Chapter XL: The Burning Time
Chapter XLI: Into the Dark
Chapter XLII: Lay Me Down to Die


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The scene at ASU was quiet—far too quiet.

Darlene directed them off of Apache and onto a road that led into the campus. The circular shape of Gradi Gammage Audotirum rose up on one side, the parking lot around the cake-like structure empty except for the odd car. The lights of the music building were off, leaving it looking abandoned. Even the dormitories themselves emanated a dead silent quality. The relaxed tension of the air itself caused Patrick to take his foot off the gas and coast along the small street, keeping the engine noise low as they crept up alongside the dorm Darlene indicated as hers.

“That’s Best and Irish,” she said. “I live in Best C, that’s right over there. We can get there through the courtyard. Why aren’t there any lights on? It’s Friday night, there should be a dozen wild parties…”

She reached for her buckle but Patrick raised his voice and pulled his gun from its holster.

“Everyone stay put,” he said, checking the gun. Vex’s magicked bullets didn’t look any different than ordinary rounds, but he knew that those in magazine and the one in the chamber would provide adequate firepower if he ran into anything.

“Dude, the cab is warded, your jeep isn’t.” Nathan unbuckled and started to open his door. Patrick stopped him with a look. “We’re just as safe in here as we are out there. I’m coming with you, the girls can stay.”

Patrick shook his head. “If I run into something between here and the entrance to the dorm,” he said, “I reckon, we might need to leave in a right hurry. You all being packed in might make that a lot quicker. That includes you.”

“I see your point.”

The girls crowded forward between the seats and watched Patrick as he tried his best to walk nonchalantly across the grass towards a gate midway between the two dorm buildings. Not a soul moved in the thickening atmosphere and darkening night. The lamps overhead buzzed, casting their angled light through the smoky air, across empty benches, and around closed entrance doors. As he passed between looming edifices into a brick canyon, something caught his eye. A chalk drawing scraped onto the surface of one of the walls.

A centipede.

He gave it a wide berth as he approached the gate that opened into a broad courtyard encircled by the buildings. The tan-brown metal of the gate rattled as he shook it, a key or a keycard was needed to open it. Inside the courtyard showed no signs of life either, although some second- and third-story windows had lights on. No movement within. Even with the total lack of evident life, Patrick felt as if eyes watched him from somewhere.

A slow scan of the area revealed nothing. Aside from the gate, there were multiple points of egress from the courtyard into the buildings and two more gates on the far side that appeared to open into another open area. Getting in, out, and back to the jeep wouldn’t be a problem—and if this exit ended up getting blocked, he figured they could still get out and circle back. Still, he really didn’t like having the centipede near the exit. That marked about when he noticed another one: drawn incongruously high up on one of the walls on the second story, larger than most and with multiple colors of chalk.

Patrick shook his head. There would be nothing for it. The bullets would have to do.

Nathan, Darlene, and Megan spilled out of the jeep when he motioned for them to come. They ran to him, unable to decide between trying to walk normally or half-crouched. Darlene looked the most natural out of all of them; it was her dorm after all. She used her key on the lock and the gate swing open with a rusty screech. Everyone winced, if anyone had thought stealth was needed, they just announced their presence to anything that might be listening.

Everyone froze. Only the quiet listened back.

“Where is everybody?” Megan asked.

“The radio did say the city is basically in evac mode,” Nathan said. “Maybe people have decided weekend parties aren’t worth their time.”

Darlene’s keys jingled in her hands. “My room is on the third floor. We can get into Best C through this way, follow me.”

“Calm down, Rambo,” Megan said, putting a hand on Patrick’s arm. “I’ve got your back.”

“Miss… I mean, Megan, right?” he said. She nodded. “You’d understand my trepidation if you’d seen the thing that attacked Vex and I in the library. I shudder to believe that I’ll see its like again, but we are sincerely unready to fight one without her. And, as I dare say it.” He let his eyes wander around the interior of the courtyard and spotted another centipede glyph drawn with crude, heavy lines beneath an overhang. “We may be surrounded.”

“I’ve seen Vex at work,” Nathan said. “If she gave you something that can stop those things, you won’t need to worry about it working again. She doesn’t do anything half way.” He scratched his elbow and gave Patrick a knowing half-smile. “In fact, I’d go as far say she tends to overdo everything by at least half again.”

Already across the courtyard, Darlene unlocked another door. “Hurry up,” she shouted. “This way, guys.”

Patrick let the rest of the group go ahead of him as he cased the architecture from the inside. Staying in Hayden meant he lived right across from the complex that contained Best, but he’d only walked through the center of the buildings a few times. This little exercise of theirs reminded him suddenly of some old memories of paintball with his ROTC friends. They would play in abandoned buildings: pretend to rescue hostages, or attempt to capture a briefcase and extract it safely. Except this time the paintballs would be actual bullets, juiced up to act like fireballs, and the bad guy wasn’t another person with a paintball gun but possibly a large multi-legged, flying monster.

Potentially with extra company.

Well, part of it reminded him of paintball.


“You can feel it. It knows you’re here even as I hide you.”

Vex watched her mother walk through the grass and gravel alongside the concrete ‘A’. Her bare feet passed through the crumbling ground and withered plants without disturbing them; every time Vex moved, her own motions brought up desert smelling dust and her boots crushed blades of grass underfoot. They had only walked a hundred feet or so, but the extreme heat had dropped precipitously, adding a notorious chill to the air around her.

Bits of police tape still rose up around the concrete structure, bound to hastily hammered iron rods. Someone had torn through the tape in multiple places, leaving it tattered and flickering in an unfelt wind. Somewhere nearby a bird called, loud and harsh.

“Tell me more,” Vex said.

Her mother paused for a moment, the suffuse glow of from her body gave indistinct edges to the ‘A’ and spilled over the blood-stained paint. She gave her daughter a long, slow look and closed her eyes. After taking a deep breath, she opened her eyes,  spread her arms, and spoke:

“In the advent of humanity’s coming to age, people were less self aware than today. It’s a sensation that your species spent eons to escape, and now you spend your lives trying to bring it back. That strange animal oblivion that only drink or drug can return.

“Have you ever wondered why so many priests and shamans find that state best for the act of intuition? That only once the rational brain has been quelled can the spirit stir enough to resonate with the universe. My daughter, you exist in a very special place—a very precious knife’s edge, between the controlled disciplined mind and creature insight—you need only hold your breath to know it.

“It’s where you can hear me speaking from now. It’s why you know what I tell you is true.”

A wind kicked up and Vex could feel the ice cold clawing at her skin. The smell of the desert vanished. Her mother walked slowly towards her, still speaking, staring directly into her eyes.

“At first, humanity had a tentative grasp of consciousness—it came and went like a candle in the wind. Moments of wild, brilliant lucidity drown in a mire of confusion and the rule of animal instinct. It was in this chaos that the foe was born, the living id of an entire species. Clawing against the invisible walls of their minds; groping for enlightenment in the dark.

“Collapsed into its own insanity, it lived with humanity in that comfortable dark.

“This is why the Old People call it the ladder. The centipede. The first hated thought, a tool fashioned by the barely-knowing minds of an entire new race of thinking beings. Forged from the primal stuff of conscious acts and then discarded. Every living person seals it away in the darkest recesses of their psyche. It’s been trapped there for so very long. Appearing only when summoned or when civilizations reach too deeply into their dark natures through the gateways that thin those walls.”

Vex tensed her muscles as her mother affectionately reached for her face. Her hands balled into fists—she knew she couldn’t hurt the phantom, but punching her would give her a cathartic focus for her rage.

“Don’t. Even. Try.” She kept her teeth clenched.

Her mother once again paused her hand mere inches away and withdrew, turning away.

“You must understand me. This, you cannot fight. Fists and mind mean nothing to it—it is neither and both. It is primeval nature, the skin of humanity’s inhumanity left behind, spinning, bewildering, unreasonable devotion. It is the brutality of a peacock feather; the gentle kiss of a lightning bolt.

“But I can give you what you need to face it. You need only surrender yourself to me.”


The inside of Best C brought the group their next surprise. While the outdoor ASU campus felt at best empty of people, there were people inside Best. People who weren’t quite...there.

Patrick insisted on going first through any door, Nathan followed close behind him, funneling Megan and Darlene with him. The two glass doors that opened into the bottom floor of Best proved to be no exception. The corridor that led them to the entry room proved to be empty, but eerily treacherous. Further sigils of the centipede appeared on the walls, drawn with crayon and pencil lead. As the corridor continued the drawings became larger and less well defined. Their persistent appearance caused gooseflesh to crawl along Patrick’s arm, but he kept his mind focused on his surroundings; the pervasive quiet made him nervous.

The doors into the entry had to be opened with Darlene’s key. They sighed open at her push and Patrick swept past her into the room—keeping his gun low just in case he ran into an actual campus official—then suddenly pulled short.

“Whoa,” he said, putting up his hand. Nathan froze to his side, blocked by the gesture. “Hold up… I think we have a situation.”

Darlene squeezed past on his other side and gasped with a sharp intake of breath.

“What?” asked Megan. Her view had been obstructed by the three in front of her. They all stood stock still and she weaved side to side, trying to peek through the forest of limbs and torsos. “What’s going on?”

“There’s people…” Darlene said. “Sort of.”

Patrick could not have said it better.

On an ordinary day the room beyond would have been host to numerous students coming and going from the dormitory. Walking giddily past the front desk where one or three Resident Life officials would have sat behind, probably playing solitaire or browsing Internet news on the computers. The well worn carpet displayed stains and disrepair from years of heavy use, trails of leached color marked out the usual paths that eager feet took through the area. And on those trails, spectral students walked past.

A girl with a grey backpack strayed so close to Patrick that he could have reached out and touched her. Her body appeared as if made out of glass and the air did not stir with her passage. When she turned to glance at him—or at the door he held open—he could see nothing in her eyes. No recognition of his presence. He watched her walk past, followed closely by another small group of holographic students. It reminded him instantly of an ordinary day at ASU except not entirely in focus.

The scene caused him to reflect, for just a moment, that being with Vex had brought him an opportunity to actually be part of something so monumentally strange. The thought brought a momentary smile to his lips, but the feeling quickly subsided when he put his mind back onto task. The vision unfolding in front of them might have been curious, but it certainly also appeared extremely dangerous.

“That’s just freaky,” Darlene said in a breathy voice. “Hey! That’s Ben Gardner. He lives in 304 right across from me. Ben!” she shouted at him. “Ben! It’s me Darlene. Can you hear me?”

Nathan cringed when she yelled, and Patrick’s gun snapped up as the boy walked closer. He was tall, black, fat limbed, and wearing too many shirts. A book swung in one hand with multiple papers sticking out, he stopped to pick at one of the papers, shrugged and kept walking. At Darlene’s shouts he paused for a moment as if he heard something in the distance, glanced around as other ghostly people streamed around him, but finally went on his way without even taking a glance at the group huddled in the doorway.

“Please don’t do that again,” Nathan said to Darlene. “We might not want them to notice us.”

“I don’t think they know we’re here,” Patrick said, lowering his gun.

Megan pushed through, cell phone leading the way. Patrick started to reach for her to stop her from walking into the phantom procession; but she slid to the side instead of walking into them. After a moment of looking into the screen of her phone, she nodded.

“They’re not here,” she said. “At least, I can say they’re not dead… Dead people. They’re not spirits. They’re not here—or there. They’re nowhere.”

“How do you know?” asked Patrick.

“Remember that voodoo thing with Vex when we tried to contact the other dudes who were with Darlene?” Megan said, pausing only to lick her lips and make motions at her cell phone and the transparent parade. “Well, ever since then I’ve been seeing things. In mirrors. Dead people mostly. And these dudes…they’re not showing up.”

“Okay, so maybe we don’t need to worry about them,” Patrick said. “But let’s try to avoid contact. So how do we get upstairs?”

“The elevator’s over there,” Darlene said.

“Stairs,” Patrick said. “Let’s take the stairs.”

Nathan shivered. “Do you really want to take an elevator ride with them?”

“I see your point,” Darlene said. “Stairs this way.”

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