Michael squinted hard in order to see through the rain, but his efforts to see exactly what out-of-the-way road they were all on was quickly becoming a lost cause.
“Do you have any idea where we are?” asked Lexi.
The young woman he was currently sharing a bed with had only asked this question five times in the last fifteen minutes. It was annoying, true, but he had to admit that she had a point.
They were lost.
“Not really,” sighed Michael.
“Typical,” said Raymond. “We should have turned around a half an hour ago.”
“Give the boy some credit,” said Lance. “He’s acting his part. It’s what straight men do.”
Michael muttered under his breath. Raymond and Lance were Lexi’s friends more than they were his, and normally, he had no problem with them, but they were also currently getting on his nerves just as much as Lexi was.
Nevertheless, he had no right to complain. This trip had been his idea, a bonding experience in the form of a vacation away from the office, but things weren’t going as planned, because things never went as planned in his life…He just had bad luck.
“Where are we anyway?” asked Lexi. “Does anyone have any reception? I’m not getting any on my phone.”
“No, honey,” said Raymond. “We’re in the middle of a summer storm…That, and we’re also out in the middle of nowhere.”
“Great,” muttered Lexi.
Michael felt for her. He understood the situation.
All four of them were packed in Michael’s little dark-blue Toyota Celica, not a car designed for driving on some backwoods dirt road through the actual woods during a summer squall. Right now, though, he was trying to keep the car from hitting any debris or getting stuck in some pitted section of road that had filled with water. He needed to watch out for those things.
“So what’s it gonna be, Mikey?” asked Lance. “Are we turning around?”
Michael swore under his breath and shook his head no.
“We can’t turn around in this,” he said unhappily. “We’d probably get stuck on this narrow road. I’m surprised we haven’t been flooded out already…However, that doesn’t mean we should just stop, either. This road has to lead somewhere. It has to lead to a house or the highway or somewhere. I’m not giving up just yet. Besides, we’ve got half a tank of gas. We’re not in any danger of being stranded yet…And don’t call me Mikey.”
“Rowwrrr,” said Lance as he made cat-scratch motions. “Feisty.”
“We must have made a wrong turn going back to the interstate,” said Lexi. “I think we’re going south.”
“Probably,” sighed Michael. “It’s not like we had reservations anywhere. This was just supposed to be a simple road trip, not an extended stay.”
“Well, we may not have a choice,” said Raymond. “At this rate, we’re probably going to have to stay at a motel somewhere.”
“Hope you like bedbugs,” frowned Michael.
This trip was a disaster. He should have known this would happen, because this always happened to him on road trips.
He took a moment to think back on how all of this had started, and even though this had been his idea, his inspiration for this debacle was Lexi.
He had met Lexi at the office, at the IT firm the four of them worked at. Their firm contracted out to various other offices, but that was neither here nor there. The fact was that his new girlfriend was a beautiful brunette who had more than two braincells, a far cry from the bimbos he had previously dated. He had always gone for the luscious type rather than the cerebral type, but Lexi was a bit of both, and dating her had introduced Michael to a whole new world of women…one that didn’t come with a headache.
Of course, interoffice dating was frowned upon at their firm, but considering Raymond and Lance were boyfriends and no one (no one in upper management anyway) wanted to break up a gay couple, Michael had crossed into the “grey” territory of interoffice romance with little trouble. The firm couldn’t allow gay interoffice dating without its straight counterpart, or a massive lawsuit would be coming their way.
He’d met Raymond and Lance through Lexi, and he got along with them in a fair manner. Raymond was the dark-haired practical one, while Lance was the chatty blonde. Both of them were the gay-idol posterchildren for fawning straight women everywhere—good-looking, athletic, neat and clean cut—and that kind of annoyed Michael, but the truth was, they were both harmless, so he put up with them.
Michael, himself, was fairly attractive in his own mind. He was tall, six-foot, with neat black hair in a business cut and fair brown eyes…No, he had no trouble picking up the ladies, especially considering his disastrous past relationships with women who were hotter than their own tiny brains could handle.
Lexi, of course, was not one of those; she was the best of both worlds, and he was infinitely grateful for that. It gave him patience with her, which was something he had severely lacked with his previous girlfriends.
Michael was not abusive, no, but he had his limits, so he would walk away when the time was right, but he did not see that with Lexi. Maybe he was growing soft, but she had that effect on him.
Hence, why he put up with her complaints for the moment, and speaking of complaints…
“We’ve got to find somewhere to rest our heads,” said Lexi. “At this point, I don’t care if I sleep on one giant bedbug, but we are pulling over at the first motel or hotel we find…but first we need to get out of these woods.”
“It’s the rain, honey,” said Lance from behind them. “He’s got to drive carefully, or we won’t be going anywhere, and without reception, we won’t be calling for help, either.”
Michael nodded his head in recognition. Apparently, Lance was not a total flake.
This little bit of alliance peaked Michael’s resolve. He felt a little happier now that someone was listening to him.
“We’ll get out of these woods,” he said firmly. “They can’t last forever, and we still have half a tank of gas. We’ll make it, don’t wo—”
“What is that?” asked Lexi as she cut him short.
There was the peak of a building in the distance, only noticeable due to a lightning strike from far, far south of them, though the building in question was much closer than that.
Raymond and Lance leaned forward in their seats to get a better look.
“That’s a house; it must be,” said Raymond. “We should stop there and ask for directions. They might also have a landline we can use.”
Lightning struck again, but this time they could all see the great structure looming in the distance, and this backwoods road they were stuck on led straight toward it.
“That’s not a house,” said Michael quietly. “It has a steeple. That must be what we saw.”
“Maybe it’s a church,” said Lexi.
“If it is, it’s a really big one out in the middle of nowhere,” said Raymond.
They drove toward the structure until they passed beneath a large stone arch, an arch of carved stone decorated with strange, concentric, spiraling swirls that Michael was not familiar with. Nevertheless, he drove onwards toward the huge building, a five-story construction that had to boast many, many rooms in it.
“That’s not a church,” said Lance. “It can’t be. It’s way too big. Country churches are tiny things.”
“It’s a hotel!” said Lexi excitedly. “It has to be!”
“I…I think you’re right,” breathed out Michael.
She had to be. There were too many floors to this place to not be a hotel, though the only visible lights were on the ground floor.
“Well, let’s find out,” said Lexi. “They might have rooms available.”
That was the problem with hotels, of course. Many of the rooms were booked out months in advance, but still…people always canceled at the last minute, so…
However, upon driving up to the mansion-style building, Michael had an ominous feeling drift down upon him like a black cloak.
This large five-story building was of a design Michael did not recognize, with several steeples upon gambrel roofs carefully woven into the structure. There was even a huge brick tower topped by domed glass settled within the building, something Michael had never seen anywhere.
The construction was bizarre in general, and not just in the placement of the rooms; the bottom three floors were brick while the top two floors, save for the huge tower, were clearly made from wood.
It was a Frankenstein’s creation of a thing, like a patchwork of architectural plans that did not make sense. Furthermore, it did not look like it was in good repair, and there were only three cars parked in a small lot out front, a lot marked by cracked pavement and reaching weeds.
The look of the place left a bad taste in his mouth, a sense of foreboding lingering at the back of his mind and at the tip of his tongue, so he couldn’t help but protest.
“I don’t know, Lex,” said Michael. “I’m getting a bad feeling about this.”
“We’re stopping,” frowned Lexi. “Don’t you dare turn around, Michael. We at least have to check and see if this place will help us. I mean, it might not even be a hotel, but we at least have to try. We at least need some directions to a gas station, or we could get stranded. We only have half a tank of gas.”
It was her insistence and the sincerity in her voice that speared through him. He wanted to please her, so he relented, though he still thought this was a bad idea.
“Okay,” he grunted. “We’ll stop and check.”
“Oh, goody,” said Lance. “We’ll just park real quick and take a looksee.”
The tires rolled over cracked pavement as Michael parked the car in the nearly empty lot. He turned the key and shut off the engine, and all four of them exited the vehicle.
The problem with this, of course, was the weather. The small group tried but failed miserably in a vain attempt to cover themselves from the pounding rain.
“Come on!” croaked out Michael as he ran toward the double front doors of the huge building.
All four of them hoofed it to the grand, yet decaying, structure’s entrance.
Michael took hold of a large iron doorknocker, pulled up on the circular metal bar, and banged on the old wood of the righthand door.
The door creaked open after a few more attempts at knocking, and they were greeted by a man in his late sixties, a wizened fellow dressed in the formal attire that one would see on a professor from the 1950s.
The elderly man standing within the entranceway was tall and thin, Caucasian, with an angular face and a beaked nose. His eyes were a piercing dark brown that belied his shortcut white hair, and this gave him the appearance of a volatile temper.
Michael wanted to give most people the benefit of the doubt, but still…he did not want to tick this guy off.
This man was dressed in a brown suit with brown slacks and a matching brown vest over a white dress shirt, that dress shirt complete with a dark-brown tie. On his feet were well-taken-care-of dress shoes, brown dress shoes with angular tips, the shoes polished to a shine…He really did look like some kind of professor from the ’50s.
Apparently, the imposing look upon the elderly man’s face stunned even someone as forthright and as adventurous as Lexi, and this was surprising to Michael, because Lexi was the kind of woman who took no guff from anyone.
“H…Hello?” stammered Lexi. “We were wondering if—”
“Of course,” cut short the old man.
“Excuse me?” asked Michael.
“We are not technically ready for guests,” continued the man, “but since the weather is as such, we have been finding ourselves with strays this weekend. This place has a way of guiding people to it.”
He had a refined British accent, something Michael had somehow expected him to have. Maybe it was the clothes or his bearing, but hearing the man’s speaking voice surprised Michael only in the fact that his expectations of this man had just been fulfilled in the most stereotypical way possible.
Lexi shook her head and put on her “greeting” smile, something Michael was well familiar with. She used it when she wanted something from someone, and he had been the recipient of it many times.
“Oh…” said Lexi. “Does that mean we—?”
“It means we can accommodate you for the time being,” said the old man. “The truth is, the Everwatch will not be ready for guests until some considerable repairs are made, but considering the weather, I can make an exception for now …Why don’t you young people come in and dry off. We will discuss payment once you’re inside.”
“Thank you so much,” said Lexi.
She immediately walked into the place as the host stepped aside, so Michael shrugged and followed her, Raymond and Lance right behind him.
“Thanks,” grunted Michael as he walked past the old man.
“You are quite welcome, sir,” said the elderly host.
The old man shut the door behind them, taking some time to ensure that both of the large wooden doors were properly closed.
Michael stood with the others inside the entrance area as he studied his surroundings.
This hotel had no foyer, or if this large room was a foyer, it was indeed a large one, larger than any foyer Michael had ever seen. There were four, large, brown leather couches seated in a circle as one would see in the relaxed atmosphere of a living room, and to the east was a huge stone fireplace with a roaring fire, four wooden chairs strategically placed before it.
There was a pair of large wooden doors next to the fireplace toward the southeast, something that stood out simply because the doors looked out of place. Each door had a carved symbol of a concentric swirl etched upon it, and this also caught Michael’s eye, if only for a moment.
This place had a dim yet cozy air about it, a strange mix of gloom and comfort that somehow meshed together to perform a function, much like the Frankenstein appearance of the building’s exterior façade.
The floor beneath them was made of layered dark-wood floorboards covered by large dark-brown carpets, those carpets unadorned of any decoration. Past the couches and to the south was the long wooden bar that comprised the admissions desk, and on the right side of that desk was a huge spiraling staircase also built of dark wood.
Upon the walls were tapestries of strange design, some green with odd circling swirls of silver within them, spiraling swirls that crawled in upon themselves, while other tapestries were royal red with the gold lettering “SPQR” within a golden laurel wreath, though Michael had no idea what any of them meant, if anything.
There were a few people lounging on the couches, four to be exact.
There was a tall and buxom blonde in a burnt-orange sweater and blue jeans relaxing upon the north couch, someone Michael would have hit on before he had met Lexi. She certainly fit the type he had liked to flirt with, blonde and curvy, though what she was actually like, he could only guess.
On the south couch was an elderly couple, this couple somewhat older even than the host of the hotel. On the left side of that couch was an elderly woman with white hair, her plump profile dressed in a print dress and a drooping tan hat, grandma glasses upon her nose, and on her right was an elderly man Michael could only assume was her husband, this man dressed in a tweed suit with a black turned-down bowtie, glasses perched upon his nose as well.
On the east couch was a portly man with a black mustache and short black hair dressed in a white dress shirt with no sleeves, a black tie around his neck, with black slacks and dress shoes to match.
There was no one on the west couch, but that was the spot their elderly host had chosen to stand, right in front of it.
“Oh, I’m getting a real Clue vibe here,” said Lance. “I want to be Colonel Mustard.”
“You are definitely Professor Plum, you nerd,” said Raymond.
“Oh, quiet, you,” said Lance in mock irritation. “At least I’m not Mr. Boddy…like you.”
“Ha, ha,” replied Raymond with an equally mock frown. “Keep it up, and you won’t see any ‘body,’ that’s for sure. Certainly not mine.”
“Rowwrr, ffft, ffft,” said Lance as he made clawing motions in the air.
Michael rolled his eyes and sighed.
Taking these two anywhere public was always going to be like this, but Lexi simply gave a subtle chuckle over their back and forth. They were funny sometimes, but they were also irritating at times, and right now, he just wanted to dry off and settle in, not put up with any minor nuisances. Nevertheless, he was here for Lexi, and she could keep them in check if she felt like it, so he would leave it up to her.
Michael decided to ignore them and head on over to the fire. He parked himself in a wooden chair, the seat nice and toasty due to the heat of the blaze in the fireplace, and he sighed yet again, only this time in some contentment.
“Why don’t the three of you follow your friend and dry off first,” he heard the old man say. “We will discuss payment after you’ve warmed a bit.”
“Thank you, Mr…uhhh…” said Lexi.
“Mr. Armstrong,” finished the old man.
“Thank you, Mr. Armstrong,” repeated Lexi.
“Of course,” said the host.
The three of them joined Michael by the fire and took chairs of their own.
“Ooooo…comfy,” said Lance.
Michael gave a slight smile at Lance’s simple observation. He was feeling better, less irritable, now that they were out of the rain.
He turned his attention back upon Mr. Armstrong. The man stood in the center of the circle of couches, his hands clasped together for emphasis that he would speak.
“For one reason or another,” said the elderly host, “you have all found your way here. Though the Everwatch is not quite ready for guests, it shall be soon, so I suppose we can consider this a ‘test run,’ and this test has been a long time in the making, I assure you.”
“Oh, I’m just grateful you let us in, Mr. Armstrong,” said the blonde.
She had a soft and quiet voice, something Michael was immediately drawn to, but a pinch on his ear from Lexi made him realize he was staring, so he cast his eyes downwards out of respect.
“Of course, Ms. Pearl,” said Mr. Armstrong. “What would a hotel be without guests?”
This conversation, however, was hijacked by the gruff undertones of another guest.
“So, what is it we’re going to owe you?” asked the portly man with the mustache.
“We’ll discuss payment when you check out, Mr. Coal,” said Mr. Armstrong.
“Ms. Pearl, Mr. Coal,” whispered Lance with a not-so-subtle snicker. “This really is right out of Clue!”
Both he and Raymond gave a short giggle, but one glare from Lexi shut them up.
“Be respectful, you hyenas!” she hissed.
Michael turned to see all of the other guests staring at them. Though he was eternally grateful for Lexi’s ability to control his two coworkers, this did not lesson the embarrassment of the situation at hand.
He felt his face turn red.
Lexi, on the other hand, simply stared back at the other guests and waved them off.
“Continue,” she said.
That was one of the things Michael loved about her. Nothing seemed to faze her.
The portly man on the east couch, the one with the rough, square face and thin black mustache, this “Mr. Coal,” continued on as if nothing had interrupted him.
“I’d like to know what I’m dealing with here, Mr. Armstrong,” he said. “What’s the sticker price?”
“I don’t quite know yet,” said the host with a weak smile. “I don’t believe I shall charge much, Mr. Coal. The hotel is not yet ready, but it would be inhospitable of me to turn down travelers under such conditions, so…I think fifty or so per night is acceptable.”
The others murmured amongst themselves as Michael gave himself an approving nod. “Fifty or so” was incredibly cheap anymore…This road trip was beginning to look like a nice little vacation after all.
“Are you sure, Mr. Armstrong?” asked Ms. Pearl. “You’ve been so kind to let us in.”
“If you insist upon paying any more than that,” replied the elderly host, “I shall not turn away such an offer, Ms. Pearl. I would, however, experience what little there is here to offer before doing anything rash.”
“Oh, it’s not rash to reciprocate the generosity of a stranger,” said Ms. Pearl.
“Yes…” said Mr. Armstrong.
The old man’s lips frowned in response to that reply, a strange cast of guilt upon his refined face, a shadow of something unexplainable upon subtle observance, and Michael did not know what to make of it.
“Well…we are short staffed as of late,” said the elderly host. “However, I shall see to it that some dinner is served before long; you are all owed that much. The dining hall is through the west doors there. I will see you each situated in a room on the second floor right away…I’m afraid our elevators are out of service, so it appears you will have to take the stairs…I apologize for the inconvenience.”
“Oh, that’s all right,” said the old woman of the elderly couple seated upon the south couch. “We’ll manage somehow.”
“Thank you, Mrs. Corbin,” said Mr. Armstrong.
The old host waved his right hand toward the admissions desk and gave his head a slight bow.
“I shall return momentarily,” he said briskly. “For now, simply relax and enjoy the fire.”
Michael sighed and sat down on the south couch within the entrance hall.
Lexi was upstairs on the second floor in their shared room, Raymond and Lance were in their own room as well, and all four of them had decided to stay the entire weekend, more out of gratitude for Mr. Armstrong’s generosity than anything else. Their road trip was at an end in lieu of this destination, but that was fine, because a vacation was supposed to be relaxing, and this place was relaxing, if not a little boring.
Michael did not know where the other guests were, but he had done the small service of helping the old couple, the Corbins, up to their own room. The stairs were hard on them, so he and Raymond had helped them up while Lance had carried their luggage.
Now it was just him and Ms. Pearl downstairs, the buxom blonde sitting across from him on the north couch.
“Hi,” said the young woman. “You’re Michael, right?”
“Uhhh…yeah,” said Michael. “Michael Smith.”
It was probably a bad idea to interact with her at all, but he still had to be friendly. She was definitely the type of woman he would have hit on in the past, but considering his commitment to Lexi, he was not about to jeopardize his relationship with his own girlfriend…He was, in fact, trying to be good.
“I’m Savanna,” said the blonde.
He nodded and gave her a quick smile.
“Yeah,” he said nervously.
“Did you just wander down that road out there by accident?” she asked. “That’s what happened to me. I think that’s what happened to everyone else, too.”
“Something like that,” said Michael. “I figured we’d hit the highway again or something, but I was wrong.”
“My cell stopped working for some reason,” said Savanna. “Isn’t that weird?”
“A little,” agreed Michael. “I’ve had the same problem…Huh…I never thought to check with the others about theirs.”
“That is strange,” said the blonde as she screwed up her lips in thought.
They sat there for a few awkward seconds of silence before she spoke up again, but the question she asked immediately made Michael cringe.
“Are you here with your sister?” asked Savanna.
And there it was…the bait. He knew this game. She was here alone, so she was hoping Lexi was his sister, and that way she could have a little “fun” with a stranger over the weekend. In the past, Michael would have jumped on that without so much as a by-your-leave, but he was trying to be dedicated to Lexi, so that’s all there was to that.
“Lexi is my girlfriend,” he said swiftly. “She’s also the jealous type, but I still love her.”
“Oh,” said the blonde in sudden disappointment. “I’m sorry…I didn’t mean to intrude. It’s just that…it’s so hard to meet good men these days. I mean, those two boys upstairs are good-looking, but they’re as gay as a flaming rainbow. Anyone who isn’t a complete space case can see that.”
Michael chuckled and nodded in reply.
“Yeah,” he said. “They irritate me sometimes, but they’re all right. I work with Lance and Raymond in IT, and that’s actually how I met Lexi. We all work in the same office.”
“Interoffice dating, huh?” asked Savanna. “Isn’t that a no-no?”
“Funny you should say that—” began Michael, but he was cut short.
The portly man with the black mustache, Mr. Coal, walked in and sat down on the east couch. He gave a nod for courtesy and then adjusted his weight upon the couch he was currently sinking into.
“Anyway, I guess that doesn’t matter,” sighed the blonde. “I’m just glad I have somewhere to park my butt out of the rain. That’s why I’m going to pay Mr. Armstrong one-twenty a night. That seems fair to me…What about you?”
She shot that question out there, something monetary that Michael really didn’t want to answer, but he did anyway. In truth, he hadn’t felt like paying more than eighty a night for the room he and Lexi were sharing, but if Savanna was paying one-twenty, then now he was on the hook to pay more. He didn’t want to look cheap or selfish.
“One-twenty’s fair,” he shrugged.
“Well, I’m not paying that,” grunted Mr. Coal.
The hefty man frowned and shook his head no as they turned their eyes upon him.
“Why not?” asked Savanna. “Isn’t it the least we could do?”
“No,” grunted Mr. Coal. “I’ve been in motels better than this. This place needs a lot of work. For one thing, it shouldn’t even be open yet. Honestly, he should have just turned us away. I’ll pay fifty, and that’s it.”
“Fifty is sufficient, Mr. Coal,” said Mr. Armstrong.
The elderly host was standing between the south and west couches, standing just outside of the circle of that furniture. How long he had been standing there, Michael had no idea, but the older man’s sudden appearance startled him a bit, though Michael was careful to hide his own surprise.
“Oh…uhhh…Mr. Armstrong…” said Savanna.
Michael could tell that the blonde was just as startled as he was.
“Yes, Ms. Pearl?” asked the old man.
“I…I guess I have a question,” she replied.
“Of course, miss,” said the host.
She was on the spot now. Michael wondered what she was going to say. It was the sudden appearance of the old man that had spooked her, obviously, but she appeared to have something she actually wanted to ask, so she did, and it was something that had been at the back of Michael’s mind as well.
“This place has a lot of charm,” said Savanna. “I was just wondering about a couple of things, like these tapestries on the walls. What do they mean?”
“The red ones are in reference to the ancient Roman Legion,” said Mr. Armstrong as he nodded toward a tapestry on the west wall. “SPQR stands for ‘Senatus Populusque Romanus,’ which means ‘the Senate and the people of Rome.’ It is a symbol of ancient Rome’s law over chaos and disorder.”
“Uh, huh…” said Savanna. “What do the green tapestries mean?…The ones with the swirls?”
“The ancient Druids did not believe in an end, but rather that all ends are merely new beginnings,” said Mr. Armstrong. “The circling swirls represent the endless cycle of nature, an endless cycle of death and rebirth.”
“That’s interesting,” said Savanna. “Why have both types of tapestries here, though? Aren’t they different themes?”
“It would seem as such to an outsider, yes,” said Mr. Armstrong. “Both the ancient Romans and the ancient Druids believed in sacrifice, though they practiced such sacrifice in different ways.”
That was an odd answer, or rather, it wasn’t an answer at all, and Michael could not help but point this out.
“That…doesn’t really answer her question,” he said.
“I used to be a professor of ancient cultures, Mr. Smith,” said their elderly host. “I moved here from the Isles some time ago, and when I did, I brought a very particular piece of history with me…two, in fact, and those two pieces can explain the duality of the tapestries.”
“Oh, really?” asked Savanna.
“Yes, Ms. Pearl,” said Mr. Armstrong. “In fact, all of you are invited to come see the pieces I had shipped in from overseas. Both are extremely rare and valuable. They are in the showroom of the Everwatch, and you will be the first people to see them outside of myself and my staff. Once you see what I’ve brought with me, you’ll understand the duality of the Roman and Druidic ‘themes’ upon the walls, and you will understand why this place is named ‘Everwatch.’”
“Oh, that sounds interesting,” said Savanna. “I’m kind of excited now.”
The old man gave her a short but sad smile, something off that did not quite match his supposed enthusiasm for ancient cultures.
Michael had to wonder what exactly was going on in the old host’s mind.
“The showroom should be ready by tomorrow morning,” said Mr. Armstrong. “I shall inform all of you when it is.”
Michael had to admit that his curiosity was piqued. There was something about this place that was not quite right, a puzzle with most of the pieces missing, and he wanted to know what the whole picture looked like.
Plus, he was paying a hundred and twenty a night for this outing, and though Savanna was good-hearted in that respect, Mr. Coal was ultimately correct about the state of this place. Michael was forking over extra cash he had not intended to, and if he was going to do that, something extra had better be in the works.
“Was there anything else you would like to know?” asked the old man.
This time it was Mr. Coal who spoke up. The gruff portly man nodded once toward the large stone fireplace in response.
“What are those urns up there on the fireplace?” he asked. “They look like funeral urns.”
Michael turned to study the so-called “urns” that Mr. Coal had pointed out.
Upon the fireplace were indeed seven urns, all of them large urns of carved stone, tapered things with wide tops and narrow bases, all with the same circular carvings he had seen on the stone arch outside and on the green tapestries within the hotel, and their look was not so disturbing as much as the fact of the sheer number of them.
“That’s a lot of funeral urns,” said Michael.
“Yes, Mr. Smith, Mr. Coal,” frowned Mr. Armstrong. “I have had some…tragedy…in my life. Those urns contain the ashes of the ones I’ve lost.”
“I guess we shouldn’t ask, then,” said Savanna. “It’s terrible to lose a loved one. I can’t imagine losing that many.”
“Yes,” said Mr. Armstrong in a downcast tone. “Time sacrifices everything. That is simply nature at play.”
Michael lowered his head in thought. This place had “charm,” true, but it had something else, something that truly bothered him…and that something was “secrets.” Secrets had always eaten at him, and now the Everwatch’s closet skeletons were doing just that.
Michael sat down on the north couch, Lexi on his right, Savanna on her right. Raymond and Lance were on the west couch, Mr. Coal was on the east couch, and the Corbins were on the south couch. All eight of them had been ushered into the main hall right after breakfast, and now they were all waiting to be let into the showroom.
Lexi had come down the night before and had made friends with Savanna, so that was a thing now. Raymond and Lance and the Corbins had come down as well, and then all of them had been ushered into the dining room for a late dinner, that dinner consisting of Salisbury steak along with mashed potatoes, greens, and some wine, not bad for a hotel that wasn’t supposed to be in business.
Michael had also taken a cursory glance at the skeleton crew of a staff here. There were a couple of young white men that were servants, a couple of young white women that were maids, an old black couple that served as cooks, and a fat, balding white man that was the janitor/handyman.
They were a solemn lot, speaking next to nothing, and they were more like shadows in the background than anything else. Mr. Armstrong did all of the talking for them, and Michael found this unusual, but he chalked that up to being a British thing, or maybe not…He had no idea. The only thing he knew was that their presence fit well with the overall mood of this place…gloomy and mysterious.
Last night had filled Michael with restless sleep. That, and Raymond and Lance’s “activities” in the room next door had kept him awake for some time. He was a little tired because of their shenanigans, but breakfast had perked him up and had made him feel better. Eggs, grits, ham, and toast had put some energy back into his weary bones.
Now they were all out in the main hall once more, but this time they were awaiting the unveiling of the “showroom.” Michael wondered just exactly what it was they were going to see.
Mr. Armstrong walked in and nodded once toward the sealed east doors of the main hall, that pair of double doors next to the fireplace, the doors Michael had ogled upon first walking into the Everwatch.
“If you would follow me,” said the elderly host. “I shall show you all a grand piece of history within.”
The old host walked in a stiff gait up to the double doors, unlocked them with a large brass key, and then opened the doors inward, waving them all forward in visible eagerness.
Michael walked into the “showroom” along with Lexi, and he had not been expecting much, but he was ultimately shocked at what he found within. In fact, he sucked in his breath out of fascination and shook his head once in amazement.
The showroom was huge, and it spanned all the way up to the top of the Everwatch, five floors of a round room lined with books upon books upon wooden shelves, those shelves carved to fit the circular formation of the walls. Each floor had a wooden guardrail surrounding it to prevent lethal falls, and Michael could only assume that each floor had a locked door that led into this strange library.
And strange it was.
The floor in here was made of pieced-together slabs of stone that fit within a winding concentric swirl, each individual slab etched with that winding decoration upon its stark grey surface.
At the top of the room was a glass dome of interlocking windows set in dark metal that made the shape of a concentric swirl as well, the ceaseless rain pattering down upon the panes, a neat but expensive design that just looked cool to Michael.
This showroom was actually the tower they had all seen from outside.
This giant tower of a showroom/library was something he’d only seen out of videogames or movies, but this was nothing compared to what was on the ground floor. No, the ground floor of the showroom took the cake.
In the middle of the room was a huge stone head, that head settled directly center within the winding stone slabs, a carving of a bearded, bald white man, that huge head resting upon its left cheek, the eyes closed, the “skin” bedecked with more concentric, circling swirls like strange, carved tattoos.
This thing had to be at least twelve feet long, ten feet wide, and eight feet tall . Michael’s eyes widened upon viewing it for the first time.
But this was not the only sight to see.
There was the curious statue of a man facing the giant stone head, that statue facing east, placed just a few feet in front of the entrance doors, a bronze statue covered in the green of verdigris, and it was this statue that held Michael’s attention. He did not know why, but it called to him somehow, so he stood before it as the rest of the group gasped and made their way over to the giant head, the others abandoning him to ogle and walk around that monstrosity of carved stone.
The statue before him was of a Roman legionnaire or general; the man had no helmet, but he did wear the strips of laminated armor that Michael so often saw in various depictions of legionnaires. In the Roman soldier’s right hand was a long bronze torch with no flame, and though his left hand was empty, it was confidently placed upon his left hip as if nothing could shake the man. That sentiment and torch, coupled with the statue’s bluish-green appearance, kind of reminded Michael of the Statue of Liberty.
“Hey, Michael, you have to see this!” called out Savanna. “Get your butt over here!”
Michael turned to see the blonde running her right hand along the statue of the giant head.
Lexi gave her new friend a mock frown and shook her own head.
“He’s my boyfriend,” she said firmly. “Get your own. Only I get to order him around…Hey, Michael, you have to see this! Get your butt over here!”
Both women laughed over their little joke, but Michael just rolled his eyes. Now he had two obnoxious couples to put up with.
“I’ll be there in a bit,” he replied. “I’m just checking out this statue.”
“I had figured you for a man that would enjoy this piece of work, Mr. Smith,” said Mr. Armstrong.
Michael jumped a little at the man’s sudden appearance, but he quickly put himself in check. Armstrong was just quiet, and that’s all there was to it.
“Y…Yeah,” stammered Michael. “There’s something about it I like. I can’t put my finger on it.”
“It’s integrity, Mr. Smith,” replied the old host. “This unnamed general represents the ever-watchful eye of law and order.”
Michael did not exactly know what Armstrong had meant by that reference, but he hoped it was a compliment.
“Uh, huh,” he breathed.
Mr. Armstrong, however, clearly sensed Michael’s confusion over the matter.
“You have integrity, Mr. Smith,” nodded Mr. Armstrong. “You’ve helped the Corbins up and down the stairs whenever you’ve seen them struggling. You’ve remained true to your significant other in spite of some outside temptation, and you’ve paid more for the hotel stay than what it is worth, even though you had good reason not to, so I would say you are the most suitable for this honor.”
Michael had no idea what “honor” the old man was talking about, but what Armstrong had just said seemed a little too personal for a hotel host to acknowledge, especially when it came to Michael talking to Savanna without Lexi around.
“Ooookay,” said Michael as he raised one eyebrow. “That’s a little…That seems a little too personal for—”
“I meant no disrespect, Mr. Smith,” said the elderly host.
The old man reached up and gently pulled the bronze torch from the statue’s grip. The narrow and tapered torch slid from the clutching hand with a scraping sound, and Mr. Armstrong laid the bronze thing across his own open palms.
“This torch is lit every ten years for a very important ceremony,” explained the old man. “We choose one guest at the Everwatch to do so, and I would like that guest to be you…but only if you accept such a monumental duty.”
“Oh…” said Michael in stunned reply.
“You have integrity, Mr. Smith,” said the old man. “Only someone with integrity may be the torchbearer. True, the Corbins have their fair share of such, but they’re much too old to perform this duty. This is for…someone made of sterner stuff. I think, therefore, you are the right man for the job.”
Michael studied the unlit bluish-green torch laid across Armstrong’s palms. There was something about it that called to him, even more so than the statue itself. Still, something about all of this felt off, weird, though he could not figure it out no matter how he looked at this puzzle.
“What if I…What if I don’t want to be the torchbearer?” he asked. “‘Monumental’ sounds a little more important than anything I’m ready for.”
“Then I suppose the torch will not be lit this year,” sighed Mr. Armstrong. “We will just have to wait another ten.”
He reached up to put the torch back into the grip of the statue, but Michael stopped him.
“Wait!” he said suddenly.
The elderly host turned and gave him a questioning look.
“Yes, Mr. Smith?” he asked.
“Ten years?…That’s an awfully long time,” breathed Michael. “I…I guess…”
“Yes?” asked Armstrong again.
“I guess…” said Michael. “I guess I can do it.”
“Excellent,” said the old man. “Why don’t you carry this with you to your room. It’s quite heavy, so I would get used to the weight of it before the ceremony. That time is swiftly approaching.”
“Swiftly, huh?” asked Michael. “Huh…”
He reached down in absentminded thought to grasp the haft of the torch. The moment his fingers touched the cool metal, the moment his palm slid around that dusting of verdigris, he felt a strange shiver run through him, a weird ecstasy of power that made him squeeze his eyes shut just to ride it out.
He opened his eyes, took in a breath, and clutched the haft of the torch in both hands, holding it up out of newfound respect. Armstrong was right; it was quite heavy, but hefting it made him feel…powerful.
“I…I like this,” he said in strange wonder.
“Excellent,” smiled the old man.
Michael took a moment to eye the statue of the nameless Roman general, feeling the power this man must have felt, but then he noticed something peculiar.
“He kind of looks like you, doesn’t he?” he asked.
“That he does,” said Mr. Armstrong. “It’s one of the things that fascinates me about this piece. Perhaps he was a distant ancestor of mine, or perhaps he’s me…You never know. It’s a curious thing indeed.”
“Yes…” said Michael, but he wasn’t really listening.
He felt connected to the statue now, and maybe that was just because he had been selected to be the “torchbearer,” but he felt different…He felt like someone really important, and that was odd, because he had always figured himself to be dead average.
His wondering was broken by Lexi’s demanding voice.
“Michael, will you get over here!” called out his girlfriend.
“Yeah!” parroted Savanna. “Come give your girl some attention! If you don’t get over here, I’m going to start dating Lexi!”
The two women laughed again, but Michael only sighed. Now that Lexi had found a “road friend,” her behavior was almost as bad as Raymond and Lance’s.
“Coming!” he said quickly. “Excuse me, Mr. Armstrong.”
“Of course, sir,” said the elderly host.
Michael walked over to the giant stone head, but he stopped as he neared within a few feet of it. There was a palpable aura swathing it, something sinister yet strong, almost as powerful as the feeling he’d had when around the Roman statue. It was a wave, a vibe, a…an ambience of malevolence that he could feel so much as see.
The others surrounded the giant head, that stone head lying on its own bearded left cheek, and even the gruff portly man, Mr. Coal, seemed fascinated with it, but Michael stopped just a few feet short of coming within physical contact of it.
Lexi, Savanna, Raymond, Lance, Mr. Coal, and the Corbins all walked around the thing in a circle, each laying a single hand on it, each sliding their collective hands across it, and Michael was not sure if what they were doing was even a conscious decision on their part.
“You have to see this, Michael!” said Savanna with wide blue eyes. “This thing is amazing! It’s like nothing I’ve ever felt before!”
“It feels strange, but it’s like…it’s like it’s talking to you,” said Lexi. “It’s really cool. You have to try it.”
“Yeah, come touch this giant head where my hand is!” called out Lance.
“Lance!” warned Lexi as Savanna gave a short guffaw.
“What?” asked the young blond man.
Mr. Armstrong walked up next to Michael and gave a nod toward the statue.
“An equally fascinating piece,” said the old man.
He turned his attention toward Mr. Coal as the gruff man ran his right hand along the statue’s wide nose.
“Don’t you think so, Mr. Coal?” continued Mr. Armstrong. “Isn’t this worth a little extra money for your stay?”
The portly man with the mustache simply nodded in absent-minded reply, but Michael could tell that the gruff man’s attention was upon the statue and not on anything Mr. Armstrong had said.
“What’s the story behind this?” asked Raymond.
The young man ran his right hand over the carved stone of the bald pate of the giant head. His attention was also upon the statue, but his eyes were bright with wonder, a shine that beheld a curious hunger for the origins of said statue.
Michael was also curious about the stone head’s origins, but not for the same reasons.
“There are some things that should remain dormant,” replied Mr. Armstrong. “This is the likeness of an elder god worshipped so long ago that even his name has been forgotten.”
“Fascinating…” breathed Raymond.
“Yes,” said Mr. Armstrong. “This particular god was feared even by the ancient Druids. His sagely look belies his actual nature. He is a representation of the untamed power of wilderness, the full wrath of nature herself, though this creature is but a priest for such an uncontrollable force.”
“Uh, huh…” said Mr. Coal.
“The Druids contained this power through sacrifice,” said the elderly host. “They did so out of a need to survive and out of fear, because such a thirst, such a fire, can never be truly quenched…It was costly for the early Celts. Such a sacrifice demanded newborn blood, and that cost was paid…until a strange alliance was formed.”
“Is that so?” asked Savanna.
They were like robots to Michael, walking around in a mindless circle, a group of ants following a trail that led nowhere. It disturbed him on a deep level, but all he could do was grip the bronze torch within his hands. That torch gave him some sense of safety, though he did not know why.
“When the Romans came and overtook their land,” continued Armstrong, “the Celts did not call upon this sleeping god for help, nor did their druids, nor would they, and all written records of this god were wiped from history, save one by the Romans, and what was written was nothing more than a warning.”
“And what was that?” asked Michael.
He wanted to know because he needed to know. There was something wrong here; he could feel it. It raised his hackles and set his teeth on edge, though the others could not sense this like he could.
“That warning, roughly translated, was thus,” said Mr. Armstrong. “It stated: Such hatred of man and beast would make even lonely Diana weep, for it is boundless. The birds of song are silenced in its wake, the beasts of the field are no more, the oceans empty, the buzz of the bee stilled by the harsh growth of wild Terra…Come not here with open arms. Let sleeping giants lie.”
“Interesting…” said Lexi.
“Yes, it is unique,” said Mr. Armstrong. “These two pieces work in tandem, as it is clear the Romans encountered this long-forgotten god. They feared it as much as the Druids did, and so we have one singular instance of the two groups working together to contain such a thing, hence the statue of the ever-watchful Roman general.
“Each group sacrificed something so that a greater sacrifice would not be made. Yes, both groups employed sacrifice to achieve their goal, though each did so in different ways.”
“Michael, you have to see this,” said Lexi in a hushed voice.
But he did not want to go near it, much less touch it. He did not like the feel of the thing, and he was not a superstitious man, so for him to feel anything at all towards an inanimate object was strange in itself, and this raised all of his red flags.
But he did not have to worry about being cajoled into doing something he did not want to do.
Mr. Armstrong raised a small silver bell in his left hand and rang it, jingling the little bell in a swinging arc, producing a ring that was louder and clearer than it should have been.
The group around the statue awoke as if from a dream, and they released their hands from the giant stone head, only to wander off in different directions to study the various books upon the shelves of the showroom.
Michael, himself, clutched the bronze torch in his hands and would not let go of it. He did not want to put it down, because he felt that it was the one and only defense he had against…something, but he did not know what that something was, nor did he know why he needed to defend himself against it.
It was well past ten in the evening.
Michael was in his black tee and black sweatpants, something he liked to wear in lieu of pajamas, a “just-in-case-he-needed-to-go-out” style of dress. True, this little venture was a road trip in essence, but all of them had packed extra clothes just in case.
Dinner had been served around eight, a very late meal, but no one had complained. No, everyone had gone back to the showroom and had spent their time in there, though Michael had simply sat out in the main hall and read one of Lexi’s romances…He had not felt like going back in there with that giant stone head.
Now he was up in his room with Lexi, though his girlfriend was not being so hospitable at the moment. The young woman was in bed and in her underwear, in white panties and a white slip, reading the very same shlock that Michael had read for most of the day.
Lexi looked up at him from the pages of her book and shook her head in visible irritation.
“Will you put that thing down?” she asked. “You’ve been carrying it around all day long. What gives? Obsessed with playing with your stick?”
Michael stared down at the bronze torch in his hands. He had not even realized he was still holding it.
“I like it,” he said stupidly, because that was the only answer he could give.
“You and your phallic symbol,” said Lexi as she rolled her eyes. “That thing is gross anyway, Michael. You’ve got that green stuff all over your hands. You even have some on your face.”
“I do?” he asked.
“Yes, you mutton head,” sighed Lexi. “Go wash it off.”
She reached down and scratched her right leg in absent-minded fashion.
Michael could see long scratches of red along Lexi’s lower right leg, and upon closer inspection, she had scratches on her left leg as well. She had a growing rash on her normally perfect legs; the welts were a greenish red, and this caused him no small amount of concern.
“You’re one to talk,” he frowned. “You’re tearing up your legs, Lex.”
“I have some kind of a rash,” she said unhappily. “We’ll just have to stop and get a cream for it after we leave…Stop changing the subject. Go put that thing down and clean up. I don’t want you kissing me like that.”
“Fine,” he sighed.
He walked into the bathroom and flipped on the light with his left hand, mainly because he was still holding the torch with his right. He probably should have set the torch down somewhere, but he didn’t want to. He wanted to keep it close by, and try as he might, he could not set it down for one second. Even when he had been reading earlier in the day, he had set the torch across his lap. The weight of it did not seem to bother him anymore.
He shook his head and looked in the mirror. He did indeed have a long streak of bluish-green across his left cheek, his right in the reflection. He reached up to feel it, but then he noticed the green all over his right hand and fingers. He looked down to see that green across both hands, something that had most certainly gone unnoticed until now.
“Huh,” he said to himself.
There was no point in trying to rub off the stain on his cheek when both hands were also stained, so he grabbed a white towel from off a linen shelf near the tub and ran the unsullied cloth under the running water of the sink. He reached up to clean off the stain on his face, fully expecting the water to run green from loose verdigris, but no matter how many times he rubbed his cheek, the stain would not come off.
He looked down at the wet towel in his right hand and shook his head in mild disbelief. There wasn’t so much as a speck of green upon it.
“Huh,” he said again.
He dried his face with another towel, but he never let go of the green torch in his hands. That bronze torch was his safety blanket for the time being, and somehow, he knew he was going to feel sad once it was taken from him.
He sighed and walked back into the bedroom, but he was met with yet another surprise, this time a guest, and that guest was Savanna. The young blonde was sitting at the end of the bed at Lexi’s feet, and though Lexi was in her underwear, Savanna did not seem to mind.
“There he is, the green man,” said Savanna.
Michael frowned and shook his head.
“I’m going to be the torchbearer for the ceremony,” he said firmly, though he held some pride in that fact, and it showed in his voice.
“Listen to him,” smirked Lexi. “He sounds like a little kid.”
Both women laughed, and Michael could not help but feel the heat of embarrassment upon his face once more. The people in his life always did this to him, embarrassed him without seemingly any effort at all. Sometimes, he simply wished he had more control over them.
“Yeah, yeah, you harpies,” he frowned.
“Get going, Michael,” ordered Lexi. “Savanna and I are going to have some girl talk.”
“Yeah,” smiled the blonde. “Get thee hence. Go downstairs or something.”
“Ooookay,” said Michael cautiously.
“Shoo, shoo,” said Lexi with a wave of her hand. “We’re going to talk for a while. Go downstairs.”
“Yeah,” grinned Savanna. “Go play with your stick somewhere else.”
Both women laughed, but Michael only frowned.
“All right, all right,” he said unhappily. “I have to sleep sometime, though.”
“We’re on vacation,” said Lexi. “We can stay up as long as we want…Go relax or something.”
“Yeah,” said Savanna. “Go to the showroom. I could spend all day in there.”
The blonde scratched under her flannel shirt, and Michael could see greenish-red welts up and down both of the young woman’s arms.
“You’ve got a rash, too?” he asked.
“Oh…I guess,” said Savanna. “Huh…I just noticed that. How funny.”
Michael did not think there was anything “funny” about a rash, but he knew she had meant “how strange,” and that was something they could both agree on.
“You two need to get that looked at,” he said unhappily. “That’s not good.”
“Says the man with green hands and a green streak on his face,” frowned Lexi. “Go downstairs, Michael. Give us some space.”
This irked him, mainly because of her tone, and his face momentarily twisted with anger, but he did not get a chance to say anything about it.
“I’m not trying to be mean,” sighed Lexi. “I just wanted to talk to Savanna for a while.”
He calmed himself enough to give a civil reply, but he was still unhappy about all of this.
“Okay, but I’m your girlfriend, not her,” frowned Michael.
“You’re my ‘girlfriend’?” asked Lexi.
Michael shook his head at his own verbal error and silently cursed under his breath.
“Boyfriend!” he said angrily. “You know what I meant!”
But his hostility was only met with stark laughter from both women.
Of course, enough was enough. He waved them off and headed toward the door.
“Michael, it’s just a joke,” said Lexi. “Don’t get angry.”
“Yeah,” said Savanna. “It’s okay. We were just—”
“I’m going downstairs,” he said abruptly, and then he left.
He shut the door behind himself a little harder than he’d wanted to, not quite a slam, but still…Those two were just as obnoxious as Raymond and Lance when they were together, and he needed a break from that. True, going downstairs had been Lexi’s idea—more like a command—but it made him feel better to believe that he had made this decision on his own initiative.
He headed toward the stairs.
He stopped as a strange, musty smell assaulted his nostrils. It was the scent of decay, but more like the scent of dying foliage, not like a rotting carcass, and this confused him. He could smell that odor coming from the room right next to the staircase, the room the Corbins were staying in.
He walked up to the door to knock on it, but he thought better about it…He did not want to disturb the old couple. He figured the elderly deserved some rest in their old age.
He walked downstairs into the main hall, stopped in the center of the ring of couches, and sighed. Now that he was down here, there was nothing to do.
His eyes wandered toward the fireplace and toward its mantle, and then they lingered upon the row of etched stone urns resting quietly above the fire.
He walked over to the fireplace and inspected the urns. There was nothing particularly special about them—they were simply stone urns with winding swirls etched into their surfaces—but he could feel a sort of presence from them, an aura of sorts, a feeling as if they had a will of their own.
He was not superstitious, but this place had a way of bringing that nonsense out of him, and he did not know what to think about it.
He decided to shake it off, maybe sit down and relax.
“Huh,” he said briefly as he turned to walk back toward the couches.
It was then that something most unfortunate occurred, mainly because he had forgotten he was still holding the bronze torch in his right hand, that heavy torch covered in the bluish-green of verdigris, and the accident was his own fault, but in his defense, the torch was like an extension of his own body at this point.
The head of the torch swung upwards and knocked over the left-most urn from Michael’s point of view. The urn in question fell from the mantle and clattered across the wooden floor, leaving a trail of spilled ashes in its wake.
“Oh, crap!” he hissed.
He chased after the rolling urn and stopped it with his shoe, but doing so revealed the edge of something white within the top of it. He reached down and plucked an ash-coated picture from the urn, a small wallet-sized picture that he quickly dusted free of said funerary ash.
His eyes narrowed as he studied the fat balding white man within the photo, and then they widened as his brain made the connection between this photo and one of the staff, the janitor/slash handyman of the Everwatch. This photo was a dead ringer for the man.
“This must be his mom’s urn or something,” said Michael to himself in a hushed, nervous voice. “Oh, crap. He put his picture in with his relative’s ashes…I…I need to clean this up before somebody notices.”
There was a small ash pan and broom next to the fireplace, most likely for the fireplace ashes, so Michael grabbed those cleaning implements and got to work. He could not bear to let go of the bronze torch for some reason—he at least needed to be touching it—so he balanced it across his right shoe until he had restored as much of the ash to the spilled urn as possible.
He placed the picture back inside the urn and then returned the urn to its resting place upon the mantle. He then took some time to sweep the remaining stain of ashes from the floor towards the fireplace. He did not want any incriminating evidence.
He picked up his torch and stared at the other urns, but he was curious now, so he opened the lid of the next one on his immediate right and poked his fingers in it. He pulled out an ash-covered photo a second later, but then he stopped as he stared down at it, unsure of what it meant.
This one was of one of the maids of the Everwatch.
He had a strange anxiety growing inside him, something clawing to the surface of his mind…Something was not right here.
He replaced that picture, put the lid on the urn, and removed the lid on the next urn in line. He pulled a photo from that one, studied it, and then moved onto the next urn until he had seen every photo.
Each urn held a picture of one of the staff. There were seven staff members, and there were seven urns, and this seemed odd to him that they would put their pictures in a memorial urn.
“Must be some kind of a tradition here,” he said under his breath.
Still, it was the sense of presence about the urns that sank into him. He could feel someone watching him, and this disturbed him a little.
He turned to walk back toward the couches, this time taking care not to slam his torch into any of the urns, but he did not make it two feet before coming to a sudden halt.
The staff of the Everwatch was there in the main hall…all of them. Each one of the staff members was wearing a dark-brown cloak with the hood down to reveal their faces, all of them in a semicircle around the couches, each one staring in silent judgement at Michael.
He did not like all eyes on him, and he certainly didn’t like the implications of the staff dressed in…whatever it was they were dressed in.
“I…I…uhhh…was just looking at the urns here,” he stammered. “I didn’t mean anything by it.”
The staff all raised their hoods at the same time. The motion was intimidating, like something you would see out of some strange cult, and Michael was speechless at the sight of it.
“Uhhhh…” was all he could say.
They burst into flames after that, each a pyre of green flame that became a roaring pillar of that ghastly color, fires without heat, no sensation of warmth from their passing at all, and then they were gone, turning to piles of ash that blew away in some phantasmal wind.
Michael shook in place as he stared at the empty spaces where the staff had been.
“Am I on drugs?” he asked himself. “Was I drugged?…I must have been drugged.”
“Sacrifice, not drugs, Mr. Smith,” came the voice of Mr. Armstrong.
Michael jumped a little as he turned to his right to see the elderly man standing there, a mere five feet from him, somewhere the old man should not have been able to get to without Michael seeing him.
“What’s going on here?” asked Michael. “What have you done? Did you spike my food?”
“I’m afraid not, Mr. Smith,” said Mr. Armstrong. “What you have just witnessed was a final release, a signal for the beginning of the end, or perhaps a new beginning; I’m not entirely sure. I was in your place ten years ago, as was my research team, and as terrible and as heartbreaking as it was, I made the right decision…Such is the nature of sacrifice…I should have never brought that cursed idol here to the States…
“The ancient Druids took many newborns before the Romans came to their lands, all to satisfy that bloodthirsty, vengeful thing. Once the Romans realized what they had uncovered, the Celts took the elderly, the sick, and the infirm instead. It was a trade the two peoples had agreed upon, because some things must remain sleeping. Even proud and able conquerors such as the Romans understood this.
“It cannot be fought head on. It must be lured into a trap, Mr. Smith. It demands sacrifice, so you will give it such, but that bait is poisoned, a fire that will burn within. When the time is right, the flames of justice will work against it, because it will already be vulnerable to it…Remember that.
“Such sacrifice is always painful, and you will lose everything, but everything depends on you now, so you must take this role. You are the only one here with the integrity to do so.
“Nevertheless, my role in this is done…Now we will see the end or the beginning. Whichever depends on you…Speaking of such, it appears my time here at the Everwatch is finally at an end…It is truly up to you now.”
“Up to me?” asked Michael. “What’s up to me? What are you talking about?”
“Circles within circles, Mr. Smith,” said the old host. “All things must end in order for there to be any new beginnings. It is a basic premise of the universe, a foundation of our cosmos, and even forgotten gods must bow to this. It’s the reason nothing ever truly falls into darkness.”
“I have no idea what that means!” said Michael in exasperation.
The elderly host crusted over with green, first on his skin, then on his clothes, a fine cracking of flesh and cloth one would see in a painting withered by the sun. It caused Michael to back away in slight horror, backing away from whatever strange and otherworldly event was taking place right in front of him.
“You will, Mr. Smith,” said the old man through green-crusted lips. “You are the torchbearer…”
He crumbled away after that, a large pile of particle verdigris, and then he, too, blew away in a ghostly wind, what was left of him scattering away to disappear altogether.
Michael gripped the unlit bronze torch in his hands and shook his head a few times, a shaking of disbelief to dislodge whatever drug-induced madness had suddenly invaded his brain.
He staggered to the south couch and sat down, but he felt stiff and ungainly, a strange sensation overcoming him, like he was being drowned in concrete.
“What is going on?” he whispered to himself.
He did not get a chance to ruminate further over the matter.
There came a stumbling cry for help and the sound of someone falling or sliding down several steps a moment later.
Michael peered over the south couch to see Raymond clutching the stairway rail upon Michael’s right, the young man holding onto the rail with a desperate grip…There was clearly something wrong with him.
Raymond was at the bottom of the stairs, and as stiff as Michael felt in gait and motion, he hopped the back of the couch and was at his friend and coworker’s side in a heartbeat.
“What’s wrong!” he cried.
Upon closer inspection, Raymond did not look well at all. The young man was in his underwear, a pair of silk boxers dyed a stark grey, so his ravaged bare skin was more than visible. The left side of his body, from his shaved legs all the way up to his normally handsome face, was swollen and covered with dark-brown boils, as if he had been strangely burned or had suffered some kind of swift and terrible outbreak.
“Lance!” spat out Raymond. “Something wrong with Lance…Need help…”
“There’s something wrong with you!” cried Michael. “I’ve got to get you to a hospital!”
“N…No…” stammered Raymond. “We got sick…Something happened…Don’t have much time…I’m losing myself…It…It started out as a rash…”
He cried out and grit his teeth as the pustular skin on his left arm burst open to reveal a thick brown crust beneath it. Something was tearing out of him, replacing him, but Michael was too horrified to guess what.
“It was just a rash, but now…” gasped Raymond. “Now it’s changing us…I can feel him deep down…calling me…He’s calling me…”
“I…I…I’ve got to find a working phone,” stammered Michael in hushed horror. “None of our cells work.”
“No,” choked out Raymond. “You’ve got to…to help Lance…He is…is first…You have to…release him…You must start…with him…”
The young man coughed up blood, and Michael retreated up the stairs a couple of steps as the rash that had previously covered one side of Raymond’s body spread everywhere, covering Raymond’s other half as well.
Michael was startled by the sheer virality of the spreading infection he was witnessing, but he was also stunned by the protective sincerity in Raymond’s strange command along with the even stranger call to action he felt burning inside his own blood. He did not want to leave the clearly sick man’s side, but he could not help but follow the path he felt his soul had just been thrust upon.
He turned and ran up the stairs toward Raymond and Lance’s shared room, running at top speed out of heed from the calling fire burning in his heart and out of respect for Raymond’s conviction toward his own partner.
He ran past the Corbins’ closed door, but his nose was attacked by an even stronger scent of decaying foliage seeping from beneath that shut entryway. Nevertheless, he ignored that scent and continued past the old couple’s room and straight to Raymond and Lance’s temporary quarters. He was, however, still in for an odiferous shock.
He swung open the door, only to be assaulted by another strong scent, this time the strong scent of wet forest, something he had most definitely not been expecting.
He raised his left arm to cover his mouth in protection while he clutched the bronze torch in his right hand. His arms were all green now, a bluish-green that rode all the way up to the short sleeves of his black tee, but he was not concerned with that at the moment.
“Lance?” he asked as tried not to choke on the musty dampness that pervaded this small hotel room.
There were roots everywhere, roots of some tree growing along the walls of the little room, wet earth and dead foliage crunching beneath Michael’s feet. Whatever trappings and draperies had bedecked this room were long gone…It was like a miniature deciduous biome during rainy season in here now.
The bed in this room had vanished; now the floor was covered with nothing but earth, dead leaves, and roots. On the back wall was a cluster of bark and branches like that of a tree, but how such a thing had grown in here, Michael did not know…until it moved.
The “tree” before him stepped forth from the root wall on two branching legs, and its bark-covered arms reached forth toward Michael, a yearning and seeking of hostility toward Michael’s own face.
Michael stepped back out of reactive instinct and raised his left arm in some modicum of defense. The grasping, woody digits of the creature’s right hand gripped Michael’s left wrist, and he could feel a power there, a strength that belied its roughly man-sized form, but it could not damage him. It squeezed Michael’s wrist with a terrible might, yet Michael felt little more than a mild pain.
Nevertheless, this angered him.
“Let go, damn you!” he cried out.
He raised the bronze torch in his right hand, and that strange accoutrement to an even stranger piece of art lit ablaze at the top, the eternally-unlit torch lighting at last out of sheer paradox, lighting ablaze with a vivid green flame.
Michael brought down the torch upon the creature’s right shoulder, and the animated tree-thing went up in a green pyre, burning away in a pillar of emerald flame.
It staggered backwards as its branch-like arm came off at the shoulder, and Michael had to reach into the blazing green flame, torch still in hand, a half-grip between torch and the branch-like arm in question, in order to pull the burning limb off his own arm. The limb popped off of him with ease, but he felt the bark give way to the squishiness of flesh, and then he heard the screaming before the being in front of him actually died.
He could hear Lance’s screams as the young man burned away to ash within that verdant mess of fiery bark and flesh, and then Lance was nothing more than ash upon the hotel floor, nothing more than a grey pile of what had previously been a living human.
It shook Michael, the whole of it, and he could do nothing for a few stunned seconds as he stared down at the green-flickering remains beneath his shoes. The emerald flame had burned the young man away to nothing, but it had not damaged anything else within the room; it had not spread like literal wildfire.
Michael staggered backwards himself, but not from pain. He was in shock, so he reached for the doorknob and quickly exited his coworker and friend’s room.
He felt stiff in his joints, a side-effect, no doubt, from his immediate traumatic experience, but he was given no time to rest.
Raymond came at him from behind, the young man gripping him around the waist, and then Michael was flung forward into the wall next to the door he had just exited. He impacted the wall with a heavy thud, rattling the portraits upon it, but he felt little to no damage from that impact, so he turned and faced his new opponent.
“Raymond, no!” he yelled as the young man came at him again.
He knew with one look that Raymond was no longer in control of himself, either.
The young man was exactly like his partner now, all bark and branches, a walking tree-man, though the right half of Raymond’s upper face was still human. In that dark-brown eye was nothing more than sheer hatred and madness, and that hatred and madness drove Raymond forward through some ancient and insane vendetta.
Michael raised his lit torch as Raymond speared himself upon it.
The young man before him lit ablaze in a green pyre, and that unconverted dark-brown eye of Raymond’s widened in surprise just before it burned away as well. Raymond screamed in much the same manner as Lance had, and then he, too, was a pile of ash laced with flickering green flames.
But only one thing crossed Michael’s mind at that moment, only one person came to mind as he stared down at Raymond’s ashen remains.
“Lexi!” he gasped.
He needed to get to her. Whatever was going on, whatever infection was spreading amongst the guests, he needed to do something before she was taken from him as well. Both she and Savanna had the rash, so…
He tried to turn to run toward his own room, but he was ambushed yet again. Long tendrils of moss-covered vines wrapped around his waist and chest from behind, and then he was thrown bodily face first to the upper landing floor, just in front of the Corbins’ room.
He turned his head as his nose was assaulted yet again, assaulted by a terrible smell of decay, and the source of that awful smell originated from the old couple’s now open doorway.
“What the fu—!” he started to swear, but he could not finish that expletive.
More mossy vines wrapped around his waist, he was picked up in an effortless motion, and then he was unceremoniously tossed through the open doorway of the Corbins’ hotel room. He had not even had time to see what had accosted him.
He landed with a loud huff on top of the stinking remains of rotting leaves, dead branches, and wet earth, a convergence of foliage and mud that had putrefied into a mire of sorts.
The air was moist in here, a perpetual fog permeating everything, a sickly and unholy heaviness that tried to bear him down.
He tried to stand, but he was struck hard in the back. He plopped face down in the mire, and then he was picked up by his black tee, but his shirt simply ripped off of him in one clean tear, the flimsy fabric shredding apart as if it were paper.
Whatever had struck him was momentarily confused by the tearing of Michael’s shirt, so he stood while he still had the chance.
By some miracle of fate, his torch had not gone out. It had not been forced down into the earthy dampness beneath him, though it had flickered for a few seconds. Nevertheless, that weapon had worked before, and he knew it would work again.
He quickly turned to face the slick, mucus-covered form of the great mushroom with arms that had attacked him. He did not know which of the Corbins this particular creature had been, but at the moment, he did not care.
A thick, ivory-white arm swung toward him, but Michael danced backwards to avoid it. He saw the other Corbin coming at him from his left, a larger and darker shade of brown and white than the original, both mushroom people advancing upon him in a hostile shuffling through muck and mire.
They had no faces. They were simply stalks of fungus now, the wide brims of their tops dark-brown in color and slick with whatever clear slime exuded from them. Where their necks and faces had been were now frills, those alabaster, fleshy frills moving slightly as if pushed by an invisible wind, and the once old couple sprayed heavy spores from those frills, the spores’ toxin filling the air around Michael in a noxious cloud.
Michael covered his mouth and nose with his left arm as he raised his torch in defense. The air lit up around him in a fireball as the spores set ablaze, but he did not feel that green heat, nor would he. He knew now he was immune to his own fire, though he did not know how.
He lowered his torch toward the shuffling terrors before him and willed his flame to extend. He could feel he could do this, push his brazen will forward, so he did. It was more out of faith than anything else, faith in something older and more powerful than him, but that was all he needed. He needed to lay down the law, the order which bound civilization together, the creed that burned away the chaos inherent in the savage growth of the wild.
The emerald torch he clutched so desperately within his right hand turned upon the Corbins in a stream of viridescent death, a supernatural flamethrower that caught the both of them in its raging wake.
The old couple did not so much as cry out as they burned away, both of them popping and fizzing within the stream of emerald flame. Their charred remains melted into flaming goop mere seconds later, and then they, too, returned to the earth, returning to the muck beneath them.
Michael stared down at his naked body. What remained of his clothes had burned away in the fireball that had ensued from lighting the spore cloud, so now he was without everything, even his modesty. His shoes had slipped from his feet within the muck beneath him, so he did not even have that to count on. He just had himself and his torch, and that would have to do.
Being suddenly nude did not surprise him. It was the fact that he was all green now, a bluish-green of verdigris, that surprised him, but he had no time to worry about that. Green or not, he had to get to his own room and to Lexi. He knew now that she and Savanna were also infected, and he did not know if he could save them, but he had to try. If he could not save them…
No. There had to be something he could do.
He steadied himself as he walked out of the pit that had been the Corbins’ room. He was ready for ambush now, ready for whatever had attacked him and thrown him in here in the first place.
The first of the tendrils came at him from directly in front of his face, but he was quick to slash a green line of flame with his torch, and that moss-covered vine went up in a flash.
He turned to see the shambling mound of moss and vines coming at him. The tendril he had lit up fell to the floor in a withered blackening as more vines came at him from the amorphous blob that was trying to wrap him up again.
Michael slashed tendril after tendril, vine after vine, but they only detached from the mound as they lit ablaze, the appendages burning to nothing as the creature grew more and more of its own weird natural weaponry to attack him.
“Enough!” yelled Michael.
He lowered his torch and willed his law forward once more.
The torch he gripped in both hands now blazed forward in that devastating stream of viridescent flame. The shambling mound of vegetation blocking his path lit up all at once, all of it, every tendril and mossy piece of its obstructing blob, a green bonfire that burned nothing else around it.
He heard Mr. Coal’s frantic screams as the man’s fiery figure wrapped in emerald flame staggered out of the bonfire, that figure flailing only to pitch over the railing and fall to the first floor below.
Michael stared over the railing at the flickering ashes spread across the wood floor at ground level. He slowly shook his head in disgust at the sight, disgust that he had to do this at all, disgust that he had to execute people that had never done anything to him, had never harmed him in any way.
He felt stiffer now. It was becoming more difficult to move.
He looked down and realized that he was no longer naked. Around his waist, covering his lower parts, was half of the segmented armor of the Roman general he had been so fascinated with. He knew at that moment that he was becoming like that ancient and priceless statue, but this new development did not matter. Whatever was going on here, whatever madness had descended upon this wretched place, had to come to an end.
He made his way past Raymond and Lance’s room, intent on getting to his own. He hustled up to his own room’s closed door, turned the handle, and walked in.
The room was full of vines and leaves now, vines and leaves and blooming pink and red flowers covering everything, the heady musk of those vines and the sweet scent of those blooming flowers permeating everything, the empty space aglow with small specks of luminescent pollen that drifted within Michael’s vision. The bed was gone, the room empty save for the wild growth and its two inhabitants.
They were in there, Lexi and Savanna, but they were…no longer human. He was too late, but if even he hadn’t been, he had no idea what he would have done.
Both women were nude from their tops down to their waists, but their bottom halves were open blossoms of great and colorful flowers, the petals red upon Lexi and pink upon Savanna. The young and beautiful women were all green now, their skin a distinct stem green, their hair gone and replaced by delicate leaves and flowers. They were indeed beautiful in an alien way, but the sight of that beauty broke Michael’s heart in an instant and nearly killed his resolve right then.
“Michael!” cried both women at once.
He sucked in his breath at the sound of their melodic voices and the warmth of their earnest smiles. He wanted to cry; that emotion of grief was within him, but for some reason, he could not…He just physically could not.
“Michael, come to us!” called out Lexi. “Everything is so much better now! Isn’t this wonderful? We’re so beautiful now! This is amazing! Come join us! You can have us both!”
Both young women reached out with open arms, a gesture begging for him to step forward into their wanton embraces. He loved Lexi, and he had to admit that he was attracted to Savanna, so he obliged them, though he knew it was a bad idea to do so.
He lowered his torch, walked into Lexi’s open arms, and stared down at her beautiful face as she smiled back up at him.
“I love you, Michael,” she said, her voice a haunting bell ringing within his stiffening green ears. “Give me your love. Give me all of you. I want you inside of me. Become one with me.”
He bent down to kiss her, and their lips met for a few brief seconds, his stiff verdigris lines upon her soft and yielding red ones, her bare chest against his, their arms around each other in strange passion.
This was not meant to last, however.
Her gorgeous verdant face split down the middle to reveal a massive maw of fleshy interior and sliming tendrils intent on swallowing him whole. She wrapped her new “mouth” around his head and shoulders, the caustic digestive juices sizzling into him, but his skin was turning into bronze, so this was only a mild tingle to him, a discomfort and nothing more.
He could have allowed her to devour him, to take him all in, but this would have accomplished nothing. She would have died anyway in terrible immolation from the inside out, and to do such a thing was not within his nature. He would rather she die facing him.
She pulled off of him as her face closed shut, closing to reveal its original human beauty, that very human face revealing an expression of both surprise and horror. Acidic steam sizzled up from Michael’s blueish-green head in puffs of caustic flow to mirror that expression; her eyes were wide with realized betrayal, the same betrayal he knew was burning within his own.
His torch had gone through her solar plexus and out her back, the green flame burning brightly as she burned to ash within his arms.
He stared down at his open, ash-covered arms and leveled torch and shed a single tear from his right eye. That was all he could shed anymore from those rapidly bronzing orbs, but that was more than enough to display his intense grief at that moment.
“You killed her…” said Savanna in audible shock.
He looked up at the once-blonde beauty but said nothing.
“You killed Lexi, Michael,” said the young woman.
She shuffled toward him in a slow and deliberate fashion, strange white roots beneath her belled and petaled lower half pulling her forward.
“Stay back, Savanna,” warned Michael. “I don’t want to hurt you.”
The young woman’s face crumpled in despair as she continued to pull herself forward.
“You have to, Michael,” she said sadly. “It’s the only way.”
“No, don’t do this,” he replied. “Don’t be stupid!”
She opened up her arms and beckoned him into her embrace.
“I could have loved you,” she said in a wavering tone. “You could have loved me. We could have been together.”
“I know,” he frowned. “I know that…That’s why you can’t do this…Don’t make me do this…”
She continued forward, her arms wide, her bare green chest heaving as she wept.
He held his torch midlevel and shook his head no.
“Stay back!” he warned.
“He’s calling me,” said the once-blonde. “I have to do this while I’m still me…You have to stop him, Michael. You have to put him back to sleep. That’s why you have to do this…Show me you have some love for me, Michael. Release me, and put him back to sleep.”
There was nothing he could say. Michael could only stand in place as Savanna continued her deliberate advance, her arms open, her strange beauty striking at his very soul.
She turned into a pyre of bluish-green flame as she impaled herself upon his torch, the verdigris flame spearing straight through her midriff, her beautiful face twisting in pain for a brief second before it was engulfed as well.
“Thank you…” he heard her say, and then she was also ash, a scattering of that grey dusting upon the verdant floor.
It did not take a doctoral degree for Michael to figure out the meaning behind Savanna’s last words.
He gripped his torch tightly and stiffly walked from his own room, the full set of his Roman armor now complete, a living statue of bronze and verdigris ready to combat a god that should never have existed in the first place.
He slowly made his way down the stairs and to the first floor.
It was time to end this. It was time to end this, and now he was mad, really and truly angry. There was no fear left in him, only vengeance and a need to lay down the law, the creed of humanity.
There was another group waiting for him at the bottom of the stairs, a group of robed and hooded figures, each dressed in the ominous dark-brown robes Michael had seen once before.
They walked, single file, into the showroom, the double doors flung wide, their hooded figures marching in slow procession through that dreaded opening.
Michael steeled his resolve and followed the robed figures into the showroom.
They stood in a circle around the giant stone head, and Michael stood in his position upon the now empty pedestal, the statue of the Roman general gone, replaced by him. Somewhere in him, he felt this was the correct thing to do.
The others knew what they were doing; he sensed this. They were performing an important role in this ritual, and his role was as equally important, if not more so, for he was the weapon of justice that would seal the fate of this long-forgotten god that had somehow rooted its vile presence here within the States.
They were all in a circle now, Michael and the robed figures, the circle closed and completed with the number eight, that mystical number that represented infinity, eight sentinels to overlook a much-needed imprisonment, an imprisonment that deserved no parole, nor would it ever.
Michael could see their faces now, all of them, and they were all there, all seven, Raymond, Lance, the Corbins, Mr. Coal, Lexi, and Savanna. Each of them held an etched stone urn in their hands, and each of them held up that funerary urn in recognition of this uncanny shared ritual.
All of them lit aflame in a weird unity of conflagration, a group immolation of green flame that reduced them to nothing more than their stone and etched funeral urns upon the showroom’s own stone-slab floor. Those flames burned around the urns in a bizarre dance of virescent blazing, and then those same dancing flames turned into small globes of fire that were drawn into the giant head, that head absorbing the emerald flames through cold and bearded stone.
The massive stone head opened its eyes, two huge brown eyes burning with an inner-green light, those burning eyes staring with both malice and abject hatred at Michael, an animosity older than mankind could imagine. It opened its giant bearded mouth and gave forth a low moan, a call of inhumanity that spoke of a verdant world long forgotten, an empty world meant to be long forgotten.
But Michael would not be shaken. No, he realized now that he did have integrity, he did indeed have it, and now it was time to lay down that law, to show this thing why human civilization was the natural progression of the cosmic order.
“You have no place here,” said Michael through quickly stiffening and creaking lips. “This world is ours, and it always will be.”
He could barely move, but what he did have left in him was enough…It had to be.
The ground beneath him shook as the elder creature struggled to be set free; its freedom a mere precedence to the destruction of all men and beasts.
Michael lowered his torch and aimed with both hands, pushing his will forward, pushing forth the green flame that had already poisoned this ancient thing through its own demanded sacrifices. He felt the blaze pulse from his heart and out through the extension of himself that was his torch, that torch a symbol of law and order, that fire a symbol of justice, that viridescent hue a symbol of the innocents lost, of friends lost, of the woman he loved lost.
The verdigris flames washed over the enormous stone face as the elder god roared in one final defiance.
Michael adjusted his brown tie. His brown dress shoes were shined, his good brown suit was pressed and ready, including his brown inner vest, and his white dress shirt was buttoned up to the top. He took a moment to spread out the creases in his good brown slacks, and then he turned to address his staff.
“It’s almost time,” he said firmly. “I want to make sure everything is prepared.”
“We have a fully-stocked kitchen,” said Mrs. Corbin.
The old woman and her equally-elderly husband were dressed in aprons and short chef hats, their withered hands ready to cook and bake.
“Got my good recipes up and ready,” said Mr. Corbin.
“Good,” said Michael. “Carry on.”
He turned to address his handyman.
“Things are as good as they’re going to be for now,” said Mr. Coal.
The portly man with a thin mustache and square face placed a screwdriver back in his toolbelt and then adjusted the straps on his overalls.
“That will have to do,” replied Michael.
His attention swiveled toward his two servants. They were troublemakers, but they still knew their place. They knew how important their roles were, especially now when it was almost time.
“What’s the word?” asked Michael.
“It’s all good down here,” said Raymond.
The young man nodded once and then elbowed his inattentive partner in the ribs.
“Ready as we’ll ever be, I guess,” spoke up Lance. “I think we’re good, but I wonder if we’ll have any cuties show up. I’m hoping for ones with a gym membership. I love those firm butts.”
“Lance…” frowned Raymond. “Behave. You’re only supposed to like mine.”
Both young men were dressed in full servants’ outfits of black suit jackets and slacks, that black attire completed by white dress shirts, and Michael had to admit that they looked good in those clothes, but they were still the same two obnoxious friends he’d always known. Even this bizarre situation had not changed that.
Still, he needed to lay down the rules one more time, just in case.
“No talking to the guests unless asked a direct question,” frowned Michael. “Even then, don’t embellish. We can’t have them leaving early…Seriously. You know the rules.”
“Yeah, yeah, ‘Master,’” said Lance with a roll of his eyes. “We all skip to your rope now. While we’re at it, Mikey, would you like me to suck your—”
“Lance!” warned Lexi.
“Oh, right,” sighed Lance. “That’s your job.”
“Lance…” growled Lexi.
Michael turned his attention to the woman he loved and the woman he could have loved. In truth, he loved them both, though his feelings toward Savanna were complicated.
Both Lexi and Savanna were fully dressed in their black-and-white maid outfits, the outfits lowcut and revealing to show off their natural beauty. Just looking upon them gave Michael a start; the pair of young ladies were a source of natural human art he had never expected to see in this new and strange life. They honestly took his breath away.
At any rate, he needed to address his girlfriend.
“It’s okay,” smiled Michael. “You don’t have to defend me.”
“Michael…” frowned Lexi.
“We’re all in this together,” he said. “Everyone here. I consider everyone here my friend, and…the Everwatch is as ready as it’s going to be.”
“It’s been ten years, Michael,” said Lexi with a worried frown. “None of us have aged. We’ve been stuck here for ten years without any visitors, too. We can’t leave, and it’s just been us, and none have us have aged a day…I’m scared. I’ve gotten used to this life…We’re only wearing these ridiculous outfits because we all want out, but I’m terrified of just that…What’s going to happen to us when…you know?”
Michael stepped forward and laid his hands on the young woman’s bare shoulders.
“I love you, so whatever’s going to happen, we’re going to be together,” he replied. “We’re leaving here together, too…It will all be fine; I just know it. I think everything’s going to be fine.”
“I sure hope so,” said Savanna. “I’m worried, too.”
Michael smiled at her and shook his head no.
“There’s nothing to worry about,” he said firmly. “All of us have gone through a lot. We all made the same sacrifice, so we’ll all be fine. Nothing bad’s going to happen to us. I can feel it. Like I said, I just know it.”
The young blonde smiled and looked thoughtful. Her blue eyes held a warmth he could not indulge, but she knew this. She’d known this for the last ten years. Nevertheless, this did not stop her from confessing her feelings one last time.
“I love you, Michael,” she said sadly. “Lexi knows that…and I know we can’t have a life together, but even so, I…I hope I meet someone like you when we leave this place. I want what you and Lexi have. I want to be with someone like you.”
Michael was truly touched by that honest confession, but he did not get a chance to reply. No, his other half spoke for him, and her earnest words might as well have passed through his own lips.
“You will,” said Lexi firmly. “You know I think of you as my sister now, and I’ll make sure my little sister gets her wish. We all love you, Savanna; you know that.”
But that heartfelt moment was interrupted by a loud snort from Lance.
“Oh, my God!” said the young blond man with a roll of his eyes. “If there is a Jesus somewhere, just let us leave already! I don’t even care where we go at this point. Reincarnate me as a poodle for all I care, because if you two keep up with the Hallmark moments, I’m going to die all over again.”
Michael gave a quiet chuckle over Lance’s unflattering comment, and the rest of the group followed suit.
Lexi smiled, and Michael smiled back at her, and then he turned to look outside the hotel windows. The rain had begun to fall outside, pattering drops at first, and then it came down in a deluge that rattled over their collective hearing.
“There it is, the storm,” said Mr. Coal in a gruff but quiet voice. “They’re going to come now.”
“Oh, goody,” said Lance. “Finally!”
“Yep,” said Michael with a sad smile. “I hate to say it, and I really hate to do this to complete strangers, but…it looks like our replacements are on their way.”
Verdant and Verdigris Copyright © 2023 bloodytwine.com Matthew L. Marlott