paulmundane

General and somewhat random story things

Archive for the category “Other Short Stories”

The End is the Beginning

Protector had never wanted to lead the Last Champions.  She knew what they thought when they looked at her, and she knew who they thought of when she gave commands, but she was not Defender. Her armour was a refitted version of Defender’s that she’d fluked into owning.  She had enough technological knowledge to repair the suit, and enough skill to pilot it, but she was no Defender.  Protector had given up telling others this though.  She looked the part of the leader, and her team looked to her for leadership, worthy or not.

Not that there was much team left.  After the Battle for Vibora Bay, there had been dozens of heroes striving to save the world.  As Edom-Destroyer gained more power, many threw themselves to their dooms trying to stop him.  It had been months since Protector had seen any of the other hero teams.  Her own team had died around her; dwindling the numbers to only three; herself, Trajectory, and Morgan.

Protector looked down at Jury’s Brig from the roof of the ruined building across the road.  She checked her comm. for the fifth time, hoping to see a new post from Trajectory.  Protector had sent the speedster ahead to scout ages ago.  Trajectory had ran a few laps around Jury’s Brig, and had been texting in her report when everything had gone wrong.  There had been the sounds of battle, and then nothing.  Despite this, Protector waited.  She looked again at her comm., and read the last burst of text from Trajectory. 

ENTIRE SQUAD OF TROOPER BOTS.  FAR TOO MUCH SECURITY TO BE JUST A TECH LAB.  RA MAY HAVE BEEN ON TO SOMETHING

“She’s not coming back, is she?”  Morgan hid beneath a cascade of red hair, and wept quietly.  A self taught magician, Morgan was being tracked relentlessly by Edom-Destroyer’s Witch Hunters.  Magic was long banned, and any practice of it was a crime punishable by death.  Despite being hardened by life on the run, Morgan was still just a kid, barely in her teens.  She’d seen team members die before, and she reacted with the same bitter tears each time.

 “We’ll mourn later,” Protector stated coldly.  She was glad her half mask hid her emotions; now was not the time for them.  “Trajectory led most of the troopers to the opposite side of the building.  We may have a path in.” 

Protector didn’t look at Morgan as she gave the command.  Right now, she couldn’t force herself to make eye contact.  She knew she was right, but she hated having to make the call.  Trajectory was dead, or worse, and they had to move beyond that.  Protector looked down on Jury’s Brig, and magnified her vision in on the side of the building.

“Alright,” she stated.  “There are three basic trooper bots at the door.  The others are bound to be back any moment.”  It had been a long climb up, and Protector’s rocket boots had failed a long time ago.  She glanced at Morgan.  “Can you get us down there?”

Morgan nodded once without looking back.  She muttered a few incantations, and motioned out an intricate pattern.  There was a flash of violet energy around the two girls as they were teleported to the streets below.

Protector brought her defences up as soon as the two materialised.  There was little left to connect her suit to Defender’s beyond cosmetic design.  The rockets boots were gone, as were the secondary weapons.  The super strength the suit had once supplied had never worked to begin with, as Protector had had to redesign the exoskeleton to fit her much-smaller-than-Defender’s body.  In fact, the main energy bolts didn’t even work the way Defender’s original ones did.  Protector depended on the Harmon Field Generator; and experimental piece of tech that provided both a kinetic pulse attack, as well as a defensive force field.  Protector was quite good with the Harmon Field though, and didn’t miss the rest of the suit’s functions that much.  It had taken a lot of trial and error, but she’d mastered the field, and even managed to change a few of its diameters. 

Protector fanned her hands out, and sent a wide arcing blast towards two of the troops before the robots registered that she and Morgan had appeared.  Morgan clenched her hand into a fist beside Protector, and watched as the third trooper bot crumpled like a can.  Morgan waved dismissively, and the front door of Jury’s Brig vanished in a flash of purple.  The two girls rushed in.

Jury’s Brig looked a lot like an old garage.  There was a maze of metal shelves, stacked with boxes of random machine parts.  Tools lay on work tables, and stacks of large machines covered the area.  There was even an old jalopy up on the lift in the middle of the room. 

The far wall was taken up by one giant construction, which to the untrained eye could be mistaken for just another pile of random machinery.  Morgan stared at the giant machine.  It looked like a pile of rusted metal gone horribly wrong.  The only discernable point of it was a platform leading to a massive portal.  Protector circled the machine, flicking switches, and powering up the makeshift generators that littered the ground around the metal monstrosity.  “What is it?”

“I don’t know,” Protector answered honestly.  “I know what it’s supposed to be though.”  She looked over to Morgan.  “I was told that there might be a weapon here, something we could use to stop the Edom-Destroyer.”  Protector fiddled with some dials as she continued.  “Ra wasn’t clear on it…”

“Cause he never is,” Morgan interrupted with a roll of her eyes.

“He wasn’t clear on it,” Protector continued, “but he said that this weapon could be used to make sure the Edom-Destroyer never happened.”  Protector stepped back, as the machine hummed for a second with energy.  She gave a slight frown as it stopped, and began playing with the machinery again.  “I had my doubts, but I think this is…”

A broken laugh echoed through the room, and interrupted Protector.  “Oh, is it cosplay night?  Let me guess who you both are; Teen Chick Defender and Goth Bait Witchcraft?  Well done, both of you.  Now, can you guess who I am?” 

The man talking stepped into the center of the room.  He wore an old style one piece of grays and browns, and a tattered cape hung from his back.  Like Protector, he wore a half mask, though his had yellowing pointed wings around his eyes.  The whole of his suit was stained, and there was a stale odour that clung to the man.  He was unkempt; with a matted beard, and strands of hair that escaped the holes in his mask.  His belt buckle had a faded ‘F’ on it.

“Foxbat,” Morgan stated with unhidden disdain.

“Close,” The old villain noted with a sneer.  “But it’s Shadow-Bat now.”  He bowed low.  “Still it’s nice to meet someone who thinks they know me.”

“Oh, I know you,” Morgan commented.  She smiled slightly to Protector.  “I found an old file on this guy?  He’s a joke.”  She didn’t notice as Shadow-Bat’s smile faltered.  “He shoots plastic balls at people, and gets beat down by nobodies.”  Morgan stepped forward, and waved to both Protector and the machine.  “You make whatever that thing is work,” she noted with a smirk.  “I got this.”

“Pretty brave, little girl,” Shadow-Bat commented with a sneer.  “That’s the problem with kids these days; no respect for their elders.”  Shadow-bat brushed his cape aside; gunslinger style, and hovered his hand over his Ping Pong Gun.

Morgan made a scoffing noise as Shadow-Bat reached for his weapon.  She was already preparing a spell, but without any actual urgency.  She barely saw the movement as Shadow-Bat whipped his other hand forward, and fired a quite regular pistol at the young girl.

Morgan gasped as the bullet tore through her stomach.  She finished the motions of her spell through trained practice.  Shadow-Bat cleared the scant distance between them, and landed a solid forward kick into her midsection.  He grabbed her hand, and redirected the built up mystic energy at the stunned Protector.

There was an explosion of purple energy, and Protector was tossed backwards.  The wall crumbled as she slammed into it, and the shelves around her collapsed in a spray of molten aluminium and eldritch power.  Protector was buried in an avalanche of debris and forgotten equipment.

Protector groaned, and struggled to free herself.  The force field that normally surrounded her was offline.  She couldn’t see what was on her, but whatever it was was heavy, and had pinned her legs.  From her vantage, she saw Shadow-Bat land another kick into Morgan’s bullet wound.  The young girl cried out, and curled into a ball.

Protector aimed her palm at Shadow-Bat.  “You get away from her,” she warned.  “You get away from her now.”  There was a flicker of blue energy around Protector’s gauntlet, and then nothing.  Protector frantically flexed her hand towards Shadow-Bat again, managing to throw a few feeble trickles of energy his way. 

Shadow-Bat laughed at Protector.  “American made technology.  Am I right fellas?”  He mimed adjusting a tie when Protector didn’t reply.  “Tough crowd,” he declared.  “It’s probably for the best.  We’ll want absolute quiet for my next trick.”

“Stay away from her!” Protector screamed as Shadow-Bat stood over Morgan.  She shoved with all her might against the rubble pinning her leg.  The Defender’s suit was built for Super Strength, but she’d made so many alterations to the exoskeleton just to make the suit fit that it no longer worked.  She punched desperate commands into the suit’s comm., hoping to get the blasters back online. 

“Harmon Field inactive.  Recharge in two minutes, thirty two seconds.”  The computer explained quietly.  “All connected systems are offline.  Two minutes, twenty five seconds left.”

“No!  Override!  I need them now!”  Protector looked back to Shadow-Bat.  “You leave her alone!” she cried out at the villain.  “Please!  Just, just please leave her alone!”

Shadow-Bat tilted his head at Protector, and put a finger to his lips.  “Shhh,” he commanded.  “You’re going to miss the best part.”

Shadow-Bat turned his full attention to Morgan.  She lay fetal on her side, grasping at the bullet wound on her gut.  Morgan looked through the pain at Shadow-Bat, and tried to mutter up some conjuration.  He chuckled at her, and brought his foot hard down onto her shoulder, pushing her onto her back.  Whatever spell she’d been hoping to use was lost in a scream.  She clawed at his boot, desperate to get him off.

“Cute kid,” Shadow-Bat commented offhand.  He gave Protector a brief wicked smile, and casually soccer kicked Morgan in the side of the head.  There was a sick cracking noise as the young girl’s neck gave.  Morgan’s hands fell away from Shadow-Bat’s leg. 

Shadow-Bat gave Protector a ‘what are you going to do’ shrug.  “Them’s the breaks, right?”  He smiled wide, and trained his pistol at Protector.  “Well, this has been fun, but I think we should probably end it now, huh?”

Protector looked past Shadow to Morgan.  “You bastard,” she uttered.  “She was just a child.”

Shadow-Bat looked surprised for a moment.  He laughed openly at Protector.  “Oh, and you’re not?”  Shadow-Bat shook his head.  “You ask me, I’m doing you both a favour.  This day and age?  You’re lucky to find someone who’ll just kill you.”  His smile vanished.  “I’ve seen what some of the others would do to you.  There’s bad guys like me, then there’s just plain evil.”

Shadow-Bat’s stared at Protector with sudden disgust.  His voice went suddenly shrill as he yelled at Protector  “You kids think you’re the Champions?”  Shadow-bat pointed at Protector’s armour.  “I bet you’ve never even met Defender.  You don’t even know what it was like back then.”  Shadow-Bat sighed deep, and lowered his gun for a moment.  “I miss the old days, you know that?  Heroes thick as locusts in the air.  Sapphire videos on the TV.  All the juicy rumours of what Defender and Witchcraft do in their spare time.”  Shadow-Bat shook his head slowly.  “I miss the Science Monkey,” he stated under his breath.  “Did you know I’d even help them sometimes?  I remember back during the Qularr attack in Millennium City…”

Behind Shadow-Bat, the great machine hummed to life.  Light flickered from the center portal, and a glimmer of another place began to form.  Shadow-Bat didn’t notice.  “Anyways, enough tripping nostalgia.  I have, what, about a minute to kill you before your suit powers up again?”  Shadow-Bat mocked Protector’s look of surprise.  “I’d have had my computer text me, instead of announcing weaknesses out loud, but that’s just me.”  Shadow-Bat’s face became stone serious, as he pulled the trigger, and fired.

Protector twisted, and took the shot to the side of her head.  Her mask, like the rest of her suit, was a Kevlar knit.  Her ear was ringing from the impact, but she was still alive.  Shadow-Bat frowned, and fired again.  This shot took Protector in the shoulder.  It hurt like hell, but the bullet didn’t pierce her suit.  Protector scrambled to find anything of use in the wreckage around her.  A weapon of any sort.  Most of it seemed to be random scrap electronics, but still…

Shadow-Bat fired another round into Protector; this time hitting her in the ribs.  He slumped at the shoulders.  “Your Defender Armour is actually armoured?”  Shadow-Bat cursed under his breath, “Ok, that does seem like a given I guess.” 

Shadow-bat fired a few more painful shots into Protector’s chest as he stalked towards her.  He waved at the bottom of his face.  “Half mask,” he noted.  “Unless you’ve got some serious makeup, I’m betting you’re mouth isn’t protected.”  He stood point blank, and aimed the gun at Protector’s face.  “It’s over hero,” he stated.

“No, it’s not,” Protector mumbled feebly.  “I still…” her voice trailed off.

“Mutter mutter what?” Shadow-Bat leant in.  “Is that the side effects of a concussion I hear?  If you’re trying for witty banter, you’re going to need to speak up.”

“I said; I have a jetpack.”  Protector pulled the pack up, and pointed it at Shadow-Bat.  The jets flared to life, catching Protector’s arm in the wash.  She bit back the pain, and held the lurching pack a second more, aiming it at Shadow-Bat’s face.  It caught Shadow-Bat under the chin like an uppercut, and threw the villain aside.

Shadow-Bat hit the ground hard, and rolled to a stop.  The pack sputtered, and bounced along beside the villain.  Shadow-Bat came up crouched.  He ran a hand along his mouth, and flicked away the blood dramatically. 

“Oh, you absolute…” He shook his head, and smiled.  “Not bad.  I’m sure Defender would have been impressed, for whatever that’s worth.”  He rolled his eyes as he noticed his pistol laying across the room.  “Guess we do this old school,” he muttered as he pulled his Ping Pong Gun from its holster.  Shadow-Bat waved the bulky weapon at Protector.  “Any last words?  Fancy hero quip or something like that perhaps?”

Protector smiled, as the computer answered for her.  “Harmon Field recharged; systems active.”

“Yeah, something like that,” Shadow-Bat noted dryly. 

There was a flash of blue, and an explosion of rubble.  When the villain looked back, Protector was free.  The Harmon Field surrounded her like a new skin.  She screamed fury, and clapped her hands together.  A wave of power flowed at Shadow-Bat.

Shadow-Bat leapt over the blast.  He flipped in the air, and landed with cat grace as the wave tore through shelves of equipment behind him.  “Forty-seven martial arts, baby,” he bragged as he fired balls at Protector.  “I just prefer shooting people.”

Protector waved dismissively at the Ping Pong balls.  They exploded against a quickly formed field, and left a smear of glue floating in the air.  Shadow-Bat smiled.  “You know, I’ve missed this too,” he stated.  “The hero/villain fights?  Two epic characters facing off, right against wrong, unwavering in their….” His speech ground to a halt as Protector broke stance, and bolted past him.  “Hey, where are you going?”

Protector scooped up the jet pack as she ran past the surprised Shadow-Bat.  She ignored his protests as she dashed towards the machine.  The slight flicker in the machine’s portal had become a full glow; and Protector could see a hazy image of a city through it. 

Shadow-Bat cursed at Protector as he fired.  The Pong of choice was built with localized EMPs, and passed through her field with ease.  It smashed hard into her shoulder with a loud crack.  Protector lurched forward, and slammed hard to her knees. 

“You don’t just walk away from me,” Shadow-Bat declared.  He thought on it a moment.  “OK, you don’t run away, or…”  Shadow-Bat looked to the exit, which was in the opposite direction Protector had run.  He tilted his head as he looked over to the machine.  “What exactly ARE you up to?”  Shadow-Bat adjusted his aim, away from Protector and towards the machine.

Protector’s panicked at the sudden change of target.  She threw her arms wide, and unleashed the full power of the Harmon Field.  The blue sheath of energy that surrounded her grew outward like a shockwave, and tossed items across the room like they were toys.  Shadow-Bat was thrown backwards, crashing through a series of metal shelves before they too were flung.  Without looking back, Protector dashed the last few yards, and leapt through the portal.  There was a flash of light, a sudden tugging sensation, and then nothing.

Protector opened her eyes.  She could feel the asphalt beneath her cheek, and wondered how long she’d been laying there.  The machine had done a number on her sense of time, and left her dizzy and nauseous.  She struggled to her feet, and took in her surroundings.

The air was thick with smoke, and she could hear screaming coming from all directions.  Buildings lay broken in the streets, and fire was everywhere.  She felt her knees go weak, and struggled to stay on her feet.  This couldn’t be the past; the machine was only a teleporter.  She’d lost the last of her team  just to be teleported across town.

“You alright hero?” A voice called out to Protector.  “You are a hero right?  Most of the villains buggered off when the Qularr attacked.”

Protector followed the voice.  A man in a blue uniform waved for her attention.  It took a moment for Protector to recognize the suit.  She’d seen them during her childhood.  Police men.  Protector tilted her head quizzically.  There were no police in her time.

She fought the vertigo, and stumbled towards the man.  She meant to ask two questions at once, and settled on “When happened?”

The officer looked her over.  “Jeez, you look like you’ve been fed through the shredder,” he commented offhand.  “You know what’s funny?  I thought you were the Defender at first.  I mean from a distance.  Looking at you now, I can see you’re obviously not…”  The officer recognized he was babbling, and cut it short.  “You alright?”

“I’m fine,” Protector insisted.  She shook her head.  Shadow-Bat had mentioned helping during some sort of attack.  It had been what had started the machine.  She was in the past after all!  Now, it was all a matter of making sure the future didn’t happen.  She ignored the screams of protest from her body.  “I’m better than fine.  Show me how to help with this mess, then show me how to find the Champions.”

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Aboseth

Wrote this a long time ago.  It’s a bit raw, but I’ve always liked it.  Anyways, enjoy.

Cornelius strode into town; his gaunt frame wrapped in a dark suit.  The top hat he wore was crooked from age, and the tails of his threadbare coat whipped about with a life of their own.  His every move seemed exaggerated, as though he was performing for an unseen audience.

Shepard, Cornelius’ companion, was in every way the old man’s opposite.  Muscular and young, Shepard wore simple clothes, and walked with a confident strut.  He wore a large sword on his hip, and kept a hand close to its hilt.

Cornelius gave a quick glance to the long abandoned inn near the edge of town.  In the low light of dawn, he could see the occasional flicker of a green glow from between the boards on the windows and doors.  A gentle moan escaped the building, assuring him that this was indeed the right place.

Shepard followed Cornelius’ gaze, nodding his approval once, before pointing towards a grand manor in the center of town.  One thing Cornelius liked about larger towns; it was always easy to find the Mayor’s residence.

Cornelius removed his hat before knocking on the mayor’s door, and smoothed his bushy moustache with a sweep of his thumb and index finger.  He hummed slightly to himself, and gave a few moments before knocking on the door again.

The man who answered was the pudgy, balding, short type.  His beady eyes were red from worry, and dim from half sleep.  His features were set comically between annoyance and concern when he looked upon the strangers at his door.

“You have ghosts in your town,” Cornelius stated without introduction.  “We may be able to help you with that, good sir.”

The mayor blinked.  “Ghosts,” he stammered, trying to force a smile.  “Preposterous.  There are no ghosts in my town.”  The mayor’s comment was given with little conviction, and the fat man was slow to close his door.

“Really sir?  We’ve heard as far as Port that you have some… activity…shall we say?”  Cornelius leant in, and dropped to a whisper.  “We’ve heard that the old inn is haunted, and that it’s been getting worse with each passing day.”

“As far as Port?”  The mayor blanched.  “Other towns know?  People are talking about it?”

“Yes sir.  Its hard to keep this sort of thing under wraps as it were.”  Cornelius smiled an understanding smile.  “People talk.”

“Speaking of talking…”  Cornelius pointed a thumb over his shoulder.  Behind them, a few townsfolk, starting their days early, were taking notice of the mayor’s odd company.  “Maybe we should continue this discussion inside?”

The mayor looked at the two.  After a moment, he decided that inviting armed strangers into his home was less problematic than having the townsfolk gossiping.  The mayor ushered them in quick, leading Cornelius and Shepard into his office.

Cornelius sat in a large mahogany chair; Shepard standing just behind him.  “I’ll get right to business, sir.  I am Cornelius Crumm, and my partner here is Shepard.  We are ghost hunters,” Cornelius handed the mayor his card.  “We hunt ghosts.”

The mayor shook his head.  He had only just sat down, and already he was getting up to show these strangers the door.  “You can’t hunt ghosts,” he declared.  “I mean, they’re ghosts.”  He waved his arms in what he assumed was a spooky fashion.  “You can’t hurt them, much less hunt them.”

Shepard and Cornelius shared a knowing glance.  “Shepard, if you would be so kind?”  Behind Cornelius, the warrior drew his sword, tilting it slightly to show the mayor.

The mayor sat back down, looking with both awe and fear at the weapon.  A series of silver runes ran the length of the blade.  “Is it…”  The mayor paused, not fully sure if he believed in what he was looking at.  “Is it magical?”

“Shepard here is from a long line of ghost hunters,” Cornelius explained.  “All you need to know is that he can most certainly hurt ghosts.  We know other ways to rid a place of haunts as well; trade secrets as it were.”  Cornelius smiled a dealer’s smile.  “We hunt ghosts.  It’s what we do.”

The mayor lowered his voice, despite them being alone in his office.  “And you really think the old inn could be haunted?”

Cornelius nodded gravely.  “Oh, I have little doubt sir, all the symptoms are there.  You are fortunate it hasn’t spread yet.”

The mayor’s eyes bulged.  “Spread?”

“These things can be quite contagious.”  Cornelius explained.  “It starts with an old building, then maybe a wandering ghost now and then.  Before you know it, you’ve suddenly got dead raising from their graves, crops dying, portents of the end times; the whole lot.”

The mayor swallowed hard.  “But you can help with this?  You’ve dealt with this sort of thing before?”

“Well, yes,” Cornelius agreed slowly.  “There are some moderate expenses we would need to discuss, but…”

The mayor interrupted.  “How moderate?”

“Nothing out of range,” Cornelius assured with a wave of his hand.  He produced a list of fees from his sleeve, and handed it to the mayor

The mayors wide eyes stared at the bottom line.  “It’s rather pricey.”

“It’s specialized work, in a dangerous trade.”  Cornelius stood, and made ready to leave.  “Of course, if it is too much to pay for the safety of your town; the well being of your people…”

“No, wait.”  The mayor looked at the two, and again at the sheet of paper.  He ran a hand along his bald patch.  “It all looks in order.  And I pay you once the job is done?”

“Of course.”  Cornelius shook the mayor’s hand.  “You’ve made a wise decision sir,” he assured the fat man.  “We’ll have you ghost free by the morning.”

By early evening, the entire town was gathered around the old inn.  They watched Cornelius and Shepard in anticipation.  The whole of town knew why these strangers were here, and were all excited to see them in action.

Cornelius crossed himself once, and nodded solemnly at the inn.  Behind him, Shepard drew his sword; its silver runes glinting in the fading light of day.  The two walked up the steps to the door.  The murmur of comments from the townsfolk silenced as Cornelius’ hand touched the doorknob.  The crowd gasped as he threw the door open.

Silent until this moment, the inn was suddenly alive with eerie giggles and blood curdling screams.  The floorboards creaked and thumped, as though something huge and unseen were walking across them.  A greenish glow came from the stairs.

Cornelius looked back to the growing crowd.  “No one follow us.”  He commanded.  It was an unnecessary warning, he knew, as no one in town had any plan of entering the old inn.  Still he continued.  “We will exit by morning, or not at all.”

The door of the old inn slammed shut behind Shepard and Cornelius.  Cornelius slid over to one of the boarded up windows immediately, ignoring the ruckus around him.  He watched the crowd outside through one of the tiny cracks.  A few of the villagers were timidly stepping forward, trying to get a sense of what was going on inside.

Cornelius held a wait a moment finger in the air to Shepard.  They both held still for a minute, the cacophony of moans, shrieks and pounding growing louder around them.

Cornelius nodded once to Shepard.  Shepard turned, and slammed his fists into the door.  Outside, the slightly braver villagers jumped, and stepped back.  Shepard kicked the door for good measure, and yelled loudly as he pounded the wall beside it.  Cornelius watched the crowd through a crack in the window boards as they screamed and fled.

“Alright, you can all cut it out,” Cornelius commanded to the building once some time had passed.  “They’re gone.”  The howling and giggling from the stairs halted immediately, though the pounding from the floorboards continued.  Cornelius stomped heavily on the floor.  “Its just us, dammit,” he announced irritably.  The pounding stopped with a muffled apology.

A pair of ghostly pale figures descended the stairs.  They stepped lightly, seeming to float.  The girls were identical; white faces with dark black eyes and lips, dark hair teased into ropey tangles.  The supposed apparitions smiled when they saw Cornelius and Shepard.

“Isabel, Abigail,” Cornelius acknowledged the twins.  “Excellent work on background noise.  And your make-up?  Positively terrifying.”

“It’s been a long time,” Isabel started.

“Since anyone has seen us,” Abigail finished.

Both girls pointed to their powdered faces.  “We work so hard on our makeup,” they commented with a shared pout.

“It’s a compliment to your acting skills then girls,” Cornelius assured the two.  “You have the ghostly howl down to an art.  It’s been a long time since anyone has been brave enough to venture in with us.”

Cornelius’ answer placated the girls.  They turned and mirror smiled to each other, before turning attention away from Cornelius.  The twins pirouetted and twirled across the room, coming to a halt on either side of the cellar door.  They waved at the portal with showgirl flair.

“There’s something in the cellar,” Isabel stated.

“something really weird,” Abigail added.

Almost on cue, the door swung open, causing both girls to jump.  A giant figure stepped through, ducking low to get through the door frame.  The huge man continued to stoop as he spoke to Cornelius.

“Sorry about the floor racket,” the giant stated in a deep voice.  “I wasn’t sure it was you, and I didn’t want to ruin the effect.”  The large man swung his huge fists in the air above him, rapping on the ceiling, and showering the group with dust.  “I had a good rhythm going.  Didn’t want to lose that.”

Cornelius brushed the dust from his shoulder.  “Yes, well.  I can’t fault you your enthusiasm Wagon.”  He looked back to the twins.  “You said there was something in the cellar?  Something of value, I hope?”

“Yes,” Isabel declared with a smile.

“Maybe,” Abigail corrected.

“We’re not entirely sure,” the two chirped in unison.

Cornelius rolled his eyes, and looked to Wagon for an explanation.  “There’s a concealed door in the back of the cellar,” Wagon explained.  “Could just be a cold room, or extra storage.”  Wagon looked away.  “It’s strange though.  Stone door with odd markings on it.  It was pretty well hidden.  Sealed up pretty good as well.”

“So?  What was behind the door?”  Cornelius looked at the three.  None of them returned his gaze.  “You haven’t looked yet, have you?”

“We were waiting for you,” Isabel explained.

“Well, you and Shepard,” Abigail agreed.

“It just seems odd,” both girls continued, “and a little spooky.”

Cornelius gave an exasperated glance back to Shepard, who shrugged his opinion.  Cornelius narrowed his eyes at the other three.  “A little spooky?”  Cornelius shook his head.  “Pish-posh.  How long have we been doing this act?  We have been in nearly every haunted building in the kingdom, and have you ever seen a ghost?”

“No,” Isabel admitted.

“No,” Abigail echoed.

“But this is different.” They both complained together.

“It is something you may want to see intact anyways,” Wagon suggested.  “It seems pretty out of place.  Figured you may want to see it before we busted it open.”

Cornelius nodded a slow agreement.  “You may be right, good man.”  He clapped his hands together.  “Well, first things first.” He turned to the girls.  “Shall we?”

“Yes,” Isabel agreed.

“Let’s shall,” Abigail concurred.

Both girls reached for their make up kits, and waited with thin patience as Cornelius made himself comfortable.  Isabel dabbed red makeup with a professional hand along his cheek, and Abigail dabbed black coal powder around his left eye.  “Nothing too fancy,” Cornelius muttered.

“We know,” Isabel commented irritably.

“You’re not the center of attention,” Abigail stated in agreement.

The girls looked with purpose towards Shepard, deciding what to do with him.  He was the main attraction, the one who needed to look battle worn.  Often, Cornelius would have a specific plan for Shepard’s make up, something to match the story he would tell the townsfolk later.

Cornelius examined his face in the small mirror, before looking to the twins.  “Go with your heart on this one girls,” he suggested.

The twins smiled wide to each other, and fell upon Shepard, make-up brushes in hand.  They giggled as they worked Shepard over, doing a good job of blocking view of their work with their tiny bodies.  When they’d finished, they both stepped away from him, identical looks of inspection.

“Its bad,” Isabel decided.

“Horrible in fact,” Abigail concurred.

“Our best yet!” they boasted together.

Cornelius inspected the twins’ work.  Shepard’s left eye was puttied almost closed, and seeped a yellow goo.  He sported a deep gash on his forehead, and two more on his right shoulder.  His hands were blackened, as though he’d put them through a fire. His lower lip was bruised and bleeding, and his shirt was stained with maroon splotches.

“Very convincing,” Cornelius assessed of the make over.  Shepard looked himself over in a small mirror, nodding his agreement.  He looked over to Cornelius, and tilted his head towards the cellar door once.

“We’ll get to that, Shepard,” Cornelius assured the warrior.  “First things first.”  He turned his attention to Wagon.  “What have you found?”

Wagon smiled.  The girls did most of the work haunting the places the troupe visited. Cornelius and Shepard made the show of cleansing the place of supposed ghosts.  Wagon’s job was to find anything of value in the old buildings; things left behind by the previous owners.  Wagon had an appraiser’s eye, and considered it his greatest skill.  Well, that and heavy lifting.

“Found some brass fittings upstairs,” Wagon started.  “There were a few bottles of wine, maybe we can sell to a collector, assuming they reach the next city.”  Wagon gave an accusing glance at the twins, who gave sly smiles in return.  “Found a spare cash box under the counter too.  Bit of money in it still, but nothing grand.  Bit of the furniture looked decent enough for trade.”  Wagon pointed to the back entrance.  “It’s all in the cart already,” he declared.

“Not a total loss,” Cornelius commented.  “Shall we see this door of yours then?”

The cellar was dark, and the green light from the haunting lantern did little to chase away the gloom.  Shelves that had once lined the walls of the rough-hewn basement were tossed about casually, making the terrain dangerous.

“Two birds with one stone,” Wagon admitted of the mess.  “I wanted a good racket, and I wanted to thoroughly search down here.”  He smiled sheepishly.  “You should see the upstairs,” he commented.

Shepard patted approval on the large man’s back.  Cornelius grunted a slight acknowledgement, much more interested in the door.  It had evidently been hidden behind one of the shelves; only found because of Wagon’s demolition of the cellar.

The door was made of stone, much lighter in color than the walls of the cellar.  The handle, the door, and even the hinges all seemed to be carved from the same block of stone.  On the center of the door was a bright red rune.

“I must take back all misgivings,” Cornelius admitted.  “This is indeed something I am happy to see in its undamaged state.”  He straightened.  “Still, we must assume that whatever is in this vault is worth the effort put forth.”  He turned to the troupe.  “Wagon, the door, if you please.”

Wagon gave the door a solid tug.  It shook, and old paint flaked from the rune.  It took a second pull for Wagon to force the door open.  Beyond the portal was a steep row of stairs, leading to a damp tunnel.  The air held a thick smell of incense and rot.  The whole of the tunnel produced its own dim light.

Cornelius led the troupe through the hall, with Shepard close behind.  Wagon and the girls followed, though with less haste.  Their walk ended in a room dominated by a large pulpit, and a small stone altar.  The walls were marked with runes similar to the one on the door outside, and the floor was littered with bones.

Wagon was the first to break the silence.  “What is it?”

Cornelius looked to the large man, no real answer to give.  “I’ll tell you what it isn’t,” Cornelius commented finally.  “It isn’t money, and it isn’t any of our business.”  He motioned back towards the tunnel.  “We should all calmly walk away now, and close the door on this whole thing.”

Cornelius turned and waved them towards the exit.  No one moved.  The twins hugged each other in fear, and edged closer to Shepard.  Shepard in turn had already drawn his sword, and taken stance.  Wagon stepped bravely forward, placing himself between the pulpit and the rest of the group.  All of them looked past Cornelius with wide eyes.

“There is something quite horrible happening behind me, isn’t there?”  Cornelius turned with resignation towards the pulpit.

Behind him, a huge figure rose from the center of the dais.  It had the torso of a man, and the legs of a goat.  Gigantic bat wings spread from its back.  It smiled from cracked black lips, and stared hatred from beneath a pair of over-sized ram’s horns.  It fit the classic description of a demon, a fact that was not lost on any of the troupe.

The demon looked over the people before it.  “Centuries locked away, and this is all that greets me?”  It looked disappointed for a moment, before rubbing its hands together in anticipation.  “You make do with what you are given,” it noted, threat in its voice.

Wagon shoved Cornelius back, and flung himself at the demon.  He threw his full weight behind his fist, rocking the demon back with the first punch.  “Get out of here!” Wagon yelled to the others, punching the demon again.

Wagon managed a third solid hit before the demon acknowledged him.  “Noble sentiment,” it chastised.  “Noble, but wasted.”  With a long sweep of its arm, the demon backhanded Wagon across the room.  Wagon bounced off a wall behind the demon, and crumpled to the ground.

“Wagon!” both Isabel and Abigail cried out together.  Forgetting their fear, the two girls ran past the demon to Wagon’s side.  It turned a slight smirk to them, before grabbing them up by the hair.  It tugged the twins from the downed giant, and held them in the air at arms length.

“No!” Isabel cried out, reaching for Abigail.

“Leave her alone!” Abigail begged, reaching for Isabel.

“Let us go!” they both pleaded.

The demon licked its black lips as it looked over both girls.  “Young,” it assessed, “nimble.  Yes, you will do fine.”  It hoisted both girls up.  “Your gateways will usher in my new army,” the demon promised them.  It punctuated with a vulgar thrust of its groin.

Shepard growled low at the demon’s comment.  He lunged at the monster, both hands on the hilt of his great blade as he thrust it towards the demon’s chest.  The demon smiled as Shepard’s sword shattered along its torso.

“It will take more than cheap steel and silver paint to harm me, little warrior.”  The demon reared its head back, and rammed its horns into Shepard’s forehead.  Shepard stumbled backwards, landing in a heap beside Cornelius.

Shepard was fast back to his feet, still holding the hilt of his sword.  The demon took in the scene with mild amusement.  “Will you try again warrior?  From the looks of you, you have already had a horrible day.”  The demon pointed a finger at Shepard’s painted wounds without letting go of Isabel’s hair.

“I will let you leave,” the demon offered Shepard with a smile.  “Leave the giant and the old man and the girls behind.”  It pulled Abigail close, and ran a rough tongue over her face.  “Leave me my small presents.  I won’t stop you.”

“He won’t leave,” Cornelius commented casually.  He fixed his bushy moustache with his thumb and forefinger as he continued.  “Shepard here would rather die than back down.  He’s just like that.”

“Besides,” Cornelius continued.  “You would have killed him the moment he turned his back.  As it is, you’re just playing with us.”

“Correct.”  The demon smiled.  “You must be the smart one of this rabble.”

“I suppose,” Cornelius agreed.  “Smart enough not to make deals.  Smart enough not to try running.  Not smart enough though, or I’d have never opened that door.”

“We’ve made some mistakes here,” Cornelius admitted.  “Coming in here was pretty high on the list.  Hitting you with that sword comes in at a close second.”

Cornelius waved at the blade shattered at the feet of the demon.  “See, when you first looked at Shepard carrying that sword, there was a moment before you recognized it was a fake that you looked concerned.  I mean, yeah, it was a phoney, but a convincing one.”  Cornelius could sense the demon’s impatience, and cut to the chase.  “The runes look pretty convincing don’t they?  You’ve got to ask yourself, where did I get the design for them?”

The demon looked at Cornelius with confusion for a moment, before it turned its attention to Shepard.  The warrior had been sneaking along the edge of the room, a tiny knife in his hand.  Along the edge of the small blade was a series of runes, glowing with internal light.  The demon shifted, holding Isabel between itself and Shepard.  It didn’t notice Wagon stirring on the far side of the room.  It barely paid attention as Cornelius continued talking.

“Had to make it a sword for show,” Cornelius explained.  “See, a magic dagger just doesn’t excite the locals, and we really need them excited in our line of work.”  Cornelius waved a hand at Shepard and his knife.  “It excites you though, doesn’t it?  You can tell this one is the real deal.”

The demon spared a moment to glance hatred towards Cornelius.  Cornelius met it with a dry chuckle.  “Ah, you are getting it now.  We can hurt you.”  Cornelius tipped his top hat to the demon.  “We can hurt you a little, at least.  Not as much as we could hurt you if we knew your name though.”  He leant forward, and smiled wickedly.  “Isn’t that right, Aboseth?”

The demon turned full attention to Cornelius at the sound of its name, and left itself open to Shepard.  Shepard lunged forward, and drove his dagger into the demon’s side.  Light flashed from the knife and from the wound.  Aboseth dropped both girls, using one hand to swipe at Shepard, and the other grab at its ribs.  The girls tumbled to the ground, and flipped back to their feet immediately.  The look of fear and revulsion vanished from both of their faces, replaced with anger.

“Aboseth,” Isabel said.

“Aboseth,” Abigail repeated.

“What a dumb name,” they both agreed.  Aboseth lashed out at the pair, but they skipped out of reach.  The twins twirled back towards the hulking demon, and in unison, drove high kicks into its groin.  Aboseth exhaled sharply, and dropped to its knees.

“If it has the same urges as a man,” Isabel commented.

“Then it has the same weakness as a man,” Abigail finished.

“I’ll kill all of you for this,” the demon promised, getting back to its feet.  “I will make it slow.  No one will recognize your corpses.”

“No you won’t,” Wagon promised, rising behind the demon.  He spat the demon’s name once, before shattering the stone altar over Aboseth’s head.  With a crash, Aboseth fell to the ground.

“Well, that wasn’t so bad, now was it?”  Cornelius stated, breaking the silence.  He looked across the stunned faces of his companions.  “Well, yes, it was horrible.  But we are all still alive, and more or less in one piece.  You have to admit, that fact is refreshing.”

“Is it over?”  Isabel stared at the fallen demon.

“Are we safe?” Abigail asked.

“Is it dead?” they both managed together.

“Oh, heavens no,” Cornelius commented matter of fact.  “We’ve managed to keep it down for a moment, but really, I’m sure we’ve only managed to anger it.”   The demon stirred on the ground, as if to punctuate Cornelius’ comment.  Shepard kicked it in the head for good measure, before pointing a thumb towards the exit.

“Yes,” Cornelius agreed.  “A hasty retreat is in order.”  He shooed the rest of the troupe back through the tunnel.  Even as they began running up the stairs towards the inn, they could hear Aboseth right behind them, bellowing his fury.

“Wagon,” Cornelius stated as they skidded to a stop in the cellar, “the door, if you please.”  Wagon pushed his shoulder against the heavy door, and everyone jumped as the door pushed back.  “Girls,” Cornelius commented, looking to the twins.  “If I could have your makeup case?”

Isabel and Abigail both offered their packs to Cornelius in unison.  He snapped up one without verifying which twin he took it from.  Cornelius dug deep into the case, procuring one of the brushes from the bottom.  Beside him, Wagon dug his feet in, and braced against the door as it lurched again.  Shepard pushed under the giant man, offering a shoulder to the cause.

“What will you do?” Isabel questioned as she watched Cornelius dab the brush into a fake blood bag.

“What can you do?” Abigail asked.

Both girls jumped as the door shoved hard against the men again.  They threw their slight frames against the door with Wagon and Shepard.  “We’re all going to die!” they wailed together.  From behind the door, Aboseth screamed obscenities and threats; agreeing with the girls.

Cornelius slid between everyone, and ran the brush over the door.  With a skilled hand, he repaired the chipped paint along the great rune.  When he was done, he stepped back, admiring his work with a critical eye.  Immediately, the door stopped shoving against the gathered troupe, and the bellowing from behind it was silenced.  The only sound in fact was the laboured breathing from everyone around the door.  Despite the lack of resistance, they all continued to push with all their might.

Shepard was the first to cautiously take his weight from the door.  He looked from the doorway to Cornelius, and shrugged his question at the older man.  Wagon let go next, though he lingered close to the door to be sure.

“Is that it?” Isabel questioned.

“Are we safe?” Abigail queried.

Both girls opened their mouths together to add more.  They were cut off by a scream of fury from the other side of the door: louder than any of them could bear.  The twins hugged each other, their terrified screams unheard over the din.  Wagon wrapped himself around the girls, using his size in an attempt to protect them.  Shepard held his runic knife in one hand, and the hilt of his broken sword in the other.  He stood between the door and his companions.  Cornelius watched the door with keen interest.  The entire troupe waited.

The scream seemed to go on forever, only to be cut off suddenly.  The door didn’t budge, and Aboseth, now quiet, seemed trapped on the other side.  Cornelius rapped on the door experimentally, gaining a shared look of horror from the others.  He nodded to himself, as he took the brush to the door again.  Beneath the small runic writing, he wrote an equal sign, and then the name Aboseth.  Cornelius nodded again to his work.

Isabel leaned in, watching Cornelius’ work.  “That’s how you knew its name,” she commented.

“You can read the runes,” Abigail added.

The sisters looked at each other with sudden shock, before turning on Cornelius.  “You knew what was in there!” they both accused.

“Ridiculous,” Cornelius scoffed.  He ran a finger over the small runes, watching the whole of his companions flinch as he touched the door.  “It’s one word,” he declared.  “Aboseth.  Now really, how could anyone know what that meant?”  He smiled a winning smile, and gained grudging acceptance from the troupe.  “Come now, away from here.  I’m sure Aboseth has managed to wake the entire town, and we need to explain why there are three more of us now than there were when we went in.”  Cornelius waved to the stairs.  “Come, let us away.”

Dawn broke slow over the hills as the troupe’s cart rode away from town.  Wagon and the twins slept in the back, leaving only Cornelius and Shepard awake. Shepard drove the cart, while Cornelius carefully painted runes on a new sword.  They rode in silence for a long while.

“It was bound to happen, sooner or later,” Cornelius finally stated, as much to himself as to Shepard.  “We go to every haunted house in the kingdom, sooner or later one of them had to be actually haunted.”

Shepard raised an eyebrow to Cornelius, but otherwise kept his feelings to himself.  He pointed instead to the road ahead.

“We’re off to Stag-Stone,” Cornelius explained.  “Heard they have a large manor; been abandoned a long time.”  He chuckled to Shepard.  “I’ve heard it’s quite haunted.”

Cornelius continued.  “We can’t just throw in the towel over one bad day,” he explained.  “The ghost hunting routine is far to lucrative.  Besides, what are the chances we’ll ever see anything like Aboseth again?”

Shepard looked at Cornelius once.  With a shrug, he turned his attention to the road, and the destination ahead.

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