Bryan Romel takes a hand off the steering wheel and bats the fringe of teal hair out of his half-closed eyes. He’s been driving down the interstate for sixteen—no, seventeen hours, now, the last four with the A/C wide open and the window’s down. However long it’s been, it feels like an eternity.
The absence of cell service and a working radio has done little to help in his fight to remain conscious. There’s not even anything interesting to gander at, the scenery is as uniform as it is bland. The idea of pulling over for a little nap is alluring, but he can’t square it at this point, not when he’s already so close to his destination.
Might as well finish the journey.
For better or for worse, it’ll be the last time he ever makes it.
The pieced-together Firebird bucks against the turn as he merges onto the off-ramp, causing the small silver necklace dangling from around his rear-view mirror to swing wildly. The small sigil pendant clacks against the scuffed face of the radio as Bryan whips the wheel around to compensate for the momentary jerk.
He raises a pierced eyebrow as he steers back on course, letting out a short, sharp breath through his nostrils. If he didn’t know any better, he’d swear the car was actively trying to prevent him from turning.
As many parts as he’s harvested from less-fortunate Pontiacs to keep his beloved beast running, the odds of one of them being haunted by the ghost of some drunk driver seems fairly reasonable.
“Easy, now,” Bryan says softly, patting the car’s warm, sun-cracked dashboard, “you know I’ve got to do this.”
His gruff voice seems to soothe the car-spirit inhabiting his ship of Theseus, or maybe it giving up trying to stop him. Either way, he rumbles along the winding ramp leading down to the small, two-lane stretch of road. At least he isn’t tired anymore.
Another few minutes of driving and a smirk creeps along the corner of his thin lips as he’s greeted by the expansive beauty of the nearby forest. The lush, full canopies loom overhead in their full summer glory. It’s crazy that the sight still takes his breath away, even after all of these years. For a fleeting moment, he’s enthralled by the vivid array of greens and reds, swaying about in the wind, almost as if to greet him.
What he’d give to live in a place like this, surrounded by all this natural wonder. It’s like heaven out here. His smirk quickly fades from his face as a dour realization dawns on him...he’ll never get the chance.
Maybe in the next life.
Gravel crackles beneath his tires, echoing out into the surrounding clearing as Bryan approaches the sun-bleached wood cabin from the long, dirt road. At first glance, it to be abandoned. The pair of windows lining the bottom floor of the building offer no glimpse into the darkened interior. Each pane is coated in a thick layer of dust and pollen, undisturbed in ages, well, that’s what they intend you to think.
A prolonged whine squeaks out from the brakes as he slows the car to a halt. His eyes don’t leave the cabin as he shifts into park and switches off the ignition, his fingers trembling as they leave the key.
This is really it.
It isn’t until the swinging necklace clinks against the front of his console that his trance is broken, startling him back to reality. Bryan starts to pull the key out from the ignition and chuckles. He’s not going to need it where he’s going, might as well leave it in.
He reaches into his pocket and produces a small white envelope. He’d been debating on whether or not to write the note at all, to clue Pan and the crew about what was about to happen to him. Outright telling them would get them killed, but what he’d written should be vague enough to skirt the issue.
‘Thanks for making this goodbye way harder than it should’ve been.
Take care of my ride and try not to get yourselves killed.
I’ll see you on the other side.
Yeah, that'll do.
Bryan leans the letter against the speedometer, carefully placing his phone in front of it to help keep it up. As he does, the phone stirs, displaying the time on the lock screen.
6:33pm, the email with the cabin’s location should be going out now.
Now he’s on the clock.
There’s no going back anymore.
He reaches up and slides the necklace off the rearview, the pendant daintily clinks as he palms it. A slight hum begins resonating from it as he closed his fingers around it, causing his breath to catch in his throat. That empowering rush, the electricity of it...there is nothing like it in this plane. No drug, no drink, nothing holds a candle to it. Nothing comes close.
That’s magic for you. It’s as much a drug as it is a tool.
A moment passes and another car barrels down that dirt road behind him, sending small rocks and a cloud of dust spiraling out behind them. The vehicle looks a lot like Bryan’s, a red Trans-Am made up of hodgepodge of different colored aftermarket parts. As it barrels closer, he’s narrows his eyes and grins as he’s finally able to make out the driver through their dirty windshield.
Asante, another member of the Order. At least he’d be in good company on the other side.
Asante’s vehicle slides to a stop beside his own, he watches in amusement as she pulls herself through the rolled-down window and onto the car’s roof. Her wild, wavy red hair swirls around the pair of goggles resting on her scarred forehead.
“Bry-guy!” she exclaims, her bellowing brown coat whipping behind her as she leaps from the roof over to him. The glint from her own necklace causes him to wince as he finds himself enveloped in her strong embrace.
“Ack, A—Asante, nice...to see you, too!” he tries to say, but finding the air to form the words is a struggle.
Asante releases her bearhug, her tan face beaming. Bryan gasps, filling his squished lungs with air once again before returning the smile.
“I haven’t seen you since ‘98! In Philadelphia, right? I think it was Philadelphia.”
Oh wow, it really had been twenty years.
“Yeah! Jeez, time flies,” Bryan says, “that was before the war, wasn’t it?”
“Yeah, back before the fangs turned Master Ramos..."
"Back when we still had a future here," he says.
Asante looks over at the cabin and her smile falters.
“So, this is it, huh?” she asks
“As ready as I’m going to be.”
“Well, c’mon then. We can’t miss our window.”
“Yeah,” Bryan says, looking back at the forest before following her to the cabin.
“You good? There ain’t no coming back from this...you know that, right?”
“I am, I do. I’m just thinking, about the life I always wanted here,” he says as they begin making their way up the squeaky, warped steps to the door.
The front door is slightly ajar, the inch gap between the latch and the doorway is covered in a smattering of cobwebs.
“Baja buggies,” she says.
“What?” Bryan asks.
“I wanted to head down to the Outer Banks, race Baja buggies,” she says as she examines the door.
Bryan smiles, he could see her doing that.
“Why didn’t you?”
“Dunno, just ran out of time, I guess. What about you?”
“Me? Nothing special. I wanted to retire from my crew and move out here, just enjoy nature a while.”
“The Darkmother does have a funny sense of humor about her, putting the portal out here of all places.”
“I couldn’t agree more,” Bryan says with a slight huff, crossing his arms in front of him.
“Huh, looks like someone found their way inside,” she says, peering closely into the darkness. Her iris shifts, looking more cat-like than human.
“Too bad they used the wrong door,” Bryan replies, walking over to the nearby window. Hidden in the cracks of the wood there is a string of sigils carved into the frame.
“Here it is.”
“Got your necklace?” Asante asks.
“Of course,” Bryan says, opening his hand, revealing the necklace resting against his palm.
Asante grins as she pulls her own necklace off and presses it against the window frame.
“Then let’s do this,” she says, pulling her empty hand back. The necklace remains in place, as if held there by some sort of magnet.
Bryan then presses his own necklace against the frame across from hers. As soon as his hands leave the pendent, they are met with a powerfully loud whir. Sparks begin arching out of the window panes as a swirling purple and white portal begins to form into view. Hiding amongst the wonderous colors is a rough outline of a mountainside.
There it is, the Nether.
The last refuge for their kind.
"We're gonna be okay," she says.
Bryan feels Asante’s fingers clasping around his own and he relaxes a little.
He steps inside.