Then, as Sykes fell a few feet further behind, unused to the thin air, his leader disappeared around a curve that had a sharp drop. When Sykes reached it, Benecio was nowhere in sight. Sykes looked down into a ravine and then up ahead of him, seeing what looked like a giant wing tip vanish around the next turn. The path itself had grown thinner and more precarious, and Sykes wanted to avoid slipping on the snow-laced ground, so his pace slowed.

“Benecio,” he called.

No response.

Sykes became apprehensive as he navigated around a huge boulder and looked ahead, his blood rushing with anxiety, vapor gushing from his mouth like cigarette smoke. What he saw next amazed the hell out of him.

Standing on the leveled-out trail, about twenty paces ahead of him, was the bird creature of his lucid dream! It was the very one described by Benecio as the god Abraxas. He dared not advance further, lest it was some hermit maniac who’d done something to his mentor and was now planning to turn on him.

The hybrid thing extended a talon and beckoned to him, the giant beak evaporating and solidifying in turns, revealing what looked like a human in costume, quite possibly Benecio.

Any sensation of chilliness forgotten, Sykes mustered the courage to follow the creature, who turned and continued along the path. Sykes, meanwhile, kept his distance but pressed on, not wanting to remain on his own. This slow pursuit stretched out time, so that what had only been a matter of ten or fifteen minutes felt more like an hour to him.

The creature came to a standstill at the entrance to a cave and turned its avian head as if to confirm Sykes’ presence with its onyx eyes. Then he pulled in his huge wings and entered what looked like an impossibly small entrance. When Sykes reached it, he saw strange glyphs carved into the rock face, and removed one of his gloves so he could touch one with his fingers. The texture was nothing out of the ordinary, but as soon as he removed his fingers from the surface, the inscription seemed to glow. Perhaps it was just a trick of the light, even as overcast as it had become, but Sykes was not about to pursue it further. He stood outside for another few moments to see if the creature would emerge, but that was not the case. Out of nowhere, a stiff, frosty wind came up the mountainside and shoved him into the mouth of the cave like a giant hand. With this prompting, Sykes stooped to accommodate his six-foot-plus height so as to enter.

Once inside, the wind had disappeared, yet the interior glowed with an unusual phosphorescence, which encouraged Sykes to venture farther. The small-looking cave from the outside was more like an immense cavern that vaulted over the soft floor he tread upon. A few yards ahead, Sykes began to see crystalline formations embedded in the walls, but one in particular caught his eye: it glowed fire-red like embers of a campfire. Whispers issued from deeper within the grotto and they crowded into his ears. Sykes removed his cap, thinking it would clarify their words which repeated over and over like a mantra. “Take me” they seemed to say, but he wasn’t certain if that was a desire expressed by his mind or if it had actually come from the outside.

He fingered the glowing stone with his gloveless hand and found it warm to the touch. It was not more than two inches long and an inch wide but appeared to pulsate, changing size as would a living internal organ. His fingertips dug into the wall just a bit, and the stone easily dislodged itself, falling into his hand; it happened so unexpectedly that Sykes almost dropped it. He brought it to his face for closer inspection and saw that there were black veins running through the almost translucent, garnet-colored gem. Though unpolished it gleamed, even in the dull ambient light of the cavern. It continued to radiate a warmth that Sykes could feel on his face.

Then he remembered the creature that had led him there in the first place, and looked around to see if he could catch sight of it. When he didn’t, he pocketed the stone and returned to the entrance which was blocked by a standing figure that appeared in silhouette against the brightness outside.

“Finished yet?” it said.

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