1. Prologue: Retribution

Retribution.

That is the reason for my existence. Retribution.

A trail of despicable choices brought it to this. With every decision, a justification; the wrong choice looked right and the right choice looked too hard. He dug this hole. Now the weight of a thousand selfish deeds pile up, one by one, until he is buried in them. His actions forged his tomb.

Retribution.

He must pay for his sins. Intention does not excuse action.

Under the cover of the starless night I find him, pacing sleeplessly in his home. Is he troubled by what he has done, or worried that he could be held accountable?

Retribution.

I look through the window. The room is illuminated by nothing but the gentle glow of the hearth. He does not see me. Not yet.

With a mighty leap I shatter the window. He turns to see his punisher standing in the wreckage of broken glass. The man is afraid, yes... But not surprised. He knew this night was coming.

Retribution.

We stare at each other. Orange light from the fire ebbs and flows over his face, pulsing like the beat of a heart.

“I... I never meant for it to come to this,” he says. If he only knew the irony of these words. From his mouth they are hollow and meaningless.

I growl, and he steps back. Coward. He knows better than anyone that there is no escaping his fate.

“P—please!” he whimpers. “Don’t kill me!”

The fire blazes brighter and faster, keeping pace with the fool’s heart. I bare my teeth in a snarl and he runs. Runs! Like he has a life worth sparing. Like he doesn’t deserve what’s coming.

He retreats no more than a step when I pounce, a predator claiming its prey. Deep cuts turn his back to bloody canyons.

Retribution.

The man falls. He attempts to crawl away, but I won’t allow it. My powerful claw sinks into his side and flips him over briskly.

I want him to see me as he dies.

He yelps as his fresh wounds hit the floor. His eyes reveal a pitiable array of emotions; hopelessness, desperation, terror. Not a trace of willingness to pay the price of his deeds.

“D—don’t do this to me!” he cries. “It might not be too late. We might still be able to—”

A sharp growl interrupts him. I press my horrific face to his. The livid fury in my eyes send a clear message. Look at me, these eyes say. Look at me and tell me it’s not too late!

Tears drenched the fool’s cheeks. “Please...” He mutters one last time.

I grab him by the collar, and hurl him into the fireplace.

I watch as the flames consume him. Embers flicker out from the hearth and catch the carpet. Before long, the room is blanketed with a hungry fire.

His last moments alive were a living Hell.

Retribution.


  1. Chapter 1: Funerals

This was a winter of funerals.

Last time the ground was clear of snow, fifteen year-old Will Lewis was happy to say he had never been to a funeral. That might not be something to brag about, but rather to give thanks in the silence of your own mind. In fact, Will’s childhood was free from any tragedy worse than a bad flu season.

That is, until recently.

For the second time this season Will stood with his parents at Hazel Ridge Cemetery. You needed no directions to find the grave-side service; dozens and dozens of mourners in black coats stood out against the white snow and gray headstones. There were almost as many living as there were dead in this quiet Wisconsin graveyard.

As family of the deceased, Will and his parents were flooded with condolences. Despite the cold air Will felt hot and uncomfortable, and not just because of his suit. It was awkward to greet an endless stream of teary-eyed people he barely knew, if at all. One man Will hadn’t met until that moment gave him a tight, sobbing hug.

I should be used to it by now, he thought. We went through this a few months ago.

But last time was different, wasn’t it? Grandma Eleanor had Creutzfeldt–Jakob Disease, a fatal condition that slowly stole her personality and memories. Sure, she started getting better, but when a heart attack claimed her life the people of Elkhorn already pictured a world without sweet old Eleanor Amon.

A heavyset woman in a black wool coat joined them. Will was grateful to see a familiar face. Her name was Julie Baker. Although Julie and Will’s mother were best friends growing up, they rarely saw each other after Cassandra Amon moved to Beloit to become Mrs. Lewis. But old friends become close in a hurry when surrounded by strangers.

Mrs. Baker and Will’s mom met eyes. Silence was enough of a greeting for them.

“How are you holding up, Cassy?” Mrs. Baker asked.

“I’m here,” she said quietly, and left it at that.

Will expected his mother to be in tears. Certainly more than a few were shed at her mother’s funeral in December. But today, Cassandra Lewis (previously Amon) stood with her head held high and her eyes determinedly dry. Will swelled with pride at that fact.

After all, they were about to bury her father.

It was no great shock to Will that his grandfather, Connor Amon, passed away less than two months after Grandma Eleanor. Wives usually live longer. Husbands, it seems, often follow closely behind their dearly beloved. It’s almost as if they lose more than a spouse; that some vital part of their being is torn away, a wound that will eventually bleed the life out of them.

Connor felt responsible for his wife’s death. One look in the grieving man’s eyes was all it took to see that. He hadn’t been the same since Eleanor was diagnosed with CJD. You see, Connor Amon wasn’t just a neurologist; he literally wrote the book on neurology. Textbooks with his name on the cover were required reading at medical colleges nationwide. But even the great Dr. Amon couldn’t cure his wife.

No, it didn’t surprise Will that Grandpa Connor had died. What surprised him was how he died.

Another group of bereaved strangers offered condolences. Will sensed his mother’s well-contained tears on the verge of breaking. He wasn’t the only one who sensed it; Will’s father took the initiative of shepherding the new arrivals towards the memorial display. The mourners fussed, but John Lewis left no room for argument. He was stern. Held to his word. And loved his wife and child deeply, even if he rarely showed it.

The interruption averted, Will’s mind returned to Grandpa Connor’s unusual death.

This is what Will was told: Late last Wednesday (which always sounds better as “the night of February the 10th”), one of Connor’s neighbors reported smoke coming from the doctor’s house. By the time the fire department arrived, it was too late for poor Grandpa Connor. They said the fire was an accident.

It wasn’t a bad story. The only problem is it wasn’t true.

Will spent the following nights with his ear to his door, listening to his parents (some might call it eavesdropping, but Will preferred to think of it as mere curiosity). He couldn’t hear them clearly, but from the words he could make out (“arson,” “broken in,” “intruder”), Will pieced together a theory.

Connor Amon was murdered.

Everyone was beckoned to the coffin, filling up the seats under the canopy. The clergy was about to begin the grave-side funeral service. As the clergy made his eulogy and read a few verses from the Bible, Will puzzled over his theory. There was one important element that didn’t make sense; who would want Dr. Amon dead?

He was a doctor, not a lawyer or business executive. He was never accused of medical malpractice, in fact he had an outstanding track record. Surely no one could murder him based on his profession.

Connor was charitable. He didn’t live luxuriously, and donated more money to the library, schools and hospital than most people made in a year.

Will’s mother was the primary beneficiary of Connor’s estate. She had the most to gain financially, but was miles from Elkhorn at the time of her father’s demise.

Who, then, would murder Connor? As far as Will could figure, no one else had anything to gain. Except, perhaps...

Will looked through the crowd, but couldn’t find him. At last, when he craned his neck around he spotted the person he was looking for.

Barbason Amon.

Separated from the mourners, the old man was leaning against a mausoleum watching the funeral service with mild attention. His long, thinning hair was a mess of tangles and split ends. That face could have been carved of wood; sharp features, deep eye sockets, a rough stubble, and a flat, emotionless face. Barbason was Connor’s younger brother, although few would have guessed it. Connor’s enthusiasm kept him youthful, while Barbason aged faster than his time.

Could Uncle Barbason have killed his own brother?

Doubtful, Will concluded. His great-uncle was antisocial, but he never seemed dangerous. Just an old man who minded his own business, and would thank you to do the same. He did remember the brothers talking in hushed voices at Grandma Eleanor’s funeral, however. That was unusual, but hardly reason to worry.

As the eulogy finished, Will began to think his imagination got the better of him. Maybe Grandpa Connor hadn’t been murdered. Maybe it really was just an accident.

… Or maybe there was more to it than Will knew.

After the service, people lingered. No one seemed ready to leave Connor’s side, so they stayed and talked to each other, despite the brisk chill nipping at their skin. Will didn’t expect his family to stick around; mourning alongside strangers might be comforting to some, but not to the Lewis’.

Will’s father pulled him aside.

“Son,” he said. “Your mother and I need to speak to your uncle. Would you be alright for a few minutes on your own?”

Will knew that tone. It was a don’t argue with me tone. The way he said it wasn’t mean, but it was adamant. Will nodded, and his parents left a trail in the snow leading to the mausoleum Barbason had claimed. The old man sized them up as they approached.

Not wanting to intrude, Will took a stroll down the cemetery path. His eyes idly read the names on headstones while his mind continued to question the newest resident of Hazel Ridge.

In his lack of attention, Will walked right into somebody. They both staggered to keep their feet on the ground

“Oh, I’m sorry,” Will said. His arms flailed as he tried to keep his balance.

“It’s fine,” said a girl’s voice.

When Will looked up, he almost did lose lose his footing. The girl he bumped into had to be around his age, give or take a year. It took a single glance for Will’s heart to speed up a notch. The girl’s red hair was silky and smooth, flowing from her winter hat to below her shoulders. She had a kind of carefree youthfulness that shined through her face. When she met his gaze, Will blushed; those eyes were such a brilliant shade of green they almost sparkled.

She was the prettiest girl Will ever met.

He forced his eyes away. Will was embarrassed enough for bumping into her, he didn’t need to make it worse by staring. But when silence followed the girl started to walk away.

“Are you here for the funeral?” Will blurted out. It sounded stupid, but he had to say something; he didn’t want her to leave yet.

She turned towards Will. “Yeah. My dad knew him, and wanted to pay his respects.” She smiled. “He dragged me along.”

Will laughed. It came out at a higher pitch than he hoped.

“How did you know Dr. Amon?” the girl asked.

In the distance, Will noticed his parents talking to Barbason. It didn’t look friendly. “He was my grandpa,” said Will.

“Oh wow, I’m sorry,” she said. The girl examined him more closely. “Do you live around here? I don’t recognize you.”

Will suddenly wished he was from the area. Suddenly Elkhorn was much more appealing. “I live in Beloit, actually. It’s about a half hour drive.” It was a struggle to sound casual; Will thought his heart had taken on life of its own, beating at such a frantic pace. He couldn’t remember when he last had feeling in his legs.

This girl, on the other hand, seemed perfectly at ease. “Ah, that explains it. I’ve got connections around here, but you’re outside of my reach!” She smiled and held out a gloved hand. “My name’s Eliza.”

Will felt queasy as they shook hands. Captivated by her smile, he momentarily forgot how to speak. The memory returned with a crash, and finally he understood he had to introduce himself too. “I’m Will,” he said at last. “Will Lewis.”

“Well, nice to meet you, Will,” said Eliza. “I should probably find my dad before he thinks I’m avoiding the funeral.”

“Yeah, I need to get back to my parents too.” Will tried not to sound disappointed. He was in no hurry to see her go.

Eliza winked. “Who knows, maybe we’ll see each other next time you’re in town.”

With Grandpa Connor gone, Will didn’t see any occasion to return to Elkhorn. He made a mental note to think of excuses to come back, just for the chance to cross paths again. Eliza waved and headed off towards the canopy, where the number of people finally started to diminish.

For the first time all day, Will’s mind wasn’t on his grandfather’s death. In fact, he was quite proud of himself; he talked to a pretty girl, and didn’t make a complete fool of himself (well, aside from blindly running into her and nearly knocking them both over). He would probably never see her again, but his mood had certainly improved.

Within minutes, that would change again.

Will strolled down the paths, using his memory like a video; it rewound to meeting Eliza, paused at every smile, then replayed the scene over and over. His knees still felt a little shaky, but at least his pulse stopped its crazy tap-dance.

Just as Will pictured that last, playful wink, there was a commotion by the canopy.

Will rushed back. The sight coming into view shocked him; it was his father, fist clenched around Barbason’s collar, pinning the old man to the mausoleum. Only a handful of visitors remained, but they rushed to break up the confrontation. Will’s mother buried her face in her hands, the tears flowing at last.

“What the devil is going on here?” said the clergy. “This is a funeral!

Mr. Lewis and Barbason were motionless, their eyes locked with laser focus.

“Would you kindly put that man down?” the clergy pleaded.

Slowly, Barbason slid down the stone wall. Even as Mr. Lewis released his grip he didn’t break his gaze.

Through her tears, Mrs. Lewis managed to smile at her son. “C’mon hun, I think it’s time to go,” she said, leading Will back to the car. Mr. Lewis finally turned from Barbason to follow his wife.

“Yer father ain’t no saint, Cass!” Barbason yelled after them. His voice was gruff, like an old dog’s bark.

The words sent a chill down Will’s spine. His mother cried. His father walked briskly, jaw clenched.

Will glanced over his shoulder. Barbason’s eyes followed them with unnerving intensity. When he was safely in the car, Will realized he was holding his breath. He let out a sigh of relief, and was glad to leave the gates of Hazel Ridge Cemetery.

The Lewis family stopped for dinner at the Elk Creek Bar & Grill. During her youth, Will’s mother came here every Friday night for the fish fry. Although it was Sunday and no fish were frying, “The Elk” was a fitting place to honor her father.

It was a quiet dinner. No one said more than an occasional comment on their food (Will’s parents both order “Elk Burgers,” a local tradition. Being a self-proclaimed vegetarian, Will was happy with grilled cheese and french fries).

Will needed all of his self-control not to ask what the argument was about. Not knowing drove him crazy with curiosity, but Mr. Lewis was gripping his burger tight enough to break the bun. Not a sign of calming down. So Will held his tongue, at least for a bit longer.

Once they were well fed, the Lewis’ got back in their car for the trip back to Beloit. It was already dark, and the snow that came in gentle flakes earlier now fell in flurries. Mr. Lewis let the car warm up before driving, and Will sensed an opportunity.

“That was quite a funeral,” he said.

Mr. Lewis didn’t respond. Mrs. Lewis nodded and said “I think Grandpa Connor would have been happy to see how many people came.”

“Yeah.” Will tried to pick his words carefully. “It seems like everyone really liked him.”

Mrs. Lewis gave a pained smiled. “He did a lot of good, for a lot of people.”

The car pulled out of the parking lot. There weren’t many cars on the roads in town, but those that were out were driving slowly tonight. The wind was picking up, bombarding the windshield with snowflakes.

“Did Uncle Barbason like him?” Will asked.

This time, silence was his only response.

“I mean, I don’t remember seeing them together a lot,” Will continued. “Except at Grandma Eleanor’s funeral. I saw them talking a lot then.”

As they merged onto highway I-43, the car felt colder than it did without the heater. “They... Had very different interests,” Mrs. Lewis finally said.

“What were they talking about? Do you know?”

Mr. Lewis spoke for the first time since dinner. “You would have to ask your great-uncle.”

“Was that what you asked him?” Will said. Once the floodgate of questions was open, he couldn’t stop himself.

“That’s not important,” Mr. Lewis said.

“He sounded angry.”

“He might have been.”

“What were you talking about?”

“Nothing.”

“Was it about Grandma Eleanor?”

“No.”

“Grandpa Connor?”

“Leave it alone, son.”

“Was it about Mom?”

“That’s enough, William,” Mr. Lewis said loudly.

Will shrunk into his seat. He found his boundary, and pushed it one question too far. He had a feeling it was going to be a very quiet car ride.

They drove through the snow without another word. Will watched the open countryside; even though it was night time, the sheet of snow reflected enough light to see the passing landscape.

Something caught his attention. In the distance, a dark spot stood out against the backdrop of white. It was too far to make out any shape, only the indistinct silhouette of an object not covered in snow. Will thought it was odd, and wondered with only half-interest what it could be.

Then the silhouette moved.

In that moment goosebumps covered Will’s body. He didn’t expect it to be alive. There was no mistaking its movements; the mystery spot was some kind of animal. And, judging from the speed and direction, it was an animal with a purpose.

Will had a grim realization as he traced its path. It’s headed towards the highway!

“D-Dad,” he said, his voice quivering. “What’s that?”

Mr. Lewis glanced over for just a moment. In this weather, he needed to keep his eyes on the road. “Probably just a cow, son.”

As the shadow got closer, Will saw two tiny yellow lights on the creature. Eyes, he thought. Its eyes are reflecting light from the cars. Will had the horrible impression the eyes were looking right at him.

“Seriously Dad, what is that?” he said. He was quickly rising to panic.

What came next happened so fast, Will could barely keep up.

Within seconds the silhouette was nearly to the road, on a collision course with their car. Will had just enough time to wonder if the creature was aware of the speeding vehicle before the shape (huge from this distance) leapt high off the ground. A moment of silence. Then, with a thunderous boom, the car shook violently off its lane. The metal roof sunk in from the weight of impact.

That thing landed on us!

Mr. Lewis swore. He tried to regain control of the car, but the back wheels fishtailed in the fresh snow.

Before Will could grasp one thing that happened, another interrupted him.

Will started to say “What’s going on?” But his voice caught in his throat as he saw it; the dark shape of a gigantic claw swinging in front of the windshield. The sound of shattering glass was nothing compared to the relentless howling of the wind, hitting them headfirst at over 65 miles per hour. Will covered his face before being showered in glass shards.

        He couldn’t see, but he could feel. He felt pain as dozens of cuts lacerated his body. He felt freezing wind choke the breath from his lungs. He felt the car sway dangerously.

Will peered out from the cover of his arms for just a second. His eyes instantly dried up and stung, but he caught a glimpse of what was happening.

That claw reached forward, pinning Mr. Lewis to his seat. He wasn’t moving.

Mrs. Lewis was struggling to free her husband. She was drenched in blood, large pieces of glass still caught in her skin.

And, barely visible against the dark background, was the face of the creature.

Will couldn’t see its shape or features. But he saw those eyes; two glowing yellow embers taken from the hearth of Hell.

The car shook again.

The wheels turned, out of control.

They left pavement.

Spun wildly.

And then, with a final ear-splitting crash, Will was unconscious.

In the land of dreams, nightmares are king. You might go years without having one, but when they do show up they demand your attention like no other dream can.

Time means nothing in nightmares. For that reason, Will had no idea how long he was sleeping. But whether he was out for an hour or a week, he spent every second of it locked in perpetual memory of the car crash.

Many details evolved with each replaying, becoming something they never truly were. The landscape changed to a much grander setting than I-43. Snow flurries became an all-out blizzard. And despite the wind stinging his eyes Will started to see the entire event unfold, as if watching it on TV while safely curled up at home.

Each time, the creature became more terrifying.

Even in his dreams, Will never got a good look at it. Fear of the unknown is highly distilled. It leaves your imagination to come up with one horrific possibility after another. The only thing Will could clearly see were the eyes. They haunted every moment of his dreams.

Those eyes lingered in Will’s mind when, finally, he woke up.

Consciousness was a relief. It meant Will could finally escape the endless loop of nightmares. Gradually, he took in his surroundings. He was in a hospital, which didn’t surprise him at all. A nurse was next to him, checking his vitals.

“Good morning,” said the nurse. “How are you feeling?”

Will squinted, still adjusting to the light. “Sore,” he said. His body was covered in dull aches, and his head was pounding. Will had the feeling it would be much worse, if it weren’t for the modern miracle of pain medication.

She consulted her chart. “I bet you are. Looks like you’re recovering well though.”

Will massaged his forehead, to find a large bandage covering it. Several smaller wrappings were scattered across his arms. Suddenly, a question rushed to him. “Are my parents okay?”

The nurse stiffened, but her voice remained even. “Just try and rest for now. Dr. Thompson will be in later.”

Not leaving much time for argument, the nurse left. Will fell back asleep with an uneasiness in the pit of his stomach.

By the time the doctor came, Will was awake again. Dr. Thompson was an older man, with comically-bushy eyebrows and mustache. His expression, however, was not so comical.

“Ah, hello Will,” he said in a husky voice. “How are you feeling?”

That always seemed like a silly question to ask someone lying in a hospital bed. “Alright, I guess.”

The doctor took a seat next to the bed. “I expect you’ve felt better. You suffered from a mild concussion. Aside from that you have an impressive collection of cuts and bruises, none of which severe.”

Will tried to move, but a fresh wave of aches changed his mind. He hoped it was almost time for more medication, because he was beginning to feel like one giant bruise.

“Have you felt any dizziness, nausea, or lack of motor skills?” the doctor asked.

Will shook his head.

“Any sensitivity to light, blurred vision, or ringing in your ears?”

“A little bit of the light sensitivity,” Will admitted. “But none of the other stuff.”

“Good,” Dr. Thompson was taking notes as they spoke. “Now Will... Do you remember what happened last night?”

Will’s temperature dropped.

He remembered the creature.

He remembered a crash.

And boy, did he ever remember those eyes.

Or did he? His sleep was filled with nightmares, reshaping the event in more horrific detail. Awake now, he wasn’t sure how much of it really happened.

“I’m not sure,” Will said. “I was having... A lot of dreams. It all sort of blurs together.”

Dr. Thompson scribbled another note. “That’s fine. Post-traumatic amnesia is common with head injuries of this nature.” His expression turned grave as he put down his clipboard. “Will, you were in a very serious accident last night. While on the highway, your car slid across the median into oncoming traffic. You collided head-first with another vehicle, resulting in a four car pile-up.”

Perhaps Will spoke too soon about the nausea; his stomach suddenly felt ready to empty its contents.

“Are my parents okay?” Will asked.

The doctor let out a heavy sigh. “Paramedics were there as soon as possible... But it was bad. Your father passed away before they arrived. They did everything they could for your mother, but she died on the way to the hospital.” He put his hand on Will’s arm. “I’m so sorry, Will.”

It was like a switch was turned off in Will’s mind, shutting off all thought and feeling. He was frozen in his place, unable to comprehend what he just heard. Dr. Thompson kept talking, but the words flowed meaninglessly through the air, the connection from ears to brain lost. He didn’t hear the doctor stand up, but the sound of the closing door faintly registered.

Will was alone now.

Alone in the room.

Alone in his life.

He cried. There were no tears. Just deep, hollow sobs. Eventually, he cried himself back to sleep.

It was early morning when Will got the news from Dr. Thompson. The next time he woke up, it was past four o’clock. Mercifully, this sleep was completely dreamless. Will’s mind was still too numb to think, and certainly couldn’t conjure up something as complex as a dream. The nurse brought him a plate of food, which he ate in auto-pilot.

Subconsciously, Will refused to believe that his parents were gone. Since he had no rational hope to cling to, his solution was to forgo thought entirely.

Shortly after Will’s meal, the door opened. He expected to see the nurse, or perhaps Dr. Thompson.

But he certainly didn’t expect his great-uncle, Barbason.

The old man stood in the doorway, hesitant to enter. He finally stepped inside, leaning heavily on his wooden cane.

“Hey kid.”

Will had no idea what to say. He could probably count the times he spoke with his great-uncle on one hand. Not to mention, of course, that the last time Will saw him he had nearly gotten into a brawl with his dad. “Hi...”

Barbason sat down. “Ye feelin’ alright?”

“Sure,” said Will, who felt anything but alright.

“I heard ‘bout the accident.” Barbason sounded just as uncomfortable as Will felt. “I’m sorry.”

“It’s okay.” Will didn’t want to address the issue of his parents. He brushed the topic aside as lightly as he could.

The old man cleared his throat. There was a long, awkward pause before Barbason spoke again. “Listen, they was askin’ ‘bout ye, and what all ye had as for family. Wanted to know if yer dad had any relatives, stuff like that.”

In his denial, Will hadn’t thought about where he would live. The more he considered it, the worse it looked. “Dad was an only child. Both of his parents died when I was young.”

“Yeah, that’s what I was figurin’. I told ‘em I didn’t think his folks were ‘round no more.” Barbason fiddled with his cane, keeping his eyes there instead of on Will. “They, er... Well, seeing as we’re related and all, they asked if it’d be alright if ye stay with me.”

Will tensed up. He didn’t like the sound of this. “What did you tell them?”

“Said I’d ask what ye wanted.”

“I want my parents,” Will said flatly.

Barbason looked directly at Will, his eyes flooded with remorse. You couldn’t tell this was the same man who shouted harsh words at his brother’s funeral.

“I wish I could do that for ye, kid. I really do. But the best I’ve got is a roof and a bed. It’s not much, but if ye want it... It’s yours.”

Will laid back on his pillow. He couldn’t ignore reality any longer; he was now an orphan. Fighting back tears, he considered his options. If he turned down his great-uncle’s offer, chances are Will would live in an orphanage. Maybe, if he was lucky, he might get into a foster home.

The truth is, Will didn’t like any of his options. But something about the sadness in his great-uncle’s eyes made him feel connected to the old man. They might not know each other well, but ultimately they were still family.

“Alright,” Will said. “If you’ll have me, I’ll stay with you.”