Artemis foraged deep into the thick forest. She climbed up the steep mountain sides as the darkness was unmasked by her night vision glasses. Her Glock 9mm holstered to her side. A ballistic knife strapped to her right thigh. Her boots splattered with brown mud.
After she finally relocated the tall tree, and the ritualistic sight. She knelt down, and allowed her breathing to slow, and her warm skin to accept the cold air. As she appeared to release steam from her body.
And as she expected from Satan’s warning, she sensed she was not alone; she was being followed. She stood up, inspected the darkness between the tall oak trees, and the wavy silhouettes cast by the full moon’s glow and altered by a consistent breeze. She stopped walking, unconcerned with her hiking boots stepping on tree limbs, or pine cones as she turned around to inspect where she sensed them. She heard wild animals hunting for prey, and an owl’s gravely hoot.
“If want to talk,” Artemis said. She gripped the weapon handle. “Show yourself, now, if not, if your living, I’ll kill you on first sight. I promise I won’t miss.”
From behind the dense thicket, and the fat and skinny tree trunks, spirit women started to appear. They then started to float like pale light clouds from all directions from within the darkness and converged next to a spirit. They gathered together near her. Artemis thought in life she had been strikingly beautiful.
“Leave this place,” she said. Her eyes black. She was motionless as the others existed behind her. “This is not a place for the living.”
“I don’t think so,” Artemis said. She stepped forward. “Who were you? All of you?”
The spirit woman rushed toward Artemis. She screeched at Artemis. But Artemis, just stood her ground, as the spirit woman made her pass.
“I’m not easily scared,” Artemis said. “Who are you?”
“Leave this place,” she said, she growled, she hissed.
Artemis took her hand off her gun. She realized there was movement behind them, soft words being exchanged barely above a whisper.
“Why here?” Artemis asked her. She stepped closer to them. “Who are you?”
The spirit women began to gather closer together. They started to communicate with the chosen woman. She returned to face in front of Artemis.
“This is a place for death,” she said. “I told you, I warned you, this is not a place for the living.”
“I’ve seen a ritual here, under that tree,” Artemis said. She pointed over at the sight, she looked up into the massive tulip poplar. “Sacrificed a lamb, I think it was chosen on purpose, my last name is Lamb. Satan’s idea, it sent me. What was your name in life?”
They all looked closely over at Artemis. She sensed they had accepted that her statement was the truth as one of them whispered to the chosen leader.
“Lilith, was my given name,” she said.
And Artemis started to notice the spirit women were starting to back away and they stood closer, and closer together. She saw a tiny spirit girl peak out from behind them. The women tried to encourage the young spirit girls to hide, but they who were revealed as they peaked out from behind bushes and limestone outcropping.
“Sacrificing children?” Artemis asked, haltingly. She resisted her inner emotions, she focused on her training. “A child?”
“Little girls are his favorite,” Lilith said, wistfully. “Or one of us were chosen, we never knew when, if we ate the wrong mushroom it was all over.”
“Is this the Prophet Higgs Boson?” Artemis said. “He’s who you refer to, right?”
“Yes,” Lilith said. She pointed over at the Tulip Poplar. “The tree will die, it must be fed, it’s what beneath that is worshipped.”
“What needs to be fed?” Artemis asked. She stared over at the other women. “You were all killed, how can this be?”
Lilith looked coldly forward at nothing.
“I was an addict, all I yearned for was to get high,” Lilith said. “I lost my family. I lived on streets, in the woods, until he found me.”
Another of the women floated forward next to Lilith.
“Satan sent you?” she said. “Why? We try to hide. We don’t bother anyone, please leave us alone.”
“Yes,” Artemis said. “I don’t know why, who were you?”
“It hates you,” she said. “I was Jezebel, I was a prostitute, I gave myself to the master.”
“I’m aware Satan hates me,” Artemis said. “It decided to torture me, I don’t know why.”
“Your truthful,” Lilith said. She floated forward to focus her black eyes on Artemis. She sniffed near Artemis. “I can sense your spirit, you live for truth.”
“Satan hates the truth,” Jezebel said. “It takes one of us, one by one, it only takes one of us at a time. It leaves the children alone, they are innocents. It cannot touch them.”
“You can’t go on?” Artemis asked.
“To Hell, our only path, we prayed to Satan” Lilith said. “We are all trapped. We did bad things, and now we pay.”
“The children warn us,” Jezebel said. She looked up to search the sky that sparkled from light billions of years old. “When it comes, they can sense the evil one.”
Artemis stepped back and she looked over at the tree. She could see the soft surface covered with mushrooms were something nasty lived beneath.
“What does this have to do with a hospital?” Artemis asked her self. “How did you get addicted?”
“Don’t eat the mushrooms,” Lilith said. She blankly stared at Artemis.
“I hear you,” Artemis said. And then she heard the muscled white stag emerge from the forest, it was followed close behind by the American Indian spirit. “I don’t understand what’s going on, this just a bad dream.”
“The white stag,” Lilith said. “It protects the forest.”
Jezebel pointed over at the warrior spirit.
“The warrior caught Prophet Higgs Boson murdering a girl who ran from him,” Jezebel said. She held her hand up in a sign of peace. “The prophet is afraid of the warrior, he ran away leaving her on the forest floor. He left her heart next to her.”
“She was not sacrificed to the mycelia,” Lilith said. “You talked to her?”
“How do you know that?” Artemis asked.
The women looked at each other.
“We hide in your world, we exist in the light, a light most cannot see,” Jezebel said. “But you can see into our world.”
“Our spirits communicate,” Lilith said. “We’ve been watching you, we know who you really are.”
“I’m sorry,” Artemis said. She sensed they understood her work, her passion for her duty. “I don’t hate, they hurt innocent people.”
“Yes, you don’t hate,” Jezebel said. She tried to place her hand on Artemis chest, but it waved through Artemis. “You are like the warrior, but you’re alive.”
Artemis looked beside the white stag. The warrior was painted for battle, his spear garlanded with white feathers.
“I don’t understand him,” Artemis said.
“I do. The warrior prayed at death to always roam the forest to protect it from mankind,” Lilith said. “He now waits for the Prophet, he sometimes appeared at ceremonies and chased us away.”
“You could all see him?” Artemis said.
“We were high, it wanted us to see him,” Lilith said. “He tried to help us.”
“Lilly Ann,” Artemis said. She looked down at the hard ground, the swirled dormant grass. “She ran for her life.”
“The warrior tried to protect her body, but it’s a spirit, like us, it’s not in your world,” Jezebel said. “It sent the stag to find Virgil.”
“Virgil?” Artemis said. She stepped back.
“Virgil tries to protect the forest, too,” Lilith said. “He’s afraid, he’s gotten too old, so he drinks to hide his pain.”
Jezebel floated toward the tree. She pointed down.
“It’s the mycelia, it must die,” Jezebel said. She pointed back over at the tree. “It’s alive, he created it.”
“The prophet?” Artemis asked.
“No, Dr. Demetrius,” Lilith said. She hesitated and looked up into the trees. The spirit girls started to moan.
“We have to go, sisters, prepare.”
“They are twin brothers,” Jezebel said. She started to pick up her pace. “Identical to the other. You will find your answer with them.”
And then with great haste the spirit women all disappeared with the spirit children crying and screaming back into the darkness like fog gliding across a nighttime ocean. And the forest began to feel colder, it seemed harder to Artemis. The stag huffed, and stomped back between the trees, and up a hill. The warrior remained behind, it’s spear pushed toward Artemis, and then it turned and left.
From behind Artemis an all to familiar voice.
“Oh, look at you,” Satan said. The handsome man strolled with a certainty only from knowing how all things end. “All decked out in your inner badass, don’t shoot me, or, don’t stab me with that thing. It looks nasty.”
“Having fun?” Artemis asked. She closed her eyes. She opened her eyes. She pinched her cheek.
“Oh, I’m real,” Satan said. “This is not a dream. Beside, I can visit you in your dreams, if you like?”
“What do you want?” Artemis said. “Leave those women alone, you could allow them to beg for mercy?”
“Naw, as these humans say,” Satan said. “That would ruin my fun. The little girls can go on to the big guy when they figure it out. But those women, they made a bargain. I don’t let souls out of my contracts.”
“Then why show them to me?” Artemis asked.
“Remember what I told you?” Satan asked. It chuckled as it strolled around Artemis. “Think, what did I tell you from the beginning of our play?”
Artemis’ mind swirled with thoughts and evidence. But then she rolled her memory back in time. She stared up into the darkness at the tree limbs barely revealed by the full moon. And she thought about what would be the simplest, and yet the most complicated answer to Satan’s riddle.
“Greed,” Artemis said.
“Greed it is,” Satan said. It clapped, slowly, rhythmically. “Good Artemis, you’re learning.”
“Brothers?” Artemis said, lowly. “That’s the connection.”
“Yes, you win a prize,” Satan said. It smiled at Artemis, but with dead, cold eyes. “It’s right in front of you, but you don’t see, yet.”
“They’re in cult, so what,” Artemis said. “I’ll tip off Agent Beaky, he’ll handle this mess. I think the malpractice part is becoming obvious, and criminal.”
“Oh, come on,” Satan said, amusingly. “That’s way to simple. Think, think, greed? It’s my favorite sin, but then, there is an emotion. It leads to all the other sins. I want to teach you that emotion, it’s my pin prick into your soul.”
Before Artemis responded to Satan. It disappeared into the air. And Artemis was left surrounded in the darkness with the four legged animals, spiders, and snakes. She adjusted her night vision glasses, and she began to hike back out from the woods. She needed to find Agent Beaky.
End. Chapter 25.
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