On the drive into Colorado, the weather seemed to be experiencing some abnormally psychotic mood swings. Snow and thunder one moment and sun the next. The weather seemed to combine in ways that were not typical of the region (and not possible on planet earth). Looking out the window at the Denver scenery, my mind fell into a trance. “I feel like I’ve been here before.”
“Denver or Colorado? I think you’d remember Colorado.” Leo glanced at the snow covered city, in the bright sun, under the loud rainfall. All together it seemed to be forming a cloud of oddly thick fog. “Although it’s kind of hard to see.” Leo turned on his high beams, allowing just a few more feet of visibility. “This seems more like coastal weather. Like something you’d see San Francisco, or Mississippi.”
“Or Silent Hill,” my voice drifted off. This place looked and felt a little too much like the fictional haunted town. “Do you see that?”
“What, the shadow?”
There was a figure standing in the distance. In the darkness of the fog it looked like a large horse. I thought about the theory of centaurs; in ancient times people would see men on horseback and assume they were strange mystical creatures. That was what this looked like. I almost forgot that Leo’s truck was still moving forward.
A glance at the dash showed that Leo was going reasonably slow, to account for the poor visibility conditions, but within seconds I could see details of a man on horseback. “What the hell?” The long haired figure was wearing the military uniform of a US Cavalry officer, complete with a sword at his hip. As soon as we were close enough to see the whites of his eyes, he started to charge.
Leo swerved, pulling us out of the soldier’s path. Had this been a normal horse, this would have been the end of the ordeal. But that was not the case.
I didn’t see the ghost unsheathe his weapon, but somehow the sword took off the passenger side door. I screamed.
“Hold on to me!” Leo shouted over the intense weather.
I put my arms around Leo, shielding my face from the snow, and bullet-like hail. “Drive!” I screamed, my voice disappearing into the roar of the freezing wind.
“I’m going to floor it.”
I could feel him shift gears and accelerate. We were going at least sixty miles-per-hour and gaining speed. But the horse was faster (and considerably louder).
The horseman looped back around, matching our speed. The sound of his steed was like claps of thunder. Or bullets.
For whatever reason I turned, attempting to glimpse at what exactly was attacking us. The rider was, of course, looking right at me. His eyes were the color of snow; grayish-blue with no discernible retinas. “You,” his voice was a loud whisper, as if the itself wind was commanding me.
I turned back to Leo, gripping his chest with both arms while he drove. But it was no use. “Leo help me!” I felt two large hands grab me. One freezing cold limb was on my stomach, while the other gripped my chest. Each hand had long, sharp fingers and skin the texture of sandpaper.
I let out one last cry, in the half second it took him to rip me out of the truck. The icy ghost pulled me onto his lap as we rode away, faster and faster, disappearing it to the fog.
“The snow preserves all,” the voice echoed on the wind, sounding neither male or female.
The horse went faster and faster with no regard to the harshness of its surroundings. The world whipped by us in a blur of white and grey; snow and ice. Until we crashed.
“Ow! F**k!” I fell landing in a pile of leaves. The horse was gone, as was the rider. I stood up, looking around at the Autumn setting. The moon was high in the sky, illuminating a nearby railroad. I walked along the tracks, but the further I went the newer the tracks. They were cleaner, less rusty. But the style was old. I had never seen the Union Pacific Railroad but I assumed this is what it looked like. Did the Union Pacific Railroad even go through Colorado?
I kept walking until I found a figure laying across the tracks. The way his body was fallen, he was either dead or dying.
It was, of course, the Cavalry soldier. I took a moment to decide if i could move him off the tracks. he had a bullet in his shoulder but worse, his chest was torn open as if by an animal. the man’s legs were broken, his left eye had been gouged out. Moving was not going to be an option. Instead, I sat with him, placing my hand to his neck to check for a pulse.
“Please, dear child,” the man said in a soft, pain-stricken voice. “May I have some water?”
“I don’t have any.” I looked around to see if there was any food or water to be had. That was when saw a mother bear and two cubs.
They were roughly thirty feet away, just close enough for me to see that they were trashing a campsite. “Hello there.” I moved a few steps closer, since the larger of the creatures was not on the attack. A small bear cub was face down, while the other was on its side facing away from me. The mother seemed to be occupied with nudging the babies, licking their little faces.
That was when I saw it: so much blood. The bear closest to me was dead, with a single bullet to the head. The second was not a bear at all, at least not anymore. When I was close enough, I could see that the little cub’s body had been butchered into roast-able pieces. The meat was separated on to a rack while the bones lay in a messy pile, with its skin thrown over the gory mass like a drop cloth.
The mother bear looked at me and wept, her tears sparkling in the moonlight.
I took a step forward, but as I did, I tripped on a small branch. “Ow!” I fell onto the soft grass landing on my knee. It was a hunting knife. I picked it up, but upon seeing it caked with blood I dropped it again.
The mother bear roared, standing up on two legs.
I fell to my knees cowering in fear. “I’m so sorry.” Bowing down to the creature, I pushed the knife towards her. “Was this the knife he used on your cubs?”
The bear nodded and sat down; physically and emotionally defeated. She nudged the bloody knife back in my direction. “For you.” As the bear sobbed, its sounds went from animal-like to human. She sounded like a true, grieving mother. “He took from me, so I took from him.”
“Kill her!” the soldier cried. “I too have children. A daughter and son. They already lost their mother.”
This was a test; do I side with man or nature? The bear’s children were dead. The man’s were not. Unless of course he was lying. Either way I was screwed. I picked up the knife, not bothering to wipe the blood as I put it in my waistband. “May I ask one question of each of you?”
The bear nodded with a polite bow. “Ask your peace.”
“Mother bear, what are the names of your children?”
“I have had many; Leon, Isia, Velvet, Lyra, Nya, Kimberly, Destiny, Ryan, Cole, and Devon.”
Judging by the way her voice rippled with sadness, I could tell that the two bodies that lay before me were Cole and Devon. “Thank you mother bear.”
I picked up a container, shaking it to see if it held liquid. Upon smelling the metal flask, I concluded that it did hold a water-like fluid (most likely a homemade alcoholic beverage of some kind). I started to walk carefully backward to the where the soldier rested. When I arrived, I knelt by his side, offering the bottle to his lips. “Here, drink.” I tilted the container just enough to allow a gentle flow.
His throat muscles contorted, in an act of swallowing. “Thank you dear child.” I placed the flask in his hand. Watching as he licked the blood and moisture from his lips. “What question do you have for me, love?”
“Tell me about your family. When was the last time you saw them?”
“After the war, when the Union arose victorious over the bastards of the confederate army, only then was I allowed to come home. It had been six long years, and during that time my son had grown into a man. Forced to care for my land and his dear sister after the death of my beautiful Angelina.
“Angelina?” I asked with a tone of kindness and compassion. “Talk to me about her.”
Despite his injuries, his once pain-stricken face formed a smile. “The daughter of Italian immigrants. I sent for her from across the sea but she was truly too good for me and this world. She passed from fever soon after the birth of our daughter, leaving behind an innocent child who would never know her mother.” He attempted to lift his hand for another sip of the flask.
“Let me help you.” I placed my hand upon his, making sure to maintain eye contact.
After another drink, he continued. “I was blessed to spend four years with my children, living off my land, before I was called to serve as an officer in the United States Cavalry. So, to answer your question. I have not seen my son and daughter in about nine years. I don’t believe I would even know their faces. They certainly wouldn’t know mine.”
At that moment I knew what I needed to do. “Your children are grown.”
He looked at me with confusion. “I don’t see your point.”
“You will.” I leaned in close, looking at him with a kind smile. I kissed the soldier’s lips, as I held him in a loving embrace. “I’m so sorry.” I moved the knife to his neck and in one swift motion I cut his throat. With the blade firmly in his flesh, I proceeded to carve down to his lung. I held the kiss, opening his mouth with my tongue, before removing the blade.
As one final act of mercy I sucked the last breath from his lungs. “I mean no disrespect, sir. I’m sure you are a good man. I will pray for your children, and for you to find happiness with your dear wife.”
I stood up and took a step back. My decision was rooted in logic; the soldier would never have made it home to his family, but the bear still had a chance to do something with her life.
A roar emitted from the forest as Leo appeared on my motorbike. He rode straight at me, slowing down just enough for me to jump on. “Did you miss me?”
“More than you know.” I put my arms around his waist, resting my head on Leo’s comfortable magic backpack. We drove in a direction away from the railroad, towards the mountains. After what felt like hours, we arrived at the mouth of a snow covered cave.
I took a deep breath, brushing the snowflakes from my hair. “I take it this is the starting line?”
“Yup.” Leo opened his backpack, and he shoved my entire motorcycle into the void.
“Okay, that’s just weird.”
“You got any advise for this round?”
“Between you and me, you made the right choice. But that’s not going to make them go easy on you.”
“Who is them?” I asked, zipping up my jacket.
“The royal elders of the ice tribe. They have a hobby of collecting human souls; pioneers, soldiers, dumb lost hikers who break off from their tour groups. You would be a crown jewel.”
I nodded, not expecting anything less severe. “What about the soldier?”
“Captain Jay Fuller?”
“Was that his name?” Knowing his name actually made me feel much worse.
“Yes, and you haven’t seen the last of him.”
“But he’s dead.” My words came from a place of nerves. In a idea world I would have liked to imagine that the angry ghost managed to find peace.
“Oh, of course, I’m sure you just killed that Cavalry era ghost extra-extra dead,” Leo said with a laugh.
“I get it. That was stupid question.” I turned to the cave, it was better lit then the previous trials. I was a little afraid as to why. “So, Leo, Where are you going to be?”
I’ll be where you need me. You just need to have faith.”
When I turned back to face Leo, he was already gone.
“Let’s roll with faith. As I stepped in to the cave, the source of light became apparent. There were spots of white cracking through. I assumed this was where the rock was slip by rushing water or even snow. Looking up, it looked like a constellation of the most beautiful skylights. Suddenly the room started to shake. I could hear the approaching clop of horse hooves. “Hello?”
It was the same horse as earlier, sans the rider. “Is your master gone?”
The horse shook its head.
“Are you here to take me to him?”
It nodded, and then it neighed.
“What did you say?
“Un-woo-orthy,” it said sounding like a cross between a neigh and a voodoo curse.
“Unworthy of what?” I had a feeling I knew the answer.
A cold, breathy whisper answered me. “Your family.” The voice came from behind me; just over my shoulder, about ten feet off the ground.
My legs forced me to run. I didn’t know where to go, only that I needed to be someplace where Captain Fuller couldn’t get me.
A series of pillars rose from the ground. They appeared to be blocking my path, but there was just enough room for me to climb, jump, s**k in my stomach (to force myself through a space that felt like it was going to break my ribs) and pray. The pillars created a maze that seemed to stretch on for miles, going higher and higher, until reaching a platform of clouds. Did I need to get to the clouds? My hands were cut up, my arms and legs burned with exhaustion. But worse, I lost sight of Captain Fuller.
I wasn’t actually going upward, the more I climbed the larger the room became. So with the last of my energy I found a place to sit. I pulled my knees to my chest, sobbing in pain. “I need a weapon. No, idiot, he’s a ghost!” Losing my mind, I took off my jacket, wrapping my hands. I needed to face him. I crossed myself and stood up using the wall as my guide. Looking up, I was face to face with the soldier. “Oh, Hello,” I said in the sweetest voice I could muster. He was a husband and father; maybe I could appeal to his humanity.
“Hello, sweetheart,” he said in a voice that sounded like it was a thousand miles away. I expected his eyes to glow white. But what I saw looked more like a corpse. His eyes were black holes, in a body filled with flames. He tilted his head looking at me with disappointment and disgust. “You’re looking well.”
I blinked my eyes, avoiding his gaze. “I know there’s some good in you.”
He smiled, revealing a mouth full of fire as fresh blood drooled from his lips. “Do you like what you see? Because that’s all that’s left of the ‘good’ in me.” He gripped my neck, pulling me close. Despite his appearance, Captain Fuller’s strength was that of a normal man, a fact which gave me hope of escape.
But where would I even go? “What do you want?”
“I want you to see.” He kissed me again forcing me to look into his empty eye sockets.
I was seeing the events through the eyes of a Calvary soldier. It was night, with the moon high in the sky. I could feel his shoulder-length hair blowing against his cheeks as he looked out into the distance. With his booming voice, Captain Fuller issued the order, “Ready…”
All around me, Cannons and machine guns arose from the ground, their metallic bodies shimmering in the light of the moon.
“Aim…” I could hear the sound of hundreds of weapons cocking. Within seconds, there was the distinct sound of horse hooves, galloping towards our location. they were running headfirst into a trap.
“Fire!” All I heard was a scream, followed by a hail of gunfire. Horses were falling, but so were bodies. Hundreds of riders falling into a passive heap of dying flesh.
“Do you like my work?” he asked in a deep, crackly voice.
I swallowed the lump in my throat. If I was going to die here, I wanted to speak the truth. “I’m glad your children died never knowing the real you. I hope they died assuming their father was a good man, not a monster who led the slaughter of an entire native village.
Captain Fuller chuckled. “Are you done?” His sword made a sicking creak as he brought it to my throat.
I could feel the pain, and part of me was looking forward to the sweet release of death.
When suddenly a gust of wind knocked us both to the ground. “Yeah, we’re not doing this,” said Leo’s voice. It seemed to be coming from every direction, like the PA system at a grocery store.
“Leo, where are you?” I felt cold wings made of ice, wrap around my body like a towel.
“Close your eyes,” he said calmly. “I’m taking you back to the actual playing field.” I did as he asked. I closed my eyes, but apparently not long enough. Leo had his hand inside the soldier’s chest, freezing him from the inside. “How about we play fair, this time, Captain?”
The soldier turned to me, locking eyes with a look of hatred. So, I shut my eyes again, making a mental note to wait for Leo’s command (or at least for the room to go quiet).
When I heard silence, I awoke I was back in the cave. Leo was standing before me, his wings fully expanded. “Follow this path, and you’ll find what you seek.” I watched as Leo threw his hand to the side, revealing a before unseen tunnel made of ice.
I ran as fast as I could. Anywhere had to be better than staring down an angry ghost. Or so I thought. At the end of the hall was Matty. My little son was frozen in a block of ice, his face locked in an expression of terror.
I screamed cupping hands over my mouth. “Why, God- why?” My knees went weak as I fell to the ground. I’d already failed.
“Do not forsaken those lost to the ice,” said a soft whisper.
“Easier said than done.”
There was a skittering, like the sound of tap dancing bugs. I followed the sound, until it reached the opposite side of the room. A single rock was tossed to the floor, then another and another, until the ceiling sparkled with light. There was a single sentence written in shimmery thread; History holds the key.
“Spider webs?” I could only hope. Looking around I could see various pods made of ice. Was this the collection Leo spoke of? Each of the ice pods seemed to sparkle with ambient light, shimmering like stars. “History lights the way.”
I started to climb, trying to find a clue as to what I could use. And then I saw it. Across the room, aimed right at my son was a machine gun turret just like the one used by Captain Fuller’s men.
Would it still fire? There was only one way to find out. I grabbed a nearby rock and hit the ice as hard as I could, chipping away large chunks, until I hit metal. The moment my rock struck the rusted structure, it fired a single round.
It was not very loud or even fast, but the action caused a crack to form in the icy shell. I was about to investigate closer when I heard a small voice.
“Ma-ma?” small whisper echoed through the cave.
“Matty?” I made my way to his pod. His body was still trapped but the bullet had removed enough of the ice to allow in a bit of air. His eyes blinked and his chest was moving. “Baby it’s ok, Mommy’s here.” I needed to get the gun to fire again.
I made the climb back to the exposed part of the weapon. I banged even harder, sending ripples through the room. Only one more bullet was expelled but the explosion was much louder, with a noticeable amount of force. I barely managed to hold on.
After taking a moment to catch my breath, I climbed down to see if I had made a horrible mistake.
The shot had broken away even more of Matty’s tomb, but it also but his arm so deep I could see massive amounts of dark red blood. He was alive. Thank god he was alive. But he wouldn’t be for long. I needed to get him out, fast and without the use of the gun.
I put my arms around him, moving pieces of ice to his bloody wound. Ice makes blood flow slower, right? “Talk to me, Matty.”
“Don’t be scared. I’m going to get you out and you’ll get to see Lenny again.”
“Why would you ask that?”
“Do you know what happened to Daddy?”
“I feel Daddy.”
I looked at his hands, he was holding something that looked like a large leather wallet. “What are you holding?”
As I chipped away the ice, alternating between hitting with a rock and warming him with my own body, I could see: Matty was holding Isaiah’s severed hands. The sight nearly broke me.
Sobbing harder then I’d ever cried, I put my arms around Matty holding him close. I would take away his pain, or we would freeze together. “I’m sorry Matty. I’m so sorry.”
I felt warm, truly warm, like a fur coat. This was death, this was heaven. But I could still breathe. And the warmth felt heavy, as if something was on top of me. I blinked. There was still light. And something was holding me, holding us.
The ice started to melt, allowing Matty to fall limp into my arms. It was only then I fully opened my eyes. “Matty?” My son was barely breathing, his body dying in my arms but the hands seemed to be glowing.
“The hands keep him,” said a deep slow voice. It was the mother bear. She was larger, with streaks of white in its fur. “You may keep him. Keep your family.”
“Thank you.” I had no idea how I was going to get Matty’s body out of the tunnel, but I had to try. Carrying him like an infant I made it about twenty feet before encountering my first obstacle.
Going in I would have climbed but coming out, I needed a little help. I lifted his body to a height higher than my head and carefully lowered him, until I was certain I felt his body touch solid ground.
“Ok, just fifty more times.” I pulled my self over the ledge, gripping the freezing cold stone with my cut up hands. I barely had the strength to maneuver myself over, landing hard on my shoulder. “Ow! F**k!” I grasped at the walls, eventually finding my footing. But where was Matty?
“Take my hand, you’ve impressed the tribal elders more than enough for a passing grade.” Leo’s glowing hand reached for me, he was looking as beautiful as ever.
I couldn’t help but sob. “You’re serious, you’re not f*****g with me, right? We’re allowed to just leave?”
“You would know if I was f*****g with you.” Leo’s wings were fully extended, making him look every bit like the angels from fairy-tales.
“Thank you, my prince.”
“Your prince is yet to be reassembled, but I will settle for the title of teacher or friend.” He waved his hand opening a hole in the wall leading directly back to the truck.
“Well, thank you, my friend.” For a moment I was genuinely impressed that he fixed his truck in such a short amount of time but in fairness I had no idea how long I had been in the frozen cave trial, that and Leo was a freaking angel.
“on to Utah,” he said calmly as if he was not carrying my nearly dead child in his arms.
I was grateful, but part of me was starting to feel a tinge of resentment. I was walking through the levels of hell and I wanted a damn break. “Can we rest for a few hours?”
“You can sleep while I drive.”
“Ok, sure.” I was starting to feel like a video game character, getting taken to the brink of death only to be given a health potion. But the health potion would only take me so far.