Brian opened his eyes. Above him, the sky glowed a bloody crimson behind a veil of smoke. He lay on his back, the ground beneath him bare and hard, the color of ashes. He sat up, stood, looked around. The black, leafless trees of some strange woodland surrounded him. He examined himself, his ruined T-shirt soaked through with pasty blood. He pulled it off and threw it aside. Running his hands over his chest and stomach, he could neither see nor feel any evidence of a wound. The little medicine bag still hung around his neck.
“Brian!” A familiar voice carried through the woods, followed by a familiar form stepping into view from the shadows.
“Manny?” Brian said.
“It’s me. Guess it got you too, huh?”
“Got me?” Brian said. “Yeah, I remember!”
“At least maybe Dave made it.”
“Where are we?” Brian asked.
“You don’t know?” Manny replied. “We’re dead, Brian.”
“Dead?” Brian looked around. “No. I don’t think so.”
“It’s true,” Manny said. “I’m sorry. We’re both dead.”
“But I’m still breathing,” Brian said.
“Force of habit,” Manny said.
“I can feel my heart beating,” Brian said. “I’m not dead.”
“I’m so sorry, Brian,” Manny said.
Brian stared at him. “I’m not dead,” he repeated. “And you’re not Manny.”
The priest smiled. His countenance shifted, like a mask of wax beginning to melt. His eyes sank back in his head, disappearing into tiny black holes. “You are clever, little thing.”
“Where am I?” Brian demanded.
“You are in My realm,” the Darkness said. “In one of those realms, at least, where I hold dominion.” The voice was Manny’s and yet not Manny’s. Never could Manny, or any human being, have spoken in a voice that contained such hopelessness, such malignancy.
“Who are you?” Brian said.
“You already know.”
“Yes,” Brian said. “You tried to kill me.”
“I underestimated you,” the Darkness said. “You are more formidable than I had expected, little thing.”
“Why did you bring me here?” Brian asked.
“There are things I would have you see,” the Darkness said. “Things you must understand.”
“I’ve already heard the story,” Brian said.
“You have heard but a portion, little thing. I will tell you the full tale.”
“Like I’d believe you,” Brian said. “You are the ‘Great Lie,’ after all.”
“I am capable of speaking the truth when it suites Me,” the Darkness said. “Now, Brian Alderman, I will show you many things. Not as they appear to be, but as they are. Come.” Brian fell instep behind the Darkness. He knew of nothing else he could do.