I pushed myself away from the wall, strode across the sidewalk, and headed toward the gently undulating wall of mystery. Passersby checked their step as they realized where I was heading. Cars screeched to a halt.
Seizing on the lull, Nimrod called, “Can I have first dibs on your apartment when you die? I’ve always wanted rooms with a view.”
I gave him the finger, stepped in . . .
. . . and froze.
I’d expected a gradual transition from light to dark, a sense of being progressively enveloped and transported in some way to a new location. But I didn’t get any of that. In an instant, I was someplace else entirely.
A thick gray soup surrounded me. I couldn’t see the ground beneath my feet. When I extended my arms, my hands were swallowed whole, as if they didn’t exist. Peering about me, I searched for a focal point on which to establish a bearing.
Not a goddam thing. Has the trial started already?
Suddenly wary, I realized it would be best to clear my head, so I took a deep breath, calmed my nerves, closed my eyes, and listened.
Thump — thump, thump — thump, thump — thump . . .
The sound of my heartbeat dominated, its steady rhythm providing an anchor around which to ground myself. I didn’t need a cardiovascular system, of course, but I’d always found the sensation soothing, as it made me feel something I’d never been: normal.
For some reason the enfolding brume exacerbated that beat. It grew louder, and then more distant, as if my heart had suddenly been transposed beyond my flesh.
Thump — thump, thump — thump, thump — thump . . .
Now I was puzzled.
It sounds like it’s getting louder. Drawing closer in some way. But how . . . ?
I opened my eyes and was startled to realize the vapors had folded back to reveal an open tourney field carpeted with thick, lush grass. White marquees formed a parade on either side of the meadow, each bedecked in red and gold pennants. In front of them, equipment racks had been arranged so that unseen champions might chose from a wide assortment of lethal-looking weapons. I completed a quick three-sixty and discovered behind me a fully decorated pavilion, resplendent in ersatz sunshine and festooned with ribbons and bows in the same heraldic colors.
The entire arena lay within a cocoon of milk-white fog, and despite my best efforts, I couldn’t detect any other unliving soul.
Thud — thud, thud — thud, thud — thud . . .
As I spun toward the sound, a massive shadow detached itself from the mist at the open end of the field. My jaw dropped: there, not fifty yards away, sat an armored warrior atop a midnight-black charger.
Dressed from head to toe in steel, and with the distinctive inverted cross of scarlet and gold emblazoned across his surcoat and shield, I knew without a doubt that this was a Knight Tempter. The horse itself was huge, a courser, its broad chest and powerful body likewise protected by barding, spikes, and leather.
Armor and tack were coated in fine beads of moisture which glistened like diamonds in the illusory sunlight. Staring at them, I imagined for a moment what it must be like to face such a daunting team in battle.
My thoughts were definitely jinxed lately for no sooner had I contemplated that notion than the knight lowered his visor and raised his lance in salute. Then he then put his heels to his mount’s flanks, and the horse jumped forward into a trot.
Mesmerized, I stood rooted to the spot and tried to fathom what it all meant.
Their speed abruptly increased to a canter.
So, is this part of the process? Am I supposed to react . . . or not?
I chose to react and rolled to one side. As I came up, I unbuttoned my coat and threw back my hood.
Rider and steed altered trajectory, and the earth trembled beneath my feet. I gamboled again and drew my scythe. By the time I had dropped into a fighting crouch, I’d extended my weapon and primed it for combat.
Does he really want me to hamstring his horse? Or worse still, confront him directly?
They accelerated to a gallop. The beast snorted, its nostrils flared. Muscles bulged and the vibrations increased as divots flew. Like a portent of doom, the spear tip lowered.
Intuition kicked in.
No matter what’s taking place, we’re on the same side.
We’re on the same side, we’re on the same side, we’re on the same side . . .
Despite the danger of the situation, my gut was telling me not to resist them. They were here to do a job. I had to work with them.
Oh, bugger! I need a raise.
Against my natural instincts, I collapsed my weapon, stood tall, and threw my arms wide. At the very last moment, I squeezed my eyes shut and yelled, “I am no threat to you, or to the treasures under your protection.”
It seemed like a good idea at the time, but my voice sounded as feeble as a wet fart flying in the face of thunder. As their shadow blotted out the sun, I decided I wasn’t so sure anymore.
Shit! Shit! Shit! Sh-iiit!
The tip of the lance struck with the power of a runaway freight train. Piercing leather, fabric, skin and bone, it lifted me high off the turf and carried me through the air as if I were merely a rag doll. I couldn’t breathe, I couldn’t think. Nothing else existed except the pain of impalement.
The spear impacted against something hard behind me, and shattered. The shockwave ran along the length of the splinter still embedded in my body and multiplied the agony a thousandfold. As I slid to the floor, the knight disappeared, and an ethereal voice hissed, “Impressive . . .”
I landed in a heap, blood bubbling from my mouth and nose and streaming through the fingers clasped tightly over the hole in my chest. For some reason, my self-healing ability didn’t appear to be kicking in, and there was nothing I could do to staunch the flow. I threw my sight inward to assess the damage and tried to stop my heart.
No use. I was locked within a mortal coil. A terrible, hollow ache crawled its way up from the pit of my stomach, only to give way to a wash of cold, then prickly heat. My vision began to waver and recede. The strangest of sensations wrapped itself around me: All discomfort faded and without knowing why, I suddenly felt heavy.
It took me a moment to realize — this is death approaching.
“There you go, old boy. Not to worry.”
I twitched as an unexpected voice intruded.
“Don’t you worry now, I’m a doctor. I’ll soon sort you out.”
A doctor? What’s a doctor doing here?
Strong hands flipped me over and examined my injury. I tried to see who had come to my rescue, but my eyes refused to cooperate.
“Hmm. That’s a nasty wound, but I have something here that will take away the pain. I take it you’re not allergic to anything? Penicillin, ampicillin, cyanide? Ha! Only joking, I don’t want you fading away on me just yet.”
Great bedside manner.
Whoever this guy was, he wasn’t gentle. He lifted my head by the hair, laughed in my face, and then abruptly let go. I saw stars as my skull slammed back down to the ground, but the impact helped clear my sight. My vision wavered and then came back into focus.
Someone was kneeling at my side. Dressed in a style reminiscent of a nineteenth-century physician, he had turned away from me to rummage around inside a black case adorned with a decorative motif — a silver skull and crossbones if I wasn’t mistaken. I could hear clinking, as if glass bottles were being jiggled together. Sure enough, my mystery savior removed two small test tubes from his bag, humming a merry tune as he mixed their contents together in a separate vial.
Next, he extracted a syringe from his pocket, complete with needle, and filled the barrel with an evil-looking green liquid. Turning back to me, he said, “Normally, I’d let you ingest this little concoction, but where’s the fun in that?”
“How in the blazes . . . ?” I attempted to wriggle away from him, but discovered I couldn’t move.
“Now, now,” he cooed, “just be a good boy and lie back. This’ll all be over soon.”
He loomed over me and made a show of squeezing a drop of his foul brew from the tip of the needle. With a final leer, he stabbed down and impaled the side of my neck.
“That’s it, that’s it. Now I get to watch you die. Quite fitting, don’t you think?”
A burning sensation exploded in my throat. Intensifying, it launched itself throughout my nervous system, quickly spreading into my heart, brain and spine. An involuntary spasm caused my teeth to clench, and my extremities started jerking with spasmodic convulsions.
Fury congealed across my brow, but all I could do was snarl at him.
Cream grinned in response and stooped to pick up my scythe. It responded to his touch, and began powering up.
Hey . . . ? That can’t happen . . . !
A flush of realization washed through me.
None of this is real. It’s part of the test.
A welcome sense of release trilled in the ether but didn’t last long, as the taste of rising bile forced me to flip over onto my hands and knees. I heaved and vomited the contents of my stomach over the grass. Then, before I realized what was happening, my arms and legs commenced sinking into the ground.
Oh, for Azazel’s sake, what now?
Wraithlike voices condensed out of the air, singing a hauntingly evocative refrain. As the melody clarified, the lyrics took on new meaning. Something deep within me responded to the call of the Knights Tempter.
“We have seen the places you have been
And can never go again.
Though dark and windswept
And as bitter as a sea of souls,
A bosom awaits to welcome you home.
Once lost but not forgotten,
You will be enfolded once more
Within light’s eternal embrace,
Where you will rest,
Forever free of burdens . . .”
The words faded, snatched away by the breeze. Nonetheless, their import remained.
A paradox of some sort? But how does that relate to me?
As I tried to work out what it all meant, the foundations of the earth beneath me turned fluidic, and I found myself freefalling through thick white clouds. Wind howled as it hurtled past my face. As I broke free of the veil, majestic sunlight baptized me in coronal radiance. My insides heaved again; but instead of puking up my guts, my perspective shifted so that I somehow felt myself merge more fully into the unfolding drama.
A plummeting sensation seized me, body and soul, and sent me hurtling to my doom. Nonetheless, I drew comfort from an object grasped tightly in my right hand. I glanced to one side and saw a huge sword. It blazed like lightning, encompassing me within a violet and gold corona that bonded the blade to my flesh and inured me against the terrible drop.