I made it to Smokey Tom's home after a brief detour, a deserted alley much further away from the safer center of Downtown than I would normally be willing to go. The light here on the outskirts seemed colder somehow, and the normal stink of the city had an underlying hint of formaldehyde. I peered into the darkness, but couldn't see any further than the mouth of the alley. "Tom? You here? I need to talk to you."
My call received no reply, so I took a couple steps into the alley and inhaled deeply, catching a whiff of garbage, urine, and lingering cigarette smoke. I coughed briefly, then called again. "Tom, I know you're there, I am not leaving until you come out and talk."
"I ain't got nothin' to say to you Jake." Responded a voice from the depths of the alley. I stood my ground as I heard the strike of a match and a small flame appeared in the darkness. Smokey Tom emerged from the darkness, dimly lit by the cigarette held firmly in his non-existent lips, the human outline of his semi-transparent body floating a couple feet above the ground. "I got enough trouble without you poking your nose where it don't belong."
Before he had become a ghost, Tom had been an unextraordinary middle class man with a small family, a good job, and a penchant for chain smoking. He had succumbed to lung cancer at a fairly young age, but instead of crossing over to wherever souls are supposed to go, his ghostly form had manifested in the remaining smoke of the last cigarette he had snuck against doctor's orders. Ironically, the habit that had caused his death was what ended up sustaining his presence in the afterlife. Due to the fact that his body was composed of actual smoke rather than pure spirit, Tom was able to manipulate physical objects much better than an average lingering spirit which made him invaluable in a variety of tasks of sensitive nature. As lingering spirits go, he was also fairly sociable if you caught him at a good time. Apparently I hadn't.
"Tom, I know you've got some information on these robberies. Spill."
Tom shook his head, cigarette leaving a glowing trail through the air. "I mean it this time Jake, can't help you."
"You sure?" I pulled a wooden box from inside my sweatshirt and pulled of the lid. "I just picked these up, I'd hate for them to go to waste."
Tom leaned over the cigar box and inhaled, causing the smoke in his body to swirl wildly. "Are those...Cubans?"
I nodded and replaced the lid. "Yep, direct from the source. I was going to share them since I am not really a fan. Just a gift between friends who happened to like to chat about current events."
Tom's phantom eyes glinted as he stared at the box, and I thought I had him, but then he leaned back and firmly crossed his arms in a very djinn-like gesture. "Nope. can't do it. Too many big players in this one, I am staying out of it."
I frowned. For Tom to pass up Cuban cigars it would literally have to be a mater of life and death. Or death and more death in his case. I hated to lean on the guy, but I had to find out what I was up against. "That's a pity, cause I heard that the Whispering Walls have gotten a hold of some information as well, and I'd bet they'd be willing to trade it to me for your current location and a high powered air purifier."
Tom's eyes widened. "You wouldn't dare."
I smiled. "Tom, think about everything you've ever heard about me, and then ask yourself if I would sell you out for some information that might save my own hide." It was a bluff of course, but there were times when having my reputation came in handy. For some reason, the people who dealt in rumors always seemed to be the most eager to believe them.
I watched Tom struggle to think until he gave a weary sigh and said, "Ok, but you didn't hear it from me, y'hear?"
I nodded and passed Tom one of the cigars. He took a long drag on his cigarette, burning it to the filter, then flicked it away and lit the cigar, taking a couple pulls before speaking. "Ok boyo, here's what I've got so far. You've probably already heard that some hooligan has been making a nuisance of themselves by creating a Gateway into impenetrable top secret so-and-so, and then disappearing before the 'keepers show up."
"Yeah, I am up to date on that part, what else have you got?"
Tom's eyes tinkle as he took a pull on the cigar and leaned close so he could whisper. "The Gateways? Not Gateways."
The cigar smoke made my eyes water, but I waved it away and said, "Not Gateways? What's that supposed to mean?"
"They're not spell based. The reason that the Gatekeepers haven't showed up to catch this guy is that they don't detect it. Period. They have to wait until they finally get word that something's been stolen and by that point the guy is long gone."
That was certainly significant. Gateways required enough magical energy to penetrate realities that the creation of one generated the equivalent of a magical sonic boom that could be felt across the globe by anyone with enough awareness. If this thief had found a way around that particular issue, the resulting chaos would be staggering if it fell into the wrong hands. As it was, even the possibility of such a thing would be enough to bring every Exile on Earth out of hiding. No wonder Norm was looking into this himself. "Thanks Tom, do you have anything else?"
"Nothin I can confirm." Tom picked up the box of cigars and started to fade back into the alley, but paused and fixed me with his ghostly gaze. "I want to impress upon you the significance of what you're after. This is the key to get off this rock for a great number of creatures who will not hesitate to kill you to get what you want. I believe you're a good man Jake Williams, no matter what they say about you. Take my advice, let this one go." He nodded once, then drifted back into the alley, the light of his cigar getting fainter and fainter before it finally disappeared in the darkness.
I watched him disappear, then shivered, for once not because I was cold. The earth was a temporary home to a great number of creatures who were not there by choice. Some had been relocated by mischance, but the vast majority had been sent to earth for the unforgivable crimes they had committed, forced to live out their sentence far away from their own realities, where they wouldn't be able to do any harm. At least, that was the plan long ago before humanity had begun to spread across the world, taking up every nook and cranny they could find, and inevitably running into the prisoners that had been left behind. The majority of the exiled creatures had died, been driven off, or had learned to coexist with humans, after all, we outnumbered them, but they had left their mark. Our most colorful myths, the boogeyman, the banshee, the abomidable snowman, every strange and terrifying creature in human mythology had a root in the unwilling travelers from other realities.
Eventually, a group of humans began to gather the lore and artifacts left behind by the travelers, passing down the information from generation to generation and accumulating this knowledge in order to protect humanity. This group would eventually become known as the Gatekeepers. The Gatekeepers only mission is to fight that which seeks to harm humans, killing what they can kill, and imprisoning the rest. However, even the Gatekeepers have limitations. Due to its location in the current dimensional structure, the Earth is a perfect place to create Gateways to, but almost impossible to create Gateways out of. This makes it a perfect prison, a one way ticket to nowhere, or that was the theory at least. If there was a way to travel back to their home dimensions, there would be any number of beings that would kill to get their hands on that information. And none of them liked to play nice.
I zipped up my sports jacket as another chill ran through me, then turned into the Void and went home.
I arrived in chaos, loud klaxons whined from the ceiling and red and white spinning strobe lights flashed across the wall. "Demi!" I yelled into the apartment. "What the hell is going on?"
The elf ran past me from the hallway, hair flying wildly behind him as he bounced from wall to wall, pulling out lights as he ran. Eventually he managed to silence the last siren, and turned to me sheepishly. "Hey Jake, turns out the early warning system works."
"Early warning system? Early warning of what?"
Demi was saved the trouble of answering as our door suddenly disintegrated into powder and a group of teenagers with multicolored hair swept in wielding a full array of submachine guns which they pointed at us menacingly. Demi's hand started towards one of the buttons on his jacket that would tell the security system to turn the intruders into pulp, but I put a hand on his arm and smirked. The Chaos Kids were a notoriously small time group of magical terrorists dedicated to the resurrection of the goddess Eris as the sole diety reigning over Earth. They might have made some progress if they hadn't repeatedly broken up and reformed in the name of continuous entropy, or if they could agree on a leader or some semblance of organization. I happened to know that Eris had retired from messing with the universe on a grand scale, and now lived on her own private island in the pacific where she amused herself by disturbing the ocean and wind currents just enough to make weather forecasters look ridiculous, and she had no desire to be removed from her comfortable lifestyle. Unfortunately, her followers hadn't quite gotten the message yet.
"Give us the Gateway device!" One of the Kids yelled, waving his gun at us.
"What Gateway device?" I asked, discreetly gesturing at Demi to relax. The Kid who had spoken blinked in confusion, and turned to one of his companions who shrugged and turned to look at yet another in the group. I rolled my eyes as the Kids huddled together and began arguing amongst themselves, wildly gesturing and yelling as they tried to figure out who was going to speak. Finally one of the group stepped out and declared: "We know you have the device, you were talking about it earlier and we know of your strange powers. Now, hand it over or we will take it from you by force." To emphasise his point he pointed his gun at the wall and let out a short burst, riddling the apartment with bullet holes.
Now, I am not a fan of being threatened with violence, and even less of a fan of people ruining my stuff. "Demi, activate the security system, make sure they can 't leave." Demi's footsteps started down the hall as I took off my jacket and tossed it on the couch, then grinned at the Chaos Kids and began walking towards them.
The Kids opened up fire immediately, the bullets ripped through the air and hit my shirt, then disappeared in a flash as they hit the Void that surrounded my body. Bullet holes riddled my t-shirt, but I continued forward easily, ignoring the cold that began to spread over my chest. Most of the Kids' guns clicked empty and they turned to run, only to slam into the force filed that Demi had dropped over the apartment door. The majority of the kids stood up against the field, trying to back away from me as much as possible, except for the one who had spoken. He reloaded his gun with quick, precise motions and unloaded a second clip at me, this time aiming point blank at my head. The bullets crossed the distance instantly and disappeared before I could even blink, and I walked right up to the point his gun was pressed against my forehead, and then I kept going, the gunbarrel slowly sinking into my skin.
The gunman's eyes widened, and he jerked back quickly, hand clasping the remaining half of the gun he had been holding. I pulled the Void back into myself and grabbed him by the collar. "You and I are going to have some words." I whispered to him. I raised my voice and shouted, "Demi! You can drop the field now." There was a loud thump as the group of Kids at the door fell into suddenly empty space, and a mad scramble as they fell over each over trying to run down the hall. Demi exited his room holding a small silver gun that was connected by a cord to a pack on his back and trained it on the remaining intruder. I nodded to him and pushed the now lone gunman against the wall. "Now, I get very cranky when people shoot up my stuff, and I am having a bad day, so I am going to give you one chance to tell me why you're here, and if you're not convincing enough my roommate is going to do a demonstration of what a high powered laser does to human flesh."
The gunman's eyes flicked to Demi and then back to me. "We were just supposed to recover something called the Gateway device. You were supposed to have it and not put up much of a fight. That's all I was told."
"Who told you that?" Demi asked.
The gunman didn't look at him. "I can not tell you that. I swore to keep it a secret."
"You swore? Or you Swore?" I asked emphasizing the word the second time.
The gunman blinked but didn't answer me. I sighed and released his coat. "Go, tell her I'll be in touch."
The gunman left in a hurry and I turned to Demi and shook my head. "I think we're in trouble."
Demi nodded. "There's no way they should have been able to get through my security. I don't know what happened."
"I am not concerned with them, the Chaos Kids are not anything to worry about compared to what we might be getting." I filled Demi in on what I had heard during the day, watching his eyes widen as I told him what I had learned.
When I was done Demi gave a low whistle. "So someone's discovered a way to Gate off of Earth? That would explain a lot about what I ran into today. I was running through some of the higher security files I could find on the break ins, and there were mentions of a field being generated which interrupted the Earth's natural gravitational and magnetic pull briefly which coincided with the robberies."
I shrugged, not following what he was trying to say. "So?"
Demi started twitching with excitement. "So we know that the Gate wasn't generated with any spell known to man, otherwise the Gatekeepers would have picked up on it, and we know that the Chaos Kids were looking for something that allowed people to make Gates, Jake, I think someone may have invented a way to create Gates without using magic at all."
I winced. "And people think we have it? That's just fantastic."
Demi frowned. "Yeah, I didn't think about that."
I picked up my jacket from the couch. "I've got to go talk to someone about this, are you going to be ok while I am gone?"
Demi smirked. "Please, give me some credit. The front door may be gone, but there's more than enough surprises wired into this place to stop anyone from coming in further. Remember, you may be a super powerful, untouchable force of nature, but I am an immortal elf with unlimited spending money and an arsenal of weapons that would make most third world countries jealous. I'll be just fine."
I smirked again. "Good, then you can get someone to replace the door while I am gone."
It was pretty standard, as far as private tropical islands went. A gentle breeze blew across a white sand beach, and palm trees swayed in the background. On the highest point of the island sat a large house, built of unprocessed logs sunk directly into the side of the volcanic rock. I didn't have to look long to spot the figure of a woman sitting on the beach, at the edge of the water line. I started toward her, grimacing as sand kicked up behind me and slipped into my tennis shoes. I walked up beside her and plopped down ungracefully on the beach, pulling off my shoes and dumping the invading sand out.
The woman turned to look at me with mismatched eyes, one gold, one blue. She had on simple sundress and her dark hair was pulled behind her in a simple ponytail. With her flawless complexion and toned body she could have passed for a model, but her appearance could do nothing to disguise the raw power that radiated off her presence. Just by sitting next to her I could feel the ebb and flow of the magic that she let leak into the ocean, bringing up tropical storms, hurricanes, earthquakes, tidal waves. It was her very nature to cause chaos, and because of her nature she had been thrown out of the world of Olympus, sent to Earth where her magic wouldn't be able to cause any disruption in her own dimension.
"So my apartment was shot up today. I thought you'd be interested to know that."
"I know." Eris responded. "I expected you to be here faster. Did they give you more trouble than I expected?"
"I had to take the long way around getting here, the weather was horrible."
Eris' lips smiled softly and she turned back to the ocean. "I trust they got my message to you?"
"They said that you wanted something called a Gateway device. They also broke through our wards without any trouble, which makes me think that they had help of some major magic. So why'd you have those kids shoot up my apartment? I never thought we were friends necessarily, but what did I do to piss you off?"
"You were overheard talking about the Gate device. I have heard the stories about you Jake, and I want to make it very clear that I would do anything to get my hands on a device that could take me back home. Consider the earlier visit a warning. I can get to you if I want, and I will not allow you to hold onto the key to taking me back home."
I scoffed. "If I had a device that allowed me to travel, I'd give it to you in a second. I am not suicidal enough to hold onto something that would guarantee that every single Exile on Earth would be gunning for me."
Eris narrowed her eyes. "You're saying you don't have it?"
I shook my head. "You could say I am interested in recovering it, but not by my own choice. Believe me, I've had the ability to Travel for long enough that if I could help you get home I would." I looked around. "You seem to have a pretty nice set up here, why would you want to leave?"
"You don't know what it's like, none of you humans do. To be exiled from your home for one mistake, just for a joke. I started one war, on accident mind you, and they had me thrown out, never to return home." Eris traced the sand idly with her finger. "I had a family back there you know? Not like the myths that you made up about those of us who got exiled. A real family who I haven't seen in thousands of years. How fair is that?"
"Hey, my parents think I am dead, I think that I have you beat on the unfairness front. Plus it's not like I can ever go back home, not with the Gatekeepers looking to kill me the instant I pop up."
Eris nodded. "I have heard of your troubles with the Keepers. I have heard many stories about how those troubles started, all of them terrible. How exactly did your own exile start?"
It was my turn to stare at the ocean as it rolled in towards us. "When I first learned about my abilities the Gatekeepers recruited me as their secret weapon against the evils, their term, not mine, that were plaguing humanity. I didn't really care as much about helping them as being a part of something bigger than myself. They tried to use my abilities to transfer a group of Gatekeeper agents between dimensions, to 'strike a blow for humanity' or some nonsense. Anyway, turns out my abilities don't exactly protect anything from the Void aside from myself. I lost all of the agents. All of my closest friends. I managed to pull Norm out of the Void barely alive, and he let me escape before the Gatekeepers came after me. I've been hiding from them ever since."
I felt Eris' hand rest on top of mine. The touch almost painful as her power came in contact with my skin, trying to reshape it by instinct, but I welcomed the small show of compassion from the goddess. "Exiles together then." She said softly.
I glanced at her and gently pulled my hand away and discreetly checked it for extra fingers. "I am sorry you can not go home."
"I am sorry I ruined your apartment."
I sniffed. "It could've been worse I suppose. We'll just say you owe me one. Unfortunately I can not stick around and chat, but I have to go and find this thing or my ass is toast."
Eris waved a hand dismissively at me. I walked a short distance away from her and turned to the Void, leaving the goddess sitting alone on her beach in the middle of the ocean.
The apartment was in surprisingly worse shape when I arrived back than when I had left. The sofa had been turned on its end and wedged into the doorway, blocking the hole left by the door. Someone had also taped a long roll of wrapping paper to the wall, covering up where the bullet holes had passed through.
The elf came into the room and yawned as he brushed his hair out of his eyes. "Hey Jake, what's up?"
"What is this?" I gestured at the sofa and the wall.
"Well, I couldn't find anything else that would fit in the door for the time being, so it's a sofa door."
"How are we supposed to get out exactly?"
"The new door will be here soon enough. And what do you care? You don't even use the door."
His statement did have a certain logic to it, but I wasn't giving up. "Demi, you can not use furniture that we sit on for the door. It's the principle of the thing."
Demi rolled his eyes and I gestured at the wrapping paper. "And what's that?"
"I believe humans call that wallpaper, no?"
"No, Demi, no." I shook my head. "Listen, just, put a poster up there or something and I'll get some Spackel for it when I have some time."
Demi started pulling down the wrapping paper. "So, posters are wall paper, but normal paper is not?"
"Demi, posters are more like, wall decor, whereas wall paper..." I trailed off and shook my head. "Look, it's not important right now. Just...leave it for the time being and I'll explain later." I was tired and wanted to lie down on the couch and take a nap, but upon remembering the current location of the couch I settled for the recliner. I sat down and pulled the chair back into a reclined position when the cell phone in my pocket began to ring. I snarled and dug it out of my pocket, answering it in the process. "What?"
"Lock and load Jake, I just got word from the Mountain, something's inside a high sec facility in Arizona , and it's not a scheduled visit." Norm's voice was crisp and calm, the perfect commander issuing orders. "It's showtime, get down there and catch me a bad guy. I'll have this phone on me, keep in touch."
I growled back in reply and hung up on him. Demi gave me a questioning glance as I climbed out of the recliner. "Hey Demi, looks like we've got a bite, do you have coordinates for a top secret government facility in Arizona?"
Demi blinked. "Of course. Which one are you looking for? There's quite a few.."
"Oh," I responded stupidly. The phone beeped with an incoming text message. I pulled up the message and found a set of geographical coordinates.
I passed the phone to Demi who looked at it and nodded. "Yeah, I know that one, give me five minutes and I'll have you ready to go."
I stood outside the chain link fence, shivering as I looked at the darkened building Norm's coordinates had directed me to. I pulled the microphone attached to my headset close to my mouth and whispered hoarsely. "You couldn't get me any closer to the actual facility?"
Demi's voice crackled over the headset. "Chill dude. You needed a picture and a location, that's the closest image I could pull off the satellite maps, everything closer is blacked out."
"It's freezing out here." I forced the words out, trying to keep my teeth from chattering.
"Don't worry about it, my equipment is specced to withstand close to subzero temperatures." Demi assured me.
"Yeah, but my ass is not." I responded.
"Oh, I hadn't considered that."
I gritted my teeth and hoisted my small pack higher on my back. I extended my finger towards the fence, concentrating on pulling the Void around my finger, then stuck my finger into the fence and traced an outline of my body. The fence fell away neatly, and I squeezed through carefully, though I still managed to catch my pack on one of the edges. I pulled it loose from the fence, swearing under my breath, then took off for the building.
I ran across the open field to the side of the building, and glanced inside the first window I could find. Behind the window was a dark hallway, and fortunately for me, it appeared to be completely deserted. I took a deep breath and closed my eyes, focusing on traveling just far enough to clear the wall. In the past, I had not been able to accurately Travel over short distances, and had ended up being stuck inside of objects for quite unpleasant amounts of time. Fortunately, my stint with the Gatekeepers had drastically increase my control over my abilities. Even so, I took several minutes upon entering the Void to focus and clear my thoughts. My reentry had to be absolutely perfect.
I arrived in the hall with my nose an inch from the wall. I jerked back out of reflex and ended up falling on my rear end in the middle of the hallway with a loud thud.
"Jake, you ok? What was that sound?" Demi's vioce whispered in my ear.
"I am fine, just knocked over a box." I lied. "Where am I going from here?"
"I am not sure, to be honest. I have a floorplan of the building but nothing on it is labelled. Did Norm give you any directions?"
"Nothing useful." I responded. The cell phone buzzed in my pocket again and I pulled it out to look at the new text message. "Speak of the devil." I muttered. "Demi, I just got a message from Norm, he says that the intruder is on on the third basement level."
Demi was silent for a moment. "Jake, do you think he can hear us?"
"I wouldn't put it past him, but just in case he can, did you hear the one about Norm being so dumb that he thought Eenie, Meenie, Miney, Mo, were the names of the Three Stooges?"
Demi snorted. "Head down the hall you're in and take a left, it should get you to a stariway. And no, I didn't hear that one, but I did hear that Norm is so ugly that when he walks by a group of trolls they puke just from the sight of him."
I slowly made my way down to the third level, trading quiet insults about Norm which grew more colorful and offensive as I got closer to the floor the intruder was supposedly on. I made it to the third level and reached out to the boor handle, then paused.
"Jake, are you ok? It looks like you stopped moving."
"I am ok Demi, just being cautious." I wiped my sweaty palms on my pants and grabbed the door handle tightly. "I can do this." I whispered to myself, and pushed the door open, diving through the opening.
I rolled to my feet surprisingly smoothly and scanned the empty hallway for any signs of the intruder. After confirming that I was alone I started my way down the hallway, hugging the wall closely. The first room I came to was a medical lab, several of the file cabinets hung open, locks broken off by pure force. Papers laid scattered around the room, but no other signs of life showed in the room. I continued down the hall, the next room looked much the same as the first, but the clutter took up much more of the room, and the lab tables had been overturned and lay haphazardly against the walls. I made my way to the third room and paused as I heard sounds from inside. I peaked through the window set in the door and saw a small room containing several computers. The computers appeared to be running, lines of text scrolled quickly across the screen, the room itself was dark aside from the light cast by the monitors, but light spilled out from a crack under a door in the back of the room. I leaned the door and was surprised as the door easily slid open without a sound. I glanced at the door jamb and saw that the door had been smashed in from the outside, the inside of the jamb a combination of the twisted remenants of the lock and splintered wood. I eased my way into the room and froze as there was a crash from the next room. I stood still against the corner of the room and whispered, "Demi, I think I found him, are you picking up anything?"
Demi's response came in full of static. "I am getting almost nothing Jake, just some really strange readings. I think something is interfering, I'll see if I can override it..."
The headset squealed with feedback and I yanked it from my ear with a wince. There were thunderous footsteps from the next room and the door suddenly flew open, framing a huge hulking figure in a halo of light spilling out from the room beyond.