For hours, Ed followed the green maze plowed through the valley. He realized that he felt just as strong after at least a half day’s worth of hoofing it as when he first stepped from the hill into the thick grass field. He perceived not one ounce of fatigue; actually when he thought about it, his body felt better than it had in years. He thanked God for his newfound vitality and continued to march forward as the light above him grew darker.
Ed’s footsteps echoed back a crackling as the grass turned brittle beneath him. He soon believed he was nearing the pits or places of the damned. He slowed his pace and took a sustained survey of the landscape that lay before him. He could see that the trail narrowed under a miniscule amount of light as if dark storm clouds had been placed between the ground and the midday sun.
He stopped before the narrowing and peered amid the grass lane ahead. He saw a figure come into view. A man, Ed supposed, a tall man, a broad shouldered man, a man that approached him at a stunningly quick pace if the footfalls that sounded as if a herd of cattle where stampeding straight for him were any indication. No time to react beyond a quick three word prayer, Ed shouted, “God save me!”
Dust swelled from the decayed vegetation-covered ground and ballooned all about the man thundering toward a stunned Ed. Expecting a collision, Ed clamped his eyelids shut and threw his arm out in front of him in an attempt to deflect part of the impact.
A gust of wind tossed foul-smelling dirt onto Ed’s face, and laughter filled the air around him. He opened his eyes, blinking away the dead grass particles. The filth settled and standing a few feet in front of Ed was Mike, the redneck surfer.
Mike was slumped over, slapping his Mister Universe thighs. He was dressed in a white toga, resembling a Spartan from a documentary Ed had seen on ancient Greece. His tall strong body rippled in all the right places as he cackled at Ed’s expense.
“Mike?” Ed spoke while shaking soil from his hair.
“Call me Michael. Sorry, but you should have seen your face. You looked so scared. I have been sent to help you collect the souls you need. And to ensure that the adversary doesn’t drive you from your task unfairly. I cannot decide for you, and some things I will not be able to tell you, but I can keep you company. I know you’re confused, but I also know you’re a good man and a smart man. So I shouldn’t have to repeat myself. I hate repeating myself,” Michael stretched his arms out and twisted at his torso until a series of loud pops exploded as if he had fired a sixty caliber machine gun. “Lets go. It’s a long walk and the path is dark. Stay close and do not speak. Keep your ears open and listen for the sounds of the lost.”
Ed followed Michael into the tapered path. The grass that made up the walls faded from green to a dingy brown the color of tumbleweed. The ground below them was covered in thick crunchy plant remains a shade that Ed had never seen, a mixture of green and red, he called the color decay, and it crumbled below their feet into small dust clouds. The sky above them was as dark as the Gulf had been under the twirling clouds of Deborah. Ed focused his eyes on Michael’s ample muscular back, determined not to lose sight of the protector his Lord had sent him.
Michael wore a broad double-edged sword strapped across his back in a leather harness. The weapon was cast from a metal found in the outermost galaxy of the universe that was fifty times the strength of tungsten. On his feet he wore simple sandals with leather laces that crisscrossed his calves in a sequence of x’s until they tied off just below his knees. His white toga was held closed by a fine silk belt dyed a deep royal purple.
The two men hiked until even the angel with his eyes of a hawk could not see the light from the wider path behind them. Ed placed his feet in the larger prints left behind in the dirt by Michael’s sandals. Treating it as a game, he stared down to assure he didn’t miss a print. This he found less of a bore then gawking at the strong man’s back. They went on this way for another fifty yards; then Ed marched, crown of his head first, into Michael’s lower back, providing Ed a great view of the warrior’s high firm buttocks.
“Shhh,” Michael turned his head and held his index finger to his full ruby lips.
Give a guy a little warning before you hit the brakes. Ed stepped back from Michael rubbing the top of his sore head. Guess I can still feel pain, Ed thought as he shook the ringing from between his ears.
“Do you hear it?” Michael spoke as soft as a gentle breeze across the Rockies on a crisp winter morning.
“Hear what?” Ed’s hushed voice sounded like shouting compared to Michael’s.
“Just listen, Edward, just listen,” Michael whispered.
Ed’s head stopped ringing and the pain of the impact subsided. He heard nothing. He strained to listen, even closing his eyes to concentrate. Ed was about to ask what he was listening for when he heard it. The sounds were like humming in the wind, reminding Ed of his brother’s voice carried along the string from the tin can phone they had run across their childhood home. He could hear it, but was unable to make out one word of it as if he were standing forty floors above a crowd of rioters.
“Follow me closely, and do not touch the grasses lining the path,” Michael stepped forward, hunched over with his right hand only inches from the hilt of his sword.
The whispers sounded as if they came from all directions. Ed began to breathe heavily, his heart rate increased, and sweat formed in small droplets across his forehead. A soft breeze blew against the exposed moist flesh of Ed’s face. He came very close to screaming out, and clasped a hand over his mouth with a slap to stop the impulse.
“You must be quiet. We grow near the Pits. Stay close,” Michael scanned ahead from side to side ready to act if needed.
They proceeded another few feet. Michael stopped abruptly and knelt close to the ground. Ed stood peering into the dark over Michael’s shoulder. To Ed, it was as if the angel was listening for a train by holding his ear near the track. They remained that way for a full minute which to Ed felt more like twenty.
“There it is,” Michael stood back up and started forward again.
Ed followed close enough that Michael could feel warm breath against his bronzed shoulders. The murmurs that surrounded them bombarded Ed’s sense of hearing. Though unintelligible, the hushed voices gave Ed the distinct impression that whatever group created the whispered secrets were not happy. He swallowed hard and remained on Michael’s heels.
In the shadow of dim light they crept forward. Michael’s eyes focused on a point that grew closer with each step they took, Ed’s warm breath working as Michael’s assurance that he remained in tow. Another four steps and Michael came to a stop.
“This is it. Follow me and be quick. Here they COME!” Michael jumped forward and vanished into the ground.
Ed watched in stunned amazement as Michael leaped into a hole cut in a perfect square across the entire path. As the back of the angel’s head vanished from sight into the gap, the whispers grew louder.
Awoken to the presence of the intruders, the quiet voices became audible, “We are Legion, and we will take you.”
Ed spun on his heels to find a crowd of cat-like yellow eyes filling the path and moving straight for him. “We are Legion, and we will take you,” they repeated.
He turned back to the dark and deep hole, looked in, and saw no sign of Michael. Only depth that disappeared into obscurity. Ed took one last look over his shoulder to find the eyes closing the gap between them and him. “We are Legion, and we will have you.”
No time to think. No time to pray. No time except the second to decide to fight or run. Out of time, Ed reacted with a primal urge to flee, and he stepped into the hole.