Blood And Tinsel
Al Bruno III
Al Bruno III
"Sorry I'm late."
"It wasn't unexpected. Shall we initiate our offensive? The malefactors have already appeared on the scene."
"Our targets are in the shopping enclosure."
"The shopping enclosure."
"Ok. USA. Mall. Teamed up with a stiff board to kill crazy bastards. Got it."
"Marvelous. Now, can we begin?"
"Sure. Just one thing."
"What was your name again?"
The mall restroom reeked of strawberry-scented air freshener; unseen speakers droned out a never-ending cycle of lethargic, sugar-coated Christmas Carols. A lone figure stood before one of the sinks, critiquing his reflection. The face that stared back at him was sweaty and pinched, wearing a pair of thick-lensed, wide-rimmed glasses. He ran his hands through the thinning remains of his hair and tried to recapture some trace of the confidence he had felt ten days ago when Bodge Loyar had called upon him to perform this mission of vengeance. Scorby remembered thinking The Bloodless Whisperer and his followers will pay dearly for their crimes.
Now he had to wonder, and wondering made panic blossom in Scorby's throat and do a long, cold slide down to his belly. It was too late to back out now, he knew that. It had been too late years ago, but what wouldn't he do for just one more week to sacrifice and make ready? His adversary was as old as he was deadly - what did he have to compare? Was his faith in the Harlequin in the Ice enough?
In the end his faith was all he had.
Twisting the faucet to life he splashed icy water on his face and neck. Slowly the fear subsided. "Stay calm." he murmured, "Stay calm."
It was almost time to begin, he had one last preparation to make. There was a plastic sandwich bag in his coat pocket. He reached for it, feeling its contents shift and twist. The bag was full of bloated worms, well over a dozen of them. Scorby took them into the restroom stall and reverently swallowed mouthful after squirming mouthful.
"We have arrived."
"Very nice. Didn't even break a sweat during casting."
"There is no alternative for being erudite. Mind your step."
"Thanks, never thought I'd be futzing around in a construction site again. It’s like the night I lost my virginity all over again. So who did you piss off to get sent here?"
"No one. It was the highest privilege to be chosen."
"Oh boy. You don't get it do you?"
"We pissed off one of the Preceptors or a Dean and now they want us dead- or at least severely mangled. This was the easiest way to do it"
"Such paranoia! The Dark Gods are a real threat, not some blunt-edged assassin's tool."
"Oh please. The Dark Gods haven't been a serious threat since nineteen thirty-seven. Believe me, I know."
"And how would you be a party to such detailed information?"
"My Ma used to worship them."
Shoppers filed through the mall, coursing in and out of the stores, up and down on the escalators. The sound of conversations, laughter and arguments all coalesced together to form a soft, shifting wall of sound. On the second floor of the mall the crowd was thinner, thanks in part to the renovations that had blocked off many of the storefronts. Here the weary customer could take a moment to relax in the relative calm of the food court.
Herb Cordel strode through the maze of tables and benches, his eyes alert, his white hair slicked back. His uniform was spotless and neatly ironed, his walkie-talkie dangled from its holster. His gaze shifted this way and that, ever vigilant.
A splash and the sound of jeering laughter echoed dimly in his bad ear. Turning on his heel, he saw a gang of teen-agers pouring soda over the railing onto the unwary patrons below.
Unholstering his walkie-talkie, the chief of mall security called for back up and moved in.
Alien thoughts swimming through his mind, Scorby moved cautiously out of the access hallway and merged with the crowds. He tried to blend in, but he felt incredibly conspicuous. Slowing his pace he scanned the sea of slack-jawed faces for his enemy, but the senile old fop was nowhere in sight.
The sheep brushed against him on either side, their proximity making his bile rise. He wondered idly if any of them understood how empty and futile their little dreams were.
It didn't matter because tonight they would learn; tonight they would sample the glory of Bodge Loyar's wisdom.
"Enough bantering. Let us enter the fray."
"Woah. Woah. Woah. Wait a minute there my friend."
"Is there a problem?"
"Look, just hear me out on this. These guys are pretty hardcore right?"
"They are formidable opponents."
"And they're here to have this weird-ass sissyboy slap fight right?"
"Is there a point to all this dithering?"
"Let them fight for a while and soften each other up."
"What kind of Mystagogue are you? Such a clash would cause horrific casualties."
"Just plain folks. The casualties would all be just plain folks. Don't you get it? They're just pawns on the chessboard, we're the rooks and the bishops."
"This is without question the most reprehensible thing I have ever heard."
"Reprehensible or not-"
"What- What's happening?"
"Oh sweet Monkey King!"
"Don't you see? The Dark Gods- they're cutting us off!"
"No. Not just us. The whole damn mall!"
Half the bottom level of the mall was overrun with seasonal decorations- fake snow, mannequins dressed as elves and plastic reindeer. The centerpiece of the display was a twenty-foot tall fiberglass Christmas tree that was at least ten years past its prime. The man called Charnel Bloom scowled at it for a moment; at the harried looking Santa and his disinterested helpers, at the children, some rude, others caterwauling. So much noise, it raped the silence from the universe. It was bad enough that minions of Bodge Loyar had desecrated the temple of Anzon the bloodless whisperer. It was bad enough they had stolen the precious Splinter from its velvet lined cage of bones. It was bad enough that the little shit Scorby had evaded his every trap, his every attack with surprising ease, always staying one step ahead...
But now, to lead the chase here?
Death is too good for the son of a bitch. Charnel Bloom thought, his too-white teeth grinding.
These boys had been in Herb's office before.
Many times before.
Pouring drinks on holiday shoppers was the least of their transgressions. Even now, in the office of mall security, with a police car or their parents just a phone call away, they were snickering and ginning.
"You boys," Herb hitched his belt as he paced before them, "are starting to piss me off."
He had hoped that his uncharacteristic use of profanity would cow them, but all it did was raise their giggling to a fever pitch, "What if that had been your mother walking down there?"
The ringleader of the trio mumbled something.
"What was that?" Herb rounded on him.
"I said she would have been worth double points."
The other two shook with laughter.
"Shut up!" the headache he had felt building all evening, chose that moment to burst to life, the pain nearly knocked him off his feet. Leaning on his desk he shook a finger at the two younger boys, "You both got one strike against you."
Turning his attention back to the ringleader he snarled, "And you- you got two strikes against you!"
One of the two younger boys stood and burst into song, "And it's one! Two! Three strikes you're out! At the old! Ball! Game!"
Now the three of them were in hysterics, the ringleader was rolling around on the floor like an overturned bug. Herb kept a revolver locked in a strongbox in his bottom desk drawer; he was sorely tempted to get it now.
The door to the mall security office crashed open and Mary-Jean, one of the two other security guards on duty tonight, stormed inside, dragging a guilty-looking man in a frock coat behind her. Herb jumped, "The Hell-"
"They caught him hiding in one of the changing ladies changing rooms at Sears." Mary-Jean shoved the man into the chair. She was just under six feet tall and obese to the point of androgyny, "I guess we all know who didn't get a girlfriend for Christmas."
Ten minutes of searching the sea of faces and still nothing. Another wave of panic washed over Scorby as he navigated the display of antique cars that crowded the other half of the mall.
It wasn't like Charnel Bloom to lie low; the old man always met his enemies with speed and brutality. No thought or planning ever went into his attacks.
Crouching down beside a '39 Ford, Scorby wiped the beads of sweat from his forehead. It was just his luck that the old man had finally read a book on tactics.
"I can't see out. I can't get out. I can't even call for help. can you? If you can I will be really impressed."
"No. No I cannot."
"Shit! I knew we were getting hosed!"
"The Greater Eastern Council of Mystagogues does not 'hose' its own members!"
"Oh please. That warm tingling sensation you're feeling isn't love, it means you're being pissed on."
"Enough of this nonsense Jack Diamond!"
The sign on the plaster partition wall proclaimed in cheery letters "PARDON OUR DUST! WE'RE REMODELLING TO SERVE YOU BETTER!" and then went on in much smaller print to describe the planned new stores and multiplex cinema.
Nicole Miller stared blankly at the fading letters as she sucked down the last draughts from a chocolate milkshake. She had dark hair and a mouth that seemed to be frozen in a perpetual frown. Three hours, she'd been here for three hours already and, aside from the ice cream, she'd bought nothing. She didn't want to be here, but she sure as Hell didn't want to go back to that lifeless apartment.
With a sigh of resignation she stood and pulled her long, red coat in around herself more tightly and adjusted her scarf. A bar. That was the answer, she'd go to a bar and drink herself numb. Trudging towards the exit, Nicole had to choke down the urge to rip down the endless mosaic of plastic holly and tinsel.
Scorby squealed a little when he spied the back of Charnel Bloom's head receding through the throng of sheep. There was no mistaking that garish beret, the ratty old knapsack or, most of all, the elaborately carved bone flute sticking out of it.
For a dreadful moment Scorby became sure that the old man was going to turn and attack. But he just kept right on walking, his arrogant gait carrying him past the record store and on towards Sears.
Knowing that this was his moment to strike, Scorby set off in cautious pursuit.
"This is all just a big misunderstanding…" the pervert stammered and blushed as he emptied his pockets out onto Herb's desk. Mary-Jean stood next to him, poised like an attack dog.
A roll of duct tape, half a movie ticket, a book of matches, a vial with a wax stopper, scraps of paper, a necklace made from paper clips, a thick sliver of scarlet crystal, a gold pen and a tarot card clattered onto Herb's desk. He'd sent the three hooligans off with a warning; there was nothing more he could do really. Neither the police nor their parents would lift a finger to punish them. He had the goddamn Dr. Spock to thank for that.
Besides, the little bastards had given him a headache. If the preliminary pangs were anything to go by, this would be a migraine of epic proportions. At least he had this little weirdo to take it all out on. Lurking in a ladies changing room was grounds for a call to the police. Leaning back in his seat, Herb looked him over. The pervert was short- 4'11'' at best, with frizzy black hair, his cheerless brown eyes were concealed behind a pair of granny glasses. His jeans and T-shirt were grimy and spattered. He looked to Herb like a transient, a damn hippie, or both.
"Where's your ID?" Mary-Jean asked as she patted him down.
"ID? Well, I don't have any but, er, you can call me Zachary."
Herb started to write, "Zachary what?"
"Benjamin Zachary." he smiled uncertainly.
"He's clean." Mary-Jean said.
"What year is this? I can never remember."
Herb found his attention drawn to the scarlet crystal. It was almost a foot long, rounded on one end, narrowing to a point on the other. It was smooth and perfect save for a single flaw buried deep in the crystal's heart, a bubble of discoloration. Strange images slithered across the surface of the scarlet crystal as Herb turned it over in his hands; they filled his mind with unpleasant memories and lost opportunities. With a shudder he dropped it to the desk and swept it and the rest of their prisoner's miniature junk shop into the bottom desk drawer, then he locked it. "It's 1975 and I wouldn't make jokes if I was you young man. You're in big trouble."
"We're all in big trouble." The man leaned back in his seat and steepled his fingers, "If we don't drop this nonsense and act quickly everyone in this building is going to die."
After following his quarry for almost a full minute without discovery Scorby decided that it was time to act. He stopped and stood in place, the sheep seething around him. Eventually one of them made eye contact and Scorby whispered an invocation.
The woman stiffened as her free will shut down. She turned, shouldering her way through the holiday shoppers to advance on Charnel Bloom.
"We need to strike and we need to strike now."
"No fucking way. We're trapped. We need to be smart about this."
"Smart? Or craven?"
"Even if we take these guys out that doesn't solve our problem of how to get out of here. What if they are the only ones that can undo the invocation? Shit! We don't even know where we are!"
"Doubtless our fellow Mystagogues are hard at work devising a way to liberate us."
"Don't fool yourself. We're on our own Wu-Han."
Willie Tatallia stared in confusion at the series of eight glass doors that made up the mall's main exit. He shook them again, more firmly this time, but they still refused to budge. On either side of him, at other doors, patrons were trying to leave.
All the doors were jammed shut. Shoppers and weary staff alike were making demands-
"-unlock the damn doors- "
"I'm late enough as it is-"
"-jokes over buddy-"
"What the Hell is going on here?"
Problem was that Willie had tried to unlock the doors, several times in fact. The keys had slipped into place, the lock had moved easily but nothing had happened. It was like they'd been welded shut. The crowd surrounding him was growing in size and unease. He directed them to the other exits and returned to staring at the doors, his lanky frame hunched in concentration. It was at moments like this that he wished there really were things like Tricorders and Phasers. That way, he could scan the doors like Spock and come up with both an explanation and a solution for the problem at hand. Of course, if he was Kirk he would just blast the doors into their component atoms.
And that would be far out.
Unfortunately this wasn't Starfleet and he wasn't Kirk. He was a simple mall security guard, a goddamn Red Shirt if every there was one. It just went to show what three years of college couldn't do for you.
He decided to take a look at the other doors. What if they were all jammed? What if everyone was trapped in here? He felt the first stirrings of something that didn't happen in Star Trek. Something called panic.
Shoving on a door that refused to budge left her with a wrist that felt halfway towards being sprained. Shaking it Nicole cursed with anger and frustration. It was shaping up to be another banner holiday season for the Miller's only daughter. A crowd was forming around her, people pushed at unyielding doors with helpless befuddlement. Curses, questions and the sound of metal and glass being shaken filled her ears.
Turning away from the scene, Nicole headed for the Burger King. She could use the exit there.
Closer, closer, closer still.
Dabbing the sweat from his forehead with the back of his shirtsleeve, Scorby trailed the woman stalking Charnel Bloom. Was it really going to be this simple?
A tide of panic was working its way though the sheep. They were beginning to realize that they were trapped. Scorby concentrated on his adversary, seeing him through the woman's vision; the lop-sided beret, the long gray hair, the khaki knapsack and, of course, the engraved bone flute protruding from it.
This is almost too easy! Scorby thought as he counted the steps to victory.
The woman's arm flickered out at the nudging of Scorby's mind, her thin fingers snatching the flute.
Charnel Bloom turned a moment too late, his eyes widening at the loss of his precious instrument.
"What are you, some kind of a nutcase?" Mary-Jean loomed over their prisoner, her fist inches from his face.
"No." when their prisoner spoke it was with a kind of resignation, "I am not. I am trying to save lives."
With a well-practiced glare Herb told Mary-Jean to back off. Christ! The woman was a lawsuit waiting to happen. "Look, we'd like to believe you, but let's be serious for a second here. You were found loitering in a ladies changing room, with no ID and no money and now we're supposed to believe you when you tell us that we're all going to die?"
"I'm telling the truth."
Mary-Jean sneered, "Bullshit."
Leaning back in his chair, Herb tried to sound reasonable, "What are you telling me? That you're some kind of a G-man?"
"That's it!" he snapped his fingers and leapt to his feet only to be shoved back down by Mary-Jean. "Herb, I want you to call the FBI and tell them you have Special Agent August Zabladowski in custody."
"I thought you said your name was Benjamin Zachary." Mary-Jean said.
"Yes. I did."
This was growing more preposterous by the second, if it weren't so tragic Herb would have burst out laughing. "You're an FBI agent now?"
"Actually I'm something of a consultant." 'Benjamin Zachary' shifted in his seat, uncomfortable with their scrutiny. It was almost as though he didn't expect to be believed.
"Do you know the penalty for impersonating a government agent?"
Herb shrugged, "It's more than peeping, I'll tell you that."
"Look, if you're going to have me arrested then have me arrested! Just do something before it's too late."
Shaking his head, the old security guard decided to let the police handle 'Special Agent August Zabladowski'. Let them try and figure out who he was and what rubber room he belonged in.
Mary-Jean laughed as her supervisor picked up the receiver, "End of the road secret agent man."
After a few aborted attempts Herb set the receiver back down in it's cradle, "Snowstorm must have taken out the phone lines."
"Too late." the weirdo buried his face in his hands, "I'm still too late."
"Cut the freakin' dramatics!" Mary-Jean snapped.
The security guards' walkie-talkies hissed and crackled to life. Benjamin Zachary/August Zabladowski/Whoever He Was ran his fingers through his hair, "That will be Mr. Tatallia calling in to tell you that every door, even the loading dock ones are jammed shut."
"Guys this is Willie." the pounding in Herb's skull deepened as he raised the walkie-talkie. The kid sounded rattled, "All the doors- even the loading dock ones, they're stuck. They won't open."
They both stared at their prisoner in bewilderment "Are you serious?"
"The stairwells are open, and the inner doors are all cool but the ones that go out to the parking lot are stuck."
This extra dollop of stress wasn't helping Herb's headache any, he leaned on his desk, trying to think. "Okay... okay..."
"Herb... Mr. Cordel." The prisoner stood, his eyes were bright and expectant, "We need to act quickly and we need to act decisively if any of us are to survive this. There's still a chance to minimize the damage."
"Thanks." Herb slipped the handcuffs from his belt, taking this as her cue Mary-Jean shoved the ersatz secret agent back down. With practiced ease he cuffed the man's wrist and then attached the other end of the handcuffs to the radiator, "But no thanks. For all we know this is your doing, I think you should wait here until we find out for sure."
"No. Don't do this! I can get it right! I can save lives."
"Shut! Up!" Mary-Jean slapped the prisoner hard.
"Mary!" the echoing crack seemed to linger in the air, Herb winced thinking to himself that Mary-Jean Kachanski was one woman he did not want to meet alone in a dark alley. But he had to admit it had shut the loon up. He was just sitting there, glaring sullenly. "You're gonna be the one spending the night in jail if you don't watch it."
"It's cause of this asswipe that I'm gonna miss The Rockford Files."
Herb rolled his eyes, she was worse than Willie with his Star Track show. "Okay here's the drill, I want you to help Willie find a working phone or see if you can use one of the C.B radios they got over at the Radio Shack. Call the police and call a locksmith. I'm gonna see these jammed doors for myself."
They left the office, their prisoner stared after them, blood drooling from the cut on his lip. "Bless my buttons." he whispered.
There was the tiniest shock when the woman slapped the flute into Scorby's hand. The young magus permitted himself one small indulgence, he raised the length of carved bone and gave his adversary the smarmiest smile he could muster.
To Scorby's surprise and near-disappointment, the mighty Charnel Bloom turned and fled.
There was a crash as the woman, freed suddenly from Scorby's power, collapsed into a quivering heap.
"Well, by the look of things it shouldn't take the short one too long to kill the tall one."
"One can hope. I still cannot believe that I resolved to follow your strategy."
"Hey, who is ever gonna know?"
"Assuming we survive this I still have to wonder how we are going to escape this imbroglio."
"Don't worry, the Monkey King will provide."
"You worship the Monkey King?"
"He's my personal savoir."
"I am employing advice given to me by a man that venerates a monkey."
"Not just any monkey..."
It was quite a task to force one's way through the mass of shoppers surrounding the door that had gathered before the main entrance. On the outer fringes of the crowd the conversation was still speculative and light-hearted. People sat with their backs to the wall, with their children and purchases clustered around them. They noticed Herb's uniform but only eyed his passing. Deeper within the throng the air was cloying and tempers were short. Hands pulled on Herb, shrill voices made demands.
He waved them off as best he could and pressed on, intent on seeing these mysteriously 'jammed' doors for himself.
Every few minutes his walkie-talkie would spit static and either Mary-Jean or Willie would report in with another useless phone or door. What was going on here? This had gone beyond mere pranksterism, it was sabotage! Or, more chillingly, perhaps it was something criminal. What if the Special Agent Pervert had been right? What if there were terrorists right here in the mall. In his mall? And of course this was the day of all days that his head would choose to birth the meanest of all the migraines it had ever unleashed on him. It felt like his skull was being crushed between hot boulders, their pressure slowly grinding his sanity away.
By the time he reached the doors he was drenched with sweat, he felt like he might throw up. Hell, he might feel better if he did throw up! It would certainly help to clear the area. Taking hold of the doors he gave them a solid tug.
"Sir?" one of the shoppers spoke up, "The door says push."
The black lettering on the glass mocked Herb; he rolled his eyes and gave the door a solid shove. Still nothing. The feel of dozens of eyes pressing watching him, made him nervous, he wanted to turn and order them to clear off, but that would just make things worse. People these days barely respected a policeman's uniform much less mall security. His knees popped as he lowered himself to a crouch so he could examine the keyholes and locks.
There were no signs of tampering but if it was vandalism, they probably would have done their mischief from the other side of the door so they could make their getaway. But how could anyone jam the almost sixty doors that led to the outside world in so brief a time?
"Well, by the look of things it shouldn't take the short one too long to kill the tall one."
Herb turned to confront the moron yelling in his ear, but all he saw was row after row of intense silent faces. "Great." He mumbled to himself, "Now I'm hearin' things."
The throbbing in his head was reaching a fever pitch, he wondered moodily if this meant there was another trip to the VA Hospital looming in his future. He pulled the key ring from his belt and felt through the keys with sweat-slicked fingers. It slipped in and twisted easily, but the door stayed jammed. "Why me. Why does this shit always happen to me?" Herb whispered as he leaned his aching head against the cool metal of the door.
Shaking his head Willie Tatallia strode out of the Noah's Ark pet store. Damn! No working phone here either, just more weirdness. Every cat in the damn place was gone- vanished without a trace. He'd checked every store on the first level and not a single phone was in working order; Mary-Jean was apparently having similar luck upstairs. Scratching his head he decided to head back to the office and wait for Herb. What else could they do? This whole mess was a lot like that episode of Star Trek where that weird energy alien had trapped the crew and a bunch of Klingons on the Enterprise and forced them to fight with swords.
The thought made Willie pause in mid-step. Jesus, he hoped it wouldn't be like that. He couldn't swordfight to save his life! Turning back to the crowds milling around the doors he comforted himself with the realization that most of these folks probably couldn't swordfight either.
As he watched, a pair of shoppers hoisted a bench and began to charge towards the doors. Willie ran at them, his voice filling the air with orders to cease and desist, his mind filling up with visions of broken glass and torn skin.
Nicole slumped onto a bench, her shoulders heavy. After trying more doors than she cared to remember, she was now convinced that she was going to die trapped in a shopping mall listening to the disco Muzak version of 'Frosty the Snowman',
Of course, if she did get out here what would she do? Go back to her empty, undecorated apartment? Get drunk? Drive to the intersection of Shaker Road and Hickory Drive and weep?
Thoughts of that hated patch of road brought the memory back full force; her driving as she argued with Mark that yes, they had to go to her mother's house for Christmas dinner regardless of how bad the weather was. Then the whisper of tires skimming fast over snow and ice, the sickening sensation of the road turning when they could not. Everything shifted into slow motion with the almost too quiet thud of the snowtireless Dodge Dart slamming into the telephone pole. The dry cracking sound to her right that she would only later realize was the sound of a piece of the door tearing itself loose and stabbing Mark in the chest.
Shuddering as she returned to the present, Nicole looked up to see passersby eyeing her oddly. Her vision blurred and cleared and blurred again. Tentatively she reached up to stroke her face, her fingertips came back wet with tears.
A fresh invocation spilled off Scorby's lips as he pursued his adversary into SEARS. A clerk's face went blank and he dove over the necktie counter, but Charnel Bloom feinted nimbly to the right leaving the clerk to collide with a four-foot tall ceramic elf, which fell and shattered noisily. For a weak-kneed old fool the bastard could sure run.
A herd of sheep, clerks and cashiers by the look of them, looked up from trying to open one of the exits with a crowbar to watch the elf's head roll down the aisle. Scorby continued the chase, shoving customers and staff aside only to be intercepted by a heavyset man in a dark suit. "What's the hurry buddy?" the man's jowls were flush with anger, his gold name badge read Store Manager.
So intent was Scorby upon his quarry that he nearly wrenched his arm from the socket before he realized that one of the sheep was actually touching him! There was no time to waste; Scorby spat out a particularly brutal invocation. The store manager didn't even have time to scream. He simply collapsed, his face making a resounding smack as it hit the floor.
Bolting past menswear, Scorby rounded the corner to find himself in the hardware department. His head swam with felt fatigue and nausea. That invocation had cost him; he needed to conserve his energy. Either that or he needed to down the last of his worms.
To his right a child carefully rearranged the socket wrenches on the low shelf before him, while further away his parents dickered with a salesman over shades of paint.
His pace slowed to a walk, a single "No" escaping from his lips.
There was no sign of Charnel Bloom anywhere.
The crowd cleared behind Mary-Jean as she backed up. The expression on her face resembling nothing so more than an enraged animal. With a curse she kicked at the glass door with all her might for a second time, and just like before she was rewarded with a bone jarring impact that accomplished nothing. The door didn't crack or break, the frame didn't even jiggle.
She ran her hands over the smooth surface of the glass, the painted letters rasping slightly beneath her fingertips. "What the fuck?" she murmured to herself, "What the fuck?"
Every frigging door she'd tried was stuck fast. It was starting to piss her off; and the good Lord hadn't gifted Mary-Jean Kachanski with very much patience to begin with.
"Lady-" an annoyed masculine voice piped up behind her, "is there anybody working here who knows how to open a simple door?"
The crowd of shoppers loosed a collective gasp as Mary-Jean rounded on the man, "You wanna fuckin' try it?"
A roar from Mary-Jean was usually enough to deter anybody but it only served to agitate the man further, "I don't approve of your language! Believe me, your supervisor's going to hear about this!"
That was it. Mary-Jean dove into the crowd, her fists flying. This was the point of no return, she knew she was as good as fired. But so what? She'd never wanted this stupid job. She hated the hours, she hated the mall, she hated the cheap, uncomfortable pseudo-cop uniform she had to wear, and most of all she hated having to deal with people forty hours a week, with their irritating questions and stupid problems.
One of her fists connected with a jaw, it wasn't the asshole she was aiming for but fuck it, he shouldn't have been there. It never failed. No matter where or who she worked for, it was always the same; one day her temper would get the better of her and before she knew it there was somebody scrabbling on the floor for lost teeth.
The smart mouth wasn't being so smartmouthed now. He was caterwauling about police and lawsuits, all the while trying to fend her off by swinging his shopping bags before him. Mary-Jean swatted them away, tearing the thick paper and sending his gaily-wrapped packages crashing to the floor. Mary-Jean landed a punch to his soft gut, he gasped audibly and looked up at her, tears welling up in his eyes. With a smile and a snort of laughter Mary-Jean said, "Tell this to my supervisor." Then she drew back her fist and expertly broke his nose.
Scorby spun in place, looking everywhere including the ceiling for his adversary; Charnel Bloom couldn't have just disappeared - could he? No it wasn't possible, the old man had to be nearby. Scorby was certain of this; he might be cowering behind one of the shelves or hiding in one of the areas marked EMPLOYEES ONLY but he was here.
There was a crash and a clatter, Scorby spun on his heel to find the little boy standing before a scattered pile of socket wrenches. There was a guilty frown tugging at the corners of his mouth; "Uh-oh." He said.
Examining the elaborately carved flute in his hand, Scorby reminded himself that the old man was helpless now. Unless of course...
Before the thought could be completed, ghostly piping filled the air; Scorby turned to see a trio of pale-furred shapes scamper down the nearby wall of the hardware department. They moved quickly and quietly, their pink eyes scanning the crowd of shoppers. Three more joined the first three, skittering out of thin air into view. Only the child had seen them and he was squealing for his parents.
Unless of course, Scorby realized as the bone flute slipped from his grasp, that bastard Charnel Bloom happens to have a spare.
The white monkeys flashed their yellowed teeth and leapt to attack. Scorby acted instinctively, knocking the surprised body down in his path as he ran.
The child had time for a final surprised cry before the monkeys were on him
Scorby kept running, the music from Charnel Bloom's flute filling the air.
"I think I am going to be ill."
"Now that's hardcore."
"We are doomed. Utterly utterly doomed.."
"No. No we aren't we just need to stick with the plan."
"Shit, if we play our cards right we'll be legends."
It felt like the radiator was roasting him alive. Benjamin Zachary shifted his chair as far as the handcuff chain would allow, but it wasn't much. If only they hadn't made him empty his pockets- it was relatively easy to pick a lock like this with a paper clip. Unfortunately his paper clips were out of reach, along with his matches, his pen, the poems he'd been working on, the roll of duct tape he'd been saving, the tarot card, the vial of medicinal powder, and of course the sliver of red crystal- the Splinter. Things were falling apart in record time. The sheer weight of what was going to happen here tonight overwhelmed him. Had he done the right thing by trying to confide in the older security guard?
Was it a mistake to have tried to warn him? Perhaps he should have simply concentrated on his main goal.
That was the problem with avoiding the mistakes of the past, it left you wide open to make fresh new ones.
Benjamin tugged again at the handcuffs. What was it about him that made people distrust him so easily? Was he trying too hard? Was he not trying hard enough? Or was this all just a load of bullshit and he was really nothing more than a madman with a vivid imagination?
That thought brought a smile to his lips.
He glanced around the security office, searching for a new means of escape.
It was blue-gray, hot and cramped. An old wooden desk and a peeling leather office chair occupied one side of the room, a shelf near the desk held the controls for the MUZAK and the PA system; the other side of the room held a pair of filing cabinets and a set of four mismatched chairs. He was sure that of the four, he was confined to the least comfortable one.
There was no immediate means of escape: so there was nothing he could do but wait.
If memory served him right William Tatallia would be coming by soon with Herb draped across his shoulders. There was a chance that he might be able to reason with him, and there was an even bigger chance that he might be able to befriend him.
The doors wouldn't unlock and they wouldn't break. It was almost as though some jolly prankster had replaced them with solid walls. None of this was possible but explanations no longer mattered to Herb; all he wanted to do was find a solution. This being Christmas, tempers were already running hot between shoppers and employees, how well were they going to take being trapped here together?
Herb only had to listen to the reports from Willie on his walkie-talkie to know that order was starting to break down. People were trying to force doors or escape through the area that was under construction and it was only going to get uglier. His migraine-plauged mind swam with visions of assaults and lawsuits. Merry fucking Christmas indeed.
Turning from the doors, he found himself surrounded by a swarm of anxious faces. The crowd had grown since he had first braved its depths.
"I think I am going to be ill."
Herb put a hand to the back of his head; he'd lost that part of his skull twenty years ago and it had been replaced with solid American steel. There had always been migraines but what he felt now reduced those reduced those earlier headaches to pale shadows.
And as for the voices? He wasn't the sort of man to hear voices.
"Damn that's hardcore."
It felt as though there was something growing inside his skull, getting ready to hatch. He wanted to find the voices and force them to be silent, but how could he? His knees felt rubbery, ready to give way, but he had an audience before him. They were all looking to him as a source of comfort and authority; Herb's sense of duty and pride kept him on his feet.
"All right folks." He raised his hands, "It looks like we're all gonna be stuck here for a while. So you may as well just grab a seat and relax while I call the authorities."
Immediately He was pelted with questions and demands. For some a call to the authorities wasn't going to be enough they wanted out now.
"We are doing everything we can." He kept his voice loud but reasonable, "But circumstances are beyond our control."
Pain washed over him, robbing him of his senses and sweeping all of his thoughts away. He didn't even know He had fallen until He hit the floor with a bone-jarring impact.
"Shit, if we play our cards right we'll be legends."
A grimace of concentration and delight played across Charnel Bloom's worn features as he blew air into the bone flute and let his fingers dance over the holes in movements of mathematic precision. Anything that wasn't nailed down zoomed after Scorby. Like so many before him his adversary had underestimated the power and wisdom of Anzon, and now he was going to pay for that mistake.
It amused Charnel Bloom to watch his opponent scurry this way and that, the White monkey's snapping at his heels, their fur stained pink with blood.. The tune rasping from the bone flute rose an octave and the entire electronics section - VCRs, STEREOS, TELEVISIONS, COMPUTERS AND MORE the sign boasted - went up in a shower of sparks and white smoke. The blast engulfed the lone salesman left in the department and knocked Scorby off his feet. Flinching at the noise, Charnel Bloom watched his opponent fly several yards through the air, hit the ground with a very feminine squeal, slide across the polished floor and collide with a trio of mannequins. There was a moment marked only by the droning MUZAK version of 'Jingle Bells' and the screeching of the bewildered spectators.
Smugly, Charnel Bloom strode through the debris, taking no small thrill in the sight of his challenger bloodied and battered, struggling to pull himself to his feet as the White monkeys moved in, slavering soundlessly. Charnel Bloom hoped that the Bloodless Whisperer was watching, he hoped that devotion was being proven.
Nicole was looking for a security guard or a store manager, just someone that could get her the Hell out of here, when she heard voices raised in alarm. Not wanting to gape she stood just outside the entrance of SEARS and peered inside. A portly man in a good suit was lying face down on the floor; a crowd of gawkers and would-be rescuers had gathered around him. The sight brought unpleasant memories flooding back.
It had been cold that December, bitterly cold. She remembered holding Mark's body and shouting for help on a deserted road. Blood had soaked through his clothes, and it felt so warm against her skin. Somehow, he was still clinging to life and he was moving his lips trying to speak; not a day went by that Nicole didn't wonder what he was trying so desperately to tell her in those final moments. What had those final words been?
She didn't believe in an afterlife, so she had to content herself with never knowing. It was scant comfort when December rolled around and there was snow on the ground and wreaths on every door.
She would have killed herself by now, if not for her fear of the yawning emptiness that had consumed Mark so completely.
Crashes and cries roused her from her thoughts. Nicole turned in time to see the muffled explosion, and a man tumbling around the corner. Curiosity getting the better of her fears, she drew closer.
Willie carried his boss into the security office. It was hard to believe that this pasty, twitching figure in his arms now was the same man he'd seen wrestle many a shoplifter to the ground, the same man that had beaten him at arm wrestling for the last two years.
Skirting around the desk, Willie set Herb down in his chair and stepped cautiously back. When he was sure that he wasn't going to fall out of the chair he ran over to the filling cabinet.
"Uhm, excuse me?"
Willie looked up from flinging files this way and that. There was a prisoner handcuffed to the radiator, some shoplifter forgotten in all the confusion. Willie cursed his ineptitude, how could he not have noticed another person in the room? He'd never make it in the police academy at this rate.
Or Starfleet for that mater.
"What?" Willie turned his attention back to the files. It was in here somewhere, he'd seen the stupid thing enough times. White box. Red Cross. How could he not find it now when he needed it?
"What's happening out there?"
"Nothing sir, just a few jammed doors that's all." With a grunt of frustration he slammed the top drawer closed and moved on to the second. His thoughts were a jumble, it was all happening too fast.
Herb groaned and slumped in his seat, rambling to himself. What if he's dying? Oh God what if? Willie thought as he tore through the contents of the second drawer, manila folders flying everywhere.
"If I might -"
"Be quiet!" Willie hissed at the prisoner.
The dark eyed man sighed with exasperation, "The first aid kit is in the upper right hand drawer of Mr. Cordel's desk."
"The first aid kit." The prisoner said, "You'll find it in the upper right hand drawer, the same drawer he keeps his box of raisins in.
Shock rooted Willie to the spot, "How- how did you know what I was looking for?"
"I know a great deal about what's going on here, and I know for a fact that no first aid kit in the world is going to help your boss."
"It is a stroke isn't it?" Leaning against the file cabinet, Willie shook his head, "Just like my Mom."
"No." The prisoner straightened up as best he could, he was sweaty and there was dark purple bruise on one side of his cheek. "It's nothing so mundane as a stroke. You know about Herb's war wound I take it?"
The prisoner looked him square, almost begging to be believed, "Well that steel plate in his skull has just started receiving... transmissions."
Now this was too much. Willie dismissed the ridiculousness with a wave of his arm. Here he was in a critical situation and this idiot was trying to waste his time "Are you crazy?"
"I know what's happening here, and I know what's going to happen here if we don't act quickly." He rattled the handcuffs for emphasis.
"How do you know anything?" Willie spat, "You're just some fuckin' shoplifter of something!"
"If I'm just a shoplifter then how do I know your name is William Thomas Tatallia? How do I know you just bought a brand new Monte Carlo? How do I know that your favorite show in the world is Star Trek? How do I know that you have a crush on the girl that makes sandwiches in the deli on afternoons?"
They stared at each other in a silence marked only by Herb's pained breathing. There was a sickening feeling in the pit of Willie's stomach, a feeling that was one half fear, one half excitement.
"How do you know all this?"
"You told it to me, every word."
"That's impossible, I've never seen you before."
"You told me in another time, another place."
"Oh my god. You're …you’re from the future! "
"It’s… not quite like that…"
"Then what is it like? Who are you?"
"These days I’m known as Benjamin Zachary."
In the jumbled confusion that had become his thoughts, Scorby could only notice that he had lost his spectacles; they were lying a few feet off to his right, a mangled scrap of glass and metal. Kicking free of the pile of broken mannequins, he shambled to his feet.
The white monkeys were closing in, scampering over the wreckage; their teeth grinding with excitement, their fur stained pink with blood. Scorby's only hope was in the crowd of sheep slowly being drawn his way by the commotion. He exclaimed an invocation, his voice deep and clear.
A small mob lurched after the White monkeys. Panicked the beasts attacked as one tearing into the blank eyed shoppers. Scrabbling pink fingers blinded one man and left another bleeding in a heap. A woman in a festive novelty hat grabbed two of the White monkeys and smashed their skulls together over and over again. Smiling with satisfaction, Scorby called to one of the stragglers in the mob, a dark haired, almost pretty girl in a long red coat.
Turning stiffly, Nicole Miller walked to Scorby's side. With a snarl he threw his arm around her shoulder and allowed himself to be half-carried to the escalator.
A few swift kicks from Mary-Jean was all it took to bring down a sizable section the plaster partition wall that dominated the rear third of the shopping center. Over six months ago the pinheads that owned the shopping center had decided to expand their little empire. With little ceremony or warning they booted a few of the inconveniently located stores out on their ears and started construction. About three weeks into the project a court order had stopped all work. A group of environmentalists with nothing better to do had noticed that the hunk of land the mall occupied was the home of a one of a kind species of butterfly and they had managed to convince a judge that this was somehow important. All the mall's owners could do was erect a temporary wall and put the work on hiatus. The summer had been a never-ending parade of lawyers, TV reporters and protesting hippies.
Months later the court battle still raged on, and had just made the leap from the state to the federal level. Mary-Jean had heard the whole mess was costing them a fortune, which she thought was pretty goddamn funny. After all, these were the same dirtbags that had refused her a ten-cent raise because of 'excessive absenteeism'.
Shoving her way through the ragged hole she'd made, Mary-Jean fumbled through the darkness. She hadn't thought of bringing a flashlight but she sure as Hell wasn't going to head back for one now. Waiting for her eyes to adjust, she began to pick out the sound of plastic undulating in the wind and the gentle creaking of the exposed metal superstructure.
This was her way out, there were no doors here - there were barely any walls, just rusty scaffolding with thick sheets of plastic thrown over them to keep out the elements. Of course it just figured that senile, war-wounded, brain-damaged Herb Cordel and his simp sidekick wouldn't have the brains to think of something like this. Hands positioned in front of her she turned to the right.
Ten steps later, she crashed into something metallic and fell to the sawdust-coated floor; Mary-Jean's curses were swallowed by the empty gloom. After a few moments of clutching her wounded shin, she got back on her feet and started moving again, more cautiously this time.
Red light bled through the opaque veils of plastic. Was it the police already? Mary-Jean grabbed one of the plastic sheets and tore it down with a single tug.
What she found behind it sent her calling for back-up.
"Wait a moment... I have a notion. You pay homage to this so called Monkey Emperor-"
"Monkey King, how is it that I know more about this than you? I’m third generation white trash- you’re Chinese."
"I am a Mystagogue"
"Yeah but you’re a Chinese Mystagogue"
"Can the Monkey King grant us succor? Can his power keep these white monkey’s at bay?"
"No he can’t. The white monkeys only look like monkeys. They’re really Anzon’s favorite worshippers. Sick huh?"
"We are most assuredly doomed."
"Whatever disaster has befallen us now?"
"One of the 'pawns' made it back here."
"Oh. I see. What should we do about him?"
"Uh, Wu-Han, that’s a chick."
"Have you taken leave of your senses?"
"No, but I know a chick when I see one."
"That is most definitely not a member of the weaker sex."
"Well this is a problem, we have a witness now."
"We have nothing, we have less than nothing."
"Look I’m taking no chances here. The only version of events the Preceptors are going to hear is our version."
"I will have no part of this. It’s base murder!"
"Fine. I’ll take care of it, but you owe me."
"I owe you nothing!"
The painful voices receded to ghostly, half-heard whispers. There was something cold and clammy trickling down the back of his neck. Herb sat up and touched the spot, expecting his hand to come away bloody, but instead it came back white.
"It's mayonnaise." Willie explained as he got up from one of the folding chairs.
"Mayonnaise?" Herb touched the back of his head and felt something cold and crinkly. For a moment he had convinced himself that the events of the last few hours had been nothing more than a nightmare suffered while napping at his desk. He scanned the office, his eyes shifting from Willie’s concerned face to the empty handcuff dangling from the radiator, "Where’s the prisoner?"
"I can explain."
"You better." He reached to tear it away.
Willie bounded from his seat, "Wait!"
"You wanna keep that tinfoil right where it is."
"Tinfoil?" Herb goggled, "Are you planning to have my head for lunch tomorrow? What is going on here?"
Willie stood but didn't make eye contact as he explained, "After you passed out I brought you here. I thought you were dying or worse. Zachary-"
"You know," he jerked a thumb at the radiator, "the prisoner. He told me his name, well his code name actually."
"Benjamin Zachary? The pervert?"
"In his line of work he probably needs to stay anonymous. You know, so as not to change history."
"I’m afraid to ask but what are you talking about?"
"He’s come from the future to save the world."
Leaping to his feet, Herb charged for Willie. The lunch-wrapping skullcap would have ended up on the floor if not for the rubber bands and scotch tape holding it in place. "Jesus Christ! You let that nutcase talk you into letting him go? What’s the matter with you? It’s not as if we don’t have enough crap to deal with tonight!"
"Look I don’t understand myself but he knew what he was talking about, he knew that the tinfoil would dilute the reception."
"I didn’t believe him at first but he told me that I’d get all the proof I’d need if I touched the back of your skull."
"I know how crazy it sounds but when I did it I got an electrical shock. I’m not kidding! My teeth are still aching from it."
Herb was speechless, this was getting more surreal by the minute.
"Zachary said that your steel plate was picking up... communications but if I grounded you with the tinfoil from my lunch, you’d be okay."
"And you believed him?"
"How could I not?" Willie’s voice cracked with frustration, "He knows what’s happening out there. He knows everything about us, he knew my middle name, he knew about your war wound. He knew what was in my lunch! You’ve gotta believe me on this."
"The only thing I believe Willie is that you’ve got too much of that Star Track on your brain!"
"If this Zachary character is here to save the world then where did he go when you released him?"
"I don’t know- he’s said he’d be back."
"Yeah, so did Jesus. What happened here is that this weirdo is the one responsible for all that’s going on and you let him go." Herb grabbed hold of the tinfoil skullcap and yanked it off, "He fed you a line of bullshit and you- "
The voices thundered back into his mind, drowning out his thoughts and driving him to his knees. It was as though a pair of giants were bickering directly overhead. He never heard his walkie-talkie sputtering to life and Mary-Jean’s panicked voice, "Please! There’s something wrong. There’s something wrong with the sky!"
"There's something wrong, there's something wrong with the sky-" the words dwindled on Mary-Jean's lips as figure stepped out of the darkness. Her mind faltered between the urge to flee and the urge to attack - but in the end it didn't matter. The last thing Mary-Jean knew was searing pain and an all-devouring light.
Her walkie-talkie clattered to the floor, a voice calling out to her through it, "Mary-Jean? Mary-Jean this is Willie, do you copy? What's the matter? Mary-Jean
News of the deaths and injuries in Sears had spread throughout the mall's captive population, with each retelling the details had become a little more brutal, a shade more grotesque. It had left patrons and employees alike feeling skittish and it had made shoplifting all the easier for Benjamin Zachary. He wasn't sure but he could have sworn that one of the clerks at the drugstore had seen him pocket the two pairs of earplugs but said nothing. She was probably afraid that he was one of the authors of this unfolding tragedy and in a way she was right.
Making his way along the first floor Benjamin detoured around the people camped out on the floors and benches. Back in his office Herb was breaking out his revolvers, and giving Willie a crash course in how not to shoot his own foot off. Benjamin made a mental note to head back later and retrieve the Splinter. He probably could have liberated the sliver of scarlet crystal earlier, but he didn't want to become too dependent on it because, like all tools, it could be lost. Besides the damn thing worried him, it worried him a lot. Did he really control the Splinter or did it control him?
Benjamin glanced back towards the mall offices and frowned. He should have warned Willie about what was coming, regardless of the repercussions. The problem was that what he was doing here was less like strategy and more like setting up a row of dominoes. Even the slightest change in events at this point could send the future spiraling out in unforeseen directions.
His pace slowed as he passed before a leather goods store. The clerks on duty had vacated their posts and a mercenary few had begun helping themselves to the inventory. There was a black jacket in the window, the kind that were all the rage now thanks to the Fonz and Happy Days. He'd never owned a leather jacket in his life but he remembered this one intimately. Moving like a sleepwalker he stepped into the abandoned store and ran his hands reverently over the shiny dark material. Memories came flooding back to him, memories that hadn't happened yet, memories of events that might never happen if he failed here.
"Lorelei." He pressed his face against the tanned hide, "I'm going to get it right this time. I'm going to make it right this time."
If there was one thing Scorby had learned from his mother it was the inherent wisdom of the tactical retreat. Not that his mother had ever retreated from anything, but the many beatings he received by her or her servant's hands had taught him that there was no dishonor in finding a place to lie low and tend your wounds, or better yet have your wounds tended to. The spirit of this lesson of had compelled him to visit the mall early in the day. His reconnaissance mission had borne fruit when he discovered a small series of hallways and rooms near the back of the SEARS housewares department. These were offices used by the management for interviews, meetings, and presentations. They were perfect.
Lying on his stomach atop the long, rectangular table that occupied the center of the room, he cursed the dark-haired, plain-looking sheep as she plucked chips of metal and plastic from his flesh. Once removed she would let them drop to the floor. Scorby prayed that each muffled clink he heard would be the last but it seemed the unsteady, relentless fingers would always find another- be it on his leg, or ass or shoulder. At first he kept but he quickly lost count.
Finally the prodding and pulling stopped. Gingerly, he rolled over to find the sheep staring dumbly at him; her fingernails were caked with blood. "How about bandaging my wounds shit-for-brains?"
Instead of getting to work she just stared at him. There was confusion in her eyes. The invocation must have suppressed so much of her mind that she was incapable of independent thought. It almost made Scorby laugh, after all this time he still didn't know his own strength. "Look Shit-For-Brains, it's easy. Take the coffeepot. Dump out the coffee. Then take the coffeepot to the bathroom and fill it with warm water. That's warm water, not hot. While you're there, get as many paper towels as you can. Then come back here and clean me up."
Watching her go Scorby cursed the sheep, all of them.
"Guns?" Willie voice quivered at the word, "You have guns?"
"Yes." Shifting aside the bric-a-brac they had taken from 'Benjamin Zachary' Herb pulled the strongbox from his desk. The tinfoil skullcap was back in place and re-anchored with fresh rubber bands and tape
"They let you keep guns here?"
He pulled out his keychain and unlocked the box, "They don't know."
"You could get fired." Willie leaned over them, and caught a faint whiff of the masculine scent of gun oil.
"Fired?" he shook his head grimly, "Fired is the least of my worries right now."
"When we go to rescue Mary-Jean," he reached for one of the weapons, "do I get a gun?"
Herb slapped his hand away, "Mary-Jean is dead."
"Your friend Zachary was right, I can hear them talking."
"The people that trapped us here. They killed Mary-Jean like she was some kind of an insect. If we don't stop them they'll kill us all."
"All I'm sure of is that they don't care how many innocent people die."
Willie opened and closed his mouth several times before he actually spoke, "What are they? Aliens?"
"I don't know."
"So how do we stop them?"
"I know where they are," Herb said gravely, he lifted one of the revolvers and stared down the sights, "and I'm going to pay them a little visit."
"A visit? No way are you-" Someone entered the security office. Willie turned, it was probably another irate shopper coming to bitch or beg. There had been several of these visitors already, about half of them had been turned away by the look in Herb's eyes but a few had needed to be helped to the door. "I'm sorry," Willie said, he didn't have the time to waste placating people now, his supervisor was about to set off on an adventure without him, and adventures were hard to come by in this town, "but this is an employees only sector. Believe me, we're doing the best we can to get the situation under control."
"I'm sure you are." Charnel Bloom's voice was a weak rasp. He caught the door being closed in his face.
Shocked by the newcomer's strength, Willie let the man pass before reaching out to catch his shoulder.
The first ghostly notes slithering from the flute startled Herb from his thoughts. The thought that this must be one of their captors came hot on the heels of his shouted warning. The icy tones emanating from the flute seemed to chill the room itself. Herb tried to raise the revolver only to be feel it fly from his gasp. He slid backwards, pushed by an invisible force of unrelenting strength. It pinned him against the file cabinet; Herb felt the metal clenching around him like an inhuman fist. In moments he was helpless.
Half in shock, half in anger Willie took a swing at the flute player. The old man ducked the blow with sickening ease. His kept playing, the sequence of notes becoming more complex.
The paper clips on Herb's desk lifted up and began circling the room like a swarm of dull silver insects. They unfolded in mid-flight and began to fly faster, the air bristled with their passing. They scraped against the walls, carving deep symmetrical grooves in the plaster. Willie watched them, his eyes round with astonishment.
The flute's song raised an octave and slivers of metal dove at the young security guard, raking flesh and cloth with equal ease. Trapped in a cocoon that had once been his file cabinet, Herb could only watch and plead for Willie's life.
Charnel Bloom stopped playing, the paper clips fell to the floor, "You can stop screaming now, your companion is quite dead."
"You didn't..." Tears clouded Herb's vision, "you didn't have to do that."
"Now, you will instruct me in the operation of your public address system. If you do not..." Charnel Bloom cast a meaningful glance at the pile of wet gristle and bone.
"Now we add base murder to the litany of our depravations."
"I've said it before, I'll say it again- they're normals!"
"We were all normals once -"
"We were all zygotes once too. What's your point?"
"My point is that we are Mystagogues We should be protecting the mundanes, not using them as canon fodder!"
Keeping to the shadows and crouching low to the ground Benjamin Zachary made his way through Sears' back hallways. The blood trail was easy to follow, and to be honest he was surprised that Charnel Bloom hadn't thought of this himself. Of course Benjamin knew that sometimes he did track Scorby to his hiding place. Other times the two observers came to blows, the force of their conflict incinerating the mall, it's occupants and even the duelists. Once Mary-Jean found Charnel Bloom and strangled him. There were rare occasions where Scorby tracked Charnel Bloom to the security office and won victory through surprise. A thousand lost futures ran through Benjamin's mind, every one ended in death and misery.
One of the doors creaked open, Benjamin pressed himself against the wall, praying he wouldn't be seen. Nicole shuffled out, carrying a coffeepot brimming with water. She stood there a moment, her eyes burning with the struggle to resist Scorby's control. Benjamin wanted to reach out to her, but the time wasn't ready yet. If he rescued her now, Scorby would find them. The trick now was to find the correct future, the right convergence of events.
Watching her pass, Benjamin huddled in the shadows and bided his time. The leather jacket he'd stolen felt warm and reassuring, like a lover's embrace. He knew Willie was already dead and very soon all the trapped innocents here would be sacrificed on the altar of the Dark Gods’ bloodlust.
With wads of moist paper towels piled around her shoes and beads of sweat hanging from her brow, Nicole cleaned the last of the red holes peppering Scorby's body. The task finished, she stepped back and stood quietly.
Scorby rolled his eyes, "What? Are you getting paid by the hour? Bandages! How about some bandages?"
After she left the room, the young magus stumbled from the table and sat in one of the soft office chairs; the adrenaline rush he'd gotten in his confrontation with Charnel Bloom was long gone and all he felt now was a ragged exhaustion. He wondered how long had he been hiding in here for, ten minutes? Twenty? Scorby couldn't be sure, his watch had been one of the evening's first casualties. The fuck-ups had to stop, he had to beat Charnel Bloom even if it meant using the Overlord's Serpent. He pulled the plastic bag from his pocket and downed the last of the worms in a series of convulsive gulps.
When he was done he chanted a prayer of thanks to his fallen comrades, their glory and wisdom reduced to worms so that he might succeed here tonight.
The door clicked to a close as his improvised nursemaid reentered the room, her hands empty. Instantly Scorby was on his feet, hobbling at her, "What is your fuckin' problem? What am I supposed to do? Get my Mommy to kiss them and make them better?" The ranting paused as Scorby erupted into a fit of shudders; images from his childhood flooded his vision, memories of fists, taunts and violations.
Still shaking he spat in Nicole's face, her blank expression didn't change but he could see a faint quivering behind her eyes. That was the part of mind that was still free, the part of her mind that was horrified to find itself a prisoner. Sights like that always made him feel better. "All right Shit-For-Brains, we'll just have to use our imaginations, won't we?" He tugged at her coat, "Use this, tear it into strips and tie them over the worst spots."
"Come on," Scorby said, "there's a crazed geriatric out there who wants to kill me and I don't want to keep him waiting."
To Scorby's amazement her face began to show subtle signs of emotion, she began to ease out of the coat and then paused. "Don't you dare!" he cuffed her, this was all he needed. How could he hope to best Charnel Bloom if he couldn't even make the sheep obey? "Don't you dare fight me!"
For a moment they were still, Nicole on the floor and Scorby trying to loom over her; then she stood, shrugged out of her coat and began to tear. Watching her work, Scorby observed that on some level she was still fighting him. Whoever this little bitch was, she was powerful. Even without training she could probably hold her own in some circles. It was too bad she was going to die here. For a few moments he toyed with the idea of bringing her back to as one of the spoils of victory. He'd keep her in his basement and mold her like his mother molded him.
Lost in dreams of victory he didn't even realize she'd finished ministering to his wounds. After a few more moments woolgathering he threw an arm over Nicole's shoulders.
They hobbled past the escalator and Scorby couldn't help but grin at the sounds of the people on the lower level of SEARS trying to break down the doors. He was a wolf in a world of sheep; a few thousand years ago he might have been worshipped. Perhaps he still would be, someday soon.
Scratching at one of the red makeshift bandages on his arm, he gave Nicole a grin that was pure acid, "How's it feel to be serving the Messiah?"
Scorby cocked an eyebrow as he saw her blank expression shift slightly; was it anger he saw, or arousal? It was probably the latter. They made their way out into the mall, Scorby peered over the railing and sneered "Fucking sheep."
"ATTENTION, ATTENTION. PLEASE ATTEND CAREFULLY THE MESSAGE THAT FOLLOWS IS VITAL TO THE SURVIVAL OF YOU ALL." Scorby very nearly lost control of his bowels in the split-second before he realized that it was only the PA he was hearing and not Charnel Bloom voice deadly close. But when he heard the sound of the bone flute blaring from the hidden speakers he lost control anyway.
The flute's distorted tones caused an eruption of shrieking, twisting metal and shattering glass. The giant fiberglass Christmas tree twisted and reshaped itself into an extremely unflattering sculpture. A thick puddle of blood at the base marked the spot where Santa and his picture taking elves had been relaxing.
"THIS IS SCORBY, HE IS THE REASON YOU ARE TRAPPED HERE, HE IS THE REASON MOST OF YOU WILL ALL PROBABLY DIE TONIGHT. THERE IS NO ESCAPE AND THERE WILL BE NO EXCEPTIONS, YOUR ONLY CHANCE OF SALVATION IS TO TAKE UP ARMS AND KILL HIM BEFORE HE CAN KILL YOU. I REPEAT THIS IS SCORBY, HE IS THE REASON YOU ARE TRAPPED HERE, HE IS THE REASON MOST OF YOU WILL PROBABLY DIE TONIGHT. THERE IS NO ESCAPE AND THERE WILL BE NO EXCEPTIONS, YOUR ONLY CHANCE OF SALVATION IS TO TAKE UP ARMS AND KILL HIM BEFORE HE CAN KILL YOU. THIS IS YOUR ONLY HOPE."
In the stunned silence that followed, Scorby gawked at his green Fiberglass effigy and said, "You son of a bitch."
Then someone noticed him, there were shouts of alarm and Scorby suddenly found himself the center of attention.
Charnel Bloom set the microphone down and strode out of the office, the door swinging to a close behind him. The old security guard cursed at his back and railed at his captivity. For a moment the old wizard considered killing him, but then decided it was a waste of notes.
The mob that Scorby had set on him earlier had been a minor bother, nothing more; the White monkeys had seen to that. However it had inspired Charnel Bloom in this masterstroke, he would let the terrified noisemakers do his work for him - and he wouldn't need some damn parlor trick invocation to pull it off either! He hoped Scorby choked on the irony.
Stepping back out into the mall, Charnel Bloom saw that there was some kind of commotion on the second floor. He smiled and waited his flute at the ready.
Some of the mall's patrons ran at the sight of Scorby, others were too stunned to do anything, but that still left a fairly decent mob to chase him down. Benjamin Zachary watched him scurry this way and that and finally duck into a jewelry store. With a shrug he wondered if they were going to catch him this time. He had to hurry; Charnel Bloom would be stepping out of one of the access hallways at any moment now and there was little doubt in Benjamin's mind that Charnel Bloom would remember their last meeting.
Benjamin rushed over to where Nicole Miller stood, mannequin-still, her enslaved mind waiting for its next set of orders. "Hello, you don't know me but I'm here to help you." He lifted her up in his arms. He would have to take a more circuitous route to the security office than he would have liked but he didn't want to run into Scorby or his pursuers, "Ufff! My name is Benjamin and we're going to be great friends--- after a fashion."
Scorby dove beneath the half-closed gate of the nearest store and silenced the manager before he could speak. Together they closed the gate of the ADAM'S JEWELRY against the flood of clawing hands, but Scorby wasn't stupid enough to think that it would hold them for long. This was a fine predicament! If he dealt with the crowd of sheep he might not have enough strength to deliver his coupe de grace. After delivering a few frustrated kicks to random objects he ordered the manager to lead him to the back door.
"Back already huh?"
"It would appear that more of the... dramatis personae found their way back here."
"What? Where? Oh damnit."
"We should move to a more secure location."
"As soon as you find a place let me know. You gonna kill these goobers or am I?"
"I am not going to murder anyone!"
"Look Wu-Han I hate to confuse you with facts here but we were on this assignment together. So if I go down you go down."
"You unqualified rouge. You miscreant!"
"You could have stopped me from killing that ugly broad if you wanted to but you just stood there and scowled. Why? Because you know in your heart of hearts they're just nobodies. They're not important."
"You- I You-"
"Now, go kill those folks while I see if I can cook something to hide us."
"You weave illusions? Then why did you kill the first person when we could have just become nothing more than diaphanous shadows. Why?"
"Because, you never play an ace when a two will do."
"I've no use for your sloppy metaphors."
"Fine then go do what your told. Kill those people down there and then throw their bodies out into the whatever it is out there."
"Very well. But mark my words, you will rue this day Jack Diamond."
"Merry fucking Christmas to you too."
Breaths hissing out from between his teeth, Herb struggled to free himself from the file cabinet. All that weirdo had done was play a few notes and the metal had suddenly become to life; folding around him and holding him fast. It was hopeless, he only had to look at Willie's remains to remind himself of that, but he still struggled.
The office door flew open. Benjamin Zachary stumbled in, he was wearing a new leather jacket and carrying a girl in his arms, her clothing in tatters. "What the Hell are you doing?" Herb shouted,"Where the Hell have you been? They murdered Willie!"
Stepping over the puddles of blood and chips of bone, Zachary set Nicole down in the chair he had been handcuffed to. He checked her pulse, and stared long and hard into her eyes.
"Hey!" Herb called, "I want some answers!"
Zachary stiffened, turned and gazed at the captive security guard quizzically.
"You owe me some explanations!"
His expression suddenly brightening Zachary popped the plugs from his ears and offered an apologetic smile. "Sorry, couldn't hear you."
"Who is she?" Herb tried to point.
"I see you're using the tinfoil to block the signal. Good Good."
"I said who is she?"
"Her name is Nicole Miller, she's..." He paused, his gaze drifting to his shoes, "... innocent."
"You know what's going on here don't you?" Herb started struggling again the metal creaked but wouldn't give, "You're a part of it."
Stepping back over Willie's remains, he explained, "No, I'm not a part of it. I'm trying to save lives."
"Why don't I believe you?"
"I don't know, maybe it's my delivery?" Zachary rummaged through Herb's desk until he found the sliver of red crystal.
A strange tingling sensation started to work its way up Herb's arms and legs. It almost felt like a mild electric shock. "What is that thing?"
"It's just the Splinter, " Zachary said.
"Splinter? What's a Splinter?"
"Not 'A Splinter', 'The Splinter'. It's just a little bauble left over from the universe that was here before. No big deal at all.."
A captive audience, Herb watched as Zachary held the crystal, 'The Splinter', in one hand and ran another hand along the twisted remains of the filing cabinet. He mumbled under his breath, it sounded to Herb like he might be praying. More proof that this was a madman he was dealing with, hell it was a convention of madmen! Fate seemed to enjoy throwing disasters like this his way; he only had to remind himself how he'd gotten his Purple Heart to know this was true.
It had been during the final year of the Korean War, his patrol had been ambushed. Amid the wild staccato of gunfire, they'd taken cover at the base of an abandoned water tower. In a moment of crazed bravery Corporal Cordel unhooked one of the grenades from his belt, pulled the pin and threw. The throw was too high and too hard, the pineapple bounced off one of the water tower's struts and landed square in the middle his squad.
Herb had regained consciousness in an army hospital a week later to learn that the rest of his squad and a good portion of his skull had been sacrificed in the defense of Liberty. When they told him he was going to get a Purple Heart he didn't know whether to laugh or cry; he had gotten his friends killed and they were going to give him a medal for it.
Once again, fate had dropped a grenade in his midst, but maybe this time there was chance to keep anyone else from being hurt. After all, if he was trapped here with them, then they were trapped here with him. Four well-placed bullets was all it would take to rid the world of these madmen and there'd still be plenty left over for Mr. Benjamin Zachary.
"There, that should do it."
Somehow the metal of the file cabinet was folding back to its normal state, all traces of the flute-player's enchantment had vanished. As soon as he was free Herb crossed the room to check on the girl and retrieve his revolvers "How did you do that?"
"Don't thank me." Zachary waggled the oddly shaped piece of scarlet crystal up in the air, "Thank it."
The girl was still sitting where he'd left her, her eyes blank and wide, "What did it do?"
Slipping the scarlet crystal into his leather jacket, Zachary stepped around Herb, went back to the desk and began nonchalantly refilling his pockets. "I could only explain it to you properly if you're an expert in quantum mechanics and temporal metaphysics."
"I think I deserve a little better than that."
"Oh you do, you do, but there's no time. Just trust me that I'm here to help you and that together the three of us will see to it that these monsters never hurt anyone else again."
Herb raised a pistol and aimed at the dark-eyed man, "I told you before I don't believe a word you're telling me."
"Not again." Benjamin Zachary groaned.
A shuddering crack signaled that the mob had managed to lift the front gate of the jewelry store.
They flooded the entrance, knocking over display counters and setting off alarms. The manager of the jewelry store stood in front of the locked back door, with glazed-over eyes and a crowbar in his hands. He swung wildly, his entire being fixated on defending Scorby's retreat.
It began as a gentle tremor of motion, muscles tightening beneath pale white skin. Slowly very slowly, Nicole was raising her arm.
"I am deadly serious Zachary."
"Believe me, I know you're not kidding around. You never kid around, but Herb, please, what you are asking of me is impossible."
"If that Splinter is so damn powerful then you can use it to bring Willie back to life."
"That would only succeed in getting both of us killed. Can't you see that we have the element of surprise here. Let's not squander it."
Her body became a canvas of tics and twitches, her knees trembled, her lips quivered. What she felt was violation pure and simple, the fact that it had happened to her mind instead of her body made it all the worse.
"Squander? Squander? You sanctimonious- I thought you said you were here to save lives!"
"Selected lives, the chance to save everyone is long past. I did try to warn you."
The invasion had given her glimpses of Scorby's consciousness; his was a mind so twisted and hateful that the experience had left her feeling as though she had stuck her hand into a bucket filled with cold excrement and splinters of glass.
"So now you're just gonna save your friends, like her?"
"You wouldn't do the same? Tell me if this was a sinking ship, how would you dole out the lifeboats? First come first served? Women and children first? Or would you make an effort to protect the ones you loved above all else?"
The din of the argument drowned out Nicole's shallow sobs. The sight of her beloved coat reduced to rags shocked her back into self-control. This had been her husband's final Christmas gift. It had been three days after Christmas morning and she was still wearing the clothes she'd worn to the funeral. She'd been taking down the decorations, not bothering to repack them for storage but throwing them directly into the trash. Mixed in amongst the boxes for lights and boxes for decorations was a slender package wrapped in gaily-colored paper. When had that gotten there? She was too old and too jaded to believe in Santa.
The card taped clumsily to the gift-wrap answered her questions quickly enough. It read FROM THE FROG TO HIS PRINCESS, Mark's handwriting was unmistakable. Cautiously she had unwrapped the gift, like one of her old spinster aunts, intent on reusing the paper. Inside she found the coat she'd been admiring weeks ago, Mark must have noticed her. It had been her last memory of him, of what they'd had and now it was gone. Torn to shreds because of a vicious little man. After all he had done to her, could she really just let him walk away?
"Don't change the goddamn subject on me. You have a choice, you can either use that thing to put all this to a stop or I'll kill you, take it from you and do it myself."
"You can try."
Nicole launched herself out of the chair and ran out into the mall. Benjamin Zachary called out after her and set off in pursuit. The last of Herb's fraying nerves gave way and he fired twice at Benjamin Zachary, hoping to hit him in the leg.
Running through the minor labyrinth that sprawled behind and between the stores, Scorby searched for a door that would lead him back to his adversary. This was getting embarrassing, running for your life from a mob of angry sheep might be advisable given the circumstances but it sure wasn't going to sit well with the Harlequin In Ice.
"There he is!"
The crowd rounded the corner in hot pursuit; Scorby mused that the beret wearing, flute playing fop was probably laughing his ass off right now. The sound of gunshots echoed through the hallway. They were shooting at him! One of the fucking sheep had brought a gun to the mall? What was this world coming to? The thought was horrifying; his mighty genius snuffed out by something as common as a bullet. It was a good thing he had already soiled himself.
The crowd was gaining on him. Fear had made them brave and murderous. It was obvious he had no choice but to waste another invocation on these simians. He stopped running and turned to shout. The effect was swift and devastating; the crowd turned and began to devour itself.
Chuckling with satisfaction, the young magus continued down the hallway. He felt drained but not too drained. There was still enough left in him to give his adversary the defeat he so richly deserved. Scorby quickly found his way back to the mall proper, not more than ten yards from where he'd started. Peering over the guardrail to the first floor he could see Charnel Bloom standing by the stairway, his attention obviously elsewhere.
"Not bad eh?"
"An impressive phantasm but it comes far far too late for those poor souls we have consigned to oblivion."
"Everybody's gotta die some time."
"In the meantime I was curious to note that perhaps the Dark Gods are not responsible for this situation. My keen senses have detected another, more rarefied power in the atmosphere."
"Meaning what? You think the Monarchs are pokin' around here? I doubt they'd have the imaginations."
"I am uncertain. The energies I sensed were at once primal and familiar. Conceivably they are merely a symptom of our being adjacent to the Maelstrom's raw energies. Or perhaps..."
"Or perhaps this has all been some ham-fisted artifice of your own devising."
"All right! That does it! I am so fuckin' insulted I can barely see straight here! I don't do crap like that… lately."
"Really? Need I remind you of the well known incident involving the Sandor Perth's bedchambers and the mummified mule?"
The woman he had come here to rescue was heading right back into harms way and the man he had meant to make an ally of was trying to kill him. None of this had been foreseen and Benjamin Zachary found it quite exhilarating. It meant he might be on the right track after all.
Again he shouted for Nicole to come back but she wasn't listening. It was as though she had gone mad, perhaps she had. A third gunshot impacted the wall, showering Benjamin with chips of plaster. Now things were really getting out of hand. It wasn't that he was afraid of dying, he knew where and when he was going to pass beyond the mortal veil and it wasn't going to be here. Still though, if Herb and his guns were going to be any use at all later Benjamin knew he'd better calm him down fast. He slowed his pace and watched Nicole dash out of sight.
He hoped she would be able to resist the Overlord's Serpent
From all the cussing and shouting, he knew that Herb was almost on top of him. Benjamin Zachary stopped abruptly, the older man crashed into him and they both tumbled to the floor. There was a brief tussle and Benjamin Zachary found himself on his back with two gun barrels pressed beneath his chin.
"You-" He glared into Herb's crazed eyes, "- are wasting bullets."
Raw anger pulsing though her veins, she ran out into the mall. She was not going to lie still and leave Scorby's attack on her unavenged. On every side of her the panic and madness was worsening, brought to a whole new level of frenzy by the sound of weapons being fired. Some were looting the shattered storefront of the jewelry store, ignoring the piercing alarm that filled the air.
Others were gaping at the transmuted fiberglass Christmas tree. Peering down over the railing to the first floor she could see a small congregation of shoppers had begun praying loudly, over two dozen voices joined together. Most just wandered, dazed and afraid. That little monster was out there, somewhere, hiding amongst these people; Nicole vowed to find him and settle the score.
She turned, and realized with a jolt of shock that she wouldn't have to look very hard. He was standing right in front of her, staring her in the face.
Standing by the stairs, his flute at ready, Charnel Bloom tried to guess his opponent's chances. Doubtless he would be set upon and killed by the pack of howling morons - but how much more satisfying it would be to see the little whelp stumble into view, helpless and terrified, the impotence of his god revealed?
The old conjurer smiled to himself. That would be something to see.
A sudden report startled him from his reverie; the old man looked to the second floor. Bullets were flying, could this be the end of Scorby?
Before the he could investigate, the first impact sounded from behind him, his ears rang with the crunch of broken bone and the soft tearing of skin. Blood sprayed warm and wet over Charnel Bloom's back. He spun to find a body not a foot from where he stood; another crashed onto the remnants of Santa's workshop, another hit the floor beside him with a sickening crunch. Dodging the human avalanche, Charnel Bloom took shelter beneath the stairs and realized to his disgust that the people on the second floor were pitching themselves over the railings at him. Those not killed by the fall were still crawling after him. A crumpled hand brushed his heel and he kicked it away.
Once again, all around him peasants were screaming, running this way and that; Charnel Bloom dodged into one of the stampeding masses and allowed himself to be swept along.
There was no time to think, no time to waste thoughts or energy, Scorby whispered the invocation and made the accompanying gestures. Every human being in a twenty-foot radius was instantly bound to his will; he strained to make sense of the kaleidoscope of perceptions invading his mind. The strain of it all brought on a wave of weakness that threatened to engulf him but he choked it down and began making the hordes of sheep useful.
Nicole charged the man that had brutalized her mind; she had no idea what she was going to do but once she reached the slimy, little bastard she was going to let her fingers, or better yet, her fingernails do the walking.
She was halfway there when she felt it happening again, for a second time she was reduced to a silent prisoner in her own body. The people around her began to leap over the railings and pulp themselves on the hard floor below. To her horror she found herself turning to do the same.
They were like a pack of lemmings, men, women and children silently pitching themselves into oblivion. From a safe corner Herb watched, his ears safely plugged. Every so often he would see a familiar face in the crowd; the clerk from the deli, the manager of the clothing store, one of the salesmen from Sears. Turning from the carnage, he glared at Benjamin Zachary. The little man's face was inscrutable, Herb remembered him saying, "Everyone here except for you, that young girl and myself is doomed. You could kill me a thousand times and you wouldn't change that. The present is lost, but the future, the future can be saved."
It was a pretty speech but it hadn't made Herb any less inclined to believe him or to let him live, but Benjamin Zachary had promised that through helping him he would get a shot at Charnel Bloom and Scorby. As far as Herb was concerned, come Hell or high water, those two had to pay.
Benjamin Zachary straightened as he saw his quarry. She had one leg over the railing, straddling it. Scrambling out from cover he ran for her; shaking his head Herb followed, his tinfoil hat flapping lightly against his skull.
Turning as he ran, Charnel Bloom spied his adversary and raised the flute to his lips. A stream of notes issued from the silver instrument and the floor beneath the young magus exploded pitching him over the rail.
Scorby's groping fingers snagged the railing as he fell, for a moment he hung there, his legs flailing against open air. Breath after breath coming out in a ragged hiss, he tried to hoist himself up but it was no use, he had no strength left. There was only one thing to do, he reached out, a tendril of his consciousness finding a familiar mind nearby. Yes, she would rescue him, she had no choice in the matter.
Climbing off the railing, Nicole lumbered towards Scorby only to be knocked off her feet and pinned to the floor. She didn't know the dark-eyed man holding her down, but he spoke to her soothingly, like he was trying to calm a frightened animal. His words made no sense to her.
She felt herself being lifted up, and borne away. Howling with anguish, Nicole struggled to free herself. She had to rescue her master, she knew nothing else.
Cursing and wailing Scorby struggled to keep his grip on the railing. Help wasn't coming after all; two other sheep had carried her off. Pain was edging out his ability to think coherently, slivers of flooring had shredded his jeans and carved deep grooves into his legs. In this brief period he had come to know each laceration intimately; he could feel them bleeding, he could feel the joyless tickle of blood seeping down into his socks.
Gasping as his grip slipped a bit more, Scorby knew he was finished. There was only one option left for him, it was time to roll out the big gun. He inhaled deeply and closed his eyes.
It was inevitable of course. No one could face Charnel Bloom and hope to succeed. The little half-wit was screeching and caterwauling already. Pathetic, truly pathetic and annoying, Charnel Bloom vowed to silence that particular voice forever.
He played the flute again. The white monkey's found their way out of the dark corners of the building to his side. It was time to put an end to this nonsense.
They carried Nicole into the access hall, and down the back stairway without incident, but a few steps from the security office her struggles reached a fevered pitch. She freed one of her feet from Benjamin Zachary's grip and floored him with a single well-timed kick to the face. It was all Herb could do to keep her under control. Again he asked himself what the hell he was doing. He barely knew Benjamin and what he did know he didn't like very much, but he was helping him none the less.
Back on his feet Zachary stumbled up to her and blew a palmfull of gray-green powder into her face. Nicole stiffened and collapsed.
"What did you do to her?" Herb caught her as she fell.
"What?" Benjamin Zachary shrugged, "Can't hear you- earplugs."
Her raised his voice to a shout, "I said what did you do to her?"
"A little something I picked up before coming here." Benjamin Zachary bellowed as he replaced the vial in his leather jacket, "You might call it muscle relaxant for the consciousness."
"How long do we have to keep these things in?"
He paused thoughtfully, "A few more minutes, just to be certain."
The woman at their feet choked, her eyes fluttering. Herb had to wonder if Zachary was helping her or killing her.
The sound of his voice was shrill and inhuman, like the cry of an otherworldly beast; a jumble of vowels and consonants that hadn't been considered a language for several centuries.
Filled with the cold realization that he had just taken five years off of his natural lifespan, Scorby tightened his grip on the wooden bars and waited for salvation. He would survive this, and then he would show Charnel Bloom what he was made of. He'd show all the world what he was made of.
People were gathering beneath the spot where Scorby dangled. At first Charnel Bloom thought they were dancing, then he thought they might be fighting. Uncertain of what this might mean, he drew closer. The mob churned, thrashed, as more and more blank-eyed peasants were threw themselves into the festering mass. They were tearing at their clothes, they were biting and grabbing on to one another, fingernails digging into flesh. Charnel Bloom could only wonder what his opponent was hoping to accomplish with this puerile display.
The thrashing became more frenzied; Charnel Bloom watched in fascination as human bodies became malleable, their boundaries becoming obscure. Limbs boiled away, faces became distorted and inhuman. Several hundred peasants became a single misshapen entity and they roared as one.
His pace slowing Charnel Bloom realized what it was that he saw manifesting before him.
"Look buddy if I wanted to fuck with you- you would be well and truly fucked with!."
"And allow me to repeat this if I ever detect that you somehow were responsible for this catastrophe of the highest proportions I will destroy you before the Greater Eastern Council of Mystagogues"
"Yeah right buddy. I've got family in the Fourth Circle, how about you?"
"You will find Jack Diamond that I- that I- Holy shit!"
"Dude! You swore, you really swore not like that time you called me an arse, you really swore!"
"Is that… is that… the Overlord's Serpent?"
The gray-green powder went everywhere, in her eyes, her nose; it invaded her mouth and forced its way into her lungs. The pain they brought was enough to drive her floundering mind back to the surface. "Mark," she sobbed, "Mark."
Blinking she found herself back in control of her mind once more. "Are you OK?" an old man leaned in close to ask. For a moment she thought he was a policeman or a paramedic. Another blink and she recognized him as a mall security guard. A third blink sharpened her focus even further and she could only wonder at this bloodstained old man with tinfoil on his head, and a pair of revolvers tucked into his belt.
"Nicole, you're safe now." A man with short curly hair and enigmatic eyes poked his head into her field of vision. When he addressed her it was with hushed reverence, the kind of tone most people reserved for church, "But we might have to move soon. Are you well enough to stand?"
"Who- who are you?"
"I'm Benjamin Zachary."
"Benjamin Zachary?" she shook her head uncertainly, "You don't look like a Benjamin Zachary."
The old security guard hoisted her to her feet, "Tell me about it. I'm Herb by the way."
Holding out her trembling hand she spoke, "I'm Nicole."
"We know." Zachary said matter-of-factly.
A chorus of screams echoed down the hall, they grew more and more shrill with each passing second until they had joined together into a single high pitched note.
"What the Hell is that?" Herb drew one of his revolvers.
Zachary's face was drawn and ashen, "Something's being born…"
"What's happening? Why are they doing this to us?" Nicole dropped back to her knees.
"Because they can."
"Is that it?" Herb rounded on the dark-eyed man, "Is that the best explanation you have?"
Zachary clasped his arm, "Don't go."
"Don't go? What do you mean don't go?"
"Every time we have this conversation you end up going down that hall to see what's happening. When you get back there's no time to explain."
The floor shook beneath their feet. The shrill chorus sounded again.
The Overlord's Serpent! Charnel Bloom could hardly believe it! A spell thought lost a thousand years ago, a spell used for the breaching castles and looting cities.
A spell about to be used on him.
Turning, the old conjurer ran for safety but halfway across the mall his curiosity got the better of him, and he stopped and turned.
With a sudden cry, Scorby lost his grip and fell, whimpering like a child because he couldn't see what was rising beneath him.
"This is staggering!"
"Quiet I'm taking notes here. You know how much an incantation like this would be worth on the open market?"
"But this incantation was lost centuries ago! How could a worshipper of the Dark Gods do this?"
"I dunno but I'll betcha that 'ol Charnel Bloom is askin' himself the very same thing."
It reared up from beneath Scorby, a blasphemous snakelike tangle of human bodies, and caught its creator on its wide, cobra-like hood. Herb couldn't move, he couldn't even breathe, he could only watch as the lumbering, seething mass uncoiled itself. It was almost like looking at one of those terrible pictures of the piles of bodies the American GI's had found at the concentration camps, except that these bodies were still moving. With each movement the nightmare jigsaw of flesh became more and more defined, as the parts that made up its monstrous whole melted together like wax.
Rearing up to its full height, it leered down at Charnel Bloom with a face composed of contorted bodies, a face that was becoming very human.
"Would you please explain to me what's happening?" Nicole asked as she watched Benjamin Zachary empty the contents of a fire extinguisher onto the floor. He'd been at it ever since Herb had stormed off. For a few moments Zachary had sat on the steps, sulking and talking to himself, then he'd leapt up and ripped the nearest fire extinguisher from the wall and begun spraying the floor. When the first extinguisher had been spent he'd run off and found a second one, and then a third. Now the floor was coated with an ankle-deep layer of foam.
"Insurance. Sometimes the fire gets a little out of control. Just sometimes though." He glanced up from his work, and flashed her a grin, "Hmmm, I'd always wondered about that."
Nicole slammed her fist onto the wall she leant against, "I want to know what's going on here? How did that- that- thing get into my mind and take me over? I think I deserve to know."
"That 'thing' as you so elegantly put it is a wizard."
Setting the fire extinguisher down in the sea of foam, he turned and looked at her, his hands were deep in his pockets. "No, not like Merlin, definitely not like Merlin at all. They can heal the dying with a whisper, they can create cities out of song. They could change the world for the better but they squander it by acting like a bunch of second-rate gods. To them, ordinary human beings, like you and Herb, are lesser life forms to be dealt with as they please."
Somehow, Nicole found herself believing him; could there be any other explanation for what she had experienced? It made a weird kind of sense. After all, hadn't she spend half her life with the feeling that there was something she was missing? That somehow there was a secret being kept from her?
"Why are they doing this?"
"Its an old story, a blood feud between two rival faiths." Zachary shrugged, "Who knows how these things get started? The problem is that the Greater Easter Council of Mystagogues sent two Subdeans here to stop them and they're just sitting on the sidelines watching. They could have stopped this but they never do."
"The Greater Eastern Council?"
"You know," Zachary flashed her a Cheshire grin "you'd make a good parrot, but to answer your question, the Greater Eastern Council of Mystagogues is a gathering of people with magical powers. Only the most powerful people are invited to join and only the most ruthless are able to advance through their ranks."
"What do they do?"
"Bicker, plot and scheme. You know there used to be a Greater Western Council but they were wiped out by the Monarchs over thirty years ago. For my money they should just drop the whole 'Eastern' thing and move on with their lives. Don't you think so?"
They both looked up as a chorus of agonized voices that spoke as one echoed down the hallway. "DO YOU DOUBT MY POWER NOW?"
Scorby scrambled down the warped, sweaty landscape of the Serpent's body until he was close enough to leap over the guardrail and onto the second floor. All the while he spoke through his creation, his voice simulated and amplified by dozens of throats "DO YOU UNDERSTAND THAT I COULD HAVE DESTROYED YOU AT ANY TIME DURING THIS PATHETIC CHARADE?"
The boast brought the Charnel Bloom back to his senses; he dashed to the half of the mall that held the antique cars. "A Momma's boy is all you'll ever be!" He raised his voice as loud as he could, "Do you hear me? A Momma's boy!"
With an inhuman roar the Overlord's Serpent began speeding towards Charnel Bloom, a savage, hungry scowl on its Scorby-like face.
The white monkeys attacked, a swarm of bleached fur and flashing yellow teeth but there was too much flesh and too few monkeys. The Overlord's Serpent crashed forward, each swipe of its tail shattering a store window.
Charnel Bloom raised his flute to his lips and hissed out a stream of air, his fingers dancing nimbly along the instrument. Notes, clear and solid filled the air.
The Overlord's Serpent drew closer, slithering through the fountain and around the nest of classic cars; it knew only its master's will and its master had decreed that Charnel Bloom would die in its coils. It beheld the aged conjurer with a legion of eyes; it's insect-like vision leaving no perimeter of its body unguarded.
The Studabaker to its left burst into a pillar of flame. Divots of steel flew in every direction. The Overlord's Serpent loosened an agonized scream as each of the circle of cars detonated.
The flames and shrapnel avoided Charnel Bloom for as long as he played his flute. Gloating from his bubble of safety he wondered to himself if this latest might be too loud for his god to appreciate.
"Down!" Zachary shoved Nicole into the carpet of foam. Impact with the floor bruised her elbows and knees. A sound like thunder set the floor quaking. Instinctively she raised her head only to have him yank her back into the foam by her hair, "I said down."
With a sudden, breath-sapping whoosh flames roared over them, burning their hair and scalding their backs. The foam shielded them from the worst of it. An eruption of sound deafened them; hundreds of voices joined together in a single wail. The screams rose in pitch, the floor quaked again. People were dying, Nicole thought with a sickness settling deep in her stomach, so many people are dying.
"I'm sorry." Zachary murmured, "I tried."
The Overlord's Serpent burst from the flames, leaving a trail of dead, charred matter in its wake. Its eyes had melted away but it could still hear the sound of the bone flute, it's master's enemy was close.
Painfully rearing up, the Overlord's Serpent prepared to strike.
There was no way for Charnel Bloom to defend himself, all his energy was directed towards holding back the inferno he had created.
"I am so hard right now."
"In Hastur's name will you shut up!"
The sprinklers filled the mall with an artificial rain in a hopeless attempt to quell the conflagration. Everywhere alarms where going off, high pitched bleatings that filled Scorby's ears as he pulled himself out of one of the freezers in the still-smoldering ice cream shop. His skin was seared pink and he was smeared with the melted remains of 31 flavors of ice cream.
Moments from delivering the coup-de-grace, Scorby staggered through the wreckage to find a good vantage point.
The Overlord's Serpent thundered blindly past Charnel Bloom, smashing though the display window of a dress shop. Mannequins and glass flew in all directions. It lay there among the toppled racks of clothing, helpless and thrashing as the flames devoured it.
After flinching at the noise Charnel Bloom allowed himself to admire the sight. Then he returned his attention back to the matter at hand- serving up Scorby's balls on a silver platter.
The numbing heat and the sounds of chaos faded. Benjamin Zachary stood, wiped the lather from his eyes and grinned. "Just a little scorched that's all, get up Nicole. The worst is ov-"
A gunshot cut him off. A bullet impacted the blackened plaster near his head. Nicole peered out of the carpet of foam to see Herb, burnt and wild-eyed drawing closer.
"You." He snarled, "You knew what I would see out there."
"I did try to warn you." Benjamin's was almost sheepish.
"Say that again and I'll kill you twice."
"Don't blame me because you never listen." He shrugged, "Now put that thing away, you've got better uses for those bullets."
That laughter that escaped from Herb's mouth was chilling; he drew aim on the little man's face.
"There's no way anyone's going to live through this, they're too powerful. Those people, what they did to them..."
"That's not true," Benjamin drew closer, "that's not true at all."
"Our adversaries are as human as you are. They can be outmaneuvered, they can be killed."
Yanking the other revolver from his belt Herb offered it to him, "Prove it!"
Benjamin Zachary eyed the revolver. Did he dare? Would the deaths of four members of the Greater Eastern Council change anything? It was so tempting to think in the short term.
"He's telling the truth." Slogging though the foam Nicole snatched the revolver from the security guard's hand. This was madness, she knew it, but it sure as Hell beat spending Christmas Eve debating whether or not to slit your wrists in the bathtub. "Scorby was... when he was in my mind, I saw into his mind as well. He's just a man."
Shaking his head Herb asked her, "Do you even know how to shoot?"
Nicole shrugged, "I can pull a trigger."
"You need to know more than that." Herb gave her a quick demonstration, "This is the safety, You have to click it back like this before you fire. When the magazine's empty, you change it like... Shit!"
"I left all the extra ammo back at the office."
"We can just-"
"It's too late for that now." Benjamin started walking back out into the mall, "We have to start moving."
With a suspicious glare Herb followed, "Why now?"
Pausing in mid-step Benjamin said, "Because so much of life is simply the art of being in the right place at the right time."
"Yeah," Nicole tightened her grip on the pistol, "that explains everything."
"That was amazing!"
"I never perceived that Charnel Bloom had such aptitude!"
"Charnel Bloom? Scorby had the Overlord's Serpent!"
"And if you will recall, Charnel Bloom dispatched it with a childlike effortlessness!"
"No way! Scorby is the man of the hour here. He brought back a goddamned spell lost for goddamned generations!"
"Regardless of who survives, they will be weakened and all the easier to kill. Your plan was the wisest course of action Jack Diamond. I apologize for doubting your sanity."
"No biggie but once he's dead we gotta figure a way to get back home."
"A concern of mine also."
Everywhere he looked he saw dead sheep, had he killed everyone already? Scorby stumbled downstairs, taking care to avoid the flaming handrails. He'd used the last of them up fashioning the Overlord's Serpent and they'd failed him in the end.
"Fucking sheep." Scorby hissed.
The first floor was a nightmare ruin of warped metal, sputtering flames, shattered glass, and oily smoke. Over it all the sprinklers sprayed their artificial downpour. Close by came the thuds of the Serpent's final tail thrashings.
"I must complement you, you almost got me." Charnel Bloom stepped out of the shadows. "Almost." He smiled and raised the flute to his lips.
Scorby's cry was music to his ears.
There was a man-sized hole in the plaster partition wall that had marked the point of demarcation between original mall and the aborted new wing. A cracked sign lay on the floor beside it, it's cheery letters obscured by soot. "Here we are." Benjamin Zachary said warily.
"Who did this?" Herb goggled, this was just too much, someone had kicked the whole damn thing in, "Did you do this?"
Nicole patted the old man's tensed shoulders, "Does it matter at this point?"
"No." He signed with resignation, "I suppose it doesn't. God this is all so...so..."
"I know. It's like we're ants under a magnifying glass."
Zachary had disappeared into the hole, his voice echoed from the blackness beyond, "Turning and turning in the widening gyre. The falcon cannot hear the falconer. Things fall apart. The center cannot hold. Mere anarchy is loosed upon the world. The blood-dimmed tide is loosed, and everywhere the ceremony of innocence is drowned. The best lack all conviction, while the worst are full of passionate intensity."
"What the Hell is He talking about?"
"Yeats." Nicole shook her head following Zachary into the hole, "He's quoting Yeats."
Grumbling to himself, Herb followed.
"So this is what it has come down to? How utterly utterly pathetic."
"Hey you got to admit it's a pretty unexpected thing to do."
"In my learned opinion it is beneath a master of inner force and deeper enigmas to resort to base fisticuffs. Our minds are the peak of humanity. Why should we sully our hands?"
"Man your wife must be frustrated. I bet you just lie there and let her do everything."
"How dare you? Furthermore I am unmarried."
"Oh is that how it is."
"What are you insinuating?"
With a hoarse battle cry, Scorby threw himself at his opponent and the two men toppled into the fountain. Charnel Bloom's dentures splashed in the water behind them. The old man spluttered and cursed.
The metal framework rattled with their every movement. Shifting, uneven light skittered across the metal flooring of the mall's uncompleted addition. A thin layer of smoke hung at knee level. A chunk of debris from one of the exploded cars sat smoldering in a nest of twisted metal and shattered wood.
Heavy sheets of opaque plastic fluttered and shuddered. There was a strange scent in the air, like the sour tang of an electrical short. Nicole glanced back the way they had come. The gun felt heavy in her hand and she doubted she'd have the courage to use it when the moment came; "I'm surprised more people didn't save themselves by coming though here."
From the darkness Benjamin Zachary commented, "They tried."
Weaving around heavy equipment and stacks of metal sheeting, Herb shot back, "So you're leading us right into whatever killed them?"
"You're forgetting," he patted his jacket pocket confidently, "We have the Splinter."
Patting his jacket pockets again Zachary replied, "It's more powerful than all of them combined".
Something about the way the light bled through the tarps made Nicole draw closer. There was a tear in one of them, and the severed flap of plastic flapped this way and that; it looked wide enough to step through.
"How does that help?"
"The Splinter draws upon the-" now Zachary was rummaging though all his pockets, turning them out, assorted junk clattered to the floor. "- upon the very energies of the Maelstrom itself."
Years of dealing with shoplifters and degenerates had given Herb a sixth sense when it came to fear and right now he could just about smell it on their would-be savior. "Lose something?" he asked.
Could it really be this easy? Just walk right through the tear and reemerge in the rational world? Nicole drew closer and the truth revealed itself to her.
The grip around Charnel Bloom's throat tightened. His attempts to thrash free were rewarded with a knee in the groin. This was, beyond the shadow of a doubt, the most humiliating moment of his life. Drawing strength from outrage he lashed out, clawing at his adversaries face. Scrabbling fingers found an eyelid and pulled.
The snowy December night sky was gone. What was left was a mad kaleidoscope of swirling colors and shapes; light flickered intermittently, the horizon churned. It was making Nicole seasick. The last time she had been seasick had been her honeymoon, but this was no cruse ship and this time there was no Mark to comfort her.
"I don't believe this."
"Herb," Benjamin Zachary pleaded, "I have to find the Splinter otherwise all this was for nothing."
"If you're so Goddamn great then why didn't you know you'd drop it?"
A squiggle of teal wormed its way into her range of vision, it seemed to be hovering less than a foot from Nicole's face. Fascinated, she reached out to touch it.
"No!" Zachary grabbed her by the wrist and pulled her away from the breach, "The Maelstrom wouldn't be kind to your unprotected flesh."
The sight of what lay beyond the plastic tarps made Herb's jaw drop, "What- Where are we?"
"In the Maelstrom itself, trapped like a fly in amber."
Slipping her hand from his wrist, Nicole shot him a glare, "What is the Maelstrom?"
Benjamin Zachary regarded her for a moment. A slight smile formed on his face as he spoke, addressing her like a professor quoting from a text, "The Maelstrom is the energy field that surrounds our reality, some say it is the true source of all magic, others say its the very edge of the Creator's workbench. Personally, I haven't decided."
"This is too much." Herb shook his head. "This is too Goddamn much."
"It doesn't get any easier believe me." Zachary commented as he turned to go. "Now I want both of you to hide yourselves over there by those bins."
"And where will you be?" Nicole asked.
Herb grumbled, "Special Agent August Zabladowski expects us to believe that he lost his Magic Crystal."
"The term is Splinter." Zachary paused but didn't turn to face them.
"You lost it?" Nicole approached him, trying to gauge his expression. "Are you serious?"
"It slipped from my pocket."
"Why is it," Herb began, "that I feel like I'm being played for a fool? "
"I'm not going to waste another moment on this nonsense." Zachary started walking again, "Wait here and don't do anything stupid."
With a shriek, Scorby windmilled his arms, propelling himself away from Charnel Bloom. Charnel Bloom for his part was content to let him go. He just kept the eyelid.
They stayed that way for a moment, Charnel Bloom flat on his back in a swamp of plaster chips and broken glass and Scorby teetering over him, his right eye weeping blood. Then finally Charnel Bloom moved his shaking fingers wrapping around his precious flute. Scorby somehow found the strength to bound back up the stairs.
Huddled together in the dark, the only sound for Herb and Nicole was the sound of the plastic tarps whipping against their moorings. Somehow it reminded Nicole of the nightmares that had plagued her throughout childhood. In those cruel dreams she'd always found herself pursued by giant insects, but she never actually saw them. They had always flitted just out of the corner of her eye. Family and psychiatrists had always attributed it to one too many monster movies, now however she wondered if those terrible dreams had been laced with prophecy.
"He's setting us up."
Nicole flinched at the sound of Herb's voice. "What?"
"I know it, he's setting us up." He peered out from the stack of two by fours they had taken refuge behind, "I just don't know why."
"He needs a reason?"
"I know his type. He's looking for an edge, a way to make this situation work out to his advantage. He's probably using us to distract the other two." Herb checked his gun for the fortieth time, "If that Splinter-thing of his is so super-powerful then no way is he going to just drop it. That'd be like me dropping my gun and not noticing."
There was a shout. Nicole flinched again.
It was Scorby's voice.
"Son of a bitch!" Scorby cursed as he tried to make his way through the hole in the plaster partition. The building materials themselves had come to life with just a few notes from Charnel Bloom's flute. Tentacles of plaster and wood harried him, slashing at his legs and back as he ran past and tried to hide himself inside. The shifting sky cast weird shadows across Scorby's face as he tried to steady himself. The vents and air ducts oozed smoke, making him feel as though he was a stage magician lost in his own special effects.
Slowly, methodically, Charnel Bloom made his way into the uncompleted wing. The flute poised at his lips. He was having a hard time just catching his breath but was doing his best not to show it. Not now, in his moment of victory.
This was it, Herb realized and no sign of Benjamin Zachary. For a few moments he had almost been willing to give him the benefit of the doubt, but there had been something about those dark shifty eyes of his. Herb could hear the two 'wizards'. Each of them was trying to inhale quietly and catch their breath at the same time. It sounded like sobs, like the sobs he'd heard wounded GI's make when they were trying to lie low and let an enemy patrol pass by.
At least Zachary had gotten one thing right, they were flesh and blood.
That meant they could die. Nicole must have seen the knuckle of his trigger finger whitening. She gave him a pleading glance but it was too late, Herb had made his decision. This girl, whoever she was, was going to get out of here alive. She was going to spend Christmas Morning opening presents under the tree with her sweetie.
Motioning for her to stay put, the security guard readied himself.
Scorby stepped out of hiding, he had just enough left for one last incantation.
Charnel Bloom's fingers danced over the flute, causing it to emit a sound that was too shrill to be music, yet too beautiful to be noise.
The floor became quicksand beneath Scorby's feet. Charnel Bloom stopped playing as his legs began to carry him towards the rip in the plastic sheeting. His brow furrowed and his lips pulled back into a hideous grimace as he tried to get his rebellious limbs back under control.
"How do you like that old man?" Scorby spat. His adversary was screwed but that didn't help him any. He was still slipping through the murky roof; he could feel his feet just beginning to hit open air. If he didn't smother he'd fall to his death. With a grunt of frustration he clawed at the sucking slime that had once been wood, steel and sheetrock.
Knowing that one more step would lead him to oblivion, Charnel Bloom fought with every ounce of his willpower. The sight of the Maelstrom left him awestruck. How had they gotten here? Was it the Greater Easter Council's doing? Less than an inch from the storm of color and light, he knew it would consume him utterly.
"Why?" Both men paled at the sight of the battered security guard stepping out from behind a heap of two by fours. His gun was trained on them his voice, was quaking with rage. "All these people… why?"
"You…" Charnel Bloom snarled "…are interrupting."
Scorby spat an incantation, knowing that in seconds the security guard would be helpless and writhing in pain.
With a cry of rage the security guard fired three times. Bullets caught Scorby in the chest and neck. Scorby gurgled with surprise, his hands clawing at his throat in a futile attempt to stem the hot, pulse-driven flow. Rivulets of blood seeping between his fingers. After a final bewildered look around him, he slipped through the floor leaving only bloodstains behind.
"Not quite the victory I expected." Charnel Bloom grinned toothlessly, "But Bodge Loyar acts in mysterious ways."
Herb pulled the trigger again, but the gun was empty.
The unearthly music goaded Nicole into action. The time for hiding was over. She stood and aimed at Charnel Bloom. Before she could fire the plate in Herb's skull detonated.
For the briefest of seconds, it looked to her as though a crimson halo had gone up around the security guard's head. And then he fell, the halo falling with him as a thick rain.
A choking-gagging sound left Nicole's lips as she struggled to pull the trigger. For some reason it wouldn't budge.
Charnel Bloom's voice was an exhausted whisper, "A steel plate in his skull, I thought so. Scorby should have been more observant. As should you, the safety is still on."
Hands shaking wildly she fumbled for the switch. Where was it? She couldn't remember.
The flute played again and the pistol exploded. Splinters of the metal cut deep gashes across her face. Nicole fell to her knees, cradling the stump of bone and gristle at the end of her left arm.
Pocketing the flute Charnel Bloom surmised that these two must have stayed out of earshot when Scorby was summoning the Overlord's Serpent. He watched the woman whimper and bleed. Poor Scorby so dependent on enslaving others, but all it took was a subject with an exceptionally strong will or metallic implants in their cranium to nullify his power.
This had been a most exhilarating evening, proof once again that he really should get out more often. "Now all I must do," Charnel Bloom murmured to himself, "is find where he has hidden the Splinter."
Nicole rose to her feet, damned if she was going to let this music-making motherfucker get away with what he had done. The flute-player's back was to her, apparently he no longer considered her a threat. Nicole wondered giddily if he was searching for his sheet music.
Summers playing football in the yard with her brothers had taught her to come in low and hard when she tackled. She rushed at him, half-falling down with every step. Charnel Bloom grunted with surprise. His arms flailing wildly, he was driven backwards towards the ledge.
The effort left Nicole's blood-starved body debilitated. As all strength left her legs she saw Charnel Bloom tumble through the plastic sheeting and fall backwards into the Maelstrom.
The vortex had its way with him, tearing him apart. His flesh lost all human coherence, swirling this way and that, joining with the currents of light and color. The bone flute swelled burst into fragments and fell away.
The floor began to seem like a perfect place to lie down and get some rest. Struggling to keep her eyes open she wondered what was going to happen now? Would the mall hang here in the middle of nowhere for the rest of eternity, leaving an unexplainable crater off the interstate? Or would the morning shift come in to find their workplace transformed into a burnt- out war-zone?
Where had Benjamin Zachary gone?
What was going to happen her?
When she got to where she was going, would Mark be there?
Would he forgive her?
A dark curtain falling across her vision, Nicole closed her eyes and allowed herself to hope.
They appeared out of nowhere, stepping out of the Maelstrom they observed the bodies with bemused expressions. Wu-Han was tall and graceful, with proud features that hinted at his royal heritage, he was wearing red robes with black lining. Jack Diamond was broad shouldered and elegantly overdressed with a smile that came far too easily. "I daresay this was…" Wu-Han stroked his mustache thoughtfully, "... unanticipated."
"We'll eat lunch out on this story for years, the amended version anyway." Jack Diamond knelt beside the dying woman and ran his fingers through her hair. It was clotted with the security guard's remains.
"An ignominious conclusion for two modest talents."
"You said it." He bent his head and began chanting.
"What are you doing Diamond?" Wu-Han' voice rang with exasperation.
"Stabilizing her condition." Diamond replied sheepishly.
"What are you doing that for?"
"I just need a few minutes."
"A few minutes for what? A little animalistic rutting here in this impromptu abattoir? I think not!"
"There is an old saying in my family, ‘The lame best perform the act of love’.”
“I could make much of that aphorism and your family.”
Standing, Diamond wiped his fingertips on the fabric of his trousers. Her wounds had stopped bleeding and Nicole slept fitfully. “So do you want sloppy second of not?”
Wu-Hans' face turned an angry purple "No! Can you quell your lusts long enough to recall that we still have no way out of the Maelstrom? Do you honestly think the Greater Eastern Council will expend the resources necessary to rescue a pair of errant Subdeans?"
Neither of them noticed the short man with furtive, dark eyes approaching, "May I make a suggestion?"
They glared from his Cheshire-like grin to the shaft of red crystal he was twirling between his fingertips. Wu-Han ran a hand through his graying hair, "You. Of course. And are you still calling yourself Benjamin Zachary?"
Diamond's voice was a triumphant shout. "I told you there was something fishy going on! It was him! He's the one that stuck us here! Him!"
Wu-Han said "You contrived this entire farrago? To what possible end?"
"Gentlemen please..." Benjamin Zachary knelt beside Nicole and checked on her, "I was trying to deal with Charnel Bloom and Scorby, I didn't even know you were here. And, speaking as an honorary alumnus of the Greater Eastern Council, I would think a pair of Mystagogues of the Fifth Circle would be a tad more assertive in a situation like this."
"He... he.... oh crap."
Wu-Han looked ashen, "This will not look good to our superiors."
"Dammnit dammnit dammnit! I just had my friggin' room painted!" Diamond was stomping like a child.
"No no no." Zachary knelt beside Nicole and checked her pulse, "I have no interest in destroying your hard earned standings."
"Can you return us to the Abbey?" Wu-Han asked.
"Of course I can." Zachary smiled, "But there will be a price."
"There's always a price." Diamond shook his head, "Mamma was right."
"Just tell your superiors what happened. You got here, the mall was sucked into the Maelstrom and before you could do anything everyone, even Charnel Bloom and Scorby were killed, only this girl survived. Tell them how powerful she must be. Present her to the Pontiff."
Wu-Han laughed theatrically, "You want us to take this… ordinary person and put her in a position to be accepted into the ranks of the Eighth Circle?"
"Exactly." Benjamin Zachary nodded with approval.
"You expect us to lie to our superiors?"
"Why stop now?"
"But why?" Diamond, "She won’t survive a year. Oh wait a minute, this is that whole ‘from the future’ shtick of yours right?"
Wu Han looked uncertain, “From the future? I thought he was from the past.”
“Hey everyone’s from the past dingbat.”
Benjamin said, "I have my reasons. Besides, if it's a death sentence then what should you care? You'll be home, and who knows? The chaos she causes in the ranks might actually help further along your advancement."
After a brief mental debate, Wu-Han asked, "And what do you get out of this Zachary?"
He shrugged, "Her first born daughter?"
Wu-Han narrowed his eye "What are you up to?"
Jack Diamond was practically hopping with glee, "Dude it is so freakin' worth it!"
"All right then." Wu-Han smiled thickly, "All right then. One condition Hanged Man, you were never here. Do you understand?"
"That's just the way I want it." Zachary straightened his new jacket and stepped towards the Maelstrom. "I'll stop by the Abby in a few weeks to congratulate you on your good fortune."
Benjamin Zachary pulled the strange crystal from his pocket and closed his eyes.
"He’s really got the Splinter." Jack Diamond said his voice tinged with jealousy and wonder, "I’d kill my grandma in her sleep for a few minutes with that thing. "
Wu Han just shook his head, "You realize of course that he is trying to confound us somehow."
Benjamin Zachary felt the mall and its three living inhabitants fall away beneath him, slipping back through the Spaces Between. For a moment he floated alone in the Maelstrom, a sad smile on his lips. Everything had happened the way he remembered, more or less. Those two cowards didn't know what he knew. They couldn't know that Nicole would more than survive her first year as a Vassal of the Eighth Circle.
She was stronger than they knew, she would learn and adapt, she would rise through the ranks of the Greater Easter Council and leave the Wu-Han and Jack Diamond scrambling to save their careers.
And she would have a daughter, a beautiful and belligerent girl named Lorelei. Benjamin Zachary's smile brightened at the thought of her. He allowed the Splinter to bring him to his next destination thinking to himself that this was where it all really began.
At least that was how he remembered it.