A drop of water hit her face and when she wiped it with the back of her hand, it was not rain water but red. Pure dark and dangerously familiar looking. It was blood. She wiped it off on her shirt but it was stained against the porcelain white of her skin. She watched in horror as the black blood spread, going up her arms, her chest, her neck. She tasted the copper mixture on her tongue and she gagged but she trudged forward. “His blood is good, Jade.” She dared not look back. She knew if she did, she would go insane. Ahead through the fog she could see red. The red hotel matches’ standing out inside the fog and instead of peddles from the road, they lay upon piles of bones. One, two, four more packets of Newton Hotel matches lined every few steps she took. They were so inexplicably bright within the dense fog and she knelt down beside the closest one, atop a pile of astonished skulls and rotting molars. She did not touch it, but remained beside it staring at the rows ahead of her. In the distance, she heard the thundering crash once more, the beast roaming through the forest. It cried again, loud, teeth chattering loud and the trees quaked around her as it stomped. Jade felt the earth move under her as a thick black shadow passed by closer this time than the last and the trees to her left swayed violently back and forth. It wasn’t until it was gone that she realized she was holding one of the crumpled packs of matches in her fist. She opened it with shaky fingers and stroked the head against the box. The flames sputtered, refused to ignite at first. And suddenly a bright flame burst to life and she stared at it wonderingly, mesmerizingly.
“A beautiful flower within a dark grove,” she said to no one in particular. She realized everything was quiet. No, not just quiet. She was deaf. Nothing made a sound, not even the hiss from the match or the sway of the trees.
“That’s mine,” said the loud voice cutting through her deafness but instead of grabbing the match from her hand, he stabbed her in the stomach. The shock came first, the blade feeling like fire as it sliced through her flesh and organs. He twisted it in her stomach and she grabbed his coat, trying to pry him off of her. She gasped loudly and suddenly, she was no longer in the forest. Jade Harper was back inside the hotel room. Jared was grinning at her from above, his eyes filled with an insanity that would not be filled until she was dead, the knife he was holding deep within her stomach. She tried to speak but only a bubble of blood boiled to her lips and she was drowned out by some hysterical laugh. Jade’s eyes shifted and she saw Marie standing over Jared’s shoulder in only her bra and panties, her eyes gleaming and she was laughing. Suddenly everything became clear to Jade as she lay on the carpeted floor of room 506 in the Newton Hotel dying. She was the fiancée and Marie was the mistress. The ring, Jade’s engagement ring blazed gold and fire on the hand of Marie the seductress, Marie the succubus. Jared laughed as he plunged the knife down into her stomach a second time but she barely felt it this time. Everything was dreamy, ghostlike as the room wisped, and danced away. The light from the ring shone like a beacon in the night, trapping Jade to her mind numbing purgatory, the fog filled world of their lover’s betrayal. In the window, a set of deepened yellow eyes gazed at her and the roar of a monster shattered the window. Jade screamed in her final moments of death.
She rubbed her shoulders with both hands and watched, waiting for him to return with a sickle to slice her up but nothing more moved within the fog and she reluctantly turned her back on him and the hotel. Instead of thinking of the man in the creepy trench coat and oddly bright pack of hotel matches, she focused on thinking back to the day when she and Jared were leaving for this little vacation. By that time, Jade had already drained most of his money from his bank account and she had already planned to kill him. But she pretended as usual to be happy with their arrangement. He would tell his girlfriend he was going on a business trip, that he would be home within the week. Jared was always a weak liar though. Marie saw through his faux façade and made a surprise trip up to the hotel. It was unfortunate Marie had to be killed too. If she had only believed the lie, believed that her man was being sincere and honest none of this would have happened. If there was an alternate reality, she would only have to deal with the heartbreak of her murdered fiancé. But then I wouldn’t be wearing this gorgeous rock, Jade smiled evilly as she twisted it around her finger.
Her heels crunched underfoot the sound reminding her of fragile bones, muffled by the fog and she wondered how long now until the loud roaring highway could be heard, desperate for a sign humanity lie ahead. There was a thick snap to her right, a deep fearfully penetrating crack that sent a shiver up her spine. She stopped, listening intently upon the litter of bones beneath her feet. Dare she look over, towards the sound that was maddeningly close, too close for comfort? She had a sudden irrational thought that it was the man in the trench coat, somehow following her from within the sanctuary of the forest, cloaked in a fine dusting of misty fog and sneaky shadows. Her heart fluttered nervously as she waited and yet again, a second, closer snap sounded. But it was not beside her as she had worried. The noises were coming from up the road. An odd noise, gurgled and deep filled the air and it was so loud she could feel the sound vibrate within her chest. Goose bumps rippled up her arms in a thick layer and she whimpered reverting back to a little babe of four terrified of the thing that hid within her closet as she fitfully slept. It was loud, and nothing she had ever heard before. A strange noise, not quite human but not wholly animal either. She thought maybe a bear at first, her rational brain trying to pick the memory of the discovery channel from the very roots of her cortex but the cry was so foreign, so inexpiably evil that she ruled it out nearly instantly. Not a bear. Not a human. But not completely animal. Her jumbled thoughts made no sense. A loud crash resounded close by followed by another and the trees in front of her swayed so strongly they bowed downward nearly touching the earth. Her feet couldn’t move, paralyzed to the spot with fear as more trees cracked and groaned under whatever was weighing them down. The cry filled the air again, further away and she made a slow, timid move backwards. Her heart wouldn’t stop thumping, the pain so intense she thought she was having a heart attack. Right in the middle of nowhere, with a monster mere feet from the spot she stood she was about to have a heart attack. But as quiet filled the night once more, her breath leveled out in the chilled frosty air and she was able to finally move again.
She jogged. Her legs moved one in front of the other as she carried herself as fast as heeled boots and unpaved rocky road would allow. Ahead, broken branches littered the roadway, chunks of bark as large as her forearm as a heavy, ancient beast of a tree loosely hung onto another like it was a crutch. The large tree was barely standing, half torn away with splitters sticking up rudely in the air as it swayed inside the dense fog and she stopped, momentarily stunned by the sight. She was fully prepared to right this off as her imagination, that she had seen one too many slasher films with her girlfriends but seeing the tree in its current, abused condition, she was having a really hard time digesting her rapidly endangering mission of making it out of the forest alive. She briefly wondered if she was still asleep, mumbling away inside the hotel suite 506 still with Jared’s decaying corpse by her side, warm under blankets of blood and sweat. She moved, running past the tree and the memory of what had just happened. She checked her watch and noted it was only ten past twelve. That’s not right. That can’t be right. If it is, the highway is too far away and I am a dead person anyways. She tapped it, thinking that tapping it would set the world right but the hand only moved to 12:11.
When her foot connected with something on the ground, it was all she could do to keep standing but after a few moments of helplessly flailing her arms she fell face first into the peddled road. Her hands stopped most of the fall but the sting told her they were not okay and her knee was agony as the new rip in her jeans exposed the deep cut to the frigid open air. She cried miserably as she made herself sit in an awkward upright position. One leg under her as the other, injured leg stretched outward. Her palms were bloody, shredded to resemble that of pulp in the white fog and she cried out again. It was only until she noticed the red through the fog that caused her to forget her pain, to forget where she was and let the fear fill her heart once more. The terror turned her heart to ice and she was dimly aware the tears falling from her cheeks had frozen over. She crawled over to it but the plummet in her stomach told her what she already dreaded. She picked up the Newton Hotel matches with a shaky, bloody hand.
“No,” she whispered hoarsely, fear dragging its horrid claws across her back once more.
“That’s mine,” said the gruff voice. A grimy thick olive colored hand snatched the packet from her hand and she once more watched as the trench coat clad man with the shadows for a face trudged through the fog disappearing. Her mouth worked up and down, eyes wide and full of terror. Her mind was racing, unexplainable things that had happened and she couldn’t make sense of anything. The pain in her body was dull, barely there as she lifted herself up like a ragdoll. She held her hands out in front of her, palms upward as she walked numb to anything around her. Her heart was beating fast, too fast as she felt a heated, rancid breath on her neck.
“Jaaaddeeee,” a female whisper sprung up from the shrouded forest, “you have blood on your hands, Jaddeeeee.” Jade ignored the whisper barely audible against the thumping of her heart, her blood racing as it fought to stay warm in such a cold, dark place.
“Did his blood taste good? The boys, did the boy’s blood taste on your lips?”
It was hard to tell which citizens had been infected but by the quiet street vendor’s and the chilling afternoon breeze, he knew many had been affected. The cleanup would be bad, many funerals to attend in the morning hours and even more paper work to pen. Not to mention with the King in quarantine it made it hard to run a town such was the size of Shorkvera. But it didn’t take long to find Sierra, the little girl possessed by the demon Nell. She stood in the middle of the street, finding them. Nell had a healthy revenge planned out for Soun and it was better sooner than later that she revealed her ugly face to them. As it turned out though, Sierra had no face as was Nell’s purpose to wipe mankind from the earth and in Pestorus mind it made this mission easier, to avoid the look of the innocent while killing her.
“Thirty-five years, Pestorus. Your wife brings greetings from hell,” Nell hissed around them. Pestorus clenched his fists. Soun revealed a pocket sized book, no bigger than Pestorus palm and she began to read a passage from it.
“Tella bissa, nova sprite oosalvia, nell.”
Nell jerked on the spot and a piercing screaming laughter filled the air. Pestorus covered his ears and shut his eyes against the noise but Soun just kept reading as if she were immune to the demonic screeching.
“Nell, su alog Freda monsta, cha.”
“What the hell are you doing to her?” he called, elevating his voice to a shout but just like that the screaming stopped and so did Soun. He looked down the street and the body of Sierra lay still, crumpled against the dirty, rocky road.
He turned and she was there. But it wasn’t Soun. The dark rivers of black veins clawed their way down Soun’s once beautiful face and her cooled ice eyes were now a crimson red evil. The earth shuddered around him violently like a giant’s rampage and Nell smiled with a hideous blank smile.
“Your wife loves it in hell with me. So does the baby. Babby boy, babby girl. Did you want to know what it was?” Nell said using Soun as her puppet.
“Go to hell,” Pestorus shouted, raising the dagger high.
The ground shuddered again and Pestorus was knocked to the ground. The blade went flying from his hand and Nell grasped his throat with elongated claws. She licked him, the tongue stretching so far, running the length of his cheek and down his neck.
“What was it like to slid that dagger into your wife, into your unborn child and kill me? Was it worth it, Pestorus? Worth the blood on your hands, for cha, cha Nell?” she laughed in that deep, demonic echo.
Soun’s hand gripped tightly around his neck and he felt the oxygen leave his body. Has my life just been one long road of innocent murder? He thought thinking of all the innocents he killed to protect the good of life. But was what he did really considered to be good? It was him that needed to die, he realized suddenly. Not Soun or Sierra. He was the source of everyone’s pain and he needed to be the forgiven. He let go of Soun’s hand and allowed Nell to do what she had planned, striking her nails in his throat. And maybe praying the last moment of life saved him because she suddenly went rigid above him, her hand loosening on his neck. He shoved her off his body and saw the dagger was plunged into her back. From red to black, the gem gleamed above where her heart should have been.
“Pestorus, are you okay?” It took him a moment to recognize the new recruit. Kygard. He looked supremely surprised and fearful, his hands shaking as he looked at the carnage he had caused to Soun.
“I-I’m sorry, she was attacking you and…and…” Kygard continued to say, flustered.
“It’s okay, son. You did good. In fact better than good. You did something I could never do. Go check the girl, she may still be alive,” Pestorus said letting the tears freely fall. He removed the dagger from her back and gathered Soun into his arms. He let out an anguished sob as she just smiled at him, burying his face into her neck.
“Pestorus,” she whispered, barely audible. He nodded, unable to speak as he stared into her crystal eyes, “This was how it was always supposed to be, Pestorus. Not your wife or your baby, but me. I needed to die to end this.”
“I love you Soun,” he said choking back the emotions that wallowed inside him.
She smiled and closed her eyes, “Never doubt yourself, my love. Doubting is for the devils that crave the human soul. Set yourself free as I will be waiting.”
When he knew she was gone, he wiped his tears from his eyes and lifted her body. Sierra was already getting up slowly when he walked up to them, Soun draped over his arms. Sierra was shaken but otherwise okay and would heal over time, the fingers of forgetful memory already working on her as she clung to Kygard’s waist. Kygard looked tired and thin but he too would be fine in the coming days. Pestorus would make sure of this. It was time he taught someone else the craft.
“Kygard, I need you to come with me into Cha Forest. There are a few things I need to teach you about the world we live in that might benefit you greatly in your long years of life,” he paused thoughtful for a moment at Soun’s peaceful face, “maybe bring a shovel and a bouquet of delicate roses.”
Pestorus blamed his crazy morning partly on waking up on the wrong side of the bed, but the chill in the air was abnormal even this time of season and he tucked his fur coat tightly around his collar as he followed Soun up past the castle gates and into the barracks. This is a bad day. He dreaded this moment since leaving Soun’s house. The reveal of the faceless body to Soun. She had experienced enough pain and this was just going to bring it all back. Which he had wished to avoid in all the thirty-five years since the last outbreak. He stood just outside the barracks, staring at the door like it was a coiled snake.
“Rus,” Soun said gently using his old nickname and he entered.
The first thing he noticed upon entering the barracks was the unholy smell of diseased flesh. The second thing he noticed was the absent soldiers. The empty hall plagued him in ways he wished Soun had never picked up on.
“Mighty busy force we have here in Shorkvera,” she mildly joked.
“Where the hell is everyone,” he demanded entering further.
“Pestorus, they’re all dead. You know that. Let’s go out in the air away from this horrible smell before it does permanent damage to our very souls,” she said, offering her hand out to him.
He took it and cursed that she could seem so calm in such a dire, rapidly out of control situation this was becoming. She was right though, the air was a lot better outside but the smell still lingered in his nostrils.
“We know where to go from here,” she said. He laughed humorlessly and removed his shoulder armor in anger.
“We don’t go anywhere together, Soun. You go home and stay there. I don’t want a repetition of last time,” he said, struggling to unbuckle his cuirass. She stayed his fingers and undid the laces for him, smoothly popping him out of his wild restraints. He felt hot and dizzy. This wasn’t supposed to happen again.
“Enough, Pestorus. Hold that wicked tongue of yours before you say something you truly regret. The girl, where is she now?”
“Romn Inn,” he said with closed eyes, taking deep breaths.
She started rhythmically rubbing his chest, and his airways cleared giving him more oxygen to breath, to think. He never knew how she could do the things she could and he never asked. He protected her. It was the one thing he could offer her for saving the town from that one fateful day. Though he knew she felt much more differently about the situation than he.
“She latches to the girl. Pestorus do you hear me? This will be tough the girl cannot be allowed to live. Nell is trapped within her vessel and it is the only chance we have at putting her out,” she said gently to him.
“I remember the rules from last time, Soun. I’m no fool.”
“This needs to be pushed into her heart, like last time. Only when the red gem on the hilt turns black can you pull the dagger free. Bury her at the Cha stone, and bring no one,” she said giving him the dreaded dagger.
“I am old, Soun. This will only happen again, so what is the point?” he said miserably.
“The point is that everyone in this town, this realm, this earth will die horrible deaths if Nell is not contained. That is why we sacrifice the things we do…for the ones we love. When Nell is reborn to spew her plague once more, a new defender will be chosen as it always is and they will make the same hard choices as you.”
“Is it impossible of me to ask you to leave now?” he said. She tucked the collars of his shirt down and looked at him, the ghost of a smile appearing at the corners of her mouth.
“Yes,” he said finally caressing her cheek like he longed to this whole time, “I suppose so.”
“Sir Pestorus! You must come, there is a disturbance at the front gate,” cried a young man breathing heavily, barely old enough to fill out his newly tempered armor. Pestorus nodded grimly and placed the apple back onto the stand. The young woman tending the stand looked disappointed but she plastered her smile on all the same.
“Another day than,” he smiled warmly to her.
He knew it was going to be a rough day when he couldn’t even buy an apple for his lunch in peace. He hitched his sword belt upward and walked down to the gate where a massive horde of people were occupying a space just beyond the gated front walls. There was a mass of whispers filling the air and random accusations as they let him through easily but Pestorus paid none of them attention until he came into view of the young solider. He vaguely knew the new recruits name was Kygard and he was kneeling down beside a black tarp with a few mild rips in the sides. When Kygard noticed Pestorus presence he stood immediately.
“Sir, this young lady needs to speak to you. It’s…urgent,” he said and walked away with a wary, unsettled look.
The young lady walked up to Pestorus timidly, just a young girl maybe the age of seventeen or less with a thick head of grungy blond curls. She was holding the cords to the tarp closely, clasped to her chest like she was afraid they would blow away in some unforgiving wind. Her face was completely muddy and her clothes were severely torn. At first Pestorus thought he was dealing with a victim of abuse, but when he saw her deeply disturbed blue eyes, he knew he was dealing with far more than just a minor altercation. He knelt down beside her, hand on his rickety old knee and gently smiled.
“My name is Sir Pestorus. May I have the pleasure or yours?”
“Sierra,” she said shyly. An older woman in the crowd placed a worn calloused hand on the girls shoulder. The older woman nodded for Pestorus to go on.
“Can you tell me what happened to you?”
Her eyes betrayed every emotion she owned and she backed up into the woman, fearfully shaking her head violently. Her refusal only deepened Pestorus confusion and curiosity.
“She’s just a child for god sakes, let her breath,” said a man from the crowd. Pestorus held an irritated hand up to the crowd, a warning that his patience was already worn thin.
“Okay, okay. May I have a look under the tarp?”
She looked terrified as she bit her lip but finally she handed him the strings to the tarp, her seemingly greatest treasure. He undid the secure knot at the base of the tarp and when it tugged free he lifted the tarp. The first thing that hit his nose was the rancid smell and he pulled away, choking back the need to vomit all over the scene. Kygard handed him a handkerchief to thwart the smell and he accepted graciously. When he peeled the tarp off fully everyone in the crowd gasped loudly. A few screamed in terror, another man fell to the ground in a fainted bliss and others turned away to empty their stomachs. Pestorus eyes grew wide and he barely knew what he was looking at. Immediately this had become a crime scene and it didn’t take long for the guards to rope it off from the public. Word reached the castle faster than Pestorus would have liked and as he watched the jittery man jump from his steed he thought, what a day for the last of my retirement days.
“Pestorus what the hell is going on?” demanded Jaried, the emissary to the king, as he waddled over with an air of importance closest to that of a piece of dung. Jaried was wearing heeled boots and a green and orange velvet suit with large puffy gray pants to top the overzealous number off.
“I don’t know,” he said looking at Sierra again. Jaried looked at the girl than back to Pestorus with slight confusion.
“Is she responsible for this? What is this? A dog?” he said with his nose stuck firmly upwards, pulling the tarp back. He gasped and released the tarp, eyes wild as he looked to Pestorus for answers. Pestorus only shrugged his shoulders.
“I don’t know if she’s responsible. Can a little girl remove the face of child?” Pestorus said almost sarcastically.
“R-remove? It’s completely smooth! It’s just skin!” Jaried cried.
Pestorus shrugged his shoulders once more. There was more to the body than just the face though the face was the focal point to the mystery. The torso had deep wounds that had been dealt after the boy was dead, he could tell from his long term service to the royal guard. Of course this would all be explained by a medical doctor but until then, Pestorus held his tongue. He called Kygard over to him, ignoring the outrageous rant of Jaried.
“Take this girl to the Romn Inn. Tell Ferry I sent her and that she is to have everything to make her feel comfortable. New clothing, food, water. Anything she wants.”
“Yes sir,” he nodded and ushered her away. The paleness of her face still visible in Pestorus memory clearly, the pain of her loss only reflecting his own losses he had endured from life.
“What do we do?” Jaried said standing next to Pestorus, hushing his words as if no one else could hear him.
“We inform the King and pray for some kind of bloody miracle,” he said and Jaried walked away from the pretentious little man.
“Take the body to the barracks and no one is to touch it until I say. Understood?”
The wind was endless and the moon was waning on that cold night. Tardo could barely make out the fine path as he crawled up the mammoth stone that resembled the head of a charging horse. The torchlight from the other side was little enough to cloak him in shadow but still allowed him to see vaguely where he was going amongst all the moss and vines. He hefted the smaller, leaner Bello up and dumped him down beside him.
“What is it?” whispered Bello from beneath Tardo’s arm.
But Tardo didn’t answer him because he barely knew himself what his mind was trying to refuse. The creatures were gathered in a half circle, in the center was a stripped woman whose eyes milky white but oddly fearless in the presence of the beasts. She had an enormous pregnant belly sticking out like a round ball from her stomach and she kept mumbling something lowly under the firelight as the creatures surrounded her, dancing in their odd, fluid way. The firelight stroked and teased her taut belly skin and unusual images arose on her barren skin painted in black shadow.
“I…I don’t know,” Tardo said quietly, his breath glistening against the cold night.
“We should head back, tell Sir Pestorus or something,” Bello whimpered in his usual nervous self but was unable to move from his spot just like Tardo.
“Shhh, Bello,” Tardo waved him off.
The creatures were hideous yet fascinating to watch as they moved oddly, swaying here and there in rhythmic maddening motions. They had dark shimmery hair covering their bodies and in the firelight it looked to glow purple, or possibly blue. Their eyes were deep orange, darting constantly and never settling on one thing for too long. The fangs were the most grotesque sticking out from chapped gray lips like enormous tusks and the claws were sharper still, making an ear grating noise when they rubbed together like knives. The woman withered in the circle but nothing more happened. The beasts were just watching her, waiting it seemed as they danced to inaudible music. To Tardo’s seven year old mind, it was incomprehensible but cool to watch. He couldn’t know the possible danger it was to stand watch at the unusual ritual.
“Tardo, let’s go,” Bello whined and Tardo turned on him, punching him in the nose hard with a tightly clenched fist. Tardo pulled back, barely noticing the wet blood against his knuckles as he sneered at Bello.
“Shut the hell up, baby,” he said but for the half second or more it took to say those words, he instantly regretted them, wishing he could pull them back into his nasty mannered mouth. Bello yelped as he touched his now bleeding nose, crooked to one side absurdly.
“That hurt! You punched me in the nose you ass!” he whined. Tardo looked back at the group and ducked. Every creature had stopped and Tardo had the overpowering feeling that they had been heard. The vivid dancing of the creatures no longer painted the leaf ceiling above but rather stood eerily still in the cold.
“You bloody idiot…they heard you.”
Bello’s face paled and he scrambled up the top of the rock to prove Tardo wrong, the fear rising in him as the blood dripped down his soiled white shirt. He was quiet staring at nothing, sitting straight up like a statue and Tardo watched him collect thick fistfuls of moss in a momentary spasm. Tardo was vaguely aware of the scent of urine in the air as he watched Bello intently. When Bello looked back at Tardo, his face was completely blank. Only white, glazed eyes glared at Tardo. His mouth, nose and eyebrows were all gone, completely vanished from his face and yet Bello was still able to talk, still able to produce sounds so eerie they came out as a lisped whisper.
“Tardo, they’re gone. All gone. Nothing more to see. Will you join us, Cha?” he said strangely as Tardo watched in horror at the spectacle his childhood friend had become.
He stole one single glance over to the ritual space and was surprised to find it completely empty. Not even the torches were still burning, or the withering woman on the ground. The space was empty and night surrounded them both in a shroud of black deathly stillness like an ominous demon. Goose bumps rose on his arms and he longed to itch them away, to go back home to a warm bed but he knew that was impossible now staring at his blank friend.
“Cha, nothing to see,” Bello repeated again disturbingly beside Tardo.
Though Tardo couldn’t see Bello in the darkness that engulfed them suddenly, he could feel the dead eyes staring inches from his face and he scrambled from the rock they both occupied. The fall from the rock wasn’t terribly steep, but Tardo felt the rocks below his knee’s dig deep and he winced in pain when he tried to stand. On two shaky legs, he ambled through the forest, trying to distance himself from the scene and the creatures and Bello. But it was especially Bello he was running from. Dark trees past him, dark shapes, disembodied voices surrounded him as he fled and the fear only gave way to erratic jerky turns that lead him nowhere inside the maze of the forest. Whose idea was it anyway to come into the forest? Was it Bello’s? No, it was Tardo’s. It was his fault they got into this situation, his fault that Bello was dead. The Cha Forest was known for its mysteries but did Tardo know this was going to happen? That an innocent adventure would turn into death of nightmarish proportions? His foot struck a stray stone sticking from the earth and he toppled, arms flaying as he reached for anything to hold him up. His face smacked first, sending tingling lightning bolts flashing through his skull as the rest of his body crashed around him in an ungraceful landing. He cried out in pain, trying to remain calm and move slowly as he felt his bloody, cracked chin. Something rushed past him, a dark blotchy blur and nothing more. He bit his lip against the pain and stretched out his broken leg. Would it be too much to go insane? To not know what’s about to happen to me, he thought desperately.
“Tardo…Tardo, cha. Come into my arms and be warm and safe. Your bed is here, you mother is here, Tardo.”
“You’re a liar! Stop talking, stop talking. STOP.TALKING!!” he shouted. There was only a brief momentary pause.
“Bello is with me. Do you long to see your friend?”
The voice was so far off he nearly passed it off as wind through the trees. Tardo was confused. Was that the voice of the woman? The pregnant one from the forest? Whispering enfolded him and he cowered, covering his head as it got closer to his ears, the smell of rancid meat and defiled underpants filling his noise.
“Leave me alone!” he cried into his arms.
“Tardo, it’s okay. We’re all safe now. Bello will hold your hand,” she said so close to his ear now and he screamed as a cold wet hand grasped his. The scream ripped through his throat only to reach closed, dead ears.
The screaming woke me up first and I jolted to my feet, grasping for the chair bat. Jenni was screaming, hiding in the corner with Gabe and Luke in her arms. I saw Cable’s bloody face grinning at me from the floor as two dead men were gnawing at his legs. Sevina was crouched near his face and she looked up, a mess of blood coating her faces as she chewed with gnarled teeth. I grasped Mary by the shoulders and dragged her away and Jenni and the boys followed. Aber hobbled by barely dodging one. We started to unravel all the chairs and debris by the door.
“How’d this happen?” I shouted tossing a chair.
“I think they came from the back. The door was locked so Cable never checked it.”
I cursed under my breath and tossed a chair at the dead Sevina. She buckled from the throw and fell to the ground. I pried the door half way open and allowed the boys to slip out first followed by Jenni.
“Aber, go!” He swung his ax cane at Sevina with an apologetic sorry and the clunk against her skull grated my ears. He struggled to pry it from her head and cursed, leaving it sticking out of her head like a party hat.
“Go!” I said and Aber crawled through the chair legs and out to safety. One of the undead men bit my arm and I cursed, kicking him back with the heel of my boot and scrambled under the door. I closed the door tight and thanked fortune for blessing the dead with lack of door knowledge. Gabe and Luke started crying and Jenni hushed them soothing as we hurried down the black stairs slowly. Twenty flights down and all I wished for was the clear morning air to fill my lungs. To try to get over are recent losses in peace. My anticipation was high when we reached the front doors. I expected the way to be clear, to see the beautiful sun shining down on an empty street but instead the horde resided outside, still chewing at the scarred glass windows. When they saw the blood on my shoulder they grew frantic excited and some started to bang on the glass. One broke through, its arm covered in shards and Mary and Jenni screamed in harmony. Was there any other way out? Didn’t I remember the map from floor 1 briefly outlining the exits and outs to this goddamn place? I looked to my right and there was the same map I had read the previous day. I mesmerized the route, tracing it with my index finger. Left, left, right, straight, left, right. Mary was the first to gasp in horror at my arm.
“Your arm, your arm. You were bit!”
“It’s fine. We go as planned. Back exit,” I said.
I followed the map now seared into my head, not even looking at the open doors and hidden grooves as I made me way through. Left, left, right, straight, left, right. Along the path exit signs lit the way and I gasped for joy when I saw the push door with exit scrawled across it in large red letters. I paused for breath, debating whether to open the door or not. When I touched the metal band Aber grabbed my hand.
“There’s an alarm. If we push this, everything out there will know where we are.” Jenni let out a sob and Mary slammed her fists against the wall.
“No, NO. I can’t deal with this. I. Can’t. Deal. With. This.” Every word was punctuated with a fist to the wall. I grabbed her and held her still as she cried, wept and screeched for me to let her go, bucking against me to free herself.
“Hark let me go. I need to get something. I just need a little bit, just a bit to relax me for a while. Plllleaaaseee, just one more hit!” she whined in my lap.
“Mary, there aren’t any drugs anymore. You hear me? No more drugs. The world ended and so did your drugs. Get a hold of yourself.”
Jenni slapped Mary across the face suddenly so hard it echoed and everyone looked up stunned. Mary grasped her red cheek as silent tears rolled down her face.
“Listen, bitch. We have two young boys scared to death and you carrin’ on is going to get us killed. So shut the hell up and let the grownups think,” Jenni said. I released Mary and she curled up into the corner. Aber held his hand up and Jenni high fived him but she was clearly shaken by her experience. I squeezed her shoulder and nodded.
“Aber how much of that scotch you got left?”
“Well, I don’t know. But if you’re thinking what I think you’re thinking, it’s not enough to get shit drunk, that’s for sure,” he said pulling it out of his coat pocket. I smiled and accepted it.
“This is what we’re going to do. Once this door opens you won’t have much time to escape so listen closely. I will cause a diversion, you guys run, take the back ally’s until you are free and continue going your course. You hear me?”
“What about you?” Jenni asked.
“I’ll be right behind you I promise,” I smiled but the smile was unconvincing.
“I have one more thing I wanna ask,” I said ruffling through my bag, “will you take could care of this?” I handed her a small envelope.
“What is it?”
“Don’t open it. Not yet, please. Just…keep it safe.” Jenni looked sad but she smiled as she tucked it into her shirt pocket.
“Promise,” she said crossing her heart. I stood up and braced myself against the door.
“Alright, like I said there won’t be any time to second guess. So we ready?”
Everyone looked grim but determined to live. Mary came out from the corner, standing as far away from Jenni as possible. I nodded and pushed the door open. Immediately the alarm started to chime out and the group rushed from the building. From the other side those same strange screams could be heard.
I hefted the club in my hand and only hesitated for a brief moment before smashing it against Clara’s head. The sickening wet whack echoed throughout the buildings surrounding them and her groaning and moaning was silenced immediately, the dead hand reaching for me moments ago dropped to the ground with a thump. She had turned; it was obvious from the start but we all ignored it, wanting to believe it was over and that she was completely fine, that the bite was no more menacing and dangerous than a simple mosquito bite on a summer’s night. We wanted to believe the infection was over. But it wasn’t. And I stopped trying to convince myself of this very fact once Clara died, though I never said this to the group. I tried to keep myself as numb as possible, iced to the pain and loneliness of the fallen world I moved as their unspoken leader. She was dead twice over now as kneeled down beside her lifeless body, examining the bruised and bit forearm of her lovely cream colored skin, slightly burned from the blazing sun. I brushed her blond bangs from her forehead and gazed once more at the beauty of the group, her blue eyes shutting forever in peaceful oblivion. The brave one of the group. I snatched a tarp off of an old 73’ mustang, a car I would’ve drooled at before the end of times and covered her corpse as best I could with the lack of materials on hand. A proper burial was out of the question but we all knew that and it didn’t change the level of respect we had for her.
“Stupid bitch, she knew better than to go out there alone,” yelled Mary through a few sparkling tears. Mary picked at her scabby arms, fingers jabbing at nothing as her body forever waited for the next great fix.
“That ‘stupid bitch’ risked her life to get you food. It was more than any of us should have asked for so I’d damn well shut my mouth if I were you,” I said raising my voice.
Mary said nothing and I grabbed my bag off the ground. It was only moderately heavy, a few cans of food, a bottle of water and a few memento’s from my past life. There was a rip in the bottom and I tried to remind myself to have Jenni sew it for me at the next rest point. No sense in having a useless bag in times as hard as these.
“We move. We have to get off the street before nightfall or we all end up like Clara,” I said more sympathetically, one more glance at her tarp coffin. I lifted off the ground, tugged my bag around my shoulders and strapped the metal bat to my hip again.
“She was truly a spirit that one. You can’t blame yourself for what happened to her. You did the best anyone could have in this crazy scenario,” said Aber coming up next to me, dragging his ax in front of him like a cane. I couldn’t let the tear that threatened to fall show so I patted him on the shoulder and let him make his own peace in private mourning as I moved away.
Once the funeral was over for Clara and we all made what little peace we could muster, we moved out trying to get away from the city. I had time to examine the behemoths that surrounded us as we trudged along. Long lost buildings already aging in the short absence of the human population looked like sad giants as the sun danced across the dirty windows and weeds sprouted from the cracked, unattended roads of old. Shattered windows opened random holes up in the buildings and a few computers hung from stretching cords. Though the somewhat sparkling shine of the glass in the buildings provided a small hopeful memory of what used to be, I knew they were also the most dangerous. The buildings created too much nostalgia for the group and it allowed each individual to lose his or her guard. Not to mention the dead found it quite homey. I couldn’t wait for the rolling hills and the smell of farm country, the escape to the future. I looked back at the group behind me, shuffling their feet slowly in the eerie quietness that should have been filled with the noises of busy cars going by and vendors selling newspapers on the street corners. There were seven in total but the group was once much larger. The group consisted of two small children who had been adopted by Jenni, a child herself. Only sixteen but she had taken the responsibility when no one else had. Mary, the junkie. Before the disease she was just a waste of life, begging on the streets of Toronto until she could scrounge up enough money for her next euphoria of dope. Though everyone in the group had changed from what they used to be in some way or other, she was always able to hold onto that tiny piece of herself still. Aber was an older man but he had his wits about him and he knew when to back me up. Finally my eyes rested on Sevina and Cable. They were lovers and had come to us in a gas station when we were a bigger group then. They only kept to themselves but that was fine. Having less people to care about made the world a bit easier. That was something we all started to realize. I thought about Clara again and instantly regretted it. Why did it always came back to her?
Barry cleaned the machete-like blade with a silk piece of cloth, rubbing it with holy water he kept on hand in his jacket pocket. He removed his jacket and set it against a bar stool and rolled the sleeves of his white shirt up to his elbows. Turning to Mr. Holmes pinned down on the carpet, he first admired his successful work of art. The sub-demon was stapled to the ground, a silver peg threaded through each hand and foot. There was no blood, there never was as demons bodies were dead and had no use for internal functions or fluids. Only their insatiable lust and hunger drove them from the mindless, maddening depths of hell to plague the earth like a parasite. The couch was flipped, a few bar stools stood face down with some sparkling broken glass littering the floor as the tussle between the two had gone on rather lengthy. But Barry managed to get the upper hand and once the first peg was down, the rest were rather simple. But Barry didn’t escape flawless. He had a deep gash across his hairy chest and a slash across his eye and nose. He would live though. Smoke hissed out of the demons hands as the silver continued to burn.
“I had you pegged down as a solid class two. Maybe I should have expected a low three. You got me pretty good,” Barry said waving the blade at the demon with a small chuckle. It hissed at him but could do no harm to Barry anymore.
“Where’s the Boleyn Demon?” he asked.
The demon said nothing and turned its face away from Barry. Barry slashed the blade across the demons chest and it howled in agony.
“You have no idea what is in store!” it growled through the pain. Barry slashed again, deeper and the wailing from the thing pierced his ears.
“NOOO IDEAAAA,” it repeated.
“Where is the Boleyn Demon!?”
The demon looked at him, a moment of clarity in its eyes as it stared with hatred and greedy bloodlust. Barry understood that it knew nothing but that didn’t change Barry’s mind. He lifted the blade high and sliced the head clean off in one fluid strike. He wiped his mouth and dropped the blade against the muddied floor. He grabbed the nearest bottle of rum from the broken bar and poured it into his mouth, wincing at the burning sensation but the pain in his chest eased away. The basement was a mess; completely destroyed Barry would have no other alternative than to burn it to the ground. Make it look like an accident. But that comes with the job, he thought. He dumped the rum onto the carpet, watching it all soak up before lighting his cigarette. He took his time, gathering the materials around the demons human looking corpse and he stashed them away neatly folded back to their original spots. He gazed once more at the horror show and flicked his cigarette onto the alcohol. It caught, lighting a small blaze that soon started to engulf the rest of the basement. A few alcoholic bottles shattered in little miniature explosions and Barry hiked out of the house. He was sneaking behind the backyard fence when he heard a noise behind him.
“Hello, Barry.” Barry didn’t need to turn around to understand who was behind him.
“Levinstein,” he said with shock rippling his voice.
147 Peacoat Drive. That was the address of Mr. Holmes and his late wife. But Barry refused to exit his car, glaring at the nearly empty three story mansion-like house in the dim streetlights on the otherwise clear, cloudless night. Only one light was on, the front window, and Barry could only assume it was the kitchen. Demons, he thought, it all comes back to them. Barry had only recently been introduced to the horrors of the world thanks to an unmentionable friend, but he was already getting the hang of detecting and tracking them. See, Barry had the Gift. The Gift was what his ‘friend’ had mentioned, a sense of the unordinary, the ability to feel the otherworldly connection in the fabric of time and space. Barry himself could still barely understand what it all meant but when he came close to the dead, they spoke to him, spilling their secrets like a waterfall after a rainstorm. But it wasn’t like talking to a human being, no. For Barry it was using his senses, his third eye to reveal the unseen. That was how he found out Mr. Holmes true face. The demonic expression of the cruel world they lived in. Barry flicked his cigarette out the car window and rolled it up slowly. Reaching into the back seat, he revealed the silver dagger that reassembled more of a machete and a leather bag of five solid silver pegs. A true and only way to kill a demon is with silver. Remember that, and remember this. The demon is not human, nor will it ever be. You kill it, you sever its connection with the host and you pray that mother won’t come hunt you down in a couple of years. The words of his ‘friend’ rang in his ears and he slid the blade into his easily concealable leather jacket.
“But that’s the wheel of the game. You track, you spot, you kill,” he muttered opened the car door, finishing the ghostly whispers in his ear.
He strode up to the police car, completely ignoring the fact that it was so out in the open it might as well have had a neon sign on it. He bumped the top of the roof and the uniformed cop jumped visibly, dropping the smoke between his quivering lips.
“Rough night, Lax?” Barry said with the queer smile he managed. Lax was shaking his head, rubbing his fingers through a thick mat of messy brown hair.
“This shit is fucked up. I don’t wanna be out here all night. Crazy fuck’s got it out for the entire town and I’m probably next,” he said with glistening, red tinged eyes. Barry could see his eyes darting to every shadow behind him. He remembered a time when he too was as scared as poor Lax. Barry sighed and leaned into the window.
“Go home to your wife, buddy. I’ll take it from here. I’ve been meaning to go over a few facts with him anyways. And don’t tell Phil. He’s liable to have a shit fit if he knew you were breaking during duty,” he whispered. Lax didn’t even try to argue. The key was already in the ignition before Barry could even finish his sentence.
“Be careful, Barry. This guy’s real sick, real messed up in the head. I would hate to hear about you in the Boleyn Times.”
Barry smiled and tapped the top of the hood, watching Lax speed down the side street barely slowing for the stop sign. The eerie calmness of the night stretched over him suddenly and a gusty breeze blew by sending his pant legs flapping. He lit another cigarette, watching the house. The light stayed on, glowing through the darkness like a beacon for moths. Mr. Holmes, aka a class two sub-demon, was not the biggest issue Barry had to deal with in town. But it was his closest lead yet to solving the rising body count of supernatural murders. Philsby didn’t know this. No one did. Only Barry and his mentor. Maybe in other parts of the world, similar people with Gifts did this for a living but as of now, they were the only ones. There was a class system in place for the order and strength of demons, five being the highest and most dangerous, one being lowest. Though Mr. Holmes was only a sub-demon, a familiar for the real deals, he was still just as strong when pushed. Sub-demons were also sloppier, tending to let their hunger take over and leave a messy trail behind like a child in a highchair.
The cigarette in his mouth was nearly wasted, the ashes almost touching his chapped lips, so he threw it to the ground with dissatisfaction. Smoking worked less and less each time he started a hunt. He jogged up the nine steps to the tall, regal looking maroon colored door and knocked once, twice. Three times. Barry heard a panicked shuffle and then a chair smack to the ground. I guess it was too much to ask for a simple, easy hunt. Holmes was spooked. He pulled the silenced gun from a holster off his hip and fired at the lock. With one good kick, the door swung open wide and the kitchen light clicked off, bathing the hallway of the house in complete solid darkness. Barry readied the gun as he entered the house, anticipating an attack from any direction including the ceiling. He closed the door and shoved a loose shoe as a wedge to keep the busted frame from reopening. Last time he had left a door open while on a case, it ended badly. Barry first noticed the smell, the rancid sour meat smell mixed with the odor of rotting feet. He fished the gray bandana from his shirt collar and affixed it over his nose. As he made his way further into the house, it groaned loudly, moaning as Barry entered the kitchen. He flicked the light but nothing happened.
“Goddammit,” he muttered picking the flashlight from his coat pocket.
The demon hissed cursing in its native demonic tongues as Barry made his way around the fallen wooden chair. He saw a flash to his left and fired two shots into the darkness, the flashlight whirling around like a drunken fairy but nothing was in the corner.
“SSS….BBBAAARRYY….EAT THE FLESH OF THE GIFTED ONESSSS….”
Barry shivered but pressed on. It wasn’t the first threat he had ever heard, nor would it be the last. The house seemed to breathe inwards and out as he swept the entire first floor, moaning and groaning echoing around him like stereo volume being turned up and down. The second floor was just as much a waste of time as the first, knowing full well where the demon really liked to hide. The basement. It was the cliché from every slasher flick he had ever seen and Barry always cursed the fact that in the case of demons, that was a completely accurate myth. But to Barry’s surprise, the basement wasn’t dank and creepy but rather elegant and well kept. The carpet was a beautiful creamy tan with a set of black couches and chairs sitting atop it and a beautiful deep red bricked fireplace. There was a bar to Barry’s left and it was the first place he checked, quickly flashing his light over the marble counter top. Empty.
“Barryyyyy Marshhh. Barrrryyyyy Marrrrsshhhhhh,” said the eerie, demonic two toned voice behind him. The hair on the back of Barry’s neck stood up as he turned. Mr. Holmes, the sub-demon, stood behind him, elongated arms stretching to the carpet. His face was twisted, expressing evil and torture as he gazed at Barry with a sharp grin and yellow eyes.
“I know you aren’t the Boleyn Demon, but rather just the simple little lap dog for the real master,” Barry said. The demon’s smile faltered.
“Am I not great enough to dominate this town myself?” it hissed.
“It became so clear once Palmina’s corpse entered our morgue that she was not the victim of the Boleyn murderer. She had similar lacerations to her mid-section, similar but not exact. And her intestines were only partially chewed, ripped with the teeth of some being. A true demon, well they would have removed the organs and used a knife, a fork. True blooded demons are not barbarians. They are a sophisticated evil,” Barry said shrugging his shoulders. Mr. Holmes cracked its neck and watched Barry through simmering, hateful eyes.
“And though you tried, you actually almost had me fooled as a human being. I wonder, would you tell me the name of the true face of evil in this town or will you die miserably at the end of my blade?”
Its eyes flicked but it said nothing and Barry wondered not for the first time why he was even doing this job. Was it because she asked me too? Was this all Levinstein’s fault I got dragged into this mess? He hated to admit that she, a woman, was able to teach him the skills he needed for this job but she was brilliant until the day she died and he had never loved anything more than he had her. He wanted to quit, leave the life and be with her but that could never happen and he would never be able to stop until he found the one that killed her.
“I guesssss we should start thissss dance thennnnnn,” it said jumping at Barry.