The hike, p.19
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       The Hike, p.19

           Drew Magary
 
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“Peter. Did we leave Peter at the castle?”

  “I believe so, yes.”

  Ben stomped on the brakes hard, nearly driving poor Cisco’s head into the windshield. There they sat, in the center of the desert, the engine growling, eager to resume its work.

  “Are you all right?” Cisco asked.

  No. No, he wasn’t. He knew every facet of the rock by now. It had become Peter. Ben began to hyperventilate. Cisco gently placed a hand on his shoulder.

  “We cannot go back for it, my friend.”

  “I know.” Ben began to choke and wheeze on his tears, the kind of crying seizure you have when the tears come too fast. He felt hormonal. Unstable. “I didn’t even say good-bye. . . .”

  “You will see your real son soon. It is destiny.”

  Ben put his hand to his mouth and let the tears fall openly. “I’m okay. I just needed a moment.”

  “I understand.”

  Done with his crying jag, Ben gripped the gearshift hard enough to tear it clean off. Then he snorted like a bull and gunned the engine once more, throwing Cisco back into his seat.

  They drove for hours. Ben could have driven forever. The sky was shifting from black to dark blue, the dawn before the dawn. The sandy path soon gave way to gravel, and then at long last, asphalt. Smooth, humming black asphalt. He hadn’t seen asphalt in ages. He began crying again as the pickup tore across the highway. Street lamps appeared. Cacti. Shrubs. He saw a coyote stalking beside the highway and could barely contain his glee. Cisco pointed at the mangy animal.

  “What is that?” he asked.

  “Life.”

  Ben’s capillaries opened wide at the sight of it all, sending nutrients and oxygen to the formerly dormant parts of his anatomy. Through the windshield he watched the desert sands turn from red to light brown. In the distance, he saw the path open to a convenience store on the side of the road with a working gas pump. The lights were on under the pump shelter. The truck needed gas, so they pulled in. Cisco stepped out of the truck, gazing at the store in wonder. The doors were padlocked shut and a CLOSED sign hung in the window. Ben jammed the pump into the truck (it pumped gas for free, without any request for payment), and then began to load up the bed with bags of salt, sand, antifreeze, and motor oil. He had memorized Dr. Abigail Blackwell’s Gallery of the Curiously Undead from cover to cover before the Smokes burned his tent down. There were things they were going to need.

  No one was inside the store, and the lights were off in the mini-market. Cisco walked up to the window on the left-hand side and stared at the aisles, all lined with chips and snacks and big fat coffee urns and old hot dogs on steaming rollers and packaged Danishes.

  “My friend, how do we . . .”

  Ben hurled a sandbag into the window on the right-hand side and the glass exploded.

  “Oh.”

  “That felt amazing,” Ben said. “You wanna smash the other one?”

  “No.”

  Ben stepped through the display and motioned to Cisco.

  “Open your bag.”

  Cisco took out his little leather satchel and they looted the store: ready-made sandwiches, rope, winter gloves, lighters and lighter fluid, cigarettes (for Cisco), individually wrapped pies, energy drinks, candy bars with enough sugar to kill a diabetic. Cisco took great interest in the cheap beaded bracelets on a display rack. He emptied them all into the bag.

  “What’s with the bracelets?” Ben asked.

  “Natives will trade for them.”

  Ben shrugged. On the opposite display rack hung a bunch of tiny stuffed animals on key chains, including a fox. Ben grabbed three of them, even though he knew he wouldn’t be able to keep them for very long.

  “This place is extraordinary,” Cisco said.

  “That it is. Everything you need. Now let’s get going.”

  Back to the truck they went. Cisco ate his first tortilla chip. And then he ate forty more.

  “These are very good,” he told Ben.

  “More where that came from.”

  No other vehicles crossed their path. No other signs of human life—or unlife—were anywhere to be seen. Soon, a single glass building with mirrored windows came into view. It was sitting in the dead center of the highway: the end of the road. The raw sunlight was now breaking through, and they could see the reflection of their own truck barreling toward the building through its shiny façade, all blazing chrome and hot smoke.

  They skidded to a stop outside the double glass doors at the front of the building. If the Smokes could only see darkness while buried in the sand, maybe Voris wouldn’t know that daylight had arrived. Cisco got out and stared up at the edifice in awe. He knelt on the ground and began to pray.

  “Heavenly Father, Dios mio, thank you for this. . . .”

  “NO TIME!”

  Ben jerked Cisco up and dragged him toward the mirrored double doors. They wouldn’t open. Off to the side, there was a keypad with an inscription above it.

  0, 1, 8, 11, 88 . . .

  “It’s a sequence,” Ben said. “Cisco, you any good at math?”

  “Mathematics are the language of the devil.”

  “You know, normally I’d disagree with you. But considering who put this keypad here, I’ll roll with it.” He stared at the sequence. It seemed simple enough. Ones and eights, right?

  He punched in “111” and nothing happened.

  “Is it a puzzle of some kind?” Cisco asked.

  “Yeah. The next number in the pattern will open the . . .”

  Ben shuddered as Cisco hurled a sandbag at the double doors. The bag bounced right off the glass and smacked down hard on the pavement, breaking open and spilling coarse sand all over the concrete. He glared at Cisco.

  “What? It worked for you back at the food castle!”

  “That’s true,” Ben said. He stared at the inscription again.

  0, 1, 8, 11, 88 . . .

  Shapes. They were shapes, not numbers. All symmetrical. The numbers themselves were irrelevant. Only the shape of them mattered. Which meant the next number was . . .

  “101.”

  Ben punched it into the keypad and the double doors parted. The two men stepped into a medieval stone chamber and the doors sealed shut behind them. They would not open again. The building was the precise opposite of Voris’s hotel: modern on the outside, primitive on the inside. It was cool and musty in here, the only light provided by the torches lining the wall. There was a great stone arch at the far end of the lobby. Standing under it was the old, doll-like clerk from the hotel. He wore a crisp, pin-striped suit. He gave both men a crooked half smile before advancing. This was not a hotel. He was not there to serve them. The clerk broke into a run.

  “Cisco!”

  The explorer unsheathed his sword, waited a beat, and chopped the clerk’s head clean off with a single, gorgeous flourish. The clerk grew a new head almost instantly. It sprouted from his neck in a fleshy blob and then took its original form, pancake makeup and wispy hair and all. Meanwhile, the dismembered first head sprouted eight legs, each coated in thick black armor, with ghastly cilia running all along them. The regenerated clerk and the Head Spider advanced.

  “I take the spider,” Cisco said, throwing his bag to Ben. Ben dug into the satchel and found a canister of lighter fluid. The clerk ran at Ben and opened his mouth wide, far wider than his face seemed able to accommodate. There were fangs. The clerk’s pupils began to glow. Ben futzed with the plastic seal on the can as he dashed away from the Regenerator. It was a hell of a time to be wrestling with retail packaging.

  The clerk wouldn’t relent, chasing him toward the wall and cornering him. He grabbed Ben’s shirt and tore his sleeve away as Ben finally pulled off the seal and aimed the fluid canister right at the creepy old man, hosing him down like a sunflower. The torches on the wall were within reach. He wrested one o
ff its moorings and dipped the flame into the fluid trail, then dove out of the way. A hot orange blaze engulfed the clerk. His hair singed off and his skin melted down like hot wax.

  Meanwhile, Cisco held the Head Spider down with his boot and chopped off all eight legs in compact, graceful strokes. He could paint a masterwork with that sword. Ben ran over with the fluid and doused every limb, along with the head. Then, the flame. Both men retreated to the farthest wall as the undead bodies turned to lifeless ash.

  “I am glad we killed this man,” Cisco said. “He looked like an Englishman.”

  They were both weak. So, so weak. They were running out of second winds to catch. The c-store junk food and the snacks in the car couldn’t restore all their lost muscle tissue and fat in a single night. They needed to find Voris and kill him now, and then they could finally rest.

  Past the stone archway they found themselves winding up a torchlit ramp, each man shaking with dread, ready to kill a Skinless or a Smoke or a Mouth Demon or anything else that could be lurking around the seemingly eternal bend. After countless loops around on the way up, they entered a stone hallway that progressed for hundreds of yards, well outside of the standard physical limits of the supposedly normal-looking office building they first entered. After a while, the hallway opened up to a room that was fifty yards wide, with a wall of flame towering across the center of it, offering no way to pass. The heat was volcanic; it came at both men in a powerful gust. In front of the wall of fire was a small idol, fashioned of pale white marble, with black wings and a pair of glowing white eyes. It was a statue of Voris. Directly in front of the statue was a padded prayer rail: the kind you’d find in any church pew. Scrawled in the musty floor was a single order:

  PRAY

  Ben started walking toward the prayer rail but Cisco held him back.

  “What?”

  “You cannot pray to this man,” Cisco said.

  “It’s how the fire goes down,” Ben said. “We don’t have to mean it.”

  “It is not a prayer if you do not mean it.”

  “There’s no choice, Cisco.”

  “I will not give this man my soul, no matter the cost. If I give myself to him, then I truly will burn.”

  “Hang on.”

  Ben took out the seed they had found in the glove compartment and smashed it on the floor. Nothing happened. He picked the seed back up and dug into Cisco’s bag, throwing items from the convenience store at the flames to make them go down: more sand, more salt, a box of candy bars. Nothing worked.

  “We have to pray,” he told Cisco.

  “I will pray,” said the explorer. “But not to him.”

  Cisco turned his back on the statue of Voris and dropped to a knee. He waved to Ben to join him.

  “You will pray with me,” the explorer said. “Do not face the idol.”

  Ben did as instructed. The two men held hands as the wall of fire burned on.

  “Close your eyes.”

  “Okay,” said Ben.

  “Repeat after me: When thou passest through the waters, I will be with thee.”

  “When thou passest through the waters, I will be with thee.”

  “And through the rivers, they shall not overflow thee.”

  “And through the rivers, they shall not overflow thee.”

  Cisco began yelling his prayer. “When thou walkest through the fire, thou shalt not be burned; neither shall the flame kindle upon thee. SAY IT LOUD, FOR GOD TO HEAR.”

  “When thou walkest through the fire, thou shalt not be burned; neither shall the flame kindle upon thee.”

  “Now open your eyes and stand up.”

  Ben stood and the two men faced the wall of fire. The explorer turned to Ben and cradled his face in his hands.

  “God is with us now,” Cisco said.

  “Cisco, don’t.”

  But it was too late. Cisco walked directly into the wall of flame and disappeared.

  “Cisco? Cisco?!”

  There was no answer.

  “CISCO?!”

  Still nothing.

  Now a half dozen Jellies emerged in the hallway behind him—blobs of living mucus that rose up out of the floor as if pulled. All as formless as death itself. They crept toward Ben and their shiny, gelatinous bodies oozed a trail of milky slime onto the stones behind them. Ben could hear them slurping and sucking, eager to bury him alive inside them. Bereft of hot liquids, he needed faith in a hurry, before the Jellies could fill his mouth and leave his prayers forever unsaid.

  It is not a prayer if you do not mean it.

  He hadn’t meant it the first time. He was just saying the words because Cisco told him to. That wasn’t enough. He turned his back on the idol and dropped to one knee. In his mind, he saw magic seeds and living paths and the dreams of his luminous, alternative past. The Producer could be merciful. The Producer could be forgiving. Please don’t let me burn.

  The Jellies closed in, reaching for his foot.

  This time, he yelled out the whole prayer:

  “When thou passest through the waters, I will be with thee; and through the rivers, they shall not overflow thee. When thou walkest through the fire, thou shalt not be burned, neither shall the flame kindle upon thee.”

  Then he walked into the fire without hesitation. The surrounding flames brushed coolly against him, like a pleasant draft from an open kitchen window. He walked ten feet through the gauntlet before emerging on the other side of the wall, his flesh and hair unblemished. Cisco stood waiting for him on the other side, beaming.

  “I told you we should not pray to the idol,” he boasted.

  “Yeah, you were probably right about that.”

  They stood now in Voris’s crypt, a circular stone room with a grand sarcophagus resting atop a round pedestal in the center of the room. There was no sign of anyone else. It was just them and the coffin. Ben sighed at the sight of the lid. It looked extremely heavy.

  “You have the jar?” he asked Cisco.

  Cisco took the jar out of the bag, still aglow. The years hadn’t been kind to its contents. The stew was green with rot and marbled with fermenting, bacterial fur. They opened the corroded lid and discovered that the gold tooth had made the putrefied liquid stink even worse than usual. The stench was its own monster now, attacking both men and leaving them hacking and wheezing.

  Cisco set the open jar down on the floor and wiped his hand clean. Meanwhile, Ben tried kicking the lid of the sarcophagus loose. Cisco grabbed him.

  “What?” Ben said.

  “Might that disturb the person sleeping inside the coffin?”

  “Oh! Right, yeah.”

  Cisco placed the butt of his palms against the lid.

  “We open it this way,” he told Ben.

  Ben stood next to Cisco and pressed his own palms against it.

  “Do we pray?” he asked the explorer.

  “No. Praying is over. Now we push.”

  “One, two, three . . .”

  They slammed against the lid and it started to give way. It felt like pushing a bus uphill. Millimeter by millimeter, they watched in both elation and horror as the top slid open to reveal a resting Voris inside. The sallow skin. The folded black wings. The white, glowing eyes, now shut. The devil’s mouth was closed tight. Cisco held up the putrid stew jar.

  “How do we do this?” he asked.

  “His skin will burn you,” Ben said. “We need gloves and a knife.”

  Cisco dug into the bag and handed Ben a small knife they’d taken from the convenience store. Both men donned winter gloves.

  “I’ll open the mouth,” Ben said. “You drop the stew in.”

  “Yes.”

  Ben slipped the knife between Voris’s white lips and gave the knife a twist, revealing his blood-red gums and sharp, conical teeth. Cisco tipped the jar eve
r so slightly, letting the stew dribble down into the opening. They could see the potion burning its way through Voris’s gums as Cisco set the jar down beside the coffin.

  “How long do you think this takes to work?” Cisco asked.

  But Ben never got to answer, because Voris woke up and shot his deathly glowing pupils at both of them.

  “Keep your eyes closed and hold him down!” Ben screamed. He dropped the knife and clamped Voris’s mouth shut to let the poison go down his throat, like holding an alligator by its jaws. Cisco jumped on top of the sarcophagus and kept Voris’s wings fast to his body as he tried to burn them with his eyes. Cisco’s shirt rode up and his bare stomach came into contact with the devil himself, the skin burning into the explorer’s flesh as he screamed and cried out for God.

  Both men shut their eyes to avoid Voris’s gaze, praying they could hold on long enough to get him to swallow enough poison to just die. But Voris kicked Cisco off the coffin and spat the hot stew right into Ben’s face, causing him to fall to the ground and choke.

  Voris stood up in his resting place and spread his black wings. This would be easy for him now. He was awake. The poison was out of his mouth. He could kill the two men any way he pleased. They couldn’t even look at him without dying.

  “Cisco!” Ben cried. “THE SEED!”

  Forced against the wall with his eyes shut tight, Cisco reached into his bag as Voris swooped down and dug into Ben with his red-hot uncovered talons. Cisco found the seed and threw it across the room as Ben curled into a ball and prayed for a quick death.

  The seed grew. From its landing spot on the crypt floor, it sprouted thirty feet high, growing legs and arms and ruby-red lips and curly hair, a great burlap dress covering its form. Above the ruckus of Ben’s screams echoing off the walls, the two men heard a big, booming female voice cry out:

  “HA!”

  There was Fermona, towering over the three combatants, looking down at them as if she had come across a handful of rabbits playing in her backyard. Even Voris was paralyzed by the sight of her. He gazed at her with his glowing pupils but they couldn’t harm her in any way. Fermona plucked the winged devil up off the ground and studied him for a moment.

 
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