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?”
With slick, wet hair, nude from the waist up she pulled her black duffle bag out from under the bed and gave a deep sigh when she found it was unscathed by the pool of blood around Jared’s half naked body. She marveled briefly at how much blood he had truly lost since yesterday. She thought that might be something noteworthy to add to her diary once she got home. She also thought it was a shame she hadn’t brought a camera but when the police find the body there will be plenty of coverage she knew. Murder victim’s in Rockiesresort. She slipped into a pair of tight black skinny jeans and pulled a stylish red turtleneck over her head. She fanned her silk blond hair out and brushed it quickly with her fingers in front of the mirror. She noticed the twinkling sparkle from the enormous diamond ring affixed to her left hand and she smiled pleasantly. She pulled the closet open and out spilled Jared’s ex-fiancé, a deep purple gush around her throat with an offensive looking Columbian necktie staring at her with what she viewed as some form of sarcasm. She frowned at her work. Those who appreciated the art of murder would criticize her, the sloppy form of the tongue partially cut in an amateurs attempt at vile mutilation. She didn’t like that word. Mutilation. Maybe, crime of passion, or bitch had it coming. She stroked the diamond engagement ring once belonging to the not so beautiful Marie and shut the door against her ex-rival of love.
“It was never about the ring, hunny,” she said unkindly to the rock on her ring finger, “it was about you fucking my man. Though I have to admit, the ring was an added bonus I didn’t foresee.”
She laughed and laughed until her sides hurt and when she quieted she realized she had just killed the man she loved. She stared at the mess that was Jared and a tear strolled down her cheek, as sparkly as the ring on her finger. She brushed it away hastily. With time escaping her rapidly, she ripped the knife free from Jared’s stomach and ran to the bathroom sink to rinse it with water hot enough to blister her skin. When she was satisfied the knife and sink were clean, she tossed it into the duffel bag and wrapped it around her shoulder. Jade picked the ‘Do Not Disturb’ sign off the table and swung it around her finger as she stared one last time at her masterpiece.
“Good bye, my love. It was truly a night to remember,” she blew a kiss and exited the door. She wrapped the sign around the door knob and made her way to the elevator.
“Wait! Hold the door,” cried an elderly lady. For whatever reason, Jade did hold the door for her, sticking her arm between the closing frames and when the woman tapped the already pressed ground floor button she folded her arms across her chest and smiled at Jade.
“You’re the lovely lady from room 506,” she smiled.
“Yes, and I remember you. The darling and her gentlemanly husband. It must be nice to go on a second honeymoon, as young as you are,” Jade teased. The older woman blushed and smiled, waving her hand like it was nothing big.
“Well, I think I wasn’t the only one to have a wonderful night,” she winked at Jade and gave her a knowing smile.
“Oh. It was that loud, huh?” Jade blushed to herself.
“Nothing wrong with a good sex life, my dear. Any man that can you make squeal like that is a sure keeper,” the woman said and the elevator dinged.
They stepped off together and with a sincere farewell, they parted ways. It wasn’t until Jade hit the open, cool air of night that she felt her mind clear and her chest rise with happy content. The hotel was completely isolated within the Rockies, surrounded by the thick Citadel forest. The drive up with Jared was less than exciting, with nothing but greenery and a thin layer of snow that lined the hard, solid earth. She had at least expected to see a bear or two but nothing moved within the thickness and only the radio static kept her from completely falling asleep. She was never a nature nut and the scene was underwhelming and boring. She groaned now, staring out at the bleak darkness of the forest as she realized she couldn’t take Jared’s car back home. She would have to walk up to the highway and manage to hitchhike if she wanted to leave this damned world behind. Her booted heels clacked off the concrete sidewalk and soon the crunching of peddles underfoot could be heard. Albelack road was completely barren, non-paved which gave her a shudder at the under developed region. It would be a long walk, and she realized she might maybe make it to the highway by sunup but she doubted it. She shivered in the cold air, wishing she had brought gloves and a hat. Or maybe a thicker jacket. She looked back and the barely twinkling lights of the booming hotel in the distance nearly disappeared by large coniferous trees was dissolving behind a thick blanket of fog.
The forest was deathly silent and only the hoot of an eerie horned owl broke the quiet. A dense fog lay upon the ground, swirling like hands as she passed by completely concealing whatever was beneath it. The only light was the half-moon high up and she noticed the sky was cloudless, unlike before when she first awoke. Coming through the fog, she saw a dark figure and a stab of fear pierced her stomach. It was a man, she could tell by the height and robust nature though his face was concealed in the shadow of a large hat. His body was cloaked with a large beige colored trench coat that ruffled the ground as he walked and he passed her on the other side of the road without a moments glance. She heard something hit the ground and realized the man had dropped a pack of red matches. She bent down to pick the packet up.
“Sir, wait you dropped…” but when she looked up again, he was gone. The fog was so thick she could barely see her hand in front of her face but she lifted the pack towards the sky to read what it said with squinted eyes in the dim moonlight. ‘Newton Hotel’ was scrawled across thick red cardboard in a golden flourish of expert handwriting.
“That’s mine,” said a gruff voice and she screamed, startled by the man in the trench coat standing in front of her, so close that she could smell his sour breath. She stared but his face was still invisible to her eyes and she handed the packet over to him with wide, watery eyes, her shoulders uncontrollably shaking beneath her thin leather coat.
“S-sorry. You scared the hell out of me,” Jade said hearing the fearful tremor in her voice, but he said nothing and only turned away to disappear in the fog once more.
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.”
He left, leaving the corpse in the company of those who knew not of what was happening yet. Pestorus didn’t know he was heading to her house until he was in front of it. The slanted shingles falling off a rusted tin roof, the door barely able to close as its swelled wood expanded from the heat of hot summers. He took a deep breath and went to knock but the door was already open when he reached the top step, the fresh face of Soun standing there holding a cloth in her hand as it lazily dried out the china cup in the other hand. Her smile was thin, but otherwise welcoming in his presence. She had barely aged since their last encounter and he grimaced at the thought of how long ago that was.
“Well, if it isn’t Pestorus. How long has it been…twenty? Thirty years?” she said as if she’d read his mind but her smile never faltered, “come. I’ve prepared tea.”
She stood there still, holding the door open and as he passed her he couldn’t help but take in her intoxicating smell of beauty and fresh summer wind. Her house was the same as it had always been, slightly cluttered but in a pleasing homey feel. Cabinets lined the walls with trinkets of every sort, and books marked with hundreds of assorted bookmarks claimed couch cushions and fancy oak chairs. He knew his way to the kitchen and by the time he entered the little cooking area, she was already pouring tea into the freshly washed cup. She handed it to him and sat down on a stool, gazing at him lovingly like she always used to.
“To what do I owe such a pleasant surprise?” she asked in that sing song voice of hers.
“There’s been a murder,” he said choosing his words wisely.
“And you suspect me? The honor I must be feeling right now,” she said in mock entertainment.
“No, Soun. I don’t suspect you. It was…dark,” he said looking away.
“Drink your tea. I promise there isn’t any poison in it this time,” she smirked.
“A boy was found with no face,” he said. Soun’s smile disappeared rapidly.
“You know we’ve seen this before. And you know I cannot help you this time. Pestorus, I may love you still but there are some things that even I cannot change, I pray you understand that. That kind of power exceeds my own.”
“I just wanted you to look at the body. To confirm my suspicions,” he said. Soun looked fretful, but she stretched her fingers across the table and clasped his worn hand.
She was cold, but then again she always was. Her eyes were ice blue, so chilling but mesmerizing, mimicking the coolness of her skin. He longed to stroke her cheek, to feel her smooth skin under his rough hands once more but he settled for a gentle squeeze instead.
“Fine. To make you happy once more, I shall do as you request.”
“Thank you Soun,” he said huskily, breaking contact with her.
“Don’t thank me yet, love. If this is what you think, our sorrows are only just beginning.”
. . . . .
Darmi’s hand shook violently as she tried to stick the thread through the eye of the needle. The thread shivered violently in her hand before missing once more and she cursed, tossing the needle on the table. Arthritis was a bugger, and in her old age she couldn’t seem to have a moments rest from the crippling condition.
“Terei? Can you bring me some of those herbs from the cellar? Unless you want your pants done and sewn proper, I’m going to need a tea for my fingers.”
“Maybe I don’ wanna wear pants,” he grumpily called from the kitchen.
“Shut your damn mouth and get the herbs. You’ll wear pants and you’ll like it,” she fired back at him.
She could hear him grumbling as the chair legs squeaked against the rough tile floor. She added a second log to the spitting fire and checked the pot, making sure there was enough water in it to sustain enough tea for the rest of the day. She made a mental note to pick up more of the herbs from Soun. It had been well over three weeks since her last medical resupply. The village had grown quiet over the early hours of the morning since the death of the small child. She had not a single clue where the children came from but she felt it had been her motherly duty to calm and claim them as her own until their parents showed up. The young girl, Sierra, sat on the patched couch sipping a cup of tepid water quietly. She hadn’t said a single word since leaving the inn but it was not Darmi’s place to question her after such an ordeal—some things were better left unasked. Darmi offered a cookie to Sierra but she merely shook her head and continued to stare at the back wall. There was a loud crash from the cellar door and Darmi dropped the platter of cookies to the floor and rushed as fast as she could.
“Terei? Are you okay?” Darmi flicked the light but the bulb flickered and burst.
“Terei? Sierra dear, please go fetch the neighbours. I think Terei fell down and my old legs can’t get down the stairs,” but when Darmi looked back at the couch, Sierra was gone. She narrowed her eyes.
“Darmi? I fell. Blasted shelves fell on ma’ head,” he called from the darkness of the basement, “I think I broke my hip.”
“Shit,” Darmi said taking the steps one at a time as slow as possible, “Hold on you old idiot, I’ll be there in a minute.” When she reached the dirt floor, she scanned the darkness for any sign of Terei. A few spilled jars littered the floor in the immediate circle of light but Terei was not among them.
“Alright where are you?” But he didn’t answer. In fact the only answer she received was a child’s giggle.
“Sierra? Did you come down to help Terei?” Darmi said smiling.
“I came down here to eat his face,” said the child’s voice and Darmi stopped advancing into the cellar, goose bumps riddling her arms.
The voice was human, but it had a supernaturally charged demonic quality to it that chilled Darmi’s spine to the core. When Sierra came into view she was not alone. In her hands was a young boy. Neither children had a face but she had the strange sickly feeling that this boy was the same murdered boy from the front gate. Darmi backed up and fell, tripping over a glass jar and landing hard on her hip.
“W-where are your parents?” she asked.
“Wh-who are you?”
“Cha…cha…cha. Only the Nell of the Cha can save you…Darmi,” said the little girl tilting her head.
Darmi screamed and in the corner of the cellar her husband huddled unseen, afraid to move as the demonic children ascended onto his wife. He held back his silent tears as Darmi’s screams escalated and then stopped altogether.
I dropped my bag to the ground, taking as much time as I could to ready myself. I stripped the gloves off, one by one and took one swig from the bottle before dumping the remaining alcohol on me. When I pulled the golden lighter from my pocket the first of the undead rounded the corner, with its head held high, nostrils flaring. I smiled and once the flame was lit, I dropped the lighter to the ground. In an almost instant blaze, I was surrounded by orange fire and I rushed the horde coming towards me. This was my testament, my leadership to save my friends from a fate worse than my own. I wouldn’t allow those little boys to witness what I had to.
. . . . .
Mary peeked around the corner from the far building and watched as Hark’s flames slowly burnt out and the horde began its feast on his dead burnt body. He was right. It was a beautiful distraction and the dead only concentrated on Hark as the others got away. Although the morning is still young and the sun still has to rise yet, she thought hopelessly. Mary picked her way along the wall. Jenni and Aber went without her but she chose to stay behind, chose to watch Hark’s grand finale. It was in all curiosity but once Hark lit himself on fire, her curiosity turned to fascination and admiration. She slumped against the wall, staring at the graffiti in front of her. It was strange, the scene, not a typical gang related graffiti. It was a scenic view, a meadow with tall wheat fields and golden sunshine. The rolling hills seemingly going on forever even though it was a painting. Amongst the beautiful gold reeds was a small wind mill, turning lazily in the wind, its bright red roof giving the painting a whole new vibrant feel. The blue sky reminded her of Disney land for some reason and though she had never been, this scene was giving her the same feeling it would give her. Joy. Her fingers found something on the ground and it was a needle, still filled with some kind of concoction left forgotten as the disease had struck. She smiled and waited for the happiness of the drug fueled joy to enter her and pretended she was in Disney land. The graffiti painting was beautiful with the rolling hills, coming to life in front of her even in the dead land.
“Neither repented they of their murders, nor of their sorceries, nor of their fornication, nor of their thefts,” Mary said in a dreamlike voice. And she kept repeating those words until she fell asleep in front of the peaceful image of Tepper’s Mill. A photo of Hark and his wife fluttered by unnoticed, a blotch of drying blood staining the matte surface as fresh scream’s peeled the morning hours of a new dawn.
The rusted hinges on the metal door creaked loudly as I pushed it open with one hand, the chair leg held high ready for an attack. I let Cable go first with a light, and Sevina went after him. Aber ushered Luke quietly through and Mary held Gabe close as Jenni filed in last. I closed the door quietly, jamming a piece of broken furniture as a wedge just in case the stairs proved more unsafe than outside. I flicked my light on and I saw Aber click his on and we all moved upwards like a slow train, hand on each other’s shoulders in the dark cave of some unknown office building. The occasionally crunch was heard from underfoot and a few disembodies screams echoed through the tunnel of the stairs as they climbed higher. Jenni turned to me as we came to a halting stop.
“What level do we stop at?” she whispered.
I allowed her time to get the message through to Cable in the front by a series of hushed whispers and before long we were moving once more. A few more steps and we came to another stop.
“Cable doesn’t want to go in first,” she said.
I rolled my eyes and made my way to the front of the train, tousling Luke’s hair as I passed hoping to cheer a smile out of him. I shined my light up to Cable’s face and he looked scared. They all did and I could understand. It had been weeks since we were in this kind of predicament and the group had been used to the peace. I rubbed the doorknob and pushed but nothing happened. I tried once more but still it wouldn’t budge so I had Cable hold my light. With as much force as I could muster, I forced my shoulder into the door and it banged open loudly. I paused and counted the seconds as I listened, waiting for any kind of noise that would indicate dead on this level. I took my light back from Cable and allowed everyone to come in. The twentieth level was full of cubicles and many small places to hide but everything looked relatively in place. When the disease struck, it was a holiday so many people had been visiting family members rather than at work. That was the only good thing that came out of the apocalypse. Empty buildings meant safer refuge if it didn’t contain the dead which happened to fancy the large areas. A few chairs had been flipped over but otherwise everything was in place. There was a horrible musty smell, and a few dead flowers decorated desks as we walked stealthily. We circled each desk making sure it was clear before setting up a small camp in the far corner. Mary set up a few solar paneled lanterns and Jenni handed out snacks as me and Cable stacked chairs against the door for safe measure. I winched as I shoved the last chair against the door he gave me a worried look.
“No, I’m not,” I said shaking my head and showed him the nasty bite mark reddening against my palm. He stepped back bumping into a desk and knocked a vase off the surface, smashing to the ground in a thousand pieces. The group looked over at us with fear in their eyes.
“Nothing, just a mouse,” I called back smiling. Mary started talking about how mice were cute and Jenni was expressing disgust. I grabbed Cable’s shirt collar firmly and pulled him close to me when everyone went back to their own business.
“Don’t tell anyone. Not even Sevina. Got that? This stays between me and you,” I said dangerously.
“F-fine. Nothing happened I swear,” he stuttered and I let him go roughly.
He hurried back to the lighter area of the floor without another glance back at me and I sat back against the desk. I squeezed my hand and allowed it to ooze out before taking the medical kit from my bag and applying a fresh wrap to my hand. Within the bag I noticed a pair of black winter gloves. Putting them on, I entered the little circle of light and drank deeply from a canister of water. The group grew quiet and Cable refused to look at me, huddled in Sevina’s arms.
“What do we do next?” asked Mary. Luke was sleeping in her lap and I hesitated as I tried to come up with a rough plan for the next twelve hours.
“We wait till the sun comes up. In the morning a group of us will go check the front, if they’re still there we need to find an alternate exit. Presumably one near the back of the building.”
“Hark, what if both exits are blocked off. What next?” said Jenni.
“I can’t afford to think there isn’t a safe way out of here.”
Aber pulled a bottle of scotch from his jacket pocket and held it up. I chuckled a little which prompted a series of horrendous coughs.
“You okay?” asked Gabe.
“Sure my man, just a small cold coming on,” I smiled tiredly at him and accepted a glass of scotch from Aber. I grimaced as the amber liquid rolled down my throat and he offered me a second glass. I shook my head as much as I wanted a second helping. He gave Jenni a small shot and was gasped with disgust.
“Is that why you’re wearing gloves?” Gabe giggled shyly.
“Sure is,” I smiled.
I watched the group quietly from my spot on the floor and knew this was my chance to say good bye, to tell them it had been a hell of a go while it lasted. But I couldn’t muster the strength to do so as I watched Gabe chuckle and giggle as Jenni tickled him or Mary saying no to that glass of scotch even though every fiber in her body meant to drink that whole bottle dry in an attempt to drive away the stabbing want. Eventually after Gabe had fallen asleep and Jenni huddled up to Mary for warmth, did I finally pass out.
“When I was a young boy I used to walk up and down these streets all the time,” smiled Aber.
“You lived here your whole life old man?” asked Mary.
“Born and raised,” he winked at her.
“I came in from Cleveland. But I was supposed to head to California that day. Damn I miss that sunshine,” I said dreamily.
“Canada has sunshine too,” Aber said.
“And brutal winters, can’t forget those. What are we gonna do when winter hits, huh?” asked Mary sarcastically.
“You can start by putting a coat on instead of wearing a bathing suit,” called Sevina from behind the group. Mary glared at her with red rimmed eyes.
“Hark, how much further do we have to walk? My feet hurt,” cried the one child, Luke. He was a little ways behind me and I called him over to me. Jenni gave me a look but I smiled and scooped Luke into my arms.
“How’s that?” I said tugging at his swinging foot.
“What about me?” cried Gabe. I gently rolled my eyes and allowed him to crawl on me too.
“You two are lucky I like you,” I said smiling and everyone in the group laughed.
But once the laughter died down, it was back to the quiet stillness and the memory that we were probably the only ones alive in the dead city of Hamilton. The sun was slowly setting and I knew I would start getting questions about shelter soon. Night time was the worst. Though the dead rarely came out at daylight, once the night came it made it nearly impossible to sleep. Once the disease hit, not many people were able to get out of the big cities. I was only able to get out because I was at the airport. I saw it first with my own eyes. I could remember feeling the tray of forgotten coffee slip from my fingers as I watched on in horror as people started to devour each other, ripping chunks of flesh from immobile bodies strewn across the bright white tile. A few of us got out on a plane to Canada. When we finally landed hoping to be escorted by military personal, nothing was left. Only loose newspapers greeted us from the streets full of loot and broken glass. Seemingly everyone had completely vanished, gone without a trace and when night came, they all came back hungrier than ever. And not human. Clara was with me then. But she was gone now. Maybe this apocalyptic purgatory was my punishment of infidelity, of ruining mine and others virtues. And I had failed to protect her like I had my true family. Plio and I married in 2004 and things went well at first. A few bumps and bruises along the way but we managed. And once we had Kelley it seemed even better. But Clara came into my life like a whirlwind and everything changed, became less safe and more dangerous, adventurous. That was where I messed up.
“Hark, look,” tapped Jenni breaking my thoughts. She had a worried look of fear on her face and she was pointed ahead.
Ahead of us in the middle of the street was a body. It wasn’t moving but that meant nothing. My heart thumped deeply in my chest but I kept my bravado strong and dropped the children down to my side. Jenni took charge and stood in front of them protectively, eyeing me for my next move. I could feel my mouth go dry and my mind begin to wander on darker things as I turned to the group. They all stared at me like little lost children, sunken bloodshot eyes and skinny wrists. Dirty grungy, ripped clothing hanging loosely on them as flies buzzed their heads for a nice place to land.
“Stay here,” I told the group and no one objected.
I could sense everyone’s fear like a collective heartbeat as we all looked at the body that seemed to take up the whole street like an ominous troll. What was it called when you were afraid of the dead? Necrophobia. Once upon a time, I would have laughed at such ridiculous phobias and fears and psychological mumbo-jumbo. I sobered up fast though, believing this wasn’t just a study of some poor saps anymore but rather something so physical you could touch it and it lived and bit and infected. I gripped my bat tightly as I walked forward. My breath was heavy as it always was and I tried to relax as I closed the gap between me and the dead body. A few flies buzzed around his head but he looked relatively healthy. His cheeks were still pink and fleshy, his brow was slightly damp and his chest was moving up and down in rhythmic time. There didn’t appear to be any wounds or bite marks, nor any scratches and I reached to check the pulse in his neck. I dropped my head in relief as I felt the steady thrum of his pulse against lukewarm flesh.
“He’s not one of them,” I called back and suddenly he gripped my wrist tight.
I dropped back, scrambling away from him as he stretched out his arms to me moaning. His eyes were dead, milky white with the veins of black and his jaw worked up and down as he crawled to me slowly. He let out a loud scream, a noise I had never heard come from the dead before and around us more calls were heard. I kicked him in the face hard with my steel toed boot and scrambled back to the group.
“We have to go. We have to get out of here,” I said.
As I said this a group of ten or fifteen undead shuffled out from behind the tallest building in front of us. The one lying in the street was having a difficult time getting up but as he looked up at us, the rest of them started running. We bolted, running for the nearest cover in an office building. I was never religious, and I could argue that I wasn’t still but in that moment, as we ran I prayed for the safety of all of us, praying to some almighty to give us some slack and pull us through this latest horror show. I carried Luke and Jenni scooped Gabe up as we shut the glass double doors behind us. Aber and Mary were already grabbing pieces of toppled furniture and staking them against the glass when the wave of undead struck like a tidal wave. I was in momentary shock, staring at the horde as it gnawed and chewed at the glass anticipating our juicy bodies. Some of the dead were more decomposed than others and others looked as fresh as we did, save for the milky eyes. Bones stuck out in places that should have been painful but the only look of pain in these dead faces was the raw hunger.
“Dammit, Hark you said he was alive,” called Cable as he rushed to place upturned tables against the door. Sevina was cowered in the corner clutching mass handfuls of hair in a fit of fear.
“I…I…he was. His chest was moving and everything. I even felt a pulse,” I said back.
“You what?” said Aber stopping in his tracks.
“He was alive. For the brief moment I touched him and then he turned just like that. L-like a switch. One minute he was human, the next he was…”
“Dead,” said Gabe chillingly from under Jenni’s arm.
“How is that possible? How is this still happening. What have we done to deserve this shit,” screamed Sevina from the corner, rocking on her heels. Cable went to her, holding her in his arms as she shivered.
“This is wrong, this is all wrong,” she mumbled under her breath.
“They’re learning to act human,” said Mary.
We all grew quiet at the unsettling notion of the dead learning the art of trickery, staring at one another with suspicion and worry. Sevina let out a massive sob. I flipped a wooden chair closest to me and broke the leg off. I felt unsafe without a weapon and the thought of my trusted metal bat outside among the horde made me feel useless. I concealed the bite wound with the sleeve of my shirt for now. I would have to tell the group at one point but now wasn’t the time. Mary reached to touch the elevator door buttons and I stayed her hand.
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.
As am up and coming writer, I always found it odd when an idea would start to form and yet I could never come up with enough information to add to a story. I realized now after writing my first two novels that it DOES get increasingly easier. I never thought that practice makes perfect pitch truly worked. And I’m writing this for other people to know that a push is all it takes to get started. Mine was in the form of a lovely, tall, handsome man who forced me to live my dream, to realize my potential and I have never looked back since! I’m very young and I can’t wait for the next steps of my life to start! For those who doubt themselves, I give this advice. Work hard, work harder but always appreciate your work in the light of enthusiasm and optimism. What will come of it is unexpected and happy.