James and the giant breach.

James walked into the bunker behind some young mercs, a bunch of gang-bred newbs all wearing a Red Cobra logo.

These idiots were all packing Bringham-Styles gear, the kind of new crap that wasn’t worth its salt on a good day. That was okay for normal enemies, but he seriously doubted anything normal prowled the Blood March. Regular bullets only took you so far, no matter how many you had on you.

The bunker they were all in was really just the remains of a burnt-out building, but the check-in counter was new steel with a set of state-of-the-art rune-tech computers strewn across it. The local commission here must have been subsidized by the federal government, which was good and not good, because though well-funded, the feds were a bunch of incompetent jackhats as far as James was concerned.

“That’s two-fifty for minor artifacts, seven hundred for mid-range, and up to three thousand for anything major,” he heard the young woman at the check-in counter say.

What a joke. Even a minor artifact could sell for a grand in the hands of someone who knew the right buyer, but James wasn’t here for the money. He had something else in mind.

Right now, he was waiting patiently behind this pack of walking bait, but he was being held up, because the lead punk amongst them was currently hitting on the check-in girl.

The young woman behind the counter was cute in the face, a white girl in her very-early twenties with short black hair in a bowl cut, but this annoying gang kid was, of course, interrupting her work by being a complete and total meathead.

“Hey, you should come celebrate with us once we get back,” said the lead merc, a kid in his early twenties. “The Red Cobras always need some new blood…You know, you’d look good up on stage, too. They’re always looking for new dancers in Brass Port, North Bask. I know a guy at the Swinging Bullet. He’ll hook you up.”

“Uhhh…” was all the young lady behind the counter could say.

Thankfully, one of the two guards in here, a big bald white guy in his early thirties, this guy decked out in urban-camo-banded-plasti-steel, stepped forward and motioned toward the exit with his Tornham H40 assault rifle.

“Beat it, kid,” he growled. “This ain’t a daycare. Come back when you hit puberty.”

“Hey!” barked the young gang member. “I’m old enough to sign up!”

“It’s all right,” said the young check-in girl. “They’re already in the system.”

“Then get your skinny butt out of here,” said the bald guard. “You’ll get paid if you actually find anything…IF you come out alive.”

The band of young mercs laughed at that remark as their punk leader shook his head.

“We’re the Red Cobras!” he said in strange excitement. “We ain’t afraid of no breachers! They’re afraid of us!”

This band of idiots all laughed like their stupidity was the funniest thing in the world.

James wasn’t exactly one to throw people to the wolves, but he also didn’t stir up unnecessary trouble. Any of these fools that actually did come back out of the labyrinth ahead with all of their limbs still attached? They wouldn’t be laughing anymore.

The band of young mercs turned and walked past James, but not before their punk leader opened his mouth one last time, something that always seemed to happen whenever James encountered a group like this.

“Move it, Grandpa,” said this young punk.

James completely ignored him. This kid was not worth the trouble of teaching a lesson. A single breacher would do that, and odds were, that lesson would be a permanent one.

James walked around him and up to the counter, and the two guards immediately eyed him with suspicion.

“You’re the first pro I’ve seen all week,” said the bald guard. “You look a little old to be doing this, but I’m not stupid. I know a pro when I see one…How’d you get that scar, Mr. Pro?”

James was pushing fifty, flecks of grey starting to show in his short, curly black hair, and no one ever questioned his age, no, but that scar? That scar that ran from right underneath his left eye all the way down to the bottom of his chin? They always asked about that. That scar bedecked his dark skin as a reminder, a reminder to never forget the past or what had been lost in it.

“Got that from grappling a widow’s spawn,” grunted James. “That was back when I was barely out of my teens.”

The young lady at the counter shivered and gave him a wide-eyed, slightly-frightened look.

“Those are real?” she asked.

“Everything’s real,” replied James.

“Oh…” said the young woman, but she did not question him further on the matter.

No, the big bald guard did that for her.

“How’d you get out of that one?” nodded the guard.

“The place burned to the ground while I was still in it,” shrugged James. “Thankfully, those things go up like oil-soaked wicks. I dove out of a second story window and got busted up pretty badly, but I lived.”

The other guard, a black man in his late twenties, this man a little younger than the curious bald guard, stepped forward and added his own question to the conversation.

“What about the widow?” he asked.

James shrugged.

“Don’t know,” he said. “I didn’t run into her. She probably burned up like the rest of them.”

He had a pretty good idea of what had happened to that overgrown arachnid, but he didn’t want to talk about it. That part of his life was long gone. They didn’t need to know about his past, and they certainly didn’t need to know that he wasn’t even from this universe, that he’d crossed over from somewhere else through a breach, a breach much like the one he was about to go raid.

“Huh…” said the bald guard. “What else have you come across?”

James shrugged again.

“A lot,” he said.

“Uh, huh,” said the bald guard.

James noticed the younger guard eyeing his gun, though he had that relic holstered at the hip.

“Is that a Rune Maker?” asked the younger guard in sudden interest.

James drew his pistol but turned it to the side, resting it across his gloved palms to indicate non-hostility, an important action when dealing with the normal set of trigger-happy guards for these breach sites. He couldn’t blame them for being paranoid, though…He knew what came out of these rifts.

“Yeah,” he grunted.

The younger guard’s eyes went wide as he stepped forward to inspect the well-cared-for six-shooter.

“I didn’t think those existed outside of a museum,” he breathed.

“Got this twenty years ago,” said James matter-of-factly. “It’s never let me down.”

“I’ll bet,” replied the guard.

The big bald guard shook his head at his compatriot in arms and then motioned his rifle toward the check-in girl.

“Just sign up here,” he said firmly. “I can see that you can take care of yourself, so all you have to do is deliver to us any artifacts you recover. She’ll tell you the payrate.”

“I heard it,” grunted James. “Here’s my D-Card.”

He holstered his pistol and then unzipped his brown leather belt wallet, removing his identification a moment later.

The young lady at the counter scanned his card and then gave him a friendly smile.

“You’re in the system, Mr…uhhh…James,” she said. “Is that your first name or your last name?”

“That’s my only name,” said James.

“Oh,” said the young woman in stupid reply. “Well, then, Mr. James, you’re all set.”

“Good,” said James.

He put his ID away and turned to walk out, but his conscience got the better of him. He had to say something about this setup, or it would eat at him later.

He turned and addressed all three of them.

“This isn’t a safe place for check-in,” he said matter-of-factly. “You’re too close to the entrance of the labyrinth.”

“We’re in a bunker,” said the big bald guy. “We’re good. Besides, nothing from the breach can cross the Merlin-Crowley line, not without becoming a pile of ash.”

“Okay,” said James. “I warned you.”

“I’ve got this,” said the bald guard as he held up his Tornham H40. “I don’t need a warning. It packs a hell of a lot more punch than that museum piece you’re wearing.”

“Okay,” said James.

He knew there were other threats than what could be killed by normal bullets, but it was pointless to tell them that. They weren’t going to listen. It was true that no breacher could cross the Merlin-Crowley line—not unless it was really powerful—but the normal human-kind of monster could still take you apart at the knees. Guns would work on them, of course…if you saw them coming.

Still, he didn’t like their stubbornness over the matter.

If the two guards wanted to get shredded, that was their business, but he didn’t like the thought of this young woman getting killed. He’d seen what could happen at other breach sites, and he doubted the Blood March was any different.

It did not sit well with him, but there was nothing he could do about it. All he could do was finish the job he’d just signed up for, and then when he got back—and he would get back—he’d try and convince that young lady to go find other work, work that didn’t involve possibly being sacrificed to an elder god.

He walked out of the bunker and was going to turn left to head toward the entrance of the labyrinth, but he was held up by yet another gang of young punks, though this group was slightly different from the first.

“Oh, you have got to be kidding me,” muttered James under his breath.

A group of six young women, all dyed-blondes, all thin, all caked with sparkly makeup, all dressed in matching pink jackets with a butterfly-fairy logo on the backs, came walking up to the bunker entrance.

“Look, ladies,” said the lead blonde, a young white woman with a pair of goggles strapped across the top of her dyed-blonde head. “It’s senior discount day.”

The group of young women laughed as James shook his head no and frowned.

“You got a problem old man?” asked a young Asian woman, her hair also dyed blonde.

James took one look at the assortment of Ailer submachine guns they were strap-carrying and shook his head again. At the very least, a couple of them were carrying grenades, which was definitely a good thing. They were going to need them.

“I’m not that old,” he said bluntly. “And this is a combat zone, not a night at the mall.”

A young black woman in this group of six, this young woman also with long dyed-blonde hair, scowled at him and addressed the leader of the group.

“Did you hear that, Rene?” she asked. “This old man is insulting us. He says we’re going to get mauled.”

“That’s mall, not ma…” began James. “Never mind.”

It was clear they had no idea what a mall was, and there was no way they could possibly know, either.

Their leader scowled as she looked over James with extreme distaste on her makeup-laden face.

“You’re looking to get shot,” said the lead blonde. “We’re the Death Fairies, and you’re in our way, so why don’t you go die of old age somewhere, Grandpa?”

“Death Fairies, Red Cobras…” muttered James. “It’s like the brand names for an energy drink.”

“What did you say, old man!” hissed the young black woman. “Say that again!”

“I said ‘have fun,’” grunted James. “Keep an eye out for cultists, though.”

“Cultists?” asked the young Asian woman. “He thinks we should watch out for cultists?”

The group of young blondes laughed as their leader raised her Ailer SMG and showed it off to James as if it were some kind of educational teaching tool.

“The Ailer 1450 is the most accurate submachine gun on the market,” smirked the leader of the group. “I can group a ring of shots at twenty meters within a few millimeters of each other. Those crazies with knives will never get near us.”

This young woman stepped forward and stared down at the sword strapped to James’ belt, that sword sheathed and hanging from his left hip. Her brown eyes went wide with disgust as she sneered at his selection of weaponry, a clear indication that she had no idea what she was doing.

“You’re using that, and you’re preaching to me about cultists?” she asked. “Do you see this, girls?…This old man thinks he’s going to kill a breacher with this overgrown pigsticker!”

The young women laughed and surrounded him like a pack of hyenas.

He didn’t bother to tell them that this “overgrown pigsticker” was a genuine 1860 Union Cavalry Saber that he’d taken with him when he’d crossed over to this realm. He didn’t bother to tell them that he’d had it etched with twelve different runes, something that had cost him a small fortune to do, and he certainly didn’t bother to tell them that it had saved his life more than once. Such an explanation would have been wasted on them.

The young Asian woman stepped forward and pointed a finger in his face.

“Don’t lecture us about cultists, Grandpa!” she barked.

James shook his head. This was pointless. He probably wasn’t going to see these girls again, at least not alive anyway, but he felt obligated to warn them anyhow.

“They won’t eat you like a breacher,” he said matter-of-factly. “No, a breacher will eat you, maybe lay eggs in you, but cultists?…They just kill and dismember the men, but they like to strip young women like yourself and sacrifice them through ritual torture. I’ve seen it more than once.”

These young ladies all laughed in his face, but he was used to this kind of reaction. No one ever listened to him anyway.

“Whatever, Grandpa,” said the young Asian woman. “Any of those nutjobs tries to gank me, I’m going to take his knife and cut off his—”

“Don’t waste your breath on this dinosaur,” smirked the leader of the group. “Come on, girls. Let’s go make some easy money…I want a new pair of boots.”

They laughed again as they pushed past him, but James let them go unhindered. He wanted to smack them around just like he’d wanted to smack around the previous group, talk some sense into them, but that wasn’t going to happen. He already knew they wouldn’t listen. He’d seen enough horror to last three lifetimes, but there was one inevitable truth that never changed…No one ever listened.

James continued on his way to the entrance of the labyrinth. That entrance lay between two huge walls of fallen concrete, the cracked and broken pavement beneath it marked with protective runes laced in etched gold.

The various runes upon the ground glowed with a white, slightly-blue light as he approached them, and then he crossed past that threshold, past the Merlin-Crowley line, feeling the slight burn and buzz from that barrier as he walked into the labyrinth proper of the Blood March.

Time worked differently in a breach zone; hours and minutes were warped, unstable. There was no telling how many creatures had actually come out of the breach, so things were about to get…interesting.

He reached up and pressed in the button on his steel neck collar. He did have some state-of-the-art tech on him because he wasn’t stupid, but only the useful ones, and his Hermes-Alliette retractable helm was one of these useful devices. Not only did it protect his head, but it came with a full heads-up-display with advanced spectral sighting.

The banded helm raised from the inside of his collar, completely covering his head and face, a corrugated breathing mask across his mouth, his eyes covered by a pair of amber visors. If he were going to die today, it wasn’t going to be from a headshot or toxic gas.

“Warning,” came a polite female voice through his helmet.

James tapped his helmet once. His combat VI was working, and that was good. It had been on the fritz ever since he’d been knocked through a wall by a charging minotaur, but his personal tech, Lazarus Radditz, had fixed it for him, though that repair had not been cheap.

“Warning,” came the voice of his VI again. “Multiple-Class Lovecraftians in area. Advise caution.”

“Yep,” grunted James.

He drew his Rune Maker and walked down the deserted street.

There were abandoned burnt-out buildings of concrete and shattered glass on both sides of him, the air around him thick with an aura of ominous portent. This was a good place to get ambushed, but it was far enough away from the breach that it was probably only a Class-One Threat Zone.

Nevertheless, he was cautious if anything…That trait had kept him alive longer than anything else.

Whenever a breach opened, it would scatter items from other universes along a conical path, and these “artifacts,” no matter how mundane-looking, were always endowed with dimensional energy, making them worth their weight in gold. That’s why the State wanted them, but James wasn’t interested in what the State wanted, nor had he ever been.

No, the best selection was always right next to the breach, and unfortunately, that was where the worst of the cosmos lurked as well, so the danger increased the nearer one got to one of these accursed openings.

He heard shouts and gunfire in the distance, off to his left. Naturally, he turned right.

Breach Rule #1: Never go where there’s gunfire.

Other mercs were opening up on whatever, but James knew better than to head in that direction. Those other mercs were either handling the situation, or they were getting torn to pieces, and either way, his goal was to find artifacts, not get caught up in some needless firefight.

It seemed a little cold and heartless when he thought about it, but this was the way you survived when inside a breach zone. You didn’t screw around, you didn’t touch anything that looked suspicious, and you didn’t, absolutely did not, waste bullets for someone else.

Yeah, that meant he was alone ninety-percent of the time, but he’d survived this long on his own, and he trusted his own judgement far more than he trusted anyone else’s. He’d been a fool in the past, and that foolishness had nearly gotten him killed more than once…Never again.

He took a side street as he pulled a pocket watch from one of his brown leather jacket’s inner pockets. He flipped open the watch and stared down at the needles, the short hand pointing toward nine while the long hand pointed toward halfway between three and four. The seconds hand didn’t move at all, mainly because it didn’t do anything.

His watch didn’t tell time. No, this little artifact pointed toward the nearest open breach with its hours hand and toward the barrier line with its minutes hand. It was a useful little device he’d picked up early on, and it was proving more than useful now.

“Warning,” stated his VI. “Class-One Lovecraftians in area.”

“Yeah, yeah,” said James in return.

He closed his pocket watch, put it back in his interior pocket, and traveled down this side street, though he knew he was going to have to turn left at some point.

He spied a body in the distance, and he gripped his gun in ready wariness as he walked up to it.

There was a dead male in the street, six feet stretched out if the head were still attached, but the head was missing.

Considering where he’d come from, he switched between meters and feet all the time. This universe used the metric system for some reason, but James was old-school American, so he still used the English system, so over time, he’d learned to use both.

Whatever the case, he needed to inspect this body.

This body was dressed in ripped black jeans and an open, punk-studded, black leather jacket, black leather boots on his feet. In his right hand was an older-model Jacobs-Brill light SMG, model 739, the finger still on the trigger. There was a large bloody hole in the jeans right above the crotch, a stab wound, but that could mean anything.

“Head missing, large puncture wound in upper groin…” breathed James. “Not enough info.”

It would have been nice if he’d had more information to work with.

“Warning,” stated his helmet VI. “Class-One Lovecraftians in area.”

“I got that,” muttered James.

He briefly took that opportunity to look around the street for obvious threats, looking up as well, because you could never be too careful.

“Warning,” stated his VI. “Class-One Lovecraftians in area.”

“I said, I got tha—” he began, but he didn’t finish that statement.

It was the bubbling up of flesh inside the corpse that made him back off, the sudden change making him back away from this lone body in the street.

The bare stomach of the body bulged as multiple round shapes pushed up against that dead flesh.

“Son of a…” began James.

He reached down and placed his gloved left hand over the flame rune on his bulletproof vest. He did this out of both instinct and experience, because he knew what he was dealing with now.

The rune on his vest glowed a bright-red as an orange barrier popped up around him. The barrier covered him like an egg patterned out with hexagonal etches, spanning out from him a few decimeters, giving him just enough room to move without getting scorched.

The bubbled flesh of the corpse tore outwards as a swarm of mouths with insectile wings burst out of the body and made a beeline for him.

“Warning,” stated his VI. “Class-One Lovecraftians in area.”

“I know!” yelled James.

A small cloud of flying red mouths, each with distinctly human teeth and tiny human-like legs below those human-sized lips, swarmed around him, but they couldn’t get past his hastily erected barrier. They burst into flames as they made contact with it, burning up like bugs that had made contact with a bug zapper for too long.

This emergency flame barrier of his was for just this purpose, but it wouldn’t last long. The portable magical charge held in the rune on his vest could only keep up the barrier for less than a minute, and then it would have to recharge, but those precious few seconds it was active was usually enough to deal with a swarm…usually.

These things were fairly large, each about the size of a rat, but there weren’t many of them. Only problem was, they were persistent, burning away to ash as they tried to chew through the orange barrier around him, and that barrier was giving out.

“Screw it,” said James.

He used his left-hand to switch off the barrier, simultaneously aiming at the last of the nasty little things attempting to get at him.

He fired a regular bullet from his Rune Maker, not bothering to switch to a magical charge. He was using .45 ammo, so one half of this red mouth with wings blew apart as the other half dropped to the ground.

One last one he had not noticed attached itself to his helmet, but James quickly grabbed it with his left hand, tossed it to the ground, and stomped on it repeatedly with his left boot. He had on good leather boots that would last awhile, and the soles were fairly tough, so he had no reservations about squishing this thing into paste.

“Nasty…little…piece…of…” he growled as he stomped it into liquid jelly, stomping on it with each breath of word.

“Warning,” stated his helmet VI. “Class-Two Lovecraftian in area.”

He snapped his attention toward farther down the street, and that’s when the next threat rounded the corner of a burnt-out building from a connecting street.

It was big, at least eight-feet-tall, of skinny build, the serrated chitin of an insect covering its warped, disgusting body. Its head was a giant human mouth with broad, flat, white teeth, each tooth the size of a playing card, the lips big red things that spread across at least a full meter. It stood upon two bow-legged, blood-colored, human legs, legs with the thick muscle of a weight lifter in stark contrast to its stick build. Its arms were of the same make, two big pro-wrestler looking arms that were each as thick around as James’ neck.

“Yep,” said James. “There it is.”

This thing had a giant arrowhead abdomen hanging down between its legs, a huge black stinger pointing downwards from that abdomen. Most disturbing, however, was the soft peach-colored skin of its belly, that belly displaying a human male head with its eyes closed, that head’s mouth open as if it were trying to moan in pain.

“Ymir’s Breath,” said James quickly.

An etched rune on the barrel of his Rune Maker lit up with a bright-blue light upon receiving the incantation necessary to activate it.

This thing, this cosmic horror from somewhere outside the reaches of sanity, opened up its huge maw and roared. The sound reverberated down the street, echoing off the cracked and broken concrete walls, and this would have popped the eardrums of any normal person hearing it, but James’ VI automatically muted his outside hearing upon receiving this attack, something he was suddenly infinitely grateful for.

Just one of these things would have driven a normal person insane upon seeing and hearing it, but James was far too hardened for that to work on him.

“You can’t shake me, big lips,” he said firmly. “I’ve been to Missouri.”

It charged on those two bowed and muscular legs, its big-lipped head bobbing up and down upon its skinny neck, and though it was far faster than it appeared to be, it did not make it to him.

James fired off four rounds in succession, striking the beast center mass, and it slowed down with each shot as frost crawled out from the bullet wounds, coating it over with a thin layer of blue ice, coating it over until the creature was frozen in place, white hoarfrost covering it from its big-lipped head to its big bare toes.

James only had one bullet left in the chamber, but one bullet was all he needed.

“Banshee’s Wail,” he said firmly.

A rune on the barrel of his gun lit up in bright neon purple as he aimed his piece, and then he pulled the trigger, feeling that familiar kick of recoil once more.

The bullet struck center mass, leaving a small hole in the frozen flesh of this thing. There was a high-pitched whine a second later, and then a visible ripple in the air blew outwards in a half-sphere of sonic destruction from the center of the frosty statue, the frozen beast shattering into so many icy chunks that there was essentially nothing left of it.

“Iced,” said James.

He took the time to reload his Rune Maker with regular .45 rounds. Guns anymore used enchanted ammo, the runes already embedded in the bullet casings, a much cheaper and more efficient way to carry around any necessary destruction, but James preferred his Rune Maker, dinosaur that it was. His relic enchanted bullets as they were fired, and this allowed him to cover any situation. His piece had variability and class, two things these young merc punks had lost in the filing.

Of course, etched on his pistol weren’t actual Norse runes. They were glyphs or sigils or some such crap…Ritual circles?…. He had no idea what they were; he only knew that they worked, and that was all that mattered. Everyone in this world called them “runes,” so…whatever.

James holstered his piece, pulled out his pocket watch, and checked his location. He needed to go west, so heading down the street where the big-lipped creature had come from was his only current option.

He put away his watch, headed down the street, and made a left onto the appropriate street. He was going in the right direction, but considering he was at a breach site, that didn’t mean much. He was going to get jumped no matter what direction he took.

There was nothing around him but burnt-out buildings and trash, nothing that could possibly have any rift energy attached to it. Besides, he’d know an artifact when he saw one. Inexperienced mercs might not know, but he would. He’d been to way too many of these places, and the Blood March was no different.

“Rift-energy signature detected,” stated his VI.

He did not get far before he spied something bright and colorful off to his right, something in the rubble next to a hollowed-out, burnt-out car, the make and model of the vehicle long unidentifiable.

He walked up to the rubble and pulled forth a small, neatly-wrapped present about the size of his hand, the paper over it in red-and-white-striped Christmas colors, a ragged green bow atop it. This was a rare find, something intact that had been flung out this far when the breach in question had exploded into existence.

He tore open the paper and revealed a small, black, cardboard box. He carefully opened it to inspect what was inside, and James was pleasantly surprised at what he’d found.

Inside the small giftbox was a silver chain necklace with a little, flat, silver heart attached to it. He seriously doubted the chain was made from real silver, but that was beside the point. This little necklace was intact, and it had clearly come from the rift, so it was imbued with eldritch energy, and that made it extremely valuable.

He could see the aura of power emanating from this necklace through his helmet feed. The silver chain and box both glowed with an orange light, the numbers in his HUD revealing that this little lost present was well within the rare range, a great find to just up and stumble across.

What the chain and box actually did power-wise, he did not know, but that was not his problem. Someone else could deal with that.

But he was not here for that. No, there were better finds than this, and he was going to find them; that was a guarantee.

He closed the box and stuffed the whole thing into his interior right jacket pocket. He’d added a number of pockets to this jacket, a necessity while out in the field, and his pockets had the Deep enchantment, making them able to hold more than they possibly could otherwise.

“Well, that’s some pocket money,” he muttered.

He took out his pocket watch and checked his direction. Why his watch held a compass power instead of a temporal one, he had no idea, but rift magic didn’t follow anyone’s rules, so when something was imbued with a power, that was the power it held, period. It was true that some items could always be depended upon for a particular power, but pocket watches were not one of those items.

He shook his head clear of thoughts and studied his watch. He was headed due west, exactly where he needed to go.

He hit a four-way, no stop signs, the remains of traffic lights up and still strung across the way, something from the past, a distant memory, but he was long over that life.

The stench here would have been unbearable if not for his helmet, but that caustic odor was due to the sheer number of corpses everywhere. He could actually see that film of rotting stench in his HUD, kind of like wisps of black smoke rising from the bodies in the four-way.

“What the…?” he asked himself.

Around him were the previous remains of other mercs, some of them so rotted that they had to have been here for quite some time. There were logos or gang signs or whatever you wanted to call them on various bits of clothing here and there, male and female bodies, some stripped, some partially eaten, all dead.

“Warning,” stated his VI. “Class-One Corporeal Undead in area.”

“Ugh…” breathed James. “Zombies.”

Zombies were the low end of the undead. He’d run into their kind many a time in the past, but he had a solution for them that had never let him down.

“Ifrit’s Rage,” he spoke, and a rune on the barrel of his gun glowed with a bright-orange light.

Breach Rule #2: Never enter an area filled with bodies.

He was going to break this rule, however. He needed to head west, and this four-way was the only path west without going through a building, and going through a building was actually more dangerous than breaking one of his own rules. Besides, he could deal with zombies.

Breach Rule #3: Never enter a building if there’s another less-dangerous way.

He stepped into the midst of the four-way, into the midst of moldering bodies around him, and this was a tactical mistake, true, but not a serious one.

The problem with corpses strung out like this was that you never knew which ones were still active, like stepping into a partially-cleared minefield, so you could get surrounded fairly quickly, and with zombies, numbers were what mattered. Too many could overwhelm you, but that was also the reason he carried an enchanted sword, because that blade was useful in a pinch and had been many times before.

His attention turned to something more important, however, because he saw some mercs up ahead, some standing gang members from the Red Cobras, though there were only two in his field of vision.

“Warning,” stated his helmet VI. “Class-One Corporeal Undead in area.”

One of the mercs turned around, and James recognized the leader of these young punks, or rather, what was left of him. Half of the young man’s face was gone, the right half, his teeth showing where his lips had once been, a bloody smear of muscle on chunked flesh where his face should have connected at the nose.

The leader staggered toward him, arms raised, but the dead young man was a good seven meters away, nothing to worry about.

James raised his pistol and waited for the leader to close in, waiting until the walking deceased was within the four-meter range before pulling the trigger of his gun. His Rune Maker fired with a loud bang, and that enchanted bullet went right through the punk leader’s good eye, setting the mobile corpse’s head aflame with that single shot.

“Ashes to ashes…” said James.

The leader fell burning to the street to join the other bodies, but he was burned to ash within seconds of active incineration.

The sound of the shot had attracted the attention of the remaining merc of the Red Cobras, and he turned around to stagger toward James, but James put him down as easily as the first. This wasn’t even a mercy killing, no, as they were only corpses animated by dark magic, their souls long gone. This was simply cremation.

“Dust to dust,” finished James.

“Warning,” stated his helmet VI. “Class-One Corporeal Undead in area.”

Bodies around him twitched and started to stand, immediately provoking James into a fight or flight response.

“Tricky sons of…” he started, but he had more immediate concerns than finishing that expletive.

He fired around him, ashing four of them before they could fully stand, but his pistol was empty after that, and there was no time to reload.

He quickly holstered his Rune Maker and drew his saber, ready to cut his way out.

“Seraph’s Light,” he stated, and a rune on the long blade in his right hand blazed with a white light.

A pair of walking dead came at him from his peripheral right, but he beheaded the first one with a single slice of his blade, the head popping off as the body burst with holes of light from the magic flowing through it, the enchanted strike disintegrating the corpse with ease.

James cut the right arm off the other one, and it, too, disintegrated before it even hit the ground.

He was surrounded after that by six of them, all of them staggering toward him, arms raised, rotted fingers out, the hungry dead ready to tear him apart. James sliced around himself in a practiced sword dance, something he’d learned through sheer experience, and then they were no more, those shuffling bodies gone, disintegrated by holy magic.

James sheathed his sword and shook his head. It was likely the previous band of mercs, the Red Cobras, had been ambushed in the stupidest way possible, but that was not his problem. They had walked straight into this four-way, but unlike him, they had not known what they were dealing with.

It didn’t matter. Judging by the bullet holes in some of these corpses, the Red Cobras had done him a favor anyway. They had cleared out most of this little army of undead.

He walked forward toward the two piles of ash that were the remains of the two Cobras he’d put down.

“Nothing left,” he muttered.

There was no gear to salvage, not that he needed their stuff anyway. He was more interested in why there was a minefield of zombies here at a four-way.

He spied it after that, a necromantic circle drawn directly at the center of this four-way, or rather, chipped into the asphalt. The circle was covered in intricately drawn symbols, and it only took human blood to activate that dark magic. Blood was about the cheapest resource in a breach area, and this particular breach was titled “The Blood March,” after all.

A young woman flickered into view within the circle. She was completely nude, blonde, tied to a wooden pole, big breasted, beautiful face, an hourglass figure, something most mercs would rush to rescue right away, especially those Red Cobra idiots.

“Help me!” cried the young woman. “Somebody, help me!”

James shook his head at this low-tier obvious illusion. It was a lure like any other, like peanut butter in a mouse trap. Mercs wandered in, the dead rose around them, end of story.

This was a problem. Anyone that died here would invariably come back as a zombie.

He could destroy the symbol animating them, but it was etched into the street, and true, he could take out that symbol with one Banshee round, but firing at it would just cause the bullet to ricochet.

Yes, his rounds could be enchanted due to his Rune Maker, but they were still physical bullets, after all, and bullets still followed the laws of physics unless “told” otherwise. His rounds actually had to lodge in something in order to activate anyway.

James took to reloading his pistol, shaking his head in frustration. He had to find some way to close the breach or, at least, notify someone of this necro-four-way. He didn’t think much of other mercs in general, but this was a trap, and traps were primarily a human weapon. That meant a necromancer, which was bad, or cultists, which was also bad, though both were bad in different ways.

He couldn’t narrow down the culprit just yet. Both necromancers and cultists could create zombies, but they summoned different things, and all of those things were terrible.

Necromancers were solitary but deadly, so fighting one of them was going to be tough. On the other hand, cultists traveled in packs, but they were easier to take out. However, the things cultists summoned were objectively worse than anything a necromancer could conjure up, so in essence…both were equally bad.

“There were Lovecraftians in the area,” muttered James. “That’s usually cultists, but the breach could have spit out the Lovecrafts…Hmmm…Don’t know yet.”

He pulled out his pocket watch, checked his direction, put his watch away, and took toward the west street. It was time to get moving anyway.

There was a dozen dead mercs on this new street, some ripped apart, some partially eaten, but all dead. Whatever had killed them had moved on, and that something was big, but that was not his problem. This new, unknown breacher was probably a Class Three, maybe even a Class Four, so his only problem was avoiding it altogether. Whatever the case, these mercs hadn’t stood a chance.

He ignored them and continued on in the direction his watch had indicated; his original mission was to find artifacts, after all.

He felt so much as saw himself pass through some sort of energy barrier. It was a tingling of sorts, a crackle in the air, and this set him on edge.

“That can’t be good,” muttered James.

“Warning,” stated his VI. “Class-Five Disparate Entity in area.”

“That is definitely not good,” said James quietly.

The breach was most certainly in this location, too. This…complicated things.

For one thing, his helmet VI was no longer going to inform him of any rift energy in the area, because this area was all rift energy. That meant he had to manually locate artifacts. However, it turned out that locating anything of value was not going to be a problem.

He walked toward the end of the street, that street littered with knickknacks here and there, some broken, some intact, and he picked up what he could. He snatched up a snow globe, a deck of playing cards, and a first-aid kit, of all things.

The snow globe could have any power…He wasn’t sure. The playing cards, however, were dangerous. There was no telling what each individual card did, and each one had a one-time use, so…he’d be selling that right away. Some other sucker could test it. The first-aid kit, though?…Now that was valuable…if it still had anything in it.

He quickly opened the white plastic box and realized it was mostly full.

“Jackpot,” he said firmly. “It’s payday, but I’m not done yet.”

Most of what came out of a breach was trash, but sometimes…sometimes you got lucky, and this was one of those times.

But his attention was taken by something else.

He could clearly see the breach now. It was pretty big, about twelve-feet-tall and eight-feet-wide, a glowing portal of blue and white light, definitely large enough for a Class-Five otherworlder to pass through.

“Warning,” stated his helmet VI. “Class-Five Disparate Entity in area.”

“Yeah,” stated James in return.

He gripped the pistol of his Rune Maker and visually scanned the area for threats, but he did not have to scan for long.

“Mortal,” came a deep and echoing voice from behind him.

James swiveled and leveled his pistol at this new threat.

The man standing before him was tall, of Arabic descent, and dressed in a grey three-piece suit. This new guy sported fine, slicked-back, black hair and slimline shades upon the hawkish nose of his sharp and unforgiving face, and his demeanor was cold and rigid, like a living statue without an emotion to spare.

James could feel the power radiating off of this guy, and his HUD was going crazy with energy readings, but the stranger hadn’t attacked, so James knew something was up, and that something was never good.

“What is it you desire, mortal?” asked the stranger.

“Warning,” stated James’ VI. “Class-Five Disparate Entity in area.”

“Raijin’s Thunder,” spoke James.

The appropriate rune on his piece lit up with a bright yellow light, and the stranger backed away a couple of feet.

“You are to leave this place,” said James firmly.

“Is that what you desire?” asked the man.

James knew what he was dealing with now, but this particular threat required…negotiation…along with a healthy dose of intimidation.

“I don’t make deals with Djinn,” said James.

“All mortals desire something,” replied the man, this “Djinn.”

“Maybe…” stated James. “But I know better than to wish for anything around one of your kind.”

“You may have anything you wish for,” said the Djinn.

“Warning,” stated James’ helmet VI. “Class-Five Disparate…”

“Protocol Alpha,” stated James. “Disregard Class-Five Disparate-Entity warnings.”

“Noted,” stated his VI. “Disregarding Class-Five Disparate-Entity warnings.”

He’d have to reset that later, but he had a more immediate problem right in front of him.

“Tell me your desire, mortal,” said the Djinn. “You have done well to reach me.”

James held up his pistol and pulled back the hammer.

“I’m not like the others,” he said firmly. “I’m letting you live, but only because I need this breach closed…There’s no wish from me. You will pull one thing from your ‘pockets’ that I want, and then you will walk right through that breach and close it behind you.”

“You cannot threaten me, mortal,” warned the Djinn. “Something must be offered…It cannot be taken.”

But James knew better. He’d dealt with a Djinn before, and he knew exactly what they were like.

“You’re without your fetter,” said James. “That’s why you wandered through the breach. You have to be granted a new one, or you’re stuck here at half power. That’s why you’re feeding off of others…You’re going to fade without a permanent home, and you know most of these idiots around here can’t make it to you…You won’t find any food stuck here. You’re going to starve.”

James pulled out the snow globe from one of his many jacket pockets and held it up.

“This is rift-charged,” he said. “That means it’s unbreakable…so we’ll make a trade, your new fetter for my terms. I won’t make a wish, but I’ll trade.”

The Djinn lowered his head as if thinking, and then he raised his shaded gaze to stare back at James, a slight smile on his sharp face.

“That is acceptable,” nodded the Djinn. “State what it is you wish to trade for.”

“I don’t wish for anything,” snorted James, “but I know what I want, and so do you. You already know what I want, and I know better than to say it out loud. Give it to me, then get in the globe. I’ll throw it through the breach. You can end up somewhere else, just not here. Close the breach behind you after that…That’s the trade…There’s no wish, and you know that, so make a trade or don’t waste my time.”

The man, this “Djinn,” took off his slimline shades and stared at James with soulless and pupilless blood-red eyes. He frowned, his lips turning downwards in noted displeasure, but James knew he would capitulate.

Breach Rule #…Whatever: Don’t ever give a Djinn a choice, and don’t ever…ever…wish for anything around them.

“It is a trade, then” nodded the Djinn.

The Djinn reached into his suit pocket and pulled forth what James had been searching for for many years now. James quickly took it, placed that highly-prized object into one of his interior-jacket pockets, and held up the snow globe in his gloved left hand.

The Djinn transformed into a cloud of grey smoke, and then that grey smoke was sucked into the snow globe in James’ waiting left hand. That small cloud swirled around inside the globe, fake snow in the liquid whirling around with it, the little buildings inside completely obscured from view.

James turned, hucked the globe through the breach, and there was a burst of energy from the opening that knocked him backwards, but he caught himself before he could fall.

The portal spit out an array of blue-lightning that crackled across it, and then it collapsed in on itself, disappearing without a trace.

“Done and done,” muttered James. “Now to get out of this hellhole.”

The breach was closed, but whatever had come through it wasn’t gone. Breachers had to be “manually” removed, but that was not his problem. No, he had what he needed here, more than he needed, in fact, much more, so it was time for him to leave.

“Let’s blow this pop stand,” he said firmly.

He kept his pistol ready as he made his way east. Couldn’t be too careful.

He made his way back to the four-way and took a moment to study the ritual circle etched into the center of that intersection. He would have to notify someone about that later. It was simply too dangerous to leave here. Of course, any zombies here were already destroyed, so…a cleanup crew could safely deal with it in case he couldn’t contact anyone.

His mental waffling over the matter only made him shake his head. He needed to get back with his remaining goods, and this was just a distraction.

He made a mental decision at that moment…It was a shorter route to just take the south street rather than doubling back from whence he’d come. Any breachers would be scrambling for the exit to the Blood March, but just because the breach was closed did not mean the Merlin-Crowley line was down. Any breachers hitting that would be ashed almost instantly.

There was, of course, whatever had killed those mercs right before reaching the breach, and he wanted to avoid that unknown at all costs. Hopefully, whatever had raged through that street had been ashed at the Merlin-Crowley line by now.

He made his way down this southern street when he came across what was left of the Death Fairies. There were several bodies here, most of them missing limbs, one missing her head. There was a leg off to his right and a female body ripped in half to his left, but his attention was on the corpse of a giant wolf lying in the center of the street.

It was impressive that they had been able to take that thing down, because he was pretty sure this dead wolf was a shadow beast, rift-charged and ready for slaughter, at least a Class-Three.

It had probably been a dire wolf, but going through the breach had supercharged it, making it even bigger and faster than it should have been, because it was as big as a Clydesdale, bigger, in fact. Taking it down with just regular firearms was an actual feat, something the mercs in front of the breach had not been able to do…It had been the Death Fairies first and final accomplishment.

“Solves that mystery,” grunted James.

But he heard movement off to his right.

James saw her a second later, the young black woman sitting on the sidewalk, her back against a burnt-out building, her dyed-blonde hair stained with sprayed blood. The young woman was missing her right arm, but more than that…She was holding an arm with her left hand, and she was trying to reattach that arm to her bloody stump.

She looked up as James approached her, her dark eyes wide and wild.

“It won’t fit,” she said, her voice thick with shock. “I can’t get it to fit…I keep trying, but it won’t fit.”

The arm she was trying to attach had clearly belonged to a white girl, so it wasn’t even her arm.

“You’re in shock,” said James matter-of-factly. “That’s not even your arm.”

The young woman stared down at the arm in her possession and blinked at it as if seeing it for the first time.

“Oh…” she said quietly.

She dropped the arm to the sidewalk and stared at the bloody stump where her right arm had been.

James was sometimes callous, and he knew that—tragedy had hardened him a number of ways—but he wasn’t heartless.

He pulled forth his first-aid kit, the one he’d found near the breach, and popped it open. There was no reason to let this poor kid bleed out. He’d had that kit attached to his belt via a leather loop, and he hadn’t planned on using it unless there was an emergency, but he figured this qualified.

He pulled forth a bandage packet and ripped open the paper, pulling out the bandage for ready use. This girl was fortunate that he had found this artifact, because if he hadn’t, she was going to join her friends shortly.

“Here,” he said as he knelt down next to her.

“They all died except for me and Chie,” said the young black woman. “It bit off Rene’s head, and Chie ran. The others shot it, and…and I shot it…but it killed everyone. They’re all dead…”

“You’re in shock,” said James. “This is going to hurt, and I don’t have anything for you to bite down on, so you’re going to have to scream. You don’t want to bite down on your tongue.”

This young woman stared at him with uncomprehending eyes.

“O…kay…” she drawled out.

He could tell she was fading, so there was no time to dawdle.

He placed the bandage over the bleeding stump. A light flared up from the one-use artifact, a blinding-white light, and the young woman screamed, a shrill and terrible thing to hear at close range, but James had been expecting it.

The light died a few seconds later, dying out as this young woman’s scream died down at the same time, and James removed the bloody, spent bandage from the wound.

The stump had healed over with new skin, an instantaneous healing, the reason James had wanted to keep everything in the kit intact, but he didn’t regret using the bandage. It had served its intended purpose.

“It…It doesn’t hurt anymore,” said the young black woman.

“Come on,” said James.

He pulled her up by her remaining arm, but she had trouble standing. She limped along as James helped her via his arm around her waist, her left arm around his shoulders.

“You’re that old guy,” said the young woman.

“I’m not that old,” said James. “Getting there, but not yet…What’s your name, kid?”

“Sofie,” said the young woman.

“Come on, Sofie,” said James. “Let’s get you out of here. Let’s both get out of here.”

“Yeah…” said Sofie.

“You said one of your friends ran off?” asked James.

“Yeah,” said Sofie. “Chie ran.”

“She might still be alive then,” said James.

They turned left and walked down an eastern street, but James’ helmet VI had issued no warnings, so everything was good for the moment.

They made it close to the entrance to the Blood March, close to the Merlin-Crowley line, before they spotted her.

The young Asian woman, the one named Chie, hadn’t made it.

Her nude body was laid out in a ritual circle, the heart removed, the more sensitive parts of her body cut off, taken for God knew what purpose, and on her face was a look of pure agony and terror, her eyes squeezed shut, her mouth wide open from screaming, that open orifice filled with her own blood.

Sofie choked once upon seeing her dead friend, and then she sobbed as she broke down completely, her shock finally ending with that grisly sight.

“Don’t look,” said James. “Just turn away.”

She sobbed as she bound her gaze, closing her eyes as she nodded in poignant acceptance of his advice.

It was better this way. This young woman, Sofie, didn’t need to be doing this, not the kind of merc-work James was used to.

But he had a bigger problem. It was clear there was a cultist infestation going on, and he knew that now. So unless those two yahoos guarding the entry point had killed those crazies—which he highly frickin’ doubted—then he wasn’t getting paid by them.

Still, he had something better than money, so the money wasn’t really all that big of a deal, but that didn’t solve the cultist problem. Those nutjobs were just going to reopen the breach if they weren’t dealt with here and now.

James and his new charge crossed the Merlin-Crowley line, and they spotted the bodies right after that.

Ambushed…It’s what cultists do.

Both guards were dead, their limbs and heads cut off, their naked torsos piked upon makeshift poles, their heads on separate poles, their limbs in a nearby pile. There was a bloody line of twine tied between the two main poles, that twine holding their severed fingers, toes, and…other parts.

This grisly display was typical cultist work when dealing with men, not a ritual, just an intimidation tactic to keep anyone from closing the breach.

Sofie sobbed once in audible horror at the sight, but James shushed her.

“You stay put,” said James. “There are cultists here…I know where these crazies are, and I’ll deal with them. Once it’s safe, I’ll come and get you.”

“Don’t leave me!” whispered the young woman.

“You’ll be fine,” he said firmly. “You just wait here…I have to go step on some bugs.”

But James had to forcefully sit her down. She struggled a bit, but she was weak from blood loss, so she capitulated without further argument. Besides, he knew what to do.

“Just cover your eyes,” he said. “I’ll be back shortly. You may hear some screaming, but it won’t be me.”

Of that, he was certain.

She covered her face with her only remaining hand and wept into it. He felt a twinge of sympathy for her, but he’d be back to get her after he’d cleared out an infestation, so this was only wasting his time. He needed that time to rescue the young receptionist that had checked him in, or at least, confirm that she was already dead.

He took his leave of the last Death Fairie after that, this time making his way toward the entrance of the check-in bunker.

“They’ll take time to draw out the circle,” muttered James. “They have to strip her, bind her, get things ready…”

He knew how these crazies worked. Once they’d cleared out any guards, they would start their ritual, and once that was started, they were vulnerable.

James drew his saber as he stepped into the bunker.

On the floor was the receptionist, completely stripped of her clothing, tied down in a ritual circle, but she was still alive for the moment, uninjured, though that would not last long. It was a good thing he’d shown up now, because she only had seconds before the torture was to begin.

There were six of them, all in dirty brown robes, their faces covered with boils, their hands in bloody white rags, their eyes wild with whatever eldritch insanity had possessed them.

Their leader held a wicked-looking curved dagger in his right hand, and he slowly lowered the murderous weapon toward the young receptionist, the point aimed directly at her bare breasts, that sharp blade meant for flaying sensitive skin, that flaying to be played out in a slow, deliberate manner. It was no surprise that her dark eyes were wide with panic and terror, an appropriate response for the situation at hand.

“P…Please!” she whined. “Don’t do this! Please! I’ll give you anything you want!”

James was upon them before they could turn or even notice him. He stabbed the nearest cultist through the back to where his blade exited the chest, that cultist’s blood spraying in an arc all over the bare flesh of the receptionist about to be tortured to death.

He withdrew his blade by planting one leather boot into the back of the cultist he had just stabbed, kicking off the body with practiced ease, and he sliced through the neck of the next cultist before that one could retaliate, the scumbag’s diseased head popping free to spray up blood in a red fountain from the remaining neck stump.

James didn’t need any magic for this…These walking filth could be taken care of the good old-fashioned way.

The remaining four were on him after that, knives drawn, ready to slice and dice.

Warning reticles popped up in his HUD from various angles, and he mentally tracked them as those threats zoomed toward him in slow time.

A blade sliced down in an arc from his peripheral left, but James cut free that hand before the weapon could ever reach him, and that filth-ridden bandaged hand flew across the enclosed bunker area, still gripping a curved dagger meant solely for murder.

James punched the next cultist in the face before the raving maniac could react, a staggering left jab that gave him enough time to run the man through.

He shoved off the body with a shoulder ram, withdrawing his bloody saber with that action, and he spun in a circle, beheading the stunned handless cultist with that whirling swing. He spun again to smash the hilt of his sword into the nose of the third one, cutting down across the right knee after that, then slicing once more to remove the head once that cultist had dropped to his injured right knee.

There was blood everywhere now, blood spraying from headless neck stumps and leaking from stab wounds, but this was “The Blood March” after all, so it was earning that title, and in the worst way.

There was only the leader left now, the leader of this pile of dung that had betrayed humanity, and all of this bloody nonsense was a breaking point for James, something that had finally and truly angered him.

“Ifrit’s Rage,” stated James, and the flame rune on his saber lit up with an orange light.

No, he didn’t need magic for this scum-sucking piece of filth, but he was angry now, so all bets were off.

The leader stepped forward, curved dagger raised, but this was a ruse. This boil-ridden, disgusting betrayer parted his crusted lips as if to scream, but a black snake shot from his open mouth, the venomous serpent shooting forward straight toward James’ helmeted face.

“Warning,” stated his helmet VI. “Hostile—”

James completely ignored his VI as he swung his saber up and in an arc to slice the serpent in twain, the snake erupting in flames as it was severed into two parts, that deadly magical flame spreading down the bodyline of the serpent to enter the mouth of the cultist leader, and then the fanatic’s head burst into flames from the inside out, his eyes popping like grapes in a microwave, no screams from him as James planted one boot in his chest to kick him back and over.

“Die in obscurity,” spat James.

He flicked dark blood from his saber, pulled an old rag from one of his many pockets, and wiped his blade clean. He tossed the rag away, shook his head once, and sheathed his sword.

He was going to have to get another rag. Cultists were about as unclean as you got.

James undid the receptionist’s bonds after that, and the young woman scrambled to find what was left of her clothes, though those were pretty much rags at this point. Even so, she clutched those rags to herself, hiding her naked parts as best she could, but James didn’t care about that. He needed to finish this business here and now.

“Breach is closed,” he said firmly. “You need to get out of here.”

“Wh…What?” asked the young woman.

“Breach is closed,” he stated again. “I closed it…The Blood March is done.”

“Oh…” said the young woman.

He nodded toward the entrance of the bunker.

“What’s your name?” he asked.

“B…Brenda,” stammered the young woman.

“I’ve got an injured merc outside, Brenda,” he said in flat reply. “You’ll have to get each other back to town…Get moving. I don’t want to leave her out there by herself. She’s only got one arm. She can’t fight like that, and I can tell you can’t fight at all…so let’s get moving.”

“I…Y…Yes…” stammered the young woman.

She stepped lightly and awkwardly on bare feet, stepping over the dirty concrete floor of the bunker toward the entrance and exit to the place, stepping around the still twitching, bleeding bodies of the dead and dying cultists that had just tried to sacrifice her through ritual torture.

James shook his head at the sight of her bare white butt. He was getting too old for this life anymore.

He followed her out to the burnt-out cityscape and led her to Sofie. The injured Death Fairy looked up at them both and quickly stood, wiping her eyes free of tears with her remaining hand.

“Rescued this one from cultists,” stated James. “She’ll help you get to town.”

“What!” asked Sofie. “What do I do now? I’ve lost everything! All of my friends are dead, and…and…”

She stared at the healed stump of her right arm, her lower lip quivering.

James frowned inside his helmet, though these two couldn’t see that expression. He had been planning on just sending them on their way, but now…well…there went his pocket money.

“Here,” he said quickly. “Take this before I change my mind.”

He reacted out of the semblance of a heart, though he did not want to.

He pulled forth the small black box with the pendant, dug around in one of his interior jacket pockets, and then pulled forth the deck of playing cards. He handed them both to Sofie, placing them carefully in her remaining hand, and gave her an encouraging nod.

“You can get a cyber-rune replacement for that arm,” he said firmly. “Contact Lazarus Radditz in Coco City. He’ll hook you up with some buyers for those if you mention my name. Tell him James sent you. You’ll make a hell of a lot more credits from him than you would have from this joint.”

“But that’s State prop—” started Brenda.

“You…” said James with one gloved pointing finger.

He touched her forehead, and her eyes wandered upwards toward his finger, her face a mask of confusion.

“Get a different job,” he said firmly. “One that doesn’t involve breaches or dancing.”

“B…but…” she stammered.

James directed Brenda’s attention toward Sofie by forcefully turning her head.

“Get her to town first,” he said roughly.

James looked over toward Sofie and nodded once directly at her.

“You get her some clothes,” he said firmly. “And you…”

He once again turned his attention upon Brenda.

“At least tie those rags around yourself,” he said. “It’s not safe to walk around naked, especially here in Bask. You saw what those mercs were like. You don’t need that after what you’ve just been through.”

He stared at Sofie and frowned, though he knew she couldn’t see his expression.

“You get a different job as well,” he said. “After you sell those artifacts, you can both contact Isha Corkson. She’ll get you some safer work…Look, life is terrible enough. I know you two don’t know each other, but you will soon, because neither one of you is making it back to Bask without the help of the other, so I suggest you work together. This place is clean for now, but I wouldn’t stick around.”

The young receptionist tied what was left of her clothes around her waist and chest as she nodded in acceptance, but James had already known she would agree to his commands. Nearly being sacrificed to an elder god through ritual torture had probably changed her mind about any loyalty to the State.

“And both of you get a shower,” he said as an afterthought. “Get that blood off…and remember the names I told you…Coco City, Lazarus Radditz, and Isha Corkson.”

“What about you?” asked Sofie. “You’re just going to leave us?”

“You don’t need me,” said James with a shake of his head. “Death follows me around like a bad penny. Just get out of here with those artifacts before I change my mind.”

Last Breach Rule: Never pick up strays. It hurts too much when you lose them.

They stared at each other as he walked away. They were two strangers who were going to have to rely on each other for survival, but that reliance was something the world needed right now, and that something was trust. Trust was a commodity in short supply anymore.

He left them there after that, content that they would find their way back to Bask. They would have to lean on each other from then on, but he already knew they would.

James walked off in a southerly direction. He’d been south before, and he felt like heading back that way again, maybe contact old friends, have a drink, and shoot the breeze.

Yeah, he’d wasted ammo here, broken a sweat, and gotten his hands dirty with no credits to show for it, but he had something better than credits now.

He pulled forth the item he’d received from the Djinn. It was a genuine, brand-new, rift-charged smartphone, and the best part about it was that the service was both free and infinite. No charges here, money or battery-wise.

He pressed the button on his steel neck collar that retracted his helm so he could enjoy his new prize with his own eyes. His helmet deactivated and retracted, and he blinked and wiped his dark eyes as he stared down at his new phone.

He turned on the phone and waited for it to boot up, then he went online, that phone reaching across dimensional lines to connect to some other world’s internet. It had been many, many years since he’d connected to the internet, but he remembered how to work the device just fine, and he was pleasantly surprised at what he found.

The first thing he did was bring up a funny cat video.

Author’s Note: This story has a sequel titled, “The Liminal.” You can read “The Liminal” here.

The Blood March Copyright © 2021 Matthew L. Marlott

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