The Phantom Stranger
A Helping Hand
Part 5 of The Lazarus Tremaine Saga
Trapped in the dimension of his maker, a masked demon, the undead ghoul called Lazarus Tremaine decides that it’s time to become his own man again. Will Tremaine regain his soul with the helping hand of the Phantom Stranger?
Lazarus Tremaine stood upon a flat plane of orange ribbon. Blue flames leaped from his hands in two separate chains holding him to the surface of the thin sheet. To his right, a field of crystal pillars stretched for some leagues. Inside each column was someone he had eaten in the lifetime since he had lost his soul and become the flesh-eating ghoul he now was.
He tried to pull away from his confinement, but the flaming bonds simply rebounded, pulling him to his knees.
“Hello, Tremaine,” said a calm voice floating to the living corpse. “So nice of you to visit.”
Tremaine looked around and saw a man in an ornate cloak descending toward him on steps of diamond blue. The man’s face was hidden by a demoniac mask. “I have been waiting to meet you for a long time,” said the stranger.
“Let me go,” Tremaine demanded.
“That’s not practical at this point,” said the masked man. “You have been a good gatherer for me, but I am afraid those days are over.”
Tremaine felt a wave of guilt trying to get the upper hand in his mind. He had condemned all of these people to their captivity in this weird place. But why did he feel guilty? He hadn’t felt guilty when he had been doing the killing.
“So, you do feel it?” said the masked man.
“Feel what?” asked the ghoul.
“Your soul,” said the cloaked stranger, holding forth a crystal egg. Inside the egg, a version of Lazarus Tremaine struggled against the walls.
“My soul?” said Tremaine, pulling against his chains of flame.
“Yes, it is,” said the cloaked figure, placing the crystal egg back underneath his ornate cape with a flourish. “I am afraid I took a loan on it years ago, and you defaulted on the debt.”
“What are you planning?” said Tremaine, his ruined face calm as he rested in his efforts.
“You will soon find out,” said the demon, walking away on the diamond staircase. The steps vanished with each one he ascended. His laughter trailed behind him long after he was gone.
Tremaine wondered how he could get out of the mess he was in. He had spent the better part of his un-life destroying for someone who obviously planned to torture him now that the two had finally met. He shouldn’t be treated like this.
Well, maybe he should be, he thought as he glanced at the collected pillars of the dead and fell into a pit of despair.
No, Tremaine decided, pushing the feeling away. He had done some wrong things, but he only had partial responsibility for that. The rest of the blame fell on the man in the hideous mask.
Wrongs had to be avenged, and Tremaine was the only one who could do it. Except he was locked in place by his own flame.
Tremaine struggled with his flaming chain for some moments. He seemed trapped in place, and he screamed in pain and frustration.
“You seem to have come to a dead end, Lazarus Tremaine,” said a cold voice as a shadow fell across him.
Tremaine found himself looking at a man garbed in a black suit, cloak, and hat. A gold medallion caught the uncertain light clearly.
“Who are you?” demanded Tremaine. “Can you help me?”
“I am simply a stranger, and I think you need very little help at all,” said the shadowy interloper. “You have within you the ability to escape your predicament. Recovering your soul will be a harder task, but I think you can accomplish that as well. Your enemy is a delusion fed by fear.”
“What do you mean?” demanded Tremaine, trying to stand upright against the pull of his bonds.
But the Phantom Stranger was already gone.
Tremaine tried to close his hands to make fists in his rage. The flame defeated him as it poured into the platform.
Something snapped in the undead man. He forced his fingers closed despite the agony he was suffering from the effort. The chains seized to exist as Tremaine struggled to keep his hands fisted. He leaped clear of the platform as the flames erupted, destroying his arms below his wrists.
Tremaine swept his stumps across the rows of crystals. His flaming life’s blood shredded the display in a cascade of destroyed glass. The contents of the pillars, all the living things he had ate, poured upward, vanishing in little sparks of light.
The undead Tremaine knew he had no soul, but he knew he had done the right thing as he watched the event. It was a step — a small step — on the slippery slope of redemption.
Tremaine felt his soul calling for him as he dripped flame from his slowly healing hands. A weird shadow fell before him, and steps that vanished into nothingness appeared.
The ghoul stepped on the floating staircase. He had a goal now. He had never fought for anything but his survival in his long life. Now he fought for himself and for everyone else destroyed in his long years on Earth. He reached the top of the staircase and stepped through to a wide plane floating in a black space of imaginary existence.
“What are you doing here?” demanded the thing in the gaudy cape and mask. It paused for a moment. “What have you done?”
Tremaine smiled, wrinkling the scarred flesh of his face hideously. His hands had grown back faster than they would have in the real world. He knew it was because he was at the source of his power.
“I let all those souls go,” said Tremaine. “I figured it was the least I could do, since I placed them here in the first place.”
“So now you wish to be a hero?” said the mask. The cloak shook with suppressed fury.
The ghoul paused for a moment in its calm advance. “I have been your lackey for a while, and now it’s time for a parting of the ways,” he said finally, making the unalterable decision of self-destruction over more slavery. “I’m taking my soul back, one way or another.”
“Come try,” said the mask, as an unseen wind began to build up around its strange figure.
Tremaine loosed twin jets of flames at his opponent. The cloak shifted slightly, deflecting the beams in random directions.
But neither fighter seemed to notice the strange silhouette of another present as they continued their duel.
Tremaine leaped forward, hoping to grapple with his creator. He found himself lifted off his feet and hurled to the edge of the rectangular plane.
“So you want to stop me,” said the masked magician. The metal disguise seemed to sneer as the cloak glided forward, whipped by the unfelt wind.
“Take your last look at your soul before I annihilate your worthless carcass,” the demoniac thing said, feeling for the crystal prison it kept on its person. It felt for several moments with no success.
“I think you are looking for this,” the cloaked stranger said, stepping forward. His gloved hand held Tremaine’s imprisoned soul in the light.
“Give that back!” said the demon, rushing forward at the stranger with clawed hands.
Tremaine laughed as he picked himself up and threw himself on the cloaked demon, dragging it to the ground. It gestured black light into the ghoul, exposing his skeleton for a second.
The undead man gritted his teeth, cracking some from the pain. He poured flame into his squirming foe, burning away the concealing cloak. A thing with too many arms and no legs flung the ghoul away as it burned fitfully.
“I will kill you both!” the thing cried, rearing on its worm-like torso. Black auras came to life around its clawed hands. The metallic mask glared at Tremaine and the stranger balefully.
“I doubt it,” said the Phantom Stranger, shattering the crystal in his hand with a flash of violet.
Tremaine’s soul expanded in the open, moving toward the undead man purposely. The demon gestured, furiously and impotently, as the two Tremaines became one.
The scarred skin fell away, revealing pure light. A hand lifted to be examined in astonishment by eyes of blue crystal.
The demon brought forth streams of black light at the two men. The Phantom Stranger seemed to make his vanish in the dark shadow of his cloak. Tremaine held out a hand, and white light met darkness in a furious clash.
Tremaine moved forward, pressing his advantage. His light seemed to pull in the darkness he battled against and absorb it. Finally, two glowing hands grabbed either side of his opponent’s masked head.
Then the restored dead man poured light into the mask. The demon came apart in a ruthless sloughing of flesh. The former ghoul concentrated to push more of his light into the creature, increasing its rate of collapse. Finally, twin beams of light poured out of the mask, eroding that into nothing.
Lazarus Tremaine smiled in satisfaction.
In the desert near Pineston, Arizona, three people watched a fire burn. A book had been impaled by a spear and placed in the wood and gas used for fuel.
One of the two men sat in a wheelchair. He stood up for a moment, surprising the other two persons present. He shook the other man’s hand calmly. He smiled at the woman and said her grandfather would be proud.
Then Lazarus Lane sat in his chair, and breathed no more, surrendering to his great age at last.