Mike brushed off the comment and began to push his companions away from the precipice. “Aurelia is right, we need to get going. Emmet, Greg, and Davin, take off down that trail for a few yards and find a good hiding spot. If you hear me yell, come running.”
In the past, the three would have argued, but they all heard the determination in Mike’s voice. They quickly obeyed and disappeared into the trees. Meanwhile, Mike, Aurelia, and Misa prepared the ritual circle in a clearing a few yards in front of the sandstone bluffs.
From the perspective of the eight cloaked figures that slowly emerged from the trees, they had cornered two of their prey. A young man dressed in a black leather coat and a young woman wearing a dark blue dress stood at the edge of the cliff with their backs to the open air. It would only be a matter of time before the acolytes caught the others, who had most likely ran off down one of the trails. A series of perverse smiles grew across their lips, which was all that was visible under their thick, brown hoods.
Misa crouched like she was getting ready to fight, and she watched the acolytes slowly advance. At the last moment, she threw herself backwards off the edge of the cliff.
Enraged, the acolytes rushed forward to seize the man in the leather coat, but he vanished as soon as their hands fell on him. They heard a shout, and the next thing they saw was the open air and the rocky shore of the Illinois River rushing toward them. Spinning around, one caught a glimpse of the young woman in the tuxedo tail jacket suspended in the air by a nylon cord. She waved right before the world went black.
The Fallen stood at the edge of the precipice and looked down. At the last moment, they had rushed from their hiding places and pushed the acolytes to their deaths. Now, Greg, Davin, and Emmet went to work hauling Misa up while Mike lit the calumet pipe and Aurelia opened the ageing, leather bound book. In a short time, Misa stood with the others, brushing off the front of her dress.
The sandstone cliff began to shake, and a deep, primordial groan echoed in the river valley. Stones and dirt shook loose and tumbled down into the darkness.
Standing in a circle, each member of the Fallen puffed deeply from the calumet pipe. Aurelia read an incantation from the book, while Mike mixed the ashes from the Bishop-Zion Church fire with the healing water from Vishnu Springs in the ceremonial bowl. Purple and black smoke began to pour from the mixture, and it burst into flame.
“Good luck,” Johnny said, and he faded away just before the Fallen strolled into the dark forest.
In the best French accent Aurelia could manage, she chanted, “Ce qui est foncé soyez rempli de lumière, enlèvent cet esprit de ma vue! Enlèvent cet esprit de ma vue!”
A gust of wind carried the smoke up to the stars, and the low groan turned into a horrifying scream like none of the Fallen had ever heard. Aurelia repeated the line for a third time, and the flame in the ceremonial bowl exploded in a coruscating burst of green and red.
Calm spread over the Illinois River valley.
The ghost of a Confederate soldier appeared in the clearing with a curious grin on his face.
“Thanks for pretending to be me back there, Johnny,” Mike said. “We couldn’t have done this without you.”
“It’s the least I could do,” the phantom replied. “I’ve felt a bit useless since I died, and well, you’re my only friends.”
Mike nodded. “We’ll be leaving Illinois soon,” he said. “Who knows when we’ll meet again.”
[New episode every Friday…]
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