Author’s Note: This story is a sequel to the story, “The Blood March.” If you haven’t read “The Blood March,” you can read it here.
James walked up to the back-alley door and knocked twice. The door was rusted metal with a slat that could open from the other side, something for security, something a guard could look through, but that was because Radditz was paranoid.
He couldn’t blame the man. Coco City was a dangerous place, especially down here in the oldest part of the business district. Each city was its own state, and Coco City was no different, though it was better known for thuggery and rogues, but that was fine. James had handled far worse than the human kind of monster.
The slat opened, and a pair of dark eyes gazed upon him.
“State your business,” came a rough female voice.
“I need to see Radditz,” sighed James. “Just tell him—”
“Oh, it’s you!” said the woman behind the door. “Come on in!”
“Wow, that was easy,” muttered James.
The door opened after several locks were undone, and James immediately recognized the young black woman guarding the entrance.
“Sofie, right?” he asked.
“Y…Yeah,” said the young lady.
James gave her a once-over. It had been a few months since he’d last seen her, but that had been back at Bask.
The young woman was pretty in the face, slender, and had short, pixie-cut, blonde hair. She was dressed in a utility black jumper with several pockets on the legs, but it was the Ailer 1450 SMG that she was strap carrying that held James’ attention. The shiny metal fingers of her right hand were tight around the grip of that bullet sprayer.
He walked inside the place, and the young guard shut the door behind him.
“Got your hair cut,” he said casually. “I see you got the new arm, too.”
“Oh…uhhh…yeah,” said Sofie. “Mr. Radditz hooked me up after I got here with Brenda.”
“Oh?” asked James. “You’re still with Brenda, or did she move on?”
“Oh, no,” she replied. “She’s still here. She takes care of inventory and reception. She’s a bit of a ditz, but—”
“Wait, wait, wait,” said James as he shook his head once. “I thought you two were supposed to find work with Isha Corkson. Why are you both working for Radditz?”
“Mr. Radditz took us in,” shrugged Sofie. “I wasn’t going to turn him down. I don’t shoot a gift bird in flight.”
“Gift bird…” said James as he rolled his eyes. “It should be gift horse…You know what? Doesn’t matter…Where is the old lech?”
“Mr. Radditz?” asked Sofie. “He’s in back…Is there something wrong? Do you have artifacts you want to move or something you want repaired?”
“Not at all,” sighed James. “I was just stopping by. I actually stopped by to see where the old dog had sent you two, or if you two had even made it here.”
“Really?” smiled Sofie.
“Yeah,” said James. “How are you holding up? How’s that arm working out for you?”
She frowned as she lowered her gaze to look at the new cyber-rune arm that had replaced her real one. James could see the haunted look in her dark eyes, not surprising considering what she had already been through.
“The arm is fine,” said Sofie in a quiet voice. “I…still have trouble sleeping at night, though. That thing that killed all my friends…”
“Yeah,” grunted James.
She turned her gaze back upon James and frowned again.
“The Death Fairies was the first group of people that made me feel like I belonged,” she said unhappily. “We thought we were unstoppable…They were my friends…and then some giant wolf killed them all.”
“You can’t dwell on it,” said James. “You shouldn’t forget them—never do that—but at some point you have to continue living your life.”
“I know…” sighed Sofie. “Working here has helped me with that, and Brenda, ditz that she is, has helped me with that, too…She has a fear of cultists now, though.”
“Yeah,” snorted James. “That’s a good thing. She’ll live longer.”
“Yeah,” smiled Sofie. “We’re definitely better off here.”
“Well…” shrugged James. “I had to check to make sure you two were okay. I should still see Radditz, though. He needs to know I’m in town.”
She gave him a mild punch on the arm with her left hand.
“Awww…You old softie,” she chuckled. “Head on back, old timer. I have to stay up front until I’m off duty, but I’m glad you stopped by. You did save my life, after all.”
“Thanks,” grunted James.
He headed down a narrow hallway that had two doors along the west side to his right and a door at the south end, all three doors simple brown wood with frosted glass windows set within them.
“And I’m not that old!” called back James.
He heard the young woman chuckle as he stepped up to the south door. He opened the south door and walked into a small receptionist’s office.
“This is new,” he said in strange interest.
The small room had freshly painted white walls with a small wooden desk at the back end of it, two wooden doors behind that desk, one on each side of it. Upon that desk was a brand-new rune-tech computer, and behind that computer, sitting in a grey swivel chair, was Brenda.
Unlike Sofie, the young woman did not look that much different from the first time James had seen her. The young white woman possessed a cute round face with a button nose and dark eyes. She had her short black hair in a bowl cut, and she wore the same kind of utility black jumper that Sofie sported, so at least Radditz was consistent in attempting to hide his lechery.
The young lady looked up at James, but her dark eyes widened as she recognized him.
“Oh, it’s you!” she said with a wide smile.
“Yep,” smirked James. “I already got that reaction from Sofie.”
“I’m so glad you’re back!” replied Brenda. “I didn’t think I’d see you again!”
“Oh, the old man is my buyer,” snorted James. “I have to come here to sell. Not to mention that he’s the best damned rune-technician and mechanic around.”
“Oh, I know that,” nodded Brenda. “Mr. Radditz has been teaching me some of the trade. I’ve been learning rune wiring. He’s been really kind to us.”
James could envision Brenda bent over a piece of rune-tech, her big heart-shaped bottom in the air, the old man staring right down at that butt from behind her.
“I’ll bet he has,” snorted James as he shook his head. “I stopped by to check on you and Sofie, but I can see you’re doing fine. However, I should let Radditz know I’m in town. Sofie said he’s in back, but…he must have remodeled the place.”
“Oh, yeah,” nodded Brenda. “He put in this office after he took us in. He redid the guard’s office, too.”
“Uh, huh,” said James. “Well…I’ll just head on back then. I already know my way around.”
“Are you going to be in town for long?” asked Brenda.
“Probably not,” sighed James. “We’ll see.”
“Oh…” said Brenda, but she sounded disappointed.
“Tell you what…” said James. “We’ll all go out to dinner later, okay? I think the old man will agree to that.”
“That would be great!” smiled Brenda. “I’ll tell Sofie.”
“Yeah,” replied James. “She’ll be happy to hear that, I think. Anyway, I’m gonna go see Radditz for a bit.”
“Okay, Mr. James,” grinned Brenda. “Just head through the left door behind me…Uhhh…Your left, not mine.”
“Got it,” nodded James.
He walked through the left door and into Radditz’s shop.
Back in his younger days, he’d have gone after either one of those girls, probably both at the same time, but he was pushing fifty now, and those young ladies were half his age. His dark skin was weathered, his short curly black hair had flecks of grey in it, and of course, he had that scar running from right underneath his left eye all the way down to the bottom of his chin…Nah…He wasn’t chasing tail anymore. He was out of that game.
No, he had everything he needed already on him. He kept his clothing simple in look and style, a black-T, brown work pants with pockets, his brown leather jacket, his black bullet-proof vest, his enchanted steel neck collar that contained his helmet, and his good brown leather hiking boots, but that clothing was his home. His clothes were enchanted to Hell and back, imbued with mage armor, self-repair, self-cleaning, and pockets with the Deep enchantment, so everything he needed was already on him…not to mention his Rune Maker and his cavalry saber. Those were his protection, and you could never have enough protection in this crazy world of magic and monsters.
He shook his head free of those thoughts as he walked across the large garage and up to the inventory desk where Radditz was currently sorting through acquired artifacts the old man was going to move on the black market.
Lazarus Radditz was a big white man, six-foot-four, with broad shoulders and more muscle than a sixty-two-year-old had a right to have. The right side of his bald head was limned with sweat, while the left above his lips was all rune-tech steel, a big ruby goggle where his left eye should have been. He was dressed in a grease-stained white tank top, and he looked up and grinned at James through a bushy grey beard.
“James, you lazy piece of—” he began.
“Stow it,” snorted James. “I’m not taking guff from a man with same last name as a minor Dragon Ball villain.”
“Sorry,” shrugged Radditz. “Don’t get the reference. If you’re going to insult someone, it’s at least got to be understandable. I guess things were way different in that universe you came from, huh?”
James rolled his eyes. Radditz was one of the few people that knew James was a Rift Walker, that James had wandered through a rift and had ended up in this universe, but that was because the old man could detect different rift signatures with that ruby eye of his.
“Yeah, yeah,” replied James. “Look, I just stopped by to inquire about the two young women I sent your way. I wanted to make sure they were all right, and I thought you would have sent them Isha’s way by now, but it looks like you got greedy, didn’t you, you old lech? They’re less than half your age, you know.”
“Hey, if there’s grass on the field, play ball,” shrugged Radditz. “I think you told me that once.”
“Out of all the things I’ve said, that’s what you remember?” asked James as he shook his head.
“Eh,” shrugged the older man. “Doesn’t matter…You in town for a while?”
“Yeah,” said James. “I told the girls we could all go out to eat together before I leave.”
“Who’s paying?” asked Radditz.
“I’ll pay for them,” frowned James. “You can pay for yourself.”
“Yeah, yeah,” grunted the older man. “Look, I’ll tell you what. If you do a little job for me, you can make a little money, and I’ll pay for dinner. How’s that sound?”
“That depends,” snorted James. “What’s the job?”
He knew better than to just accept a job with no questions asked. Life was way too dangerous in this world to do that.
“I got a couple of freelancers that were hired by Isha to check out a building here in Coco,” said Radditz.
“When you say freelancers, you’re not talking about the girls, are you?” asked James through narrowed eyes.
He wasn’t their father, but he also didn’t want them doing that kind of work. Mercenary work had a short life-expectancy.
“Nah, nah,” said the older man as he waved off James. “My sister’s kid and his friend want to dip into your line of work.”
“And you didn’t warn them off?” asked James. “Ain’t he family, man? That’s your nephew…What the hell?”
“That’s where you come in,” grunted Radditz. “This job Isha’s got set up should be a breeze for you. It’s an abandoned building right here in the B.D. There’s a rumor going around that some junkies disappeared in it. Coco State of Affairs is paying a little for someone to go check it out, so just go check it out, watch their backs, and wave ‘em off this life…Show ‘em your ugly face and that scar of yours. Tell ‘em that Widow story and about some of the other things you’ve come across. Tell ‘em about the Minotaur of Park Ridge.”
“Yeah, I see what you want,” grunted James. “Okay, I guess I can swing that. Where is this place I’m supposed to go?”
“It’s over at Garden Gable,” said Radditz. “Junkie Town. It’s not technically in the business district, but it’s close enough. You know where that is?”
“Yeah,” said James. “I know it…Where are these kids of yours anyway?”
“I’ll get ahold of ‘em,” grunted Radditz. “Head over to my sister’s, pick ‘em up, get this done, and then we’ll all go out to eat.”
“Yeah, all right,” said James. “Works for me.”
“Yeah, get it done, and do it right this time, you lazy son of a—” started the older man.
“Don’t go there,” snorted James. “I’m not taking heat from a Cowboy Bebop wannabe.”
“Still don’t get the reference, man,” grinned Radditz.
James and his two new companions headed down the short flight of wide, cracked, concrete steps that led to a rusty, grey, metal door. The stairs were in-between two dank rain-stained walls of cracked concrete, and the door in question had the words “ONLY THE DEAD WALK HERE” spraypainted across it in big red letters.
“Now you two follow my lead,” said James. “If anything goes down, find cover first. Don’t stand around like idiots waiting to get shot or jumped. If there is no cover, unload a clip in it…Seriously. Point is, don’t get killed on my watch.”
He took a brief moment to study the two young men. Both were in their early twenties, both skinny dorks with two braincells between them, but they were family as far as James was concerned, because any family of Radditz’s was also the closest thing that James had to a family anymore. His own family was long dead…something he did not wish to dwell on any longer than he had to.
Morgan was the bolder of the two, a slender young man with mid-length, greasy, black hair and a big, awkward-looking, hawk nose to match his dark-brown eyes. He had on a generic black leather jacket with punk studs on the shoulders, a black T, black denim jeans, and black work boots. He looked like a kid that was trying too hard to be cool. All he needed were the slimline shades and the black duster to look like a Neo-from-The–Matrix wannabe.
Ethan, on the other hand, was a tall skinny kid with regular glasses on his pointed nose. This kid had on a plain, unadorned, brown bomber jacket, a blue T, tan slacks, and brown hiking boots. He looked like a college nerd that had joined an extracurricular activity way outside of his competency.
James took a look at their gear. Both were packing Jacobs-Brill light SMGs, model 745s. They both had ammo belts with color-coded pockets, so at least they had that much in common sense.
“Do either one of you have any shooting experience?” asked James.
“We hit the range every week,” nodded Morgan. “We’ve got plenty of experience in small arms.”
“Oh, yeah?” asked James. “What ammo have you got?”
“Ifrit, Ymir, and Raijin rounds,” said Ethan. “I figured that would cover the basics. It’s tougher to get ahold of the more expensive types without getting a state license…What kind are you carrying?”
“Normal bullets,” said James.
“What!” snorted Morgan. “I thought you were some kind of badass. That’s what Uncle Laz told us anyway.”
“I don’t need anything but normal bullets,” grimaced James. “It’s because I have this, kid.”
James drew his six-shooter and held it up so that both of them could see it, specifically the runes etched along the barrel.
“That’s a Rune Maker!” breathed Ethan in obvious recognition. “I didn’t think any of those were still around!”
“A Rune Maker?” asked Morgan.
“It enchants bullets when they’re fired,” said Ethan. “It’s a revolver, and it only holds six rounds at a time, but Mr. James doesn’t need anything but normal bullets for it. Each glyph on a Rune Maker stamps the runes onto the bullets when they exit the chamber.”
“That sounds handy,” said Morgan. “Why don’t they make more of these? They should do that with submachine guns and assault rifles.”
“It’s too expensive and too dangerous,” said Ethan as he shook his head. “Only a few Rune Makers were ever made. It takes a pact with a demon to make one.”
“No kidding?” asked James.
That he had not known about his museum piece.
“Well, what do you know,” said James as he scrunched up his lips. “You learn something new every day…Look, you two, I may not know everything, but I do know my business, so I suggest you two follow my lead and learn some things, okay?”
The two young men stared at each other for a brief second and then turned their attention back upon James as James holstered his weapon.
James had on his brown leather driving gloves, and he pointed his gloved right index finger at Morgan’s face.
“And I am a badass,” frowned James. “There’s a reason I’m in charge right now. It’s because ‘Uncle Laz’ doesn’t want to see either one of you with your brains blown out all over the walk.”
“We don’t need a babysitter,” frowned Morgan.
“No, you need a drill sergeant,” continued James, “but since we don’t have one, you’ll have to settle for me. You follow my lead, listen to what I say, and hopefully, things will go smoothly.”
“Hopefully?” asked Ethan. “I thought this was just a training job.”
“It is,” nodded James. “This is a green-letter pick from Isha, and that means almost anyone can do it, but you know what I’ve learned from doing Isha’s jobs? Hell, you know what I’ve learned from doing any job in this Godforsaken world?”
“What?” asked Morgan in a cautious tone.
“Always expect the worst,” frowned James. “That advice will keep you alive longer than anything else.”
“That’s kind of cynical,” said Ethan.
“Did you read the warning on the door?” said James. “I’ve seen people melted into puddles of goo by things that are all eyes, tentacles, and teeth. I wouldn’t say I’m cynical; I’d say I’m realistic.”
“Uh, huh,” said Morgan. “It’s an abandoned building in Junkie Town. I stepped over a wino passed out in his own vomit on the way here.”
“Yeah,” grunted James. “Hopefully, you’ll step back over him on the way back.”
“Whatever,” frowned Morgan.
“Look,” said James firmly. “You just follow my lead. I know rules to this crap that you haven’t learned yet…For one thing, it’s a good thing we’re going in with three people and not four.”
“Huh?” asked Ethan. “Why’s that?”
“The number four is bad luck in this business,” said James. “Remember that…Anyway, let’s just get this done. All we have to do is sweep the building and look for evidence about what happened to these missing homeless people. I’ll teach you some tricks of the trade along the way. You’ll live longer.”
Morgan frowned at him, but Ethan simply nodded his head in compliance.
“Okay,” said Ethan.
“Good,” said James. “Guns ready.”
He reached up and pressed a button on his steel neck collar, and his Hermes-Alliette retractable helm raised up to completely cover his head and face. The banded helm came with a corrugated breathing mask, a pair of amber visors for enhanced vision, and its own combat virtual intelligence…He had relied on it many times in the past. Besides, he wanted to impress these two newbs, even though that was kind of juvenile, but these pretentious little dinks needed to learn which one of the three of them had actually been around the block…Spoilers: it wasn’t them.
James drew his Rune Maker and held the barrel upright as he reached for the handle of the rusty grey door before them. His piece was loaded, he had his saber sheathed on his left hip, and as green as the two young men behind him were, they were still his backup, so he was ready to go in.
He turned the old metal knob, opened the door, and stepped into the building, his two new “pupils” right behind him.
The door shut behind them, but James was too busy studying his surroundings to be concerned with that.
“What the…?” he breathed out.
They were in a parking garage, a big one, one so large he couldn’t see the actual end of it. It just kind of traveled off into a horizon of darkness, long, flickering, fluorescent lamps lighting the way in a line overhead.
“This is inside an abandoned building?” asked Sofie.
James ignored her.
He swiveled to look behind himself, peering past all three of his companions, but there was no door anymore. The rusty, grey, metal door was gone, replaced by a horizon of darkness lit by long, flickering, fluorescent lamps, an endless parking garage. It was as if they had walked through a rift portal, but his helmet VI hadn’t informed him of such, so that couldn’t be it. He had no idea where they were.
“This is…problematic,” muttered James.
A quick inspection revealed cars along each side of the lane they were in, cars from his world, James’ world, not this one. There were Fords, Chevys, GMs, Toyotas, and even a light-blue Mustang, but this only heightened his anxiety over the matter. They couldn’t be in his original world…That place was long gone, rubble and ash.
“This is definitely not right,” said James in a low voice.
“Where is this?” asked Ethan.
“What are these weird cars?” asked Morgan. “They have wheels.”
“They don’t run on magic,” replied James. “They run on a fossil fuel, gasoline. They don’t hover like the cars you’re used to.”
“Gasoline?” asked Ethan. “What’s that?”
“It’s made from crude oil,” said James. “It burns in the…You know what? Not important. Point is, we’re not where we’re supposed to be.”
“Where are we, then?” asked Sofie.
“No idea,” frowned James, though they couldn’t see his expressions behind his helmet. “Just keep on alert. Something’s definitely not right. We need to get out of here.”
“How do we do that?” asked Ethan. “The door’s gone.”
“Yep,” grunted James. “Guess we’ll start walking…There’s got to be some clue as to what is going—”
But he was cut short by a loud screech that echoed across the vast garage.
“Something’s in here with us,” said Sofie.
The young woman held up her Ailer SMG as she spun in place to locate the source of the sudden noise. Her dark eyes were wide, and James could visibly see the slight panic pulsing through her.
“Three rules, kids,” he said unhappily. “Rule Number One: There’s always something in one of these places, and it’s always in here with you…Rule Number Two: It will find you.”
Another loud shriek echoed across the garage, but it was louder this time, closer.
“W…What’s Rule Number Three?” asked Morgan in a tremulous voice.
“When it finds you…kill it,” said James.
He pulled back the hammer on his Rune Maker. The loud click made by the enchanted pistol was deafening in the sudden silence as everyone held their breath. That silence was broken by Ethan’s nervous voice, a hushed whisper that still sounded incredibly loud in their quiet surroundings.
“There’s someone there…” said the young man.
James swiveled and did a quick study of the person in the distance. He could see the individual in his HUD, but this person did not register any warning or radiant aura from his VI.
The individual in the distance looked like a man in a brown trench coat, a brown fedora on his head, his head lowered to where only the top of his hat could be seen.
“Hey!” yelled James. “State your business!”
This person gradually raised his head to reveal his face, and…
The face beneath the hat was a grinning skull, but it was more than that, for this skull had two pristine eyes in the orbital sockets, though what color those eyes were, James could not tell from this distance.
The skull-man opened its creaking jaws and let forth another high-pitched shriek, and the sound of it was a booming echo around the dark parking garage. James’ young crew immediately covered their ears, but James’ helmet initiated automatic sonic protection for his own ears, so he didn’t have to worry about that.
“It…It can’t be!” stammered Morgan. “It’s the Shrieker!”
“Waste it!” yelled James. “Ifrit’s Rage!”
His command lit up the flame glyph upon his pistol. He leveled his Rune Maker, pulled the trigger, and the sound of the “BANG!” echoed around the garage.
This creature, this “Shrieker,” disappeared from sight, only to reappear right in front of him.
“Oh, shi—” began James, but a punch to the chest by a skeletal fist cut short that expletive.
He went flying backwards to skid on his back across the garage pavement, his gun slipping from his grasp to slide across pavement as well. The impact temporarily took his breath, but even as old as he was, he was used to being knocked around, so this only stopped him for a few brief seconds.
He struggled to stand as he watched his companions scatter, and his breath came back to him as he barked out a quick warning the moment it did.
“It’s got super speed!” he yelled. “Watch your aim! Don’t shoot each other in the crossfire!”
A thick black leather boot kicked him in the right side of his helmet, and his HUD temporarily went crazy. Skeletal fingers clutched him around the throat as he was picked up from the garage floor, picked up like a child’s toy to dangle in this thing’s powerful, icy grip.
James could see the creature’s bright blue eyes now, ocean blue eyes set within the orbital sockets of the skull, and that skull was not a mask; of that, he was certain.
It shrieked in his face, its jaws creaking wide open, and he could see a long and pointed tongue in its mouth, but unlike his young and green companions, this did not shake him. He’d seen far worse.
He reached down and tapped the flame rune on his bulletproof vest with his left gloved hand. The rune glowed a bright red as the protective flame barrier it evoked began to build in its familiar orange, egg-shaped, hexagonal pattern, but that pattern was interrupted as the creature chucked James like a horseshoe away from itself.
James rolled across the parking garage floor yet again, but this time his barrier shorted out before it could fully build. It flickered into existence for a brief second, and then it was gone, a safety feature built into the enchantment to keep James from being fried by his own barrier.
“Somebody shoot it!” he croaked out.
Gun shots rang out as orange-glowing bullets whizzed by him overhead.
The creature took off at such speed that it vanished from James’ vision, only to reappear in front of Ethan. It gripped Ethan’s right wrist to where the boy could not fire, and the young man cried out in pain as the bones in his wrist began to feel the pressure of breaking.
This thing withdrew a small black bar from its trench coat, and a “SHING!” sound rang out as it flicked forth a small but deadly switch blade. It brought the blade up to Ethan’s terrified face, right next to the young man’s neck, ready to plunge the small shaft of steel into the boy’s left carotid.
“Let him go!” yelled Morgan.
James had not expected such a protest to work, but the creature tossed Ethan aside like so much garbage, and the young man with glasses bounced off of the nearest car to roll across garage floor pavement.
The creature turned its attention upon Morgan.
The boy was sitting on his rump as if he had fallen over, but he had his SMG in the air, pointed directly at this “Shrieker,” though both of his hands were shaking.
James staggered to his feet, but he was still a little out of it, so he stumbled and fell to his knees…What he really needed to do was get to his gun before that thing killed one of the people he was in charge of protecting…He didn’t want to lose a single one of them. There was a reason he usually didn’t work with others.
He needed to do something, so he did the only thing he could at the moment.
“Shoot it, Morgan!” he yelled.
The creature slowly walked forward toward Morgan, stared down at him with those weird blue eyes, and then let forth another menacing shriek.
Perhaps it was the shriek that startled the young man into acting, or perhaps it was James’ command, but Morgan cried out once and then pulled the trigger of his Jacobs-Brill 745. The light SMG rattled off a burst of enchanted bullets, and those bullets proceeded to riddle the trench coat and chest area of this skeletal thing.
The creature jerked backwards as it was struck multiple times, and then its body lit up in a wreath of flame, set aflame by Morgan’s loaded Ifrit rounds, its form a pyre of burning bones and cloth as it fell to the pavement a second later.
James was finally able to get to his feet. He stood, walked over to his Rune Maker, picked it up, and took in a couple of deep breaths through his helm’s filter.
He turned to look at the pile of ash that Morgan’s “Shrieker” had left behind.
“What was that thing?” asked Sofie as she helped Ethan get to his feet.
“No idea,” muttered James. “Morgan seemed to know, though…What was that thing, Morgan?”
The young man slowly stood, turned, and immediately threw up…Well, that was actually a good sign. Maybe this life wasn’t for him after all.
James waited for the young man to finish.
Morgan wiped his lips clean on the sleeve of his black leather jacket, turned, and shook his head once.
“That was the Shrieker,” he said in a shaky voice. “Harriet Elloss told me the story about that thing when I was a kid to scare me…That story gave me nightmares…but…but she made it up. I know she did…It’s not real.”
“Well…clearly it was,” grunted James.
“Harriet Elloss?” asked Ethan. “Wasn’t she that girl that used to live next to you?”
“Yeah,” nodded Morgan. “Her family moved away to Hollowstone when we were kids.”
“That’s not important,” said James unhappily. “Look, you can all reminisce later. What I want to know right now is why no one took a shot. You don’t take a shot when you have it, you won’t get another chance to…You’ll be dead…And that goes double for you, Sofie. You’ve got more experience than these two combined. Why didn’t you shoot?”
“Yeah,” asked Ethan. “What were you doing?”
“I couldn’t get a shot lined up,” frowned Sofie. “I would have hit one of you two.”
“All right, all right,” grunted James. “Let’s not split hairs. We need to find our way out of here and report back to Isha. I still don’t know where we are, and considering most pocket universes collapse after their master is destroyed, that thing, that Shrieker, wasn’t the boss of this place.”
“Pocket universe?” asked Ethan.
“Yeah,” said James. “We must have crossed into one. They’re typically traps, like when a fly gets caught in a spider’s web. We have to find the mastermind behind it, or we’ll be stuck here until we do…Green-letter job, my a—”
“Let’s just keep moving,” said Sofie. “We need to find an exit, just like Mr. James said…Hmm…Maybe one of these cars works. We could always—”
“Doubtful,” said James. “Highly doubtful they function at all. We can try one of them, but I think it would be a waste of time.”
“I don’t know,” frowned Sofie. “I kind of like that Mustang over there…”
“A Smurf-blue Mustang is an atrocity,” chuckled James. “I don’t think so. Even so, unless you know how to hotwire a car from another universe, none of these vehicles will do us much good.”
“Yeah, but—” started Sofie, but she didn’t get to finish her sentence.
“Quiet!” hissed Ethan. “Do you hear that?”
James listened for a second, and his helmet’s audio picked up a clicking sound, like high heels on pavement, and then it grew louder as multiple clicking noises erupted from the direction of the “Smurf-blue” Mustang.
“Everybody, ready,” said James. “Back away toward me…”
A huge scarlet-coated beetle the size of a small dog appeared upon the roof of the Mustang, then another on the hood, then another on the roof, and then the windows of the vehicle shattered as a swarm of these overgrown insects burst from out of the interior of the car.
The first of the beetles crawled off the car to the garage pavement and spit a line of liquid that immediately set aflame as it traversed the distance between James’ little group and itself.
They all backed up to keep from being struck by the flaming spit, and the parking garage floor lit up as a pool of the burning liquid congealed right in front of them.
“F…Fire beetles!” yelled Ethan, but the boy sounded panicked, not altogether there.
“Ymir’s Breath!” cried James.
His Rune Maker’s frost sigil lit up with a cold blue light.
“Everybody, switch to Ymir rounds!” he yelled.
He fired off two shots in succession, both at two different beetles, and the giant red scarabs ceased moving as they coated over with frost at the same time.
The rest of his group opened fire as multiple lines of flaming spit came sailing toward them all.
A swarm of these things came over the Mustang as James fired off three more rounds and then quick-loaded his pistol.
He looked over toward Sofie, but she simply stood there trying to get her clip out of her Ailer SMG.
“Gun’s jammed!” she yelled.
“Give me that!” snapped James.
James holstered his Rune Maker as Sofie undid the shoulder strap of her weapon. She flipped her gun to him, he slammed the butt end of the long clip at the bottom of the SMG onto his right pants leg, the type-indicator-light for the rounds lit up in glorious blue, and then James opened fire.
A spray of deadly frost rounds annihilated another row of beetles.
“Keep firing!” commanded James.
The two young men off to his right obeyed this time, and they unloaded their clips into the deadly swarm until not one of the overgrown insects remained alive.
James flipped the spent SMG back to Sofie and shook his head once.
“You didn’t make sure the clip was all the way in,” he frowned. “You can’t eject it once its past the locking bar, and the gun won’t fire until the first bullet is in the chamber. It has to read the bullet type in order for the indicator light to activate, and if the indicator light doesn’t activate, you can’t take the clip out…One more reason I don’t like the Ailer brand.”
If it wasn’t one thing, it was another, but this was getting out of hand. It was clear he couldn’t protect them as well as he’d first thought he could…It had never been his intention to take them into an actual combat zone. They needed to get out of here, and quickly.
But Ethan completely ignored James’ little chewing-out of Sofie. The young man swallowed hard and shook his head a couple of times instead.
“Those were fire beetles,” said Ethan in a shaky voice. “They’re only supposed to live in volcanoes. My grandpa told me about them…They’ll burn you to death and then eat your charred flesh. My grandpa saw it happen. When I was five, he told me all about this guy who died right in front of him, about the beetles swarming all over the guy while he was still on fire…That story…That story terrified me.”
Something clicked in James’ brain at that moment. It was an epiphany of sorts, though he didn’t yet have it all figured out.
“Wait, what did you say?” he asked. “Did you say you were scared of them?”
“Y…Yeah,” stammered Ethan. “I never thought I’d actually see one, though…”
“And normally you wouldn’t,” said James. “I think I know what’s going on here…but if that’s the case…then the next thing up will be a giant…”
The flickering lights above their heads suddenly dimmed, though they continued to flicker. The shadows around them grew thicker as a sibilant whispering picked up from all around them.
James saw the dark figure rise from out of a pool of shadows, a slender and dark form that rose to a full height of over six-and-a-half-feet.
The man that stepped forward was dressed in banded black soldier armor, a black duster, and thick black boots. On his face was a combat infantry mask with a black visor and a corrugated breather, and around that mask was long black hair that flowed and moved as if by its own volition, like tendrils of living shadow.
“I was wrong!” barked James. “Run!”
But his companions never got a chance to.
The man in black raised his hand, that hand covered by thick black soldier’s armor, a metal gauntlet with serrated ridges, and Morgan was suddenly knocked off his feet to slide on his back across the garage floor.
Ethan raised his own SMG to fire, but a black tentacle of inky darkness sprouted from a nearby shadow to whip across his right wrist. The young man cried out as his bones actually broke this time, his right arm bending at an odd angle from the force of the blow.
Sofie backed away until she was behind James, but James did not move. There was nowhere to go in here anyway, and he knew that now.
“Don’t do this, Jack!” yelled James.
The tall and slender man in black reached up with his left hand toward his mask, and James knew exactly what he was going to do, something James simply could not allow.
“Sorry, Jack,” frowned James. “Ymir’s Breath.”
The ice glyph on his Rune Maker glowed a bright blue as he drew the pistol at blinding speed. He had already reloaded the weapon, so he had all six shots.
He fired off three rounds squarely into the armored chest plate of the tall dark man before him. The rounds impacted upon their target, and then the man in black coated over with a fine sheet of white hoarfrost, covered from head to toe in the blinding white of magic cold.
“Banshee’s Wail,” said James.
A glyph on his pistol lit up in neon purple, and James fired a single round at his currently frozen opponent. The bullet lodged in the ice, there was a high-pitched whine as the round activated, and then a sonic sphere of destruction emanated outwards, shattering the figure into so many dark, frozen shards.
James cursed under his breath and shook his head in anger. Yeah, he definitely knew what was going on now, and it was not what he had first thought it had been. No, what was actually going on had just pushed all of his buttons at once.
Ethan cried out in pain as he clutched his right arm and held the broken limb close to himself.
“What was that?” asked Morgan. “What is going on here! Where are these things coming from! How do we get out of here!”
“Calm down,” said James firmly. “I know where we are now.”
Sofie walked past him and gave him an odd look.
“Oh?” she asked. “You do?”
“Yeah,” replied James. “We’re not in a pocket universe.”
“Where are we, then?” asked Sofie. “Do you even know where we are?”
“Yeah,” grunted James. “We’re in the Liminal.”
“What?” winced Ethan. “Are you serious?”
“Yeah,” said James.
“The Liminal?” asked Morgan. “What’s the Liminal? Is it a pocket universe?”
“It’s not a pocket universe,” said James unhappily. “A pocket universe wouldn’t have our worst nightmares in it…No, the Liminal is an entirely different plane of existence.”
“I didn’t…didn’t think it was real,” said Ethan as he gritted his teeth in pain.
“Oh, it’s real, and we’re in it,” said James.
“That still doesn’t explain what it is,” said Morgan.
“It’s a realm that borders the Umbra,” said James. “The Umbra is the Shadow World, Death’s realm. The Liminal is on the edge of it. The Liminal brings your greatest fears to life and pits them against you. That’s what’s been going on…We’re actually being attacked by our own fears, and those fears don’t have to exist in the real world to be real in here.”
“I knew it…” breathed Morgan. “I knew the Shrieker wasn’t real.”
“How do we get out?” asked Ethan. “You said these pocket universes have a master, but if this isn’t a pocket universe…”
“Oh, the Liminal has a master,” frowned James. “It has a master, and I know who it is.”
“Really?” asked Sofie. “Who is it?”
“You see, Jack is my fear,” explained James. “There’s no way in Hell I’d be able to kill Jack the way I did, because aside from being damn-near unkillable, Jack isn’t real. He’s the culmination of a little girl’s fears—a powerful little girl, true—but he’s not real. He’s a mix of the Bogeyman, Spring-Heeled Jack, and Slenderman, none of which are real. I know I’ve said ‘everything’s real’ in the past, but not everything is. Jack is something Maria brought to life in order to protect herself, and Maria’s not here, so…”
“So he can’t be here, either,” winced Ethan. “I understand…Who’s Maria?”
“Doesn’t matter,” said James unhappily. “You see, Jack has the powers of all three creatures I mentioned, which is why he tore into us so quickly. He can breathe fire, walk through shadows, control darkness, and move stuff with his mind through telekinesis. If he takes off his mask, and you see his face…you die of fright…but like I said, Jack isn’t real. Yeah, yeah, I know he’s got that Darth Vader look going for him, especially when he uses his telekinesis. Am I right, Sofie?”
“So he fell to the dark side?” asked the young woman.
“Jack is the dark side,” said James, “but that’s not my point.”
“None of what you said makes any sense,” said Morgan. “I don’t understand what you’re talking about.”
“Exactly,” grunted James. “And to be fair, you shouldn’t. You see, four is a bad luck number because it’s Death’s number. I’ve thought about it a lot, and I would have never come into this ‘building’ with three other people. There’s no way I’d do that, because I’m not stupid. The one thing I’ve learned in this business is that four people in a party is as bad of luck as you get.”
“What does that mean?” asked Sofie.
“It means one of us is a liar,” explained James. “One of us…isn’t real.”
“What?” asked Ethan. “But that’s not possible…is it?”
“It is if we’re in the Liminal,” said James. “This place is built on lies. It’s meant to raise your hackles and bring out your deepest fears so that it can consume you, suck you away into the Umbra. I’m pretty sure now that the master of this place is here with us.”
“Here with us?” asked Morgan.
“Yeah,” said James. “One of us isn’t real…because one of us is Death himself.”
The two young men looked each other over, carefully studying every detail about the other.
“You see, all of us faced our fears,” continued James, “only one of us didn’t…No, one of us got skipped. Isn’t that right, Sofie?”
James turned to look upon the young woman, but she shook her head in denial.
“If what you said about this place is true,” she replied, “then my fear hasn’t shown up yet.”
“And it won’t,” said James. “It won’t, because you don’t know what it is.”
“I…I do too,” stammered Sofie.
“I know what she’s afraid of,” replied James, “but you don’t because she’s not here, and you’re not her. So tell me, ‘Sofie,’ what are you afraid of?”
“I…I don’t want to talk about it,” said Sofie.
“Whoa…” said Morgan nervously. “Are you sure about this, Mr. James? I mean, I think we’re all real…We have to be…If she doesn’t want to talk about her greatest fear…”
He stopped talking as James shook his head no.
“No, there’s no way you could know what the dark side of the Force is, Sofie,” he said firmly. “The real Sofie has never even heard of Star Wars…She’s also never seen any cars like this before, so there’s no way she could know what a Mustang is, either.”
“What are you talking about?” asked Ethan. “I don’t understand…”
“Exactly,” said James. “You wouldn’t, and you shouldn’t. That was my point…So, what are you afraid of Sofie? What can we expect to hit us in here?”
“Yeah,” winced Ethan. “Tell us so we can be ready.”
“Just tell him, Sofie,” said Morgan. “He’ll leave you alone if you tell him.”
“Yeah, why don’t you tell me, ‘Sofie,’” grimaced James. “Or should I say, ‘Death’?…This was a trap you set up just for me, isn’t it? You couldn’t kill me back in the old world, so you decided to get me here…but all of this is some B.S., isn’t it? You don’t have permission to take me, do you?…It’s not my time, and you know it. You have to do it on the sly, which is why you set up this little trap.
“It’s because I traveled with Jack, and you just can’t let that go, can you? I know, because the phone I have let me see what happened to them after I was gone, and you were always there, always chasing them. That’s why you brought up that cheap imitation of Jack, but that was your mistake, because that reminded me of Maria, and I’ll never get to see her again, so all you’ve done is piss me off…No, you’re not getting any fear from me, so all you’re doing is shooting blanks…Now stop screwing with us and let us go.”
The young black woman looked at Ethan, then at Morgan, and then back at James. She looked thoughtful for a moment, smiled, and then shook her head no.
“I guess it’s not your time after all, is it James?” she said as her voice deepened to that of a man’s.
The lights dimmed as she grew in form and size, growing and darkening as the parking garage lights receded at the same time.
The two young men under James’ protection paled in complexion as the figure before them took shape.
James turned his gaze aside so that he could only see out of his peripheral.
“Don’t look at him!” warned James. “Don’t look directly at him!”
The figure before him radiated a terrifying aura of both fear and death. James fixed his gaze on the otherworldy creature’s skeletal left hand, and that hand pointed one bony finger behind them.
“Both of you turn around,” ordered James. “Turn around, and don’t look back. Don’t look at him. Just follow me.”
He turned and made sure his two charges did as well. He guided the both of them toward the glowing red exit sign in the distance, a neon sign hanging from the ceiling that had simply manifested while they had not been looking, that sign guiding them both toward the rusty, grey, metal door they had originally come in through.
“Keep walking,” commanded James. “Just keep walking and don’t look back. Don’t fall for any of that Orpheus crap. Don’t say anything, don’t look back, and just keep walking. He’s letting us leave.”
He holstered his Rune Maker and put both of his gloved hands on the back of his charges’ heads. He did not want them turning around.
“Just keep moving,” he ordered.
They made it to the door beneath the lit exit sign, Morgan turned the rusty doorknob upon that door with one trembling hand, and all three of them exited without further delay.
The door shut behind them as they stepped back onto the cracked concrete steps they had originally walked down to get to this cursed building.
“Wh…What just happened?” asked Morgan.
“You met Death, boys,” snorted James. “That’s the kind of crap you have to put up with in this line of work.”
“Oh…” said Morgan in a quiet voice.
“Now, come on,” said James. “We have to get Ethan, here, to a hospital, and then I have a dinner to attend.”
“Oh…” said Morgan again.
James could tell the young man was in slight shock.
“Hey, on the bright side, you completed the job,” said James. “Look…”
He opened the grey door again, and both boys flinched as they stared into the darkness of an empty, abandoned building.
“Death will set up shop somewhere else,” said James. “You probably won’t be seeing him again for…hopefully…a very long time. He wasn’t after you anyway…Now…I think I speak for all of us when I say, ‘let’s get the hell out of here.’”
He let the door swing shut, and both young men said nothing as they trudged up the concrete steps and back into the proper of Garden Gable.
Yeah, he wasn’t worried about these two anymore. The fight was definitely out of them, and they wouldn’t be taking up the mercenary life any time soon.
Radditz would be pleased, of course, but James was none too happy about the experience. He did not like to be reminded of his former life, though he dwelled on it often, but that was something he dealt with one day at a time.
No, he had a new life to lead anyway, and he was going to do just that.
The Liminal Copyright © 2022 Matthew L. Marlott