Ryker blinked slowly, trying to remember where he was, yet the darkness remained as if he had been shut away from the world. He had an irrational thought, wondering if he had suddenly gone blind as he sorted through his muddled memory. It came back in bits and pieces - the fight with that, thing, like a beast from the Witcher. The claws that had cut through his skin as easily as scissors through paper. The two strangers that had tried to save him and, something else, a feeling of fear and anger – a flash of fire and then…
He couldn’t remember. He called out, hoping his rescuers were close by but there was no response, not even his own echo. It was as if even his words were swallowed up by this void around him. He tried to get up and found that he couldn’t, finding something wrapped tightly around him, restricting his movements. Fear and apprehension began to rise as Ryker tried again to stand, but whatever was around him only constricted more. He began to thrash against the bonds, the vulnerability of his lost sight and restricted mobility sending him into a panic. He could hear the terror in his own voice as he screamed.
“What the hell is this place!?”
Voices responded from the darkness, sinister sounds that spat hostile words, freezing his attempts to free himself. He felt a jolt of fear as the words became coherent, and he recognized them for what they were.
Failure. Useless. Disgrace. Weakling.
The words were the echo of his thoughts as he had failed in that fight, as he had failed to help. The voices grew louder, morphing from the strange devilish sounds into ones he started to recognize – his mother’s slight accent, filled with disappointment in him, his uncle’s deep timber thick with loathing, and his father’s baritone dripping with shame…
Something brushed against him and he screamed, causing him to redouble his efforts to break free from the unseen bonds. He fought until his body ached, the fear growing at each unsuccessful attempt. He lashed out with his own words, yelling curses and abuse at the disembodied voices until his voice was raw. And still the ghost of his emotions continued to haunt him. Hours passed, or days, or weeks – it was hard to tell in the unchanging darkness and bit by bit the fear began to win. He could feel himself teetering on the edge of sanity, his voice raw as he whispered through the tears.
“Why can’t I wake up from this nightmare?”
He idly wondered if this was all it was, one giant nightmare that he was struggling to wake from. He took in a ragged breath trying desperately to drown the voices as he found the fractured pieces of his memory and tried to put them back together.
He had been at the bar celebrating Jesse and Molly’s news about the baby. There was a woman, beautiful but – there was something, different about her, dangerous, empty, sad. He had wanted to talk to her, but she was gone before he had the chance. Then the shots came, an unending stream of them as all of Jesse’s regular customers overheard the news. By the time Molly had shoved him into a cab, he was lucky he was able to stand.
There was a blank space in his memory from the cab to when he woke up, head pounding with the consequences of the night. He had stumbled to the bathroom – intent on some Advil when the most bizarre sight had stopped him at the window. A person, in his back yard, fighting a bear. He had thought he was hallucinating, running down with his rifle as he realized he wasn’t.
Something slithered over his foot and he jerked back, panic spiking as his eyes flew open desperately scanning the darkness for whatever had touched him. A whimper escaped his lips as the void revealed nothing, his imagination conjuring hundreds of things lurking unseen. He now understood that it wasn’t the dark that people were afraid of, it was the unknown – the terrifying possibilities the dark hid – that was what frightened people.
As if to mock his thoughts, two pin points of red flickered in and out of view, like malevolent fireflies. Soon after they were joined by another set, and another until a dozen lights danced in the distance. He felt his breath catch as realization dawned on him. They were not fireflies. They were eyes, studying him from the depths of the darkness. He slammed his eyes shut, muttering his thoughts aloud in an attempt to block the voices, curling his body tight as he went back into his memories.
He had raced outside and was shocked to see that it wasn’t a bear. It was – he didn’t know what it was but it was angry. And the man was odd as well. He had a sword, a real sword and was fighting the beast – but Ryker could tell the man was injured. Ryker hesitated only a moment before he shot at the beast, only succeeding in anger it and turning it’s attention back on himself. It charged and Ryker had stumbled back in terror, only surviving as the man with the sword stepped in and saved him.
Ryker had run into the house to call the police but his cellphone was dead and the battle outside had damaged the utility box to the land line. That was when he did something stupid. Well stupider. Ryker had made the mistake of taking the katana he had inherited from his dearest friend and thinking he could help. He had seen the swordsman’s blade damage the beast where his bullets had done little but annoy it. He ran out to help and then…
His thoughts were broken as the voices grew louder, seemingly in response to the unease he felt with his next action, and he shut his eyes tighter to attempt to block them out.
The beast had given the man a horrible wound, down his arm. A wound that was nearly identical to the one that was on his father’s autopsy photo, the one the government didn’t know he had seen. An onslaught of emotion welled in him at seeing that and he attacked the beast. And he had missed.
The memories were starting to fragment again.
The beast had injured him, was about to kill him and … The woman! The woman from the bar had saved him. She had gotten him away from the beast, took up the sword he had so uselessly wielded and pressed the attack. Between her and the other man they had the beast cornered. But then something else had happened, something he couldn’t describe and suddenly the woman and man were thrown away from the beast. Ryker had felt something rise inside him, as if his fear and anger and helplessness were trying to claw out of him as a physical thing. There was a flash of light like fire and then…
A roar unlike any animal he had ever heard cut through the voices and he cowered into himself, wishing that he had never woken up that morning. He should have called the police and never left his house. What had he been thinking? That he was a fighter like his marine father? The images from the fight ran through his mind. He hadn’t event scratched that – thing let alone helped to keep it from injuring anyone. If anything, he had just gotten in the way. And his rescuers had probably died because of his incompetence.
Her voice cut through the others, like a song breaking through the static on a radio. He turned towards the sound, so different from the disembodied accusations, and squinted as a blinding light cut through the darkness. He blinked against the intrusion, the light too bright for him to look directly at it and as he looked away, he noticed that the many eyes had vanished along with the voices. He saw a figure in the light, unsure if he was imagining her. It was the woman from the bar, from the fight.
He wanted to call out to her, but something massive moved to loom behind her, its massive body hidden just outside the light the woman walked in. Bright red eyes regarded him from its shadowed face and suddenly he had his answer. The only one that made sense. He had died in that confrontation, and this demon was here to take him to hell. And he had taken her with him.
Lynx waited for a response but Ryker just stared in utter fear past her. She reached out to place a reassuring hand on his shoulder, the young man flinching away. She stared as the light that surrounded her seemed to reflect off of him. His eyes shifted towards her but there was no kindness in them now, only anger and pain – and guilt.
“Go away. Take the light, it hurts.” The words were sharp as he spit them out and Lynx winced in understanding. Ryker couldn’t have known that she had been here before, remembered the hostility that this hell kindled. The Beyond was no place for any good soul to be. It ate away at your soul and she could see it had already started, the absolute venom in his voice a sign of the start of the Beyond’s corruption.
“Useless. That’s all I am. I couldn’t do anything against that - thing.”
Lynx let out an exasperated breath. “Well of course not. I doubt you even know what that thing was, let alone how to handle it.”
“That’s not the point! If it weren’t for me you wouldn’t have died. I mean look at this place! What is it if it isn’t hell? If I had just stayed out of the way you guys wouldn’t have tried to protect me. You, and that man, oh god, what was I thinking!”
His voice choked and she saw the chains tightened around him. She knew what was happening, her own experiences in this place a painful reminder that there was nothing that she could do to physically help him. The chains were magic, forged from all his negative emotions; feelings of guilt, self-doubt, anger and worthlessness. If he didn’t face those fears, and overcome them his spirit would be bound to this never-ending darkness. And if he let them consume him, the chains would cut through him and torture him until he was dead. Already there was a thin trickle of red that ran down his chest from where the chain had started to break the skin.
She frowned in concern, her years spent avoiding people leaving her ill equipped for these situations. She needed to break through his self-contempt, but every time she looked at him he looked away. She felt her temper slip, her voice sharp in the soundless dark
“Yamete!” She watched him flinch at the sudden noise, her habit of slipping into Japanese when she was angry not helping. She took a breath lowering her volume but keeping her voice hard.
“That thing was a demon, Ryker, not a wild animal or some idiot looking to pick a fight. And in case you hadn’t noticed Gavan, the man you saw, and I are adults and more than capable of taking care of ourselves. For crying out loud, you’re the one who’s on death’s door, not us. And from what I can see you aren’t even trying to fight to stay alive!”
“What’s the point? It’s not like I’ve been really living lately-”
There was a deafening crack as she slapped him across the face, hard. Ryker looked up, dumbstruck at the anger on the woman’s face. There was a note of reprimand as Vaughn, Lynx’s demon companion, spoke through the bond in her mind.
I do not think that is the best way to get him to listen.
Oh, shut up – We don’t have time to coddle him.
“If that’s really how you feel then stay here and die already!”
She saw it, something flickered in his eyes and she could tell he was actually seeing her for the first time. Could see his thoughts working through the questions she had had all those years ago. How could she even begin to understand what he was feeling? Who was she to tell him to just roll over and die? He turned an angry glare at her, unaware that the chains that had been constricting around him had stopped. His anger was no longer just fueling his guilt, it was kindling a desire to reengage with her and she pushed her advantage.
“Is that what you really want? To just hide here and feel sorry for yourself. You can’t possibly be that selfish or cowardly. Not if you are the son of Colonel Walter Lexana. The son that he rambled on endlessly about would never give his life up without a fight.”
Lynx watched his face light up at the mention of his father, leaning forward, the chains giving a little. She was giving him a reason to live, the one thing she was certain he wanted more than anything else. The answers to his father’s death.
“My father? How do you know him? Was that how he died? Were you there.” She felt the pain of Walter’s death, the guilt of not being able to save him. But this was not the place to have that particular conversation. She saw Ryker’s eyes dart around, and she too was becoming aware of some of the demon’s returning to watch from a distance fueling his next words.
“How could that thing – that demon be real? When I wake up and this isn’t a horrible nightmare, are there more?”
Lynx shifted, knowing there was no short answer.
“It’s complicated. No, demons like that should not exist in this world. I don’t know how it found its way into your world. Our world.”
“This world?” Ryker asked. “As in like an alien? And you didn’t answer – are there more of them?”
He was starting to come apart again, the fear creeping back in on the hope she had given him. Her brow furrowed in frustration; they didn’t have time for this. Vaughn couldn’t keep the demons at bay forever, and they would attack soon if they thought he was just an idle onlooker as they were. Apparently Ryker mistook her silence as confirmation, his eyes darting back to eyes that watched.
“That thing was crazy strong and that – that power or whatever – if there are more – I can’t, it was terrifying. Doesn’t that scare you?”
Lynx felt herself stiffen, memories of the nightmares from her past flashing through her mind before her face softened and she dropped into a crouch. She couldn’t keep the sadness from her voice, a cheerless smile on her lips as she drew his attention from something that moved behind her.
“Unfortunately, my worst fear has already come and gone once. I will not let it control me again. And I suppose I’m being hypocritical. I know how you feel better than you realize. I have been where you are, literally and mentally. I fought and lost a battle like this, ended up where you were. I floundered in self-pity and wanted nothing more than my life to end. And that’s what this place will do to you if you let it. It forces you to face your fears, and if you can’t conquer them, you won’t survive. Those chains around you, those are your own doubts holding you here and only you can remove them. Nothing good will come from this place if you stay, trust me.”
She looked around, a growl from Vaughn banishing the other demons, and was surprised to see Ryker staring at her, as if she were the reason the demon’s had fled. But she supposed he couldn’t see Vaughn, and she resumed her speech.
“But, a friend saved me from this place the first time. And when I was on the verge of falling back here again, years later, your very wise father told me that my death won’t change anything. It won’t protect what I want to protect or change the things I want to change.” She stood up, brushing at her pants as though to rid them of the darkness. “But if I live, I might have the chance to make those things happen for myself. I might prevent others from suffering the same fate that I had. So now I no longer wish for death like I once did. I want live on, atone for my sins and see the things through to the end. I have chosen to stand up and fight, because for me, failure is no longer an option. And I sure as hell won’t get anything done in this forsaken place.”
She offered her hand out to him, a light to guide him out of the dark.