“Doctor Bryson? But… isn’t he dead?” Odette asked, almost dropping her subgun in surprise.
“Yeah, he is,” I replied. “Which reminds me, how are you even here? No, wait, nevermind. It’s complicated.”
“It is, literally,” Doctor Bryson replied, “Physical manifestation is rather difficult to achieve. I only discovered how to do it properly fairly recently. Dream appearances are much easier for us.”
“Oh. Okay,” I said stupidly, “So… why are you here? Is it about Robert again?”
“Partly,” Doctor Bryson said, “but—”
“Is Stephen going to die?” Odette’s sudden question caught us both by surprise. Doctor Bryson turned for face her, and I knew right away what Doctor Bryson was going to say to her.
“I can’t tell you, Odette. I’m sorry.”
And I was right. Personally, I was getting kinda sick of hearing that.
“Okay,” I said, “so now that that’s out of the way, why are you here? Can you tell us any more about Robert’s plan?”
“Actually,” he replied, “this time I need to speak with Odette.”
“Me?” Odette exclaimed at the exact instant I said “Her?” Odette gave me a hurt look.
“I didn’t mean it like that!” I said quickly, “It’s just that I thought he’d be here to talk to me because he always talks to me and, uh, and… cr- ah… nuts.” I mentally hit myself, both for slamming Odette like that and for almost using course language in front of Doctor Bryson. I respected him too much for that. And why the hell did I keep acting like a complete jerk every time I talked to Odette? Jeez…
“Yes, Odette,” Doctor Bryson continued, ignoring my latest contraction of foot-in-mouth syndrome, “I am here to speak with you.”
“But… why me? Why not Steve? Doesn’t he need to know more about his dream or something?”
“Stephen already knows everything that he will need to know for the upcoming battle,” Doctor Bryson replied.
“Uh, actually, I don’t know everything,” I said, “like who the two people I’m going to have to choose between are, and whether or not I’m going to die fighting Robert. Those I would really like to know more about, if you don’t mind.”
“So what do I need to know?” Odette asked.
“The truth about Robert.”
“Fine, go ahead and ignore me,” I muttered under my breath, “No, really, I enjoy it. Please continue.”
“What truth?” A great sorrow enveloped Doctor Bryson’s face as he spoke.
“The Robert you knew is gone, Odette. There’s nothing left of him. You cannot bring him back.” Tears began to well up anew in Odette’s eyes. “I’m sorry.”
“No,” she said softly, fighting back a sob, “No, I can’t believe that. There is something left of him in there. There has to be.”
“There is nothing left,” Doctor Bryson said again as he sadly shook his head, “His soul has been destroyed, and in its place, there is only evil, hatred, and pain.”
“Not physical pain,” Doctoor Bryson explained, “It’s a longing, a desire that can never be fulfilled.”
“Desire for what?”
“Power. No matter how many lives he takes, no matter how much blood he drinks, no matter how many creatures or humans he brings under his command, it will never be enough to satisfy his desire for power.”
“Why not? He has to be one of the most powerful things on Earth how can he not be satisfied with that?”
“Because he is a slave to evil. He is the most powerful creature on the planet, and yet he is still bound in servitude to the Dark One.”
“You mean Satan,” I said. Doctor Bryson nodded.
“Correct. Robert is completely bound to his master’s commands; he has no choice but to carry them out. He is a being of incredible power, but that power is eternally bound to the will of another.”
“But… but if I went to him,” Odette said, “I… I could help him break free.”
“There is no breaking free from that,” Doctor Bryson said, “Robert is literally trapped in Hell-on-Earth now. If you were to go to him, he would turn you.”
“No! I would never become like him!”
“He would tempt you. He would offer you anything and everything you could ever desire. But it would all be a lie; all he can do is make you a slave, both to him and to his Dark Master.” For a long moment, the three of us just stood there. Odette looked like someone had just punched her in the gut, and I felt like I was going to puke.
“There’s… there’s no hope?” Odette finally asked, the barest trace of hope creeping into her voice.
“None,” Doctor Bryson replied sadly, “I’m sorry, Odette. The man you loved is truly gone.”
Odette slowly set her UMP down on the table before collapsing in her chair, tears now flowing down her cheeks. I looked over at Doctor Bryson.
“I’m sorry,” he said, “but she needed to understand the truth.”
“I know,” I said, unable to completely contain my anger. I really did know he was right, but still… “Did you have to tear her up like that? You just crushed the last hope she had—”
“That Robert wasn’t really gone?” Doctor Bryson asked, giving me the same look he’d given the congregation when he’d asked a rhetorical question as part of one of his sermons. “It was a false hope, Stephen. There was no chance of her bringing Robert back to the Light. If she’d gone to him, all she would have succeeded in doing would be to—”
“—get herself turned into a vamp,” I finished, “I know. But, still…” I gestured towards Odette. She was doing her best to keep it together, but her composure was breaking apart faster than the USSR did back in the ‘90s. Tears were flowing down her cheeks like a waterfall, and her shoulders were starting to shake. I moved towards her to try and comfort her, but Doctor Bryson was suddenly standing next to her.
“Here,” he said, “let me…” he trailed off as he started to reach for Odette’s head with both hands. I suddenly got a cold feeling in the pit of my stomach.
“Wait,” I said, “what are you…” Too late. Doctor Bryson gently pressed his fingers against the sides of Odette’s head. She gasped, her eyes going wide, her mouth falling open, her posture becoming bone-rigid.
“NO! Stop! Leave her alone!” My Baby SIG was suddenly in my hand, hammer back, leveled at Doctor Bryson’s head. I could not – and still cannot – remember actually drawing it.
“No,” Odette said, “It’s okay.” I slowly thumbed the SIG’s decocking lever, dropping the hammer, but didn’t lower the pistol. Something was off about her voice. It took me a second to figure out – she wasn’t upset anymore. She sounded… happy? What the hell?
“What did you do to her?” I asked as Doctor Bryson released her.
“He helped me to remember,” Odette said.
“Huh?” I shot Doctor Bryson a quizzical glance.
“She’d been repressing her memories of Robert,” he explained, “Cutting off all of the joyful moments the two of them had shared. She was trying to ease her pain, but she’d only made it worse because all she saw of him was his death and his becoming a vampire.”
“You didn’t hurt her?”
“No,” Odette said, “he helped me.” I slowly, very slowly, lowered the SIG and re-holstered it. “Thank you,” she said to Doctor Bryson. He just nodded in reply, then turned to me. I knew the look on his face; it was the one he’d given the congregation during sermons about the fall of humanity.
“Yeah…” I said sheepishly, “uh, sorry about the whole pointing-a-gun-at-you thing.” He ignored me.
“I was wrong.”
“About you knowing everything you need to know for defeating Robert.”
“Okay… what don’t I know?”
“You won’t be able to defeat him alone,” Doctor Bryson said solemnly.
“I won’t be alone,” I assured him, “I’ll have Odette, the team, and probably the rest of MHI backing me up. Heck, the Feds’ll probably show up too just for kicks.”
“You know that isn’t what I meant,” he replied. I sighed, suddenly feeling very frustrated.
“You know what? I’m getting sick and tired of people telling me things like that.”
“Perhaps, but you know it is the truth,” Doctor Bryson said.
“The truth?” I said, not bothering to mask my rising anger, “The truth is that I prayed for my uncle to live, that I prayed for you to live, and what happened?
“Why did you pray for us?” he asked.
“Huh? What does that have to do with anything?”
“You prayed for us to live,” Doctor Bryson continued, sounding exactly as he had when delivering sermons, “because you said you couldn’t live without us. And yet you are still here, all these years later.”
“You…” my rage was building so rapidly that I could barely think straight enough to form a sentence, “You taught me… you taught me that if I prayed in my hour of need, He would answer me! And he didn’t answer!”
“He gave you what you needed.”
“Needed! I didn’t need you to die! I needed you to teach me, to help me get through losing my uncle—”
“I could not be your guide forever,” Doctor Bryson said, “You needed to find your own path. And you needed to know the truth about your family.”
“That’s why my uncle died?!” I screamed, “So I could know the truth?!”
“I’m sorry you had to find out that way,” Doctor Bryson said, “I truly am.” And the worst part was that I could tell he meant it. “It was not the only reason; you know what happened to him, you know how badly that affected him, you know how much pain he was in. It was time for his suffering to end.”
“So you lied to me,” I spat, “You said that in my hour of need—”
“I taught you that in your hour of greatest need, that if you called out to the Lord, he would answer,” Doctor Bryson corrected. My rage hadn’t phased him one iota; he was still standing and speaking as if he was at the pulpit.
“Semantics,” I snarled, “You still lied.”
“I did not lie to you,” he said pointedly, “Your hour of greatest need has not arrived yet.”
“Get out!” I snarled, so angry that I could barely see straight, “Get out now!” His face fell.
“I’m sorry, Stephen,” he said sadly. Then he was gone. My jaw dropped. He hadn’t faded out, of vanished in a flash of light or anything like that: he’d just up and disappeared. For a long moment, I just stared at the spot where he’d been, my anger slowly dissipating.
“Are you all right?” Odette finally asked.
“Yeah, I’m good,” I lied. I suddenly felt very much like a steaming pile of s***. “How about you? Are you okay?”
“I’m fine,” she said.
“I’m okay, Steve,” she assured me.
“What did he do to you?”
“Like he said, he brought all of those memories of Robert – the good ones – back to the surface. And he made me realize the truth.”
“What truth?” I said, almost spitting out the last word.
“That Robert really is dead.” I gave her a confused look, so she explained. “You would have liked Robert, since you both love old hot-rods like The Beast, but I’m not so sure he would have liked you. He was a committed pacifist; hated violence of any kind, and would never hurt anyone for any reason. This… thing, it’s sending creatures to kill us, to try and hurt people to draw us out into the open. Robert, the man I knew, the man I loved, he would never have done that.”
“I’m sorry,” I said.
“Don’t be,” she replied, “It wasn’t your fault, and it wasn’t mine either. I know that now. I mean, it still hurts, but it’s easier to bear the pain now.” I nodded in understanding.
“It does get easier,” I said.
“I know.” We both sat back down at the table. I stared down at my now-soggy cereal for a long, long time, my appetite now gone.
“I don’t know about you,” I finally said, “but I’m beat. I’m gonna go upstairs, try to get some sleep.”
“That actually doesn’t…” Odette covered her mouth to stifle a yawn, “…doesn’t sound like a bad idea.” She started to her feet, then suddenly paused.
“Yes,” she said, “I just remembered something. C’mon.” She reached over the table, grabbed my wrist, and started pulling me towards the door.
“Hey, what’s going on?” I said as we entered the hallway, “Where’re we going?”
“My room,” she said.
“Your… your room?” I asked.
“Don’t ask questions, just follow me.”
“Wha..? Wha…?” I stammered as she drug me down the hall. This wasn’t happening. I mean, sure I liked her I liked her a lot, actually – but I wasn’t ready to take things that far yet; I’m one of those weirdoes that believes in waiting until after your married to have sex.
We ground to a halt outside her door.
“I’ll be back in a second,” she said, “wait right there.” She slipped inside before I could protest. I stood there like the proverbial deer caught in the headlights. I had no idea what to do. No, that’s wrong; I knew I had to turn her down, but how could I do that without completely destroying what little relationship we probably still had? Just tell her I’m not ready, I reasoned, tell her that I really appreciate the thought… no, that sounded bad. Tell her that you really like her, but you don’t think—
Odette’s door suddenly swung open, and I actually felt my brain freeze for a second.
“Wha… wha… wha…?” I gasped, struggling to get my brain working right.
“Do you like it?” Odette asked, “I really hope you do. I just got the package today. I actually wanted to give this to you a lot sooner, but it turns out they don’t make this particular model for the 220 Railed Compact, so I had to special-order it. I realized that with the way you wear it now, on the small of your back, if you fall down and land on it, that might cause some serious nerve damage. My dad’s a neurosurgeon,” she explained, then her face suddenly fell. “You don’t like it.”
“No, no,” I said quickly, “It’s great. That’s so much for thinking of me like this. I never thought about messing my back up like that.” Her smile returned to her face. I felt my heart, which was already doing loop-the-loops, skip another beat.
“Thanks,” she said as she pressed it into my hands, “I’m glad you like it. I hope it fits; they say it’s adjustable…”
“Yeah, I’ll, uh, I’ll get it set up in the morning. Thanks again.”
“You’re welcome. Goodnight.”
“Goodnight,” I replied. She smiled again, causing another missed heartbeat, and disappeared into her room, closing the door behind her. I slowly walked back into my room and sat down on the bed, waking Hondo who’d curled up in the middle of the mattress. I ignored the annoyed look he have me, instead staring in wonder and dread at the thing Odette had just given me.
It was a Galco Miami Classic shoulder holster, exactly like the one I’d been wearing in my dream.