Kellerika swung by the Café Moderne for her usual au lait and a little visit with Evan. After a ten minute session of some alone time, Kell settled in at an outdoor table for her call with Stazia.
“How’s your progress?” That was Stazia, right to the point.
Kell sipped her coffee. “It’s going well at the moment. I’ve used the credentials to get more info on both the Edwards murder and some info from TycoSoft on the game I think links them all together.”
“Really?” Her boss’s tone was one of disbelief.
“Yes.” Kellerika’s confidence didn’t falter. “TycoSoft’s newest release, Ever Rain, came out the same day that all of our disappearances began.”
Silence from Stazia’s side.
“I’m not sure how the murders tie into everything or even why the kids went missing, but it’s the most solid link I have.”
A long droning sigh from her boss. “If one of the Nine is behind this, we need to find out how.”
Kellerika nursed her coffee. “I know. That’s why I’m suggesting that I get a system, the game, and go in for a thorough look.”
“Sounds reasonable to me,” Stazia said. “I’ll make sure they add in an additional stipend to your upcoming paycheck to offset the expense.”
“Excellent.” Stazia shuffled a few papers. “If we’re done here, I have a few other calls to make to the churches.”
Once their call had ended, Kell logged into her banking app out of curiosity. Sure enough, there was a pending deposit of her regular $5,500 plus an additional stipend of $1,200 on the next line. She had no idea for certain, but Kellerika had her hunches that a large part of the Order’s income came from religious institutions all around the world. After all, the Ordo Tenebris did all the heavy lifting that the typical exorcists and demon hunters were too afraid to touch. She closed the app and pulled up an Target page. In a few minutes, she had a complete VR system ordered and on hold for curbside pickup in half an hour.
Later that evening, Kellerika was neck-deep in cables, cords, and controllers. She flipped through the instruction booklet.
“Hook HDMI into,” she leaned over the back of her TV, “what?” Its plug became apparent. “Oh, that.”
Kell hooked up the power supply, other inputs, and fired up her new toy. Getting the VR up and running proved to be her undoing. She snagged her cell. “Call Deke.”
“Yo, Kell. What’s up?”
She adjusted the strap on the goggles. “I’m trying to set up this VR console thing, and I---”
“Whoa.” He was astounded. “Hold up. You got a gaming system?”
Kell attempted another calibration which failed. “Yeah, but it won’t calibrate. Is it so hard to believe?”
He chuckled. “That you got a gaming system? No. That it won’t calibrate? Look. Take it one component at a time. If you’re holding both wands…” he waited for the inevitable.
“Ugh.” Kellerika sat one wand on the stand. “Now, what?”
“Wait for the sensor to pick it up and follow the instructions.”
Kell did, and it worked. A happy chime from the console.
“Great,” Deke said, “just do the same for the other wand and your goggles, then you’re set.”
“You’re a lifesaver.”
He crunched on a snack through the connection. “Lemon flavored?”
She laughed at their long-standing joke. “Whatever flavor you want.”
“What made you go out and buy a nine hundred dollar rig?”
Kell finished calibrating her goggles. “I needed a way to vent my frustrations.”
“Uh huh.” Deke scoffed. “He has one, doesn’t he?”
“Who Evan?” She wanted her lie to roll in another direction, but this worked. “Well, yeah.”
“Now, we’re gettin’ to the heart of things.” Deke hooted into the phone. “You must have it pretty bad for this one.”
“Shut up, Deke.”
He guffawed. “Nah. It’s good for you.”
“Anyway,” she waited for her copy of Ever Rain to download, “I was going to see if you wanted to play some Ever Rain with the BABY-X cheat.”
“Oooh!” Fingers snapped on his side. “Going right for the jugular. Count me in.”
Her bar hit one hundred percent and blinked to a selection screen. “Ready on my end. Let me know when---”
“I’m up, girl. Gimmie the code.”
Kell gave her goggles on final adjustment. “When the intro screen comes up, you hit B-A-B-Y-X three times and then press START.”
Deke cracked his knuckles. “BABY-X by three and START. Got it. Let’s do this.”
She loaded Ever Rain. “Starting it now. See you inside.”
Raindrops pattered on the dark pavement. Lightening flashed over head. Kell’s fingers flew over the controller, entering the code.
A delicate thunder
Blood like rain …
Then, the title surfaced from beneath the water gathering on the street:
“Whoa!” Deke again. “Did you see that?”
Kell adjusted her mic. “Yeah. Eternal.”
The silhouette emerged at the top of the street. His machete hug at his side.
“Damn,” Deke said. “There he is, man.”
As Scarecrow advanced on them, the rain came down with more intensity. The thunder clapped louder than before. The same old truck was parked along the street. Scarecrow stopped at its side and turned to it.
An explosion. One so powerful that it lifted the body of the pickup several feet off the ground. Its windshield and all windows blew out in a thousand points of light.
Kellerika shuffled back a few paces. “That was close.”
His steel-toed boots echoed off the pavement. Oiled jeans. An old plaid shirt with ivory buttons. Dried blood across the breast pockets. His face covered in a burlap sack. Nasal slits, a mouth hole, and eye holes. The same painted his eyes and mouth with clown makeup: blue on white and red on white. A rope tied taught around the sack at his neck.
He stopped a few paces from them. “You called down the thunder.” Scarecrow lifted his blade to the heavens like a demented archangel. A bright flash and deafening clap as a yellow bolt connected with his machete. Tiny bolts streaked all over his body. “Get ready to ride the lightening.”
As the killer strode past her on the screen, the hairs on Kellerika’s arms stood on end.
“Did you feel that?” Deke bordered on hysterics. “This is friggin’ crazy.”
The screen went black on her. “Yeah, I felt it, too.”
As the screen faded back up, they found themselves in a familiar basement.
“Wait.” Kell examined their familiar surroundings.
“No chairs.” Deke was right. This area was larger, more open.
Kell advanced toward the lone window on the far wall. “Be careful, Deke. Something’s off about this.”
She spun her field of view around. Deke had moved into a dark corner of the room.
“Kell.” His voice echoed off something. “Over here. I found something.”
She strode over to his side. Her foot bumped against something hard.
“An old coal stove, I think.” Deke fumbled around in the inky darkness.
“Quiet,” Kell said. “He can’t be far off.”
Deke picked up something small and shook it. “Where there’s a stove, there’s usually matches.”
She opened the door on a rusty set of hinges while Deke struck one. He pitched it inside where it flickered for a few seconds and burned out.
“Weird.” He struck another and bent down, extending inside the stove. “Jesus.”
The severed human head of a younger girl. Her once beautiful light brown skin had decomposed into a grotesque shade of yellow-gray. Her closed eyes sunken in their sockets. Lips drawn in an eternal indifferent smirk.
Kell knelt next to him. “The girl from Dubai.”
She righted her torso. “Nothing. Let’s get moving.”
“Ow!” Deke flung the match onto the crown of the disembodied head. The dried and half-rotten hair didn’t stand a chance. The girl’s black locks burst into flame, consuming most of the head in a flash.
Deke backed into her. “My god.”
Kellerika stood frozen as the drawn flesh on its face bulged and sizzled. “It’s gotta be him.”
“Him who?” Her pal pocketed the matchbox and tiptoed toward the steps.
“Not important.” Kell couldn’t pull herself from the horror in the stove. Its right eye bulged under the eyelid, and then popped with a hiss. Liquid white dripped to the bottom of the stove.
A shadow within the darkness drew her attention away at last. “We need to go. Now.”
She strode to the base of the steps and removed her shoes.
“Ah.” Deke followed suite. “That’s right. Good call.”
Kell halted him from advancing upward. “Just a sec.” Her gaze surveyed the floorboards overhead. Still motionless. “Okay. One step at a time.”
One stair, then another. Good thus far. They made the turn at the landing. A cracked door awaited them at the top.
“Wait.” Something found its way to Kell’s ears. “There’s more than one up there.”
“You tellin’ me there’s two Scarecrows?”
Kell moved up another step. Multiple footfalls creaked on distant floors. “Maybe.”
She led them to the door to the main floor. The footsteps were louder, but still farther off. “Sounds like they’re on the second floor.”
“We’ve gotta get out to the barn around back,” Deke said. “That’s the way into the next chapter.”
Kell pushed the door open a bit more. Still no motion nearby. “Looks like a clear shot to the front.”
Deke moved to the lead. “Stay close and don’t make as sound.”
She waited as he glanced one way and then the other. Deke bolted across the main floor. “Shit.” Kellerika had to take large strides to catch up.
Deke rattled the doorknob. “It’s locked.”
“Where’s the key?”
His eyes scouted the higher level behind her head. “No idea.”
“What?” She glanced into the kitchen area where the killer liked to hover. Nothing.
Deke searched around a small table along the wall by the door. “This door’s always unlocked when I play it.”
She joined him. “Then, where’s the key on this level?”
Deke stopped to think. “Programmers put the items with the biggest payoff behind the most NPCs.”
Their gazes drifted up to the second floor.
“Gotta be up there somewhere,” Deke said.
Kell jogged into the kitchen.
“What?” Deke trailed after her.
She turned wielding a large knife and tossed him a wooden rolling pin. He gave it an odd look.
Kell patted his arm on the way by. “Better than nothing.” She started up the main stairs. “Let’s find that key.”
He tailed after her. “Yeah, but a damn rolling pin?”
They made their way upward past dangling pieces of drywall and sections with obvious hatchet holes. Two sets of footsteps. Right around the top corner from them. Kell glanced to Deke and readied her knife.
A katana blade sank into the corner right above Kellerika’s head. An angry youth let loose a loud battle cry. Black hair. Brown eyes.
“It’s hit the fan now.” Deke swung around her hip and bashed the Japanese teen’s cheek in with his makeshift club. One blow. “Take that, bitch.” And another. “Just fuckin’ die!”
Their assailant jerked his sword free and took a swat at Deke.
“Damn!” Deke grabbed at his left bicep.
The deranged man raised his weapon overhead for a death shot.
“Not today.” Kell plunged her blade deep into his temple, sending the boy to his knees.
The katana fell from his blackened hand. He looked up to her. Nines had been scorched into the whites of both eyes. He crumpled over onto his side as another of the Scarecrow’s slaves bounded out of a room at the end of the hall. The teen charged them, shouting something that sounded German. He swung his studded bat at Kell’s head. She ducked as the swat connect with the shiplap next to her. Kell swept the kid’s closer leg, dropping him to a knee.
“Lights out.” Deke brought the katana down full force. It split the kid’s light blond hair and melon like butter. He tugged it free and looked to her befuddled face. “I upgraded.” His eyes lowered to the nail-studded bat. “Grab that.”
Kellerika stabbed the knife into the German kid’s back and took her new weapon. Two more boys hustled into the hallway to challenge them. She knew the one on her side from the encounter in his room. “Matt?”
He ignored her and charged full force, completely unarmed. In the instant Kell hesitated, Matt took her by the throat and pinned her to the wall. Dark bangs fell over his solid black eyes. The added weight on his thumbs pushed on her Adam’s apple constricting her windpipe. Kell’s self-defense training kicked in. Her right foot flew up and connected with his groin. Matt curled to one side, relinquishing his death grip. Kellerika brought her club down with both hands, making solid contact with the side of his face. Matt grunted and fell to the floor. She swung over and over, ripping more blackened flesh from his head with each upswing. Deke had taken care of his opponent via decapitation. Short and sweet. Bodies and gore littered the upper level.
Deke ran into one of the bedrooms. “Let’s get that key and go.”
She went to the room on the other side of the hall. The décor suggested that this bedroom had once belonged to a little girl. A carousel music box. Light pink wallpaper and a matching comforter. Kell searched the drawers of the white nightstand. A few sketches of horses, stick people, and rainbows, but no key. “Any luck?”
Things hit the floor across the hallway. “Nope,” Deke said.
A hushed chuckle from everywhere and nowhere at once. “Having trouble?”
“Scarecrow.” Deke came out into the hall.
The voice continued. “You have to get ahead if you wanna get out.”
Kell sat her club on a shoulder and met Deke in the hall. “Now, he’s fucking with us.”
A louder laugh. “Come get me, my little rats!”
“No.” Deke made his way back to the stairs. “He is playin’ with us, but he wants to confront us.”
She caught up. “A hint?”
“I think I know.” He took off downstairs. “Come with me.”
Kell followed him to the main floor and back down into the basement.
He trotted to the stove and pulled out his matchbox. “I’ll hold the match for you.”
She looked at the charred and melted skull and back to Deke. “What do you expect me to do?”
He plucked a match from the box. “I’d bet anything the key’s in her head.”
“Oh, hell, Deke.”
His desperate eyes found hers. “You’ve gotta. I’ll yack if I do it.”
“God damn it.” She crouched down. “Waiting on you.”
Deke struck his match and held it in the stove. Kell moved both hands toward the skull. Cold stiff flesh. Her fingers pried the mouth open. There, resting on its grayed tongue, was a small brass key.
“Oh, god. Oh, god.” Kell held it open with her left while she fished the treasure with her right. “Whew.” She stood up pinching the key between a finger and thumb.
“Not dipshits after all!” The torched skull reanimated one last time. “I’ll have to make the next stretch that much harder. I have nothing but time.”
The skull hissed and expanded.
“Get back!” Kellerika slammed the iron door shut and ducked behind the back of the stove. The head blew apart inside with such force that chunks of bone got lodged in the rear wall of the coal burner.
“C’mon.” Deke charged back upstairs. “We’ve gotta get to the next stage.”
Kell ran to the front door and turned the key in the lock. “Who’s ever heard of a lock on the inside?”
Deke rushed through the open door. “Old fashioned mechanisms. Turnkey from both sides.”
She joined him out in the front yard. “Dumb.”
He searched the area, getting his bearings. “There.” Deke took off around the far corner of the house into the back yard.
Fifty yards off in the misty darkness stood a rickety old barn. Its front façade looked like the crooked teeth of the aged farmer that might have owned it. A rope swayed in a light breeze from the second-level hay loft.
“It’s in there.” Deke trotted toward the structure. “Let’s go.”
As the duo ran across the backyard, another lanky teen materialized. His astounded face took in its new surroundings. He touched his arms and chest uncertain if he’d really made it.
Kellerika slid to a halt and readied herself for another fight. “What’s going on?”
Deke stopped and turned. “How’d we get into MMO mode?”
The boy jogged to join them. “Who are you guys? What’s all this?”
Kell clapped her hands in front of the newcomer’s lowered gaze. “The code. BABY-X. Did you use it?”
He looked to her. “Yeah. Found it in a forum.”
Deke shook his hand. “I’m Deke. This is Kell.”
The newbie’s eyes widened. “Oh, shit.”
She knew that voice. “Evan?”
The lanky blond kid nodded.
“God.” She took him by a forearm and ran for the barn. “Come with us, and stay low.”
“You chose an Asian girl?” Evan sounded shocked.
Kell tugged on his hand. “Not the time.”
Inside the barn, she found an old tractor, some bailing equipment, and a platform on a pulley system for the hay. Kellerika turned to Deke. “What now?”
“In the basic version,” Deke went to a stall in the back of the barn, “it was under some…” He kicked away some dirt and hay. “Bingo.”
Kell and Evan joined him. Deke tugged on the metal trapdoor. They helped him swing it open and push it against the wall.
It looked like nothing beyond a deep hole in the ground to Kell. “Where does it lead?”
Deke sat on the lip of the hole. “It’s a tunnel that leads into the forest.” He dropped inside.
Kell motioned for Evan to go next. “What’s in the forest?”
Deke’s muffled voice drifted up to her. “Don’t know. Haven’t beat that level.”
She knelt next to the hole. “Hold on!” Something flashed in her field of vision: Level completed! Items found: 1. Grade: D. She stood. “Let’s all save our progress and regroup. We need a plan.”