From the corner of his eye he saw Nathaniel and
Benedict coming at him. Three on one would end this wrestling bout.
When Logan couldn't break Ellery's grip on the gun, a glint of cunning sneaked into the thug's eye. Pushing Ellery back hard, Logan then let go of the gun so Ellery went tumbling backward to fall flat on his back with the gun still gripped tight in his hands.
Ellery was fast to his feet.
Leering, the man mocked him, ”Eh-Eh-Ellery You know, there aren't any bullets in that gur-gur-gun.”The leer broadened. ”I used the last ones on college boy. I was only jerking the other guy around… winding him up, you know?”
Ellery glanced down at the gun in his hands. How did you tell if an SMG was out of ammo? Its shells were completely encased in the magazine clip.
Logan used the distraction to pull Noel's handgun from his belt. He also dug deep into his combat jacket pocket and tugged out a second pistol.
”Whoa… got you under control again, haven't I?” He pointed one pistol at Ellery and the second at Robyn. Quickly, he glanced from Ellery then back to the bunch by the log again, checking that no one was moving.
”Better throw the machine gun down, Ellery; it's no good to a stutter monkey like you.”
Ellery moved his hands across the gun, keeping it pointed at Logan, while finding the trigger with his finger.
”Won't do you any good, Stutter Monkey. Don't you listen? I told you, the gun's out of ammo. It won't fire, stupid.”
Logan's stubbled face seemed to morph in front of Ellery Hann: switching between the juvenile who tormented him so much he could hardly speak, then flipping over to the thug who faced him now, who threatened not only him but his friends, too.
”What you gonna do, Eh-Ellery? You going to try to shoot a gun with no bullets, bud?”Logan eased back the pistol hammer with his thumb. ”What you gonna do, EhEh-Eh-Eh-Eh-”This time Logan chanted the stammer Eh-Eh sound, mimicking Ellery, goading him. His voice oozing with scorn.
The baby gave a sudden cry. Logan didn't stop the cruel mimicry.
”Eh-Eh-Eh-Eh…”But his eyes flicked to the infant wrapped in the towel. ”Eh-Eh-Eh-”
Ellery snapped his finger against the trigger. Logan had lied. The submachine gun clattered out bullets in a jet of fire. They struck Logan in the center of the chest, knocking him backward with a force that lifted both feet in the air.
Slowly Ellery lowered the smoking gun. His tormentor of the last fifteen years lay flat on the dirt of the gray forest. Both arms were flung outward, the pistols still gripped in his hands. Grunting, panting, Logan's entire body jerked as muscles spasmed, then with a jolt that lifted the upper part of his body clear off the ground, he flopped back to stare at the bone-white sky Ellery couldn't move. He stood and stared at the corpse.
Whole minutes later he heard Nathaniel speak. ”They're here.”
Walking through the trees were men and women. Hundreds of them, Ellery told himself. In a few moments he would find out he was mistaken. There were thousands. And they were heading this way.
Benedict watched as the figures moved through the forest toward where he was standing with Ellery and the others in the clearing. On the ground, Logan's body still steamed as hot blood leaked into cold air (proving that even though you might never die of old age here, if you're shot dead you stay dead).
Benedict's gaze was held by the spectacle of the creatures as they approached. They were monsterized human beings, too. Like Mariah and the others, they'd lost their way in the woods as they tried to make their way to the shining city on the hill that instinct told them was their real home. Nathaniel had spoken of people who were damaged in some way, whose inner guidance system couldn't direct them safely through this gray landscape. So here they'd stayed. The power that oozed from Nathaniel's world-a world that lay at right angles to our own-had not only nourished them, it had reshaped their bodies into hideous monsters.
He saw men with mule-like faces. Women with arms that had melted and reformed into tentacles. Some had bulging eyes. Others were weirdly deep-set, forming twin pits sunk into their heads. Others, like Mariah, possessed huge multilipped mouths that pulsed crimson. There were creatures that were eight feet tall and thin as bamboo cane. Then there were squat creatures with tiny eyes that disturbed Benedict enough to think of hogs. He also recalled the desperate creatures who'd laid siege to the apartment. They knew their healer was close by. Mindlessly they had tried to break in to seize him. Now here came more of the monster men and women in their thousands, seeping through the forest like an incoming tide. Benedict stooped down by Logan and tugged one of the revolvers from a dead hand. Nathaniel stopped him from raising the gun.
”Don't, Benedict,”he said. ”These aren't dangerous people.”
”But those at the Luxor, they were-”
”They had been driven to insanity by their pain. These people have borne their torture with more fortitude.”
At the edge of the clearing the figures stopped. Benedict stepped back, feeling the weight of so many eyes staring at them. A light touch on his forearm made him turn back. He saw Mariah standing there. Her mouth had grown full and red once more. The wounds on her chest were now healed-over scars. That power had healed her as she lay against the fallen tree. A glimmer of the old Mariah appeared in her eyes. She wanted him to be calm.
”You're safe,”she whispered.
Nathaniel said, ”They know about the birth. They're here to see for themselves.”
Robyn held up the baby for Ellery to take. He did so, and Benedict noticed the child appeared to have grown in the few minutes they'd been in this place. He held his head up unassisted. His large and very human eyes were bright, intelligent, absorbing what he saw of his surroundings. There was no fear in the child. He was in a place he'd known from before birth.
Robyn climbed to her feet. Color had returned to her cheeks. She had the air of someone who was healthy and well rested. Ellery held out the baby to her.
She shook her head. ”He doesn't belong with me.”A sad smile touched her lips. ”He's needed here.”
Nathaniel stared. ”You're prepared to give up your child?”
”He's a child of this world. He wouldn't belong in mine and Noel's.”
Noel nodded. ”Robyn's right. He's no more a citizen of our world than Ellery here.”
Benedict saw the implications sink into Ellery's mind.
As they did so, a smile spread over Ellery's face. ”I'm going to my home. I'll take your son with me.”His voice became serious. ”Don't worry, I'll look after him.”
Nathaniel put his arm around Mariah's shoulders. ”He'll have all the help he needs, too.”
Robyn heard a gulp of emotion in her voice as she tried to joke, ”Good baby-sitters are hard to come by. A tear slid down her cheek. Quickly she kissed the baby. ”Take care,”she whispered into the tiny ear. ”When you can, come back and see me one day”
She turned away. Benedict knew if she stayed close to the baby any longer, she wouldn't want to leave him.
”Name him,”Nathaniel told her. ”It's your right.”
Without so much as a glance back, she said, ”David.”That was all. Yet she spoke the name with enough force to suggest to Benedict that there had been someone of that name in her life before. The name was important to her.
Nathaniel said, ”Wait here until the fires have burned down in the Luxor, then it'll be safe to return.”
Carrying the baby carefully in his arms, Ellery nodded a farewell to them, then joined the figures at the edge of the clearing. Nathaniel paused, waiting for Mariah. Then understanding hit Benedict with a force that almost winded him. Mariah was leaving. This would be the last time he saw her. And she was going in the company of the man she loved.
Benedict glanced at Nathaniel, then back at Mariah.
The lips moved around her mouth, a subtle ripple effect. ”Thank you for waiting for me, Benedict. But it's time for both of us to move on.”Her voice was a compassionate whisper. ”Take care of yourself… and find someone you can love.”
Benedict watched her walk away with Nathaniel, the giants arm around her shoulders. Just as Benedict anticipated he would experience the bitterest emotion of his life, he found he was smiling. For the first time in years, he knew he could let Mariah go. He'd found closure. She'd found love. He could move on.
He glanced at Robyn. She stood looking away from the mass of people as they left with her baby. Noel tested his feet; he'd realized the force that wrought such changes in the bodies of those people had begun to heal his wounds. Gingerly he used the log for support as he pulled himself to his feet, then limped across to Robyn and put his arm around her. She rested her head against his chest.
Benedict knew the truth: This is a world where time is as malleable as the bodies of its inhabitants. A week might seem like a day. Ten seconds here might pass as quickly as a year in downtown Chicago. He couldn't judge what span of time passed as he followed Nathaniel, Marian and Ellery who carried David, through the forest. All he knew was his instincts told them that they'd covered a vast distance. Presently the forest ended as the ground sloped upward. There, Benedict paused to watch the five-thousand-strong crowd form itself into a long, winding procession with Ellery at its head, carrying the baby. They were perhaps half a mile from Benedict; he could barely make out individual figures in the mass of creatures. And yet he saw clearly enough their destination. In the distance, shining with a light all its own on the mountainside, was a city. A wonderful city bristling with exotic towers and buildings of surreal splendor It may have been straining to see into the distance, it may have been the breeze touching Benedicts eyes that made them water, distorting what he saw, and yet from here it seemed to him that the figures were monsters no longer. Misshapen heads regained their symmetry, limbs softened, melted-reformed into human arms and legs. Nathaniel now walked on feet, not hands. Mariah was, once more, the beautiful woman who'd shared his life for a few short years.
He watched the procession wind its way up the hill toward the shining city. He kept watching, not wanting to even blink, lest he'd see the people as those otherworld creatures again. But to the last they remained beautifully human. Perhaps the healer they'd waited for so long had cast his spell after all. Benedict remained there, watching them grow more distant, as they journeyed toward that far-off city… until, at last, he realized he could see them no more.
Benedict stepped through the mist-ringed portal into what was left of the Luxor. Robyn and Noel followed. The now long-dead fire had taken the roof, so the old dance hall lay open to blue skies. They walked across a carpet of black ash to where the entrance doors had been reduced to charcoal. Without speaking, the three stepped outside into the warm afternoon air.
As they walked away, Robyn glanced back. She saw that all the crows had returned to their cornfields. And the Luxor stood only as an empty shell, a charred skull on a desert of blacktop. Many years ago it had heard its last song, witnessed its last dance. Now it would be lost forever to the sands of time. When Robyn Vincent continued walking, she never looked back.