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* The Library - Fiction for the Heart *

The Gathering
Ch. 15 - The Dark Place

"He lives in a corner on the far side of the dark place," he said, shuddering. "The Dark Place... every inch of it reeks of him and his hatred. It's like every nightmare ever dreamed, all rolled into one. Every possible imagined horror. The ones who are trapped there are living what's in their minds, recreating it over and over again, and he helps feed their fears. Torture and pain and monsters and demons!" He shuddered again. "The air is filled with their moans and cries and screams."

He buried his face in his hands and was silent for a moment.

"How do you know so much about him?" Girda asked.

When he looked up at her his eyes were bleak and empty. "Because I went there. I followed him and I watched him... And I was in the Dark Place for ... a very long time. That's where I found these two," he said, gesturing to the two newcomers. Mabel held the little crippled one on her lap, and the little feral child was huddled by herself on the far side of the circle. "But, that came much later.

"I followed the enemy, from a distance I watched him stalk Her. Several times I lost them both, but always, She drew me, as She must have drawn him. And finally he ambushed her. She was easy prey, lost and broken as she was with grief and self-hate. He captured her and I heard him laughing as he dragged her off to the dark place. I followed them there. He must have known I was following - he's very clever. But he paid me no mind. I suppose he didn't see me as a threat. He has huge belief in his own power. And besides, he knew about the Dark Place, and I didn't... not then." He began to cry again, anguished sobs strangling his throat. "The suffering!" he cried. "The terrible suffering! Breaking my heart, wrenching... ah god and nobody to help them."

Desiree and Mara both burst into tears. Magda felt her own throat clog with tears and she reached for Mara's hand.

"I saw," he said, "I saw as if through a fog. I saw him rape her and torture her. I saw him toy with her. He held out hope like a carrot and when she reached for it he slapped her down. She sank deeper and deeper into despair and there was no escape. I was desperate to reach Her, but every time I thought I was near, I would turn a corner only to find they were much farther off. I finally realized the enemy was toying with me, showing me these pictures. He's a cruel one, he is. Rage and terror warred in my head, and I lost myself for a while. I don't know how long. I was in total darkness.

"When I finally came back to myself and looked around, I realized I was deep, deep in the bowels of the Dark Place. Across a wide chasm I saw Her. Chained and caged like an animal. Beaten, bruised, broken. And She looked so much smaller than She had before. The chains were not heavy, and the bars of the cage were wide. The enemy was nowhere in sight. 'Run!' I shouted across the chasm. 'Run and get out of there!' She didn't seem to hear me, but we both heard a hideous cackle and I saw him then, hiding in the shadows just behind her cage. 'Run, run!' he mimicked me. 'Look, help is on the way!' he said to her. 'Run to him, little pipsqueak thinks he can save you.' And he roared with laughter.

"Rage filled my head and blurred my eyes and I leaped from where I stood, determined to reach her, across the distance of this wide chasm. I don't know what I thought I was doing. Rage forced me to leap, but terror gripped me then, as I began to fall into the chasm. Faster and faster I fell, and I knew I was going to die. Once again, I had failed and I would die a failure. Rage rose up again and there was a war in my head between rage and terror and ... I blanked out again. I came to standing in the chamber where I had seen her. But the cage was empty. How long had I fallen? How long had I been blacked out? I didn't know, but She was gone, and the enemy was nowhere to be seen. I had failed again."

Tears filled his eyes and spilled over onto his cheeks. They all moved closer and murmured reassurances and love. But he shook his head and shrank from them.

"I failed!" he shouted. "Don't you understand? I failed them both. I couldn't do what He said was my reason for being. And I failed Her, I couldn't save Her. I... I should have died then! I shouldn't have continued to live and breathe as if I had a right to. The suffering went on and I couldn't do anything about it!"

Sobs wracked his body and he lay on his side, curled into a ball, crying and wailing and wishing to die. His shame, he cried, was that he failed and yet lived. Such a crime was unconscionable. On and on he cried, growling and howling and rocking. They gathered closer round him, at the ready in case his self-hate should make him try to hurt himself. At last, in the wee hours of the night, his howling/growling sank to quiet gasps. He lay curled on his side and stared into the fire.

"For so long I stayed there," he said. "in the Dark Place. I don't know how long. I stayed because it seemed fitting place for me. I wandered the dungeons and cesspools and stark barren wastelands. I saw many, many souls, tortured and suffering. I helped where I could, when I was myself and could think to do it. Much of the time, though, I was lost in the grip of a horror so deep and strong it was like heavy chains on my feet, dragging me down into the bile and the excrement. I'm sure I drooled and stank and raved like the rest of them.

"Then one day, came to my nose amidst the reek of decay and filth, the sweet scent of honeysuckle... so brief and tantalizing, it woke me from some dark dream. I woke fully, probably for the first time in ages. The scent was fading but I remember being gripped by a desperation and determination and that lifted me up out of the stinking muck enough to be able to follow the scent.

"Under a rock I found them, those two together. The wild one protecting the other, she snarled and scratched at me, daring me to approach. Suddenly I realized what must have happened. These were parts of Her, small parts that had broken off some time ago. That's why she seemed so much smaller when I saw Her last. She was literally falling apart from pain."

They all gasped and looked around for the wild child, only to find her sitting quietly near them. She was listening intently, and from her eyes, raptly fastened on the Raggedy Man, tears were spilling and rolling down her small face.

"There may be more there," he continued. "More bits of Her, but I knew I had to get these two out of there and quickly. I wrapped them in rags and hid them under my coat, although getting near them was no easy chore." He chuckled.

The wild child crept closer and closer as he talked. They all sat very still, and watched in amazement as she nestled her little body into the curl of his belly, and covered herself with his raggedy coat.

"Not so much of a wild animal now," he said. "Being here has helped."

"So, how did you get out of there?" Magda asked.

"I carried them hidden under my coat for days, looking for a way out. They were much lighter than I thought they would be. In that place everything feels slow and heavy and impossible. Despair reigns supreme. But I think something was helping us ... helping them. Something was reaching across the darkness and giving them a small measure of hope maybe, making them lighter. And that same something was pulling at them. Once I realized that, I waited until our little cripple here pointed the way with her good arm. Sometimes it was a long wait, but eventually she felt the pull and showed me which way to go. Even so, it began to feel like we wouldn't make it. Along the outer edges of the place, the enemy has great barriers in place to keep people in. I felt them, dragging at me, whispering despair in my ears, goading me with my own failures, encouraging me to give up. I refused to give up!" he said angrily. "Desperate, I kept on, though the going was so slow. Suddenly we came upon a tall, thin man, sitting on a rock, looking very sad. He greeted us and said he was trying to escape too, and if we all went together, maybe we would have better luck. And we did. In no time at all we found a break in the darkness, a light shining literally from the far end of a tunnel. We followed the light, through the tunnel and out into the bright shining day of this earth."

"And then you followed this 'pull' into our mountains?" Mara asked.

"Yes, at first it was just that... and I had to consult my little friend there," he smiled at her where she lay in Mabel's lap, "in secret. I didn't want our companion to know I carried these two. I'm not sure why, I guess I didn't entirely trust him. Then after we reached the mountain, I could see a glowing on the horizon. We followed it for days and days, and never reached it. I began to think it was another of the enemy's tricks, but finally, after our companion left us, we found this valley. This place of magic healing."

Just then the sun began to climb over the rim of the earth and cast rose and gold fingers out into the night sky, pushing the dark night back with gentle, joyful color.

"In this one thing," the Raggedy Man sighed as he sat up, "I did not fail."

"No," Mabel said. "You rescued them." Her eyes were shining with tears.

"I did, didn't I?" he said. "I didn't fail. I saved them from that place."

He looked so pitiful and needful of reassurance that Magda wrapped her arms around him and held him tight. "They couldn't have got out of there on their own," she said. She smiled and touched the little head, now sleeping in the folds of his coat. "We are so very grateful," she said softly. "To us, you are not a failure."

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