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(An Ongoing Saga by Steven R. Harrel)

(Taken from concepts found in “This Side of the Whirlwind”)

May 13th, 2020,

Julia was the first to stir, opening her eyes and finding herself sitting in the driver’s seat of a dilapidated late model SUV. From what she could make-out, it was early morning and she was parked in the middle of some forest.  Jax, was stretched out beside her in the passenger’s seat while Hamza and Kaliyah were sleeping quietly in the back.  Suddenly, unexpectedly, Julia sucked in a deep and satisfying breath of pine-scented air, “Oh so invigorating,” she thought.  Only a moment later and with a smile on her face, Julia popped out of the rusty old Suburban and snaffled another happy, refreshing breath of sunshine.  “Mmmm, lord, that smells good!” she thought appraising her surroundings and wondering how safe she’d be heading into the woods to manage a little necessary business.  Moments later Julia slipped quietly beyond the first line of trees.  After a few minutes she made her way back to the vehicle, muttering to herself as she walked, “Humm, wonder where we are?” Julia glanced toward the tops of the trees.  “I sure don’t recognize these woods… hum, not at all.” Looking over at the old SUV she mumbled, “And how in the world did we end up in that old rust-bucket?”

“You should know, Jules.” Kaliyah nipped, stretching into a yawn, “You’re the reason we’re up here, Girly-Girl.” Kaliyah stretched again releasing another long sigh.  “What time is it?”

Julia, glancing at her phone noting, “It’s 7:25.  And what do you mean I’m the reason?  I have zero idea as to where we are or what we’re doing out here, for that matter; wherever here even is?”

“Naw, don’t give me that, Jules,” Kaliyah snarked in her typical irritated fashion, “Early yesterday morning you and Jax showed up at our house and talked Hamza and me into joining this crazy Mountain-Man road-trip.” She cleared her throat, “Excuse me, sister, Mountain-Person road-trip,” then harumphed. “Oh yeah, and Jax said you were the one who insisted on going camping and pushing everyone into joining the fun.” Kaliyah visibly grimaced, “Where’s the toilet paper, Wilderness-Wifie?” Kaliyah’s sneered into her tone.

“No, I did not!” Julia protested, pondering the vagaries of yesterday’s adventures and her apparent shoddy memories thereof.  “Wait a minute?” Julia whispered, “I do sort of remember something about yesterday.  It’s just,” she paused, stroked her chin, “It’s just an unclear snippet. That’s all I have, something about coming to your house to see if you guys wanted to join us.” Julia suddenly wrapped her arms about her chest, “Oh my gosh!  How could I have forgotten that?  So much went on yesterday and I’ve forgotten almost all of it?”

Julia looked up to see Kaliyah dancing about and glaring at her.

Julia pointed to the rear of the vehicle, “The toilet-paper is on the back bumper, Kali.”

“Bout time!” Kaliyah snapped, grabbing the tissue-paper as she passed and headed into the woods.

“Yeah, no problem.” Julia gave a little nod towards the SUV, “Hey, who’s piece of junk is that anyways? It looks like a death-trap.”

“I’ll just remind you, Julia Ann Dominic,” Jax cut in, yawning thru his words, “It was your idea to steal this big – ugly – broken-down – hunk of blue garbage!  What – were you – thinking, girl?” Jax’ rising staccatos accenting nearly every word. “Oh yeah, and just so you know, we’re at the end of some obscure dirt-road, off yet another tinier dirt-road named something like, South Hutchings or South Hutchinson’s Creek Road or some other equally Hill-Billy laden, god-forsaken, backwater road-name.  You drove us straight here as if you’d been here a hundred times.  And it took hours, by the way.  You wouldn’t listen to me or even tell us where we were going.  You said you just had to go and we’d all love it when we got there.  That’s all you’d say about it.  And we’re here.  And it was all quite irritating if you want to know?”

Julia gaped, “I didn’t do that, Jax! Don’t tell me that! It’s NOT possible!” Her voice climbing to a crescendo.

“That’s what Hamza said last night when you yelled at us to jump into this Piece-of-Junk SUV.  ’Not possible’ he said! I’m not getting in that vehicle, he yelled! How do you not remember that, Jules?”

Jax’ challenge opened a stream of tears down Julia’s face, “I don’t know, Jax.  I don’t remember most of yesterday.” Julia sniffled, half muttering half whispering thru further cascading tears, “It’s all too vague, Jax.  How can that be? It was just yesterday? What’s happening to me?”

“I don’t know love, but you’re forgetting a lot of important stuff lately.” Jax’ irritation was obvious in his response. “I have no idea what-the-heck is going on with you, but something’s gotta give, babe! I mean it.  Really.”  Jax raised both hands in response to his frustration as he indicated the forest all around them.  “Wow, babe! Can you believe how much I just sounded like my dad.  Uhg!” Jax grimaced and shuttered openly before turning over. “I’m going back to sleep.”

Julia stared into the woods, stunned bewilderment upon her face, “How could I do something like this Jax?” looking around she indicated the SUV and forest surroundings, “Or, steal a car and drive it out into the middle of nowhere?  How could I not remember any of it?  Come on Jax!” Julia’s voice began rising in amplitude again.  “What can I say to any of this?” Jules paused and looked vacantly into her hands. “You’re telling me I stole this rusty-truck and drove us into these woods?” Julia looked into the SUV, “How can that be, guys?  How can that be?  I don’t even know where here is!”

“I don’t know how you’re NOT remembering this stuff, Ma Barker; but you’re the one who stole this old rusty bucket of bolts and drove us out here.  I mean, yikes!  What a piece of junk.  We could all get gangrene just from sitting in this filthy thing!”

Julia raised her hands in a defensive posture, “Alright, alright, Jax, I get it!” Tears began forming in the corners of her eyes again.

Jax turn over in the passenger-seat, struggling to make purchase on a more comfortable position.  Quietly he groused, mumbling in route to unconsciousness, “Ooooh, I feel like I’m gonna get Lock-Jaw just laying here… on these… old rust-y springs.  Why in the wor—ld… you’d wan-na… ste—al this… nasss…” Jax’s voice trailed softly to a snore.

By the time Kaliyah emerged from the tree-line Julia’s tears were mostly dried-up.  Julia was sitting on a large log attempting to coerce memories about their previous day’s adventures. “Wow,” she thought.  “I do sort of remember taking that SUV last night!  Oh my gosh!” She covered her mouth, mortified by the thought she could behave in such a way.  Looking to Kaliyah, Julia commented.  “I can’t believe it, Kal.  I can’t believe I’d steal anything. Let alone that?” Julia paused as she indicated the SUV. “A filthy old Suburban?” Julia stalked over to the driver’s side door and shouted through the window. “Why Jax?  What could I have possibly been thinking?”  Anger suffused her voice and colored her face; doubt raged across her expression as tears blurred her vision.

Jax and Hamza erupted from the vehicle!

One day earlier: May 12th, early morning, McHenry Illinois

The little wharf outside of McHenry’s Riverwalk café and diner, McHenry Illinois, was deserted. Naoni quietly walked beside Gabnar as they headed towards the Main Street Station where they intended to board the 5:50 southbound train for Chicago. It had been several weeks of waiting in McHenry, waiting for further instructions from Abinnar, who of course, was awaiting his instructions from Abaddon.

Just that morning, around 4 a.m. Naoni received word they were to head south to Chicago OTC station where a vehicle would be rented and waiting.

Silently the couple boarded the blustering train.  Gabnar counted just five passengers in their assigned carriage.  Three men were sitting disparately while two elderly women sat together blithely chatting at the back of the railcar.

Gabnar quirked, “Looks to be a light fare this trip, Naoni.”

“They’ll do, Love, they’ll do.” Naoni quipped, smiling, nodding towards the men as they passed and headed for the rear of the compartment. It had been several days since their last bit of nourishment as opportunity had not readily presented itself waiting in McHenry.

Naoni introduced herself to the two ladies, Patricia and Rochel, before taking an adjacent seat. Both women were frequent travelers on Northwestern’s Union Pacific Rail-lines (NWUP) and were ready to entertain fellow travelers. As the train pulled out of the station, Gabnar commented on how the train was to arrive in Chicago Ogilvie Transportation Center (OTC) by 7:15 a.m., local time that is.  Everyone seemed pleased.

Nearly an hour and a half later the train slowed and pulled into Chicago’s OTC.  Passengers began to disembark; however, no one seemed to notice Patricia’s and Rochel’s absence amongst those deboarding, neither did anyone notice the added spring in the steps of Gabnar and Naoni. 

As Frequent-Flyers on the NWUP, attendants regularly witnessed the two ladies riding the train without getting off at rail’s end.  Occasionally the two friends would enjoy a little shopping in the Malls or Plazas of Chicago.  It was, however, frequent for the two ladies to simply remain on the train, share a round-trip and play Cribbage or a little Canasta or possibly a spot of Dominoes between stations. Today, their games came to an end.  Though not searching for missing passengers, attendants stumbled across the bodies of Patricia and Rochel.  The matrons were a gruesome discovery at rail’s end as maintenance personal moved towards the evening’s clean-up. One of the Porters, while pitching in and helping one of the line’s janitors, discovered Patricia’s and Rochel’s remains ignominiously crammed into a rear utility closet near the back of the baggage compartment.  Rail authorities were quickly summoned.

Somehow, horrifically, assailants were able to shove Patricia’s and Rochel’s bodies into the railcar’s tiny utility-closet, a compartment no larger than a single cubic meter.  Authorities have yet to explain how two robust elderly women were able to fit into a one-meter by one-meter storage space.

By the time the lady’s bodies were located it was too late to question any of the day’s passengers. 

Gabnar and Naoni were miles away as they had quickly retrieved the rental vehicle and immediately drove out of Chicago’s OTC.  Once on the road, they headed South-West, turning onto I-57 and driving towards Mount Vernon, Illinois. The final leg of their journey would take them south to Shawnee National Forest’s, the “Garden of the Gods” where according to Naoni, a young woman named Julia would be awaiting their arrival.

“You know Sha-nea´- Malum will be the messenger,” Naoni quipped musically. 

Gabnar glanced at Naoni and then smiled, “He’s one of Abaddon’s chief enforcers you know.”

“Yes, I know,” she replied; “I always liked him.”

“Naoni, once we’ve arrived at the ‘Garden of the Gods,’ do we know where we’re supposed to go from there?” Again, Gabnar glanced Naoni’s direction before turning South changing lanes and passing.

Naoni frowned, “Yes, Gabe.  We’re supposed to meet Sha-nea´- Malum, or that woman Julia on the crest of a hill which will be just east of an obvious clearing.”

“Do say,” Gabnar teased.

“Yes, I do say.  The clearing itself is directly east of South Hutchins Creek Road, three quarters of mile after we turn-off on a road I’ll be watching for.  I have GPS coordinates for where we’re to pull off.  Some dirt road and then we’ll hike to a lone hill in the woods.  They should be waiting for us by the time we get there.”

“I should hope so.” Gabnar mocked as he nodded. “This won’t be like the Marostica outing, will it?” Gabnar smiled and tittered.

Naoni flicked her fingers forward, “Faster Gabnar.  We’ve got a deadline.” Naoni smiled sweetly if not mordantly.

“I like the way you say that word, ‘deadline,’ Naoni.” Gabnar chuckled quietly.

Jax noted they had been hiking for hours now; complaining his feet were sore and that he and everyone else wanted to know where they were going and for how much longer they’d be strung along. 

Earlier and without prelude, Julia had taken off, walking into the woods a pace before shouting for her friends to follow.  Now, two hours had passed with everyone demanding answers.

Pretentiously, Julia declared, “That’s where we’re headed, guys!” pointing deeper into the woods and smirking.  Earlier complaints had caused Julia to point into and through the trees to a rock-covered mount which seemed to rise up and out of a clearing.  It was an odd mount with rock formations in the middle of another barren, almost tailored looking clearing.

“I thought you said you didn’t have a destination in mind, Jules?” Kaliyah taunted.

Hamza was not interested by this point.  He had had enough, “I was not expecting a two-hour forced-hike, Jax!” And let’s not forget guys, we still have to find our way back when she gets to wherever she is going.”

Jax piped up, “I know, Hamz.  I don’t think I’ll have any trouble finding my way back.”

“I hope so, because I don’t think anyone is taking notes and I am not a Mountain-Man, Jax.  I don’t think I could find my way back to that clunker Jules stole last-night.” Hamza barked.

Julia raised her voice, “Hey!  Stop whining Hamza.  And quit bringing up that SUV, guys. That’s enough!  I mean really.  I don’t know why I took that stupid vehicle and I don’t have any memories of doing so either.”

Everyone had noticed the change in Julia manner and how out of character she was behaving. Shortly after leaving their campsite, Jax began to question Julia, “Hey Jules, what’s going on with you? You seem so different right now… again; what’s up?”

“Don’t be silly, Jax. How could I be different? We’ve been together all day, the entire day.  I’m right here, right now!  It’s just me.  So, how could I be different?”

“I’m, I’m, I’m not sure, girl, but something’s up with you.” Jax looked to his friends who were indicating their agreement, “Something’s different, Jules.  I don’t know what, be we can all see it.”

“Don’t be silly. Hey! We’re almost there.” Julia said, stepping up her pace.

“Gabnar, come and sit beside me,” Naoni patted the empty space on the granite bowlder, “right here.” Naoni sat gathering in the beautiful surroundings, “Aren’t these trees lovely?”

Irritability was getting the better of Gabnar, for his hunger was constant and always gnawing at him.  “I don’t want to sit down. We’ve been waiting on the top of this hill for more than an hour,” he grumbled, “I’m hungry.” Gabnar returned to pacing the summit irascibly.

After twenty or more minutes of Gabnar’s pacing Naoni smiled sweetly in his direction, “Come, dear, we’ll get something to eat in a couple hours.  I promise.” Naoni patted the space beside her as two Park-Rangers unexpectedly crested the hill.

“Hello folks,” the closest Ranger, a young female officer offered a friendly greeting.  The second, slightly older and more substantial woman, reached for her walkie. 

Suddenly, and without preamble, tentacle like appendages erupted from under Gabnar’s clothing, powerfully seizing the nearest Ranger!  Though gripped by fear she fought with all she was worth; unfortunately, she was quickly entangled and caught as surely as any trout on a three-pronged fishing hook. The illusion that was Gabnar’s outer form wavered and shifted into a horrifying beast.

“For heaven sake, Gabe!” Naoni sighed.

A look of pure-horror seized the second Ranger as she watched Gabnar morph into an unholy and demon-like form.  Though she understood the likely futility of her actions, she quickly reached for the bear-spray at her side.  Naoni was however, faster, terribly fast with lightning-fast reflexes covering ten to twelve paces within a single moment.  The second Ranger was instantly caught-up in the throes of Naoni’s great violence.  Her screams added to her partner’s fading shrieks impotently filling the surrounding forest and air with their failing protests!

Just as Naoni began to genuinely enjoy her meal, she noticed Gabnar’s feeding was going too far.  She knew that he must stop immediately or risk killing his prey and leaving her no more than a crumpled and withered husk.  Naoni shouted, “Gabnar, you must stop!  Pull back, Gabe.  Pull back!” Naoni’s rising ire was evident, only slightly sated by her Ranger’s deliciously satisfying soul on tap. “Gabnar!” She shouted again, “We must leave these two walking!  Do not kill her, Gabe?” Naoni’s wriggling, writhing limbs pulsed as her meal was slowly forced to its end.

Reluctantly, Gabnar, released the young woman.

  ∮

The four friends were stopped dead in their tracks.  Jax had just begun to climb the steep hill when they heard the screams from above.  He immediately spun in his tracks to face Julia and friends.

“What, in the name of all that’s creepy, is that?” Jax whispered to his friends.  Though Julia had claimed the hill would be their last stop before heading back, the grave and intense screams from above rang-out and now Jax was not sure he was willing to ascend this mount.

Hamza’s eyes went wide, his skin grew pale, something Jax had not seen before in his longtime friend. Quickly Hamza raised both arms, palms up, shrugging his shoulders and returning Jax’ whispering, “We should turn back, Jax” concern obvious in Hamza’s voice.

Without warning Julia broke from their group, running rapidly up the hill, “Sound’s like somebody’s in trouble to me.  Someone needs help, come on guys!”

No one immediately followed.

“I’m not going up there, Jax,” Kaliyah blurted, “Forget it! Sounds like somebody’s dying, to me!” Kaliyah rapidly began to back away from the hill, fear in her eyes. “Jules has lost her mind if she thinks I’m going up there!” Kaliyah pointed towards the summit.

Jax turned and ran after Julia.  “I can’t leave her, guys.  Stay here if you want, but I gotta go!”  As he climbed the hill the sound of his words were lost in the clattering shale and plodding of his feet.

For little more than a minute Jax stumbled through the shale trying to keep up with Julia.  Julia however had made incredible purchase in her climb, quickly cresting the hill to be immediately greeted by Gabnar.  When Julia arrived, Gabnar had just seated the second Rangers on a large bowlder.  Turning, he faced what he thought might be another threat.  Julia’s approach was undaunted.  She noticed the vapid and glazed stares coming from both Rangers and without hesitation greeted Gabnar and Naoni, “So, did you two have a nice lunch,” Sha-nea´- Malum quipped, firmly in charge?

Naoni smiled at Julia, “Yes, my lord. We were just making good use of our time while waiting.”

“We should get these two moving, don’t you think?” Directed Sha-nea´- Malum.

Naoni pointed towards the backside of the hill, “Let’s send them in that direction, Gabe.”

Gabnar quickly guided the Rangers to their feet and sent them hiking down the backside of the hill. 
“Eventually, they will just wander off and into the forest. They are no longer our problem.” Gabnar continued to wave and shoe the Rangers on. “Go, go, go.  Go on.  Off with you.”

Only a moment passed before Jax caught up to Julia. Between gasps of air he inquired, “Hey Jules, what going on!  Who are these people?” Jax looked from Gabnar to Naoni to Julia, “Jules, do you know this couple?”

“Sort of, Jax.” Julia responded.

“And did you ask them if they’d heard those blood curdling screams we heard just a few minutes ago?” Jax moved decidedly closer to Julia, assuming a more protective posture.

“Oh, that.” Naoni said. “We were just talking with two Park-Rangers.” Naoni pointed in the direction the Rangers had taken, “The Rangers were demonstrating how ineffective screams would be out here, in the middle of nowhere – if, for any reason we needed some help.”

Gabnar cut in, “I guess they were wrong. Weren’t they? Someone did come to our rescue, didn’t they?  And look, Naoni, our heroes!” Gabnar reached out and clapped Jax on the shoulder.

Jax scrutinized the two strangers, “Aaah, how do you know these people, Jules?”

Julia glared at him, “Can we talk about that later, honey?”

Jax returned her glare, “No!  And when do you ever call me, honey, Jules?”

Decidedly ignoring his last question, Julia walks over to the side of the hill and waved, shouting for Hamza and Kaliyah to join them at the top of the hill. “It’s okay.  Come on up!”

As Jax’ eyes followed Julia actions, Naoni slipped behind Jax and attached one of her appendages to the base of his skull.  Immediately Jax felt overwhelmed by a loss of control and a sense of euphoria.  A feeling better, sweeter, more loving than any narcotic or recreational drug he had ever experienced.  All he knew was that he liked the feeling and wanted more.

A Few minutes passed before Hamza and Kaliyah reached the summit.  “Jax, Jules, what’s going on?” Hamza’s voice sounded strained, a voice bespeaking great concern. “Jules, what’s wrong with Jax?”

Kaliyah fell in close behind Hamza.

Jax was sitting to one side of a large bowlder with a stupid look on his face, an appearance of stunned confusion.

Julia waved her friends closer, “Hamza, come over here and meet my new friends.” Julia continued with a casual introduction, “Gabe, Naoni this is our good friends Hamza Salman and Kaliyah Ajman. They live near us in Chicago.  We’ve gone to University together and work around each other sometimes and even go to some of the same rallies.  We are pretty close and live near each other in the Chicago area.”

“Pleasure to meet you.” Naoni said as she invited the younger couple to sit next to Jax.

Kaliyah cut in, “What’s wrong with…”.

It was too late. Kaliyah didn’t have a chance to finish her sentence before Gabnar and Naoni launched tentacle like appendages into the back of Kaliyah’s and Hamza’s heads. Only a moment later Jax was again added to their assault.  Several minutes passed as Naoni and Gabnar fed and plied information into the minds of Jax, Kaliyah and Hamza.  Information critical to the purposes and plans of Sha-nea´- Malum and his master.  Apollyon’s day was fast approaching.  Everything that needed to be made ready was nearly ready.  When the two Soul-Eaters finished implanting their master’s purposes and plans, they punctuated their treatments with a unique form of inspiration; a little something “The Beast” offered expressly for the age of the Great Consummation.  It was The Soul-Eaters Gift or curse as some might call it:  A talent presented in no other age since the dawn of Man. A curse which would one day be known as, The Soul-Eater’s Gift. A specifically nasty impartation which disguised itself as euphoric.  Unique to these last days would be the Soul-Eater’s Gift bringing a supernatural and demonic hatred for all things Christian or Judeo.  The hatred would disguise itself in waves of blissful and good borne feelings second to none.  Few if any would be able to resist.  Most would simply want to fulfill its every unction. 

A fit of jollity came over Naoni; giggling as she exclaimed, “Oh, I love sharing our special treasures.”

(Watch for the continuing saga!)