Magespace Short Story Contest - Honourable Mention

Where Darkness Falls

by Jessica "Jett" Grota

I slunk cautiously through the underbrush, silently cursing the branches as they caught the edges of the crossbow slung on my back. I caught the moonlight gleam off my ink-black hair out of the corner of my eyes as I moved through the woods. At two in the morning, silence reigned over the compound, broken only by footsteps through heavy brush.

After a few more moments, we broke into a clearing. One by one the group emerged from the woods and gathered in a small circle. Just through the next patch of trees, I could make out the grim outline of the low concrete bunker behind the monowire-lined fence. "Okay," Derek whispered, surveying us. "We all clear on what we're doing?" I looked around, too, at our little entourage.

Winter leaned easily against a tree, cool blue eyes watching us from a mask of gray and black paint that somehow removed all sense of depth and feature from his narrow face. He got his name from his snow-white hair, despite the fact that he was no older than thirty. That, and the fact that his attitude was as cold as the season. I didn't like Winter and I never had. Maybe it was the fact that he was cybered so heavily that there was almost nothing left of his essence. Maybe it was something else. Maybe it was just his attitude that…pardon the pun…left me cold.

Scythe strolled along behind Winter, dressed in her normal outfit of black jeans and a dark blue T-shirt with the sleeves cut off. Her fuschia hair hung in a loose ponytail nearly to her waist, and gold stud earrings gleamed up the length of her delicately pointed ears. She moved with the grace and speed of a follower of the so-called Silent Way, though I don't think she was aware that she was a physical adept.

Behind Blockhead, the combat troll from hell, was the tall, angular outline of Ashwing, the Raven shaman. Next was Dire, our human electronics expert. His dark hair was bound under a leather headband, and his black leather duster hung oddly from the array of different toys stuffed inside it. Snookums, AKA Derek Magnuson, was bringing up the rear. He's the rigger and "human tank" (Okay, he's not a human, he's a troll., but "troll tank" just doesn't have the same ring): three meters and eight hundred pounds of muscle, armor, and defensive cyber. I usually call him Derek, cause Snookums is awkward and I REALLY didn't want to ask where the nickname had come from.

My name is Jett, and I was at the head of the party. Not because I'm the leader, but because I made the least noise and have the sharpest senses. I'm pretty good-looking, if you disregard the fact that I'm ash-pale, have no visible eyes, and give off an aura of creepiness. I've got a body that both models and urban brawlers would kill for: long and lean, but muscular and curved in all the right places. A combination of working out a lot, but also partly due to magic and plenty of cyberware. My choice of combat uniform emphasizes my figure as well: under my armored black biker jacket, my bodysuit is soft, snug black leather.

Breaking the sleek lines of my form was a holstered Ares Predator pistol and twin thigh-sheaths, each holding a Cougar fineblade knife. Slung on my back was a heavily customized crossbow, and strapped to my left leg was a quiver of bolts. I'm at the point where I move confidently with even that awkward a weapon strapped to my back. It's natural to me.

Not that there's much about me that IS natural. I'm a nightmare of magic, necromancy, and cyberware. Mostly necromancy, these days, but I've got enough metal in me to keep Detroit in the steel industry for a year. I'm a Duende, a ghost permanently possessing a human body.

None of what I am was what I was originally. Once upon a time, I'd been a normal human, a young woman named Julianne Bennete. I'd been born mundane, and would have remained that way if not for getting hit with the backlash of a spell intended to amplify magic. My latent abilities had fully awakened. A hellish ordeal followed, a battle with a nasty Astral entity called a Mandrake Horror. I went mad. Then, my totem, the Nagual, a South American spirit in the form of a black jaguar, appeared to me, and helped me overcome some of my madness.

That was part of how I became what I am now. But it gets better. It was on our journey into a place called the Alchera: the metaplane of Dreams that things REALLY changed. We just called it the Dreamtime. That was where I was died.

Everything was as clear now as it was the day it happened: the pain and shock as the shotgun blast hit me square in the chest, being thrown back over my teammate's body as I took the killing blow meant for him. I shouldn't have survived. The hole was massive, the bleeding terrible. But as my spirit tried to flee my mortally wounded body, something changed, and forced me back to life. I Ascended.

I could still remember the cool feel of the black stone under my fingers as the Alchera guide Ren cast the Hexrede, a version of the tarot and a navigation system for the Dreamtime. My card had been the Jack of Swords: the Shade, a spirit of the dead who clung to the mortal world for reasons of Vengeance. The Shade was an Avenger, but also a Protector.

I had died protecting Spaz, the way I couldn't protect my murdered fiancee Paul years ago. I swore to myself that I would die rather than hold another love in my arms as his life slipped away. And I did. I gave up my life, my humanity in exchange for what my heart truly desired: the power to protect the ones I loved, and to avenge those I'd already lost. My ghost clung to my body, and changed it, cell by cell, to ectoplasm to keep me from oblivion. I became stronger, tougher, harder to hurt. In that instant of death, *I* changed, and became the Shade: Saving my teammate's life had defined what I would be for the rest of my life, my purpose. I became a Duende with the soul of a vengeful ghost.

A Duende, in simplest terms, is a human body with a ghost inside it, acting as a soul. In my case, the ghost is my own, and I'm possessing my own body. The ghost, as it takes over the body, transforms the living cells to ectoplasm, ghost stuff, and then imitates the functions of a living person. As a result, my heart beats, I breathe, eat, sleep, and bleed.

But plasm is hard for normal people, even magicians, to see or affect. Unless you're a necromancer or are REAL perceptive, I appear to have a big light-sucking black hole for an aura. Affecting the physical world takes concentration, effort. People tend to forget the dead. And staying sane takes the same toll. I've been through several psychoses, from compulsive killing to multiple personalities.

Madness is an interesting state. And one that I prefer to avoid. But it's in my nature, in the blood that flows black as night through my veins. Being both alive and dead at the same time puts a big gap between me and the rest of the world, and, if I let it, would eat away at my sanity.

But now wasn't the time for deep insight into the nature of my madness. We had a job to do. We were here to kill a hatchling Insect Spirit Queen. Ant, to be exact. She hadn't started making spirits yet.

Dire looked up at us from his pocket computer. The green LCD display glowed faintly in the darkness, though he shielded it with his body. "Fraggus has got a hook on the security cams."

Snookums nodded. "Good. Okay, let's get this on the road. Blockhead, I want you to stay at the perimeter, keep an eye out. Jett, you're scouting, as usual. Ash, we need a forest spirit."

The raven shaman nodded, his beaded braids clicking together softly. "No prob."

Ashwing squinted his pale brown eyes and his breathing became slow and deep as he focused. Then, a wave of power radiated from him, a call to the spirit world that stirred something deep within me. A mask of black feathers appeared on his narrow face, and his eyes became black and beady. The illusion faded after a moment, and a faint but definite shimmer appeared in the air in front of him.

Ashwing shook his head violently, and took a deep breath. Blood trickled from his nose, and his face was pale and gaunter than usual, his eyes sunken. Big spirits mean big drain, but he still seemed solid enough to keep moving. "Thank you for answering my call, friend," he said hoarsely. "Could you please conceal my friends and I?"

No one noticed a change, looking at the other members of the party, but anyone outside the spirit's influence would have a lot more trouble seeing us.

Winter smirked faintly. "Deadgirl gonna take care of the guards?"

I turned and grabbed Winter's collar, pulling the him down till we were eye to eye. I didn't appreciate the "Deadgirl" reference. Winter was an irritating bastard, and seemed to get a thrill out of tormenting me. I hissed, "I was here long before you were, and I'll be here long after. If you have something constructive to say, say it, but don't give me this bullshit or I'll shoot your ass and drop you into the cockatrice pen!" I bared my teeth, gave him a shake before letting him go.

"Now now, boys and girls, no fighting or I'll have to separate you," Snookums said. Both Winter and I turned to glare at him, but I nodded. Then melted into the shadows to take care of the guard patrol. A moment's concentration, and my power of concealment kicked in, rendering me nearly invisible in the shadows. I scrambled up a tree easily, perching on a sturdy branch.

The patrol came within five minutes. Two guards, rifles at the ready. A quick astral scan revealed that they were only lightly cybered, no magic. I dropped silently to the ground behind them. The only thing the guard who turned could have seen or heard was a faint chill, like someone walking over his grave. He reacted fast, swinging the butt of his gun at me, but I was invisible and far faster. I dodged his swing smoothly, wired reflexes kicking in and my arm coming up to slam the guard in the solar-plexus. He exhaled explosively with a dull *whoof*, and doubled over, leaving himself open for a hammer fist to the back of the head. He slumped to the ground at my feet. The other guard went down just as fast. I dropped him with a backfist to the jaw.

I enjoy combat. Not killing, so much as simply action (killing's a whole different story, and when I enjoy it, usually a different set of circumstances). A certain satisfaction comes with being perfectly in tune with your physical self. A combination of years of training, the best in cybernetics, and supernatural ability.

"Guards are down," I sub-vocalized.

"Good. Jett, hold the perimeter and keep an eye out. Scythe, Dire, Winter, move in." Derek commed back. "Don't spread too far, but I want someone watching the west and east sides. I'm cutting the fence right now." I glanced back and around. The plan was to close on the compound like a noose, having as many sides as possible covered as we moved in. So far, so good. Derek pulled a set of monoblade clippers from his pocket and snipped through the fencing until a section of the chainlink popped out, leaving a hole big enough for us to crawl through.

Blockhead's gravelly voice broke in: "I got the west side, boss."

"I'm on the east," Dire said. "Call me over when you find the lock."

A few moments of silence as we moved toward our positions.

I got the sense that things were about to go wrong just as my comm kicked back to life. "Ah, drek!" Dire hissed over his headset. "We got trouble."

The next thing I heard over Dire's comm was a long, strangled scream. Then silence. "Oh, drek," I hissed, and spun and started sprinting toward Dire's position.

Three feathery, scale-tailed creatures were perched on the chest of the dark figure sprawled on the lawn, squawking excitedly and stubby wings flapping. I raised my crossbow, sighted down the quarrel and pulled the trigger. One cockatrice squawked as it toppled to the ground, a pile of feathers neatly transfixed by a half-meter-long steel bolt. The other two squawked in sympathy for their dead companion, then turned and stared at me with beady black eyes. I reloaded the crossbow with practiced speed and muttered, "Fragging death-chickens." One touch of the tail could paralyze a troll.

Another of the cockatrices exploded in a spray of blood and feathers, and the sharp crack of Snookums' rifle echoed through the trees. The third flopped over onto the ground, smoking and thrashing from Ashwing's manabolt. I drew one of the Ares Predators holstered under my arms and delivered the coup, splattering the thing's tiny brain all over the turf while sidestepping the lashing tail.

"Drek. We screwed the pooch on this one, guys. Fall back! Fall back!" Snookums shouted.

"And here come the guards," Ashwing stated calmly. Four had rounded the corner, actually. They didn't see us yet.

"NO fatalities, people," I growled. It was directed mainly at Winter.

There was the muffled pop of a silenced gun, and a scream that rapidly trailed off into gurgling before stopping completely. "Too late," Winter said. He smirked faintly through the black paint masking his face as he looked down into the wide, startled eyes of the dead guard. He looked faintly unreal, a grim specter of death with the smoking gun still in his hand.

I hissed through my teeth, trying to hold back. Now was not the time or place to confront Winter. "I SAID no fatalities. But take them down. We regroup later at point 26-A." I turned. "Blockhead, get Dire out of here." The troll nodded, scooped up Dire and tossed him over his shoulder easily. Dire's paralyzed limbs flopped stiffly.

"Screw it," I murmured, and slipped into the shadows. If the run was really hosed, I was the only one who could at least get a peek at what we were dealing with, and still be able to sprint back to the van in time. I crept silently along the edge of the building, taking advantage of the pools of shadow to further my concealment.

Something black melted out of the shadows and looked RIGHT at me with burning red eyes. It was a huge, coal-black dog, a hellhound but not like any one I'd ever seen. Those eyes seemed to bore right through me, and all of a sudden, I felt like I'd just gotten an ice-water enema. For an instant, my feet felt like they were frozen to the ground.

Then, the thing attacked. Teeth clamped down on my upraised arm, and I stumbled back with the weight of the thing. I know from experience that possessed beings are far stronger and tougher than they look. Which was why I was being barrelled over by something that I normally could have tossed twenty yards with one hand.

I bit back a shriek as the teeth sank through my armored jacket and kept going. Not only did the fragger, like all hellhounds, breathe fire, but this one could give soulwounds. Pain like a thousand blades of ice shot up my arm, numbing it from fingertips to shoulder. I stifled a sob of pain.

My other arm snaked around the dog's neck and grabbed its muzzle, then twisted hard. With a popping sound like firecrackers going off, several vertebrae snapped and the body went limp. The spirit inside gave a cry as it was disrupted, pitched back to its home plane.

I heard another mournful howl in the distance, and decided that I'd had enough exploring for now. I turned, and sprinted back toward the van. I found the hole Derek had cut in the fence and ducked through it, then scrambled over the stone wall.

"We're heading back," Scythe panted through her comm.

"I'm right behind you guys," I said. Actually, I was gaining on them fast. Within a few seconds, I'd overtaken both Scythe and Snookums.

I scrambled into the van, Scythe hot on my heels and Snookums not far behind. He's fraggin' fast for a troll. He bounded into the driver's seat and plugged the thin cable dangling from the dash into his riggerjacks. "Come on, come on," he muttered.

"Drek. Where's Winter?" Scythe asked.

"Drek!" I echoed. I hadn't seen Winter since the run-in with the guards.

Not a moment too soon, I caught sight of a shadow moving toward the van with a familiar gait. Winter dove into the van and slammed the door behind him. Snookums glanced back to see that we were all accounted for, then started the van up with a grumbling of engines and tore out. Searchlights stabbed through the shadows of the woods. The drek had officially hit the fan, but it looked like we might just escape intact.

We pulled out, the van bouncing through potholes at top speed. I gritted my teeth every time we hit a bump that jarred my wounded arm. Inch for inch, nothing hurts like a burn. The bite was deep, and had melted my jacket sleeve to my arm. Not to mention that ghost bites damage the aura as well as well as the flesh. Nothing hurts quite like having a chunk of your soul torn away.

Scythe worked on Dire, who was stretched out on the middle bench of the van. Apparently, he hadn't been paralyzed badly enough to stop breathing, because his chest rose and fell slightly in the darkness. He couldn't do anything but blink his eyes right now, but his involuntary muscle functions hadn't been frozen as well. He'd been very lucky.

Team hierarchy is…loose, to say the least. Derek is sort of the leader, but only because he knows tactics better than any of us. Most of the time, we work as a team, with no one really in charge. Derek, Ashwing, Blockhead, Fraggus and I had been running together for almost five years, on and off, so there was a level of rapport there. Back in California Free State, when I'd first started running, we had all originally been members of a team we'd affectionately called the Demolition Crew. The Crew broke up when I left CFS for Seattle. Spaz and Ashwing had a falling-out soon after, and Spaz took off to Seattle to find me, leaving Derek in charge.

Dire, Winter, and Scythe had come much later. After the rest of the original Crew moved to Seattle with the intentions of starting the team back up, I was rather worn down. Though only twenty-four years old, I'd literally been to hell and back. The team I'd run with in Seattle had all either died or retired after our venture into the Metaplane of dreams, and I was slowly and assiduously working on regaining my sanity, which had literally been in fragments.

Spaz, the Crew's original leader, had gone missing during our trip to the Dreamtime. At the time, I assumed that he'd died when lightning struck the hull of the boat. Later, I learned that he'd survived, but when Derek and the others came to Seattle looking for us, they only found me. They asked me to come back to the team. Having nowhere else to go, I accepted. And well, some time later, here I was. Scythe and Dire, we'd picked up by the old "friend of a friend" method. Dire, I'd known for a while from the Seattle running scene.

Winter was the only wild card. He'd pretty much shown up at our door looking for work. He was damn good at what he did, so we took him on. But lately, I'd been having my doubts.

We pulled into our headquarters, if you could call it that, a short time later. It was a renovated warehouse on the outskirts of Seattle, but it served its purpose. We had a shooting range, an armory, living quarters, and, most importantly, an infirmary.

That was my first stop, after dropping off my weapons. In the large room that served as our sick bay and clinic, I shed my torn jacket, and more closely examined at the wound on my arm. The chill was starting to fade a bit, but the skin around the bite was blistered and flaming red, and it hurt. I got a medkit out of the supply closet and started to wash the wound, grimacing. Nothing could be done for the aura wound, but that would heal on its own in time. The bite itself was already starting to heal, but in the meantime, I could fix this, anyway.

I sighed in frustration as the package of bandages slipped from my fingers yet again. That's one down side of being a Duende: affecting the physical world takes a lot of effort. Being half ghost, I'm out of phase with the "real world". I sometimes try to pick things up and my hand goes through the object, people tend to forget I'm there or not see me at all. Even something as simple as bandaging a cut is a painstaking process.

Scythe walked in, not noticing me. She went to the cabinet and pulled out a bottle of alcohol and some gauze. I looked up from behind my shades, gave her a rough smile. Goosebumps ran down her arms as she sensed the psychic chill in the room, and she jumped. "Oh! Jett…sorry, didn't see you there."

"Heh," I said. "Story of my life. How's Dire doing?"

"He's coming out of it. He'll be real stiff in the morning, though." She noticed the bandages I was struggling with. "Here, let me get that," she said, avoiding my eyes. She tore the wrapping on the package and wrapped my arm with long, slender fingers.

"Three months with us, and you're still scared of me," I said softly. She jumped as if I'd bitten her, then nodded.

"Yeah…sorta. I mean, I know you're arctic and all, but I can't get over..." she shivered faintly.

I shrugged. "Sometimes, I can't get over it myself." I looked her over appraisingly. "You know, you remind me a lot like I used to be." She stared back at me with deep violet eyes and for a moment, I was sure she could sense the sorrow behind the mask.

Then, she turned and left the room. I watched her go, and sighed deeply. Then, I turned and finished putting away the medical supplies.

On my way out of the infirmary, heading downstairs to my room, I passed through the planning table that we used as a war room. I ran right into Winter, and immediately boiled over with all the things I'd been planning to stop and think over before I shouted them in a rage. Oh, well. Maybe it had to be done, cause in retrospect it probably saved us a lot of trouble, and maybe our lives. So I was mad enough to go into a killing rage at the time. Too fucking bad.

"You STUPID fuck!" I shouted at Winter. "You didn't need to kill the guards. They COULDN'T SEE US!" I grabbed him by the collar, shaking him violently. Then I slammed him into the wall with all my strength. Winter hit with a crunch of breaking plaster and slumped down to the floor. I advanced, the blue sparks in my eyes blazing. He collapsed in a heap against the wall, supported only by my grip on his collar.

Glittering, razor-sharp chrome blades slid from the guards at my fingertips. I could kill him right here, right now, I thought, and the world would be a better place for it.

"Jett! Dammit." Then, powerful arms were around me, restraining me from attacking again. For just a moment, everything was a red haze, the world around me seen through a looking glass painted with blood.

Then I snapped out of it. I looked up at Derek, somewhat dazed. I realized that my hands were shaking violently. "Easy, Julie," he said as he released me.

Winter sat up with a faint groan. Blood dripped from a gash in his head, staining his frost-white hair crimson. "You've proven your point," he said, smiling through the mask of blood. "You're a good little thug." I snarled deep in my throat. He was baiting me, dammit, and we both knew it. I could see the glint in his eyes. "We can't see you, can't hear you, but we can sure as hell get the drek beaten out of us by you."

"Don't go there, Winter," I hissed. "Cause you won't like where it leads. You don't want to know just what I'm capable of." I turned and stalked away, pausing once and glancing back. "If I see you here again, I'll kill you."

My room was cool and dark, heavy drapes drawn against the coming dawn. I steeled myself, though, and opened the shades, grimacing at the itching/tingling sensation as the first rays of light hit me. I'm allergic to sunlight, like most ghosts. However, the best way to heal a soulwound is with sunlight.

I kicked my boots off and started the familiar ritual of undoing the lacing on my vest and shimmying out of the black leather pants. Finally, I removed my shades. I put on a pair of faded black jeans and a tank top, then sighed and flopped back on the bed.

Winter LIKED pissing me off. Some part of him courted death in the same way that a moth is drawn to a flame. I had a feeling that he wouldn't bother living if not for the threat of death, that a large part of his existence was walking that line. As for me, well, I'm both half-ghost AND a spirit of vengeance from beyond the grave. Sorta like that old flat-trid movie, the Crow. That's as close to walking, talking death as you can get.

The event that changed my life, that made me death, even before I died…there was no doubt that it was the gang attack that left me scarred, three of my close friends dead and another completely mad. That night changed me forever, started the descent into a darkness that would take years to overcome. Things were done to me, tortures that no human being should inflict on another.

I stopped screaming by the fifth rape. I was nearly broken by the time the gangers lost interest in using me and started to cut me apart. I had no choice: either block out the horror, or watch my sanity collapsed like a paper house in the rain. Until the dam broke. All the rage, the pain, the anger, and the despair that would later define my very being came pouring out.

I killed five of them when I escaped. One got a sharpened piece of pipe through the throat. Four died burning, doused with flaming gasoline. Then, one of them cut me open from groin to collarbone and left me for dead. I spent two months in a coma after being found, naked and bleeding, in a gutter. I'd lost a massive amount of blood, and had been just about eviscerated. And I survived, though it scarred me both physically and mentally in ways that still hurt to face.

The scars, eventually, healed, both physically and mentally. But I would never be the same person I was before. For better or worse, that night was when Julianne Bennete died and Jett was born in her place. About five minutes later, there was a knock at the door, disrupting my dark reverie. "If you've got food, come on in. Otherwise, go away," I said.

Derek leaned in the doorway, his horned head brushing the top of the frame. "No food. Just beer." He tossed me the can. I caught it. "You okay?"

"Yeah…I guess." Quiet for a moment, as I popped the top of the beer and took a long drink. Finally, I spoke. "Winter's off the team, of course. Gone."

Derek only nodded.

"He didn't have to kill the guard," I continued. "Even after everything went to hell. He not only disobeyed a direct order, but he fragging killed someone for no reason." I grimaced, then rolled over and sat up. "And me…here I am saying this drek, and not ten minutes ago I nearly killed him."

Another pause. I couldn't look him straight in the eye, though I knew if I did his eyes would be warm, brown, and concerned. With my sunglasses off, I suddenly felt exposed, naked. I focused on the set of chrome riggerjacks gleaming from under his thick black hair instead.

"I'm not a killer, Derek. Not unless I need to be." I looked up at him with dark, empty black holes where my eyes should have been. Black vapor spilled down my cheeks, cold as the fumes from dry ice. And I could see the pain in his eyes. He would never leave me, never turn me away because I had changed like Spaz had, but I'm sure a part of him had to ask why. He knew that if I wanted, I could put away the Shade's sword and become just plain old Jett again, but I chose not to. Sometimes, though it damned me, it was also what gave me a sense of purpose, a reason to stay in this world.

Derek and I went way back, and he has seen me at my worst. When we first met, I had been a broken shell of a human being, a grief-ravaged, morphine-addicted eighteen-year-old. He was with me through drug withdrawal as I broke my addiction, through sleepless nights and screaming nightmares, through a period where bloodshed was the only thing that could salve the pain of loss and violation. Over time, I grew up, and learned to deal with the chaos inside. And Derek had been with me through a lot of it.

Derek looked at me for a long moment, then put a hand on my unwounded shoulder. "Get some rest, Galen," he said, using the name that I had changed legally to upon my initial arrival in Seattle. "We'll talk later." With that, he left.

I stood, and stared at myself in the mirror. I'd been looking at this face, this chalk-pale, eyeless visage, for three years now. I was used to it, even if my friends weren't, and probably never would be. The power of being a ghost-spirit carries a harsh price. It takes a horrendous amount of effort to be seen and heard, to interact with the physical world. But I'm also just different. Even to mundanes, I smell like death. My very presence reminds them of their own mortality, and the vast, cold darkness that lays beyond this world, and for that they fear me. Death is so much a part of me, I have to fight to remember that I'm also, in a lot of ways, alive.

I used to be human once, I thought, staring at the ghostly image in the mirror. Once upon a time, my eyes had been the brilliant blue of a winter sky. My skin had glowed with life. Sometimes, it's just hard to let the past go. Hanging on hurts like a bitch some days. It wears me down, makes me wish I could just give up and fade away. Or give into the madness that I knew lurked in every dark corner in my mind.

And yet, it wasn't much different from a time in my life where I was the living dead, a human with a soul so damaged and a heart full of such pain that I sleepwalked through life, wandering without purpose, without thought, with only a desire for my own self-destruction.

In the end, I'm better off the way I am now. Sometimes, I just need to remind myself of that.

My grim march through past memories was interrupted as the intercom kicked on. "Hey, Jett?" The voice was male, a young tenor barely past adolescence.

"Wassup, Fraggus?" I said wearily, grabbing a brush to pull through my hair.

"Just thought you'd want to know that Derek wants everyone down in the war room at seventeen hundred hours to figure out what the hell we're going to do next."

"Thanks," I said wearily. "I'll be there."

I collapsed on my bed, huddled under the covers, and slept.

* * * * *

I was the last one to show for the meeting, slipping in at exactly 17 hundred hours. Fraggus smiled up at me as I entered, a closed-mouth smile that hid his ivory-colored tusks. Fraggus is an ork, although he could pass for a rather large human. His ears are more rounded than pointed, his skin fairly smooth, and his tusks relatively small. Maybe when he got older, he'd look more like the typical specimen of his metatype, but I doubted it. He was 19 now, well into physical maturity.

Winter, of course, was missing from the meeting table. Derek had formally dismissed him from the team earlier.

"Okay. Murston hired us for this job." Fraggus flipped through the notebook absently. The pages were covered in small, dark, neat print. "Not our normal J, but we figured hey, why not, since Gunnerson is in the hospital."

"I have to talk to Rizzi about that," I said, drumming my fingers. "I mean, I think breaking both his legs was a bit much. One would have been just fine, and wouldn't have put us out of work."

"Anyway, I think maybe paying a visit to Murston might not be a bad idea."

"We should probably check the computer first." Fraggus said. His deck was already in his lap and ready to jack in. He brushed aside his straw-colored hair and slid the plug into his datajack with a faint snikt.

Time passed. Not a lot of it: In the Matrix, a decker counts his time in fractions of a second. So it was less than five minutes before Fraggus twitched twice. Then, his whole body went rigid.

"Ah, shit," Ashwing muttered. He grabbed the cord dangling from the metal jack in Fraggus's temple and yanked it free.

Blood dripped slowly from Fraggus' nose, and matted his blond hair under his ears. A spreading red stain was starting to take over the whites of his eyes as I watched, and a thin wisp of steam came from his datajack. He groaned faintly, swallowed violently several times, then rolled over and vomited into the wastebasket. Blood dribbled down his chin. He wiped his mouth on his shirt sleeve. "Drek. I was NOT expecting black ice there," he said hoarsely. "I didn't get much."

Derek covered Fraggus's shoulders with a blanket. The ork was still twitching, muscle spasms that I knew would last another couple hours.

"Murston is gone. I tapped the sec cameras of his hotel room. Nada. He walked out and didn't come back."

"Damn." Ashwing paused. "I'll get in touch with some contacts, I guess. See if they have any leads, and if we get anything, then tomorrow night we'll hunt him down and question him."

The meeting broke up to let Ashwing take care of Fraggus, but since I couldn't sleep, I figured I'd do some research. After the meeting, I headed down to the library and pulled a stack of books. Soon, I lost myself in the details of Magic Theory.

"Something's bothering you," Ashwing said softly some time later, startling me out of my reading.

I looked up from my reading. "Bug spirits isn't enough?"

He sat down, folding his tall, spindly frame into the seat. Ashwing could pass for an elf, easily, if not for the fact that his ears weren't pointed. He was the tallest, thinnest human I'd ever seen. Around six foot four, and probably only a shade over 150 pounds.

"I saw something in the compound that bothered me. A lot." I reached for my shades, slid them on. "Jim, how many necromancers do you know? Or know of?"

He paused, steepling his hands together on the table. "You, if you consider yourself a necromancer…I know there's one working out of Denver, and I've heard rumors of another in New York." He paused again, looked up. "That's about it. Doesn't mean there aren't more, of course."

"Yeah," I said thoughtfully.

"Okay, spill it, Galen." He fixed me with serious brown eyes.

I sighed, leaned back in my chair and let my book fall closed with a thump. My eyes didn't feel raw and grainy the way they should after so many hours of studying, but I was stiff and somewhat sore. I massaged the kink from my shoulder before finally speaking. "I killed a hellborn at the compound the other night." I gave him a second to digest that. "That's what happened to my arm. It was possessing a hellhound."

He looked at the book I was studying, then back at me. "Drek."

"Yeah, that's what I said." We both knew that generally, hellborns hang around sites of great necromantic power. They don't show up on their own. Something calls them.

"You think someone's summoning necro nasties from another plane?"

I nodded, and rubbed the back of my neck. "Call it a gut feeling. But…I think we need to know what's in that compound. Not just because of the bugs, either." I stopped, looked down at the cover of the book, then back up. "I think the ghost I faced leaked out from somewhere."

"I wish you wouldn't mess with this stuff. You worry me, Jett."

"I know. I'm being as careful as I can. But we don't want these things loose on the world."

"Yeah. It's just necromancy…" he stopped, and sighed. "Just be careful, okay? You can't afford any more necrosis."

"Why do you think I haven't initiated in almost three years?" Every time I initiate, become more knowledgeable about my magical nature, I also gain Force as a spirit. But I was pretty much at the limit of safety. Getting any more powerful carried heavy risks that I wasn't willing to take. Necromancy tends to corrode the aura, break it down. The effect is called aura necrosis. The more of it you have, the more unstable your aura is, and the more vulnerable you are to other corrupting affects. A certain level, for me, is unavoidable, since I'm a purely plasmic being. However, for the past five years since I'd changed, I'd done a fair job of keeping the decay of my aura to a manageable level.

He shook his head. "Just take care. And get some sleep," he said. With that, he left. I sighed, and looked back at my book. My eyes were starting to get heavy. Soon, the words started to blur, then the table came up to meet my head. I slept. Some time during the night, I thought I dreamed I was dead and I was being carried away and placed in a coffin. When I finally woke up, it was late afternoon and I was in my own bed.

* * * * * *

That night, Scythe and I went to the Rusty Keg in the Redmond Barrens. The Keg is an old favorite bar of the team. When I first came to Seattle some years ago, I had befriended the bartender there. Now, Grunk was an old friend, and a solid contact. Scythe was going to sit near the door. Ashwing had set up a meet with someone who might know where Murston had vanished to. Meanwhile, I would hang out just to make sure the meet went smoothly. So while she was waiting, I went to the bar to make small talk with Grunk.

Grunk is a middle-aged ork. His hair was going gray at the temples, and there were heavy smile-lines around his mouth and eyes. "Your usual, Jett?" he said.

"Yeah, thanks Grunk," I replied, hopping up onto the worn red synth-leather barstool. I watched as Grunk mixed my Kahlua sombrero with skill that comes from years of practice.

"So how goes?" he asked, polishing the bar with a towel clutched in a large, callused hand.

"It goes." I looked up. "I'll have to talk to you later, though, Grunk," I said. "I think our contact is here." I glanced at the grungy dwarf that had just entered.

He nodded. "lemme know when you need a refill."

I nodded, then faded into invisibility. There wasn't much more for me to do: I can't do negotiation unless it involves intimidating the hell out of someone. So it was Scythe's show now. I watched as she approached the dwarf. He was a wretched little sneak who went by the charming name of Scab. I didn't ask how Ashwing knew Scab.

"I'm looking for info on a fixer named Murston," Scythe said. She twirled the credstick in long, slender fingers, fully aware that his eyes were nailed to the gold band on it. He didn't even seem to notice the drop-dead gorgeous elf chick in front of him. Twenty thousand nuyen is a lot of money.

His eyes slid back and forth. Then, one greasy hand reached out and grabbed the credstick. The pen-sized tube vanished into the tattered jacket. "Yeah, I seen him." Scab licked his thin lips. "He set up a new shop down in Puyallup. Said he might have some heat comin' down on him soon."

Scythe smiled. "Oh, yeah."

We came home. Boy, we were doing a lot of running around. But we decided to pay Murston a visit next. And we brought Snookums, the VERY large, VERY intimidating troll along.

"Knock knock." Derek waited exactly three seconds before he punched the flimsy door down. Murston, of course, looked QUITE surprised sitting at his desk.

"Mr. Murston, you seem to have made an error. You didn't mention that there were possessed hellhounds on the premises." Derek said calmly, leaning over the little man standing behind the desk. " What else in the damn compound?" Snookums grabbed him by the collar, and lifted him until his feet dangled nearly a meter above the ground.

"Okay, okay, I'll tell you!" he stammered, gripping the troll's wrist to keep himself from strangling. "It's the hive, just like you thought. But in the basement is the gate, too."

"The gate?" Ashwing asked.

"Th-th-the gate. I lost control of the queen when she got more power from the thing behind the gate…I didn't see it, b-b-but I know it promised her power to break free of my control…I barely escaped…"

"It was dark, like her…" He pointed to me. I looked up, rather surprised that he'd seen me. "Dead, but worse…corrupt, evil. He looked up at us. "She was a new queen. Weak. We hadn't even summoned workers. She shouldn't have been able to break free." He rummaged in his pocket, brought out a long, slender black stone that looked like an obsidian icicle. "This…this is what it's using to link to this world. It's called a Calyx."

I shuddered as I stared at the thing, and realized I was looking at a quite powerful object. I'd seen something similar once before. A Horror had been using it as a gate into this world.

"Take it. Just take it and get out," Murston stammered. He practically threw the thing at us. I caught it, and shudders ran through me as soon as I touched it. The thing was vile. I wrapped it in a bandanna before tucking it away.

I shook my head as we left Murston's office, then looked up at Derek.

"I guess we're going bug-hunting again," I said.

"Yeah, I guess so. Off to save the world from necro nasties and things that go bump in the night."

"You know what I hate about this job?" I asked Derek. "These days, saving the world pays shit. I need to find a better line of work, cause altruism just doesn't pay the bills." * * * * * * * *

Both Fraggus and Dire were down, and Winter was gone, leaving our team short. It took some calling, and a lot of nuyen changed hands, but we finally came up with a replacement: a street sam named Carlos. He was a good friend of Scythe's, and was willing to go into the depths of hell with us.

We showed up at the compound loaded for bear. Or rather, loaded for bug. Ashwing was decked out in talismans and foci. Snookums had a Panther Assault Cannon strapped to his broad back, and Blockhead was decked out with a bandoleer and machine gun, plus tons of grenades. Carlos was packing a lighter machine gun and equal amounts of ammo. There were also several kilos of plastic explosives in the back of the van. Here's to praying that no one at the compound had a fireball handy.

With all the armor and guns around, we were a bit crowded in the van. Even though, except for Scythe, I'm the smallest member of the group, I was still not quite comfortable. The gun at the small of my back was digging into my spine, the hilt of my sword was jammed into my ribs, my underarm holsters were chafing despite the expensive suede lining, and I was sweating under my armor. To me, dressing for success means no fewer than two each of guns AND knives. Tonight, I was going full-out.

We didn't waste time stepping lightly. We went charging in. Derek hacked through the fence with a laser, taking a section six feet long out of the chainlink. We crawled through, one at a time, weapons ready.

And ran right into three of those damned possessed hellhounds. I spotted them first. They were moving FAST, black blurs against the dark gray concrete walls, but this time, I was ready for them. I shot one down with a bolt from my crossbow. Scythe neatly decapitated one with a flick of her monofilament whip. The third lunged for Blockhead, sinking teeth into his armored sleeve and tearing. Blockhead jerked, slamming the arm, hellhound and all, into the wall until the spirit screamed and shredded on the astral breeze.

"You okay?" I whispered. Blockhead nodded. Mundanes don't suffer from soulwounds nearly as much as magicians do. But that doesn't mean they don't still hurt.

We continued on. The place was eerily silent. No guards. We didn't waste time with knocking: Derek and I broke the door down. And we descended into the darkness. "Do you get the impression that we're expected?" Derek murmured. I nodded, frowning, as we continued on our way.

The halls were narrow, and catacombs branched off. I decided I probably didn't want to know what was in them. Scythe planted a few charges of plastique here and there and set timers. They were radio timers, so we could take our time and just blow the place on the way out. Or, if we were going to die, take the place with us. It wasn't far before the claustrophobic halls opened up. A stone cavern was my first impression, but no cavern had walls that smooth and regular. I still doubted it was man-made, though. The whole place was filled with a cold, alien light that seemed to seep from the concrete walls themselves. A light that illuminated, but offered no warmth, no comfort. Reminded me too much of a scene from a bad sci-fi trid movie.

And sitting at the far side of the chamber, bloated and inhuman, was the Ant Queen. "Christ, she's an ugly fragger," I muttered. Then shook my head. My ears were buzzing.

Next to the queen was a hole. Not in the wall, but in astral space. Ashwing drew his breath in sharply between his teeth as he stared at the black, twisted, toxic wound. The gate.

A faint hissing like static in my ears made it hard to think. A weight pressed insistently on my head and shoulders. The buzzing grew louder, the pressure heavier. "Kill him." I stared at my hands with fixed horror as the crossbow came up level with Ashwing's chest. "Oh, drek." I struggled, trying to force my arms down. It wasn't working.

Something smacked into my arm, sending my shot wild. The quarrel hit the concrete wall with a scraping sound and clattered to the ground. I shook violently as the spell broke, the directive finished, and turned to see what had hit me.

Carlos was standing there, rubbing his fist. "Madre de Dios, what are you made of?"

I shrugged. "Recycled Pepsi cans. Old tires. Undead ghost stuff. The usual." I wasn't letting on how much having my body controlled bothered me. But it did. A lot.

The queen stood by almost docilely, hunched at the far side of the room. Her trick had failed this time. Maybe she would try again. But it seemed that for now, she was just waiting for something.

That something was probably the figure that appeared in the doorway.

Winter smiled at me, an expression that didn't quite reach his ice-pale eyes. "Well, well." He looked around. "Fancy meeting you here." For some reason, I wasn't surprised to see him.

"You fragging bastard," I hissed. I nocked another bolt into my bow. "That's why you vanished the other night. You were here, making a deal with them." I could feel the tension under my finger. The trigger was a fraction of an inch from tripping.

Winter laughed. "I'm surprised you didn't figure it out sooner," he said. And something, some part of me sank into a cool, white, static-filled place. The bow was levelled at his throat, a lethal blow. At this range, I couldn't miss. I could picture in my mind the spray of blood, Winter's limbs twitching as he fell like a puppet with its strings cut. Just another bit of pressure, and it would all play out just like the image in my head. I could kill him now, and the world would probably be a better place for it.

I lowered the bow.

"I knew it," he said, his grin mocking. I wanted nothing more than to smash that handsome face into the concrete floor until it shattered, disintegrated into a mask of blood. "You can't kill me." His teeth shone in the corrupt light of the place, his lips twisted back in a rictus grin.

I pulled the trigger. His laughter died with a gasp and a scream as the razor-headed quarrel sank into his leg. I reloaded, nocking a fresh bolt. "Why should I kill you? Maiming you is a lot more satisfying." I fired again, was rewarded with another scream and curse of pain as he toppled over backwards. Blood started to puddle on the concrete floor. "Anyway…yes, I want you dead. But I think that you'll eventually meet up with some end even worse than I could give you." I grinned, lips skinning back from my teeth in an eerie, psychotic expression. "Death comes to all things, Winter."

I forgot all about Winter in the next three seconds. Which didn't matter, because when I looked again, he was gone. And the Queen attacked.

Snookums' PAC roared in the closed space. The shell slammed into the Queen, and she shrieked with the impact. A clawed arm, lightning-fast, reached out, tearing across his chest and knocking the weapon from his hands. Pain turned his vision into a scarlet field for a moment as the gouge ripped through his dermal armor and tore his orthoskin. Blood spattered his armor, and he was flung back against the wall as if he weighed nothing.

Blockhead opened fire, and the rattle of eight rounds a second echoed in the cavern, joined by the chatter of Carlos' LMG.

A flash of brightness on the astral plane, and the Queen screamed again, a high, inhuman sound that raked the eardrums like steel blades. Ashwing grimaced, channeling the drain of the spell through his focus, and threw another manabolt.

The queen was staggering. Scythe danced out of the way as the segmented leg swiped out again, taking chunks from the massive insectoid thing with her monowhip. I drew the Darksword from its sheath at my hip and raised it. Then, I kicked in my power of concealment and lunged, blue flames flickering from the dark blade. Even through my jacket, I felt the chill the weapon focus radiated.

The next scream literally shook the room and made the lights flicker and dance madly like strobes. I felt like my eardums were going to burst, but I was frozen, watching her scream and thrash around my sword. One final shriek of agony that seemed to be coming from the walls themselves...

Then, nothing. As we watched, the corpse crumbled to ash. My sword fell with a clatter to the concrete floor, still glowing faintly. I walked over and picked it up, wiping it on my jacket before resheathing it.

Derek was laying on his back, staring at the ceiling. There was blood spattered across his broad chest. "Ooh, I'm gonna feel this in the morning," he said. He sat up slowly. I sighed with relief. He was gonna be okay.

"We aren't done yet," Ashwing muttered. His face was pale, drawn. Another couple of spells would knock him down, maybe kill him. And he was right. We weren't done yet. In fact, the fun was just beginning.

The tear was opening further, spilling darkness as the astral split, revealing a void as cold and empty as space.

No, not empty. Something dwelled there, thrived in that darkness.

The others backed away as a blast of frigid air hit us from the opening gate. I didn't flinch: it was the same psychic cold that spilled from my empty eye sockets. But the others gasped with the shock of it. Frost formed on everything, hands went numb except for sharp, stabbing pains in frostbitten flesh.

"What's h…h…happening?" Scythe asked. Her voice held an edge of panic, and her teeth were chattering.

"Don't look now, everyone, but the gates of hell are opening," I said.

Winter was suddenly standing before us. I hadn't seen him appear. Blood still stained the knees of his pants, but the crossbow bolts were gone. I'd seen stranger things than people walking around after they'd been kneecapped, so it didn't really bother me that he was up and around. I hoped it had hurt like hell to pull the bolts out, though. He'd probably taken most of his knees with them.

"They promised me…" he said with a smile that sent a chill racing down my spine. "They promised me power, wealth, immortality, whatever I wanted if I helped them." I stared into his eyes, those dead, pale eyes as cold as his namesake. I realized that he was feeling no pain: his masters were working him like a puppet. Some part of whatever soul he had left had gone far beyond pain, or sanity for that matter. I could see it in his aura, curling tendrils of darkness that wrapped around him, strangling what little light there was until his aura was so black it hurt to look at. Not the perfect, velvety absence of light that made up my aura, but something dark and toxic that not only was absent of light, but actively sought it out and destroyed it.

I swallowed, hard. Some part of me was answering to that darkness, found its call as sweetly seductive as a siren's song. Whispers in my head again, echoing. Death calls to death.

"Come forward, child…" the voice whispered. "Come, embrace us, and receive your gift." I wasn't sure who the darkness was addressing, but Winter stepped forward, arms out. He grinned at us as he walked forward to the center of the antechamber.

The wall of shadows spilling from the gate swept over him, engulfing him. At that moment, all doubt left me: that malignant cloud was alive.

Then, Winter started to scream, a high, piteous wail of agony that chilled me to the bone. It didn't take long for the screams to trail off, though, and the darkness lifted. Pitted, metal-clad bones clattered into a neat pile on the ground, the grinning skull perched neatly on top. The darkness, whatever it was, had stripped the flesh from the bones as cleanly as an acid bath, and in a matter of seconds.

I looked around. Scythe had scrambled against the wall to vomit. Snookums looked disturbed, but wasn't showing it outwardly. Nor was Ashwing. Carlos was pale, and he made the sign of the cross.

I felt the thing turn its attention on me, felt the weight of its intelligence and age beating down on me. The whispering in my head again, a maddening susurration. This thing, I realized, could manipulate my mind far more easily than the ant queen could have. Than ANYTHING in this plane could have.

I slammed my fist into the stone wall over and over again until blood poured over my hands from my split knuckles. The pain helped keep me above the darkness pulling at my mind. I could almost feel myself rolling under those stygian waves, down, down, into an endless blackness.

I swallowed hard around my pulse. My hands gripped the stone beam, chips of plasticrete flaking off under my nails. My heart hammered in my chest. And still, the void was dragging me inexorably toward it.

"Chaos…entropy…darkness…death…cold…despair…" Lights flashed behind my eyes. Warm coppery-smelling liquid trickled down my forehead, spilled from my eyes. Drips of crimson ran down my hands, bleeding without wounds. I screamed into the void. Someone in my head laughed with the same voice. "No…no…" The psychopath I'd once been, the persona I called the Shadowman, was rising from the depths of my consciousness, trying to take over.

The wave crested, and suddenly it was crashing down on me. Hopelessness, sorrow, and a grief so profound I thought my heart would break. I WISHED it would break. Not just my emotions, but the tears of a million condemned souls. A crushing wave of despair that threatened to drag me down screaming into madness.

My sword was starting to glow. I clutched it tightly. I was cold, so cold. "Pain…chaos…d-d-darkness…" My cape fluttered around me, tattered black wisps of shadow curling in an invisible wind that was bitter cold and smelled of blood. I reached for the card in my vest pocket with trembling fingers. The card fell, fluttered to the ground face-up. The empty, glowing blue eyes of the Shade stared up at me. The shadowy figure was crouched on a long-deserted battlefield that was littered with the bones of the dead, broken and rusted implements of war scattered about. The image on the card spoke of a pain so deep, a hurt so vile that it reached beyond the grave and drew the dead back to set things right.

There was nothing else to do. I drank in the darkness, turned it, drawing on it for power. I had taken the power it was feeding me and absorbed it. A massive surge of euphoria coursed through me, and then I was a god, a primal force of chaos and rage, an angel conceived in blood and raised on wings of shadow.

Blood dripped slowly from a deep slice in my cheek, dripping down my jaw and staining my teeth crimson. Every would I'd ever suffered had reopened. I stood, slowly, lifting my head so that my hair tumbled back over my shoulders, blending with my tattered black cloak. "We can't let the gate open any further," I said, my voice hollow and full of echoes. Then, I attacked.

I don't remember the battle. Derek told me later that I went berserk and attacked the gate, and that the smoke around me had turned to a mist of blood. Sometime during that, I threw the Calyx back through the gate.

It was over that fast. The moment the Calyx passed through the gate, brilliant light exploded in the cavern, and the shadows shrieked in chorus as the Darkness was sucked back through. The tear in astral space slammed shut: with the focus no longer in this world, the link was gone. No link, no gate.

That flash was the last thing I'd see for a while, and the harsh light chased me down through the darkness. All the way into oblivion.

Cold. Pain. It hurt to breathe, to move, to think. Pain. Hate. Anger.

Darkness. Darkness. Darkness.

I hung suspended in perfect blackness, feeling the plasm in my aura battle with the toxic plasm, the ichor, that I'd siphoned from the Horror. I was on the edge of becoming the Knave of Swords, the evil, psychopathic version of the Shade. I was falling into an icy, Stygian void that tore at me like a million razor blades, trying to rend my soul apart piece by piece. I tasted blood, smelled it, felt it all around me. I screamed into the darkness. I called for help from the only source that could reach me here. My totem.

Then, I felt something soft brush against my hand: warm fur. A powerful head nudged against my leg, and I caught the glitter of brilliant silver eyes in the darkness. And the world opened up. I screamed again, this time in triumph, as the silver light radiated from my own eyes. I roared, the barking call of the jaguar/Nagual, as I expelled the ichor from my aura. The silver light purified me, and the darkness retreated until the world was a perfect, shining whiteness.

I came to with a hell of a headache, the scent of blood and smoke still lingering in my nostrils.

We were on the hill above the compound, watching the place burn, along with everything inside.

I lay on my back, staring at the sky. Every bone in my body ached. I'd taken in a LOT of necromantic energy, enough to give me a mighty high. It had almost tainted me, I realized. And I'd fought it off. I was exhausted, a weariness that cut bone-deep. "I'm dead tired," I said. Then laughed. The sound scared me: it was a high, jagged sound with broken edges like glass. I sat up slowly, rubbing my head. It was still tacky with drying blood.

We'd saved the world, probably. Funny thing was, I didn't really care. I'd done it before. And, I realized, I would gladly do it again. Altruism doesn't pay the bills, but sometimes, it's what keeps you going and gives you a sense of purpose in this life. And I couldn't argue with that.

"Let's go home," I said.

©1998, Jessica "Jett" Grota - used with permission