If the bridge’s collapse had been an omen, Roderigo now felt that he should have heeded it. After the emergency landing, he’d discovered that the flight had been rerouted several times due to a series of storms over the Midwest–indeed, they plan had never even made it past the Mississippi once during the six hour flight. They’d landed in Little Rock just after midnight, and Roderigo had spent the rest of the night and most of that morning trying to find a private flight home. There had been no luck.

     Instead, he was stuck in the lobby of a cheesy hotel, drinking terrible coffee and snacking on chips that he could only guess were as old as he was.

     The hotel’s Wi-Fi was sketchy at best. Whoever had set up the hotspot had chosen the worst equipment possible for the job. He’d spent more time loading travel company sites than actually contacting anyone, and the drawn out process was only adding to his fatigue. It didn’t help that the lobby was practically empty.

     And now it seemed that Miami International was closed. Even here in Little Rock, the news stations were rambling on about a plane that had ignited on its runway. Over a dozen passengers had already been confirmed dead–including two government officials and the Japanese Prime Minister–with the incident forcing all jets from the company to make emergency landings for inspection. To top things off, he couldn’t get anyone back home to answer the phone.

     Somewhere behind him he heard the sound of smacking lips. The sound was both sudden and uncomfortable enough to startle him. Roderigo turned to see a young boy leaning up behind him, and ice cream sandwich in hand and chocolate smeared across his face. The child had apparently been admiring his phone, but his attention had at some point been drawn to the window across from Roderigo and the woods that lined the other side of the road. Although he found it more than a little irritating, Roderigo chose to ignore the child to continue his search.

     Then the child spoke. “Mister,” he asked, “is your name Rod?”

     Roderigo turned to see that the child was now staring at him. The boy shoved his last bite into his mouth and pointed toward the trees. “I think that old man is calling you.”

     Roderigo sighed. “Sorry,” he said. “I don’t know anyone here.”

     “But you’re Rod Somers, right?”

     Roderigo froze. “How do you know my name?” he asked. His voice hardly captured his shock.

     “I told you, that old man is calling you.”

     Roderigo set his phone down and stared out the window, searching for the person in question. He caught a brief silhouette, a hunched figure in a farmer’s hat holding the handle to an old cart. As soon as he saw it, the figure faded into the shadows behind the trees. There shouldn’t be anyone here, he thought. Not anyone who knows me.

     After a moment’s hesitation he stood and tucked his phone into his pocket. “Thanks kid,” he said, taking a reluctant step toward the door. He seemed to catch sight of the figure again, moving deeper into the forest. Although it seemed crazy, his curiosity had gotten the best of him. Against his better judgment, he followed.

* * *

Damn, Roderigo thought as he stared into the darkness of the cave. He reached inside his pocket and removed an old oil lighter. With a quick flick he managed to bring a little light to his eyes, but that only deepened his sense of awe. Before him was a downward spiraling path, a natural stairway that led deep into the Earth itself.

     This is not one of the smarter things you have done.

     He had no real proof that the boy was telling the truth. As far as he knew, both the kid and the shadowy figure were hallucinations. But he’d followed the squeaking wheels of an old cart through the forest to this cave, and that sound wasn’t something his mind had conjured before. Although he wondered if he was relapsing, he somehow seemed reasonably sure that something had wanted him to follow it here.

     Then again, he thought, it always seems real, doesn’t it? He was still in doubt that anyone had called to him, much less led him to a place like this. However, there seemed to be a path before him, a narrow road that must have only recently been exposed. And Roderigo could still hear the wooden wheels in the depths below.

     He tried to talk himself out of it. He’d never been spelunking, but he knew enough about caves to know he was not equipped for what he was about to do. But Roderigo still felt compelled to follow the sound, almost as if led by some outside force. That couldn’t possibly be the case though, and while he had felt things like it before, he knew that it was just his own mind lying to him. He had total control.

     But something about this seemed different. It seemed more real than reality itself, and certainly more real than the delusion of a man who could still question his own sanity. Taking a deep breath, he forced himself to move forward, placing each step with caution and fighting the urge to turn back.

     Soon the wall to the his right seemed to fall away, forming a deep abyss. He considered looking for a rock to drop, but quickly decided that he didn’t want to know how far the chasm went. The path was still forming the same spiral anyway, and he could still hear the cart rolling down the rocks far below.

     After a while, the darkness began to play with his mind. Shapes began to form in the corners of his eyes, and dark shadows danced just beyond the reach of his light. It shouldn’t have bothered him; he knew they were only illusions. But something about them felt foreboding, even threatening. This wasn’t normal for him. He was never this fearful. Yet in this darkness he felt watched and menaced by these figures, as if they were a sentient and sinister presence. He began to fear that turning back would be a mistake, that the shapes in the darkness would manifest and strike, and as silly as he knew that was he wasn’t going to take the chance. He resolved to go deeper.

     He wasn’t sure how long he had been walking, but it felt like an eternity. Eventually the stair began to level out, and the endless pit beside him began to gain a bottom. Soon enough he could see the faint glisten of wet limestone all around him. Had he reached the bottom? He couldn’t be sure, but he knew that even without the sinister shapes hounding him, there was no longer a point in turning back.

     The stairs seemed to melt into the cavern floor. The flame of his lighter seemed to burn brighter, giving him a clearer view of what was clearly a cathedral-like room room. The far walls all seemed to be home to many carved dwellings, and while he felt no desire to explore them, something in the chasm itself was beginning to pique his interest.

     Then he realized what it was: a roaring fire in the center of the room. As he closed his lighter, he could see it casting dancing shadows off the stairs and walls. To his amazement, the cavern now seemed warm and welcoming, like the sight of a bonfire on a cold winter’s evening. He gathered a bit of courage and began to approach it.

     As he neared the fire, he could see two flat, almost perfectly round stones placed methodically beside it. On one sat a hunched figure, still engulfed in a dark shadow. Behind this figure was the wagon Roderigo had heard descending the stair, itself filled with musty hay and a few rusty farming tools. The figure beckoned for Roderigo to have a seat, and he cautiously took the rock on the other side of the flame. As he did, the figure leaned forward and extended his hands, their shadowy digits gaining life but not the least bit of light as they basked in the flame’s warmth.

     The figure was disturbingly familiar. It was wearing a wide brim hat and had an empty smile–it was identical to the shadowy man in his dream. But this time, it lacked the intimidating presence, appearing more like the silhouette of an old farmer or an aging hermit.

     “Don’t be afraid,” it said. Despite the soothing tone in the shadow’s voice, Roderigo began to feel uneasy again. The shadow’s eyes squinted to focus on him. Despite their owner’s kind demeanor, they seemed cold, as if their owner had seen all there was in the world and cared for little of it.

     “I’m glad you came,” the shadow said. “I’ve been looking for someone like you for quite some time.” It chortled and reached into its wagon, grabbing a small stick that it used to tend to the fire. “And you’ve been looking for someone like me, though for not quite as long.”

     Roderigo placed his hands in his lap, doing the best to relax. His prior fears aside, something about the situation bothered him–the fire was bright and burned hot, but made no smoke, and the wagon was too old and rickety to have made it down in one piece. Even if by some miracle it had, what little he could make out of the figure before him seemed very frail. Roderigo knew he should ask how the man–if it was a man–had accomplished this feat, but he couldn’t form the words.

     The figure spoke. “I understand your name is Roderigo Somers. Wonderful name, if I do say so. Definitely an interesting choice for a man of Celtic descent, but that’s of no concern to me. I’m sure there’s a story behind it, but all names have a story behind them.”

     The shadow was right. He was named after a character in the play Othello, a love-struck patsy whose sacrifice would ultimately bring the play’s villain to justice. At least, that’s how his mother saw it. But that thought was quickly brushed aside by a more obvious question, one that Roderigo now had the strength to ask.

     “How do you know my name?”

     “That’s unimportant,” The shadow said. Its smile was now more ragged, but this somehow made the figure seem less dangerous, if still a bit off. “I know many things about you, after all. I know that you served in the military, and that you risked your life more than once. I know that you toyed with the saber and foil years ago–and I know that, while you were never a master of these weapons, you are competent enough to use such a weapon if the need arises. But more importantly, I know about the battles you’ve had with your mind. That itself is something I’m definitely interested in. I want my new protege to know how that feels. It would give him a unique insight into the problems he would have to face.”

     “I don’t follow.”

     “Oh?” the shadow snorted. It was quiet for a moment, and then it smiled again. “I’m sorry if that was too fast for you. Those details will become clear soon enough. I would like to make a bit of a deal with you though, before we go any further.”

     “Deal?” Roderigo asked.

     The figure was completely unaffected by the flat delivery; if anything, he became even more enthusiastic. “Yes, a deal. A wonderful deal that would benefit both of us. Surely a man of your age would love this deal, considering you must have thought about the alternative by now.” The shadow leaned in, and now his graying, shriveled face was clear as day. “I mean, you were born in June of 1961, am I correct? You’re not exactly young anymore.”

     What the hell? That statement made Roderigo feel very strange. No, it was more than than what it said. It was as if the old hermit were reaching inside his skull, feeling around in his mind for something that went beyond simple words. He felt compelled to answer. “Yes,” Roderigo replied. “I was born on June 16, to be precise.”

     He didn’t want to say that. He didn’t know why he did. Roderigo was very nervous now, a little frightened even; something was going on besides the conversation, something subtle and unkind.

     “I’m sure when you joined the Navy, you didn’t expect to go as far as you did. What was your rank when you got your discharge? Petty Officer First Class, am I correct?”

     Now Roderigo knew the old man wasn’t guessing. He began shifting in his seat, and though he attempted to get up and leave, he was unable to. “Yes, that was my rank,” he said. Once again, his compliance was involuntary, but with that statement a bit of his willpower returned. Though he struggled to form the words, he managed to ask the question that had dominated his mind the entire conversation. “How, exactly, do you know this?”

     The old man brushed the question aside. “Your time in the service couldn’t have been very easy, but it was very rewarding. Wasn’t it?”

     “Yes,” Roderigo replied. He felt lightheaded again and a little woozy, as if his energy was being drained with each question.

     “I’m sure you had an exemplary service record,” the old man said, “and I have no doubt you could have gone far. So why then, were you discharged in 1992?”

     “I developed schizophrenia,” Roderigo said. He was beginning to wonder if he was psychotic, blabbering to a lamppost on a street outside the hotel. Still, he could not shake the feeling that this was actually happening. Even when he reminded himself that it always seemed real, he was sure this time was different, that he was not delusional.

     “Thank you for cooperating,” the old man said. He leaned back in the cart, his body falling back into the shadows. At last Roderigo felt sure this was hallucination, but at the same time he was unable to back away. This bothered him, as even when he felt like his illness had hijacked his senses he could always resist if he was aware of the trick.

     “Now,” the old man said, “about that deal I mentioned. I know you are experienced with a blade. I’d like to give you a rather unique one, a special weapon that comes with a few… benefits. In exchange, I want you to meet the master I serve. Do you accept this deal?”

     Roderigo wanted to turn it down. He felt that playing along would further compromise his sanity, that it would drive him further into psychosis. But he also felt like the decision had already been made, and that this choice he was being offered was merely a nicety. “Yes,” he said, fighting that answer with every ounce of his will, “I do.”

     Confirming his suspicions, the man vanished into the darkness. The fire whipped and went out, as if a giant breath had blown it away. It was pitch black, so dark that Roderigo couldn’t even see his hand in front of his face. As he reached into his pocket to retrieve his lighter an unnatural light seemed to pour from above, shining through a hole that wasn’t there before.

     Something was there. He couldn’t make out what it was, even with the new light source. It was still dark to make out. But it was wrong, and he quickly realized why–that gap was far too high to even be there, and the light was too pale to be from the sun.

     Then whatever it was began to move. At first he simply thought it was a trick of the eye, another example of the darkness messing with his mind. But as he focused his gaze into the gap, he realized that whatever was up there had in fact moved, and the fact that the entirety of the space above that hole moved with it made his skin crawl. Then the object opened, and a horrifying realization passed over Roderigo and filled him with despair.

     He was staring into the very edge of a tear-duct, one seated on the corner of an impossibly massive eye.

     His stoic demeanor was shattered. A nervous grin twisted his lips and stretched across his face. His heart began to race, and he could hear the blood pumping through his head. His pulse went wild. He began to tremor and sweat. His mind–which he was sure a moment before had already gone–began to fill with insane thoughts and ramblings. He fell from his seat and began to whimper and laugh.

     He was no longer afraid of the darkness around him. Such ordinary fears were no longer possible in his mind. Instead, he found himself huddling behind the stone in a futile attempt to hide himself from whatever it was that was staring down at him. Slowly the pale light began to focus on him, and the gap above him began to grow. Roderigo felt like a child without a parent, hiding in vain from the beasts that roamed his darkest nightmares.

     He folded his hands and prayed that he was only insane.