He comes bearing death in his hand ...and justice in his soul.
The axe drew him toward a town in the midst of California's Central Valley. To get there he crossed the wild Sierra Nevada Mountains, braving some of the worst shift-storms that the western region of the Americas had to offer. The storms were the purest of the form of the chaos that engulfed the Earth. Curtains of shimmering light decorated the skies even in day here, like aurora borealis gone mad. During the nights the storms came down, liquefied the air, transformed the landscape into colorful hot running wax, twisted the living things into grotesque shapes. The Axeman descended from the Sierras in relief on the sixteenth day, leaving the insane colors, the slick hard lakes and the flopping damned things behind.
The town itself was a hot, dusty little place without much personality; only the miracle of irrigation kept it green in the July heat. The Axeman walked on a sidewalk, an old sidewalk, with many sections that were cracked and lifted up by tree roots. The large sycamore trees responsible for the damage marched along both sides of the street, leafy stalwart warriors wearing their summer colors of vivid green and mottled brown. The Axeman moved through their ranks, a sergeant reviewing his platoon. Despite the heat he wore a long weather-stained cloak, its original color a matter of conjecture, now a deep brown. The cloak hid most of his clothing within its shadowy interior, but visible below the hem were a heavy pair of well-worn boots. Tucked under his left arm was a Bible; slung across his shoulder was a small rucksack. Around his neck he wore a stiff white collar.
The street and the marching sycamores ended abruptly in a ravaged area that marked the passage of a shift-storm through the town. He paused to mop his brow with a dirt-smeared bandana. The pavement continued after a fashion, presently entering into a devastated region, where it became a dark, twisting flow, and the asphalt had shifted to a river of black glass. The trees had all been slashed and burned down... for safety's sake, of course. Their grasping wooden fingers were twisted and charred, frozen in a death that had come just as suddenly and brutally as had sentient life. The houses were dead monsters, their roving windows and snapping doors destroyed by teams of bulldozers and axes.
"This used to be my street."
The Axeman whirled, knees bent. An old man sat upon the stump of one of the murdered trees. He waved vaguely down the twisted strip of glassy asphalt. "My house was just at the corner there, before the shifting came through. Fourteen-Sixteen Myrtle it was."
"I'm sorry you lost your home," said the Axeman. His dry throat made his voice rattle thinly.
"I'm Ben, Ben Carson," said the old man. He extended his hand. The Axeman shook it, careful not to stare at the magenta spurs that topped all seven of the man's knuckles. The double-bladed axe that rode in his rucksack twitched, however, lacking manners.
"I got too close to it, as you can see," remarked Ben, placing his deformed hand behind him on the stump. "Tried to save the wife. A foolish thing, really."
"A natural thing to do," said the Axeman gently.
"You're a traveler?" asked Ben suddenly.
The Axeman nodded. The Axe twitched again and the handle slid unobtrusively from underneath the flap. With a slight frown of annoyance, he rolled his shoulders to quiet it. Packed away in darkness, he sensed the Axe's curved black blades cloud over for a moment, then return to their normal glass-like sheen.
"You're very lucky then, and very gutsy," said Ben with a shake of his old head. "I never left town, but got touched by the chaos anyway. You look like the most normal traveler I've ever set eyes on."
A distant smile played across the Axeman's weather-seamed face. "Tell me, Ben, how long ago did the last storm hit this town?"
Ben shrugged. "Must've been May since the north end of highway 99 was cut off. Whole thing turned into a huge serpent, only with no head and no tail. Took four days to stop thrashing and coiling. This area was hit way back in November--notice the trees have no leaves? A blessing, that. They say the leaves tend to come loose and fly around with little mouths like bats," said Ben. Despite heat in the high nineties, a shiver ran through him.
Taking his leave of the old man, the Axeman passed through the devastation and entered a more picturesque part of the town. His long legs strode at a steady, rapid pace. After a time he came to an intersection and paused before crossing. Here, the homes that lined the streets were larger and nicer, with greater individuality and superior aspect. Even the sycamores seemed to stand straighter and more proudly, tree-soldiers at attention, rather than drooping from an endless march. The sidewalk beneath his feet was in better repair, as though the great trees hadn't quite dared to lift up the slabs of concrete with their powerful roots. He was left with the feeling that such horseplay was simply not allowed in this neighborhood. Directly before him, on the opposite corner of the street he was about to cross, stood a stately manse with green ivy-like creepers working their way up walls of dark brick. The growth wreathed every pane of the windows on the highest turrets of the third floor, stopping only at the barricade of the rain gutters that encircled the steep slate roof.
A Corvette with a growling engine stalked up the street in front of the manse. With a negligence that was impossible to fathom, the car drove up and simply ran over two of the three children that were playing in a pile of hedge-cuttings to one side of the street. The car's molded front bumper scooped up a boy, almost gently, and rolled him over the heavily waxed black hood to the windshield. From the windshield he was bounced up into the air and neatly deposited in the hedge-clippings, a small splash of dry leaves and cut twigs shooting up like a whale's plume from where he landed. The child, no more than four years old, gave only a single yelp when the car scooped him up, and afterward simply laid in the rubbish heap, dazed. The second child, a girl, was if anything even smaller and younger than her playmate. She was more fortunate, as she simply laid down in the clippings, letting the heavy car pass over her with its hot oily engine and whirring fan inches above her surprised face. The third child was another girl, the youngest of the three, showing the bulky padding around her hips that indicated she still wore diapers beneath her red cotton pants. She simply watched, absently sucking her left hand, while her playmates were knocked about like bowling pins by the slow-moving car.
The Axeman's jaw sagged. The sheer nonchalance of the driver! To simply drive through a group of playing children, traveling at no more than five miles an hour! It was incomprehensible. Was she intoxicated? He could see even through the heavily tinted glass that it was a lone woman at the wheel. Had she experienced a stroke? He simply stood for a moment on the curb, his lips forming a bloodless O. Then the third child, the uninjured one, began crying and ran to him with the jerky, alarming gait of a panicked toddler. He shoved his Bible into his pack, where it rested easily against the Axe. She raised up her hands to him and he stepped forward, sweeping her high into the protective wall of his arms. In his pack, the sleeping Axe twitched.
Awakened into action, the Axeman took a step toward the other two children. Neither appeared to be seriously hurt; the little girl cried wildly while the boy rubbed his arm and tugged at the twigs caught in his hair. He then turned his attention to the car and its driver. Transferring the weight of the little girl to his left arm and hip, he stepped forward onto the street, striding toward the car, which slowed almost to a stop. The little girl in his arms sniffled and rubbed her eyes. The wispy golden hair on her head floated up in the slightest breeze, as fine as cobwebs.
The driver sent her tinted window down a third of the way with a touch of her finger to the power switch. Wild, annoying music floated out of the vehicle, drowning out the steady thrum of the engine with foul rasping and banging.
"Are you demented?" he asked. His right arm was free now, and the Axe stirred hungrily in his pack, the handle emerging unobtrusively from under the flap, well within easy reach.
The driver was an unappetizing woman in her thirties with false brown curls and long fingernails painted a brilliant hue of lavender. With a look of incomprehension and a slight shake of her head, as though she did not understand what it was he was asking, she made as if to roll up the window again.
"What about the children?" he shouted at her. The cords suddenly stood out on his neck as real anger finally took him. "How can you be so uncaring, so callous to injured little ones?"
She spread her long lavender fingernails over her breasts, showing concern for the first time. He could tell however, that her concern wasn't for the children, but rather for the safety of her miserable skin. With a flick of inch-long nails and a tiny shrug her eyes asked, what can be done?
Then their eyes met for the first time. The visage of the Axeman in anger had once given even a sphinx cause to ponder. In his presence there was an undeniable sense of the accountability of one for his or her actions. It was a sense of brute justice, of violent revenge. He did in fact ponder pulling free the Axe from his pack. He restrained himself, as he had nothing upon which to base formal judgement. Besides, there was the innocent child riding contentedly now on his left arm. She did not deserve further trauma.
And so the woman drove away slowly, the tinted glass sliding up smoothly to complete the black shell in which she was ensconced. Only she and the Axeman knew that she had experienced a thrill of fear after looking into his dangerous, electric eyes, that her armor of unconcern had been punctured despite all pretense to the contrary.
As the Corvette slid away down the street, he noticed that the license plate that should have been on the rear bumper was absent. Still feeling a hot bubble of anger inside he turned, striding back toward the other two children.
To his surprise, the children were not in the hedge-clippings any longer. Instead, they had been taken up by two older women. Even as the Axeman approached, the two women headed back into the open front gate of the ivy-covered manse. They crooned to the children who cried steadily. He reached the hedge-clippings with several long strides and raised up his hand.
"Wait, I saw what happened!" he cried.
Without a reply the two women entered the gate and closed it behind them, the taller and older of the two giving him a sudden quick frown before vanishing into the courtyard beyond. He paused at the gate and touched his chin. Perhaps these local people should be left now to handle their own affairs; perhaps they needed no further interference from him.
Still, he could not be sure. He had a feeling--a hunch, perhaps--that here something dark moved beneath placid waters. He was always one to follow his feelings, second only to Justice. He followed them at a trot, catching the gate before it swung closed and latched.
Still carrying the little blonde girl in her red cotton pants, he entered the grounds of the manse. Within the growth-covered brick walls, the courtyard was a fairy book affair, being more of a garden than a courtyard. Handsome rose bushes in full bloom stood in proud ranks around the path that led to the house, and the roses were walled in by a veritable hedgerow of lush marigolds. They vaguely reminded the Axeman of the neat rows of sycamore tree-soldiers that lined the roads outside. Bees hummed busily around the garden, working most happily among the lilacs and African pansies that grew up hugging the bricks of the house itself. Nowhere, the Axeman noted with appreciation, was there a weed to be seen. The gravel path he stood upon led straight to the porch of the house itself, a grand affair with much scrolled woodwork and high gables overhead. Off to one side the path joined with a gravel drive that lead from the quaint carriage house to another gate which presumably let onto the street again. Another, smaller side-path led to an eight-sided gazebo with a high pointed roof that stood amidst the great ranks of red rosebushes, a lone tower besieged by a thorn-bearing army of flowering plants.
Of the two women and the children they were carrying, there was no sign.
Taking only a moment to drink in the beauty of the place, he strode purposefully up the gravel path and the steps of the porch to the kitchen door. He rapped on the old glass panes, peering in through the wavering distortions to examine the kitchen. There was a pot boiling on a stove and a set of half-washed dishes in the sink, but no sign of the children. He twisted the rattling handle immediately, opening the door and taking a deep breath to shout for the old women to show themselves, but a sound he heard caused the shout to die in his throat. Out in the garden, over the twittering birds and the buzzing insects he heard the distinct noise of a wooden door slamming shut. Wheeling with grace on the heel of his right boot, he drew back from the kitchen and stood on the porch, his eyes focusing just in time to see a black scrap of cloth being yanked back into the door of the gazebo. Someone had gotten their skirts caught as they slipped inside. Now that his keen senses were aligned to the gazebo, he heard the further sounds of the door being latched tight, and the guttural sound of an old woman's voice.
"Fool!" she hissed, followed by what could only have been a hard slap to the face, and a whimper of submission.
Shifting the blonde child's weight to his left hip, that his right hand would be free for action, the Axeman set on the path again, his boots crunching rhythmically on the gravel. His mind was whirling, and a strange image grew there behind his brow. The image was of two old women, huddling down in the vast sea of rosebushes, their hands most likely clamped over the mouths of two squirming children, or had they simply told them it was a game, a contest of quietness? Then further images came of these two mysterious fugitives, jumping up as he had strode past, taking hasty refuge in the gazebo. He frowned upon all mysteries, being a man who preferred the straightforward truth, the simple clarity of above-board dealings. Could these women be so frightened of him? Was all of this simply a misunderstanding?
To be sure, the Axe which rode his shoulder was certain. It twitched and throbbed and all but begged to be drawn. It was sure that there was great evil afoot, but this was nothing new. The Axe loved fulfilling its purpose; it sought and found evil in everything, oftentimes whether it was there or not. Nay, it was not up to the Axe the job of judgement; that belonged to the Axeman himself. The Axe was only to be drawn when guilt had been proven.
In twenty long strides the Axeman reached the gazebo. He grabbed the door handle and pulled, muscles bunching up as it resisted beyond what one would expect from ancient wood and a thin rusty latch. And while he stood there, pulling, a strange sensation came to him, emanating from within the walls of the tiny building before him, a sensation of terror and woe. He heard no sounds, but even so felt that something odd was happening inside. Something foul.
Then the door gave way, and he all but fell forward into the dim interior of the gazebo. Inside it was hot and stuffy, and within sat two women, huddled on the bench that ran around the building along seven of its eight walls, the other being occupied by the door itself. Of the children there was no sign.
"What do you want?" cried the shorter and fatter of the women, her lower lip trembling. Both of them wore knit sweaters wrapped over their shoulders like shawls. The Axeman peered at them in the green gloom of the gazebo, realizing that these women were younger, straighter of spine and smoother of face than what he had expected. For some reason, he had thought them quite old, perhaps in their seventies at least, now however he could see that neither of them were much over sixty. The younger one's hair was only partially gray, in fact. He disregarded this, all his thoughts being upon discovering the whereabouts of the children.
"Where are the other children?" he demanded.
The first woman shook her head and made as if to reply, but the older one shushed her with a touch of her fingers to the other's lips.
"We aren't saying," said the taller, older one. Around her neck hung a small mass of crooked sticks and feathers. It was a talisman. Many people wore them these days in the vague hope of warding off the shift-storms. In her fingers she twisted and fretted with the talisman nervously. Her expression was that of great concern, but wasn't there--just a glint, mind you--of a mocking smile in her eyes? The Axeman could not be sure.
"You are a stranger here, and we don't like strangers. These children belong in this neighborhood and you don't. Now give me Amanda and clear out. Kids around her know not to talk with strange men, and you're scaring her out of her wits."
The Axeman glanced down at the little blonde girl that still rode in the crook of his left arm. She still sucked her hand, gazing at the two women with mild curiosity, but there was no sign of fear in her face, nor of any particular desire to go to them. She did in fact, seem quite happy to continue riding on his tireless arm. He came to a sudden, irreversible decision: he would not allow Amanda out of his reach.
"I repeat: Where are the other children?"
"What do you care?" replied the dominant one, standing and approaching him slowly, her eyes on Amanda, clearly wishing to gain possession of her. "You scared us good, so we hid the children, not knowing, and still not knowing I might add, what kind of man you might be. Amanda, come here right now," this last she directed to Amanda, opening her arms.
"You must understand sir," said the plump one, still sitting on the bench with her hands in her lap. "Even if you are a preacher, you do have the look of a vagrant."
This last rang true in the Axeman's ears. His shoulders heaved, sighing and relaxing at the same time.
"I am a fool," he said. And indeed, he felt the fool to the core of his being. He was ashamed, mortified. He had suspected great mischief and had followed the overzealous instincts of the Black Axe into folly. All was suddenly clear; the old women had rushed forward, eager to save the children from danger, then he had arrived, frightening them out of their wits even as all their protective instincts were in full force. He had been an idiot not to see it. The children had only been victims of a negligent driver, no more. It was not the first time that the Black Axe had led him into embarrassment with its constant and eager paranoia.
He nodded his head to them, and they saw in his face that he believed them now. Smiling, the older woman reached out delicately to take Amanda from his arms. The Axeman made as if to give her up, but found that he could not uncrook his arm. Not just yet. He was not one to easily reverse a decision. The old cold fingers lightly brushed his arm, then pulled back, the old eyes glaring, when he did not release the girl.
"I am truly sorry," he said, apologizing to them both. "The only dangerous person involved has fled. The driver is gone, but we are all ready to find threats around every bend. Please excuse my trespassing and my crude manners, I only wished to save the children from harm."
"We understand," replied the smaller woman, beaming. "Perhaps you could join us for tea? I have a pot boiling in the kitchen."
The dominant woman shot her a venomous glance that almost made the Axeman snort with amusement. As it was he touched his face to hide a grin. "I would be glad to join you, ladies. Allow me to introduce myself, I am Reverend James Thomas."
"Nice to meet you, Reverend," replied the taller, regaining her composure. "I am Carmen, and this is my niece, Nadine."
He thought of hunting up Amanda's parents, but decided that perhaps it was best if he stayed and waited for the other two children to turn up. Better to be certain than to be left wondering about them, the Axe would never let him rest easy again. As they all stepped out, the women leading the way. He stepped upon an old wooden grate in the floor, which had escaped his attention previously. It gave way slightly, indicating that there was an open space beneath. The grate covered an opening in the precise center of the gazebo.
"Ah, so this is the escape route that the children took?"
"Ah, yes," replied Nadine, looking uncomfortable at his discovery. Her flabby cheeks pinked a little.
Nodding, he let them proceed him into the kitchen. For some few minutes they sat and discussed the strange event that had occurred, and sipped their tea. As was his custom, the Axeman took only the tiniest sip of their brew, then set the cup aside. Carmen brought in a glass ball with a snow scene inside that snowed when you shook it. She allowed Amanda to look at and touch it, but not to remove it from the kitchen table. Even so, Amanda was delighted. After a few minutes of polite conversation--during which he learned that both of the women's husbands had been lost years since, and that the house was too big and more of a bother every year to keep up and heat--he took the now cool tea to the sink and quietly dumped it. As he did so, he noted what could only have been the other two children, playing quietly along the gravel path outside the kitchen window.
With a smile, he stepped outside and knelt down beside the children on the dusty path. Both of them had garden trowels, and were digging at the stones with them.
"How are you children? Are you hurt?" he asked them.
"I don't know," replied the boy, shrugging.
"My arm hurts a lot," said the girl, presenting a long red scrape and a purpling bruise as evidence.
"Did the car hit your arm?"
"No, the monster did it," she replied, watching him intently as he examined the injury.
He laughed. "You mean the Corvette. The only monster was the woman driving it."
"The monster is called Or-vet?" she asked with frightened eyes.
"No, stupid," said the boy.
"No, uh..." said the Axeman, frowning.
"She's not talkin' about the car, mister," said the boy. "The car is over there in the garage."
"What?" he asked, rising up. He turned toward the carriage house, and noted that the door was indeed half-open, but he could have sworn he had seen it all the way shut.
"Come on, I'll show ya. That's where we got these shovels."
He followed the boy to the carriage house, where the Corvette indeed sat, engine ticking away the heat from a recent roadtrip. The Axeman patted the boy's head. He had placed the first piece in the puzzle.
"You children stick close to me, now, I--" here he broke off as Lucifer's hot claws squeezed his heart. There was gray in the boy's hair. It wasn't all gray, it wasn't even all that noticeable from a distance, but up close you could see it. He lifted his patting hand, and saw that the boy's blonde hair was shot through with silvery streaks. He whirled and crouched in front of the little girl then, finding more steel-colored threads. Then he rose and dashed out of the carriage house, cloak swirling around him, making the astonished children think of Batman.
Even as his boots pounded the gravel, he wanted to pound his own head. It had been right there, right in front of him all along. And worse, he had gone back on his pledge, he had left Amanda with them. He thought of the toddler's fine wispy hair shot through with gray and sickened inside. Then he ran faster.
In bare seconds he reached the point in the gravel path where the side path to the gazebo began, but to his dismay the path had vanished. He almost flew headlong into the roses, barely managing to check himself. All he could see was a solid wall of rosebushes, at least ten yards deep, between him and the little eight-sided building. It was as if an army had closed ranks, sealing the hole as if it had never been there.
He had in truth been an idiot, and idiot not to trust his own instincts. He had sensed the evil and he had doubted himself. One witch had nudged the children with her car so as to give the old witches a chance to run out and grab them. Perhaps their parents were watching; perhaps they were afraid to simply coax the children into the walls of the garden without an excuse. The plan seemed so elaborate, to go to all the trouble, all the risk, of running the car into the children just to get them down here into the cellar, it seemed so bizarre. But the plan, insane or not, had almost succeeded. He had almost been deceived.
"Amanda!" he shouted. He paused for a moment, but heard only the blowing of his own breath and the pounding of his heart. The birds and insects had fallen silent. There was no sign of life in the gazebo, nor in the house. Only the children watched him from the dark mouth of the carriage house.
"So be it," he said.
Then he drew the Axe. The double-edged weapon pushed its handle into his waiting hand and leapt free of the pack. A great feeling of relief and freedom awoke in the Axeman's heart, the feeling of release from boredom and imprisonment. He held it aloft and admired it for a moment in the fading afternoon light, as it was a thing of great beauty. The blades were a liquid black, the black of a cellar on a starless night, the black of a buried cave at the bottom of an ocean. Unlike the surface of the blade, which sucked light, the edges flashed brightly, reflecting the orange afternoon sun. He swung the Axe once, experimentally, and the cutting edges cast off gleams that dazzled the eyes and numbed the senses.
Lifting the Axe up high again, he set to work, swinging low so as to chop each of the bushes off at the thickest point of their trunks. The first three went down with a single, wide sweep, making a delightful triple-thunking sound. He could feel and almost hear the evil plants grieve as they sensed their distance from the fruitful earth and realized their deaths. They had of course been touched by the shifting, molded into forms of evil by the storms of chaos.
He took a half-step forward and swung again, setting to his work with gusto. He began to hum, then soon broke into full song, singing of Gabriel and the other angels, singing of flaming swords, of battle and righteous revenge. Inch-long thorns stabbed savagely at him, fallen soldiers wielding their daggers as the conquering army marched over their bodies. They caught and tore at his cloak, but could not penetrate the thick leather of his boots, which crushed their flowers as he passed, sending up a most pleasant perfume.
Halfway through to the gazebo, he realized vaguely that the ranks of the rosebushes had closed behind him, but this did not matter to him now. He had worked up quite a sweat, perspiration popping out of his pores even as his eyes were popping from his head with the light of fanaticism. They were going down faster now, four or five at a clip. He couldn't tell if they were getting denser, or if his swings were becoming wider, nor did he care. Words poured from his mouth now, indistinguishable syllables from John and Matthew, parables mixing with hymns in a feverish chanting. With a final sweep he cleared the last of them, and won through to the gazebo doorstep. He paused only to glance back over a shuffling sea of thorny plants to where the children still stood near the carriage house. The roses were moving openly behind him now, rattling their thorns together, lusting to avenge their dead. Their blossoms were swollen and uniformly the color of fresh blood. Their exhalations were no longer sweet, but rather fouled the air, creating the stink of a week-old summertime battlefield.
Without further ceremony the Axeman cut through the door, destroying the latch and doorjamb with one stroke, exploding the hinges and with the second. Shattered, the door fell in splinters. Stepping forward, sides heaving, the Axeman discovered that the tiny room was empty, but the wooden grate covering the floor was gone. Keeping his Axe upraised, he climbed down into the darkness.
There he found the imp, just as he knew it must be there. Born of the shifting, even as the Black Axe had been, the vile, frog-like beast with bat's wings should never have lived--but it did. It was chained by the neck to the wall of the root cellar, and it reached for Amanda even as the Axeman dropped down into the chamber and regained his feet. The creature's eyes shone like molten gold nuggets in the dim light of the cellar.
"He comes too soon!" hissed the woman who had driven the Corvette.
"We didn't mean to hurt 'em," wept Nadine, falling to her fatty knees. "She said it wouldn't hurt the children."
"Shut up," Carmen told her. "Stop him, Tricia."
The driver of the Corvette, Tricia, stepped close and threw a green bottle full of dirty-looking fluid at him, which she had pulled from a rack on the wall. With a deft flick of the wrist, the Axeman diverted the bottle, smashing it with the flat of his Axe. The liquid showered away from him, only landing a few drops on his long cloak, but doused Tricia as she stood only a few feet away.
Tricia made only a strangled, gargling sound, then seemed to stiffen, eyes wide, mouth open in an eternal scream. Then she toppled forward and cracked into three pieces, and the Axeman looked down on nothing but a broken statue. At this, Nadine screamed and burst into tears of terror, now, rather than shame. Carmen grabbed hold of the chain that bound the monster to the wall. With a twist of a key she unlocked it.
The shift-creature leapt at the Axeman, teeth and tiny scaly hands seeking his throat. Its glowing fish-like eyes locked with his, and he could see in them the horrors that it had lived through in the cold void beyond the shift-lines. Perhaps it had been human once, but the shifting had touched its body, twisting and withering, and had touched its soul as well. Its form had mutated and flowed like hot running wax, solidifying into something horrible to see. As a moth's wings that brush open flame, its soul had been seared, transformed into something shriveled and burnt.
For a moment they struggled, the shift-creature hissing and ripping his clothing and flesh, the Axeman holding it off with one shredded, bleeding arm, his hand flat against the monster's bony chest. And then he managed to get in a stroke, and the Axe sheared the thing in half, spraying him with a shower of hot fetid blood.
Carmen had in the meantime grabbed up Amanda and run for the rear exit that presumably led back up into the house, or perhaps the garden. The Axeman gave chase, catching her at the top of the stairs as she struggled with a trapdoor. She turned and hurled Amanda at him, and he caught the child, grateful to have the little girl back into the crook of his arm, where she should have never been allowed to leave in the first place. He was not expecting the attack that came next however, as Carmen whirled on him, her face suddenly changed to that of a ghoul, long of fang and claw. She engaged him in a desperately strong hug, snapping jaws and hot breath at his throat. He could not use his Axe, as she was too close, he could not keep her back, as Amanda was clinging to one arm. His neck tingled with the closeness of her sharp teeth.
And then, also unexpected, there was aid from behind him. A garden rake was thrust past his ear, taking Carmen in the face. She was rudely forced back, screeching, and the Axe was lifted.
"'Thou shalt not suffer a witch to live'," he quoted, and so saying he did slay her with a single clean stroke. The severed head bounced down the stairs and came to rest beside the broken statue that was Tricia. The Axeman's only regret was that Amanda had not been protected completely, that despite all his careful steps, she had witnessed the wrath of the Axe in addition to the evil of this house.
Back down in the cellar, he found Nadine, her sweater fallen from her shoulders. In her hands she held the rake with which she had helped him.
"She said it would not hurt them. She lied."
He nodded, putting Amanda down and sending her up the steps to into the gazebo. There still might be work to be done. He turned and his arm raised up of its own accord, holding aloft the Axe.
Nadine trembled, expecting the blow. She eyed the silvery edge of the blade and raised the rake before her in a futile gesture. "Spare me!"
"You have drunk the lives of children," said the Axeman in a terrible voice that was not entirely his own, in a voice that was more than that of Reverend James Thomas.
"I know," she wept.
"You have taken years from their lives, and this you can't return," he went on, in the tone of one passing judgement, meting out sentence. For the Axe's part there was but one clear verdict: guilty, and but one possible sentence: death.
The Axe trembled in his hand, the desire, the wanting to strike was almost too great to control. His hand and wrist trembled. Then he lowered the Axe.
Nadine looked up in surprise.
"The Axe is the executioner," he explained. "But to me still falls the task of judgement, and mercy."
He gathered up the children and left the manse, discovering on the way out that the rose garden, although much of it now lay in ruins, again smelled quite sweet.
Brian Larson (firstname.lastname@example.org) has won awards for his short fiction and is an active member of SFWA. In addition to writing and designing Web pages, he teaches college and works as a factory automation consultant. As a free service to fellow authors, he maintains a categorized list of online publishers on his homepage.
InterText Copyright © 1991-2000 Jason Snell. This story may only be distributed as part of the collected whole of Volume 10, Number 3 of InterText. This story Copyright © 2000 Brian Larson.