I never thought I'd see mid-fall in northern Michigan, but that's where the police car finally disintegrated. Hellfire can only do so much.
New England boasts of its autumn leaves, but they are well-matched in any part of the northen hemisphere that has the right type of deciduous trees. North Michigan has pleny of sugar maples to equal New England's beauty, and so a cool sunny fall day there is well worth the view.
I was there on a humid, overcast evening with a slight drizzle.
But that's okay, you know, fall days have a sort of melancholy beauty in the rain. Perfect time to think about gloomy things like Death and Despair and The Future of Humanity.
Unfortunately, certain matters preoccupied me. First was that, while I was still in the driver's seat, the seat was on the ground and the rest of the car was in pieces around my position. Some of them still glowed red. I worried about moving and catching on something that would set my clothes alight.
The second problem was that the fellow in the back of the car was now a black, charred skeleton, but he was still moving.
He picked himself up slowly, bones scraping and clattering. As I watched him move, I noticed pieces of ash falling from his joints. He was wearing away.
He turned his head to me, and said, "I am sorry. For Kalamazoo."
I grunted. "A city that big? They probably had it coming. You got me through that roadblock, that's all I care about."
He shook his head, with a horrible grinding noise. "I am sorry. For Kalamazoo. I am sorry. For Kentwood. i am sorry. For Grand Rapids. I am sorry. For Cedar Springs. Sand Lake. I am sorry. I am sorry. I am sorry for the girl Elizabeth Byron, who stands before me without remorse. Please have mercy on her. Have mercy on me. Please. I am sorry."
I frowned. "Who are you talking to?"
"The wind grows cold. The devourer of lost children approaches. I commend my soul to whichever realm will have it."
With that, he disintegrated. I was left alone in the wind, which began to pick up. The cold drizzle blew into my face, and I hunched forward in my seat, letting my hair take the brunt of the water. The wind rose still more. I was grateful that the heat of the burning car had dried me out before we got here, otherwise I would have been chilled to death quickly in this wind.
I was going to die of exposure slowly, instead.
Not if i could help it. I pictured a summoning circle in my head and repeated azazoth's true name three times. He appeared with a poof. "My most faihful minion", I said, "I command you to bring me a blanket and a cup of hot soup."
"The Devourer of lost children approaches," said azazoth, "and none may interfere in this matter. The mistress would destroy me if I showed you kindness now."
"Mistress?" i said. "Am I not your mistress? Do as I command!"
"No, madam, not now. The Mistress rules all of us lesser demons, and she has claimed command of you. She bids you walk, now, beneath the stars. Go." He vanished.
It was coming on night, now, and more quickly with the grey clouds blocking the last rays of the sun. There were no stars. There was no moon. There was only the damp, chill darkness. A night with no stars and no moon. Anything could happen on any road, I knew, but anything would have been kinder than this. Just to see a car passing by, another human being, a bear, even. But there was nothing.
Nor any reason to stay here, either.
And So I rose, stiffly, and plodded towards whatever awaited me, if anything.
I have never in my life posessed much strength or stamina. It must have been sheer will that drove me onward, through the damp night, because after a certain point my arms and legs only reluctantly cooperated with my brain. Had someone come along and handed me a cup of hot tea, I would have drank it down immediately, never mind the burning, never mind that I was probably in the first stages of hypothermia and a hot drink would have killed me. It's like a drowning person who drags their rescuer down, you know? They can't help it. That's why you throw them a floatie from the safety of a rowboat. I'm not sure what the equivalent for a lost wanderer in the cold would be. Maybe a coat and some nice warm boots, which I didn't have.
What I did have was the feeling that if i stopped moving, I wasn't going to start again. If this Mistress Omega wanted to talk to me, she'd have to keep up.
The drizzle stopped all at once. The clouds broke up, and through them, I could see the stars, burning bright and cold. The temperature dropped further. The part of my brain that wasn't frozen recalled something about clear nights being cold because the clouds trapped no heat. Well, said the reasonable part of my brain, it hardly makes any difference now, does it? But the reasonable part of my brain was frozen, and the only part still operating at full capacity thought "I guess we've had it."
I stopped, at a place where the water of Lake Huron reached the land through a tiny inlet, and lay down upon the cold asphalt.
So much for meeting the Mistress. So much for anything, really. I lay down and resolved to freeze.
"Was she ever going to show up before I died?" I whispered to the clear night sky. "Is that the game? Grab their malleable little souls and leave the inconvenient bodies?"
"Oh, I don't know", said a contralto voice. "You can never be certain that a soul is small and easily controlled. Some seemingly puny people may be hiding a mighty spirit, and some mighty men may have puny souls indeed. I can't afford to play games with souls. With YOU, on the other hand...and yet, you wouldn't consider this a game, would you? Not after all you've gone through."
Well, that was odd. The stars were talking.
"So many call it a game", the voice continued, "but they are safe in their police cars. The ones in the snow wouldn't call it a game. Especially if they survive and have to live with the knowledge that the law will never avenge them, beause the police have more credibility and clout than some random First Nations kid. The ones who die, well...I come to them."
"And what do you do with them?" I asked the stars. "What do stars do with lost souls?"
"Oh, I have no idea what the stars do," said the voice. "They're too far away. I am close."
I tried to turn my head. Alas, my hair was frozen to the asphalt, as were my arms. "It's a bit reassuring that you are close," I said, "because I daresay that I will not survive without your aid. If you would be so kind as to lay a warm blanket over me, or lend me some manner of heat?"
"Suppose I wanted to keep playing, though."
"I'm afraid I don't have time for that," I said. "I am assuming that souls cannot speak. Don't you want to have someone to talk to on this cold and lonely night? Don't you want me to survive so you can complete your game? I sure want to survive. I'd like to know why you wanted me to come to you. Boy, I sure would like to know what's going on before I fall asleep and..."
The first thing I noticed when I opened my eyes was that everything was warm, and I was dry. The second thing I noticed was the smell of a natural-gas fire. I turned my head and saw flames burning blue in an inset in the stone wall. The walls formed a small cavern around me, about the size of the pantry back at home. The fire cast an orange glow over the walls. The floor was also stone. Not exactly comfortable, but cozy.
I sat up. "Well, this is the opposite of where I almost died, but it doesn't exactly answer my question."
"Which one?" Said a contralto voice behind me.
I turned around. There sat a young woman, a ragged brown cloak draped about her body. She had a plain face, framed by a ragged mop of reddish-brown hair.
"You!" I said. "You were the voice! You told me to come down that road and you almost let me freeze! What's going on here?"
"What's going on here," said the woman, "Is that I saved you from certain hypothermia."
"I can tell that much. But why find me at all? Why lead me on?"
She sighed. "You ought to be grateful that I was in the area of Northern Michigan when you arrived there, otherwise I might not have reached your vicinity in time. Understand, as well, that had I not set you the task of finding me, you might have given up and died in that car seat." She looked at the fire. "Poor Antonio, whose death you contributed to, might have helped you if you had stopped before you got beyond Sand Lake, and looked behind you at the destruction you wrought, but you roared on and used him all up. So you were alone, you thought. It would have been so easy to lay down and die then, would it not?"
"There was no reason for me not to, after azazoth abandoned me. You made him abandon me."
"True. I wanted you to face more pain than you have ever known. That was the game. Whichever direction you had chosen, I would have been there at the end of your road, when you finally fell. You had to fall. azazoth tells me you were quite the demon-queen at your school, and I felt i had to take a hammer to that sort of arrogance."
I sat there for a while, taking this all in.
"So if I summon azazoth here..."
"I would not let him do your bidding," said the woman.
"So you're Mistress Omega!"
She turned back to me. "And you're the girl who started to summon demonds at age 12," she said, "When responsible magicians don't even dare to summon one until they've studied for TWENTY YEARS OR MORE!" She pounded the floor with an open hand. "And you're the girl who adressed the King of Darkness and Pain and Blood directly after shoving his servants out of the way! And you're the girl who pledged herself to raise hell everywhere or Hell would have your soul, not considering that Hell would get your soul either way!" He eyes began to glow red. "You're the girl whose situation the King wanted me to look into because even he couldn't understand what was going on. I am Mistress Omega, and I am taking you under MY wing, lest you burn another dozen towns to the ground. Do you understand?" She rose, and towered over me. "This is reform school, effective immediately! This is where you will learn that your actions have CONSEQUENCES!"
"Am I supposed to kneel before —"
She opened her mouth, and fire leapt from it, swirling around her. The tempearture in the cavern rose by several degrees. "You are to adress me as Mistress, and speak to me as an elder, not as a friend, save for the rare moments when I decide to condescend to you. Do you understand?"
"This is all very —"
"DO YOU UNDERSTAND?" The flames swirled closer to me. Boy, it sure was getting hot in here.
"Excellent." The flames vanished. "Now, if you were wondering about what I made you do, it's called the "Starlight Tour," and it's a Canadian thing, but Northern Michigan was close enough. I was attending to one such victim when I noticed you were heading in my direction. Easy enough to reach you once you got past Sand Lake. You know the rest."
"Mistress, may i ask a question?"
"What do you do with the souls of the children who die, out there on the road?"
"I devour them."
"Is that a metaphor, or..."