"Fuck!" Janessa screamed, slamming her gun down on the bar. She massaged her temples, groaning in frustration. Flip slid another drink across the bar to her. "I can't believe that little shit got away from me."
"Maybe it was something you said?" Flip said archly.
Janessa chuckled sarcastically as she pulled the martini glass to her lips, letting the thick, green liquid slide down her throat in one gulp. She immediately felt the calming effects of the potion, allowing it to course through her veins, working its magic on her. It was an ancient Fae recipe Flip had brought with him to the Netherworld from his world.
"It's my job," she reminded him.
"I get that," Flip said defensively. "It's just, with the whole 'under oath of the Higher Beings' mumbo jumbo and shit, I think you tend to freak people out."
"I freak people out?" Janessa questioned, quirking an eyebrow. "You're the one with the Hobbit ears, my friend."
"Don't you think you should run off and fetch your little boy lost?" Flip asked, ignoring the jab thrown his way.
Janessa massaged her shoulders, hugging herself. She didn't even want to think about what Simon was going to say when she reported back to the office. She hadn't exactly been sporting a perfect record lately. She had made mistakes. Most of them minor, but a couple of missions had been compromised due to her. Too often she let her emotions rule her, and that led to mistakes.
"I've got this under control," she murmured, but whether she was telling this to Flip or herself, she couldn't really be sure. The last thing she needed was another reason for Simon to rip her a new asshole. She had to find that kid before he could get too far away, before anyone knew he'd given her the slip. She looked back up at Flip, saluting him. "Thanks, as always. Gotta run."
"You always do," Flip said, grinning.
Janessa moved through the crowds, and as they felt her aura, imbued upon her by the Higher Beings, they instinctively moved out of her way. There were some perks to being an agent of the NTF. Most of the time, people didn't fuck with you. They knew that if an agent was around, there was serious business going down. And usually you didn't want to become involved unless you felt like risking your immortal soul to permanent damnation.
Life in the Netherworld.
Janessa found the exit to Purgatory, heading out into the streets of Necropolis. The sky was permanently etched in the deep purples and oranges of twilight. Netherworld existed in a world of eternal darkness. The sun never shone here. The holding ground for every lost soul in every known universe would never be a happy place. It was dim, dreary and lifeless. Just like its inhabitants. Save a rambunctious few, here or there.
Hollow skyscrapers towered on all sides, some of them so tall that their tops were concealed by thin, wispy, fog-like clouds that slowly crawled across the sky. A dim, dull midnight sun hung above them all, vaguely glowing, a dirty reddish-brown, setting the streets awash in a permanent bloody hue. Dozens of people and creatures from innumerable dimensions and universes walked the streets, mostly minding their own business. The Lost usually did. They didn't concern themselves with the fate of anyone else. They were solely worried about their own.
It was Janessa's job, along with the other agents of the Task Force, to make sure no one upset the balance of the Netherworld. Some of the Lost became impatient, angry, or resentful, unable to bear the pain from the life they had once lived before and unwilling to await their eventual Collection – be it eternal glory or damnation, and became…well, problematic. They were a threat to the system.
And the system had to be maintained.
Janessa had grown to have a begrudging respect for control. She hadn't had any control in her life before ending up in the Netherworld and after being recruited into the Task Force, she began to relish every ounce of control she could muster. Because in the Netherworld, despite control being a mere illusion, that illusion at least gave her the sense of being able to shape her own destiny. However, she knew the miserable truth.
Her fate was likely sealed. Those who came to the Netherworld rarely could influence their path. This was merely a holding room. A place for waiting. Eventually, you would end up in the warm, glowing embrace of Heaven or the scornful, painful grasp of Hell. Only the Phantoms had any real hope of proving themselves to the Higher Beings and sway their path in one direction over another. Usually, they ended up becoming agents for the Task Force, like Janessa's partner, Lucas.
Janessa felt a disturbance in the air next to her, and the air shimmered, as if a pebble had been tossed into a still lake, sending ripples spiraling out endlessly. Out of thin air, Lucas appeared, looking like his gaunt, gruff self as usual. Lucas had been a Puritan back in his living days, and life was rough and harsh back in those days. His cheeks were high and defined, face lined and chiseled. He would probably be considered ruggedly handsome by some. His long dirty blond hair was always kept in a loose ponytail that hung down the back of his neck.
He was semi-transparent, like a ghost. There was an odd spectral look to him, as if he was being tuned in from a satellite and the picture had a slightly bad reception. Phantoms were rare in the Netherworld, but they did exist, and they really loved using their powers to sneak up on people. Especially unaware partners who were busy trying not to let her superiors know she'd just let a new entry slip through her fingers.
"Lucas," Janessa breathed, shivering. "Wear a fucking bell or something."
"Sorry," Lucas replied, not sounding sorry in the least bit. His stilted, old-world speech made him sound almost like he had an English accent. Considering he was probably brought over on the Mayflower, maybe he did. "I was doing recon in the area and I felt your presence, so I figured I would check in with you."
"Nothing new to report," she lied, biting her lip.
She knew it was risky lying to Lucas. Not just because he was her partner and there needed to be a certain level of trust between them while on missions, but also because Phantoms have a pesky habit of being able to read people's auras, sensing their emotions and when something is plaguing them. Or sense lies, which is why they tended to come in handy as agents in the first place.
"Oh," was all the Phantom said, nodding distantly. Janessa couldn't tell if he knew she was lying and was simply choosing not to press the issue for her own sake or if she had managed to actually conceal the truth from him. She stole a glance at his cool blue eyes, soft around the edges, but concealing a deep and troubled past that hid just beneath the surface, like a trench deep within the ocean. "So where are you headed now?"
"Got a lead on a new entry," Janessa said deciding she could always edit the rest of the truth later, if necessary. Last time she checked, telling a white lie didn't really make much of a cosmic difference in the battle for her eternal soul. "He took off. Not sure which direction he may have headed."
"Mind if I tag along?" Lucas asked, his form shimmering in and out of focus. From time to time, it was as if he wasn't even actually there. Janessa had never gotten up the courage to ask him where he went during those moments. She wasn't even sure if he knew. They had been partners for a long time, longer than she could probably care to admit, and the subject had never come up naturally, so she figured Lucas didn't enjoy talking about it. "They're doing Feedings at the NTF and I really don't want to be there for that."
He was referring to the NTF sanctioned Phantom feedings, where the agents would allow certain Phantoms cleared for missions to feed off the energy of the Lost in order to temporarily become solid. Most Phantoms detest the idea of being solid, even for a short time, believing they are a higher class of being than a typical Netherworlder, seeing as they have the ability to alter their destiny more so than anyone else.
It was supposed to be an incredibly intense experience, and not one taken on lightly. Lucas had once told her that once a Phantom feeds from a solid, they are permanently and irrevocably intertwined. Their memories, their thoughts, their emotions – everything is permanently accessible between them, until one or the other moves on and finally leaves the Netherworld forever. Which can take an extremely long time.
Considering the only people deemed available for Phantom feedings are the worst of the worst kept in prison deep below the NTF headquarters, Janessa could completely understand Lucas's reticence at undergoing the procedure.
"I think we should head north," Janessa complied, nodding.
"Why north?" Lucas asked, frowning.
"Think about it," Janessa said, cocking her head to the side. "Where do all newbies end up when they first get to Necropolis?"
Realization dawned on Lucas's face.
"The Monolith," he murmured. Janessa nodded, feeling more sure of it now than when she had initially had the idea. The Monolith was a massive statue in the center of Necropolis which stretched far into the smog-like clouds above the city, and it was said by the eldest of Netherworlders that it held the secrets of the afterlife and could tell you your destiny and whether you were bound for Heaven or Hell. Newly deposited Lost Ones were drawn to the Monolith like moths to a flame. However, the disappointment of never getting the answer you were seeking in the first place tended to drive most a little mad.
"Let's go," Janessa said grimly.
Deacon tripped over the crumbling pavement and asphalt that made up the uneven streets of the city, nearly falling face first into a puddle of thick, viscous fluid that shimmered an inky, purple-black beneath the dark, crimson sun that shone blood-red light down across the cityscape. Everything not drenched in shadows was splashed with various hues of red, leaving Deacon's eyes swimming and unable to focus properly.
He had probably only made it a mile or two from the nightclub where he had narrowly escaped that woman, Janessa. What had it been that she'd said to him? 'By order of the Higher Beings'? Who or what the fuck was a Higher Being? Deacon's mind whirled as his thoughts fought for supremacy in his brain, struggling to determine which one he would attempt to decode and figure out first.
He skirted the puddle of horrendous looking (and smelling) liquid and found a little hole positioned between two crumbling, abandoned looking buildings. It was small enough for him to just barely fit inside, but be kept from view of anyone who might be looking. He hadn't seen anyone – or anything, for that matter – on this street, but that didn't mean they weren't still out there looking for him. Janessa seemed like the type not to give up.
Deacon huddled inside the hole, trying to rub his hands together and keep his fingers from going numb with cold. He hadn't realized how cold it was outside until he took a moment to sit still. The cold washed over him like a sinking dread, settling in deep inside his bones, chilling him from deep within all the way out through the pores of his skin. He shivered, hard, wrapping his arms around his upper body.
Feeling lost and without any hope of ever understanding what was happening to him, Deacon watched the purple clouds slide lazily across the sky, roiling and undulating with some unseen inner turmoil. Tiny flashes of light appeared within them from time to time and Deacon could almost swear he could see the faint, shadowy outlines of wispy tentacles moving and slithering about within the clouds.
Transfixed as he was, Deacon didn't notice the pebbles begin to scatter and tremble amongst his feet, as if some heavy object was being slid across the ground or being dropped over and over in place. They bounced off his shoe, skittering out into the street in front of the dilapidated buildings. Then came a distant hum, growing more and more insistent.
Deacon turned his head away from the clouds just long enough to notice a crack spreading across the wall of his little cave, moving quickly. It began to grow, expanding in multiple directions, like a spider-web, fracturing the cement and stone as if it were nothing more than paper being ripped by a small child having a tantrum. Deacon tried to extricate himself from the hole, but a piece of tumbling stone pinned his leg in place.
In an explosion of mortar and dust, the fractured wall imploded, chunks of stone flying in all directions. Deacon's face was sprayed with ancient air and soot. In the maelstrom of destruction, a black gaping maw appeared out of the darkness from the other side of the collapsed wall, screeching an unholy cry that seemed to echo from deep within some long-forgotten well.
Deacon screamed, pushing on the piece of stone holding his leg down, trying desperately to free himself. Thick, black talons gripped the jagged ruins of the wall, preparing to drag whatever body they were connected to through. The skin attached to the talons was almost translucent, as if the entire creature was covered in plastic, making the inner workings all visible to anyone who dared look upon it.
Its head pushed forward, coming face to face with Deacon, its unhinged jaw dangling like a ventriloquist's dummy whose mouth had come undone. There were no eyes, no nose. Nothing else that could even remotely make it seem at all human. Just a mouth. A mouth with teeth, rows and rows of them, endless rows of teeth.
Folds upon folds of skin made up the rest of the head, which led to a stunted neck connected to an amorphous, spectral looking body that billowed and blew as if controlled by the wind. The mouth would open, teeth snapping into place, and the screech that came from within seemed to echo for miles and miles.
How could no one be hearing this? Deacon thought.
Finally, with strength he didn't know he could muster, Deacon managed to heft the stone off his leg, but by then it was much too late. The horrible black creature pushed its way through the hole it had created, clasping its taloned claws around Deacon's arm, pulling him towards it. Deacon tried to resist, dragging his feet into the ground, hoping to weigh himself down, but to no avail. The creature yanked him through the passage, sending Deacon plummeting ten or fifteen feet straight down the collapsed wall from the other side.
Luckily, the building had been tilting, so the wall fell at an incline. Deacon slid down to the bottom, landing on an uneven metal grated floor. Large, rusted over pieces of equipment surrounded him on all sides, like a boiler room or a factory.
The faceless creature scurried backwards, changing direction. It perched on the edge of the hole in the wall, glaring down at Deacon as if it could see him despite the fact that it didn't seem to have any eyes. It roared, a high-pitched, squealing sound, like when metal scrapes against another metal.
Deacon felt shivers go up and down his spine, and not just from the sound.
Endless folds of skin shuffled around each other like a hundred trench coats fluttering in the wind as the monster began to traverse the uneven wall of corrugated steel leading down to the makeshift floor Deacon had tumbled upon. He could hear the creature's vicious talons scrabbling for purchase against the metal, slick with condensation and other, far less distinguishable, liquids. Deacon imagined the blood of a thousand innocents slathered across those claws, dripping and splattering against the creature's dark, malformed body.
Though, he wasn't exactly an innocent, was he? Perhaps it was best that it ended this way. Mauled and eaten alive by some horrific demon, lost and alone in an abandoned building with no hope of ever being discovered. He'd done a lot of shitty things in his life and probably deserved a fate no worse than this, but something had happened within him that night. The night he was planning to end it all. He'd planned everything so perfectly.
But then he'd seen the woman. The woman being attacked. He'd taken action, something he'd never in a million years thought he would ever do.
Maybe he wasn't supposed to die yet.
A renewed sense of strength filled him, rising up from deep within his gut, flowing through his veins. Call it adrenaline, call it courage, call it that last ditch effort to stay alive in the face of death, itself. It didn't matter to Deacon, anymore. If this thing was going to end up taking him out, he wasn't going to go down without a fight, that was for damn sure.
"Come on, you mother fucker!" Deacon screamed, feeling his veins bulge and contort against his neck muscles. He rose unsteadily to his feet, noticing a rusted pole that may have once been the lever to an ancient piece of machinery but had long since become ineffectual and useless. He picked the rusted pole up, holding it before him with both hands like a baseball bat, steadying his footing.
The shadow monster shrieked, louder than ever this time, as if angrily answering back to Deacon's call to arms. Its jaw elongated, allowing even more rows of nasty, yellowed needle-sharp teeth to come forward. Row after row could be seen behind it, ready to take their place at a moment's notice in the forefront, like a shark. It slid and cavorted down the incline, its legs awkward and bent backwards at unnatural angles.
Deacon planted his feet in place, trying to leverage all of his body's weight into his upper body, so he could swing at the creature with all of his might.
"Come on!" Deacon screamed again, pumping himself up.
With a snarl, the shadow beast leapt from the overturned wall, soaring through the air, talons outstretched, mouth agape, each row of teeth glistening, a sickening looking saliva dripping like toxic waste from every orifice.
They collided, flesh against flesh, metal against claw.
Tumbling head over heel, Deacon fought and slashed and pummeled, as they rolled and cartwheeled through the air, locked in battle.
As the beast's jaws closed in on Deacon's face, all he could see, feel, hear or experience was nothing but complete and utter darkness.