Chapter Seven

Their procession into the woods was a solemn one. A few attempts at levity had been made early on, with Steven suggesting they'd better arm themselves with lanterns and pitchforks before setting out, but it all fell on deaf ears. Eventually he gave up. Feeling a little ridiculous, like a pimply girl consulting a Ouija board for the name of her future husband, he fell in line behind Marcello and off they went. It was single file all the way, with Aaron bringing up the rear, who followed without comment.

The woods clawed to the sky in a cluster far to the east of the village. Its boundary was clear, with the mess of thicket and weed growing uniformly in a straight line far to the sides. It looked almost landscaped, as if somebody had taken a riding mower to the surrounding area, even going so far as to clip away any tall grass at the base of the tree stumps. Approaching the forest was like approaching a solid black wall.

Gnarled limbs met overhead, banishing the day's light. Crinkly leaves, long dead, served as a noisy carpet. The place stunk of moss.

Steven fought to control his laughter. Geez, the way Marcello was plodding forward, all stoic, all serious – you would've thought he was leading a memorial tour of a Nazi death camp or something. Okay, yes, maybe there was something in these woods (Steven was inclined to believe so, actually) but that didn't mean everyone had to be so doom and gloom about it. Why not make it an adventure? Like back in the day when he and his father used to scout the woods back home for caves. That'd been fun, the two of them with their walking sticks, making small talk. Once or twice, Dave had even allowed Sally, their old Doberman, to accompany them. When they got far enough into the forest, he'd unleash her and off she'd go – barking and bouncing like popcorn kennels in a microwave.

'Course, she'd been old then and long dead now – some kind of worm infection – but those days had held some kind of magic.

"So what kinds of things happen here?" Steven asked, ducking under a low hanging branch. "Sounds like you guys have experienced everything except an alien invasion!" He laughed.

Marcello did not. "We should not talk about such things in this place," he said humorlessly.

Last in line, Aaron groaned.

Actually, it made sense. There were several theories out there that suggested ghostly activity increased when the hauntings were acknowledged openly. Manifestations were much more likely to occur during times of stress or anger, as well. They were drawn to it, those electric emotions. They fed off them. And Marcello was putting out quite the beacon. Walking a pace or two behind him, Steven could feel the sizzle of his apprehension burning the air like a heat mirage. This abbey of his … what sort of place could it be to elicit such a reaction?

Aaron swore.

"What?"

"Stupid briars everywhere!" A thorn roughly the size of a nail had caught on the sleeve of his T-shirt. Muttering curses, he grabbed at it with his bare hand and yanked it free. The fabric ripped. Red dribbled on the powder blue.

"Shit!" He tore the string of thorns to the ground. Panting, he shoved a bloody, open palm in Steven's face. "This sucks! This 'ghost tour' thing is fucking stupid, and we should go!"

Steven held his ground, looking past the line of running blood and into the blazing eyes of his friend. Marcello had stopped. That rhythmic crunch-crunch of footfalls over leaves had stilled.

"You go. The exit's over there." He pointed the way they'd come. The tiny opening they'd used to gain entry was no more than a glaze of sunlight reflected off the distant trees. Without waiting for a reply, he turned and brushed past the pursed-lipped Marcello. He half expected Aaron to lunge at him again, like he had in the city. In fact, he almost wished he would. Because this time he had a bodyguard who wouldn't hesitate to pound him into pancakes if he so requested.

From behind came a loud sound of rustling forest debris. Aaron was throwing a tantrum, most surely, kicking things around.

"Ya damn asshole!"

Yep.

Marcello caught Steven's hand. "Steven…"

He shrugged it off. "Take the lead. I don't know where I'm going."

Wordlessly, he did as directed. Steven followed. A small, mean part of him pictured Aaron, still in the throes of a tantrum, trying to escape from the woods, only to emerge days later - bloody and cut to ribbons from the barbs and briars he had stormed through. The best lessons, after all, were the ones that hurt.

They continued to walk, and after a while of fuming, Aaron did too.

Noon waned. Walking became more difficult, with more shuffling of the feet. All the forests of the world had assembled in this place; every last tree in existence present and accounted for. How much further? How dense was this tumbleweed? The natural path they'd followed since entering had long since sputtered and died away. Marcello was now weaving in between stumps at random. He seemed to know which way he was headed. Steven kept pace as best he could. But the going was hard and getting harder. He, too, now sported bloody cuts from walking into thorns. More than once, he had fallen into holes camouflaged by leaves. His ankle was beginning to smart again.

Hate to say it, but maybe Aaron was right.

About what?

About this! About it being a waste of time. I mean, look at me! I'm covered with cuts, I'm getting a headache, and I'm 85% sure that bush I stepped on back there was poison oak.

Okay, yeah. Maybe you have a point.

Dang straight! Geez, these woods aren't even that scary. I mean, the least Marcello could do is jump out at us from behind a tree. He frowned. All I can say is, this abbey better have little satan imps riding around it on broomsticks; otherwise it's going to be a huge waste of –

"Aw, shit!"

Marcello was the first to react. He froze in step and spun backward, nearly colliding with Steven. Entangled, the two flailed in the direction of Aaron's voice, their panicked hearts beating in sick tandem. The Italian's skin was rotisserie hot, glittering with the sweat of mortal fear. He had taken hold of Steven in what could have been misconstrued as a lover's embrace, fingers pulling at flesh.

"Hey, look at this!"

They tried to, but saw nothing, no one.

Footprints in the snow.

Oh, shut up!

"Over here!"

A hand sprouted out from behind a nearby bush. Aaron. He had wondered away from the path (so to speak) and had planted himself before a large, leaning tree. Kneeling like that, he looked like a child practicing for first communion. He was pointing at something, and his face was equal parts curiosity and revulsion.

Steven and Marcello hurried to his side.

It was a wash basin, an antique one – milky white and ringed with etchings of tangled vines and hanging grapes. Contrasted with the dead foliage on which it sat, it screamed purity. But Aaron's finger was pointing inside, at the splatter of red beneath the buzzing of a hundred flies.

Marcello's hand flew to his neck. A sharp intake of air was inhaled through his nose. Steven leaned in closer.

"Is that..." Aaron gulped.

"It's called 'extispicy'," Steven whispered. Knees popping, he lowered himself down on his haunches to get a better look. He took a deep breath. There was a smell, flat and dull with a hint of copper, but it was old. "It's a way to predict the future by looking at animal guts. See? There's an intestine, a kidney..." He made vague whirling motions with his hand. "… and some other stuff." His eyes ventured over to a toppled candelabrum lying discarded a few feet away. Placed in every one of its branches was a half-melted black candle. "You look for imperfections, like tumors. They're omens."

"I'm gonna ralf." And Aaron was up in a shot, hand clamped tight over mouth. He took a few steps to the side and braced against a ragged oak. Steven heard him gagging, but did not take his eyes off the basin. Decay had spread over most of the offering. What wasn't black was a sick, spent red. Not that the flies seemed to care.

I wonder if they saw the quake coming. I wonder what they saw in this. What did it tell them?

"We should go."

Standing, Steven grinned at Marcello. "To the abbey?" he asked hopefully.

Marcello only nodded.

The first time he saw it, he spent an eternity simply standing in place and staring. Pushing through that final barrier of forest, all hot and sweaty, then finally seeing it looming large and formidable before him, he felt like an explorer who has stumbled across the golden city of El Dorado after a lifetime of searching.

Did it live up to his expectations?

Oh, yes.

Old and crumbling, it dominated the woods. Chipped Corinthian columns supported a stone overhang that covered the entranceway. An arched roof came to a peak in the sky. Soaring high to the left of everything, skewing the building off symmetry, was a blocky pillar that Steven assumed to be a bell tower – its top covering collapsed down onto itself in a pile of gray stone. The entire thing was gray, actually, its drab stone the perfect complement to the clouds above.

Speaking of which, was a storm coming? It looked so dark all of the sudden.

Frowning, Steven tilted his head backward.

Nope. Hmph. Actually, there were no clouds. The sky was unmarred.

But why was it so dark?

Squinting his eyes as though to see through the illusion, he examined the sky. The coloring was off somehow. The blue was a weird, lifeless shade and he found that he could stare at the sun without blinking. It floated just over the treetops, no more dangerous to the eye than a lemon hanging by a string.

So dark. So cold. Goosebumps had risen on Steven's arms and legs.

"Look at the trees," Aaron whispered.

Yes, the trees. Steven had noticed them before anything else, actually. They were all bent. Those closest to the abbey were warped. They appeared to be growing away from the structure. Some of the upper trunks were nearly parallel with the ground.

"Yeah," he said. "Pretty wild, huh?"

Aaron took a step forward, out into the clearing. His mouth was open. Did he realize how stupid he looked? Was someone a believer now?

Steven smiled. This place … it held an energy. You could feel it. In the air, in the foliage, absorbed into the brown-streaked stone of the abbey itself. An unnatural power. Why else would nature herself recoil from it?

What was inside? What evil thing was housed within those cracked walls, and how could it be kept at bay by walls so flimsy?

There's a power inside you that scares me, Steven thought, and had to bite his tongue to keep from laughing.

Aaron dashed across his line of vision. One of the abbey's two wooden doors was open; the other was closed and crooked in its frame. He ran toward them both. Steven shot forward to follow.

Marcello pulled him back.

"No."

"But -" He nodded helplessly in Aaron's direction, who was now flittering about the entrance, ducking in and out of the shadowy chasm, testing the waters.

"No," Marcello repeated, and this time the tone of his voice was enough to slap the smile from Steven's face. It was the voice of a parent that knows better. And there was a hidden inference beneath his tone, too, one that said: I may have led you to the water's edge, but damned if I'm going to sit here and watch you go fishing for sharks. A virtual prisoner at the edge of the clearing, Steven watched, his mouth melting into a frown, as Aaron waded deeper into the entranceway before vanishing from sight. The darkness regurgitated him a moment later.

He waved. "Come on! Don't just stand there!" His voice sounded muffled, as though it were traversing the length of a football field.

Steven remained rooted. Theoretically, he imagined he could lunge past Marcello to follow Aaron into the building, but the odds didn't stack too favorably toward that outcome. Realistically speaking, he was all but certain that should he try, Marcello would knock him upside the head and cart him off to Base Camp 1 like a sack of flour. All to shield him from the evil trapped inside. And while that was all very well and good, where did that leave Aaron? Why was he allowed to venture close and touch the stone? If there was some terrible thing entombed here, something so terrible that its exact nature couldn't even be whispered about, what was Marcello doing, letting Aaron dick around?

Why, you're his favorite child, of course. You're the one Daddy's taken a shine to.

Dread overtook the taste of saliva in his mouth.

"Aaron!"

Standing in the doorway, his blue T-shirt hovering in the darkness, he looked like a piece of cotton candy caught on a dragon's tooth.

Steven cupped his hands around his mouth. "Aaron!"

"What?" Again, his voice – so distorted. A screw was loose here; some vital cog that linked the five senses together was rusty and in desperate need of oiling.

"Come back! We're going!"

"What?"

Steven licked his lips. So hot. So very, very - -

"Steven? Steven!"

Marcello's voice, but unheard.

Steven had fainted.

"Chicken?"

"No thanks," Steven replied, waving the platter away.

Suppertime had crept up on them while out gallivanting through the "demon woods" (as Steven had come to think of it) and acting as a proper host, Marcello had forcibly led everyone back to his home for consumption of the afternoon meal. The house was a few blocks from the town square. Though damaged and sinking in its foundation, it was still inhabitable, and Steven entered inside with nary a second thought. After leading them to a long table at the very back of the building, he had called on his mother to serve them. She appeared from a side room, made a single pass around the table, and was gone before Steven could so much as determine her hair color. Clearly she did not enjoy waiting on intruders.

"Oh, please! Please!" Marcello placed the dish before Steven with a clink of china against wood. "Mother makes good chicken. One taste and all bad things will wash from the mind. Go on, have a bite and tell me if it is not so!"

A bite was had. Breading tore, giving way to the sweet, succulent chicken thigh beneath. Pretty good. No, delicious.

Marcello looked on in expectation. He was smiling. Ever since leaving the demon woods behind, that same smile (or a close facsimile) had taken up permanent residence on his face. Marcello was now back to his old, grinning self.

His old self. Steven had to scoff at that. They'd known each other for the better part of an afternoon and here he was, already presuming to know the "real" Marcello. Then again, maybe it wasn't so presumptuous. Hadn't he known exactly what to say to rile him up into taking them all to the abbey?

The abbey…

The half-eaten chicken strip dropped from Steven's fingers. The thudding sound it made as it landed against the table surprised him into a jump. Marcello's brow crinkled.

"Sorry." Blushing, he moved it alongside the others on his plate.

"Is something concerning you?" Marcello asked.

"No. Not really. I was just thinking about what happened back there."

"You fainted like a little bitch," Aaron said. Reaching across the table, he selected a chicken strip from Steven's plate. After a moment of examination, he unceremoniously shoved the entire thing into his mouth and began to chew.

"It is an evil place," Marcello said, eying Aaron disapprovingly. "You felt it. We all did."

Aaron went about licking grease from his fingers. "I got a little sick back there, too. Headache. 'Course, I didn't faint like a little bitch."

"I regret taking you," Marcello said, eyes downcast, studying his plate.

"No, I wanted to go. It was cool." He took a bite of his chicken, what little Aaron hadn't stolen. See? I'm grateful. Grateful for so many things. "So what's its story?" Every other syllable was lost amid the sound of chewing.

For a moment, he was unsure that Marcello would answer. Which would've been a major bummer, considering the teeth he had pulled the first time, just getting him to say the word "abbey".

But a wipe of the mouth against a napkin and he was talking. He spoke haltingly, but freely. Seated at the table of his dining room, within reach of his new friends, the details rose unhindered. Here he was safe. And if Thedonna the city was haunted, it was by familiar ghosts with benevolent purposes.

"The forest is bad," he began, "but the abbey is evil. There are those who use the forest as a place to practice dark arts in secret. Everyone knows the stories."

"And now we've seen the evidence," Steven said. He was thinking of the basin, that basin filled with stinking guts.

Marcello nodded. "Women go there to fornicate with the devil. They live in cottages made of twigs and mud. Then, when the time arrives to have birth, the devil appears once more and he takes their babies. He takes the babies back to the abbey and leaves the bodies of the women inside the hollow trees. They die in childbirth and the babies are evil things, half human and half devil also. They say there is a room underneath the abbey filled with the babies, top to bottom. They die quickly - they are not meant for this world - but their spirits continue to haunt the area. Their ghosts are cannibals, and will eat the living who venture in their territory.

"Legend also says that many hundred years ago, in the time of plague, a great darkness swept the land. Many people were deceived and were damned beyond salvation. It was a time of great ruin, but the Seed was captured by the monks and imprisoned beneath the abbey. No one knows how they did it, but the world was saved because they did."

Swallowing, Marcello reached for his water. "Some things are too evil even for Hell."

"Demon flesh-eating babies!" Aaron's tone was singsong, but out of tune. And the scoff that followed sounded fake as canned sitcom laughter.

"No one has been inside the abbey," Marcello continued. "The forest belongs to the witches and the worshipers of the devil, but even they know the abbey is forbidden. Your body reacts to that place. It is like a sign: 'Keep Away'."

Yes, a sign, one that your body reacted to. That was a good enough description as any. Steven remembered the feeling of sickness creeping over him, of the terrible vertigo assaulting his equilibrium. He remembered dropping dead away in the clearing, and then waking some time later hoisted between Aaron and Marcello's shoulders. But he couldn't remember leaving the woods. More than that, he couldn't remember the abbey. Oh, not that it was complete amnesia. No, nothing like that. The little things were still clear to him – a flash of gray wall, a narrow slice of open doorway – but the details were scattered, disconnected. The larger picture had been torn out with scissors, leaving behind only the dull caption beneath.

Was it the same for the others? When they tried to recollect their time in the forest, did they get any of the same interference?

Forbidden. There was dark poetry in the word.

Steven chugged back a glassful of water. When it was empty, he rose from his place at the table and made his way to the sideboard, where Marcello's mother had placed a pitcher - allowing them to help themselves so she didn't have to.

"How many times have you been down there?" He asked as he poured.

"Never," Marcello answered. "Not until now, anyway. And if my mother knew, she would kick me out and curse my name."

Blinking, Steven set the pitcher aside. "But … but if you've never been there, how did you…"

"You follow your nose."

The two of them regarded one another, contemplating. And it was then that Steven found himself suddenly aware of the low ceiling, the peeling wallpaper, and the lack of windows that required candles to be placed atop every available surface. The city was still powerless, a condition that likely wouldn't be improved upon any time soon, and the room glowed with a warm, orange light that seemed to settle over the shadows instead of casting them away. The dining room looked like a miniature cathedral ablaze in votive candles.

Marcello's face was a skull-mask of highlighted cheekbones and dark crevices. His eyes lurked within what could be mistaken as empty sockets. He didn't move. The fingers resting against his glass didn't so much as twitch. He only rested silently, perhaps daring these two intruders to question the wisdom of his latest comment.

Shrugging, Steven walked back to his seat. Far be it for him to second-guess local legend. And really, it was sort of a quaint notion, wasn't it, to think of evil as having a stench? Probably smelled like farts.

"Fair enough," he said, making a point to smile and nod in Marcello's direction as he moved to sit back down. He was halfway there, too, when something in his glass caught his eye. It was floating near the top, whatever it was. Tiny. Looked like a gnat. Fearful that he might swallow it by accident (and more than a little paranoid that it might grow inside his bladder and give birth to a hoard of maggots that would eat him alive from the inside out), he set about fishing it from the cup.

So he didn't see Marcello reaching out toward him. He didn't understand the frantic Italian being spoken, which, if anybody had the time to translate, meant: Hey, watch it! Stop, stop, stop! And although he heard the clatter of his chair knocking against the floor, the sound was distant and unimportant. He did, however, have time to think that, boy, his chair was set a lot lower to the ground than he remembered it being.

He landed twice, once on the legs of his toppled chair, then on the hard floor itself, and by the time Marcello rushed to his side, he was weeping openly. It felt like he'd received a sledgehammer enema squarely between the cheeks. His rectum was a hard knot in his throat. And was it any surprise to hear, behind the sound of his own crying, laughter draying to the ceiling?

Hands were passing over him, poking, massaging. "Are you good? Steven, are you in pain?"

He rolled on his side. It was too painful to even lie prone. His buttocks had condensed into one giant yarn ball of ache. Breathing only resulted in the pain radiating up his spine. Was it broken? Sure felt like it. Actually, it didn't feel like anything below the neck, and that was the problem.

Marcello was at his side, hands sliding under the arms to lift him up. Steven shook his head, eyes clinched tight. It was all he could manage. Anything else simply hurt too much.

"Ooh! Oh man, you just made my day!" Weeping through hyena laughter, Aaron brought his hand slamming down on the tabletop, rattling silverware and wobbling candles. The other was pressed tight against his stomach as though to suppress a hernia threatening to pop. "I just - - I just - - I just shit myself! Somebody – new shorts, please! Oh, your ass is broken! Oh! Oooooh!"

More of the same ensued. Laughter was flung to the walls where it splashed like wet paint. It went on for so long and at such a volume that Steven considered it a small miracle that Marcello's mother didn't appear to throw them out. And who would have blamed her?

"No joke! I really did shit myself."

Marcello's hand disappeared. Slowly, very slowly, like a man rising from a dream, he began to stand. Every ounce of attention was focused on Aaron, every muscle in his body primed and ready for action. Any residual good humor left in his face had vanished. He advanced stealthily, leaving Steven at his feet, headed for Aaron, who was now laughing anew at having farted. His fists were two flesh-colored dumbbells hanging motionless at his side.

And there Aaron sat, oblivious to it all, to the hurt he had caused and to the fact that in another five seconds, there was an excellent chance that he would find himself disassembled and placed curbside for pickup along with the rest of the city's trash.

"Marcello." Steven made a grab for his arm. Caught his wrist. Tugged. Reached again as he pulled away. "Marcello!"

He reacted this time, jumping a little as he whipped his head around. Steven wished he had a Milk-Bone to toss. Good Marcello. Good boy. Now siiiiit.

"I'm fine. Really."

He swallowed, caught between actions. His legs were trembling, itching to maneuver their attached body through a fight that now looked like it wouldn't come to fruition. He cast a quick look back at Aaron, who returned the glance with a demure little wiggling of the fingers.

"Your friend needs to be taught a lesson."

"Yeah." Standing up again was done through a series of jerky movements and, exhausted at the end of it, Steven leaned against the wall – but gingerly so as not to irritate the shattered mess that was his tailbone. "Yeah, but not right now, okay?"

"Is he your friend?"

The question caught him off guard. It was astounding in its stupidity. In fact, it ranked right up there with, "Why is the sky blue?" and that most feared inquiry of parents everywhere: "Are we there yet?" Questions, in other words, that grated on the nerves due in part to its obvious answer. Is he your friend? You might as well ask Abbott if he knew of this Costello guy people were carrying on about.

"Sure he is," he answered finally, longing to tack on a "well, duh" onto the end. To suggest anything otherwise was just, well, silly.

Oh. So is inflicting vast amounts of physical trauma on your BFF an exclusively American trait, or…

Steven shook his head and tried to ignore the dull cramp of his sprained ankle and the screeching pain radiating from his lower spine. He looked into Marcello's face, a face that was lost to the light of the candles. Darkness had overtaken it, rendering it nothing more than an unreadable mountain range of dimples and hollows. He stared out at Steven, providing him time to elaborate on an answer that was apparently obvious.

"He's my best friend," he said. Or thought. Or whispered. For in that moment, he wasn't sure that he had spoken aloud at all. And what did it matter either way? Marcello had already turned away.

And when the supper was finished, they were led from the table. Marcello took the head of the line, never once acknowledging Aaron, and down they all passed through the same narrow hall they'd used to enter. Halfway to the door, Steven looked back just in time to see the lady of the house emerge from deeper inside, dart eyes around anxiously, and make for the heavy, gilded mirror hung on the portion of dining room wall that was visible. He watched, curious, as she produced a white sheet and went about draping it over the glass. A moment later and she was gone, leaving the mirror hanging like a magician's trick waiting to be uncovered before an applauding crowd.

Steven tapped Marcello on the shoulder.

"Oh," he said, following the nod of Steven's chin. "A safeguard against the other world. The barriers are weak at night, yes?"

"If you say so."

Twilight had settled over the outside world, igniting the skies with flaming contrails of yellow and red. The sun was a dying thing at the horizon's edge, gasping out the last rays of its light. What few buildings that remained upright were drawing long shadows into the road. The place was deserted, and without the aid of the generator-powered lamps that prevailed around Base Camp, the creepy quotient around here was set to skyrocket.

Steven squinted through the odd crisscrossing of light. Yep. Aaron was gone. Figured that he couldn't wait up.

"I guess you will be going now," Marcello said.

"Yeah, it's getting late."

"Can you find your way back?"

No. "Shouldn't be too hard."

"Go straight. You will find your way back no problem."

"Yep."

Marcello put out his hand, but yanked Steven into a hug at the last minute. "Ah, my friend! I feel as though another 'thank you' is in order."

"Don't mention it," Steven wheezed. Marcello was actually pretty strong. The hug hurt.

"This sounds odd, but you are a very good friend to me. It is odd because we have not known each other for a long time, yes?"

"I feel the same way," he replied. "About the friendship I mean."

"The only thing that gives me sadness is knowing that you will leave soon, never to return. And when that happens, I'll never see you again."

Holy geez, he was tearing up.

"Maybe we could be pals of the pen, however? Keep in touch that way."

"Yeah, we'll work something out." Steven shuffled on his feet. It was getting late, Aaron was probably halfway back to camp, and patience was waning. At this rate he wouldn't be returning home until well after dark.

Home? That's a good one. Since when is a tent flapping in the breeze your home?

Under a bleeding sky, the two boys continued to hold place – Marcello unwilling to break a connection that would be broken permanently soon enough, and Steven because he felt it would be rude to initiate the goodbyes. Mother of gosh, what was he waiting for, a big sloppy kiss on the lips? Eh, maybe that was too harsh. Actually, he was going to miss Marcello. His broken English, his staunch refusal to use contractions, a hundred other idiosyncrasies that would be greatly missed. The security that came with having a … having a …

A true friend?

Meanwhile, the shadows grew longer, darker. Stronger.

Steven sniffed. "Well…"

"Come by tomorrow, will you? We will conclude the adventures we began today!"

"Sure thing." Throwing up a hand, Steven took a step sideways.

No sooner had his hill hit the pavement than he was pulled back by a maul of fingers gripping his shoulder. He was spun like a dradel to face Marcello once more, whose face had – once again – taken on a hard and serious cast. Geez, he thought, it's gonna take two sloppies to get out of this one. Better start puckering up.

Marcello's amber eyes peered back at him, unblinking, unmoving. Gone was the veil of unshed tears "There is something I need you to promise to me," he said without dropping his hands.

Oh geez. Steven braced himself. There was no question that the two boys had kindled a quick friendship, and since that time of meeting scant hours ago, Steven had picked up on a number of different Marcellos as they presented themselves to him. There was super friendly / almost creepy Marcello (or "Classic Taste", as Steven liked to think of it as), amazing friend / bouncer Marcello, and then there was Marcello of the Mysterious Warnings. Which was not Steven's favorite version. Not by a long shot. This was partially due to the fact that this Marcello had a tendency to drop by unexpectedly. Why, you could be having a perfectly lovely afternoon by the riverside and bam! Marcello would be all slack-jawed and distant-eyed, as though he was on the receiving end of a telepathic message. But the warnings he issued usually had some supernatural flavor to them, and that was fun at least.

"Do not return to the woods."

Yep.

"That was my fault, and I take full responsibility," he continued. "It was like leading you into a room without windows then asking that you not look into the darkness. But you have to understand -"

Steven nodded. "I get it. It's okay. Really, I -"

Marcello's hand, which had never left his shoulder, squeezed. "You do not understand because you are not from here. Please do not misunderstand. I am not …how do you say… putting you down. But I know our traditions must seem strange to you.

"But the danger is real.

"Those woods are..."

His hand dropped finally, allowing Steven to pop his neck instinctively.

"I have seen the devil worshipers myself. I have waked at night to see their lanterns moving behind the trees. I have seen proof of their rituals, and not just what you saw today. They sacrifice and summon and would just as soon kill you as look at you! They called up this earthquake! It is because of them that my city lies in ruins! They used their black magic and their spell books and their blasphemes to kill us all!"

There was more to be said, more accusations to be hurled, but Marcello clamped them down behind a mouth that was already twisting into a scowl. Air hissed through his nostrils. He sighed. A faint pink hue was just beginning to spread across the olive of his cheeks. He was embarrassed – which was good; he'd been yelling, and while he might not have been yelling at Steven, he had been on the receiving end of it, a position he didn't appreciate.

He was also claming down, which was also good – for him. There for a second he looked like he would pop a blood vessel and go bleeding from the nose, he was so worked up.

The minutes stretched on with durable elasticity. It was Steven's turn to say something. But what? One in two dead. Maybe the media had played loose with the statistics, but there was no denying the pain slashed across this face. Marcello had lost someone; that much was clear. Many someones, most likely. And when you thought about Thedonna, his home, a city that was all but dead and buried – well, it was understandable that he'd blame something like black magic for all the destruction. It sure beat blaming God.

"I am sorry," Marcello said, his voice clicking through a swallow.

"That's okay."

"Here. I want you to have something." And then he was reaching up, unclasping something from around his neck. A gold chain of some sort. A crucifix. Christ twirled in the air like a plumb bob, winking captured sunlight.

"What? No, I can't take this."

"But you will." Smiling, Marcello took hold of Steven's hand, turned it palm face up, and deposited the necklace. It lay curled in his hand like a gold snake ready to strike. "I have many. But this one is special. My grandmother gave it to me."

"In that case, I really can't take it."

"No." Hands clamped down in a sudden flash. Squeezed. The sharp edges of the crucifix bit into the flesh of Steven's palm. "You are important to me, and I want to make sure you are well protected."

Well protected. A memory was bubbling to the surface, and Steven's brow furrowed as he pushed other things to the side, allowing the recollection to froth. A few broken images swam to mind – the two men he'd seen on the church steps his first day in town, the silent mob at the town square – but linking them together would require more mental glue than he had at his disposal.

"I appreciate it," he said, sliding the chain into his pants pocket. "I'll wear it all the time."

And then it came to him. The two men at the church, the men, women, and children that made up the crowd at the plaza – they'd all been wearing crosses. From the oldest to the youngest, all had been sporting the same image of a crucified Jesus. Sometimes it'd been silver, sometimes gold, but always it was that.

For protection. It made sense in a crazy, senseless way. But from what? Are the woods really that bad? Was the abbey really that scary? He tried to think back but found he couldn't.

Marcello shuffled. "I suppose you have got to go."

"Yeah."

"I will see you tomorrow, yes?"

"Yep."

"Good."

The boys threw up hands of departure. Steven turned to go.

"Oh, and Steven."

Gah. "Yeah?"

"Remember: stay clear of the forest, and especially the abbey. They belong to the Seed now."

He smiled, nodded politely, and set off down the street. When he was a safe enough distance away, he uncrossed the fingers of his left hand, grinning as he did so.