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NINE OF HEARTS

<p>

<p>By Jamie August

<p>

<p>

<p>

<p>

<p>Sarah took a swig from the Jack Daniels bottle in her hand and laughed to herself at the other two girls. Jacki and Sandra thought they had dragged Sarah here. 'Here' being the old Fairwater Sanatorium, scene

of fourteen deaths involving Patricia Anne Bradley and Johnny Bartlett. Sarah shook her head in amusement. Her friends thought they had talked her into bringing them here. In reality, she had only agreed by

virtue of her own reasons.

<p>

<p>Reasons that didn't include the Ouija board her companions were currently setting up. Sarah stretched her legs in front of her and shifted her weight to the chapel door behind her back. She watched as Jacki

pulled several long black candles from a duffel bag. The whole idea of a seance was terribly laughable to Sarah, but her roommates had insisted. They had also insisted that it take place on the fourth floor,

outside the chapel. A fact which Sarah suspected Sandy was quickly coming to regret.

<p>

<p>&quot;Is it safe up here? Maybe we should do this downstairs.&quot; Sandy stared pointedly at the splintered boards and holes in the floor.

<p>

<p>Jacki lit a candle and sighed. &quot;Coming up here was your idea. Besides, this is where that weird FBI guy bought it. And you know that spirits haunt the scene of their deaths.&quot;

<p>

<p>Sarah raised an eyebrow. &quot;FBI guy? You mean Dammers? Actually, he bought it right. . .here.&quot; She slapped her hand down on the floor about a foot from where she sat.

<p>

<p>&quot;And just how the hell could you know that?&quot; Jacki demanded.

<p>

<p>&quot;Bloodstains.&quot; Sarah widened her eyes innocently. &quot;I saw the bloodstains. How else would I know?&quot;

<p>

<p>&quot;Yeah, well, whatever. Are you going to join us here, or what?&quot; Jacki indicated the Ouija board where Sandra sat opposite her.

<p>

<p>Sarah smirked and took another nip from her bottle. &quot;Do you really think any spirit is going to waste its time talking to you? You ought to just go home.&quot;

<p>

<p>* * *

<p>

<p>Milton Dammers; whose spirit had been more or less loitering around the sanatorium since that bitch Patricia Bradley had blown his head off; agreed with the young woman sitting by the chapel door. He was

protective of his current haunt, and didn't take kindly to people invading his territory. Especially female people. Especially young female people. The one by the chapel door (the only halfway smart one, in his

opinion) looked the oldest of the three, and even she couldn't be more than nineteen or twenty, Dammers guessed. Glaring at them, he reared back and screamed at the top of his ghostly lungs,

<p>

<p>&quot;GET OUT!&quot;

<p>

<p>Of course, they couldn't hear him. Or see him, for that matter. Oblivious, they continued their quest to speak to the spirit world.

<p>

<p>

<p>

<p>&quot;Are there any spirits present?&quot; Jacki asked.

<p>

<p>Sarah laughed when the planchette moved to 'YES' and Sandra jerked her hands away from the board.

<p>

<p>&quot;You moved it!&quot;

<p>

<p>&quot;I did not.&quot; Jacki pulled her own fingers from the planchette.

<p>

<p>&quot;Maybe the ghost did it,&quot; Sarah offered. &quot;That is what you came here for, isn't it?&quot;

<p>

<p>Jacki shot her an irritated look and began to reply, but Dammers chose that moment to hurl the planchette against the wall. Jacki pointed and exclaimed, &quot;There, Sandy, do you think I did that?&quot;

<p>

<p>Sandra stared wide-eyed as Sarah retrieved the planchette and tossed it back onto the board. The second it touched down, it started on a deliberate path through the letters. Sandy gasped. &quot;Jacki! It's spelling

something. Take this down!&quot; The girls watched as the planchette moved from one letter to the next.

<p>

<p>G-O A-W-A-Y

<p>

<p>As he stopped on the 'Y', Dammers knocked all the candles over, sending quite a few rolling across the floor.

<p>

<p>Snorting derisively, Sarah shook her head. &quot;Maybe you should take a hint. I wouldn't piss off the ghost if I were you.&quot; Greatly entertained by this ridiculous charade, she wondered how long it would be before

the other girls turned and ran.

<p>

<p>

<p>

<p>&quot;Shut up, Sarah,&quot; Jacki muttered, relighting as many candles as she'd managed to save from falling through holes in the floor.

<p>

<p>Sandy tentatively danced her fingertips over the planchette and whispered, &quot;Who's there?&quot;

<p>

<p>&quot;Maybe it's Casper.&quot;

<p>

<p>The girls ignored Sarah as the indicator first jerked from their grasp, then began to spell again.

<p>

<p>F-B-I A-G-E-N-T D-A-M-M-E-R-S L-E-A-V-E N-O-W B-I-T-C-H

<p>

<p>Dammers once again picked up the planchette, this time opting to throw it at the little blond twit. The girl, Sandy, shrieked and clutched her head where the plastic triangle had struck. He sighed. On reflection, it

had probably been a mistake to respond to them at all, seeing as how it had only served to encourage the redheaded bitch that was running the show. But on the other hand, perhaps it had worked to his

advantage, since the blond was now whimpering that she wanted to go home, and the redhead was reluctantly giving in.

<p>

<p>&quot;Fine, fine. Are you coming, Sarah?&quot;

<p>

<p>Sarah shook her head and drew her legs up. &quot;No, you wait for me in the car. I want to check something out before I go.&quot;

<p>

<p>

<p>

<p>

<p>

<p>Dammers rolled his eyes and began to pace as the two girls packed up and left. Great. He wondered how long this one was planning on staying. He supposed he could go elsewhere to get away from her, but

this was his place, dammit! Besides, he was unsure of this girl's motives, and that disturbed him. She evidently had no interest in the seance, so why had she come? He briefly stopped pacing to glance at her. She

was staring directly at him, seeming almost to meet his eyes. Spooked, he resumed his pacing.

<p>

<p>

<p>

<p>&quot;Would you stop that? I'm getting dizzy just watching you.&quot;

<p>

<p>Dammers jumped and let out a shriek. He whirled around to find the girl still staring at him with a peculiar little smile on her face. &quot;You, aah . . . you can see me?&quot; He asked haltingly, ready to run and hide at the

first sign of aggression from the girl.

<p>

<p>Sarah chuckled and gazed curiously up at him. &quot;Of course I can see you. How could your pacing make me dizzy if I couldn't see you?&quot; She watched as Dammers nodded and nervously shifted from foot to foot.

Against all rationality, Sarah found herself undeniably attracted to the man. Hmm, she mused, I wonder what sex with a ghost is like.

<p>

<p>Finally Dammers raised his head and met Sarah's eyes. Frightened by the predatory gleam in the green irises, he gulped uncomfortably before attempting to speak again. &quot;So, uh . . . what . . . ahem . . . What do

you want from me?&quot; He managed to stammer.

<p>

<p>Smiling reassuringly, Sarah leaned forward and stared at him innocently. &quot;I want to help you, that's all. I can restore you to your body. Your body before your head was blown off,&quot; she quickly added.

<p>

<p>Dammers, who had backed up as the girl leaned toward him, now cautiously edged forward to within four feet of her. &quot;How . . . what . . . ?&quot; Steeling himself, he at last settled on a question. &quot;You can do that?&quot;

<p>

<p>&quot;Mm-hmm.&quot; Sarah nodded and regarded the ghost soberly. &quot;If you want me to.&quot;

<p>

<p>Dammers trembled in barely contained anticipation, momentarily forgetting his uneasiness. &quot;Of course I want you to. I don't enjoy being dead. It's been five years . . . five years . . . after Bannister's wife . . . five

years after forty-one murders . . . five and forty-one . . . no, I was the forty-first . . . or was I forty-second . . . &quot;

<p>

<p>Sarah allowed the ghost to mumble to himself while she planned her next course of action. Weighing things very carefully, she had come to the conclusion that the next phase of the plan would be the trickiest. But

she was almost certain that the lure of being back in corporeal form would be enough to convince him to do her bidding. And what fun I can have with him in corporeal form, Sarah thought wickedly.

<p>

<p>Dammers suddenly derailed his own line of incoherent rambling to glare down at Sarah suspiciously. &quot;What's in it for you?&quot;

<p>

<p>She studied his narrowed brown eyes and slowly nodded to herself. The best way to approach this is with honesty, she decided. &quot;There are a few things I'd like you to do for me first. But believe me, they won't

require much effort from somebody in your current . . . state of being. A few simple little tasks, that's all.&quot;

<p>

<p>Dammers backed halfway through a wall before sidling forward just enough to stay in the room. &quot;What simple little tasks?&quot;

<p>

<p>&quot;Well - -&quot;

<p>

<p>&quot;Sarah! Are you coming?&quot; Jacki's voice floated up the stairs.

<p>

<p>Sighing at the interruption, Sarah climbed to her feet and walked to the top of the stairwell. Tossing the car keys down, she told the other girl, &quot;Just go on without me. I'll walk home when I'm done.&quot;

<p>

<p>&quot;You'll walk back? It's ten miles!&quot;

<p>

<p>&quot;Seven miles.&quot;

<p>

<p>&quot;Whatever. What are you doing up there, anyway?&quot;

<p>

<p>&quot;I'll explain later. Go on home.&quot;

<p>

<p>After Jacki left, Sarah returned to the hallway outside the chapel, where Dammers had taken up his restless pacing again. When he saw that she'd returned, he stopped and stood twitching nervously. Now that

they were standing face to face, Sarah noticed with mild surprise that Dammers was only an inch or two taller than she. Crossing her arms over her chest, she realized with further surprise that she was a bit

apprehensive about the upcoming portion of her plan. Taking a deep breath and forcing herself to meet his eyes, she plunged ahead with her interrupted explanation.

<p>

<p>&quot;Well, first there are a few people you'll have to . . . get rid of . . . for me.&quot; Sarah paused and waited expectantly for his reaction. She didn't have to wait long.

<p>

<p>&quot;Get rid of . . . ?&quot; Dammers' eyes shot wide open and he jerked away violently, as if he'd been struck. &quot;I am not a murderer!&quot; He exclaimed, horrified.

<p>

<p>Sarah called upon all her mental reserve to continue. She raised her eyebrows and feigned surprise. &quot;Aren't you? Or is it standard practice for an FBI agent to shoot an unarmed man with an Uzi?&quot;

<p>

<p>Dammers stared at the floor and grimaced. &quot;Bannister,&quot; he muttered.

<p>

<p>Sarah nodded. &quot;That's right: Bannister. Now, are you really trying to tell me that you're above sacrificing a few people to attain your goal?&quot;

<p>

<p>Restraining himself from edging away again, Dammers swallowed the lump in his throat. &quot;And if I do these things for you,&quot; he pronounced carefully, &quot;you can restore me to my human form? Just as I was before

death?&quot;

<p>

<p>

<p>

<p>She nodded. &quot;You'll be good as new.&quot;

<p>

<p>Dammers considered this. &quot;And can you remedy other physical . . . uhm . . . afflictions . . . I suffered in life?&quot;

<p>

<p>If Sarah didn't know any better, she'd think the ghost was blushing. &quot;Yes. Good as new, like I said.&quot;

<p>

<p>Dammers fidgeted, then finally offered a guarded smile and nodded. &quot;Well, uh, I suppose . . . When you put it that way, I suppose it's an acceptable deal . . . &quot;

<p>

<p>* * *

<p>

<p>The walk home was interesting, to say the least. Because of certain vengeful spirits Dammers felt sure were out to get him, he opted to make the journey to Sarah's apartment inside her body. The joining of their

senses was a distracting experience, and more than once Sarah felt his panic pervade her body and mind. As they entered the apartment, she felt an overwhelming sense of relief, but whether from herself or him,

she couldn't be sure.

<p>

<p>Once inside the girl's bedroom, Dammers withdrew from her body as if she were on fire. Although, if he were to be perfectly honest with himself, occupying her being for the two-hour walk hadn't been as

unpleasant as he'd first feared. If nothing else, it had presented him with the opportunity to sense her thoughts, and he now had a clearer picture as to her motives. His biggest fear had been that she would use

him as her personal assassin, then not follow through on her end of the bargain. However, after seeing into her mind, that particular worry was, for the most part, laid to rest. Now he had a new neurotic anxiety.

<p>

<p>He'd felt Sarah's attraction to him, and hadn't been able to hide the fact that it scared him shitless. He knew she'd sensed his alarm, and he could only hope she hadn't been able to perceive the reason for his

dread.

<p>

<p>Truth be told, Dammers found himself inexplicably drawn to the girl. He had tried several times to explain it to himself and failed. He was certain she wasn't being entirely honest with him. He had questioned her

many times on the walk home; questioned her on the particulars of restoring him to life; questioned her about whom he was to kill; still she refused to give any satisfactory answers. He'd even tried to pluck the

information directly from her mind, but she had successfully hidden that part of her mind from him.

<p>

<p>The remainder of the night passed relatively uneventfully, not counting the numerous times Sarah was awakened by Dammers' incessant pacing and mumbling. A couple of times she could have sworn he was

trying to get into her thoughts, but she was too drowsy to say for certain. My own pet ghost. He followed me home; can I keep him? She thought sleepily, before drifting into slumber for the third time in an

hour.

<p>

<p>Aside from pacing and mumbling, Dammers spent a good portion of the night snooping through Sarah's room, concentrating the majority of his attention on the books stacked on every available surface. One in

particular piqued his interest; a thick black leather-bound volume with no visible title. It was book-marked with a playing card, and when he opened to the marked page, the words nine of hearts and dead

restored to life immediately jumped off the page at him.

<p>

<p>After reading the entire chapter by the light of his own ghostly glow, Dammers at last understood how the girl planned on restoring life to him. He shook his head dismally, doubting the method. According to the

ritual described in the book, he was to kill nine people over the course of nine days, taking their hearts with him. On the ninth day, which must be a full moon falling on a Friday, a ritual ceremony would be

performed, involving the ghost being bathed in the heart's blood of the final victim. Dammers found it extremely ironic that the cult activity he so despised was the very thing Sarah would use to help him.

<p>

<p>Staring down at the sleeping girl, he was struck by how innocent she looked with her eyes closed and strands of dark hair falling across her features. Resisting the sudden urge to brush the hair from her face, he

quickly backed away from the bed, flustered and irritated with himself. This is how weak, stupid men get in trouble, he reminded himself. Oh, sure, they all look sweet and innocent when they're asleep.

<p>

<p>It's when they wake up that the trouble begins. Even so, he couldn't entirely repress the feeling of kinship he had developed for her. Disgusted by the situation, and especially with himself, Dammers went back

to pacing anxiously.

<p>

<p>* * *

<p>

<p>Sunlight streaming through the open curtains woke Sarah in the morning. Not hearing the sounds of Dammers' pacing, she slowly opened her eyes and glanced around the room, finally spotting him sitting on the

floor at the foot of the bed. Upon closer inspection, she realized he was paging through one of her ritual books. Pulling herself to a sitting position, she smiled at the back of his head. &quot;Good morning.&quot;

<p>

<p>Dammers, who had been too involved in the untitled book of rituals to notice the creak of bedsprings that should have alerted him to the girl's awakening, gasped and slammed the book shut. &quot;Don't do that!&quot;

<p>

<p>&quot;Sorry,&quot; she muttered, rubbing her eyes. God, he sure is jumpy, though, isn't he?

<p>

<p>Dammers dropped the book on the foot of the bed and pointed to it. &quot;Tell me, do you really expect that ritual to work?&quot; He demanded.

<p>

<p>

<p>

<p>Sarah stared at it blankly for a moment, then attempted to shake some of the fuzziness from her head. &quot;Give me a break, Dammers; I just woke up.&quot;

<p>

<p>Sighing impatiently, he slapped his hand down on the cover. &quot;But will it work? Have you done it before, or seen it, or. . . or are you just . . . just . . . bullshitting me?&quot; He sputtered.

<p>

<p>Exasperated, Sarah held up her hands. &quot;Just calm down, will you? Yes, the Nine of Hearts ritual works. All right? Trust me,&quot; she added, eyes and voice growing ice-cold, &quot;it works.&quot;

<p>

<p>Dammers backed away nervously, chilled by the sudden change in the girl's demeanor. He didn't trust her, and she hadn't really answered his question to his satisfaction, but after taking one look into her eyes, he

decided that this line of questioning could wait. Glancing at the clock, he thought of something else. &quot;It's eleven eighteen . . . eleven eighteen . . . &quot; he repeated to himself, then quickly snapped back to attention.

<p>&quot;Shouldn't you be at work? Or do you conjure your money out of thin air?&quot;

<p>

<p>Studying the contemptuous frown on his face, Sarah wondered if the man was actually trying to test her patience. And what is this thing with numbers, anyway? It reminds me of fucking 'Rain Man' or

somedamnthing. Choosing to ignore his tone of voice, Sarah allowed a touch of warmth to find its way back into her own. &quot;I work at a bookstore. I don't usually go in until one.&quot;

<p>

<p>&quot;Oh, let me guess,&quot; Dammers said, sarcasm dripping from every word, &quot;it's an occult bookstore.&quot;

<p>

<p>Now Sarah grinned, but the ice never melted from her eyes. &quot;That's right, Dammers. It seems you're still getting all the fruity cases.&quot;

<p>

<p>Astonished, he gaped at her speechlessly. &quot;Fruity cases . . . how . . . how did you . . . ?&quot;

<p>

<p>&quot;Nevermind that,&quot; said Sarah with a secretive smile. She had rather enjoyed throwing that particular loop his way. &quot;Now if you'll excuse me, I need to get ready for work. We'll discuss the specifics of the ritual

when I come home.&quot;

<p>

<p>* * *

<p>

<p>While Sarah was at work, Dammers decided it would be the perfect opportunity to run a background check on her. Switching her computer on, he hoped he wouldn't be interrupted by her insipid roommates,

who invariably would think the computer was running by itself. However, a quick survey of the apartment revealed him to be alone. After gaining access to the FBI computer database, Dammers stared at the

screen for a long moment. Five years I've been dead now, and they still haven't revoked my access codes. That figures. He shook his head scornfully while bringing up the desired menu. Only then did he

realize that he had no clue as to the girl's last name. Pawing through her desk drawer, he eventually unearthed an envelope addressed to Sarah Vega.

<p>

<p>When the results of his search came up, Dammers carefully scrutinized every detail. Sarah Ann Vega; twenty-two years of age; born in Fortuna, California; currently residing in Fairwater, California. Nothing out

of the ordinary, at least until he came across the more involved records. After inspecting driving, medical, bank, and job records, he discovered that Sarah Ann Vega did not seem to exist until four years ago.

Not so much as a social security or library card was in evidence for the first eighteen years of the girl's life.

<p>

<p>Familiar with this phenomenon, Dammers searched the database for a death record in the name of Sarah Vega, nodding to himself when it appeared on the screen. Cross-checking the dates on both the birth and

death certificates, he softly snorted in derision. My, she certainly is lively for a girl who's been dead since she was two days old. He tapped his transparent fingers on the desktop and shifted uncomfortably in

the chair. So, who was 'Sarah' up until four years ago? Standing up, he began to stalk restlessly around the room, mentally running down the list of reasons a person would falsify an identity. At the top of the

list was the idea that the girl was hiding from the law. Briefly wondering if she would give him a straight answer on the subject, he flinched when he recalled the icy look in her eyes before she left the apartment.

<p>

<p>&quot;Just so she doesn't yell . . . I can't stand it when they yell,&quot; he muttered. Although, when he thought about it, he really didn't see Sarah as the yelling type. Still, the look she'd given him had made him almost as

sick as yelling would have.

<p>

<p>Turning off the computer, he meditated on his next course of action. Since the girl wouldn't be returning for another seven hours, Dammers decided that a bit more snooping was in order. After several minutes of

searching through the dresser (and quickly slamming the underwear drawer shut when he happened upon it) and finding nothing of interest, he peered under the bed. Underneath, he found a shoebox full of

newspaper clippings. On closer examination, he discovered that they all were about the 1964 Bradley-Bartlett murder spree and the subsequent 'unexplained' deaths. For that reason, he wasn't surprised in the

least to find the articles pertaining to the death of one Special Agent Milton Dammers among the others. What did surprise him, however, was what he found under the newspapers. She's been researching me,

he realized, stunned. He paged through the printouts of his personal and professional history. The little bitch ran her own background check on me. How the hell did she get access to these records? He

wondered, feeling extremely violated. She had his medical history, bank transactions, even the results of the psychiatric evaluation he'd had before joining the FBI. &quot;Shit, even I never saw this,&quot; he mumbled.

<p>

<p>Suddenly, Dammers understood that the questions he'd been asking were insignificant. He couldn't believe that the most important question of all hadn't occurred to him until now. Really, how she planned on

helping him was beside the point. He should have thought of it much sooner. Why me? Of all people, why did she specifically search me out?

<p>

<p>* * *

<p>

<p>Deep in the woods off Holloway Road stood a tree as eternal as time. It grew tall and proud despite the fact that it had never been touched by even a drop of sunlight. In spite of its great height, it

was curiously gnarled and hunched over. It ensnared a bird briefly in its branches before dropping it to the forest floor, dead. A drop of blood oozed down the trunk like sap, staining a crimson trail

along the rough bark before running out of momentum a foot from the ground. The tree stood patiently, encased in shadow, waiting. Pulsing. Expecting.

<p>

<p>

<p>

<p>* * *

<p>

<p>Dammers' stomach fluttered unsteadily every time he heard the front door open. Twice it had just been the roommates coming in; the third was Jacki going out again. Finally at a quarter past nine, Sarah entered

the apartment. After saying a few words to Sandra, she walked into her bedroom to find Dammers sitting on the bed with his arms crossed, glaring accusingly at her. She dropped her purse beside him and sat at

the other end to remove her shoes. He shrank as far away from her on the bed as possible and continued to regard her silently. She turned to him and beamed. &quot;Hi, honey, I'm home.&quot; The ghost was not amused.

<p>Pulling her feet onto the bed, Sarah leaned against the headboard and sighed. &quot;All right, Dammers, I give up. What's wrong?&quot;

<p>

<p>He reached under the bed and came up with the sheaf of papers containing his life history. Tossing them at her, he watched wordlessly as she skimmed through them and looked back at him. She shrugged and

smiled a bit sheepishly. &quot;Okay, so I wanted to know more about you than what was in the papers. I did my homework, what's wrong with that?&quot;

<p>

<p>Dammers didn't even know where to begin telling her what was wrong with it. After planning for hours what to say to her, he was irritated to find that he was struck speechless when faced with the actual

situation. At length he broke his reticence by asking, &quot;Did you really think I wouldn't find out that you're dead?&quot;

<p>

<p>Sarah froze as her heart leapt into her throat. &quot;What . . . what are you talking about?&quot; She asked carefully, struggling to remain calm.

<p>

<p>Dammers was a long time in answering, pleased at having caught her off-guard. Gratified at gaining the upper hand, if only temporarily, he infused his tone with unrestrained condescension. &quot;Oh, come now. I did

my own homework. Sarah Vega died two days after birth. Two days. . .&quot; he began mumbling, &quot;no, one day. . .eight hours. . .and twelve. . .no, thirteen. . .thirteen minutes...&quot;

<p>

<p>&quot;Oh, will you stop with the numbers!&quot; Sarah exploded, satisfied when Dammers squawked and cringed against the footboard. Regaining control of herself, she continued, &quot;Yes, I falsified this identity four years

ago. There is a reason, a good reason, but it's not something I'm prepared to go into right now. Now, do you want to focus on trivialities, or discuss the specifics of the ritual? We need to start it tonight, or you'll

have to wait four months for another full moon Friday.&quot;

<p>

<p>So much for gaining the upper hand. Dammers fidgeted and eventually made eye contact with the girl. &quot;Why me? Why bother doing this for me? There has to be a catch. There must be something in it for you.&quot;

<p>He gazed suspiciously at her through narrowed eyes.

<p>

<p>Sarah had no idea what to tell him. Well, this was quite an oversight on my part. What now? After a minute, she decided to suck it up and be at least partially honest. &quot;There's no catch. I mean, you don't

have to give up your firstborn child or anything like that.&quot;

<p>

<p>

<p>Dammers flinched, horrified at the mere mention of children.

<p>

<p>&quot;It's just that. . .&quot; Sarah paused in her explanation, conflicted. &quot;When I heard about your death, I did everything in my power to find out more about you. I was interested in the situation, and in you. Then I was

told. . .then I found out that it wasn't really your time to die. So I decided to seek you out and try to set things right.&quot; She shrugged, upset at revealing more than she'd meant to.

<p>

<p>&quot;No, it wasn't my time,&quot; Dammers muttered speculatively. &quot;The bullet was meant for Frank Bannister. . .it was his time. . .&quot;

<p>

<p>&quot;No,&quot; Sarah interrupted his introspective mumbling. &quot;It wasn't Bannister's time, either. The floor was supposed to give out under Patricia Bradley. She should have died in the fall to the first floor.&quot;

<p>

<p>Shaking his head, Dammers insisted, &quot;But it had to have been Bannister's time. If that psychotic bitch had fallen through the floor, I would have killed him,&quot; he emphasized. Suddenly realizing what Sarah had just

told him, he jerked his head up to glare at her. &quot;How do you know what was supposed to happen?&quot;

<p>

<p>Feeling like a trapped animal, she sighed again. &quot;The ghost of Christmas Future told me. It doesn't matter how I know. Dammers, I promise that I will tell you everything. . .but not just yet, okay? For now you'll

just have to trust me.&quot; She stared into his eyes imploringly.

<p>

<p>Although highly skeptical at the girl's newfound sincerity, Dammers just nodded and allowed the subject to drop. If she was telling the truth about it having not been his time, then he was that much more eager to

get on with the ritual. He listened avidly as she explained what he was to do that night and the following eight nights. Once he fully understood the procedure, he set out to the streets of Fairwater to perform the

first sacrifice.

<p>

<p>Choosing the first victim was easy enough. Sarah had told him that anyone would do, so Dammers simply walked into a house at random. Having ascertained that the home's only occupant, a middle-aged

woman, was asleep, he took a deep breath and pulled out of himself the knife Sarah had given him. That, she'd explained, was the only way to transport corporeal objects without being detected. The

ectoplasmic structure of his body acted as a cloaking shield, so he could carry any object within himself without the illusion of the object floating down the street on its own. This was the method he was to

employ when bringing the hearts back to Sarah, also. She had given him a Zip-Lock bag for just that purpose, because as she'd told him, removed hearts tend to be messy.

<p>

<p>Dammers stood at the side of the unknown woman's bed and inspected the dagger. The hilt was heavy silver, engraved down to the blade with symbols he had never seen before. The blade itself was a

double-edged eight-inch long affair with nine symbols carved into it, four on one side; five on the other. He shifted his focus back to the task at hand, awkwardly placing the tip of the blade at the woman's throat.

<p>As many times as he'd witnessed this sort of thing in over twenty years of undercover work, he was quickly coming to realize that actually performing the sacrifice himself was something quite different. Gathering

his courage, he slowly drew the blade all the way across the woman's throat, simultaneously excited and sickened by the flow of dark blood that immediately stained the sheets. Extracting the heart, however,

turned out to be slightly more difficult. He first cut a deep gash in the woman's back, then slid his hand in and grasped the heart. After a few experimental tugs, he realized that ripping the heart out wasn't that

simple. He worked the dagger into the incision and clumsily severed the superior and inferior vena cava, hoping it would be enough to allow extraction. Giving a mighty yank, he was finally able to rip the heart

from the corpse, with several pulmonary veins still dangling from the organ. It was slimier than he'd expected, causing him to drop the heart twice before managing to secure it in the Zip-Lock bag.

<p>

<p>One down, eight to go, Dammers thought, relieved that the woman hadn't awakened as he killed her. Oddly, he hadn't seen her spirit rise out of her body. Stupid bitch doesn't know she's dead, he assumed

disdainfully. He pondered the reality of having eight more hearts to take. This ritual had better really work. . . .

<p>

<p>* * *

<p>

<p>The woods throbbed with sinister energy. The tree trembled, the flow of blood down its trunk increasing with every expectant tremor. The earth around the tree was now swampy with blood,

digesting the pile of dead birds that lay at the base of the trunk. Blood soaked into the ground, nourishing the roots. Several high branches moved aside, allowing a shaft of pale moonlight to

illuminate the tree, seeming almost to spotlight it. Still it stood, vigilantly waiting for the night when it would be bathed in the light of the full moon. Soon, the whispering leaves promised. Soon. . . .

<p>

<p>

<p>* * *

<p>

<p>Over the course of the following seven nights, Sarah revealed more to Dammers about the ritual and the symbols on the dagger. The symbols were representative of the victims. The first symbol was chaos, thus

explaining the random choice of victim. The second was innocence, and the only one that gave Dammers true pause. He finally conceded to taking the heart of a five year old girl. The third was the symbol of evil,

and he had no qualms about sacrificing a man that Sheriff Perry had arrested for a bizarre ritualistic murder. The irony of this was not lost on Dammers. The fourth victim was to be of a religious order. He chose

a priest, and was greatly unnerved when the man's spirit looked directly at him and said I forgive you, my son before ascending the corridor of light. The fifth was the symbol of healing; a doctor was the logical

choice. Dammers considered Dr. Lucy Lynskey (who he had discovered was now Lucy Bannister), but Sarah warned him to hold off on that one. He reluctantly chose her colleague, Dr. Kamins, instead.

<p>

<p>The sixth sacrifice was a bit harder. It was to be someone with psychic abilities, which meant somebody who could see him. Dammers agonized over this until he realized that most of his victims had been

sleeping when he killed them, anyway. He voted to sacrifice Frank Bannister, but once again Sarah suggested he wait. Frustrated, he settled on a palm reader named Madame Zelda who ran a shop on Main

Street. The most frightening experience thus far occurred as her spirit left her body. She began screaming at Dammers, who cowered in terror. After what seemed an eternity, she ascended the tunnel to the other

side, leaving him trembling.

<p>

<p>The seventh and eighth weren't assigned sacrifices. Sarah explained that anyone would do just fine, then suggested Sandra and Jacki. Dammers contemplated this for a while before looking up at Sarah. &quot;Why do

you want to. . .to get rid of your roommates?&quot; Besides the fact that they're stupid little sluts, he added silently.

<p>

<p>Sarah averted her gaze, considering her answer. After a long pause, she lifted her head and stared directly into his eyes, a look of utmost sincerity stamped across her features. &quot;It's a vicious cycle,&quot; she said very

softly and, Dammers thought, a little sorrowfully. &quot;It's not even their fault. But this is the way it must be. It's destiny.&quot; She seemed to shake herself back to the present. &quot;As I told you before, I will explain

everything. But not tonight.&quot;

<p>

<p>&quot;When?&quot; Dammers insisted.

<p>

<p>&quot;Soon,&quot; she promised. &quot;Very soon.&quot;

<p>

<p>

<p>

<p>Dammers eventually agreed to the killing of Sarah's roommates. He followed Sandra home from work the next night, performing the sacrifice when she reached a secluded stretch of road. On the eighth night, he

noticed that his body structure was changing. He was no longer transparent, and stashing the dagger within himself was becoming more difficult and slightly painful. Ignoring the discomfort, he trailed Jacki to the

library and boldly killed her in the bathroom. When the body was found, the police came by the apartment to talk to Sarah. She said all the right things and virtually charmed their socks off. They left with awarning for her to be careful, completely convinced of her innocence.

<p>

<p>As Sarah lay in bed late that night, staring at the ceiling in the dark, she could hear Dammers moving through the apartment. When his blue glow lit up the hallway just outside her open door, she sat up in bed and

called his name.

<p>

<p>&quot;What?&quot; He peered around the doorframe hesitantly and reluctantly entered the room when she motioned him forward.

<p>

<p>&quot;Can I ask you something?&quot; Sarah asked timidly, hoping it was too dark for him to see her anxious expression.

<p>

<p>Dammers' stomach began to churn. In his experience, it was never a good thing when a woman wanted to know if she could ask you something. &quot;What?&quot; He repeated.

<p>

<p>

<p>

<p>&quot;Why are you so afraid and resentful of women?&quot;

<p>

<p>Dammers stared in her direction for a minute, then shook his head and backed wordlessly out of the room.

<p>

<p>&quot;Wait,&quot; Sarah pleaded after him. &quot;I'm sorry; don't go. The fact is, I like you, and I just want to know why you're so uncomfortable around me,&quot; she said hurriedly.

<p>

<p>He stood in the dark just outside the bedroom, not daring to come any closer. She wouldn't want to hear it, he thought. &quot;I. . .&quot; He swallowed hard, not quite knowing what to say. 'I blame my mother'? How

<p>stereotypical would that be? &quot;I have. . .issues.&quot;

<p>

<p>Sarah laughed disbelievingly. &quot;Issues? Yeah, and I suppose you do not play well with others, either.&quot;

<p>

<p>Dammers was less than amused. Sarah was the one female he'd met that he actually wanted to be comfortable around, but damned if he'd admit it to her. He wondered fleetingly if the line it's not you, it's me

would get her off his back, then dismissed the idea in disgust. Truth be told, he really didn't want her off his back, but he wasn't quite ready to admit it to himself yet. He had gotten very good over the years at

denying his feelings. Especially sexual feelings.

<p>

<p>Resigned to the turn he knew the conversation was about to take, Dammers surrendered to the situation and came all the way into the room. Taking a seat on the edge of the bed and regarding Sarah watchfully,

he wished he could see her expression a little better in the dark. &quot;Why does this matter to you?&quot;

<p>

<p>Sarah considered the best way to answer. Because I've got a fire down below and I need your hose to put it out. The thought jumped into her mind unbidden, and she had a hell of a time keeping a straight

face. No, she mused, I think that would scare him off for certain. After a few moments of silence, she sighed and leaned toward him seriously. &quot;Why do you think?&quot; She asked softly.

<p>

<p>

To her surprise,

Dammers reached out and gently touched her face. He's more solid than I expected, she thought dazedly. The ritual is already working on him. He started to let his hand fall from her face, but she grabbed it

and held it between her own hands. He shifted uncomfortably but didn't pull away. She shoved the sheet and blanket off of herself and scooted up against him, gazing directly into his eyes. The intense look he

was giving her paired with the surprising warmth of his body sent little shocks of electricity down her spine, and she moved his gloved hand to her bare thigh. After confirming that he wasn't inclined to draw

away, she rested her head on his shoulder. Yes, he's definitely become more solid. He's not the least bit ectoplasmic anymore.

<p>

<p>As Dammers lifted his hand from her leg and tentatively began to run his fingers through her hair, Sarah sighed. Enough of this, she decided, laying down and pulling Dammers on top of her. She almost laughed

at his startled expression, but he made a quick recovery and started to kiss her. Hmm, now we're getting somewhere, she thought as his tongue slid against hers. She wrapped her legs around his waist and

lifted herself up to meet him, a little amused at how hard he already was. Well, Mr. I'm So Uncomfortable Around Women, it would appear that at least part of you is raring to go. She moved her hands

down to the front of his pants, intending to unfasten them, but he pulled away, pushing her hands back. Sarah started to sit up, disappointed, but Dammers shook his head and shoved her down again, sliding his

hands up her legs; pushing her nightgown up to her waist. Momentarily flustered by the fact that she was naked underneath, he froze, then began urgently fumbling with his belt buckle.

<p>

<p>Sarah gasped and cried out at his first sharp thrust, and Dammers slapped his hand over her mouth, giving her a taste of black leather. &quot;No,&quot; he whispered insistently, &quot;don't yell.&quot; She nodded and he removed his

hand, replacing it with his mouth; probing hers with his tongue while frantically pumping in and out of her. She placed her feet on his ass and forced him in as deeply as possible, unable to restrain a low moan

from escaping her throat. He moved his mouth down to her neck as she dug her nails into his back. Now also moaning, Dammers began drawing all the way out of her, then slamming back in with an intensity

that caused her to bite down hard on her lower lip to keep from screaming. As every muscle in her body tightened, she released her lip and bit through his shirt and into his shoulder, rising up to him with every

violent thrust. After struggling to maintain control, Sarah finally surrendered as she climaxed, clinging to him desperately as he finished her off.

<p>

<p>Afterwards, they lay in each other's arms; Dammers wondering what the hell he'd managed to get himself into; Sarah still thinking of how alive he felt to the touch. She thought of the final stage of the ritual still to

be performed, and lifted her head off Dammers' chest to gaze at him appraisingly. He stared back at her with an unreadable expression on his face. She lay her head down again uncertainly and sighed, coming to a decision. &quot;I think it's time I told you the whole story,&quot; she whispered pensively.

<p>

<p>* * *

<p>

<p>In 1964, a girl who was then only seventeen years old lay in a bed in the Fairwater Hospital. She lay in a bed in the psychiatric ward, to be precise. Frightened when she began predicting their

deaths, her relatives had recently had her committed. The doctors informed her family that she was delusional, possibly schizophrenic. She had just laughed bitterly and vengefully decided not to

tell them of the imminent murder spree. She took sadistic pleasure in the knowledge that the doctor who had ordered she be restrained would be the first victim of the massacre. Lying in bed, she

patiently awaited the inevitable.

<p>

<p>When the first shotgun blasts rang out, she chuckled softly to herself and wondered briefly if telling someone before the event would have done anything to stop it. Pulling at the restraints, she

dismissed the idea that the slaughter could have been averted. She was in the middle of counting all the reasons why it would have happened anyway when her train of thought was broken by

footsteps entering the room. Craning her neck to get a better look at who'd interrupted her thoughts, she saw Patricia Bradley circling the room with a shotgun in her hands. When their eyes met,

Patricia jerked back slightly, disconcerted by the sense of familiarity the girl evoked in her. She was certain she'd never met this particular patient before, but the feeling lingered. Not wishing to

think about it any further, Patricia leveled the gun at the other girl's chest.

<p>

<p>Hey, wait a minute, the girl in the bed thought as the shot entered her chest. Not me! This wasn't supposed to happen. Rising from her body, she ignored the tunnel of light that descended to meet her

and watched as Patricia Bradley carved the number seven into her forehead. Seven? She whirled around to look down at the woman in the next bed. She was supposed to be number seven, not me.

<p>She shook her head as Patricia exited the room without a single backward glance. Way to go, she thought bitterly, studying her new ethereal form. I wasn't supposed to die here. The Fates must've

fucked up. Great, just great.

<p>

<p>She suddenly found herself transported to a realm of pure white light. Startled, she raised her hand to shield her eyes and turned around in a slow circle. &quot;What. . . the. . . hell. . .?

<p>

<p>NO, a voice thundered. NOT HELL.

<p>

<p>The girl jumped and peered into the blinding brightness, searching for the source of the voice. Finding nothing in the featureless void, she settled on directing her questions upward. &quot;Um, hello?

<p>Who's there?&quot;

<p>

<p>WE ARE DESTINY. WE ARE FATE. WE ARE THE POWERS THAT BE.

<p>

<p>Oh, that's helpful, she thought, exasperated. Abruptly she realized that not only were there several voices speaking as one, but they were also speaking directly into her mind. &quot;Why did you bring me

here?&quot;

<p>

<p>YOU HAD A GIFT. YOU SAW WHAT WAS TO BE BUT DID NOTHING TO STOP IT. HAD YOU SEEN FIT TO WARN SOMEBODY, YOU WOULD NOT BE HERE.

<p>

<p>The girl slumped to the floor and cradled her head in her hands. &quot;So you brought me here to scold me, is that it? Come on, if it was meant to be, then I couldn't have stopped it, right?&quot; She wished

<p>the Powers, or whoever the hell they were, would inflect some expression into their voice. Their current emotionless monotone was beginning to unnerve her.

<p>

<p>DO NOT ATTEMPT TO UNDERSTAND THE PARADOX. WHAT IS MEANT TO BE WILL COME TO PASS IN THE END. YOU SHALL BE GIVEN ANOTHER CHANCE. YOU STILL HAVE

<p>MUCH TO DO BEFORE YOU ARE REDEEMED.

<p>

<p>After a moment of silence passed, the girl sighed impatiently. &quot;Well? What is it that I have to do?&quot;

<p>

<p>PEOPLE MUST DIE AND PEOPLE MUST LIVE. SOMEBODY MUST MAINTAIN THE BALANCE.

<p>

<p>She snorted resentfully. &quot;Isn't that your job?&quot;

<p>

<p>IT IS NOW YOURS.

<p>

<p>* * *

<p>

<p>For twenty-six years, the girl made sure everything ran smoothly. The job the Powers had assigned her was easy work for the most part. Since the majority of deaths in Fairwater were natural,

they required no assistance from her. There were a few murders and accidents which were necessary to oversee; the most satisfying being the car accident that killed her mother and aunt, the

relations who'd had her committed. The prevention of certain deaths turned out to be little more than a glorified baby-sitting job. She was sometimes amazed at the stupid things people did over

and over. She'd lost count of the times she'd stopped particular individuals from electrocuting themselves, or how many times she'd had to push someone from the path of an oncoming vehicle.

Every so often she would question the Powers about her second chance at life, but they only spoke of it in riddles and innuendo.

<p>

<p>In 1990, Patricia Bradley was released from prison and into her mother's care. The girl watched as Patricia immediately contacted Johnny Bartlett. She was chilled when the Powers informed her

she was not to interfere with the new murder spree. Enraged, she watched the events unfold from a distance, but obeyed the order to not get involved. Her only consolation was seeing Bartlett kill

her cousin, the daughter of the aunt who had convinced her mother to have her committed. Having no other living relatives, the cousin's two children were taken into foster care. In spare

moments, the girl amused herself by watching them, occasionally communicating with them via a Ouija board.

<p>

<p>Then in 1995, the Powers showed her the way the five year reign of terror was to finally end. They told her that an FBI agent would be attempting to end it his way. She was instructed to keep him

from harm while also preventing him from killing Frank Bannister. The Powers were very emphatic on that point. If she succeeded, they went on, then she would be allowed to be reborn.

<p>Reincarnation, they explained, was the only way she could be restored to life. Less than thrilled about the method of restoration, she reluctantly agreed after deciding there was no other way.

<p>

<p>Which is how she found herself in the Fairwater police station a few days later, watching as a small man wearing a black trenchcoat and gloves peered around a doorjamb and said, &quot;I get all the

fruity cases.&quot; She shook her head and thought, Yeah, you think you get some weird ones? Try my job. She followed him all night, observing his every action; hiding whenever Frank Bannister came

into view. At the sanatorium, however, it became necessary to come out of hiding. Bannister was too involved with his own quest to notice her, but at one point Patricia Bradley flew around a

corner and came face to face with her. A few seconds later, Johnny Bartlett grabbed and restrained the girl, leaving Patricia free to make her way up to the fourth floor.

<p>

<p>

<p>

<p>Attempting to extricate herself from the chokehold Bartlett had her in, she feared that she was already too late to stop what was undoubtedly happening outside the chapel at that very moment. As

if to illustrate the point, she heard several machine gun pops, then the voice of the FBI agent shouting, &quot;Get up!&quot; After a pause, there was a loud bang which she recognized all too well as a

shotgun blast. Defeated, she stopped fighting and slumped against Bartlett, who finally released her and smirked. &quot;Hah! Looks like you're too late, sweetie.&quot; Gloating, he wandered off to find

Patricia.

<p>

<p>With a sick feeling in the pit of her stomach, the girl rose through the floors, coming to rest just outside the fourth floor chapel. Despite the multiple gunshots, there was but one body in the hall;

she recognized it as the FBI agent. He had evidently ignored the passage to the other side, for his spirit was staring down at his own body, uncomprehending. She snuck away before he spotted her

and arrived downstairs in time to see the tunnel of light open to Frank Bannister. Great, she moaned to herself. Now I've lost both of them. I really screwed myself over this time.

<p>

<p>She watched as Bannister's spirit grabbed Patricia and yanked her spirit from her body. As Johnny howled and jumped into the corridor of light after them, she was struck with the urge to do the

same. Launching herself into the tunnel, she was met with a brilliant flash of light. Opening her eyes, the girl discovered that she'd been transported to the featureless void of the Powers.

<p>

<p>YOU HAVE FAILED US.

<p>

<p>She sighed. &quot;I know, I know. I lost them both, but - -&quot;

<p>

<p>NO. YOU LOST ONLY ONE.

<p>

<p>&quot;What?&quot; She was taken aback. &quot;But I saw Bannister - -&quot;

<p>

<p>HE LIVES. YOU WILL NOT. YOU HAVE FAILED. YOU SHALL REMAIN AN EARTHBOUND SPIRIT FOR ETERNITY.

<p>

<p>&quot;Now wait a minute! It wasn't my fault! Why the hell do you care so damned much about this one guy, anyway?&quot; The only answer the Powers gave was to throw her unceremoniously back into the

world, sprawled on the floor of the sanatorium. &quot;Wonderful,&quot; she muttered. Hoping not to be spotted by anyone who may still be in the sanatorium, the girl snuck out to the streets of Fairwater,

contemplating what to do next.

<p>

<p>For a year she wandered aimlessly about the town, avoiding Frank Bannister and the spirit of the dead agent at all costs. From time to time she observed the lives of her dead cousin's two

children, who were now nearing the age she herself had been at death. Sometimes she would spend hours at a small occult bookstore skimming through the rare tomes that were kept locked in a

back room, out of sight of the customers. It was while here that the owner of the store approached her. To her surprise, he could see her, and he had been curious as to her situation. After she

explained, the man told her of the Nine of Hearts ritual, offering to perform it for her. She readily agreed, having no qualms regarding the sacrifices. Once restored to life, it was necessary to form

a new identity, which is how the girl became Sarah Ann Vega in the year 1996.

<p>

<p>* * *

<p>

<p>Dammers was silent for a long time after Sarah stopped speaking. Pulling himself up to lean against the headboard, he considered the story she'd just finished telling. At length he gazed down and met her

expectant eyes. &quot;Why,&quot; he began thoughtfully, then amended, &quot;no. . . . When did you decide to offer this course of action to me? If you knew about the ritual for four years...?&quot; His eyes took on a faraway cast.

&quot;Four years. . .&quot;

<p>

<p>Sarah gently placed her hand over his mouth and smiled slightly. &quot;No, don't start with the numbers, please?&quot; She sighed when he jerked back in irritation. Regarding him seriously, she propped herself up on one

elbow. &quot;I had it in the back of my mind all along. Hence all the research I did into your life. I was trying to figure out why the Powers were so adamant that you live.&quot;

<p>

<p>&quot;And?&quot;

<p>

<p>She shrugged, frustrated. &quot;I don't know! But I finally made the decision to help you myself. I knew they wouldn't, no matter how much they insisted you weren't supposed to die. After that, it was a matter of

waiting for the perfect opportunity to present itself. Do you realize that there are only three or four full moon Fridays in any given year?&quot;

<p>

<p>Nodding slowly, Dammers attempted to organize the incoherent thoughts ceaselessly spinning in his mind. After careful consideration, he asked, &quot;I think I know the answer to this, but would you care to explain

why you suggested I kill your roommates?&quot;

<p>

<p>

<p>I should have known he wouldn't let it drop, Sarah thought. &quot;The short explanation is that they were my cousin's children. The granddaughters of the aunt who had me committed. They were also the means to

an end.&quot;

<p>

<p>Dammers stood abruptly and began pacing, marveling at the girl's ability to evade the actual question. &quot;The means to what end?&quot; he asked through clenched teeth.

<p>

<p>&quot;Sit down.&quot;

<p>

<p>&quot;I prefer to stand,&quot; he replied stiffly.

<p>

<p>

<p>

<p>Sarah sighed wearily. &quot;Then at least stop pacing, all right? It makes me nervous.&quot; When he grudgingly consented to stand still beside the bed, she continued. &quot;Sandra and Jacki were told about me before their

mother died. They were told that I was the shame of the family, that I had been the truly dangerous type. Years before my death, I tried to tell my family who the really dangerous one was, but they didn't believe

a word I said. Nobody ever told Sandy or Jacki who else they happen to be related to.&quot; She paused as realization began to dawn in Dammers' eyes. &quot;You see, our branch of the family was named West, but my

mother's cousin's name was Bartlett.&quot;

<p>

<p>Dammers took a small step back. &quot;You mean. . .?&quot;

<p>

<p>&quot;Johnny Bartlett was my second cousin. I know this is going to sound like superstitious nonsense, but his bad blood was passed down through the generations. Sometimes it skips a generation or two, but it's

always there. Sandra and Jacki were the end of the family line. It had to end with them, before another Johnny was born.&quot;

<p>

<p>&quot;If that's true, why didn't you kill them years ago?&quot;

<p>

<p>Sarah bit her lip and considered. &quot;It wasn't time. The Powers wouldn't permit it while I was under their thumb. Then after that. . .&quot; she trailed off, willing the right words to come. &quot;I was waiting for the right time;

waiting for everything to fall into place. I believe this is the way it was supposed to happen.&quot;

<p>

<p>Dammers decided to accept her explanation for the moment, knowing it was the most direct answer he would ever get out of her. Allowing the subject to drop, he instead turned his attention to the following

night's conclusion of the ritual. He sat at the foot of the bed as Sarah pulled herself upright and leaned toward him slightly. He hesitated for a period, then asked, &quot;What happens tomorrow night?&quot;

<p>

<p>She wrapped her arms around her legs and rested her chin on her knees. &quot;Tomorrow night you lure the ninth victim to the woods, where I'll be waiting with the other hearts. You kill him, then I finish the ritual. You do realize that you'll need to set up a new identity, don't you?&quot;

<p>

<p>He ignored the last statement. &quot;But who is the ninth?&quot;

<p>

<p>Taking a deep breath and lifting her head to meet his intense stare, Sarah smiled ruefully. &quot;The ninth sacrifice is to be somebody you have a personal vendetta against.&quot;

<p>

<p>Dammers grew very still. &quot;The only person around here that I have a vendetta against would be-&quot; he broke off as the last pieces fell into place. He stared questioningly at the girl. She nodded, pleased that he'd

figured it out. Dammers let out a small mirthless laugh and shook his head.

<p>

<p>

<p>

<p>&quot;Frank Bannister.&quot;

<p>

<p>* * *

<p>

<p>While Sarah slept, Dammers wandered anxiously from room to room. His mind was filled with half-formed plans of the next night's events, not the least of which was luring Frank Bannister into the woods. He

couldn't help but wonder how in the hell he was supposed to accomplish that. He shook his head, the scenario playing itself out in his head. Excuse me, Frank? I wondered if you'd like to follow me into the

woods tonight. Why do I ask? Well, because I truly despise being dead, and if I kill you tonight, I'll be alive again. So, what do you say? He rolled his eyes, laughing humorlessly. Yes, I'm sure that

would work. After all, honesty is the best policy. Frustrated, he peered out the front window to the street below, where two spirits chased one another, each clearly trying to annihilate the other. Watching

their fight, Dammers slowly smiled with satisfaction as the seeds of a real plan were planted in his mind.

<p>

<p>With this problem solved, his remaining anxieties intensified in their need for solutions, as if to fill the empty space in his catalogue of worry. Next in line was a serious commitment phobia. Highly aware of how

absurd the situation was, Dammers still found himself wondering what the girl's expectations of their relationship (he had to groan at his use of that word) would be after tomorrow night. Hell, he wasn't even sure

what his own expectations were. He felt sappy and weak for dwelling on the matter, but the truth was, he'd gotten used to being around Sarah. The thought of being alone again actually depressed him a bit. He

realized that he would have to start over with a new identity in a new town, and he doubted that she would be eager to pack up and leave Fairwater to be with him. Every fiber of his being begged to be relieved

at this, but even so, a twinge of disappointment followed at the prospect of leaving her behind. Especially after what had happened earlier that night. . . . Annoyed by his feelings, he shook his head to clear it of

the memory. He still couldn't believe how easily he'd let himself be seduced. Although he couldn't deny that he'd enjoyed it, as much as he wished he could. Sex and killing were very closely related in his mind: he

found both to be a sick, shameful thrill. Despite his declaration to Sarah that he wasn't a murderer, he had killed before. He recalled the summer he'd turned twelve, and the feel of his hands around the throat of

the neighbor's cat. The memory of sightless glassy blue eyes and white cat fur stuck to his sweaty palms was still crystal-clear in his mental scrapbook. He remembered that after strangling the animal he'd locked

himself in his bathroom and masturbated for twenty minutes straight, with cat fur still clinging to his hands. It was a recollection that still sent uncomfortable chills of excitement and arousal down his spine.

<p>

<p>Thinking of the cat brought to mind other more unpleasant memories, and Dammers made a conscious effort to turn his mind from them. Remembering his childhood was too damn depressing and in his opinion,

served no purpose in what was to come. Still, the memories refused to be suppressed, and he fought to push them back to the locked room in his mind where he kept everything he didn't want to think about.

<p>

<p>Finally his thoughts returned to the ritual, bringing with them a fluttering in his stomach. While he was fairly certain that Frank Bannister wouldn't question the story he planned on weaving, he was worried that the

man would notice how his body had almost completely regenerated and grow suspicious. Taking stock of his current physical condition, Dammers realized that he was now in fact entirely solid. The only

remaining ghostly aspect about him was the faint blue luminance around him, and even that was barely perceptible. At this rate, he wondered if he would be visible to the living world by morning. Even if that

turned out to be the case, he supposed he would still need to complete the ritual to ensure his status. He would hate to be turned into a pile of dust or ash, or something like that. Considering the weird shit he'd

seen and done lately, he no longer thought such things to be completely out of the realm of possibility. No, there could be no turning back now that he'd come this far.

<p>

<p>* * *

<p>

<p>Morning broke in shades of grey over Fairwater. Holloway Road was deserted at this early hour, echoing the cries of birds who would no longer fly over the woods. The piles of bird corpses that

had fallen around the gnarled old tree were now little more than skeletons; their flesh having been absorbed into the ground. The flow of blood down the trunk had ceased, leaving the surrounding

earth running with streams of red. As the blood soaked into the ground, burned patches of grass appeared in the streams' wake. These burned strips were slowly forming themselves into a pattern

that would be obvious come nightfall. Meanwhile, the woods trembled in anticipation of the full moon, and the clouds finally broke, allowing a ray of sunlight to shine through the leaves.

<p>

<p>* * *

<p>

<p>The day passed with agonizing slowness for Dammers. At some point amidst his impatience, he discovered he could no longer pass through solid objects. Unfortunately, this knowledge came when he attempted

to walk through a wall and only succeeded in crashing into it face-first. Feeling foolish, he was surprised when his nose began to bleed from the impact. Approaching this latest development from the scientific

viewpoint, he had to wonder how it was possible since he detected no heartbeat in his chest. After puzzling over it awhile, he eventually dismissed his curiosity as a futile endeavor and resumed counting down the

hours until Sarah's return.

<p>

<p>Sunset came and went with no sign of Sarah. As Dammers began to feel he was on the verge of bursting from nerves, however, the front door opened and she walked in, weighted down by a heavy book.

Unable to contain the nervous fire within himself any longer, he exploded, &quot;Where the hell have you been? I expected you back an hour ago! Do you know what happened today? My nose bled. Now, would

you care to explain how that's possible?&quot;

<p>

<p>Locking the door behind her and setting the book on the couch, Sarah couldn't help but smirk. &quot;You bled? What did you do, walk into the wall?&quot; Seeing the expression on his face, she laughed out loud. Priceless. &quot;Hey, I did the same thing. Forgot a basic rule of the living: one solid object will not pass through another. As for how the bleeding is possible, I haven't a clue. Chalk it up to one of death's little

mysteries, I suppose.&quot;

<p>

<p>Rolling his eyes at the pun, Dammers grumbled, &quot;You're certainly in a good mood.&quot; Then, a little louder, &quot;Can we get on with this, please?&quot;

<p>

<p>

<p>

<p>He seriously needs to develop a sense of humor, Sarah thought, losing her smile. That's the first thing we'll have to work on. That and his hair. &quot;No reason not to. You go get Bannister and meet me in the

woods by Holloway Road.&quot;

<p>

<p>Dammers started to walk through the door, then caught himself and reached for the doorknob. &quot;Where in the woods will you be?&quot;

<p>

<p>Feeling her previous good humor creep back in, Sarah smiled knowingly. &quot;Oh, trust me, you'll have no trouble finding me. You'll see.&quot;

<p>

<p>* * *

<p>

<p>On the walk to Frank Bannister's house, Dammers went over his plan detail by detail, his anxiety increasing with every step forward. He tried to convince himself that his apprehension was unfounded; all he had

to do was tell Frank a little lie, and Dammers considered himself to be a pretty good liar. He had, after all, been an undercover agent for twenty years, and if the government couldn't teach you to lie, who the hell

could?

<p>

<p>Upon reaching the Bannister home, Dammers was relieved to see Frank sitting outside on the porch. He had been dreading the possibility of having to knock, afraid it would arouse suspicion. On the heels of his

relief, however, came a flash of panic when he saw Lucy come out of the house and take a seat on the steps beside Frank. Dammers quickly ducked behind a tree and tried to settle his nerves. He had managed

to convince himself on the walk over that Frank would have no reason to think he was anything more than a simple ghost, but now doubt screamed through his entire body again. He felt sure that Bannister would

notice he wasn't transparent any longer, and his ghostly blue radiance had faded to a barely visible aura. Taking a deep breath, he reminded himself not to give Frank the chance to notice or question these facts.

<p>

<p>Understanding that he was wasting time, Dammers swallowed the bile in his throat and emerged from behind the tree, running the rest of the way to the front porch. Halting at the foot of the steps, he looked up

into the surprised faces of Frank and Lucy Bannister and assumed a frantic expression. With his nerves being what they were at the moment, the panicked look came easily. &quot;Bannister! You have to help me! Oh,

god, something terrible is going on.&quot;

<p>

<p>&quot;Dammers?&quot; Frank exclaimed incredulously. &quot;What are you doing here? I thought - -&quot; he suddenly broke off and pointed to something behind Dammers. &quot;What the hell is that?&quot; he asked softly.

<p>

<p>Yeah, like I'm going to fall for that, Dammers thought sarcastically. Nevertheless, he slowly turned and saw a cylindrical shaft of red light shooting up from a point in the woods. Choking back a small laugh, he

thought, Well, Sarah certainly wasn't kidding when she said I'd be able to find her. Whirling around to face Bannister, his eyes fell upon Lucy first. She was regarding him with obvious suspicion and loathing,

but it wasn't the look in her eyes that he noticed. What momentarily froze him was the fact that she was hugely pregnant. Breeders, he thought disdainfully, trying to avoid rolling his eyes. &quot;That,&quot; he jerked his

thumb over his shoulder, &quot;is the reason I'm here, Bannister. Do you want to know what that light is? It's a cult of ghosts performing human sacrifices for the ninth night in a row. I can't stop them alone; I need

your help.&quot;

<p>

<p>Bannister thought for a second. &quot;So, these murders around town lately, they're being committed by some sort of ghost cult?&quot;

<p>

<p>Master of the obvious. Biting back several caustic remarks, he simply nodded. Bannister nodded back and turned to Lucy as Dammers walked over to the driveway. Even from that vantage point, it was clear

that Lucy didn't want her husband traipsing off into the woods with this particular ghost. After several minutes of heated debate, Frank emerged the apparent victor. He met Dammers by his old Volvo and

unlocked the door. &quot;Come on, then. We'll get there quicker if we drive. When we get back, though, we'll have plenty of explaining to do to Lucy.&quot;

<p>

<p>Well, that was certainly easier than I expected, Dammers thought, climbing into the car. &quot;You're still driving this piece of shit?&quot; he muttered. Frank shot him an irritated glare but said nothing. After several

minutes of silence spent watching scenery fly by, Dammers glanced sideways at Bannister. &quot;So, Frank. Any suggestions on how to handle this situation?&quot;

<p>

<p>Frank's surprised gaze flickered to the passenger seat. &quot;You're asking my opinion?&quot; He shook his head and squinted out the windshield, wiping his sleeve across the dirty glass. &quot;What I want to know at the

moment is where the hell that light is coming from. I need to know exactly where I'm heading.&quot;

<p>

<p>&quot;The light is coming from somewhere in the woods by Holloway Road. You remember Holloway Road, don't you, Frank?&quot; Dammers immediately wished he could call the words back. Confirming his error in

judgment, the car swerved to the side of the road and came to an abrupt stop on the shoulder. Frank pulled the keys from the ignition and turned to face Dammers.

<p>

<p>&quot;Why did you come to me, Dammers?&quot; he demanded angrily. &quot;Have you forgotten our history? Ihaven't. We aren't exactly the best of friends. So why ask me to help you?&quot;

<p>

<p>Sensing his goal slipping away, Dammers slammed his fist into the side of the door, momentarily startled at the shock of pain that ran up his arm. Mind racing furiously, he finally cried, &quot;Because there was no one

else! Who else could I possibly go to, Frank? Think about it, for christsake,&quot; he growled impatiently. &quot;You're the only person around here who, first of all, can see the perpetrators, and second, has some

experience in this area. Now, the longer we sit here arguing, the better the chances become that someone else is going to die tonight. Do you really want to be responsible for that?&quot;

<p>

<p>Not entirely convinced by Dammers' pep talk, Frank thought about it for a moment. He had no idea what Dammers expected him to do about it, but since he did feel an obligation to stop any more killings, he

reluctantly restarted the car and continued on course to the woods. He did have to wonder at Dammers' motives, though. Careening around a curve, he decided that the man must also feel some sort of

obligation, probably to his former FBI career. It was the only thing Frank considered a likely reason.

<p>

<p>Breaking into his musings a moment later, Dammers pointed out the window and commanded, &quot;Pull over. We'll have to walk from here.&quot;

<p>

<p>Trekking through the woods, doubt resurfaced in Frank's mind. Before he left the house, Lucy had also questioned the ghost's motives for bringing him into this situation. One of the points she had raised was that

maybe there was no cult; maybe he just wanted revenge. After all, she reasoned, he probably blamed them for his death. Frank had to admit (although not to his wife) that the thought had leaped into his mind the

second he had seen the dead agent. For the moment, however, he decided to take Dammers' story at face value and just remain on alert should any malevolent intentions surface. Somehow, he just couldn't

imagine the man going through such a charade simply for revenge. He'd always assumed Dammers' method of retribution would be much more straightforward.

<p>

<p>A mile into the woods, the two men suddenly came upon the clearing in the trees from where the light originated. The shaft of red light shone out of the ground in a pattern that was only obvious from such close

proximity: five concentric circles burned into the earth. Inside the innermost circle glowed a strange symbol resembling a tic-tac-toe diagram with a few extra squiggly lines. To Frank's disgust, eight hearts were

arranged in a pattern within the four outer circles. What was currently turning his stomach was the fact that all eight hearts were beating steadily and glistening with fresh blood.

<p>

<p>&quot;I see you found the place all right.&quot;

<p>

<p>Frank tore his eyes from the hearts and saw a young woman step out from behind a gnarled old tree. She was obviously addressing Dammers, who nodded. Alarmed, Frank turned to run but was blocked by

the ghost. Only now did he take the time to notice that Dammers was far more solid than any ghost he'd encountered before. What the hell is going on? Backing away a few steps, he struggled to sound

nonchalant. &quot;I don't suppose you're about to tell me I'm on Candid Camera, are you?&quot;

<p>

<p>Dammers was clearly not amused, but Sarah laughed as she picked up a nearby tree limb. &quot;That's right, Frank. Smile,&quot; she told him, swinging the branch at his head. He tried to duck away, but she quickly

adjusted her swing downward, striking him squarely on the head and knocking him to the forest floor. She dropped the limb and glanced at Dammers, who seemed a bit stunned. Reaching behind the tree, she

produced a set of shackles and tossed them to him. &quot;Here. Put these on our little friend there before he comes to.&quot;

<p>

<p>Already Frank was beginning to stir. Dammers quickly shackled his hands behind his back and pulled the man to his feet. At Sarah's indication, he maneuvered Frank to the inner circle and forced him to his

knees. As Dammers exited the circles, a new worry occurred to him and he walked over to where Sarah stood intently paging through her black ritual book. &quot;What if his spirit tries to stop us after we kill him?

Or what if he decides to haunt me? I could be in real danger from him,&quot; he said softly, stealing an uneasy glance over his shoulder.

<p>

<p>Sarah shook her head and patted him on the back, not at all surprised when he pulled away. &quot;I wouldn't worry about it too much. See, when a ritual of this manner is performed, the victim's soul becomes

trapped. There will be no haunting by his unrestful spirit. Didn't they teach you anything in the FBI?&quot; She shook her head and pulled the silver dagger from a sheath strapped to her leg. &quot;Here, take this. Stand in

the circle with Bannister, but don't do anything until I tell you to.&quot;

<p>

<p>Although dazed, when Frank spotted Dammers coming toward him with the dagger, he struggled to his feet. Attempting to exit the circle, however, became a comedy of errors. When he reached the circle's

perimeter, he was met with a resistance that bounced him off, making him feel like a damn cartoon character. Trapped, he had no choice but to watch as Dammers entered the circle and shoved him to his knees

once again. &quot;Look, Dammers, I don't know what you have in mind,&quot; a lie, of course; it was painfully obvious what the plan was. &quot;-but you don't have to do this.&quot;

<p>

<p>&quot;Oh, shut up.&quot; Dammers deftly flipped the dagger in his hand and struck Frank in the temple with the hilt. He fell forward and lie still, unconscious.

<p>

<p>Finding her place in the ritual book, Sarah entered the circle pattern and stopped at the innermost circle where Dammers stood waiting. After reading a few words from the book, she stepped into the circle and

faced him. Passing the black tome to him, she pointed to a short passage halfway down the page. &quot;Read that.&quot;

<p>

<p>Feeling vaguely ridiculous, Dammers accepted the volume and scanned the appropriate paragraph. While most of it was English, it was interspersed with nearly unpronounceable words - names, he assumed.

Taking a deep breath, he read from the book:

<p>

<p>&quot;Blantlunau, Xtalu, open the portal to thee. Burn the fabric separating worlds. Tzulnhu, the sacrifice is at hand. Spilt blood awaits the coming of Suydam. As darkness be the companion of death, shall night be the

revelation of life. Rulers of the moon, take this sacrifice. By the rite of Eschereheye.&quot;

<p>

<p>As the last syllable left his mouth, the ground shook and the world outside the inner circle ceased to exist. All that remained outside the circle was a mist of swirling colors and dark furtive shapes. One of the dark

objects resembled a small dragon. It swooped toward the circle, causing Dammers to flinch and drop the book and dagger. Several other dark shapes seemed to be hidden in the mist, only coming into view as

the shimmering fog abated enough to catch uncertain glimpses deeper into the ether. There appeared to be creatures flying, like the dragon-creature, and some crawling. The most disturbing of these had no

obvious limbs; they seemed to pour themselves forth. The sight of these last creatures was enough to hurt Dammers' mind, and he found himself almost envying Bannister's unconsciousness.

<p>

<p>&quot;Don't worry, they can't get out.&quot; Sarah was unruffled as she retrieved the book from the ground. She reached toward the mist and was stopped by the same resistance that had halted Frank. A shimmering

handprint momentarily appeared against the mist. &quot;See?&quot;

<p>

<p>Before Dammers could do more than nod in reply, Frank moaned and rolled onto his side, staring in disbelief at what lay beyond the circle. When he realized what he was seeing, his eyes popped open wide and

he gasped. &quot;Holy shit! What the hell is going on?&quot; Once again, though, he was afraid it was obvious what was going on. Although he'd never witnessed anything like this before, it was quite clear that Dammers'

intention was to sacrifice him to those . . . things. Frank looked up at him desperately and exclaimed, &quot;Dammit, don't do this! Whatever reasons you think you have, there's no reason to hate me this much.

Dammers, please. I've got a baby on the way, for godsakes!&quot;

<p>

<p>Smiling bitterly, Dammers grabbed him by the hair and hauled him to his knees. &quot;That was a very moving plea, Frank. However, your mistake was in assuming I give a shit. I don't. I couldn't possibly care less

about you or your spawn if I tried. Now shut the fuck up.&quot; He turned to Sarah, who was watching the exchange with interest. &quot;What's next?&quot;

<p>

<p>And finally the bloodlust presents itself, she thought in amusement. Opening the book, she slid her finger down the page before landing on the correct passage. Over Bannister's protestations, she pronounced

a few lines and kicked the dagger to Dammers. &quot;Now you take his heart,&quot; she told him solemnly.

<p>

<p>Frank immediately fell silent at the girl's words. To his dismay, all his panicked mind could think of was the chorus to the Janice Joplin song, 'Piece of My Heart'. Wondering if this was what hysteria felt like, he

couldn't help but laugh out loud at the trick his unhelpful mind was playing on him. Suddenly brought back to the seriousness of the situation, he tried to get away from Dammers. It was a futile effort; with the

diameter of the circle being no more than fifteen feet, there was really no place to escape to. After a few moments of fruitless evasion and fighting, the girl became exasperated and carefully set the book on the

ground. Walking up to him, she quickly forced Frank to his knees and held him there. Unable to move, he found himself amazed at her strength and speed. So this is how it ends, he thought, hanging his head in

misery.

<p>

<p>With the blade only inches from Frank's chest, Dammers hesitated. Now that the moment was truly upon him, his nerves were threatening to shake his whole trembling body apart, but whether with excitement or

trepidation, he wasn't sure. Not giving himself the chance to think about it any further, he steadied his hand and plunged the dagger into Frank's chest, pulling the blade down the length of his sternum. Arms

soaked in blood, Dammers managed to remove the heart after some tribulation. Sarah immediately took it from him and motioned him to the glowing symbol in the center of the circle.

<p>

<p>As he kneeled on the symbol, Sarah squeezed blood from the still-beating heart over his head while reciting a few words she seemed to know from memory. Dammers risked a glance up when the shower of

blood ended, but before he could raise his head more than a fraction, he felt an impact to his chest and fell to the ground, momentarily blinded by a brilliant flash of white light. The mist was now shot through with

faint red streaks, and the dark creatures eagerly clambered toward the circle's edge.

<p>

<p>When Dammers regained his bearings, he realized that the impact he'd felt had been the result of Sarah thrusting Bannister's heart into him. &quot;You forgot to mention that part,&quot; he muttered breathlessly, carefully

climbing to his feet. Surprisingly, he found himself dry, no longer drenched in blood.

<p>

<p>Sarah grinned. &quot;Welcome back to life, Dammers.&quot;

<p>

<p>&quot;Is that all?&quot; Somehow, he'd expected more. He had trouble believing it was all over.

<p>

<p>Shaking her head, she gestured to the spot where Bannister lay. &quot;No, not quite all.&quot;

<p>

<p>To Dammers' astonishment, Frank was still breathing, his mangled chest moving in and out with every tortured attempt of breath. His eyelids fluttered and he moved his lips, obviously trying to speak. All

satisfaction at being alive drained away as Dammers watched in disgust. &quot;Why is he doing that? I thought he was dead.&quot;

<p>

<p>&quot;Physically, he is. But his spirit is trapped in the body. It happens more often than you might think.&quot; Sarah nodded toward Bannister. &quot;Now all that remains is to give him to them - &quot; she waved her hand in the

direction of the mist &quot;- and the portal will be sealed. Then we can leave.&quot;

<p>

<p>More unnerved by the twitching body than he wanted to admit, Dammers forced himself to drag it to the edge of the circle. This time there was no resistance as he carefully slid Frank into the mist. As suddenly

as it had sprung into existence, the mist and the creatures within it disappeared. He was once again looking at the dark forest, and upon glancing down, he saw that the pattern of circles and the light shining from

them had also vanished without a trace. Dammers could only assume that the body and hearts had been taken by the creatures back to their hellish realm.

<p>

<p>Now that the ritual was complete, Sarah shuffled her feet uncertainly. &quot;So,&quot; she began, almost shyly, &quot;have you given any thought to where you're going to go now?&quot;

<p>

<p>Distracted by the feel of the warm night breeze against his new skin, Dammers almost laughed out loud. The near-giddiness he was feeling was certainly out of character, but at the moment, he really didn't care

how silly he appeared. It had been too long since he'd felt anything even resembling this type of happiness. &quot;Uh, New York. I was considering New York. Buffalo, to be precise.&quot; Coming to a final decision on

the matter, he regarded Sarah soberly, hoping he wouldn't come to regret what he was about to do. &quot;How do you feel about New York? What I mean is, um . . . Do you . . . &quot; he gritted his teeth in frustration

and finally asked hurriedly, &quot;Are you going to come with me?&quot;

<p>

<p>She raised her eyebrows, surprised that he'd come this close to admitting he wanted her with him. &quot;You actually want me to go with you?&quot; she asked, amused.

<p>

<p>Dammers shrugged, avoiding her eyes. She won't be happy until she makes me say it, he thought. &quot;Don't rub it in,&quot; he grumbled. Taking a deep breath, he amended, &quot;If you want to come, then yes, I want you

to.&quot;

<p>

<p>Sarah busied herself with gathering up the ritual book and dagger, considering the offer. She'd never actually expected him to ask her to go with him. Not that she hadn't thought about it, but she hadn't figured

he'd be able to suck it up and ask. Hell, it wasn't like there was anything tying her to Fairwater. . . . &quot;New York, huh?&quot; She smiled. &quot;When do we leave?&quot;

<p>

<p>A sense of relief washed over Dammers, catching him off-guard. He hoped to hell that he wasn't making a mistake by letting her know he wanted her. But, he figured, what the hell? He had a new lease on life,

so why not live a little? &quot;Soon. We'll leave soon. And, uh, why don't we take the plane? I feel good about the plane.&quot;

<p>

<p>* * *

<p>

<p>ONE MONTH LATER

<p>

<p>Frank Bannister wasn't sure how long he'd been floating in the mist. Time didn't apply here. He'd been everywhere in the universe in the blink of an eye, and yet he was trapped in one spot. The contradictions in

this realm were endless. He could detect no physical aspect of himself, therefore he thought perhaps he was existing as pure consciousness.

<p>

<p>After an undetermined amount of time, he began to move through no effort of his own. In the distance ahead of him was a tunnel of light unlike any he remembered previously encountering. Without any warning

he was pushed forward, entering the tunnel. Beyond it, he thought he heard voices. As he neared the end of the tunnel, the voices became clearer, and he thought at one point that Lucy's was among them. But no, surely that was just his imagination, he thought.

<p>

<p>As he exited the tunnel, he cautiously opened his eyes and gazed about, finding himself in what he assumed was a hospital room. When his vision cleared, he saw that he hadn't imagined Lucy's voice: he was

staring up at her, his precious Lucy. He opened his mouth, preparing to tell her all that he'd been through, and needing to tell her how much he loved her, but all he was able to voice was:

<p>

<p>&quot;Waah!&quot;

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