Chapter 20:

Into the Hearts of Darkness

By the Shores of Time

“Funny to find you here,” Alex grimaced, his voice devoid of his usual vigor.Bookmark here

A strange chill lingered when he chuckled. His outline barely showed through the dark corner’s thicket as Celeste kept her distance.Bookmark here

“No,” she shook her head. “You’re not here.”Bookmark here

“Am I not?” his bloodied face emerged with a smile widening in a twisted fashion. “I’m here in the flesh, just like yourself. You can’t keep running—”Bookmark here

“I’m not running from anything!” she raised her voice, her nails cutting into flesh.Bookmark here

Her blood dripped onto the grimy floor; the once-polished surface was indiscernible. His blue eyes pierced through the dull setting as he towered over her. She found herself pressed against the desk, seeing him shuffle toward her. She tried to withhold her distress, though her body quivered uncontrollably.Bookmark here

“Well,” he commented. “You seem like you don’t want me to be around.”Bookmark here

“F—fuck off,” she shoved against him weakly.Bookmark here

“That’s too bad. All I ever wanted was what was best for you, but you’re so ungrateful.”Bookmark here

“No, that was never it… You weren’t who you were when we first met. I saw that side of you—”Bookmark here

He slammed his fist next to her, collapsing one side of the desk, silencing her. She minimized herself, shuddering without looking him in the eye. She hoped he’d go away, but his repressed anger rung its familiarity.Bookmark here

“I did everything to protect you!” he yelled in her face.Bookmark here

“While hurting others?” she questioned in a subdued voice. “Is that your idea of love?”Bookmark here

“My idea?” he leaned away after revealing his talon-like fingers. “You’re questioning me? You’ve been selfish, hiding behind things when things didn’t go your way. Heh, Gabriel isn’t here to protect you, but if he was, I would’ve killed him right in front of you.”Bookmark here

“Are you really that petty?”Bookmark here

“No, I just know you’d come crawling back to me when it’s all over.”Bookmark here

“No—I wouldn’t.”Bookmark here

He couldn’t hold back his laughter as he took a few steps back. She winced to his maniacal expression, knowing he was getting under her skin.Bookmark here

“What’s so funny?” she asked.Bookmark here

“You’re down here by yourself… Alone in the dark with monsters. You can’t hide when they can see you.”Bookmark here

“No, I’m not alone. Because I’m doing this for the people I care about!”Bookmark here

“That’s rich, coming from someone that’s gotten people killed all for one—”Bookmark here

“It’s not like that!” she yelled, prompting his sudden anger.Bookmark here

He swung at her with enough strength to slam her through the door. She tumbled along the dull hallway floor, surrounded by broken wood. She heard the cocking of several guns as she slowly turned toward beams of light. Victoria signaled her men to stay put while cautiously stepping forward.Bookmark here

“Celeste?” the lieutenant called.Bookmark here

“Victoria,” her voice trembled, remaining still. “He’s in there.”Bookmark here

“Who?”Bookmark here

“Alex.”Bookmark here

When Victoria guided her light, she found an office largely intact. She gestured her soldiers to investigate, hearing nothing coming from them when they reappeared. The wary lieutenant looked upon the young woman as suspicion swelled.Bookmark here

“I swear, he was in there,” she panicked.Bookmark here

“And you’re going to tell me,” she kneeled over. “He threw you out the door?”Bookmark here

“There’s no reason for me to lie to you!”Bookmark here

“I don’t even know if you are who you say you are.”Bookmark here

“Vicky, we need to get out—”Bookmark here

“And go where? I’m sorry the last I checked everything is gone! This is all we have, everything we’ve managed to fight for.”Bookmark here

“But, it's not worth dying for.”Bookmark here

She received her glance, sensing doubt in her words.Bookmark here

“On your feet, you’re going to isolation for now,” she said plainly.Bookmark here

“You’re kidding m—” she spoke while cautiously getting up.Bookmark here

“Or a bullet to your head, we can check if you’re one of those things.”Bookmark here

Celeste complied while gun barrels guided her toward the room down the hall. The eastern entrance was shut and barricaded as the infected continuously slammed against it. The remnants of survivors were reduced to bouts of panic and shock under the little of light she discerned.Bookmark here

She was ushered in before they shut the door. As the draft blew, she averted her attention to the other end of the small office. A familiar figure lingered as she waffled forward. Her anxiety crept with the person’s troubled breathing. The foggy lighting outside revealed Ricardo’s pained expression.Bookmark here

“Cel,” he uttered, grunting as he sat up. “Guess they took you for one of those things too?”Bookmark here

“Ricardo, I—” she gasped, unable to look at him.Bookmark here

“You made it. Good.”Bookmark here

“But—” she stopped just short a few feet, glimpsing his broken arm. “How?”Bookmark here

“The second-floor railing. I tried to catch it on the way down and, well…”Bookmark here

He lifted his arm, letting it go as it dangled against the light. Celeste glimpsed it, redirecting her gaze toward Gabriel’s fair-weather friend. A smirk crawled along his face, attempting to make her feel more at ease.Bookmark here

“Why—Did you do it?” she asked upon meeting his weakened expression.Bookmark here

“I’ve never seen him so happy,” he replied. “There was probably a lot he didn’t bring up with you back then. He doesn’t bring up much at all.”Bookmark here

“For better or worse,” she nodded, subconsciously crossing her arms.Bookmark here

“That’s Gabriel for you. But he was never a bad person, regardless of what he’s said before. He’s done a lot since all of—This, happened. It wasn’t just for the people here, but for you.”Bookmark here

“He said—” her eyes teared.Bookmark here

“He did everything to push you away because the last person he wanted to hurt was you.”Bookmark here

“But, why would he do that? After everything we’ve been through?”Bookmark here

Her vision blurred as she broke down into her hands. She struggled to speak but found the swirl of emotions too much to speak coherently. Ricardo watched quietly, without ever changing his expression. Celeste slowly collected herself, feeling the sweat stinging in her reddened eyes.Bookmark here

“Gabriel,” he repeated with a nod. “I guess he thought it was the best way to let you move on.”Bookmark here

“Then,” she thought aloud with her eyes directed the grayish fog beyond the blinds. “He really is that selfish.”Bookmark here

She glimpsed him once more, seeing the weak shrugs of his broad shoulders.Bookmark here

“I think this is it,” he continued. “Those doors won’t hold. Those things will find their way through.”Bookmark here

“No,” she responded as her right eye turned into a faint purple.Bookmark here

Ricardo noted it, remaining silent upon seeing her determination. She walked toward the door, sighing before reaching the door handle. She realized he consigned to the cruel fate that awaited everyone. Celeste looked over her shoulder, seeing him gaze from the darkness.Bookmark here

“Wait,” he said. “Where are you going?”Bookmark here

“Ricardo,” a tired smile crept along her face. “Thank you for everything.”Bookmark here

Opening the door with ease, she entered another room resembling the cafeteria. The darkness spanned into an unforeseeable distance. She took a deep breath to ease her tension as she walked forward. The strange fleshy substance layered beneath the low-hanging fog. Her eyes strained to another figure as its footsteps splattered upon the squishy floor. A strange religious hum followed. She confirmed who it was, stopping to keep his appearance masked.Bookmark here

“Nathanial?” she evoked his name reluctantly. “Why are you here?”Bookmark here

“The same reason you are,” his smile came with an empty tone. “We’re all sifting through the darkness to find ourselves.”Bookmark here

When he became clearer, his shirtless, emaciated body was covered with symbols etched into his pale skin. His grizzled beard was longer than she remembered. His head of hair was reduced to but a few pathetic strands. But his eyes were still as piercing as ever, giving the impression of a deity looking into her soul.Bookmark here

“Your eye,” he spoke cryptically with a peculiar fixation. “Those are not yours.”Bookmark here

“What do you mean?” she asked, taking subtle steps back while he inched closer.Bookmark here

“I wasn’t just a priest, you know. Being a theologian, you study other religions. In fact, you can certainly develop an appreciation of the overlap between all of them. Imagine all these different cultures arriving at similar conclusions? Some were outliers, though.”Bookmark here

“What are you babbling about? What does this have to do with my eye?”Bookmark here

“Turn around and you’ll see,” he grinned.Bookmark here

Celeste reluctantly looked over her shoulder, finding a mirror hanging. Blood smidgen her expressionless face, her tears from earlier dried along her cheeks. It was perhaps the first time she had seen herself in the mirror as the face before her was unfamiliar. The lilac eye stood out against the darkness behind her. She leaned over to get a closer look at the ethereal beauty embedded in her.Bookmark here

“Some of the fringe cults,” the priest startled her when she saw him standing behind her. “Mentioned a single purple eye. They were often found in select women.”Bookmark here

“What—Does it mean?” she asked, keeping her eye on his reflection.Bookmark here

“It was typically tied to wisdom or some unseen power. Few, whoever, spoke of being able to access the heavens. Ethos was often brought up, but that is Latin for—”Bookmark here

“Ethics,” the word rolled off her tongue.Bookmark here

“The concept that questions religion is derivative of its own. One found within all of us: empathy, compassion, community… They’re all central to it.”Bookmark here

“What are you getting at?” she questioned as she swung around. “Huh?”Bookmark here

Nathanial vanished, as did the mirror behind her. Wincing in confusion, she looked toward the depths once more, recalling what he said. Though his strange tone left a lingering impression of what lay ahead, she recognized the truth laced within his message.Bookmark here

“Victoria wasn’t kidding,” she sighed. “He’s actually Rasputin.”Bookmark here

As she strained her eyes into the darkness, she took a step forward, stopping only after sensing something watching her. Brisk movement sped through the squishy grounds of the large room while she grew frightened by its incredible speed. The more she listened the more she realized how big the thing was that kept in the shadow. A twisted cry rang out, encircling her hearing as she tried to spot it. Gusts whipped beneath her feet, blowing her hair against the empty draft. Her body tensed upon hearing the sudden stomp of the creature. Celeste looked over her shoulder before it swung its massive malformed arms at her.Bookmark here

Her lilac eye appeared as a blip in the abyss before a blinding flash filled the room.

TBH, it was kinda nifty writing this. xD
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