What readers are saying:
“With an intriguing premise and bloody good action scenes, SoulChaser takes us on a paranormal adventure where death hunts among us, even as we don’t realize it….”
– Chris Marie Green
Author of VAMPIRE BABYLON
“A fast moving tale of Kiah, a SoulChaser going after a rogue soul from the Abyss, both of them jumping from human to human in the pursuit. And in the bloody chaos that follows, Kiah’s lady‑love suddenly disappears without warning or explanation. Read on.”
– James C. Glass
Author of VIPER OF PORTELLO
“Just finished SoulChaser and I loved it! It hits the ground running and doesn’t let up until the final page. It all added up to some epic story‑telling and I honestly can’t want for the next installment.”
– Keith Knapp
Author of MOONLIGHT
For my daughter, Haley, to whom it is lovingly dedicated.
Special thanks to Dave Farland and Criss Rosenloff for their constructive comments in the early drafts, my excellent editor, JC Carter, for his discerning eye and excellent suggestions, and John Robinson, a superb sounding board.
“And I saw a new Heaven and a new Earth: for the first Heaven and the first Earth were passed away…”
Right Here, Right Now
— Omnious 1: Colonization Calendar 243
The air smelled of blood and urine as the pedestrians in front of the performing arena panicked and ran. No one wanted to be nearby when the authorities arrived on scene.
The fourteen dead bodies lay scattered around like playing cards after a brisk breeze. A sticky red pool had already formed across the syncrete walkway. Growing, it reached out with shiny crimson rivulets in all directions.
One observant pedestrian, a young woman on her first date with a new suitor, spotted movement among the carnage. The eyes of one of the dead boys, a young man in his early twenties, flashed bright green; color then returned to his cheeks and his once dead eyes seemed to brighten. The “glow” of life was returning to this once dead body. The bloody gash across his neck from a passing bullet knit itself closed and the youth managed to climb to his feet. The woman screamed long and loud, then collapsed to the ground beside her startled date.
Kiah shook the brief cramps of resurrection out of the host’s well-toned limbs. Then he rolled his head a bit to make sure it was still attached at the shoulders. His eyes scanned the carnage, locating the corpse he had been forced to vacate only a minute before. Stepping between severed limbs and a small wad of pulped flesh, he squatted down and patted down his old host. A moment later, he located the SoulStar and pocketed it in the black long-coat of his new host… his new black long-coat. Then he picked his way through the bodies to a clear area on the walkway. He turned, surveying the corpses, not knowing where Kenah might be. They’d both died in that firefight, such as it was. He had no idea if she could find a suitable host for a return to the mission. Lucky for Kiah, he’d charged back down the Hall of Light and dove into one of the fresh corpses. He hoped Kenah had the foresight to do the same thing, but he couldn’t be sure she would. It wasn’t standard protocol, to say the least. Shaking his head, he knew he couldn’t afford to wait. Masaal and his four bodyguards were most likely at Shane Hansen’s office several kilometers across town. He didn’t have long. If he was going to get to the rogue before this host went insane, he would have to move fast.
Spying a discarded shotgun on the paving stones nearby, he hurried over to it, swept it up in his steady grasp and checked the magazine. Limited rounds in the firearm and he had no idea of its accuracy. Shaking his head, he glanced up and down the boulevard. Making a decision, he broke into a quick run in the direction he thought would lead him to his target the fastest.
Hovercopter 97 lifted off from Precinct Helipad 24. Its orders: remove the threat of Shawn Hansen, no matter the cost.
“Don’t worry, Sir,” Office Blake spoke into his black ‘copter microphone. “He won’t slip past this time.” The audio phones in his matching helmet squawked at him for a moment. It was his superior officer berating him for his lack of performance the last three times this same Take Down was authorized. “Not to worry, Sir,” he assured his commander and nodded to the ‘copter pilot. “Move it.”
“Roger,” the pilot agreed and put the ‘copter into a steep dive away from the precinct building. Officer Blake fought to hold on and not pitch right out of the open hovercopter door. Cursing to himself that in his haste, he’d forgotten to secure his safety line.
Masaal, in the recently deceased body of underworld boss Shawn Hansen, sat behind his beautiful polished desk on the third floor of the Citiplex Office Complex. He chose his hosts by body type, resources, and availability. Neither compatibility nor cause of death was ever an issue. It was a warm evening considering that this world’s binary suns did little more than skirt the horizon between sunrise and sunset. He still hadn’t adjusted to this planet’s odd daylight hours, the shortest he’d ever experienced. Just over six hours of natural light wasn’t enough time for respectable folks to get anything done. But then he and his henchmen recruits had little worry about “respectable” folks.
Krista, a knockout brunette dressed in a side-slit midnight blue skirt, a revealing sequin blouse, and spiked high heels, sat on Masaal’s lap behind the large oak slab. The room smelled of a sweet smoke, an illegal opiate on other worlds he’d “visited,” but considered incense on this one. With the lights turned down low, it had a calming effect that soothed one’s jangled nerves, as his were now. He preferred to wind down this way whenever possible. Men’s soft, droning chants echoed from concealed speakers throughout the room.
At the pedestrian crossing on the street below, the SoulChaser, Kiah, dressed all in black, from his dungarees to his leather long-coat, started across the parking lot of Citiplex Office Complex.
As he walked unchallenged, he carefully tucked away the memories lingering in the mind of the teenage body he now inhabited. It took self discipline, honed over many years and rogue retrievals, to accomplish the compartmentalizing he needed in order to clear his mind. This body was young and strong and so far had held up well to the new soul inhabiting it. But Kiah knew that he had to work fast, for the body was bound to go insane before too long. It was a side-effect of a soul inhabiting a body that it wasn’t designed for. Just as Kiah was against the clock, so was Masaal. Hansen’s body would last longer than Kiah’s host, since Masaal and Hansen shared many similar interests and passions. However, the evidence of Masaal’s control over the host body would become obvious and once that breakdown began, it spiraled down in an ever-accelerating decline. In another day, maybe two, Masaal would be trapped inside the body of a rampaging madman. Then the blood of the innocent would really begin to flow.
Approaching the Citiplex building, Kiah found himself relieved that at least rogues couldn’t travel through time. As it was, Time passed differently in the Afterlife than it did in Mortality. One day in the Afterlife could represent an entire year in the physical realm. That both places held to a linear time line, however, made rogue retrievals such as this one easier, since the SoulChasers didn’t have to worry about rogues jumping Eras as well as bodies. And as long as the SoulStar was in the vicinity of the rogue soul, it should keep Masaal trapped in his current host until Kiah could use the relic to return the escapee to the Abyss. Only on the rarest of occassions did rogue souls find that they could move between hosts with the SoulStar nearby. It hadn’t happened for any of Kiah’s retrievals and he hoped it never did.
Kiah walked up to the front doors, pushed them open, and walked across the lobby to the elevator.
The tele-com unit on Masaal’s desk chirped for attention. One of his bodyguards crossed to the desk and picked up the handheld unit. He greeted the caller, stepping to the other side of the room as Masaal and Krista became involved with each other.
After a few short words, the mobster hung up the tele-com unit, just to have it chirp again. He answered it, then held it out to Masaal.
“It’s for you,” the guard said.
Masaal separated his mouth from Krista’s, growling in irritation, “Well, bring it over here!” He snatched it out of his subservient’s hand and put it to his ear. “This is Hansen.” Masaal’s look of annoyance turned to one of shock, then understanding. “I see.” He nodded. “No, don’t do anything until you hear from me again, got it?” Masaal set the tele-com unit on the desktop. He could see its reflection beside his own in the flawless surface.
“What’s wrong, baby?”
Krista’s sweet voice didn’t even phase Masaal. He stood up and walked over to the wet bar. “Trudou’s car and body were identified out near Deadman’s Rock. Incinerated,” he announced and began to fix himself a drink. SoulChasers! There was no question in his disturbed mind.
Down the hall the elevator doors opened and the man in black exited. With purpose, he headed up the hall toward the double-doors of Hansen’s office.
Seeing the determination in his stride, Masaal’s burley guards came to their feet. The guard on the left went for the gun in his breast pocket.
The figure in black already had his snub-nose, semi-automatic shotgun drawn from his coat. He aimed it at the guard and pulled the trigger.
“What the—?” one of Masaal’s guards exclaimed, the report of the gunshot echoing beyond the office door.
A heartbeat later, a second shot rang out, followed by the second hall guard crashing through the office door.
Kiah stepped into the room.
Masaal immediately felt the presence of the SoulStar in the Soulchaser’s pocket. He felt his soul locked into the body of Hansen, with no easy means of escape. Had the star not been present, he could have quickly abandoned this body for one of his late guards in the hallway and made his escape.
“Kill him! I want him dead!” Masaal commanded.
One of his four guards went for his pistol’s holster snap.
With one swift motion Kiah brought the muzzle around and pulled the trigger. The blast threw the man several feet back onto the floor. It pelted the wall behind him with fragments of bone, muscle, and buckshot.
“Jimmy!” another guard across the room exclaimed in blind horror.
Kiah’s attention snapped to that man, also bringing to muzzle of the shotgun to bear on him. The fatal blast caught the bodyguard in the right side, spun him around, and dropped him to the floor like a lead weight.
Masaal threw the liquor bottle at Kiah from across the room. The SoulChaser ducked under the projectile and knocked over a nearby table.
The third gunman moved to retrieve an item from his gym bag, not seeing Kiah take cover. He came up with a submachine gun, then realized he didn’t have a target.
“Behind the table!” called the last of Masaal’s henchmen.
Officer Blake sat in the passenger seat of Hovercopter 97. He smiled to himself in anticipation as the air transport swooped low over the city scape. Weighed down with ten ground officers and a full array of armament, it twinkled in the enveloping darkness of sudden storm clouds.
Before he could get the drop on their attacker, Kiah stood up and shot the henchman’s left shoulder. The fatal wound threw him back over the wet bar and buried him in a shower of shattered alcohol bottles and refreshment glasses.
Masaal’s fourth henchman fired at Kiah, but missed. Kiah returned fire, but missed as well.
Krista, caught at one end of the crossfire, bolted for the back door, halfway between Kiah’s cover and the bar. She bumped the guard just enough to knock him off balance and screw up his aim. Kiah didn’t hesitate. He downed the guard with a precise shot to the chest. The man’s heavy body slammed against the retreating woman, sending the two of them sprawling on the carpet.
“Masaal!” Kiah yelled.
Solid silence. Two heartbeats…then three…then four….
Masaal cautiously stood up from behind his desk. He knew he was trapped…with no way out.
“It’s over,” Kiah said.
Masaal looked at the shambles around him. The machine gun lay on the floor only a few feet away. “You’re right. You win,” he said in unanticipated agreement.
Pinned beneath the large body guard, tears began to glisten in Krista’s beautiful eyes. “Shawn?” she asked.
Both men turned to her. They each seemed to realize for the first time that she remained in the room with them.
“Get out of here,” Kiah instructed.
Before she could respond, Masaal crossed to her and yanked her up from where she lay.
Kiah swung the shotgun toward them. She screamed, now finding herself on the business end of the firearm.
“Shh, Krista, relax,” Masaal cooed in her ear, soothing her immediate terror. “He won’t hurt you.”
Kiah’s jaw flexed a bit, revealing the instant tension he felt. Before him, the rogue waited, using the beautiful Krista as a very damageable human shield.
“More importantly, he won’t kill me, with you here,” Masaal continued. His eyes never left the face of the SoulChaser before him. A wicked yellow gleam shimmered there, as if he dared Kiah to prove him wrong.
So, those are the stakes. Kiah’s grin was cold. “Are you sure?” he asked.
Masaal chuckled. “You’re sworn to protect the innocent from people like me. But if they get in the way….” He paused his analysis to emphasize his point. “You can’t kill in cold blood.”
“Your hands are so red from the blood you’ve spilled here…” Kiah countered.
“Maybe. But hers are not.”
Both stared at each other in silence, waiting for the other to move.
Krista realized that her hand rested near the desktop and on that desktop rested a computer keyboard. She snatched the thick plastic keyboard, spun and smashed it into the side of Masaal’s head. When he loosened his grip on her shoulder, she lunged for the shattered doorway.
Krista’s furious attack startled Kiah into momentary hesitation, which was all Masaal needed. The rogue dove for the machine gun. He pulled it up and squeezed the trigger.
Kiah caught his breath in agony as hot metal tore into his left shoulder. The velocity of the bullets threw him over the upended table and back against the wall. He could make out the edge of the table, part of the ceiling and some of the wall he rolled up against. The rest of the room receded from his hazy view. Killed twice on the same retrieval? he demanded of himself. That never happens! He knew to the core of his being that Kenah and Joshua would never let him live this down. And in Eternity, never is a long time!
A second that seemed to last forever went by and Kiah wondered why time seemed to slow itself down in these situations. Then a terrified voice brought him back to reality.
“Shawn, what’re you doing?” Krista cried as Masaal turned on her.
“Sorry honey. You’re a liability I can’t afford.”
Krista screamed as she ran into the hall. Masaal stepped into the doorway and with a passive expression fired off three rounds down the occupied hall. The woman’s echoing footsteps stopped, punctuated by a thump.
“Pity,” was Masaal’s insincere eulogy.
Kiah struggled to sit up straight.
Masaal walked over and tossed the table out of his way. Kiah lay against the wall. His right hand had fallen limp beneath his coat. His breathing came broken and choked.
“No mercy for the weak,” Masaal informed Kiah with a triumphant smile. “You’ve come this far, only to fail…twice!” He pointed the gun at Kiah and stared at him long enough to take pleasure in the humor and irony in the statement.
“Don’t count on it, “ Kiah said and with his right hand yanked the shotgun from beneath his coat. “No mercy,” he repeated and squeezed the trigger four rapid times, shattering his right wrist with the violent recoil. His concentration blinded him to the pain.
Masaal’s body shuddered and recoiled with every impact. The fourth shot knocked him onto his back.
Kiah took a painful deep breath and smiled. Rallying all of his energy, he pulled himself to his feet, groaning all the way. Staggering, his useless right arm hanging limp at his side, he crossed over to Masaal’s shadowed corpse on the floor. He retrieved the SoulStar from his pocket and knelt down.
Outside the building, Hovercopter 97 crept low, buffeted by the turbulent winds. It trained its four brilliant white spotlights on Shawn Hansen’s office windows.
Officer Blake could make out an unrecognizable figure bending over a long object on the floor.
Behind him, Surveillance Officer Ryan watched the display monitor before him. It revealed a detailed ultrasonic motion scan of Hansen’s office in shades of green. The image swayed a touch with the motion of the hovercopter. Kiah was the only moving red spot on the display. “Looks like we’ve got four dead in the main office,” he announced. He scrolled the image around in a three-dimensional panoramic view and located Krista’s form laying in the adjacent hallway. “And three more in an attached corridor,” he added.
All conversation paused as sudden thunder and lightning illuminated and then fractured the clouds above them. The building storm cut loose with sheets of rain, higher winds and enough lightning to make the concept of being in a hovercopter unnerving.
Shaking his head to clear the commotion from it, Officer Blake commented, “Any chance one of them’s Hansen?”
With a shrug, Officer Ryan replied, “Good a chance as anything else, prob’ly.”
As Officer Blake watched the building in disbelief, the shadow straightened and moved toward the wall of shaded windows. It rummaged around for a moment, then the shade drew upward into the ceiling and he sat staring at a young man just out of his teenage years. There was nothing remarkable about the youth, except for the illegal shotgun resting easily in his grip and blood smeared all across his arms, face and torso. The officer activated the ‘copter’s loudspeaker and commanded, “Put down the gun and raise your hands above your head!”
Kiah heard the command penetrate the thick windowpanes. Shaking his head, he muttered to himself, “Cops are predictable no matter what world you’re on.”
Movement off to his right caught his ear. He turned in time to see the fourth of Masaal’s men, blood streaming from his chest, struggling to bring his gun out.
“He’s gonna shoot the survivor!” Officer Ryan announced a breath after noticing additional movement in the room.
Switching off the loudspeaker, Officer Blake motioned to his gunner and instructed, “That’s it. Take him out.”
With a nod, the hovercopter mounted gunner took aim and opened fire.
Kiah squeezed the trigger of the shotgun just as the wall of windows before him exploded inward with heavy weapons fire. The rounds destroyed the walls on the far end of the office, the bar, the tables, the desk. They did even more damage to the corpses in the room, and minced Kiah’s body. It was debatable if anything would remain recognizable when the hailstorm of hot lead ended, but clear that nothing survived.
Again, predictable, Kiah mused as the Hall of Light opened before him.
Paradise, the Afterlife:
Grayness…shadows moving under cover of light blue mist. Behind him, Kiah knew even as he walked that the Hall of Light ended in the deepest dark he had ever witnessed. It was the empty, absence of Life that created the darkness. “Purpose was Life. Life was Purpose,” Joshua had always told him. So the consuming darkness at the close end of the Hall of Light contained no life within it, therefore no light. As he strode down the corridor, through the lightening mists, past the shadows that flickered just out of coherent sight, the air grew warmer. His emotions felt lighter and his pace quickened.
At the mouth of the Hall of Light, she waited for him. Her hair, the color of the sun on a warm autumn day, seemed to glow in the light blue mist surrounding them. Her smiling mouth had the twinge of a knowing, subtle smirk blended into it. Kenah’s green eyes danced, even as she reached out to him.
Kiah took her hand in his and he caught himself startled for a moment at the striking contrast between her fair colored skin and his of the deepest ebony. In their natural lives, culture had frowned on marriages between the races. Kiah was glad that in the Afterlife, skin color truly didn’t matter. All he knew was that to him, Kenah was beautiful. And he’d never heard her complain about his looks, either!
“You grandstanded, didn’t you,” she teased him as they exited the mists of the Hall of Light into the lush, green and vibrant forest. “I’m sorry I wasn’t there to see it.”
A well-worn path led through the enormous tree trunks. Vines and ferns of types Kiah had never seen in his own life always threatened to encroach on this, the only path through the forest. The trail was always there, easy to follow, but not always easy to see.
“What?” Kiah replied, feigning hurt feelings. “I never grandstand.”
Raising an eyebrow, Kenah countered, “Oh, really? Then what was that ‘Give me liberty’ speech you made on Caladan Four?”
Kiah opened his mouth to speak, a protest on the edge of his lips. But at the last moment, he closed his mouth and sighed. “One eloquent moment and I’m marked for eternity as a showoff.” He didn’t sound hurt, but his ploy for affection couldn’t have been any more obvious.
Movement in the heavy foliage attracted the attention of the two SoulChasers. As the sound grew louder and heavier they paused, waiting so see what might make such a racket in the woods. A moment later, a black nose and dark muzzle broke through the bushes. The small bear was little more than a cub. His massive size gave no accurate indication of his age. He muscled his way through the woods, braying when his haunches got wedged in the branches.
Kiah and Kenah watched in silence, enjoying the sight of the young bear wriggling himself free. A moment later, more crashing echoed from the woods and the cub’s mama emerged through a less obstructed avenue though the trees. The cub’s bawling ceased when his gaze lit upon his mother. She stepped over and nuzzled him under his chin, then put her front shoulder against one of the thick branches and shoved. The wood gave way with a “snap!” and the young cub came free. Bounding around his mother, the playful cub bumped and swiped at her until she barked at him. Then the two of them sauntered past Kiah and Kenah, up the trail into the deeper woods.
Smiling together, the SoulChasers followed along the path, at last emerging from the woods at the edge of a vibrant, green lawn. Beyond the wide expanse, waited the manor home where Kenah and Kiah now spent their immortal lives together. Its soft gray stone rose over the lush tiered gardens, providing a perfect view out over the estate to the edge of the sea beyond. It was the home of their dreams and they tended to its care with the devotion that such a blessing required of them. Today it housed only the two SoulChasers, plus the handful of souls sent to pay restitution to them for misdeeds in their mortal lives. That number was always changing as Kenah and Kiah released one here, another there, to return to their own tasks in the Afterlife. Both of them had each had to pay their own restitution to those they had slighted during their mortal lives, an experience neither wanted to ever repeat again. The memory of that time apart weighed on the memories of both of them.
As the day passed through evening into night, the two moons rose as brilliant white orbs, throwing a bright moonglow over the home, the cliffs, the beach below, sending its white rays through their chambers’ clear ceiling panels. It added a warm light to the yellow glow cast by the large fireplace which occupied the entire corner of the central chamber. A thin trail of smoke wisped from the handful of braziers scattered on alcoves around the vast room, plus two on the fireplace’s heavy marble mantle.
“It was nice, being mortal again,” Kenah whispered. She lay back against Kiah’s chest, dwarfed by the soft cushions piled around them. She traced her fingers along the rich brown tunic that he wore. It was a simple, yet comfortable, wrap that she had made for him only a few weeks before. This was how they spent their time together in the Afterlife, doing things for each other that they didn’t have time for in life, and chasing rogues.
“It always is,” Kiah agreed, his dark eyes reflecting back a vivid orange light from the fire. It gave off just enough warmth to be comfortable and enough light to see, but not too much of either. Perfect, just like always. He had once wondered what life would be like after death. But as a revolutionary, the concept of peace and tranquility eluded him. Once, he thought he’d be bored spending eternity with just the two of them in a perfect existence, no wars, no rebellions, no uprisings. He wasn’t bored. The Afterlife appealed to him. He’d had enough of battles and watching his friends die en masse during his own mortality. SoulChasing and spending leisurely evenings with Kenah was enough for him.
It was not enough for Kenah, however, and he knew it.
“It sure gets quiet here at night.”
Looking down at the top of her head, Kiah asked, “What do you mean by that?”
Leaning up to look at him, she replied, “I was just noticing, that’s all.”
Kiah’s gaze probed her bright eyes, eyes so rich in color that he could still see their green hue even in the firelight. He could get lost in those eyes. Indeed, he had many times. Sometimes he wondered how they’d ever found times like this to fall in love. Life had been so hectic, even at its best. Still, he couldn’t remember ever existing without her beside him. Even now, with no threat looming, he still felt the fierce determination to always protect her.
Kenah waved a hand in front of his eyes, causing him to blink. “Hello? Are you there?” she asked with a light laugh.
“Sorry, love. I was just thinking about how much I love you,” Kiah responded, hoping that the sincerity he felt was conveyed in the sound of his voice.
It must have been, because she leaned up and gave him a long and tender kiss. She tasted of cinnamon, which he could never quite explain. The clean smell of her always enveloped him. He couldn’t imagine experiencing her any different than she was at this moment.
When she relaxed back against his chest a few moments later, she gazed up at the vast field of stars in the sky above their home. “Do you think we’ll ever have children of our own?” Kenah’s voice held so much longing in it, it caused Kiah’s heart to ache.
Stroking the back of her arm with his fingertips, he replied, “I hope so. Otherwise, what are we doing all of this for?”
Kenah hummed her agreement, not seeming to want to talk about it any more.
Kiah’s gaze traveled up the marble fireplace until he was gazing at one of the moons through the transparent ceiling. Without restraint, his thoughts traveled back to their mortal life together. He had never begrudged Kenah’s inability to carry children to term. After their only two tries almost killed her, he had insisted that all attempts cease. He could only hope that in turn, Kenah didn’t hate him for the decision he had made for both of them. Even then, he couldn’t bear the thought of losing her, even in the miracle of childbirth. It was with these thoughts coalescing his mind, staring up at the white moons above, that Kiah gave himself over to a restless sleep.
In the Beginning . . .
— Earth: The Present
The torrential midnight rain over the cemetery came down as a vertical sheet of moisture that would drive most sane people home tonight. Most. The heavy storm obscured landmarks from view and slickened the muddy asphalt.
He tried to find his way through the cemetery alone, lost and unsure of his reasons for being here. With no recollection of his arrival to this place, all he could do was try and stay attentive to the fear that was driving him. The vicious rain made moving from street lamp aura to street lamp aura dangerous and almost self-defeating.
“Trent!” the disembodied voice whispered inside his mind.
Behind him, between thunder crashes, he heard a sound. It was the sound little children fear alone in their beds. The sound adults cower from in the darkness. The sound of stone scraping stone!
“Trent!” it came again, somewhat clearer, less indistinct, but still as bodiless as before.
At each flash of lightning, he could see the hideous creature getting closer. Glimpses of its massive jaw, long arms and torso draped in rotting fabric, were all he could see of the beast, but it was enough. More so. Stubbing his feet against sharp stones and chipped concrete, he ran as fast and hard as possible. He had never felt fear inside as he did at the moment. He turned mid-run only to find the demonic visage still gaining on him.
His cries of terror as the lightning flashed above him turned to a choked gasp as the putrid, decayed creature’s claws clamped around his neck. His feet left the ground, though the beast appeared to have little muscle on its decomposing frame. Claws never meant for human hands pierced his flesh, drawing blood right away.
A “snap” echoed through the cemetery. Twin crimson streams from severed arteries streaked across the behemoth’s rotting face, chest and hand. His youthful body turned limp and lifeless.
“Trent!” Now another voice…a different voice….
Warm, wet flesh tore away from stark white bone as the beast feasted on the young man’s still-twitching form.
Trent’s near-severed head lulled to one side and his lifeless eyes peered at the storm-wracked sky.
“Trent!” a very feminine voice exclaimed and she shook him for a third time.
Trent Massey’s consciousness ripped away from the dream-scape and returned to reality. Outside the quaint bed-and-breakfast’s window, thunder rattled the eaves and lightning seared the sky. It shattered the darkness like fragile glass panes time and time again. His own death cry went unnoticed by all but one, and she just winced and placed a steady hand on his shoulder. Streams of salty sweat stung his eyes. Trent gasped back his fear and felt his heartbeat begin to return to normal. “Brutal,” he whispered, raking his fingers through his long, sun-blond hair, then shaking his head to further the awakening.
“Are you all right?” Audrey Massey asked her cousin. On nights like tonight, when the wind and the rain were driving her own sanity very close to the edge, she wasn’t so sure that insanity was something to tease a person about, even in jest.
Nodding, Trent took a deep sigh, still glad of the sensation of air entering and leaving his lungs. “Yeah,” he growled. “I’m fine.”
Looking his face over one more time to be sure, Audrey agreed and patted him on the shoulder. “Maybe you should lay off those horror movies after all,” she suggested. It was an old tune, one she knew her eldest cousin would never dance to.
With a weak smile, Trent lay his head back on his pillow and said, “G’night, cuz.”
Without another word, Audrey Massey tousled his sweat-dampened hair, then left the room.
As Trent’s eyes adjusted to the shadows and gloom, the image of the creature in his dream began to creep into his thoughts again, as he knew it would. In an attempt to cleanse his mind, he began going over the final preparations he needed to make to ensure that Nightmare Manor was ready for opening night. He talked a good line when it was necessary, and even though he was plenty old enough to sleep on his own alone, it was still over an hour before he drifted off to sleep again.
Same Old, Same Old
Ron Hall shuffled through the makeshift properties closet, wishing in vain for a bucket of pink paint. As he looked, he mumbled to himself in irritation, “I can’t believe how disorganized Burning Ice is. It’s no wonder we’re not going to open on schedule. This is ridiculous!”
Trent walked into the narrow storage room, laden with a paint tray, several misused paint rollers, and a myriad of enamel-encrusted brushes. Dark brown eyes peered out from beneath cropped blond hair. Still trim from Swim Team workouts a few years earlier, his well-cut form made up for the fact that he was, at best, average in height. He spied something the same size as himself bumping around on the other side of an open cabinet door off to his right and walked toward it. “Never mind. I found it,” he announced.
Ron flipped the wooden door out of his way and looked at the painting apparatus in his friend’s hands. “That’s it. Set it over by the stuff by the door,” he said, then went back to his task.
Trent turned and wandered back the way he’d come. The vast room still had that echoing effect that it had when they’d toured the ancient building a couple months earlier. Even now, with a partially-completed maze framed out in black PVC pipe, the Maze room was the largest open room in the complex. A fifteen-inch stereo speaker perched in the upper union of each of the room’s four corners, wires running down the corner to the floor, covered with thick strips of black gaffer’s tape. The wires led out to the haunted house’s central control center where a pair of computers kept a strict eye on the facility’s many special attractions. He hadn’t been there when Jake and Ron had run the wiring for sound and the several mini-ellipsoidal stage lamps that were intended to light the Maze in disorienting flashes, but he had to hand it to them, they were thorough. He didn’t even worry that the drizzling rain outside could at some point come in contact with one of the vital wires, and he worried a lot.
“Have you been back up to Saskatchewan since your baby brother was born?” Ron asked.
“Only once, a couple weeks back. Audrey and I road tripped together, which helped with the gas and expenses. We took her little Civic, since it only sips gas.”
“I thought you were going to recruit her to help run this place.”
Trent thought he heard a bit of a hopeful tone in Ron’s question, but decided not to persue it just yet. “I offered to bring her on,” he replied, “but she didn’t want to. She’d rather just come see it when it’s done. In fact, she told me that with all the egos already running the place, the last thing we needed was her sticking her nose in and mucking things up.”
Ron paused and looked over at Trent. “All the egos? What’s she talking about?” He held up one hand and ticked off a finger with the other as he named their core crew. “We’ve got you, Jake, and Phil. That’s three. Oh, and there’s Charlie and her shadow, Morgan. That’s five.” He now had a fist where five extended fingers had been.
With a smirk, Trent added, “And you, too.”
Ron peered at his closed hand and shook his head. “Hmm…outta fingers.”
“Anyway, we’ll see her after Nightmare Manor opens, and—” before Trent could continue his reply, he was surprised by the loud crash of metal on brick. The south doors at the far end of one of the long halls leading into the Maze crashed open and two young men in their early twenties came tearing in. Trent watched in amusement as the two alumnists from his alma mater, ran down the hall full steam, straight for the construction area.
The first newcomer matched Trent’s five-foot-nine height and his long, auburn hair waved behind him as he ran. He was a good looking young man in his own right, thin through the face and neck, with the strong body of a gymnast. The predator right on his heels stood at least six-foot three and had the solid stature to even out his height. Trent had no idea what had caused the chase, but he was all for lecturing the short redhead on the intelligence of “picking” your battles.
The redhead leapt the pyramid of paint buckets, bringing the chase straight into the work area. Undaunted, his predator continued to pursue. The prey might have gained enough distance to escape clean away, had he not run across a sheet, laid out as a drop cloth. Both feet hit the slippery surface and he was now at the mercy of friction and his own momentum. He collapsed in a heap and slid across the tiled floor to rebound off of the far wall, uninjured. Lucky for him, Trent thought, he didn’t take out any of the maze walls. He’d be dealing with me, if he had.
The big man slowed enough to retain control of his sizeable mass and hustled up to the thrashing “long hair.”
Ron walked out of the storage room in time to see the chase’s sudden conclusion.
“That’s it, Jake. You’re history,” the big man threatened and picked up his prey.
“Whoa!” Jake Andrews exclaimed, finding himself suspended from the floor, free of the paper cocoon.
“Go easy on him, Phil. Remember—he’s the boss,” Ron requested as he examined the label on the paint can in his hands.
Phil decided not to voice his internal grumbling about being reminded of that fact.
From the doorway to the room, a young woman called, “No mercy, Phillip!” and her partner agreed with enthusiasm.
“Thanks, babe!” Jake called out to her. “Glad to know I can count on you to back up your man.”
Paying the situation little attention, Charlie teased back, “I’m there for you, hon.”
The presence of the girls didn’t surprise Trent. Charlie followed her boyfriend everywhere. If he were Jake, he suspected it would drive him crazy! He had been so amused watching the chase, however, that he hadn’t even noticed them following behind the combatants. Before he looked away, Charlie’s friend with the jet-black hair, Morgan Dameron, caught his eye, smiled, and then turned her attention back to the confrontation at hand.
“You don’t want to hurt my little body, do you Phil?” Jake teased, part of him now wondering if the game was over or if everyone was still playing around.
Phil shocked them all by replying, “Yes, I do.” A tense moment passed before Phil cocked his head a touch to the left and finished with, “But it’s against all of my pacifist beliefs.”
Jake was pretty sure he wasn’t the only one who sighed in relief.
Phil’s stern demeanor returned. “Now, you are going to tell me where you hid my set design?”
Trent couldn’t help but notice that though Phil seemed mellow, his request held more than enough seriousness to warrant Jake’s full consideration. His set design? it occurred to the designer. Jake’s not stupid enough to swipe that, is he?
Jake thought it over for a moment, then looked down at the floor a foot below his dangling legs. He nodded.
“Good,” Phil said and lowered Jake to the floor. “Now, where is it?” he demanded.
With a touch of attitude, Jake straightened his leather jacket’s collar, then broke into a run for the open north exit only a few yards away. Phil bolted after him and the chase resumed.
“Charlie, that man of yours is insane,” Ron said to the attractive strawberry blond as he walked over to the paint can pyramid.
Charlie smiled and her sun-streaked hair bounced lightly when she nodded. “No kidding. If I were him, I wouldn’t razz Phil like that,” she said and her striking blue eyes sparkled with amusement. The two young ladies left the hollow room. Charlie’s brunette companion seemed so lost in trying to keep Trent’s attention on her as they left that she almost walked into the old brick-and-mortar doorframe. Then they were gone.
Trent shook his head and looked up at his friend. “These actor people are nuts,” he said.
“Hey, I’m an actor person!” Ron protested. “Though I do more on the production end of things than the performing stuff these days.”
Playing it cool, Trent finished with, “I rest my case.”
Ron popped the seal on the paint can, then looked up at Trent. “Did I tell you that me and Jake are helping his Grandad Andrews renovate the Andrews’ Homestead?” he remarked as he began stirring the paint. “It’s going good.”
Trent chuckled and walked over to a four-by-four sheet of plywood leaning against an outside wall. Only one side was painted: the image of a crazed mental patient that seemed to be trying to escape from the picture. Shoulder high was an old, dusty window of the same dimensions. Beyond the artificial cobwebs, the rain was streaming down the pitted glass and beyond that, small rivulets of rainwater ran down the sidewalk and asphalt of the parking lot outside. He picked up the plywood sheet, careful to place the painted side facing outward as he fit it into the window sill. “Hanging out with one of the town’s founding families must be rough,” he teased as he stooped down and grabbed the nail gun where it lay on the cold cement floor, propped against the brick wall.
Shrugging, Ron replied, “I spend as much time crashed at the Homestead as I do at my folks’ place. Got my own room there and everything.”
“Doesn’t Granddad think that’s a little odd?” Trent asked as he toe-nailed the plywood into place. The other two windows had already been treated in such a manner. Sometime before Opening Day, all three would be sealed around the edges with gaffer’s tape so that no light from the spotlights running right outside could spoil the Dot Maze effect.
“Grandad Andrews thinks everything’s odd,” Ron laughed and explained, “Like Jake’s earrings and his taste in music. Take Charlie…they’ve dated for two months now, and it’s just like it was the first week of their relationship. She’s kinda wild too.”
Astonished, Trent said, “That’s so? She seems nice enough.”
“You want to see Charlie’s hackles go up, mention anything to her about Jake’s ex-fiancee, Shannon. You’ll see a whole new dimension of her personality,” Ron teased in absolute seriousness.
Shaking his head, Trent declined, “No thanks. The last thing I want is to see Charlie’s head spin around and green slime projectile vomit out of her mouth.”
Returning to their conversation, Ron said, “Grandad Andrews just thinks they’re together for the—never mind.”
“That’s more than I needed to know!” Trent exclaimed, then looked over at Ron. “How goes the dating scene on your end?”
Ron shrugged and it became apparent that he didn’t wish to discuss it when he said, “His family wants Jake to settle down and get married. Grandad Andrews is a little ticked that he can’t even hold the family fortune over his head as leverage.”
Raising an eyebrow, Trent wandered over to the pyramid of paint cans. “I thought Jake was already living off the family fundage.”
Settling back on his heels, Ron wiped a stray bit of enamel paint off the back of his left hand onto his well-worn jeans. His work clothes had a way of getting destroyed doing theater tech and set construction. Sighing, Ron thought for a minute and then said, “I guess it’s okay if I tell you this, seeing as we’re all partners here. Jake didn’t want to be a burden to his granddad after his folks moved to Utah, so he used his allowance to start his own stock portfolio when we were seniors. By the time our five year reunion rolled around, he was worth a fair sum all on his own. Beholden to no one.” With the explanation given, Ron went back to mixing the paints. He was searching for what he called “the correct color of blood” and had yet to find a tone that fit his concept. It was a quest he’d started early in production and everyone figured he’d probably continue until closing night. He hoped that keeping the subject on Jake would distract Trent from his own dating life. Things were pretty bleak for him right now. He tried to be open to dating girls from all walks of life, but those dates seemed to end up being more difficult than just trying to date young ladies from church. The last thing he wanted was to get in a situation like Jake and Shannon’s had been.
“Life must be tough for the wealthy,” Trent mused to himself, his eyes staring into the pink and crimson swirls. He didn’t consider himself bitter, but he worked hard for the money he made. Granted, he owed his special effects job to his Uncle Davison, but sometimes it still irked him the way that Jake seemed to throw money around at times. Course, I was plenty happy when he offered to finance this not-so-little project. Despite that, he still couldn’t bring himself to sing Jake’s praises. Not that Jake expected him to.
Just then movement in one of the adjoining rooms caught Trent’s attention. Smirking, he asked, “So, think he’ll hold onto this one?”
Ron’s confusion registered on his face until Trent nodded toward the far side of the room. Two smaller rooms and a hallway adjoined the large room containing the Maze, one of which was the Mummy’s Crypt. There, Ron spied Jake and Charlie laying in one of the convincingly detailed stone and soil burial vaults; their passionate kisses guaranteed they didn’t care about the set’s realism. “It boggles the mind how those two can find the most interesting places for full-body makeouts,” he grumbled in disbelief, unaware that Trent still listened to him. But for a moment, he found the scene almost poetic in contrasts, considering that in only a few days the room would be populated by four young people, actors from one of the town’s three high schools, dressed as garish undead. He’d seen the makeup designs, remembrances from a child’s tortured nightmares.
“Maybe they’ll stay together, maybe not,” Ron continued. “He’ll probably get tired of being tied down again. Not that I would, if I were him. But then again, he never was good at holding on to one girl. Friend or not, he’s got a definite sweet tooth for the ladies. I’ve warned him about it more than once. It may prove to be his downfall.”
Movement off to their side caught their attention. They watched Phil walk in from the back hall he’d charged through. He held a large piece of white paper in his hands, full of diagrams and notes.
“Got your set design back, I see,” Trent called, his amusement evident.
Phil, lost in thought and scrutinizing the plans, nodded as he walked through the labyrinth of black PVC through the maintenance doorway on the far wall.
Leading the way up the east hall, Ron called, “Things seem to be going well for you and Morgan.”
“Yep,” Trent agreed. “Far as I can tell. We’ve only gone on a couple casual dates. Most of our time together has been spent here, getting Nightmare Manor ready to open.”
“From what I hear, she spent most of her high school senior year tutoring her younger brother. Her own grades suffered for it.”
Nodding, Trent hustled to catch up. In the back of his mind, he knew he was wasting valuable work time, but for some reason he just couldn’t stay focused today. Must be the weather, he rationalized.
Ron shot him an inquisitive look, one that Trent didn’t understand. “How is it being around Bridger so much? I know he means well and all, but…” Ron’s comment trailed off as he made a hard right turn, hopping down a flight of stairs and backing into a metal door. “Seems he has some sort of mental disability,” he finished, backing through the door into the building’s maintenance room.
Mulling the comment over in his mind, Trent replied with another nod, “Yeah, I know he can be a little high maintenance, but he’s a good kid. There are times, though, that I wish…”
“Careful what you wish for,” Ron cautioned him. “You may not like it if you get it.”
Trent was hoping to talk to Morgan before they left for the day, but with the amount of work still left to do before Opening weekend he shelved his obsession and forced himself to get lost in his work.
When Jake at last put the girls in his car and sent them home, Charlie was tired and cranky from her boyfriend “unfairly” splitting his time between her and Nightmare Manor.
Realizing the girls were leaving, Trent tossed his hammer on the floor of the Shrinking Hall. He then ran in a gradually straightening crouch, upright by the time he emerged from Nightmare Manor’s entrance. He arrived just in time to see Jake’s restored jet-black Mustang Mach 1 pull away from the complex and roar across the saturated asphalt. He slowed to a disappointed walk in time to stop next to his partner, the whole time, neither of their gazes never left the red glare of the retreating taillights.
Glancing over his shoulder to the slightly taller effects man, Jake asked, “Need something?”
Shaking his head, his face taking on a rather unattractive scowl, Trent replied with little more than a growl, “Just wanted to talk to Morgan before she left. Can’t believe she didn’t say goodbye.”
“Charlie’s not feeling all that well and she got crankier as the evening went on. By the time they left, she wasn’t willing to let Morgan come search the Manor to find you. None of us knew where you were.”
Trent couldn’t keep the frustration from edging into his voice. “Jake, no offense, but sometimes your girlfriend…oh, never mind.”
The comment didn’t even seem to phase Jake. “Yeah, I know. Sometimes her temperament frustrates me, too.”
Shaking his head, the acrid scent of something burning caught Trent’s attention and only then did he notice the cigarette between Jake’s fingers. As if on cue, his friend lifted the smoking stick and took a drag. “I appreciate that you don’t smoke inside,” he pointed out.
“Not a problem,” Jake said, clenching the cigarette between his front teeth. “I smoke up on the roof. Phil and I figured out how to get up there when we were scouting this place out.”
Unsure of the territory the conversation had entered into, Trent ventured the comment, “Seems like an awful lot of work to go through just to poison your lungs.”
Shrugging, Jake shifted gears by saying, “Phil wants to light Grandma in blue, not green. Think you can talk him out of it?”
Nodding, Trent headed off in the direction he’d come from, straight into Nightmare Manor.
No Time for Revolution
— Althea: 329
Kiah ran across the campus quad he would’ve approximated at about forty spans and hid behind a large, old tree just as a terrorist on a nearby roof sighted in and fired at him. This planet’s projectile rounds, dead-accurate, shattered his cover’s graying bark, chewing up the fibrous meat beneath it. The wind from the rainstorm tossed the wood chips spiraling into the threatening clouds above. His chest heaving with every breath, he took a moment to survey the carnage around him. Over three dozen bodies lay scattered round the quad, most of them in a state of decimation. Parts of one young man could be found near the miscellaneous appendages of a young woman a stone’s throw away. Rivulets of crimson ran between them, sticky and thick. This had once been a peaceful campus, as were the people of this entire world, by and large. And those that did get out-of-hand on Althea were rehabilitated in short order. The peaceful nature of the society had left them unprepared to handle the monstrous realities that the rogues wreaked upon them.
“This never gets any easier,” the SoulChaser muttered under his breath, wishing that the host body he inhabited on this mission were in better shape. No sooner had he begun hunting his prey before the thin, wiry frame of the restored young man began to strain under the rigorous exertion to which Kiah was accustomed, himself a soldier in his first life. He recalled the moment just over a week ago, glimpsing the young man’s soul depart into the Hall of Light before he had slipped into the vacated body. His presence there had reanimated the corpse in its entirety, blood coursing through the veins once again, lungs rising and falling with every breath. As luck would have it, no one at the school’s nurses station had noticed the momentary loss of consciousness just before the young man had died…and Kiah had risen. Healed, Kiah’s next point of action had been to locate the other two members of his retrieval team and then go in search of their target, neither of which had presented any difficulty. What had posed a problem turned out to be this body’s low tolerance for physical exertion, regardless of its restored condition, one of the perks of reanimation. It had, in fact, proved to be a great disappointment to him. Stinging, salty sweat beaded off his eyebrow and trickled into his left eye. “And the hosts are never good enough!” he grunted as he pushed himself off the coarse bark and ran as fast as the teenage legs would carry him to his goal—the red-brick bank of classrooms before him. The exterior roof, plated out of thick sheet-metal, would provide a bit of cover, plus he had a good idea what room he wanted. Somehow, he knew it wasn’t far. The heavy trianthium rounds pelted the ground nearby, kicking up loose gray dirt and debris as Kiah finished his last desperate push for cover, successful by only the space of a heartbeat.
Knowing he only had seconds before his enemies would converge on his location, Kiah scanned the row of classroom doors, each separated by a faded span of about thirty upright student lockers. Sprinting down the length of the building, he paused beside the fourth door down, took a moment to collect himself, then heaved open the heavy metal slab. Rifle fire from the quad exploded all around him, creating countless tiny missiles out of mortar and red stone as he bolted inside.
Kiah slammed the door behind him, for a moment closing out the death and pandemonium that continued to rage outside beneath the cloudless green sky, and then turned to see how reliable his instincts were.
“Well, well.” His mark, a middle-age gentleman once seen as an educator here a pinnacle of enlightenment, in his case waited at the front of the classroom, staring at Kiah across the expanse of horrified and confused students’ faces. “Tomo was wrong. It didn’t take as long for you to track us down as he said it would.”
“If you knew we’d do it, Rober, then why go rogue at all?” Kiah asked.
“Look around you, SoulChaser,” the rogue snapped, letting Kiah’s title slide between his lips as if it left a foul taste lingering on his tongue. “Smell the innocence! Their youth…just ripe enough for picking!”
Indeed, Rober had surrounded him with an assortment of young men and women about a decade-and-a-half old. Expressions of fear and loss welcomed the off-worlder from where the students sat, scattered around the large study hall. With no voice prepared to speak aloud, it was a plain miracle that Kiah had arrived before their slaughter had begun. This time, the rogues had chosen a world largely at peace with itself, and its inhabitants had proven unable to counter the blatant cruelty that these rogues had inflicted upon them. Not only had Rober and Tomo damaged this world’s social consciousness, in just the short time between Rober and Tomo’s arrival and Kiah’s immediate pursuit, they had managed to recruit quite a strong following of local riff-raff. Ever hungry for domination, Tomo was more than ready to lead them down the one-way path to darkness.
“Twenty-three children dead, Rober, by your own hand!”
Kiah’s comment drew the gasps of shock and fear that he was hoping for.
An evil smile twitched the corder of Rober’s lips. “Some of my best work,” he mused.
“Play time’s over, Rober. Back to the Abyss!” Kiah announced, emphasizing the finality in his thought for the benefit of the students also listening to his every word.
For a moment, Rober remained silent, his eyes twitching as if he now listened to voices heard inside his own mind. He seemed unwilling to come to grips with the fact that he had begun to lose his nerve. His hand crept for the pistol he’d concealed on his lap beneath the desktop.
Without preamble, a well-built, dark haired young man stood up from a small crowd sitting clumped together on the floor. His eyes had a determined glint and his jaw was firmed, his teeth clenched.
“Peter!” his girlfriend whispered, reaching forward to sit him down again. He paused for the breath of time it took to shrug off her attempts before focusing his attention on the front of the room.
“What’s all this about, Mr. Fliguer?” Peter demanded. The room of twenty-three student hostages looked at the man they’d always known as Jim Fliguer. His violent behavior at the private school had yet to be explained.
Oh, you naive youth, Kiah decided in silence, You have no idea what kind of evil you are dealing with. Thank goodness Rober is just one of Tomo’s lackeys.
Offering nothing but silence, Rober then stood, raised, and fired the pistol in one fluid motion. He hoped to get a shot off before the SoulChaser could take him down. Kiah caught the glint of the firearm just as the round left the chamber. He had no time to warn Peter, but he still didn’t hesitate. Some lackey!
The blast caught Peter in the shoulder, spun him around, and sent him to the cold tile floor. “Peter!” His girlfriend’s cream-skinned face was sprayed bright red by his thick blood. The trianthium bullet shattered the wall beside the students, scattering brick shards into the faces of two students. Their cries of pain triggered a domino effect.
Kiah shot back at Rober, shouting amid the echo of teenage screams, “Everybody out!”
The SoulChaser crouched to the side to avoid being trampled by the mad rush for the door. In the back of his mind, Kiah hoped that Kenah and Pol had things outside well-in-hand, otherwise he was sending the students to slaughter. The lack of immediate gunfire from the quad alleviated his fears.
Only Rober, Peter, his sobbing girlfriend, and Kiah remained in the classroom.
“I’ll kill you myself, SoulChaser!” Rober cried, snapping off another pistol shot.
Kiah threw himself to the floor as the bullet shattered the window in the door behind him. He rolled, stood up, and fired over and over. Three bullets hit Rober in his chest. He was thrown back against the large slate board behind him, spattered with his thick blood. He slid, lifeless, to the floor.
Glancing over at Peter’s girlfriend, Kiah couldn’t keep the remorse from creeping into his heart. My Call is to protect innocents such as these from exactly this type of madness! But he knew that beating up his emotions wouldn’t be good for those who needed him right now.
Peter’s girlfriend watched in confusion as a young man she may have remembered seeing around the school ran directly over to Mr. Fliguer’s body, now sprawled behind the desk. Her view of them both was obstructed for a minute by the heavy furniture. A few moments later the young man stood up and stared at her for a moment.
Kiah needed no more motivator than to look onto the young woman’s haunted face and then he was moving, the layout of the complex ingrained in his host’s surface memories.
With Rober’s soul returned to the Abyss, the SoulChaser relied on that undeniable inner piece of him which remained drawn to the rogue he sought. Even when it seemed all leads were exhausted, there was always a way to pursue.
Kiah’s instinctive alertness drove him as he slammed through a set of glass double-doors, plunging from bright afternoon sunlight into a dark, cold interior hallway.
Careful not to lose his footing on the slick tile floor, he covered the length of the hall as fast as possible, pausing only long enough to listen at the door to the outer Administration offices. The closer he got, the stronger the impression became that his mark could be found there. I do love it when things come together, he decided as he burst into the office marked “Principal” and found the ring-leader seated at a desk. The man appeared serene in this organized environment, despite the carnage he’d unleashed beyond the office walls. Odd, the sound of the battle outside was clearly audible in the background. Tomo had activated the announcement system in “listen” mode, so he could enjoy the sounds of carnage without putting himself in harm’s way.
“Ah, the head man himself. What brings you to my little party, SoulChaser?” Tomo asked.
“The Abyss awaits, rogue,” Kiah said to the escaped soul inhabiting the Vice-Principal’s body.
Tomo leapt from his chair and lunged at Kiah. The movement caught the SoulChaser off-guard. Tomo scored a blinding fist to his jaw, throwing him backward into a chair. Kiah’s hands found the metal-reinforced furniture and heaved it at his attacker, slamming Tomo to the ground.
The concussion of rifle-fire filled the air. Kiah recognized it as belonging to his own team. A subtle smile teased the young man’s thin lips.
Letting out a final, desperate battle cry, Tomo leapt at Kiah. Anticipating the move, Kiah stepped back against the door and brought his pistol to bear on the older man. A fraction of a heartbeat later Kiah pulled the trigger. The shot pierced Tomo’s left eye, scattering the back of his head across the far wall of the office.
“You’ll never learn, slag,” Kiah said to the dead man, crossing over to his prone figure. “Therein lies the tragedy of it all.” Aware that he only had a few seconds to work, Kiah managed to rip open Tomo’s shirt and get the SoulStar from his pocket in time to place it against Tomo’s bare chest, just below the neck. The clear stone in the heart of the polished, four-pronged, golden medallion glowed a swirling green as Tomo’s wicked soul flowed into it, then cleared a moment later as his spirit was exorcized to the Abyss.
As always, a strange sensation of wonderment took control of Kiah for a moment, watching peacefulness as it returned to the now-vacated host body. He couldn’t help wondering how those such as the Vice-Principal and Mr. Fliguer felt about their bodies being hijacked in order to recruit the dregs of this planet’s society and go on a killing spree.
Pandemonium outside jerked Kiah to reality. His responsibilities finished here, he grabbed his pistol and ran.
“Hey, you!” a terrorist yelled the moment he abandoned the offices. Without remorse, Kiah turned and sent two trianthium slugs through the man’s body, blowing two large holes out the man’s back and scattering blood and tissue fragments across the polished tile floor.
He reached their agreed upon rendezvous point at the complex’s front Attendance Office without any more interference.
“C’mon, guys. Where are you?” he demanded under his breath. Turning, he took his frustration out on the office door, kicking it. The heavy slab buckled a bit and cracked the wooden frame separating the door from the bank of interior windows, but held. With the second kick, the door frame shattered and the barrier flew open.
He looked around, then ran inside.
“Hands up!” a voice commanded.
Kiah spun around to face the two men waiting in ambush behind the door. He squeezed the trigger. The hammer clicked. Empty. He let the pistol drop and raised his hands.
“In the center of the room, now!” the braver of the two terrorists commanded.
At a cautious pace, Kiah did as he was told.
“You’ve had it.” Tomo’s man couldn’t hide the glee in his voice.
“Think so? You may want to ask your leader. I removed his head myself,” Kiah spat back.
“How’s that?” the other terrorist demanded. Kiah could tell that fear was invading the mortal man’s mind as the SoulChaser managed to live up to his “larger than life” reputation given him by other rogues.
A spray of .223 rounds shattered the office windows. Kiah dove to the carpet as shards of tempered glass rained all over them.
Seeing the error of his ways, one of the terrorists panicked, cried out something unintelligible, then turned and ran out a back exit.
Kenah stepped in the door and swept the room with bullets, the heavy repeating rifle balanced on one of her host’s sturdy hips. The remaining guard fell to her precision.
The irony would forever amaze Kiah. He, the leader of the squad, had found himself in a host body unprepared for the intense physical exertion the job required of it. Yet the only thing Kenah had to worry about was the temporary disorientation from the drugs that had stopped the young waitress’ heart—a fact that had allowed the female SoulChaser to enter without complication. When he paused to think about it, he could still feel the tingle of her touch from the night of passion they had spent together less than twenty-eight hours ago. Her lips had tasted bitter from the lip balm the waitress had used, but Kenah’s kisses were sweet. Any time they spent together was stolen time, he knew, but as they were married to one another in life, enjoying and experiencing their love anew in the physical world was a precious benefit their Calling afforded them. And when it didn’t interfere with the mission in any way, they took advantage whenever possible.
“Back door,” Kiah told her from where he lay, coming back to the task at hand.
Kenah ran to the back door and opened it, letting in the harsh afternoon sunlight. The terrorist had already run a few dozen spans down the street, without any sign of slowing his pace. Calm as a light spring rain, the female SoulChaser stepped out the door and leveled the rifle. Eight bullets hit the fleeing killer in the back. He collapsed in a mangled, near-shapeless heap.
Kiah stood up and dusted himself off. “Glad to see you made it. Where’s Pol?”
Kenah tossed him a fresh rifle. “I made it. He didn’t.” Glancing him over, she couldn’t help asking, “You hurt?”
Kiah gave his wife a passionate kiss in response, even though this flaxen-haired, busty teenager didn’t resemble Kenah’s true form all that much, then said, “Now for the hard part,” and headed for the hallway.
No sooner were they out in the quad again, when one of Tomo’s faithful minions scored three prime shots down Kenah’s back. The trianthium rounds fragmented on penetration, just about destroying everything in their paths. She screamed in pain and went down, losing the use of her legs.
Kiah chose to pick her up, rather than shoot back. Meanwhile, the man sighted in on Kiah and fired.
Two scorching rounds pierced Kiah’s right shoulder blade and lodged in his chest.
Kiah and Kenah both fell. He collapsed on top of her.
“Kenah!” Kiah called out hoarsely. His shoulder was bathed in agony. Looking around, he discovered the closest available cover, part of a bombed-out classroom about twenty feet from them.
As Kiah staggered up, raised his rifle with his left hand and shot back at the man, it occurred to him that this “part” of their Calling was always a difficult one. His return shots arced wide.
Kiah managed to pick up Kenah and half-drag, half-carry, her to the demolished room. As they moved, he fired the rifle to no effect with his damaged left hand, numb for almost the entire length of it. Blood drenched his shirt and jacket. Kenah’s husband deposited her just inside cover, but he knew she was already dead.
Like locusts converging on a field of corn, the remnants of Tomo’s evil revolution began to close in on the only target they could find.
The last of three SoulChasers tried to climb over the rubble and get himself under cover, but he couldn’t keep his balance. He tripped and fell again, splitting his forehead open on the exposed bricks and mortar. Crawling, he managed to clear the debris, then staggered to his feet.
“Over there!” one of the killers screamed from across the quad and opened fire.
A hurricane of weapons fire assaulted the demolished classroom, piercing Kiah’s body so many excruciating times that he lost count long before he died.
Oh, the pain….
Assessing the Competition
“Remind me again why we’re here,” Phil requested as Jake pulled his car to a stop against the cement parking barrier of the old Shadow Valley Academy.
“To check out the competition, remember?” Jake replied as he set the emergency brake and proceeded to exit the vehicle.
Phil grunted as he extracted himself from the classic sports coupe. “Man, this thing’s small,” he complained as he unfolded his six-foot-three frame and stretched beside the car. “Why couldn’t you drive something more accommodating?”
Looking as innocent as he could still left a devious twinkle in Jake’s eyes. “Whatever do you mean?” he asked as they wandered across the unkept brown and yellow lawn toward the ancient buildings. The closer they got to Shadow Valley’s original college structure, the less enthusiastic he felt about the idea.
Phil shook his head and grumbled, “Bet’cha money this turns out to be a waste of our time. Time that we can’t afford to spare, I might add.”
“We’ve both been so caught up getting ready to open, that I thought it might be a good idea to see what the other token spook alley in town was up to. Problem?”
“I guess not. I just hope Trent doesn’t find out we came here tonight.” He tried to hide the genuine concern that he felt from out of his voice, but he wasn’t all that effective. “By the way,” he hastened to change the subject, “Ron wanted help doing a final check on Nightmare Manor’s alarm system tonight.”
Raising an eyebrow, Jake asked, “Think that system’s a little much?”
Phil replied with a shrug, “It’s your investment, not mine. I just work there. But I’m sure it’ll keep the insurance costs down and stuff, so it couldn’t hurt.”
Jake didn’t think so, and he hrumphed at Phil’s response. The Designer and Producer had about taken out the boxing gloves over the expensive, complex security system that Trent had insisted upon. Jake had tried for several days to draw people to his “less sophisticated” cause, to no effect. He changed the subject.
“I’m still surprised he’s waiting so long to open. These guys opened last weekend.” Silence was the best response Jake could hope for from Phil. It was common knowledge that Trent and Jake didn’t discuss the project’s scheduling problems. Each young man blamed the other for not getting everything worked out ahead of time, resulting in Nightmare Manor running two weeks behind the competition. After a single rousing argument that about came to blows on both sides, Trent had agreed that they were both responsible just before launching a cutting remark about Jake’s flakiness. ‘If Nightmare Manor doesn’t open strong, it’s your own blasted fault!’ that’s what he said, Jake remembered. Despite being late opening, he was sure that when that great night came they’d be ready. It still cut him to the heart to have someone question his abilities that way. Glancing at the structure they were approaching, he grumbled, “Look at this place, it’s turned to crap!”
Sighing, Phil was forced to agree. The main hall’s once-beautiful stonework had fallen into such disrepair that he figured it would only be a matter of time before the whole three building structure was condemned and torn down. The vast grounds hadn’t been green in what seemed far too long, and no one could remember the imposing stone fountain in the center of the yards ever being in functional condition. Now it was just a home for cigarette butts and nature’s small creepy crawlies.
“I heard that if a buyer doesn’t come through soon, they’re gonna tear the whole thing down.”
They walked up to the fence that blocked off the small courtyard between the main hall and the secondary education building and Phil commented, “Why don’t you buy it?”
Glancing over at Phil as if the larger young man was certifiable, Jake demanded, “Who do you think I am, ‘Mr. Moneybags’?”
Shrugging, Phil heckled back, “Since you mentioned it…”
“I didn’t mention anything,” Jake interrupted as they approached the middle-age woman selling tickets by the fence. This always happens when something involving money comes up! His mood was plummeting to less-than-optimistic.
“Ten dollars each,” she said to them, her voice little more than a dull monotone.
Fishing his wallet out of his pocket, Jake asked of her, “Who’s running the spook alley this year?” He prided himself in the ability to talk to anyone.
“The Boys and Girls Foundation,” the woman replied, seeming a bit surprised by someone posing an original question to her.
Handing the woman a tenner, Phil asked, “How would an interested party get information on buying this place?”
“Geez, get off,” Jake grumbled and shoved his friend forward.
“The number is on the banner out front,” came the woman’s unsteady reply as she accepted Jake’s money. “Enjoy,” she called after them, watching them go.
“You can be a real rectal sore sometimes,” Jake accused as he cast a disinterested glance at a less-than-authentic looking vampire and wandered under the black curtain to enter the spook alley.
“Yeah, and you’re in denial, so we’re both right,” Phil shot back, having to stoop lower than Jake to follow him. “You’ve wanted to buy the place since we were kids.”
Stopping just inside the entrance, both young men could only stare. The spook alley was nothing more than a series of roped-off paths that switched back on each other, manned by young kids and teenagers in shoddy costumes, supervised by the occasional adult.
“You’ve got to be kidding me,” Jake said, aghast that he’d just handed over ten bucks to be here. Poor lighting gave only the slightest taste of the kind of dynamic shadowing that could have been cast off the buildings surrounding the courtyard. It sounded to Jake like the sound tech consisted of little more than an audio cassette track running on someone’s outdated home stereo system—with a few extra speakers added to it. The audible static hiss in the background of the sound effects was a dead giveaway.
“We could do better than this in our sleep,” Phil decided.
Approaching them from behind, a wolfman crept up and growled, “Move on, before I make you my lunch.”
“It’s dinner time,” Phil countered the inane threat.
This time the wolf sounded a little more convincing as he tried to shake Phil’s dry humor. “Grrr—my dinner then!”
Still unimpressed, Jake muttered, “Eh, bite me.” But they meandered forward. “If this is the best they have to offer….”
Phil agreed. “We have no competition.”
They wandered through the ramshackle grounds, finding their idle conversation more entertaining than the displays.
“The weather’s suppose to get rainy and cold soon.”
“What?” Jake demanded, waving off a short spook with tentacles growing out of his head.
“I was watching the weather report. It said we may be looking at an unusually cold month ahead. I’m glad we didn’t do any exterior displays,” Phil reiterated, dully glancing at a disemboweled surgical patient laying on an old green gurney nearby.
“Yeah, much as I hate to admit it, you were right. But I sure would have liked to do them. Maybe next year….” There’s bound to be a ‘next year.’ Nightmare Manor is gonna be too good to fail!
“Yeah, next year would be good. Maybe we’ll open on time,” Phil echoed Jake’s exact thoughts, “or early, even. Like mid-September!”
Before he could comment, Jake’s multi-track mind skipped back to an earlier mental note he’d made as they’d entered the spook alley. “Look at this, not even the lighting is effective. You just don’t use white to light everything!” He was having a hard time keeping himself from seeking out the designers and berating them to their faces.
“Relax, man. We’re here for a reason, remember? At least I feel good about going to Trent and telling him what we’ve seen.”
Ducking under a heavy black wool blanket, Jake agreed, “No lie.” On the other side, he was struck immoveable by the sight of an very pretty blond young lady in a short-skirted nurse’s outfit. No nurse I ever saw wore an outfit like that! was his first thought. Her makeup was done as a debutante, with the exception of bright red lips and a little darker shade of eyeliner.
“The Doctor will see you now,” she said, looking into Jake’s eyes as she did so. She hesitated as their eyes made contact and the quick glint of approval appeared there.
Phil had to shove him out of the way to get through the entry.
“Uh…thanks,” Jake stammered, unable to look away from this young woman who couldn’t have been much younger than he. Oh, man is she a babe! It wasn’t unusual, or difficult, for him to jump to such a conclusion.
Smiling at him, the nurse turned and ducked under the heavy wool entry blanket, heading in the direction they’d just come.
“Wow, she’s fine,” Phil decided as both young men watched her go. “I’d sure like to make time with a girl like her!”
Jake could only nod in agreement. She smelled like peppermint, he realized. So struck was he by the memory of her, that he didn’t notice when the Mad Doctor jumped out from behind a tree and threatened to do them very serious physical harm.
“Aw, shut up,” Phil commanded, irritated by the Mad Doctor’s sudden presence there.
Aghast, the teenage guy stood back and exclaimed, “Hey!”
With sudden resolve, Jake exhaled, turned and pulled the heavy gray curtain open just in time to almost crash right into the young lady herself! He thought for a heartbeat that she would panic. Instead, she took a deep breath and said, “Uh, hi,” looking shyer now than she had been a few moments before.
Burying his nervousness in resolve, Jake said, “I just wanted to tell you I think you’re gorgeous.” That went well, he decided.
“Thanks,” she replied, looking like she wanted to say more, but deciding not to.
Phil clearing his throat registered in Jake’s mind as something he may want to concern himself with, but dismissed the instinct as paranoia. C’mon, say something instead of standing here like a dork! But his mind was a blank.
For once taking the initiative, a deep voice said behind Jake, “I’m Phil and this is Jake.”
“Hi,” she said to Phil, but it took a real effort to shift her attention to him, even for the brief greeting. “I’m Taya.”
Oh, great, introduced by Phil! Just then, Jake found his voice. “It’s a pleasure, Taya,” he said, taking her hand and kissing it, never breaking eye contact with her. He sensed a innocent quality to her, almost as if she found him dangerous. With a thrill, he hoped it was in a good way.
Even in the dark, a flush appeared on her cheeks. “It’s short for Tayadora.”
“Taya, what’s going on here?” the Mad Doctor demanded. “We’ve got people waiting to come through.”
Unnerved by her silence, the Mad Doctor demanded, “Do you know these guys?”
Glaring down at the guy, Phil growled, “Watch it, kid.”
“I do now,” Taya replied. With reluctance, she added, “You guys better move it, before you get in trouble.” She still didn’t look away from Jake.
He came back with, “We’re used to it.”
Smiling, she said, “Then before I get in trouble.”
The Mad Doctor cursing Phil’s parentage drew him away from Jake and Taya’s conversation.
Realizing she was correct, Jake smiled and nodded once. “Can I call you?”
Pausing at the boldness in his question, Taya broke eye contact with him, then cast Jake an appraising glance and said, “Not yet. But I’ll be working here tomorrow night, too.”
Jake nodded. “I’ll be here.”
“As will I,” Phil agreed, coming back into the dialogue. It seemed the Mad Doctor posed no real threat to anyone.
“Great! See you then,” Taya told him, casting Jake a final glance of approval, then nodding at Phil before disappearing below the curtain.
“Definitely,” Jake mumbled, watching her go.
For both Phil and Jake, the rest of the short time spent at the spook alley was glossed over by the image of Taya in both of their minds. The duo even found the lighthearted attitude that it took to enjoy the rest of the mundane Halloween displays. A while later, Phil would reflect back on that night that even though he and Jake couldn’t stand the majority of what they saw that night, the Boys and Girls Foundation really had tried. Armed with this knowledge, he felt better about handing over his cash that night. Besides, if they hadn’t gone there, he never would have met Taya. Definitely ten dollars well spent!
As they walked back toward the car, Phil startled Jake when out-of-nowhere he said, “Jake, I want this one, okay? I mean, you’ve got Charlie….”
Thrown by the sudden request, Jake found himself grunting in the affirmative to Phil’s statement. Yes, I do have Charlie. But does she effect me like this Taya girl does? He never stopped to think about the repercussions of his response.
“Cool,” Phil agreed and they continued on in silence, Jake never even realizing what he’d done.
The next night it rained hard. Jake spent the whole afternoon before the storm settled over the valley watching for signs of hostility from the dark gray clouds. It was after dusk before the wet streaks began appearing on Nightmare Manor’s few exterior windows. But as soon as they started, he called an end to his strenuous work day and, accompanied by an insistent Phil, ran to the tall set designer’s ink blue Dodge Charger.
They found Taya shivering beneath an abandoned, rusted out awning at Shadow Valley Academy, clad in her nurse’s outfit, her black leather jacketed arms clasped around herself for warmth.
Phil watched from inside his car as Jake walked up the cracked cement walk and slowed to a stop a few feet from the college girl. He stood out in the rain, seeming not to notice the chill droplets pelting him from above as they talked. He had been so cool about agreeing to go out into the foul weather so that Phil could primp in the rear-view mirror one last time.
After a minute or so, the twosome ran back to the muscle car.
Reaching over the center console, Phil greeted Taya with a warm smile and cheerful words.
Jake excused himself as he maneuvered in front of her and slipped into the back seat in order to afford her the front next to Phil. But to the surprise of both young men, Taya slipped into the back, managing to pull the passenger door closed behind her.
The seating arrangements left the atmosphere inside the automobile a touch awkward, but only a short drive later they arrived at Bopper’s, a local all-night Fifties diner that Phil praised the whole way there.
Once out of the car, the conversation between the three of them picked up, even though neither Phil, nor Jake, could figure out why Taya seemed so intent on paying equal attention to both of them. Even when Jake returned from the men’s room, she caught him up on the conversation that she and Phil had had about tropical fish as household pets. Jake appreciated her efforts, even though he’d heard it all from Phil before.
As dinner wound down, Phil excused himself from the table in order to use the restroom, assuring Taya not to worry about paying for her meal. He’d cover it.
Leaning closer to Jake, who had managed to let Phil sit next to Taya rather than doing so himself, Taya confided, “I don’t want Phil paying for my dinner.” Her voice and face both seemed distressed at the possibility.
Now very unsure of her motivation, Jake nodded with a bit of hesitation and replied, “No problem. I’ll cover all three.” When her expression lightened, he relaxed a bit and cut a shrill whistle for their waitress. The girl skated over in her Fifties poodle skirt, wool sweater and roller blades. After handing her his card, Jake sat back to peer at Taya.
Sensing his building frustration with her behavior, Taya said, “It’s just that Phil paying for my dinner feels too much like a date. And I don’t want to give him the wrong impression.”
He took a moment to ponder the implications in her words. “You’re not interested in Phil.” The realization tore at him inside. At home last night, he had replayed the entire evening in his mind. Only then, to his great frustration, had he realized that he’d given his word to his good friend to leave Taya to Phil. But he knew he could lose himself to this woman with ease!
Sighing in relief, Taya replied, “Not in the least. Not in him, anyway.” Her captivating eyes held his complete attention and he couldn’t help but get her meaning.
Nodding, Jake could only think, Okay, all bets are off! “Then I think you should come and work at Nightmare Manor,” he said in response. “It’s a better facility, it’s indoors, and you could see Phil every night!” The rain spattering against the window beside them punctuated his words.
She laughed at the joke and sat back on the soft booth bench seat. “I can’t,” she responded with a reluctant sigh. “I’m already working the spook alley.”
In his peripheral vision, Jake noticed Phil emerge from the short hall leading to the restrooms. “You’d be on the winning team.”
“I’m fine where I am, thank you.” She noticed Phil approaching as well and whispered, “You’ll just have to call me.”
Raising an eyebrow at her acceptance of him into her life was the only response he could offer before Phil arrived at their table. A last knowing glance passed between them.
Out of the Nest
Abyss: The Afterlife
Kiah walked through the nothingness of the Abyss. All around him flickered vague shadows and shapes. They provided brief glimpses of things that could be there, but nothing that he could focus on.
Every time I come here it creeps me out. I wonder why I don’t stumble onto some homicidal soul who would be more than happy to tear me into little pieces. Oh, yea, that’s who I’m looking for—
Kiah continued to walk for what seemed like days, only to have the nothingness remain constant.
Am I lost? I’ve never been lost in the Abyss before. I didn’t think I could be.
More Abyss, endless nothingness greeting him caused Kiah to get frustrated.
“Masaal—!” Even his shouting was absorbed into the grayness of the Abyss, not echoing or providing any auditory feedback of any kind. “What a pain you are,” he grumbled. Consigned to the uselessness of his quest, he retreated from the Abyss.
Paiachen was one of many worlds throughout the galaxy covered in dense forestation. It’s natural resources could sustain billions of inhabitants. As it was, only a few million lived there and for them, technological progress was slow. Without a large number of scientists or craftsmen, the entire planet seemed stuck in a perpetual Middle Ages, ruled by theology with a heavy taint of superstition.
Equal parts land and sea, many settlements enjoyed a location near the ocean.
One such frontier community in Paiachen’s southern hemisphere languished in the rich warmth of the summer sun, surrounded by thick-leafed palm trees and bordering a beautiful lagoon. This sunny morning, a crowd clustered at the close end of the lagoon, gathered around a lean, strong young man laying on the ground in a pool of blood.
“Chel…” the young man’s fiancé wept, her tears falling like salty raindrops on his slack muscles.
A young man knelt beside her, whispering, “It’s going to be all right, Leda.” But his hopes of comforting her at this tragic moment were in vain.
Without warning, Chel’s body convulsed, his back pushed up in an arc and held above the ground by his heels and the back of his head.
A moment later, Chel’s body went lax again, only now his chest rose and fell a steady rhythm of breathing when there was nothing before.
Chel, now indwelt by Masaal, opened his eyes.
Leda blinked and sat back on her heels, but those eyes she had loved to gaze into so much had opened again. She forgot the eerie glow she’d thought she had seen as relief flooded through her entire body.
In a rush, Leda enveloped Masaal in a crushing embrace, her tears of pain now streaming down her face in joy.
The young man that had been helping comfort Leda, turned to where Chel’s left thigh remained covered in blood. He wiped the blood away to reveal a healed thigh—no evidence whatsoever of injury.
“I guess the blood belonged to someone else,” the friend muttered to himself, then cast a concerned gaze on the embracing young couple.
After a moment, Masaal pushed Leda away, despite her protests, and leaned over to the nearby pool of water. Leaning down, Masaal scooped up some cool clear water in his hands. That was when he noticed his own reflection in the rippling water’s surface. To him, it wasn’t Chel at all, but Masaal’s own devious, charismatic face staring back from the water’s surface.
Without any indication of what he saw, Masaal splashed the water across his face.
When he was done, Leda smothered him with her embrace.
“Oh, Chel. I’m so glad you’re all right.”
Masaal couldn’t help but smile to himself.
Paradise: The Afterlife
Kiah stood at the edge of the lower grounds. White seabirds drifted on the updrafts rising from the cliffs off to his left. They dipped and rolled, content to ride the air currents and perform aerial acrobatics at their leisure.
Down below, Kenah was going through the routine of preparing their sail craft for an afternoon jaunt across the waters. The boat was a beautiful creation of sculpted curves, billowing sails and white and pale blue trims. Kenah loved sailing and even though Kiah was at his best on dry land, he had taken to sailing as best he could. Their contact with family and friends here was limited, a drawback of their station, as was not yet having children of their own. On occasion they crossed the waters or made their way through the woods. Family and loved ones always waited for them on the other side. Funny thing, he mused to himself.
The salty scent of the sea tickled Kiah’s nostrils and when he closed his eyes he could hear the gentle splash of the waves rushing to the shore, mingled with the occasional chirp of a dolphin in the water or cry of a seabird above. A content smile twitched the ends of his lips.
“You look like a man in Heaven,” a man’s voice said not far behind him.
Without opening his eyes, Kiah asked his friend, “Is this Heaven?”
“It’s enough for now,” came Joshua’s easy reply as he stepped up next to Kiah on the ridge. His fair skin gave off an almost ethereal glow, which contrasted with his dark hair and eyes.
Kiah opened his eyes and looked at his wife. She had abandoned her preparations for departure. Stroking the dolphins that had gathered near the rear of the craft now held her complete attention. “Now you be nice. You’ve had your turn,” she laughed, scolding a rather pushy male who wanted to hog all of her attention.
“Not for her,” Kiah replied.
Nodding, Joshua replied, “So I’ve heard.”
“I try to counsel her about being patient, but eternity is along time to be childless.”
“Diligence to your Calling and Faith will see you through.” Joshua put a reassuring hand on Kiah’s strong shoulder. “It won’t be Eternity if the two of you stand firm.”
With a heavy sigh, Kiah agreed, his eyes never leaving the warming sight of Kenah petting and talking with the dolphins below the rest of the estate, including the massive mansion that Kiah and Kenah called home.
“I went to see Masaal in the Abyss,” Kiah confided, without knowing why.
Joshua remained silent, causing Kiah to look over his shoulder at his Mentor.
“He’s gone again.”
“Oh?” Joshua asked, feigning ignorance.
Scowling, Kiah turned to face Joshua full-on. “Don’t get evasive, Joshua. I don’t believe this is a surprise to you for one second. You’re a Mentor. Your job is to know when a soul goes Rogue. Why wasn’t I told about Masaal escaping so soon after his last retrieval?”
With a sympathetic chuckle, Joshua asked, “Soon? You know how deceptive time can be here. Since you last dealt with Masaal, four Mortal years have passed. You yourself have gone on three other retrievals since Omnious, all ‘text book’ retrievals, I might add. So by-the-book they warrant minimal entries by the Chronologists.”
After reflecting for a moment on those three retrievals, Kiah realized that Joshua was right. However, he couldn’t help but sigh. “Still…why wasn’t I sent to bring him in?”
“You’re not the only SoulChaser here in Paradise,” Joshua replied with a chuckle.
“But I am one of the best.” Kiah’s response wasn’t pride, more a statement of fact.
After a pause, Joshua agreed. “As such, you deserve time to spend with your lovely wife, exploring other worthwhile experiences. There’s more to life in the Second Glory than SoulChasing, my friend.”
Joshua’s argument didn’t sway Kiah’s opinion. “Am I allowed to know who was sent to retrieve Masaal this time?”
“A member of your own team…Pol.”
Kiah paused in his protests, peering at Joshua.
Glancing out to the sea, Kiah muttered, “I hope not.”
Joshua almost sounded like a parent talking with a distracted child when he said, “Pol is up to the task. You trained him, and did an excellent job.”
“But Masaal’s no ordinary soul.”
“No,” Joshua agreed, “and our hope is that, like you and Kenah have proven to be, neither is Pol.”
Kiah took a moment to think about that, then made a conscious effort to take on a supportive attitude. “You’re right. Pol’s an excellent SoulChaser. I’m sure he’ll give Masaal a solid thrashing before sending him back to the Abyss.”
Pol, in the host body of a lanky old man, crashed up against the entrance hall wall, crashing through a suit of armor in the process.
Before him, Masaal approached, a maniacal grin on his face.
“It’s a toss of the dice to know which of you pathetic SoulChasers will be sent to try and send me back,” the rogue snarled, flexing his shoulders as he approached to loosen them up.
Through broken teeth, Pol replied, “Not ‘try’, rogue.”
Masaal growled in contempt as he picked Pol up and slammed him face-down against one of the shields lying on the cobblestone floor. In its polished reflection Pol could see his own handsome face, devoid of injury, but still contorted with pain. Beside him, his scrambling hand closed over the handle of a morning star, which he managed to swing at Masaal as the rogue flipped him over. The weapon connected with the side of Masaal’s head with a solid ‘crunch—’. Masaal’s eyes rolled back in his head and he collapsed to the floor beside the SoulChaser.
In the sky above the castle, darkening clouds formed.
Pol crawled to a sitting position, pulling the SoulStar out of his pants pocket. Masaal had given him some trouble locating him this time around. But once he’d had the SoulStar in hand, tracking down the rogue had proven easy.
Masaal’s eyes were vacant and drool began to mix with the blood streaming from the puncture wounds in the right side of his head.
Pol pulled Masaal’s tunic open, exposing the host body’s lean, powerful abdomen. He set the SoulStar on Masaal’s chest, then managed to pick up a broadsword lying nearby. That’s when he noticed the appalled onlookers gathered at the door to the entryway. None of them made a move to intercede.
As Pol tightened his grip on the sword, he wondered, Wait until they see what’s next.
Up above the castle, the skies blackened and multiple shafts of lightning lanced the sky.
Inside, the room became bathed by a powerful light, as if in the process of drawing the Rogue soul out, the SoulStar was also trying to draw in everything around it, too.
A moment later, the stone in the center of the SoulStar flashed green, then clear. Then all became quiet.
Pol moved to step over Chel’s dead body to retrieve the SoulStar and was attacked by Leda.
“No, Chel, no—”
Pol grunted as the young woman drove the knife in her hand all the way into his abdomen.
Behind them, a nondescript crowd member walked up to the SoulStar, picked it up from Chel’s motionless chest and slipped it into his pocket.
Leaning into the young woman who just killed him, Pol noticed the young man who pocketed the SoulStar slipping away into the darkness outside the castle. The SoulChaser couldn’t help smiling to himself. “At least the SoulStar’s safe,” he gasped, then closed his eyes and died.
(C) Copyright Jason A. Anderson. Used by permission for preview purposes, only.