This installment of Headlong carries a very similar content warning to the last, to wit: unsympathetic narrator! explicit language! violence! flee for your lives!
He waited in the shadow of the porch, uneasily shifting the messenger bag from shoulder to shoulder. It wasn’t all that heavy, but even after years of similar drops the contents of the bag still made him nervous. Not many things did, any more. He was sure it wasn’t his imagination–he did sense an awareness from inside the bag. Slumbering, to be sure, but there nonetheless. It made his skin crawl. It made his brain crawl.
Finally the front door of the house opened, though the porch light remained off. A young woman, dressed for a casual evening home, stepped to the porch railing, just a few feet from him. She did not look at him or acknowledge his presence in any way, just stood staring off into space with her hands resting on the rail. Her left hand was curled into a fist, except for the thumb and first finger, which stuck out at right angles.
Seeing the all clear signal, Galen relaxed a bit, just a bit, and softly gave the countersign. “Segmentata.”
The girl looked at him then, and smiled. “Good to see you again, Galen.”
Galen stepped forward and gave a tight smile in return. “You too, Cora. Though I can’t say I appreciate the circumstances.” He unslung the bag and held it out toward her gingerly. “Keep it safe, and don’t open it. Someone will be by in a few days to pick it up.”
Cora gulped and took the bag slowly, flinching visibly when her hands touched it. “I don’t get it. Why don’t you burn it like always?”
Galen shook his head gravely. “This one needs special care. Don’t try to deal with it yourself, Cora. I mean that. It’s probably the most dangerous one we’ve found in ten years.”
Cora hung the bag by its strap from the doorknob and backed away from it. “You still haven’t told me why you need to leave it here at all.”
“Cora, I… Something’s following me. Or maybe that. If it’s after me, I can’t afford to have that when and if it catches up again. If it’s after that… Well Ken’s box is the best hiding place we know of. It’ll be safe here until we figure out what’s going on.”
Cora latched onto something in that that made her forget about the bag, temporarily. “Catches up again? Galen, are you okay?”
“I’ll be fine.”
But Cora was having none of it. Instantly she was back at the rail and holding Galen’s shoulder. “Don’t be stupid. You can’t take the chance of an infection.” Suddenly her hand was doing the glow/no glow thing that always bothered him. Warmth flooded him, concentrating on the puckered gash on his thigh. When it receded, the wound was still there, but smaller, and he knew he had no need to fear infection now. Not a natural infection, anyway.
Galen sighed. “Sometimes I wish you would teach me that. It might be worth melting my brain a bit.”
Cora hissed reprovingly. “Don’t even joke about that. The rules are there for a reason. We don’t seek power, you of all people know that!”
Galen nodded. “Sorry, I’m just tired. I’m going to hit the road and see if I can find a place to sleep.”
Cora sighed and released his shoulder. “I’m sorry too. Be safe, Galen.”
Galen turned half way around, then stopped and looked back at Cora. “I’d almost forgotten. I’m supposed to tell you that you’re about to run into a candidate. Or maybe you already have, Walter wasn’t sure.”
Cora smiled. “I think I know who it is. Tell Walter thanks for telling me.”
Galen smiled and nodded, tipping an imaginary hat. Then he was gone. She hadn’t seen him go, but then, she would have been worried if she had.
Gunner slipped back into the house about an hour later. Finding out that the musical buddy Luke wouldn’t shut up about really was Dear Baby Brother had been fantastic, but after the amusement wore off he started wondering why Cora had been so calm about him wanting to step out instead of spending the evening with her. Not even calm, really, almost… eager. Like she’d been looking for an excuse to get rid of him anyway. Little Cora might be slicker than he’d suspected. So when he came back from tailing Luke he parked a few blocks away and let himself into the yard by the back gate. When he arrived, Cora had been standing on the porch with a shoulder bag, shifting it from hand to hand like she was nervous about something. Gunner hadn’t seen the bag in any of Cora’s things, so it was new. It was new, and she was nervous about it, and she wanted to keep it a secret. From him, from everybody.
Cora, baby, are you a mule? A dealer? The thought was almost too delicious to bear. Gunner knew he had to get inside that sack somehow. So he waited, and when Cora finally went back inside with the bag, he followed her movements through the windows. Upstairs to the room that Kenny and his whore of a girlfriend Stacy shared, then back to her room, and lights out. He ghosted into the house, padded up the stairs, and slipped into Ken’s room. Between the night light in the corner and the street lamps shining through the window he could navigate the room easily. He already had a good idea where the bag would be, but to draw out the anticipation he checked all the places he knew it wouldn’t be first. Not under the bed, no. Not in the closet, no, neither on the floor nor up on the shelf. Not on the bookshelves. Not in the underwear drawer, although he was amused to see that Stacy apparently was kinkier than she made out. None of those places would have it, of course. No, it would be in the Devil Trunk.
He’d spotted, and named, the Devil Trunk on his first day in the house. Cora was giving him the tour and through the open door he saw a weird looking wooden box. The wood was blackened, like it had been in a fire, and there were crazy jagged symbols carved all over the outside, and a big ancient-looking padlock on the front. He’d laughed and asked Ken if that was where he kept his spellbooks, and damn if Ken hadn’t clammed up like a champ right then. After that Ken and Stacy kept their door closed when Gunner was around.
The Devil Trunk squatted at the foot of the bed, daring him to open it. There was the padlock, of course, but picking locks, especially old ones, is mainly a question of dexterity and patience. Well supplied with the first if not the second, Gunner grabbed a couple of hairpins from the dresser and made short work of the crude mechanism. The lock fell open with a click and he slipped it free of the hasp quietly.
Gunner grinned like an excited child as he lifted the top of the trunk. The inside was dark, so he grabbed the little flashlight from his keychain and shined a light down. And down. And down. He wasn’t looking into a space a couple of feet on a side, he was looking down through a hatch into a room. The floor was at least ten feet away, and he couldn’t even see the walls. Unmarked boxes and random bits of clutter were stacked haphazardly below him. And right at the top, hanging from a hook driven into the side of the hatch, was the black messenger bag he’d seen Cora with on the porch.
What the hell? Gingerly, Gunner reached down into the Devil Trunk as far as he could. No bottom. Even when he knew his fingers were well below the floor of the room, no bottom. He tried shifting the trunk a foot to the right, but the view through the hatch didn’t change, and his fingers still didn’t find floor. Grinning even more, he lifted the trunk completely off the floor. It was heavier than it looked, but that was the only evidence that something was not right about it. The view through the hatch still didn’t change. And when he tipped it up on its side the bag still hung straight and the stacked boxes didn’t tumble.
This is the coolest thing I have ever seen. Gunner didn’t know or care how it worked, but he knew when he left Larson he was taking the Devil Trunk with him. First thing’s first, though. He set the trunk down and pulled the bag out. It was heavier than he’d expect for drugs, but given what he’d already seen he wasn’t placing any bets on what was going to be in the bag. It didn’t even occur to him that what was in the bag might present a danger to him, nor did he notice the sensation of being watched that stole over him when he touched it. Gunner impatiently undid the clasps and threw open the top of the bag.
Inside was a book. A large thin book, bound in leather with black iron clasps and weird symbols burned into the cover all over, the kind you’d see on somebody’s coffee table in hell. Vaguely disappointed but still curious, Gunner opened the book and started flipping the thick, musty pages. The writing was so spidery he could barely make out any recognizable letters, and the brown ink didn’t stand out very well from the brown paper, but he thought it might be Latin. He couldn’t make heads or tails of it, but there were occasional diagrams, so he kept flipping, hoping to figure out what was up.
Most of the diagrams were drawings of what looked like a dissection. Page after page of some creepy looking thing that was almost, but not quite, human. Limbs and such were present in the right numbers, but the proportions were off, arms and fingers too long, joints bent in odd angles. And if he wasn’t mistaken, at least some of those pieces that had been peeled back and cut off were meant to be metal.
Gunner should have been feeling uncomfortable by that point, but he wasn’t feeling anything at all. He flipped pages rapidly, mechanically, and his eyes darted across each page, absorbing even if they didn’t comprehend. Finally, after far more flipping than a book of that size should have required, he reached the last page, which was one large diagram. It was a slightly misshapen circle, filled with radiating lines that met and parted in ways that the human eye doesn’t want to follow. Symbols were scribed along each line, so fine they would look like dots without a magnifyer, and in the center the paper itself seemed to fade away, as if the center of the page were a portal to some other place.
Gunner sat there, motionless, for an hour. He just stared blankly at the center of the page. He was so entranced that he did not notice when the Other entered the room.
It was another three hours before Ken and Stacy got home. They didn’t want to wake anyone, so they didn’t turn on any lights when they got to their room. Silently they undressed by the door, dropping their things on the floor to be picked up in the morning. Stacy crawled into bed and was asleep before her head hit the pillow, but Ken stubbed his toe on something on the way and bit back a curse. He crouched down to see what the heavy thing was, and was startled to find his chest in the middle of the floor. Suddenly wary, he felt blindly at the lid. Closed and locked, and the lock was secure. Mind eased somewhat, he pushed it back to its normal place and crawled into bed.
Ward climbed the staircase doggedly. From where he stood he could see landings above and below him, but no end to the stairs. To either side other stairways crossed the enormous room, leaving no space for anything else. The staircases were dotted with groups of people, some climbing and some descending. Whenever their stairs came close to Ward’s, which was often, the people in the other groups would call out to him. They were people he knew, sometimes people he hadn’t seen in years, sometimes people he saw every day, and sometimes people he hadn’t met yet. Sometimes he asked them where they were going, but they never answered. Everything they said was a variation on the same theme.
“You’re on the wrong path,” Lucas told him, smiling. “Hop over here.”
Ward just shook his head and kept climbing. The red tile clicked under the soles of his shoes, and his hand felt clammy on the tarnished steel handrail. A dozen steps went by and then he was drawing even with a staircase crossing on the other side. A group of his old high school classmates was there, and Lucy Gellar from Algebra turned to him. “Come on over, Ward, that one doesn’t go anywhere.”
Ward didn’t even bother to shake his head this time. On he went, turning down teachers, relatives, and old friends. He never slowed, never got tired.
After what might have been an hour or a minute Ward saw something strange. It took him a while to figure out what was wrong about what he was seeing up ahead, but then it came clear. Someone was just standing there, not moving in either direction. Just standing, right where his staircase met hers, was Cora.
“There’s no one else on that path,” she called as he got closer. “Doesn’t that tell you something?”
Ward stopped a few steps down from her and planted his hands on his hips. “I’ve got to walk my own path.”
She nodded. “But what makes you think you’re the one who decides what that is?” Suddenly she grinned, and Ward jumped back, startled. Her teeth were shining chrome fangs, and something with sharp, angular edges moved under the skin of her face. He started to overbalance, and grabbed the rail for support. Unable to dodge or flee, he threw up his left arm to shield himself, but it was gone. Just… gone. Blood trickled from a clean cut just below his elbow, and as he watched in horror, tiny chrome tendrils poked out from inside the ruin of his arm, waving blindly in the air.
Cora grinned even wider, and when she opened her skullsplitting jaws the voice that came out was not human. “We will come for the rest of you soon.”
Ward woke with a strangled scream and lurched off his couch in mad flight. His feet tangled in the blanket, sending him crashing into the stereo. His elbow cracked against the corner of the speaker, knocking it over and starting a bone-deep bruise. He barely noticed, just caught himself on the stand and kicked his way free before launching himself at the door. Still off balance, he slammed into the door with a jarring thud that cleared his head somewhat. He blinked and looked around at his dark, empty apartment. What am I running from? It was just a dream…
The dim shadows cast by the light bleeding through the curtains writhed and coalesced into a hulking mound of darkness. Ward stared, paralyzed. Soon there was a column of shadow spreading along the floor and ceiling, growing in irregular pulsing jerks, like a diseased heartbeat. In the center of the mass Ward saw a dull glint, like a reflection off the barrel of a gun. The glint moved from side to side, as though looking around, and the inhuman voice from the dream grated “You can not run from us. We are in you.”
The shadow surged forward, and when it overtook Ward it felt like sinking into a pool of cold, dirty oil. Shocked into action, Ward frantically fumbled the latch open with cold-numbed fingers and ripped his door open. Fighting screams of panic, he fell through the opening and half fell up the stairs to the street, splitting the skin over his right knee on the edge of a concrete step.
The darkness followed, of course, snuffing the lights in the stairwell as it rolled out of the apartment into the freedom of the outside. Ward didn’t have to look to know how close it was–the cold that grabbed at his bare heels as he ran down the sidewalk and the shifting shadows as street lamps winked out behind him told him all he needed to know. The voice called from time to time, asking why he ran, but mostly it just wheezed dry laughter. Ward ran past exhaustion, heedless of the cold of the autumn night, heedless of how he must look, running down a sidewalk in the middle of the night dressed only in plaid flannel pajama pants, heedless of the cuts and scrapes accumulating on his bare feet. All that mattered was staying ahead of that voice. He ran without a thought to any eventual destination, changing directions randomly when he saw what looked like an easier path, or sometimes when a shadow to one side spooked him further. The real danger, though, was always behind him, and he was not leaving it any farther behind no matter how he ran.
Suddenly Ward crashed headlong into a chain link fence he hadn’t noticed in the moonlight. He tried desperately to catch his breath, knowing that it was useless, that this delay was the end of the chase, but the shadow and the voice held back, toying with him. As he gathered himself for renewed flight, Ward realized what he was seeing beyond the fence. A big, old house, two stories and an attic, with gables that seemed to frown down at him. Light shone from the ground floor windows and the porch. Lucas’s house. And… Yes. Of course, it has to be her. Cora!
Ward snarled and scrambled over the fence, spraining a toe and cutting his hands, and hit the yard running. He was up the porch steps and at the front door in seconds, and he didn’t even slow. There was no storm door, and the front door popped free of the frame at the impact of his shoulder. The shadow, apparently taken by surprise, was barely to the porch when he slammed the door shut and threw the deadbolt, trying to ignore the thump and scratching sounds from the other side of the flimsy barrier.
Shaking, Ward spun around and saw that he was not alone in the room. There she was, sitting cross legged on the end of the couch, holding a cell phone and staring wide-eyed at her frantic guest. “W-ward? Lucas isn’t–“
Cora didn’t get a chance to finish her sentence, because Ward was there, grabbing her shoulders and shaking her. “What do you want with me?” he shouted. “Why are you after me?” Without giving her a chance to respond, Ward snatched the phone from her and shoved her down onto the couch. He whirled on the door and shouted, into the phone, at the door, “Leave me alone! You can’t have it! Not my hand, not anything! Just leave me–“
“HEY!” came a man’s voice from the other end of the room. “Just what the hell do you–“
Ward spun and hurled the phone with a snarl at the half naked man who stood in the other doorway. Despite, or perhaps because of, his fear and confusion, he came very close to hitting–the phone brushed Ken’s hair on its way into the kitchen. Cora took this moment to stand up, waving her arms. “Ken, I’m fine. He’s confused, Ken. He thinks we’re after him.”
“Thinks? Thinks!” Ward spat at Cora. “I know! I know because you told me! You told me on the stairs, before you grew your teeth! You can’t take it back now, even if your teeth are back!” Shaking with rage, he faced Ken. “And you! You,” suddenly confused, he paused. “I don’t know you.” Ken held up one hand calmly, and swung the door behind him almost closed with the other. He started to say something, but when he opened his mouth Ward saw the chrome fangs again, and the metallic shape moving underneath his skin. “You’re the thing from outside! You got inside somehow and now you’re going to take my arm! Well you can’t have it!” Despite his terror, Ward actually took a step forward and pointed menacingly at the thing that called itself Ken Silva.
Ken sneered. “That’s right. I’m coming for your arm. And you’re going to be easy meat, too.”
Cora gasped. “Ken, what the hell?”
“It’s okay, Cora, he can know. It doesn’t matter. He’s too much of a coward to actually face us. This little rat is going to keep on running in the wrong direction!”
Ward’s vision condensed to a red-rimmed oval around Ken. “The hell I will! I’ll face you right now!” He lunched forward, but Ken threw himself aside, dragging the door open behind him, and Ward stumbled into the kitchen. At least, it should have been the kitchen. Instead of the avocado tiles and peeling linoleum he’d seen on his previous visits, Ward was standing on a bare concrete floor, lit only by the light cast through the doorway. Soon even that light was gone as the door slammed shut. Ward was surrounded by shadow, the shadow that chased him, only it wasn’t behind him any more, it had looped around and trapped him and he’d fallen for it and now there was no way out, no light, no hope, nothing but the dark and the cold and the voices and the sick sensation of unseen fingers on his skin.
Ward lunged to his feet and fled back towards the door, but it wasn’t there. He ran on, hoping to find a wall and another way out, but after running for what seemed like hours he tripped and sprawled on the concrete, sobbing.
“It is over,” the voice purred. “We have you now, and we will make you one of us.”
Ward curled up and lost himself in darkness.