Orange and white tiles bled together within her vision, blurring into one, until it looked as though the floor was spiraling into a never-ending funnel. She blinked, once, then twice, trying to clear her vision. The floor returned to normal, but now the light bounced up off the tile, reflecting her face back up at her. Lank, unwashed blond hair hung at her shoulders, curling slightly at the ends. Small, birdlike eyes sat deep behind a short, crooked nose, desperately peering down at their reflection, hoping for some sort of respite.
Gwen looked at her feet, poking out from beneath the ankle-length trench coat she'd wrapped herself in before fleeing the house, her unwashed pajamas hidden beneath the soft, camel-colored fabric, tied together with a thick belt to conceal the unkempt mess beneath. The old grandfather clock she'd been given as a wedding present twenty-seven years ago had read 3:47 as she was ushered through her front door by police escort.
She'd fully expected to be brought in for questioning. She imagined being carted to a downtown precinct, stuffed in an airless interrogation room, one bare light bulb swinging above an empty table. She knew she wasn't in trouble, not herself, but the guilt gnawed at her nonetheless. How could someone not feel responsible for the actions of their children? Despite her best efforts, she knew she had failed as a mother.
The rain soaked loafers stared back up at her, stained a muddy brown from the storm that had raged earlier in the night. Her soles had squeaked upon the incessantly mopped linoleum, so sterile, so clean, yet holding a history of darkness, death and violence. Hospitals had always been a strange place for Gwen. They held some of her best and worst memories within them. The night she'd given birth to her son, undergoing chemo treatment for the breast cancer the doctors assured her would not return, identifying her late husband's body.
The memories surfaced in waves, overtaking her, filling her at once with hope and dread. Hope that perhaps this trip to the hospital would not be as horrible as the others, but the ever increasing fear that this would be the one that would surely send her reeling into the night, unable to ever cope with the grief.
She couldn't bring herself to identify another body.
"Mrs. Abrams?" a soft, gentle voice called from across the corridor. Gwen looked up, still completely lost in her reveries, and noticed that a nurse had approached her. She was young, mid-twenties, pretty. Short dirty blonde hair pulled up into a tiny ponytail that jutted out from the back of her head like a chopped tree branch. Her eyes were wide and round, glittering and coated with the barest hint of eye-shadow.
She would have been perfect. Why couldn't she have been the one to save her son? Someone like her would have been an excellent influence on him. She was smart, had a good job. She could have made him a better man.
"Mrs. Abrams?" the nurse repeated, sounding concerned. Gwen's eyes fluttered opened and closed rapidly, and she attempted to regain her focus. She must have become delirious from lack of sleep. She'd been sitting in this chair in the hall for what felt like hours. The sun had surely risen outside, yet the lack of windows made it impossible to know for sure. "My name is Lydia. I'm a nurse here? The doctor wants to speak with you."
Gwen nodded shakily, smoothing some of her hair out of her face. She took a deep, rattling breath. She could practically feel her lungs constricting, her throat closing up. She was on the verge of a panic attack and her eyes roved back and forth, like a meth addict looking for their next hit.
"Of course," she murmured, clutching the lapels of her trench coat. Her knuckles whitened from gripping the thin fabric so tightly. She felt as though she were in a slow-motion collision, bracing herself for impact as a freight train barreled down upon her. Knowing there was nothing that could be done and no hope for escape, Gwen allowed herself to be helped to her feet by Lydia, and like an inmate being led through an asylum, she was guided down the corridor towards her fate.
"You must be exhausted," Lydia commented, keeping her perfectly manicured hands placed on Gwen's shoulder and the small of her back, as if she were a frail, sickly patient being taken to their next round of treatments. Gwen remembered that feeling quite well. In some ways it brought her solace. It was a familiar feeling, yet one that filled her with regret and unspent aggression.
She quickly shrugged her way out Lydia's caring hands.
"I can walk by myself," she snapped. The young nurse took an abrupt step away from her, putting her hands up as if she were under arrest. Gwen immediately felt guilty. How could she have spoken to this poor girl in such a manner? She could have been her daughter-in-law in another life. A faraway life, of course, but Gwen had become fascinated with imagining these alternate realities for quite some time.
Sometimes it was the only way she could make it through a day.
"I-I'm…I'm sorry," Gwen stammered, coming to a halt. Lydia watched her with wary eyes, unsure if she was in for another scolding. Gwen imagined that the young woman probably had a lot of practice with dealing with people in delicate states of mind. "I know you're just doing your job. I'm…"
"You don't have to apologize," Lydia said, smiling comfortingly.
"Where's the doctor?" Gwen asked, nearly breathless. She'd been sitting still for so long that the sudden movements had utterly exhausted her. "I need to see the doctor. Is there any news about my son?"
"Just come with me," Lydia said, nodding.
Gwen allowed herself to be guided once more by the nurse and within a few minutes of walking, they were standing just outside a private room. A distinguished looking African-American doctor with gray at his temples and half-moon glasses perched on the edge of his squat nose appeared from within the room, holding a chart in one hand and a clipboard overflowing with paperwork in the other.
"This is Dr. Chambers," Lydia announced, nodding at the man.
The doctor placed the chart in a mailbox just outside the room and cradled the clipboard against his pristine white coat embroidered with his name. He greeted Gwen with a swift nod and a compulsory look of understanding and sympathy. Gwen felt ill at ease as soon as she saw him. Somehow she knew that this was not going to be a good conversation. They never brought you to the doctor unless it was bad news.
Good news could be delivered in front of anyone.
"Your son was in a terrible accident, Mrs. Abrams," Dr. Chambers said in a clipped, almost businesslike tone. Like he was a car salesman telling her about all of the bells and whistles on the newest model. Not like a person sharing devastating news about the health and well-being of someone's child. "He suffered a severe amount of injuries, including many broken bones, internal bleeding, a collapsed lung as well as several contusions to the head…"
The doctor kept going, and the words washed over her like an avalanche of tar. She felt as if she were being swallowed up within a field of darkness, creeping in from all corners, encroaching upon the one small island of hope she'd allowed herself to create. That island was quickly being decimated by a tsunami of truth and medical terms she barely understood.
"Is he alive?" Gwen asked suddenly, interrupting the doctor's speech. He stopped short, looking into her eyes as if it was the first time he was truly noticing she was really even in front of him to begin with. "Is my Deacon still alive?"
Dr. Chambers exchanged a glance with Lydia. The young nurse reached out and grabbed Gwen's hand, clutching her pale, frail fingers within her own.
The ashen-faced doctor bit his lip.
"Yes and no," he finally responded, voice scraping like gravel. It was then that Gwen could see just how exhausted he was as well. He had likely been fighting all night to keep her son alive and it was beginning to sound more and more like that fight had not ended in their favor. Gwen clutched Lydia's hand even tighter. "His body is still functioning, but barely. His brain, however…it's shut down, Mrs. Abrams. For all intents and purposes, he's gone."
Gwen felt the hot sting of tears on her cheeks before she could even tell that her brain had ordered her body to produce them. She felt as though she were hanging from the ceiling, suspended above herself, looking down at the proceedings. She could see herself: the unwashed hair, the wrinkled trench coat, the muddy loafers. She looked like a pathetic creature if there ever was one.
"No," she whispered, barely audible. "No, no, no…"
She felt her fingers slipping from Lydia's grasp and it was as though she were on the edge of a cliff, clinging to loose soil and tufts of grass, just barely holding on, a never-ending chasm beneath her, just waiting to swallow her whole and never release her. She sank to her knees, the trench coat billowing out around her like a dress, her tiny body hidden within its cream-colored folds.
"I am so sorry, Mrs. Abrams," Dr. Chambers intoned. She looked up into the man's face and she could see in his eyes that he was telling the truth. He lowered the clipboard, full of forms and paperwork, swimming with words that were unintelligible to Gwen through the tears and the unadulterated grief. "I understand what you must be feeling right now. But there are going to be decisions you are going to need to make."
Lydia knelt down, wrapping her arms around Gwen's narrow shoulders, lifting her back up onto shaky legs. Gwen looked directly into the doctor's eyes. In the farthest reaches of her mind, she knew what the doctor must be referring to, but in the last remnants of the island of hope that Gwen had allowed to be decimated, she clung to the idea that what he was telling her wasn't true. There must have been a mistake, a terrible error…
"I need to see him," she whispered. "Let me see him."
The doctor nodded, and Gwen was led into the room. As she crossed the threshold, the final remnants of that special island were swept beneath the darkness forever.
The Monolith stretched high into the bruise colored clouds, twisting and turning in on its self like a horn. Bizarre symbols and arcane words were carved into every available surface of the tower, creating a tapestry of cultures and civilizations that stretched across all manner of universes and worlds. It seemed to stand sentry in this corner of Necropolis, the guardian of the city, perhaps a beacon.
Janessa and Lucas approached the towering behemoth, warily appraising the dozens of wandering souls visiting the Monolith. Since the dawn of the Netherworld, the Monolith had stood, towering above the rest of Necropolis, its secrets known only to itself. There was always the rare case of a Netherworlder claiming to have communed with the Monolith, extracting the answers regarding their cosmic journey.
Janessa figured that was all bullshit.
"Do you see him anywhere?" Lucas asked, flickering in and out of visibility. An unseen wind tousled his chin-length blond hair, his bright blue eyes keenly surveying their surroundings like an explorer who has just claimed a new piece of land for their own. Janessa turned her focus to the various Lost Ones milling about the Monolith, looking for the familiar mop of messy dark brown hair, the jagged but defined facial features, the deep set eyes that looked as if they had seen far too much for their time.
With a sigh of impatience, Janessa shook her head.
"He's not here," she said, frustration lining every syllable. "I thought for sure…"
If Lucas could physically do so, Janessa imagined he would have put a soft, comforting hand on her shoulder. But seeing as though Lucas was a Phantom and had no possible way of making physical contact, he was unable. Janessa likely would been freaked out by something as close and personal as that anyway, so it was probably just as well.
"What now, partner?" Lucas asked, and while most would have a slick undertone of sarcasm in a loaded question such as that, with Lucas there was never anything so cynical involved. He was probably one of the only people in the Netherworld that Janessa could think of with pure intentions. Besides Simon, of course. But hell, he'd been a priest in his old life. A fucked up priest, but a priest nonetheless.
"Maybe go back to Purgatory, see if anyone saw where he went?" Janessa asked, knowing the idea sounded hopeless even as she spoke it. She simply didn't want to have to face going back to the office. Not yet. She knew that the moment she came face to face with Simon that he would know she had failed. Again.
A beep from her waist caught Janessa's attention. She pulled a small communications device from her belt, snapping it open like an old school cell phone.
"Go ahead," she spoke into the device.
"Janessa, we've got a problem," a voice crackled through the speaker from the other side. The NTF hadn't exactly reinvented cell service in the Netherworld, but seeing as folks came from all manner of different alternate worlds and universes, technology was fairly easy to come by, as things were constantly shifting through from other dimensions. Piece enough shit together from all those worlds and you end up with something approaching what you might have been used to in the real world.
"What's the crisis now, Amadi?" Janessa asked, rolling her eyes. Amadi was the tech geek of the group. He was actually the pioneer behind much of the technology the NTF used for their operation. He came from a highly advanced world that made Steve Jobs and Apple look like playthings from the Stone Age. The bumbling, lumbering spacecraft Janessa knew from rocket launches at Cape Canaveral from her world were nothing more than hunks of space junk compared to the star fleets Amadi had once captained on his world.
But despite his enhanced brain and technology infused body, he was a complete and utter scaredy-cat. She'd once seen the man jump at seeing his own shadow.
"Something on the radar," Amadi replied. "You need to get here. Now."
Janessa closed the comm-device, sliding it back onto her belt.
"Guess we're going home, first," she told Lucas.
The spires of the Necropolis Task Force headquarters sliced the undersides of the clouds that snaked across the permanent twilight sky, a towering beast of a building, made of brick, stone and corrugated steel. It stood, a maniacal combination of gothic architecture and space-age technology, creating a hybrid of old and new. A massive marble staircase led to the bullet proof glass entryway, complete with automatic doors fitted with retinal and body scanners, to check proper identification as well as look for unregistered weaponry.
Lucas hovered at Janessa's side, flickering in and out of sight.
"See you inside," she told him, as she began to mount the stairs. In a brief flash of light, Lucas collapsed in on himself like an exploding star, vanishing from sight. Sometimes, Janessa was jealous of how quickly and easily he could get around places. But then she remembered there was nothing quite like getting somewhere on your own two, solid, feet. Plus, sex.
She allowed herself to be scanned at the door. A thousand tiny lasers spread all over her body, enveloping her in a haze of light that flickered and shone all over her like a kaleidoscope. After a few moments of scanning, a robotic voice bleated, "Scan complete".
The double-plated glass doors whirred open, admitting her access to the NTF.
Even after all this time being in the Netherworld and being a member of the Task Force, Janessa couldn't help but still be impressed by the inside of the headquarters. Money may not exist in the Netherworld, but the Higher Beings had clearly spared no expense, whatever it may have been, in outfitting this place.
The lobby of the NTF looked like something straight out of the 1920's, full of art deco designs and luxurious furnishings. A massive, round mahogany desk sat just opposite the front doors, a lone receptionist manning the desk. She reminded Janessa of one of those pin-up models from the 50's, with an elaborate poodle skirt and a bustier that left little to the imagination, her wildly bright red hair done up into a massive bonnet atop her head, curly tendrils dangling around both sides of her face.
Janessa swept through the lobby, the heels of her boots clicking against the finely buffed granite floors, so immaculate she could see her reflection looking back up at her as she headed towards the Inner Sanctum.
She nodded to the receptionist, who promptly ignored her, which was par for the course. She was telepathically bound to the desk and received information directly from the Higher Beings, which was then sent out as messages to anyone and everyone throughout the building. Phones weren't huge in the Netherworld.
Janessa reached an elevator bank and went for the center elevator, which had only one button, unmarked. This was the sole elevator that led to the Inner Sanctum, which rested deep beneath the bowels of the building, in a protected bunker. Layers of cement as well as blessed seals and curses were laid upon it, making it virtually impossible to get into unless you were previously given access.
You couldn't trick this system with fake prints or a stolen retinal scan. This elevator could read your very soul. Only the souls granted access to the Inner Sanctum by the Higher Beings themselves could enter.
Luckily, Janessa was on that list.
The elevator doors whooshed open, and immediately Janessa was hit with a flurry of activity. Amadi was waiting for her right at the doors, clutching a tiny device in his hands. His bald head shone beneath the fluorescent lights of the Inner Sanctum, which consisted of a labyrinth of cubicles and desks, all leading to Simon's private office at the head of the room. No one ever dared enter that office, either, unless summoned.
His skin was so dark, he almost looked purple beneath the garish lights. He might have been considered attractive to some, but with all of the technological "improvements" he'd had done to himself throughout his former life, he looked more like a cyborg than a man. One of his eyes was completely gone, replaced by a crimson red light surrounded by metal, which he used for scanning and uploading information into his database. His fingers had computer chips embedded into the tips rather than fingerprints.
"Took you long enough," he said impatiently, guiding her through the mess of other agents working at their stations, furiously chasing whatever case they were working on at the time, as well as monitoring all of the Lost Ones in Necropolis, and the Netherworld at large. They were primarily responsible for their quadrant, but there were times when they were called upon to leave their territory.
"Sorry, I was following up on a lead," she replied.
"Gave you the slip, huh?" Amadi said, cracking a grin. Janessa stopped short, clutching Amadi's elbow, turning him to face her. He looked her up and down impatiently, all sense of folly lost from his complexion.
"What are you doing?" he asked. "We've got work to do."
"You know about the newbie getting away?" Janessa asked, concerned.
"Janessa," Amadi said without any effort of concealing his condescension, "I know about everything that happens here. I'm dialed in, remember?" He tapped the side of his skull, which showed an exposed piece of metal covered in tiny diodes and flickering wires.
Janessa pursed her lips, choosing to change the subject. For now.
"What have we got?" she asked curtly. She'd deal with the fact that Amadi was obviously spying on all of them, even in his free time, later. Just then, Lucas appeared beside them, seemingly leaning against the edge of Amadi's cubicle. Neither Janessa nor Amadi really acknowledged his sudden presence, since they were used to him appearing and disappearing at will all the time.
Amadi sat in his chair, and began to interface with the highly advanced computer system sitting before him. There was no traditional keyboard, like Janessa was used to from her world. Instead, Amadi simply placed his fingers against a long, skinny silver board before him on his desk and closed his eyes.
The screen in front of him began to light up and move, window upon window opening up, displaying encrypted data, spilling across the screen in waves. Janessa couldn't make heads or tails of any of it, but then she supposed that was why Amadi was on the team. He was able to decipher all of the techno-babble that none of the rest of them could.
Amadi's one normal eye snapped open, revealing similar encrypted symbols flashing across his iris, matching what was on the screen. This was always the creepy part for Janessa, and which always made her wonder if Amadi was more man or machine. He could literally fuse himself with the computer system, become one with it, and find just about any information he was seeking by looking in the exact right place.
"There it is," Amadi breathed. Janessa and Lucas moved closer to the monitor. Security footage had been pulled up on the screen. It showed an abandoned street somewhere in Necropolis, and a scruffy young man was making his way down one of the crumbling sidewalks, pulling and yanking at his dirty, ripped clothes.
It was him! The newbie.
"That's him," Janessa breathed, disbelief coating her words. She knew Amadi was capable of a lot of things, but she had to admit, she was impressed.
"Where is he going?" Lucas asked, peering down at the images. They watched as the young man scurried into a hole in the wall between two crumbling, long-forgotten buildings. Moments later, a puff of smoke emitted from the hole as part of the building collapsed, exploding. Deacon disappeared, but not before the security camera caught sight of a horrifically twisted black and shadowy creature, tearing down into the hole it had created.
"What the fuck was that?" Janessa exclaimed.
"Something old," Amadi said, almost reverentially. "Something my systems are having a tough time identifying. It's…ancient, whatever it is."
"And pissed," Janessa added.
"What does it want with the new arrival?" Lucas asked, always the most logical.
"It wants his soul," a voice said from behind them. Janessa turned and saw Father Simon Lewis standing behind them, dressed all in black. His dark hair was swept back from his face, which was impassive and set in stone.
He regarded his team with a cool, calculating gaze.
"We have to move quickly," he said gravely. "The entire Netherworld is in danger."