Hunting Shadows

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Chapter 26

“Hey, it’s Jayson. I don’t know if you’re still mad at me about our fight or if you’ve finally decided to leave me… either way, I just wanted you to know I’m sorry for everything I said.

“I’m trying to be the man you deserve, and… I love you with every fiber of my being. I’d do anything to have you home safe.”

“This messaging service is full, good bye.”

He clicked the phone off. He had left message after message and the reply was the same each time; her voicemail was full. Sometimes he just called for the sake of hearing her message and voice. One week sober, three weeks gone by and still no word from Eryn. Where had she gone? JB said she was off-world; but did that mean she was on a mission without him, or was there another reason?

JB watched silently from the shadows with a detached kind of amusement. A spectator of life and only a few years old in terms of being a Reaper, he still found it odd to watch life without being able to participate in it. To experience nothing but total silence… it was a sobering thought. When he had been human, he was foolish and stupid; taking his wife and partner for granted and being unable to save his daughter in time.

After dying off – world on a planet full of robots controlled by a mad scientist, he had made a deal with Hades – the god of the underworld – to become a reaper or soul taker, and now he watched life happen to others, standing apart from the vitality and vibrancy of it all. He was death and nightmares; fear and decay; he was eternal silence and sleep.

He checked his watch, more habit than necessity. The fight he was watching in the abandoned warehouse off Duker and George St would be over in couple of minutes, and only one of the men fighting would win; in more ways than one. The other, would go out in a glorifying, disgusting explosion of human flesh and organs. So, he waited patiently.

One fighter, a man with a short crop of hair, mean electric blue eyes and a nasty tendency to fight dirty was feigning with an older man, pudgy around the middle, short blondish hair and deep set brown eyes. The blue eyed one danced back and forth, feigning punches until the brown eyed man stepped into his guard and then the blue eyed one slammed his fist into the other man’s jaw sending him reeling back into the crowd. JB caught the man, severed the soul chain and shoved him back into the ring.

00:59. JB waited; the patrons cheered and booed, the tension rose. 00:45.

A punch to the stomach, a groan from the older fighter, a block, a kick, another grunt. 00:25. 00:24. 00:23. 00:22. 00:21. 00:20. His phone beeped and the image of another person and their time of departure appeared. He nodded, it was going to be a long night; looking up he saw the blue-eyed fighter land a staggering hit to the older man’s chest. The sound of the impact resonated within every living person in the room, a chilling sound of finality. 00:02. 00:01.

The brown eyed fighter staggered back, his eyes glazing over as the light disappeared from them.

The crowd held its breath in expectation and for one heart – stopping moment; everything in the warehouse became still and silent. Tension crackled like electricity in the air; JB waited patiently. The moment passed with the crashing of the brown eyed fighter, his face and chest cavity exploding outward when his body hit the mat. The crowd went wild cheering for the victor as the tension finally broke. Bruised and bleeding, with a swelling eye and a missing front tooth, the blue-eyed fighter raised his fist in exultation. The crowd continued to cheer until someone screamed.

That was when they realized the other fighter wasn’t getting up and there was a largely growing pool of blood seeping into the mat. The warehouse exploded into chaos as people began running for the exits.

Incoherent chatter joined the cacophony of noise and in the middle of it JB stood calmly watching the passing of life, soaking in the chaotic vitality of it. Human lives were so fragile; burning like candles and then they either went out with a breath, or a spark.

“Well… that was an interesting way to go.”

JB chuckled darkly. “Not the way you were expecting to go or the fact that your body exploded?”

“Both; I think. I was scheduled for a double valve heart bypass surgery tomorrow, but I wanted one last fight… guess it really was my last. Do you think they’ll put my name up on the wall of fighters?”

“I’m not sure… are you ready to go?”

The soul nodded. JB opened the doorway to the next stage and watched as the soul departed from the world of the living. A light flickered above him, going out once the soul had passed through and the gate closed.

He disappeared to find the next soul. When he got there, he laughed. The psychic medium had been stabbed to death in her home after seeing a client who wanted to be told his business would succeed and wanted the help of his dead mentor.

The woman obliged but told the man, his business wouldn’t work if he didn’t do exactly as his mentor told him; the man being too stubborn to acknowledge his product and idea would fail – stabbed the woman in the chest, calling her a scam artist before fleeing. JB had gotten there minutes before all this happened; and had watched it unfold with a detached sort of amusement.

People thought they could talk to the dead, when in reality; they couldn’t. Reapers didn’t allow souls to talk to the living and the living to talk to souls. Depending on what the person did and believed in when they had been living, they either went to hell or heaven. Reapers moved souls from one plane of existence into another plane; but the dead couldn’t come back and they certainly couldn’t talk to the living. Psychics and mediums talked to demons and creatures that preyed on life to make a living, but it was not the dead they talked to. The dead could not talk.

“Why do you laugh at me, when you have seen the other side and now work for a god of the underworld?”

“Because I find it funny that people are so shallow and easy to manipulate.”

The soul moved forward without another word, and he closed the gate.

Her head felt like it had been run over by military tank. Groaning she moved her hand to her head only to find thick shackles on her wrists.

She stopped moving momentarily to let the pain disperse. Looking around her cell, it was completely black and she could just make out three damp stone walls encompassing most the space. The fourth wall was made up of bars sunk deep into the stonework.

A single cot was bolted to the wall on her left side, with a disgusting, stained metal pail sitting under it. The smell was enough to make her puke, combined with the dizziness in her head, it was like being on the world’s worst carnival ride. She slumped onto the bed and leaned against the cool stone.

3 paces from the bed to the opposite wall; 3 paces from the back wall to the door; back and forth, back and forth; she paced like a caged animal. She couldn’t even transform into a panther due to the shackles. Judging by the lack of windows and the damp slickness of water running slowly down the walls, she estimated the prison was underground. Not deep, but deep enough.

“Hello? Is anyone down here?”

Her voice echoed down the hallway, but no one answered. The only sound was the slow trickle of water and the fading echo of her voice.

She sat back down on the cot. Hours had gone by, or minutes, or maybe days. She had lost track of time, even though her watch said 2:30, she wasn’t sure if that meant AM or PM. After all, that was earthen time; and time here could shift differently than on earth. She did push ups, stretches, crunches, and different exercises to pass the time, and still nobody came for hours. Eryn was dozing lightly when the sound of the bolt sliding back awakened her.

Her eyes gleamed in the faint light let in by the opening of the door and she came face to face with the ugliest creature she had ever seen.

“Where am I?”

The creature responded with a throaty growl exposed large curved teeth that jutted up from an oversized lower mandible. Its sunken black eyes gleamed with vicious intent as it prodded her out of the cell and down a series of hallways. It growled every time she asked a question and when she growled back, it bared its teeth and shoved her forward. Finally, they stopped behind a large heavy door and the creature brought out a set of keys, undoing her manacles he shoved her through the doorway into a closet.

She turned around and snarled, but it was pointless, the creature was gone and she was in a tinier cramped space that was half the size of the cell she had been in. For a moment nothing happened, and then the sound of heavy machinery being turned on and the box began to rise. God; she hated elevators and the tiny black space was making her claustrophobic.

“I will not panic, I will not panic, I will not panic.”

She arrived in the center of an arena full of noise; music, cheering, boos, and fighting.

“Oh shit.”

“Introducing… our next contender… Sage!”

A large screen image appeared above the arena with her picture looking mildly surprised and panicked. Her lips turned down into a grimacing snarl, her fingers flashed silver as she ducked away from the camera drone.

The arena was set up like a giant circle with a smaller circle one inside the other much like a bull’s eye. There were a variety of crude hand-made weapons strewn all over the arena; the walls were covered in nasty blood-soaked spikes and treacherous tar pits bubbled cheerily awaiting some unsuspecting person’s death.

Her heart fell as she realized there were no hiding places, nothing to hide behind and no way out either.

Someone came up behind her screaming and swinging a nasty looking rusty pipe. She ducked the pipe, and grabbed the person’s collar and pants using their momentum to heave them over her shoulder. Slamming him into the ground, she severed his head with her claws. Her eyes turned from hazel to yellow green. More people swarmed into the arena and the fighting became a blur of limbs, snarling, screaming and blood. Every strike was a lethal one; survival and training winning out over fear.

Panting heavily and bleeding from multiple cuts and gashes, she stood atop a mound of bodies – the arena now eerily silent. Glancing up at the screen above the arena, she realized she was the last one left standing with the highest kill count.

“I win; now let me go! I don’t belong here.”

Nothing happened, until a doorway opened on the other side of the arena and a mono-chromatic voice spoke over the speaker system. “Level one complete. Victor Sage.”

“My name’s not Sage; it’s Eryn!”

Nothing happened, so she made her way to the other side of the arena where the doorway waited. She inched her hand through the frame, ready to jerk back if something nasty waited on the other side. “Level up.” A bullet proof vest appeared on her body and a 32mm pistol on her hip; leery of the next challenge she made her way down the hallway to the doorway at the end. The exit was little more than a three-foot hole she had to crawl through to get to the next challenge. A bullet zipped past her head and lodged itself into the rock behind her.

She scrambled away panicked that she had wound up in a war zone. More gunshots assaulted her ears and she ducked in and out of shrubbery. A blue bandana appeared on her left arm, and the screen above her said Sage; blue team. Keeping low and out of sight, she jumped into a trench and zigzagged through the maze. More bullets fired overhead. A hand reached out and grabbed her, pulling her into a darkened alcove. A grenade exploded overhead causing the cavern to shake and rain rock dust down from the ceiling.

“Come with me; I’ll get you out of this game.”

“Who are you?”

“I’m just someone who’s tired of the game.”

“What game?”

“The game we’re in, now come on, it won’t be long before the red team win’s again and if they do, then the level will change.”

“Why should I trust you?”

“Because I’m trying to help you.”

Still leery about trusting the creature that sounded like a gargoyle, she followed it further into the tunnel.

She cursed as her knee connected with sharp, jagged rocks. Still the creature didn’t slow down; it weaved around the stalagmites growing half-hazardly up from the floor of the tunnel. It was so dark she couldn’t see more than a foot in front of her face. Finally, the creature stopped in front of a large underground pool. It waited patiently for her to catch up before quickly explaining the next part of her journey. The pool gave off a faint bluish light and seemed to lead into a darker tunnel at the far end of the cavern.

“Why are you helping me?”

“Because I’m tired of playing this game and you don’t belong in this world. I’m trying to help you get back to your own world. The only way to do that is by beating the game.”

“Thanks for your help.”

“Follow the path, and the tunnel; at the end, you’ll find a building marked ‘red camp’ take this pistol, shoot anyone who gets in your way… capture the red flag and the level ends.”

The golem creature handed her a pistol, the cool weight of it comfortable in her palm.

“Will I see you again?”

“Perhaps in a different form, now go!”

“Thank you; wait… how many levels are there?”

She turned around but the golem was gone, and the tunnels dripped silence. Far off outside the cavern she could hear gunfire and explosions. Ahead of her lay a crystalline pool of glistening water. Transforming into the form of her panther self she slipped into the cool refreshing water. She took a moment to clean her wounds and the rest of her body, luxuriating in cool clean water. She swam toward the tunnel at the far end of the cavern, hoping the golem wasn’t leading her down the wrong path.

The tunnel albeit small and filled with shallow pools of water was straight and she could find the end of it quickly. The building took a little longer but she found that quickly as well.

Creeping along the side of the wall until she was right under the window sill, and she could hear voices. Two males, one female, she estimated them being 6 or 7 feet in. Taking the pistol from her back pocket, she clicked the safety off as quietly as possible before she slowly and cautiously poked her head above the window sill.

She was right; there were two men in armour and a woman also in armour all standing around holding pistols of their own. Taking a breath, she let the calm serenity of survival take over and held the pistol in position and she fired.

Three bodies hit the floor, blood pooling gruesomely around them. She leaped through the window and stepped around the carnage she had just caused.

“Level 2 complete.”

A key appeared on the table beside her and three doors appeared in the wall ahead of her. Three choices to make; an old door that looked like it was falling apart, a new door all shiny and glossy, and the last door was just an ordinary wooden door. Instinct was pulling her toward the ordinary door, and that was the one she went through. The hallway stretched out creating a distorting tunnel effect.

Closing her eyes against the melting vertigo, she steeled her courage and stepped through the doorway. Whose ever idea this twisted game was had a really messed up sense of humor.

The tunnel wasn’t very long, maybe 10 or 12 feet at most. Her body began feeling odd, and the walls seemed to be getting higher. When she had finally found the exit, it was a three-foot hole she had to crawl through, buried behind a mountain of vegetation. The exit led out into an underwater stone maze.

“Level 3: You have five minutes to get to the center of the maze until your air runs out. Good luck.”

The monochromatic voice spoke over the speaker system a moment before a large bubble of air appeared on her head and the surroundings became immersed in water. As the light overhead faded and everything became black, the stones beneath her began to glow with runic designs. She began making her way down the path in front of her. An otter swam out of the rocks, swimming circles and loops around her lithe feline body. It grinned at her a moment before swimming ahead and dashing around a corner. She followed it, somehow knowing this was the creature that had been helping her from the start.

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