I lie in the hospital bed coming in and out of consciousness. I’m aware enough to catch the doctors and nurses repeating one word: infection. My side burns and throbs as it feels like poison is ripping through my veins. Whatever the creature did when it clawed me, it’s kicking my ass. I can occasionally see Gaby reading the book as she sits next to my bed, leg in a cast. Each time I drearily open my eyes she’s there. I try to reach out to her but my body does not cooperate.
My dreams have gotten increasingly restless. I find myself in a vast underground city. The angles are strange and it hurts when my eyes try and follow the lines of the cyclopean buildings. The walls of the ruins are slick with some kind of ooze that glows ever so gently, dimly lighting the entirety of the city. It stretches further than my eye can see.
Every so often something seems to move within the buildings, making scratching and skittering noises as though they are rats in the walls. Sometimes I have my .45, sometimes a sword, sometimes a torch. The only constant is that I’m carrying something and making my way towards what seems to be the middle of the huge complex.
I can feel the cold steel of the 1911, the leather braided grip of the sword, and the splintered wood of the torch.
This time in the dream though, things are different. I can feel that I’m being watched. The sound of something huge overhead, wings buffeting air downward, occasionally passes by. The torch burns brightly. Its flame casts a circle of familiar light about me, drowning out the alien blue glow from the slime coating every other surface. The empty noises of the chamber are replaced by the crackle of the burning wood and oiled rag.
Finally, I come to it. A large plaza that has to be several football fields in size. In the center is an obelisk made of black obsidian, standing about 15 feet tall. Below it sits a man on a simple park bench. The bench is the only other thing that I recognize from the waking world. Everything else is strange and wrong, but the park bench fills me with a longing to be able to just rest. I feel so tired.
I sit down next to the man, he looks normal enough and my sleeping brain doesn’t think anything of a stranger seemingly waiting for me in a dead, mysterious city. His suit is exquisitely tailored, and a long coat is draped on the bench behind him. As soon as the light catches his features however, they turn to shadow. All guise of normalcy is dropped and I realize that I’m sitting on a slimy stone slab.
The shadow man asks me a question. “Have you figured it out yet?”
“Figured what out?”
“What can save you,” he says. “You are being followed by the Formless. It will take many shapes to try and catch you, but it will never be able to hold a form for long. Look for people with a strange twist, or with limbs too long for their bodies.”
“What about the Bandersnatches? Or those things in the tunnel? Why are they after me?”
He laughs, a dark chuckle that sounds as though it hasn’t been heard in centuries.
“The Ghouls will no longer bother you, now that you’re off their hunting grounds. The Bandersnatches are sent by the same beings that sent the Formless. Be wary.”
“Why are they after me?” I ask.
“They are after you not because of who you are, but what you know. You are not special, but you have dabbled in area’s of the universe that were intentionally hidden from man. Occasionally things will break through, but you are supposed to ignore them. Every attack becomes a bear mauling, every collision a hit with a deer, every murder a robbery gone wrong. It is in your nature to look the other way.”
“What about Gaby, is she in trouble now too?” I ask. It terrifies me that me telling her of what I’ve seen is enough to get her completely embroiled in this.
“Yes, she is. Her time to face the darkness will come soon enough, as yours has. Keep your torch lit my friend,” he says.
“It’s fire isn’t it? Fire can save me?” I say. The words slide from my mouth as though I am saying them for the first time.
“That may be. You need to find that out for yourself, but I will say that you are correct about you assumption in regards to your condition.” The words are drawn out. He sounds like he’s trying to tell me things without giving too much away. His voice becomes careful and measured.
“Medicine will not save you. You must burn away the infection. That is the only way to save yourself,” he says and stands up.
I do not ask who he is, for I know he will not tell me. He walks out of the glow and looks human again. Placing the long coat over the neatly tailored suit, he turns to me. “Until we meet again.”
The sound of his clicking heels on the stone slabs begins to bring me back, and I can see the cold, fluorescent lighting of my hospital room once more.
Gaby jumps and drops her book as I raise my hand towards her. I gag up the feeding tube and she reaches the button to call the nurse. I manage to creak out a no before she hits the button.
“My jacket,” I whisper, sounding like a mummy from a horror movie.
“Jesus Evans, are you okay? You’ve been fighting an infection for a week now. They say it’s some kind of super bug,” Gaby says, opening my bag of personal effects.
“They cut your jacket off you but kept your stuff, what do you want? Your notebook?” she asks.
I shake my head. “Lighter.”
“Okay,” she hands me the well-worn Zippo reluctantly.
“Lift my shirt,” I ask. She complies and reveals a strange blue pattern. I could swear it was the same color and glowed with the same intensity as the slime coating the strange monoliths, its lighting burned away by the harsh hospital lighting. The pattern seems to follow some of my circulatory system, but also makes strange glyphs appear on my flesh.
I strike the Zippo and before Gaby can stop me, jam the lighter into my side. I scream as the lighter burns my skin, but my pain turns to horror as the flame catches on the blue lines, seemingly burning them away underneath my skin. It burns slowly, like the fuse on a stick of dynamite, and the pain once again plunges me into darkness.
As I wake once more, I realize someone is shining a light in my eyes.
“Well Mr. Evans, it looks like you’re back with us,” the doctor says. Gaby is sitting next to him, smiling.
“Gabrielle said that you woke up about a week ago, and it seems your condition has taken a turn for the better.”
I can see that my side is bandaged, and when I move I can feel the tightness of the burn wound. My body shrieks as I try and sit up.
“We’re going to keep you for another day or two for observation, and then release you into the care of Gabrielle if that’s okay.”
I nod. The doctor pokes and prods a bit more, and as soon as he leaves I fall asleep, my dreams being much more restful.
Both Gaby and I are wheeled out of the hospital and get a taxi. We have decided to stay at her place while her leg heals and my immune system comes back from the abyss. I stand and weakly help Gaby on to her crutches. We climb in to the taxi, and as we drive away my hand finds hers and she gives it a squeeze. We don’t let go until we get home.