The night is gone, and I have to go.
kitten   February 22, 2003

If you were to ask Bryan what business he had on this lonely stretch of isolated thoroughfare, you probably wouldn't have gotten an answer.

If you continued, prodding him as his foot eased up on the accelerator slightly for a curve ahead, and inquired as to why he was on this lonely stretch of desolate asphalt at three in the morning to be exact, you would probably be met with further silence, broken only by the relentless tick-tick-ticking of the left turn signal that had been on for seventeen minutes now, endlessly maddening like Poe's beating heart.

The rain continued to slash through trees, churning dirt into muddy embankments along the sides of the road, and the lone black car sped on through the night.

No mortal man would be on this road, at this hour - certainly not in this weather, and without more illumination than the stop-motion strobe from the turn signal, pulsing a steady orange rhythm into the darkness.

But Bryan was no mere mortal, and onward he travelled, obsidian car with a sillouette of menace, headlights off and turnlight on, his destination not far now.

Bryan was a man with a mission, and no gods great or small would keep him from seeing it to fruition.

* * *

Alex jammed the radio over to a classic rock station, an old AC/DC song burbling out of his 87 Nova's tinny speakers. He had miles to go before he got home, but he was crawling at a geological pace, trying to see the blurred road through the car's grimy windshield. The wiper blades creaked across the glass, doing nothing to dissipate the sheet of rain obscuring his vision.

And the roof was leaking again.

With one eye on the road he gathered his textbooks from the passenger seat, rescuing them from the peril of water damage, tossed them into the backseat, and gave his stereo a solid thump with the knife-edge of his palm to convince it to resume playing out of both speakers, which it currently was not.

He continued to pound on the stereo, then on the dash above it, and so when his tire contacted the puddle, he was powerless to bring the nose of the car back on course before the vehicle executed a dizzying, slow-motion spin and skidded headlong into a tree.

* * *

Bryan left his car in front of the gas station, pocketing the keys. Form-pressed out of an extrusion mold and identical to every other bearing its neon logo, the station seemed an oasis along this road - a singular vestige of civilization on the tail-end of nowhere. Wrapping his cloak round himself in imitation of those who actually feel chill from atmospheric conditions, the doors slid open at his approach, and into the buzzing florescence of the convenience store he stepped.

It was an elderly gentleman behind the counter who greeted Bryan with his customary "Evening," slowed to a drawl that matched his appearance just so. But the idle creases in his face vanished when he saw who his late-night customer was.

* * *

Alex dragged himself out of his car. The damage seemed primarily cosmetic, but obviously was deeper, as the engine now refused to turn. Power still, though, since the radio continued to play, an upbeat Boston song. In stereo, out of both speakers. In spite of himself, Alex allowed a mild sigh of ironic amusement.

The rain had already soaked him thoroughly, his hair plastered smoothly to his scalp, as he stood there surveying the damage and weighing his options, of which there weren't many. He recalled passing a gas station not too long ago, and at the slow speed he'd been driving, it couldn't be that far. He locked the doors of the car, and paused for a moment to consider how absurd that was. The car wasn't going anywhere and the only thing he had inside of any value were his textbooks, not to mention the fact that it was unlikely anyone else would be on this road, especially now. And anyway, someone could break a window if they really wanted his calculus book that badly.

Then again, if he didn't lock the door and found something missing on return, he supposed he'd feel even more stupid. He pulled his windbreaker shut and began to trudge back up the road, the way he had come, while the chill November wind whipped all around him.

* * *

Bryan stepped to the counter, his eyes never breaking contact with the owner's. "Master," he said, "I have returned."

The old man seemed to age another few decades as the inevitability of the situation overcame him. "To deny me my second life," he said. It was not a question. "Why do you do this? I came here seeking solitude, and to stay out of your way."

"No," returned Bryan, "I have come to keep the promise to you I made so long ago." Reaching into his cloak and returning with a smooth glass sphere, which the old man regarded.

"It is time," Bryan continued, "but the choice is yours."

"You will destroy it after," accused the man.

"That," said Bryan, "was not part of the promise."

"A promise!" spat the man. "Made by a Follower? What faith can I place in that?"

Bryan remained silent, keeping his gaze fixed on the man, who in his turn, seemed to deflate slightly. His choice was either oblivion, or eternal life on the spiritual plane, kept safe - safe! - in the Keeper.

In the hands of Bryan. Bryan, and the Followers.

But he could do nothing about it while dead. In spirit, there was a chance.

He sighed inwardly. "The Keeper," he gestured at the sphere still held in Bryan's grasp.

Bryan extended the sphere towards the man, who placed his fingertips on it. His body, no longer needed, crumpled to the floor as he merged with the Keeper, placing his essence of being into its protective confines.

Damn you, he thought at Bryan as his conciousness swirled away into nothingness. I will avenge myself upon you, if I have to wait ten thousand years.

Darkness.

* * *

Once merged, Bryan returned the sphere to the innards of his cloak, and then destroyed the store. The old man's body would be found, in time, and leading local law enforcement down the wrong path seemed a prudent course of action.

He knocked over displays, broke bottles of soda on the floor, smashed the cash register with his bare hands as though some thief had tried to ransack the store in search of money. He found a small-calibre gun beneath the register, and with this, he fired one shot at the far wall, and one into the body of the old man. There had been a struggle - or so it would seem - and the loss of the store owner's life had been the result. The police would spend their time chasing a phantom thief-turned-murderer who never existed.

His work at the store thus completed, Bryan left the gun on the floor amid the broken glass and overturned towers of water bottles, and made his way to the door.

He was extremely surprised when he collapsed to the pavement and died.

* * *

The glowing neon of the gas station was ahead, half an hour later, and served as Alex's polestar, growing larger in his field of vision with each step. The cold had long ago stopped bothering him; the icy rain streaming down his hair and neck hadn't. Bouyed by the notion of stepping indoors, getting some watery (but hot) coffee, he continued on.

The glass door of the convenience store didn't slide open as he expected it to, and he walked right into it, banging his knee in the process. With a grimace of pain fused with self-mocking, he stood at the entrance, wondering if maybe the place was closed for the night. Just great.

Alex cupped his hands over the glass and peered in, trying to see if anyone was in there; he could explain the problem and maybe use the phone.

There was someone in there. On the ground, wearing a black cloak of some kind. Looked unconcious, until Alex noticed the sprawled form was amidst a wreckage of glass and a gun on the floor. He nearly fell over as he scrambled backwards, drawing shallow and ragged breath.

Jesus Christ, thought Alex. Jesus fucking Christ.

He stood there, no longer feeling the rain, staring through the glass at the dead man, too confused and terrified to think. Part of him, some animal instinct, told him to run, that whoever did this might still be around. The more rational part in him knew he had nowhere to actually run to, and maybe the guy wasn't dead, and needed help.

So much for that coffee.

He slowly walked back to the door, and pried against the dead motor until it slid away enough that he could enter. Overturned display cases everywhere, smashed bottles on the floor. Alex was operating on some kind of intuitive autopilot now, not thinking. He leaned down to the cloaked man and pressed two fingers to his jugular, feeling nothing. No pulse.

The man was clearly dead, though Alex could see no wounds on him.

Police. He had to call the police. There had to be a phone in here, somewhere, and he could call the police. Let them deal with this.

He swung the countertop up to get behind the register area, the most likely place he could think of for a phone to be, and nearly tripped over another body, an older man this time, blood soaking his shirt from what looked like a bullet hole.

Alex had never faced death. Ever. His junior year in high school, some kid who had graduated the previous year had committed suicide, a name and face that meant nothing to Alex. That had been as close as he'd ever come - never face-to-face with the sort of cancelled eyes the elderly man displayed now. He felt strangely calm about it - numb, but functional.

But he was getting quite a headache.

He found an old rotary phone near the register, which looked like it had been pounded with a Louieville Slugger. Maybe the first guy, the one with the cloak, had been trying to rob the place. The expected hum of a dial tone was absent when Alex lifted the receiver.

Shit.

He found himself wishing he'd gotten a cellphone. Never saw the point before, but he wished like hell he had one now. For one thing, if he'd had one, he wouldn't be here in the first place - he'd have called a tow truck from his car, and these two dead guys wouldn't be his problem now.

Alex checked the old man's pockets, looking for a cell, finding nothing. He went round the counter, back to the guy with the cloak, and failed to find a phone on him either.

But he did find a small glass sphere in the guy's cloak. A glowing glass sphere, that Alex hestitated before picking up. No batteries or anything that he could see, but a diffused and directionless light permeated the glass. He turned it over in his hands, transfixed, the inert forms of death on the floor momentarily forgotten.

His headache was deepening.

With other, more pressing issues, he'd ignored it, but now, what had begun as a low, dull ache was becoming more sharp by the moment. The entire room seemed to tilt, colors washing away and fading, and it was becoming difficult to breathe. He could barely stand, his vision blurring and darkness creeping along his peripheral as though he was running out of oxygen.

He dropped to his knees, the glass sphere still in his hands, and screamed, struggling to crawl towards the door; the door led outside, away from this place rife with death and insanity.

A few meters from the glass that seperated him from the parking lot, and Alex fell, his cheek cool against the linoleum.

The glass ball blazed with light, then darkened.

Alex stood up, and brushed dust and bits of glass from himself. His former body lay inert and lifeless behind the counter, and the fool Bryan was also dead, in a more permanent way. His death, unanticipated to him, meant he was denied the second life and the rights of spirit keeping. His loss, and Alex felt little remorse as he took the car keys from Bryan's body and left the store that had once, in a material way, been his.

The car started like a rumble of thunder, and with the lights off, seemed to merge with the night as Alex pulled onto the road and made his way towards the inevitable. Towards victory.

The Followers would fall, and vengeance would be his.