The Force Within
by John W. Steele
Table of Contents|
parts: 1, 2, 3, 4, 5
The Monastery of the Dead
They continued north, Reggie’s boots crunching on the gravel. In the distance stood a towering railroad trestle. It ran about a hundred yards over a stagnant brown river. A rusted placard mounted on the truss read:
Welcome To BARDO
Beware of Lower Rebirth
“What does it mean, Samael?”
“You don’t want to know,” it whispered. “We cannot return from whence we came. Forward!”
They walked slowly along the ties, careful not to stumble into the ballast space between them. A ghostly grey mist rose from the water. Reggie kicked a loose spike, and it splashed with a thunk beneath the rolling fog.
Beyond the trestle, the mountains were high and dark on both sides of the track. Up ahead they saw a campfire burning. Reggie approached the area warily, his eyes alert. The fire came from down at the shoreline where the river made an elbow. The flatland opened out, and a tall wooded mountain stood on the other side.
A pang of anxiety burned in his guts. The python twisted its head toward the fire, and Reggie complied. They dropped down the embankment where a beaten trail emerged, and they headed for the flames. What looked like a hobo camp rested on the flat. They stood for a moment searching for signs of life.
From behind, a gravelly voice split the silence. “Welcome to the realm of the damned, pilgrim. What brings you here today?”
Reggie’s heart thumped, and Samael froze. Reggie spun around quick. Before him stood a lanky man dressed in a set of Woodland BDU’s. A K-bar hung from his belt. Over the camo, he wore a black hooded frock open in the front. Around his neck dangled what looked like a string of prayer beads. Reggie saw his face was misshapen, and his nose was sunken. His hair was long and matted. One of his eyes leaked a viscous fluid. The other socket held nothing. “My name is Manfred. I am the abbot of this monastery, our temple of the holy family. Who might you be, brother?”
“R-reggie Suggins, sir.”
The priest’s eye fell on the inscription emblazoned on Reggie’s hoodie. He placed his hands together in a symbol of piety. “You will find sanctuary here, Brother Reggie. Welcome to our tiny slice of Paradise.”
“It’s a pleasure to make your acquaintance, sir. Can you tell us where we are?”
The Abbot looked puzzled. He glanced towards the tracks. “That’s a good question, brother. As I recall, the town of Wolf Kill lies west of here.
“How far away is that?”
Manfred raised his hand and pointed at the mountain. His fingers were adorned with gold rings, and his thumb was missing “About fifty miles, or days, or years, I don’t remember. You’ll need to cross the river if you wish to go there, but no one leaves this place.” The priest smiled. His teeth were black, and his breath smelled like carrion.
Reggie stepped back. “It sounds like we’re stuck in the middle of nowhere. How do you find food out here?”
The Abbot gazed in Reggie’s eyes; a pin of drool seeped from the corner of Manfred’s mouth. “The Lord’s bounty is plentiful, Brother Reggie. Faith is our meat.”
The priest pushed back a strand of his oily mane. “At one time this place served as a graveyard for criminals, but we have transformed it into an ethereal paradise. Do not trouble yourself with earthly matters, my brother. Come into camp. Let me acquaint you with my disciple.” Manfred turned and headed for the bivouac. Reggie followed behind.
They entered a compound that consisted of several rustic shelters. The cells amounted to little more than ragged tarps strung on a rope between the hickory trees. They were open to air in on all sides. Wooden pallets served as a floor. Each one held a surplus army cot made of canvas. A plastic bucket stashed beneath the bed served as a table; it may have served as a sink and a chamber pot as well, such was the squalor of the settlement. A worn blanket made of sackcloth lay folded on the bed, and on it there lay a large black scorpion.
“This shelter belonged to Brother Bertram, but he’s no longer with us. You can stay here as long as you like, Brother Reggie. All we have is yours. Come let us visit our proctor.”
They walked through an expanse of dry grey leaves that crackled in their stride. In the center of the camp burned a vibrant fire bounded by slabs of river stone. Several thick stumps sitting on end surrounded the flames.
On one of them sat a man of broad proportions. His shoulders and arms were robust, and his ponderous belly protruded from a black leather sash wrapped around his waist. He wore a robe that looked like a shell of feed sacks strung together with rawhide laces. A weathered felt Billabong sat low on his skull and covered his eyes. He stared into the flames, oblivious to Manfred and Reggie’s presence, as though in lost in contemplation. Reggie eyed him carefully; the force tightened in his chest.
“The monk that sits before you is perhaps the holiest I’ve inspired. He has taken a vow of silence. Our hermitage was not always as it is now. At one time, a thriving community of zealots dwelt here.
“We found this man naked and drooling, on the side of railroad tracks. His eyes were locked on heaven. Over and over he chanted, ‘For all have sinned and fallen short of God’s glory!’ When we could not contain his spirit, we wrapped him in a camisole of wet burlap and bound him to a tree. For weeks we fed him the grasses of the field and the crawling creatures in the swamp. Boils formed on his tongue, and his bowels gave way, but still he did not awaken from the rapture. When at last he returned from his vision, he never spoke again.
“Because we knew not from whence he came, and because of his great remorse, we named him Brother Morbid. He is a man of moral turpitude. Though his mind is not gifted to discover truth, he is tenacious to hold it. His physical prowess is severe. And he is loyal in times of adversity.”
Brother Morbid turned his head. He gazed at Reggie and then glanced at the Master. Their eyes met, and there occurred a transmission beyond words. A thin smile formed on the ascetic’s face, and he returned to his meditation.
“I’m awful tired, Father Manfred. Do you mind if I rest a spell?”
“Allow us to ease your heavy burden, Brother Reggie. Refresh yourself in the comfort of Brother Bertram’s bedchamber. Soon the darkness will arrive, and our spirits will soar. We will gather by the flames and eat the fishes Brother Morbid gathered from the river.”
The little man returned to the cot and collapsed on the canvas. He entered a restless fugue. He dreamed about Nora. Her eyes were filled with tears, and it seemed she wanted to contact him. When he awakened, the sun had gone behind the mountain. He looked out at the campfire. The priest stood with his arms raised, and a growling mantra buzzed through the trees. Reggie got up and headed for the fire.
The holy man silenced his incantation. “Brother Reggie, we have reserved for you the sacred throne of honor. It sits nearest to the flames and drives away the phantoms of the forest that dwell in the dark and secret places. Please join us in gratitude for Gaia and her offering.” Reggie sat down.
The sky was clear, and the heavens shone with dull cosmic luster. A silver glowing half-moon reflected from the woods with an achromatic presence like a celluloid negative.
The priest handed Reggie what looked like a sucker fish impaled on a stick. “Hold this delicacy over the flames, my brother. Soon you will savor the succulent flesh provided by Mother River. The head monk sat entranced in the charm of the burning embers.
Reggie held his stick over the hungry flames. An awkward silence unfolded, and he asked, “What ever happened to Brother Bertram?”
The Abbot raised his hand and rubbed the socket of his absent eye. “Alas, Brother Bertram suffered a terrible fate... Virus we think. We committed his body to Mother River. We are the children of Gaia. The Queen of Nature in her abundant benevolence returns all sentient beings to her bosom.”
“You said at one time you had many students. Why did they leave?”
The priest fished a roach from the bale of his frock. He scooped an ember from the coals and fired up the bone. The Abbot took a long hit and handed it to Brother Morbid.
“The mind of man is trapped in the world of illusions, Brother Reggie. Rarely does one appear who can endure the monastic existence. At one time, many pilgrims wandered through these parts, all of them seeking what lies beyond the veil. Many of them tarried here in search of the wisdom that cannot be found in words or letters. But sadly, in time, they abandoned their vows and were swallowed up by the trappings of the material world.” He opened his arms. “They gave up all of this for the lust of sensation.
“Our temple grew tarnished by the rumors of old women and tales of mindless fools who know not truth from legend. Few seekers come to our hermitage anymore. Their minds have grown mesmerized by the seduction of the telescreens and the glossy journals filled with images of naked females. They renounced the noble truths for a life of fleeting pleasures.”
The priest raised his hand and held it near the flames. The rings glistened on his fingers. “These are the tokens of those who have come before you. I wear them as a reminder that all men are not corrupted by the fires of illusion and the raging animal passions. There are many we rescued from the curse of sensation.”
Reggie chewed the fish. Its scales stuck in his throat, and it tasted like clay. He glanced into the ashes. What appeared to be the dome of a skull peered from the glowing embers. He could make out an eye socket and an object that looked like a spinal vertebrae. A chill ran through his nerves.
The priest sensed his concern. “Man is forced to endure the vicissitudes of nature, Brother Reggie. When we have erred in our ways, Mother Gaia chastens us in her mercy. We shared no companionship here for a long spell. The Mother Goddess sent us a wild dog to slake our hunger. The creature was rabid, and its teeth were claggy with flesh. Brother Morbid slew the drooling beast with his bare hands. What you see before you are the remains of an offering provided by heaven to sustain our bodies. When a man hungers sorely, he will eat what nature provides.”
“I know,” Reggie said.
The Abbot rose from the stump. “It is time for us to rest from our labors, my brothers. In the morning we shall feast on the ovum of the mallard I gathered from the marshes. The sun will rise, and we will celebrate another day of gratitude for the wonder that surrounds us. Be of good cheer, Brother Reggie. Your future with us is assured.”
The priest and Brother Morbid arose and flowed into the darkness. Reggie returned to the tent. He lay on the cot like a prisoner confined to eternal torment. Samael thought, “We will wait until they sleep, and we shall flee this hell.”
A cool breeze entered the compound. Reggie pulled the blanket over his shoulders and stared into space. The god-hand lay dormant in his chest. Reggie spoke to it as though it were a cherished pet. Samael was mean, and cold, and brutal, and beyond redemption, but he was loyal. “I need you to survive,” Reggie said. “Why did you mislead me?” The little man rubbed his chest gently. Samael held not an ounce of virtue and acted without remorse, but he was better than the petty tyrants and their world of hypocrisy.
Reggie closed his eyes ‘just for a moment,’ he thought.
He sat on a bench in a cemetery. Nora stood before him. She waved her arms and pleaded; her eyes were red with tears. She tried to communicate a message. But her words fell like Chinese kanji characters on his ears, and he couldn’t understand her.
Samael pounded in his chest until Reggie felt his heart would burst. He awakened like a man cast into vat of ice water. Brother Morbid stood above him, and in his hands, he held a broad ax. A voice cried from the wilderness, “I want his liver!”
The cannibal brought down the weapon with all his strength. Samael snatched it up an inch before it severed Reggie’s head. He snapped the bit from the shaft, and it clanged on the floor. The demon screamed and leaped down on Reggie’s body.
Samael drove its iron fist deep in Brother Morbid’s groin. His holy testicles exploded like two ripened kumquats ravaged by a sledge hammer. He rolled to his side and moaned. The god hand clenched tight the demon’s throat. With Herculean intent, the hand tore the windpipe from its location.
A blood curdling scream echoed through the forest. The warlock priest shot into the tent like an arrow and hovered like an effigy of mist. His hands gripped the K-bar now aimed at Reggie’s chest. A terrible thick gagging sound came from his throat which was swelling like a balloon. His single eye sheened then glazed over. With a deafening cry, Manfred lurched forth. Samael brought down the god hand like a lightning bolt. The demon’s head severed from the body and landed with a thud. Reggie drove his brogan into its face. The skull clattered down the bank and rolled into the muddy waters of Mother River.
Outside a ghostly herd assembled; there were voices and screaming that reverberated from the mountain. An angry mob of ghouls demanded their due. “We need your marrow, brother. It was promised us!” Grotesque faces with gaping wounds darted in and out of the darkness. Some of them looked like lepers and others like victims of some kind of gangrenous fungus that oozed out from deep in their skull. Their insanity warped into a chorus of hysteria. A hand of yellow lightning flashed outside, and it started to pour in torrents.
“Run!” Samael cried. They sprinted from the campground. Reggie crashed through the brambles and the briars, and flew up the embankment. When he reached the tracks, the devils swarmed behind. Some of them hobbled on an arm and a single leg. Others limped with their entrails dangling or an eyeball hanging from the socket. But they shared a common intent: they were hell-bent for his blood.
He stormed down the tracks. In in the distance, a raging mob of demons oozed out of the ground. Rows of jagged teeth peered out from their vile mouths. They huddled in a swarm and formed an impasse that could not be breached.
At the side of the mountain, what looked like an early logging road appeared. The trail was narrow and littered with boulders. Reggie and Samael leaped over a gully filled with rotting corpses. A bony arm shot up from the mire and gripped Reggie’s ankle. Samael bent low and ripped it from the shoulder. The god-hand swung the torn appendage like a cudgel, shattering the skulls of the mindless zombies. They dropped all around him like cardboard effigies in a whirlwind. Wounded and cursing, they screamed a woeful lamentation. The festering entities crawled back into the pit, and the reeking muck swallowed them up.
At the top of the ridge loomed the shadow of a dilapidated structure. Reggie struggled up the trail and entered the ravenous maw of darkness.
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Copyright © 2020 by John W. Steele