Summary: Sebastian Ward returns home from a trip around the world to discover his family's involvement with dark, supernatural forces, and their sinister relation to children's shows. With newfound allies and mysterious enemies, he must face a covert world of esoteric puberty and insidious secrets.
Notes: This work is a sequel to my previous work, Juvenalia. You do not have to read it in order to understand what's going on, but if you enjoy this, I recommend checking that out.
The Crystal Sisters
The Long Walk Home
It was fortunate Sebastian "Ian" Ward arrived armed at Uncle Richie's house, fresh from an international hunting trip. The shuttle driver left him at the entrance of that sprawling country estate, with his bag and rifle case in hand. While heavy, he found it a welcome exercise after sitting on the plane for half a day. He'd been to the Delmarva manor before, a Victorian mansion perched above the Chesapeake. He thought of his uncle, now the manager of a cartoon studio he'd watched on the long flight, the well-produced Stanley Cosmos.
Every time Sebastian visited, he felt something off. Even in youth, he recalled Richie's wide, irregular gait, or the hyper-excited way he introduced the family to his latest date. His parents awkwardly made conversation with him, while he and his cousins played in the woods around the mansion. He fondly remembered those long-ago games of tag and hide-and-seek, the hurried games of lawn-darts in the backyard, or the twilight water-gun wars they waged before their parents left. He remembered summer swims at the dock, the short fishing pier that extended into the water. For all his idiosyncratic traits, Richie had the most interesting family reunions.
As his cousins matured and moved around the world, only his memories remained. Sebastian was thinking about Uncle Richie when he got the invitation. His parents were out of the country on business, so he cautiously accepted it. His uncle said he was alright, having been working as an executive for an animation studio. Having not been there in a decade, he was curious how it had changed, if at all. As he recalled the fates of his cousins, not all of them had changed for the better. He counted himself lucky in multiple ways, not the least of which was his chance to travel frequently.
Sebastian walked up the rock-strewn driveway, listening to the wind-rustled leaves and distant lapping of waves. His mind still thought in kilometers, and how the nearest other properties were at least dozens away. He expected to hear the calling of birds and buzzing of insects, like those that stirred in his remembered summers. Their absence would have caused him to call for a ride to civilization, had his phone any connectivity. He found it curious why his uncle, a large technophile, had such poor reception. The rest of the family knew he would be here, so he hoped not to startle anyone. His hand began sliding towards the locked rifle container, and the weapon within. He stopped himself as he approached the front door.
"Uncle Richie?" he asked, calling no louder than normal. Part of him feared drawing attention.
Sebastian trudged up the final fifty meters of driveway to see the mansion. It was a two-story white Victorian structure, with a wrap-around veranda. A single tower with a black gambrel roof dominated the structure, rising above the trees like a lighthouse over an arboreal sea. The attached garage, a recent addition to the structure, was opened. He didn't see Uncle Richie's sports car or motorcycle, but he saw the rusty old wood-chipper and ride-on mower. As his eyes drifted, he saw vehicles he did not recognize. He knew none of them would belong to his idiosyncratic uncle.
Alongside the house, Sebastian saw a black SUV and a utility van. Both vehicles' doors were opened, and fresh footprints issued forth from each. They were heavy boot-prints, pressed deep into the sandy ground. There was something unmistakably martial about their precise order and gait, something that dredged up uncomfortable memories. Before he could consciously process it, he found himself retrieving his Winchester 1895. He had no ammunition, but that did not mean he was defenseless. They headed up to the side door, which barely hung from his hinges. He slipped on the bayonet, with which he'd used to quickly euthanize wounded animals, and pointed the weapon towards the tracks.
Sebastian would have stepped forwards, shouting as loud as he could. It worked against the poachers that ambushed his old park ranger comrades, former military veterans. When outgunned and outmanned, he wanted to attack with as much ruckus and flair as he could. Leaving was no longer an option, as they'd figure out he was here soon enough. He would not die being shot in the back. He worked himself up, remembering his double degrees in History and Ecology from Miskatonic University. He steeled himself for a charge through the front door, which would have sent Cimmerian berserkers running.
Sebastian never got the chance. Instead, thick and heavy hands snaked around his mouth. "Not a sound, Mr. Ward," came a half-whispered voice. "Not a sound if you want to live."
Unknown to Sebastian, he'd been watched since he arrived. Cyrus Black laid motionless on the ground in a ghillie suit, observing the mansion since sunrise. Thanks to his camouflage and face-mask, he vanished into the underbrush along the hillside. His suit contained bug-repellant coatings, and a breathing-powered pump of his own design that circulated water to cool him in the fetid weather. With his augmented reality goggles and integrated microprocessor, he could remain still for hours.
Cyrus' superior told that Richard Ward would have several guests, one invited and the rest not. Accessing their mark's email for the last few months had clued them into Sebastian's visit, and his less wholesome activities. He suspected that Richard's other associates knew of his nephew's impending visit, and hoped to either accomplish their goals beforehand, or to capture them both at once.
Cyrus already figured the hardest part would be convincing Sebastian of his helpful intent. Sneaking up in the woods behind him and yanking him down into the underbrush was the most awkward introduction he'd made. Given what he'd looked up on Sebastian, he was more than capable of making noise if he wanted to. However, he remained silent, with his eyes fixed on his uncle's house.
Cyrus hoped Sebastian was smart enough to recognize the real enemy. His own recruitment was not as jarring, but it was unexpected. At the end of his post-doc, Cyrus received an email from a strange company called Hodgson Strategic Consulting, a consulting firm that specialized in "unconventional risk management." It was the largest, and only, name in the dead-end town Pennsylvania town of New Canterbury. With the alternative being dead end assistant faculty jobs, it was a decision he eagerly assented to.
Cyrus recalled his first look at Sebastian, as he trudged up the driveway. He was a tall, narrow frame with a hawk-like noise, unruly brown hair, and freckled skin from years under the sun. A brown leather bomber jacket was tied around his waist, and he hoisted a heavy hiker's bag as though it was a light load. He turned around curiously, as if noticing something. Cyrus momentarily thought he'd seen through his high-tech disguise. Instead, he continued up the hill, while the facial recognition in his goggles identified him. Pulled against his own body, though, he was like a beaver grasped by a bear. He began to struggle, before the gunshots sounded.
Two men in dark blue shirts sprinted out the side door, guns blazing in their hands. Screaming, they poured lead through the door, sending a hail of brass casings jingling along the ground. The flash of blue light blinded Cyrus for a moment, and when he saw the gunmen, one was impaled by a blue tendril issuing forth from the door. The gunman staggered for a moment like a punch-drunk boxer, before he was pulled into the house. The other gunman dropped his empty weapon and sprinted to the nearby van.
Cyrus almost hoped he drove off, as it would've made their job a bit easier. The fleeing gunman pressed his boot against the floor of the car, but he never pulled himself in. Instead, his body limply fell backwards. An arrow shaft protruded from his neck, expertly placed between his vertebrae. He held his breath, as though the unseen archer would execute him next. Morbidly curious, he zoomed in with his goggles. Another man walked out from behind the house.
Cyrus saw a man with a body as sharp and lean as a stiletto. He wore armored plates on his front and back, and he carried a compound bow in hand. His shaved head was almost entirely hairless, save his eyebrows and a small goatee beneath his lips. A scowl marched across his face as he raised a handheld radio to his mouth. Cyrus turned his laser microphone towards the windshield of the nearby cars.
"Lost Boys," he said. "I just executed a coward. Hold your positions! Follow orders, or else."
Cyrus saw his facial recognition software return with a name: Arnold Reich. His curiosity was banished by his survival urges, as he realized he loosened his grip on Sebastian. The wiry young man wriggled free, interposing his rifle in between himself and his former captor. Cyrus did not stop Sebastian. At worst, he'd be a distraction for Arnold and his Lost Boys. He waited a moment for Sebastian to react.
Sebastian laid prone on the ground, crawling along his elbows and knees. He first thought he broke the grapple, but he saw the strong, thick hands leave him. The large man let him go, especially after seeing the strange archer execute his own man. Instinct kept him low and quiet, where they'd be less likely to see him. He carefully looked behind him, at the man who grabbed him.
Sebastian would have gasped, had it been under normal circumstances. The man resembled an ungainly fusion of ghillie and gimp suit. Beneath a carpet of branches and leaves was a dark latex suit without eye or ear openings on the face. Instead, a trifold set of goggles covered his eyes, and a high-tech headset covered his ears. His wrists and forearms were covered by all manner of devices he'd never seen before. Among them, he only identified a punch-gun, a single-shell shotgun discharged by a glove-mounted trigger. The man wearing the panoply of devices, he estimated, was far more familiar with their use.
So, Sebastian decided against running. If his captor wanted to kill him, he could have done it without realizing it. Instead, he followed behind the large man, following his deliberate moves across the forest floor. He was familiar with such maneuvering, as the park rangers he often trained with were former military men. They used such tactics to evade both poachers and predators, although other factors could still betray them. He followed the man along the hill, as he moved towards Uncle Richie's fishing pier. Much to his surprise, a vessel was docked there.
Sebastian recognized the half-concealed craft as a rigid inflatable boat, a zodiac. He'd ridden in one before, on a forgotten tributary of the Amazon. As he tried to process why his captor would need such a craft, he saw two other figures hiding beneath a thick, fallen log. He remembered hiding beneath the massive trunk in his youth, as his cousins searched for him with water guns. Now, two strangers sat silently beneath the moss-grown log, making their own preparations. His captor-cum-savior stood up, and gestured for him to do the same. He did.
The other two guests were female. The first was a mousy woman with olive skin, chiseled cheekbones as straight as her black hair, and a black vest and petticoat that made her look like a lost librarian. She pulled strips of glyph-covered paper from a small book, and tied them to the lanyard of an antique revolver. She spun the cylinder of the Colt Dragoon, and she cocked the hammer. Across from her was a stocky Indian woman with disheveled black hair, dressed in a khaki vest and carrying a large backpack. Medical supplies protruded from each of her many pockets, but the bandoleer of tranquilizer darts was the most prominent. She shoveled them into a magazine, which she loaded into a custom dart rifle. She opened an air valve, readying the pneumatic projector for action.
"Ladies, I'd like to present Sebastian Ward, nephew of Richard Ward," the tall man said.
"Hi, I'm Dr. Devi Patel. Just call me Devi. Pleased to meet you," the Indian woman said, never stopping for a breath between words. She nodded excitedly before going back to loading the dart gun.
"Greetings, Mr. Ward," the shorter woman said, while formally bowing. "I am Carmen Zamacona, proprietress of the Witching Hour book store."
"Look." Sebastian said, throwing his hands up. "Who are you, and what are you doing at my uncle's place? What the hell is going on here?"
The tall man removed his visor and strange goggles. Underneath was a sweat-soaked black face. His large brown eyes and disarming grin drew in Sebastian's attention. "Sebastian, I'd like to apologize for any confusion. I'm Dr. Cyrus Black, engineering researcher."
"You haven't answered my questions." Sebastian said, his voice rising an octave. "Why the-"
Cyrus pointed to his goggles. "They have facial recognition built in, which we use to identify people," Cyrus explained. "We're working for your uncle's old business partners."
"Yeah, a likely story. He makes cartoons."
"You know was a spy?" Cyrus asked. "And those cartoons are a lot more than kids' entertainment?"
"Why should I believe anything you say? You keep dodging my questions."
Carmen confidently strode up to Sebastian. "Mr. Ward, I can show you my extensive documentation, once we are out of danger."
"What do you know about my uncle?"
"Enough," Carmen said. "But in the meantime, Arnold Reich and his Lost Boys are trying to find and kill him."
"Ever heard of the Lost Boys?" Devi asked. "Very unpleasant people."
"I don't care about them. What was that creature that killed two of them?" Sebastian asked. "I've hunted lions, tigers, cheetahs, bears, sharks, and more, but I've never seen anything like it."
"Work with us, Sebastian, and we'll answer every question you have, after we find your uncle," Cyrus said. "But you're free to leave if you want."
Sebastian stood up, and he headed down the hillside. He effortlessly bore the weight of his bag on his bag and the heft of the rifle, but another weight pressed upon him. He navigated down a stony hillside. Through the trees, he searched fruitlessly for the road. He thought of the time heavily-armed poachers searched for him, setting up a perimeter and closing it relentlessly. He remembered the isolated park ranger who they found, and unceremoniously shot as he begged for his life. He realized that the Lost Boys, whomever they were, likely had some lookout on the nearby road. If one band of strangers knew he was coming, why wouldn't the others?
He stepped back up the hill. "Just call me Ian," he said, extending his hand. Cyrus tightly clasped it and pulled him up.
Yolanda Jones found herself smitten with Richie Ward. They'd met on the DC Metro, where he'd kindly helped her gather her fallen papers. The two started a conversation afterwards, which ended when they exchanged phone numbers. Now, she was visiting his summer home for the first time, a sprawling Victorian manor on the Delmarva peninsula. It was sunset when they arrived.
Richie opened the door for her, holding her bags with the chivalrous attitude he always displayed. She slipped on the mud beneath the car, but Richie caught her. They shared a laugh as he carried her up the front stairs. Within was a grand foyer, with a chandelier that looked like a swashbuckler swing on it. Bookshelves towered along the front walls, filled with ancient sporting almanacs and diagrams of football stadiums. She found herself wondering about the titles of other books, such as Unspeakable Cults and al-Azif. She considered sitting down, but arousal drove her own.
Richie embraced her against a shelf, and he pulled a book from above her. The shelf swung opened, revealing a passage beyond. Marveling at the secret door, she gazed at the room she found herself in. Dim electric lights narrowly dispelled the darkness from around her. Richie embraced her more tightly. He pressed himself against her lips, but she pulled away. She felt something was greatly amiss. She pounded futilely against the wall, hoping to break down the door that separated her from freedom. She saw it out of the corner of her eye, and she screamed.
Before Venturing Forth
Ian had only his bayonet to rely on, but Devi brought protection. Devi had a spare bulletproof vest in her bag, a light one intended for undercover officers. It did not offer much protection, but it was better than nothing. As he dressed, Cyrus explained who he and the others were.
They called themselves the Juvenalia Task Force, and they were investigating seemingly paranormal events related to government and corporate officials. Uncle Richie was their latest subject, due to his new employer being the center of strange events. Eibon Animation, as they described, had a long history of involvement with the paranormal. Sebastian was not quite sure he believed it all, or even that the others were altogether sane, but they weren't trying to kill him. That was all he needed for now.
Ian organized them into two smaller teams to reconnoiter the enemy positions. He took Devi, and Cyrus took Carmen. That way, each team of spotters had both long-range and melee combat capabilities. They completed two circles of the hillside, before they merged and moved closer. It was just like the park ranger teams he helped train in Africa, Asia, South America, and other parts of the world. He cautioned himself from getting too excited, since the enemy outnumbered and outgunned them.
"There's four doors: front, side, garage, and back," Ian explained. "They've moved inside through the backdoor, so the others might be too dangerous to enter."
"So, what's the plan?" Cyrus asked. "You know this place better than we do."
"The back door leads into the laundry room, a narrow bottleneck," Ian explained in a half-whisper. "And he's all that's keeping us from getting in."
Ian pointed to a Lost Boy standing guard by the rear entrance. He was no older than twenty, clutching a submachinegun in hand. He yawned, closing his eyes and cupping his hands to his mouth. Devi moved up to the edge of the woods with her dart rifle in hand, and she aimed at him. Ian issued a hand gesture to hold, but Devi fired. There was a silent cough as the dart exited the gun, before lodging itself in the young man's throat. He tried to shout, but no voices came out. Instead, he crumpled unconscious to the ground.
Ian led the advance, his bayonet in hand. If any Lost Boys emerged, he would have run them through with his bayonet. The others advanced behind him, and Cyrus secured the sleeping sentry's arms and legs with zip ties and gagged his mouth. When they reached the stairs inside, he remembered the times Mom admonished him for not taking off his muddy shoes at Uncle Richie's backdoor. Now, he dragging an unconscious body into the space behind the washing machine. He wondered how he found himself in such strange scenarios.
"Here," Cyrus said, handing the fallen guard's weapon to Ian. He picked up the submachine gun and looked it over. The crude amalgam sheet metal and piping was an open-bolt abomination a misfire away from missing fingers. Nevertheless, it was all he had. He leveled it towards the living room door, ready to blast anyone that walked through.
Ian cautiously advanced, but dove for cover when he heard gunshots deep within. A frantic staccato responded through the laundry room's walls, followed by incomprehensible shouting. He clutched the weapon tighter, knowing it would do little to stop what laid behind the walls. Frantic footfalls resounded down the hallway he once played in as during his youth, striking with the celerity of machinegun bursts. His vision narrowed as he trained the muzzle on the door. The door flew opened.
The Lost Boy who threw open the door barely had a second to respond, when the first rounds struck him. Two ripped through his stomach, and the third went through his elbow, cutting across arteries on its lethal voyage. He blinked, trying to make sense of the ambush, but the broken arm prevented him from bringing the weapon up. His eyes went wide with fear, as his other hand moved towards the weapon. Ian hesitated for a moment, but a thunderous gunshot brought him down.
Ian's nostrils were assaulted by the acrid stink of spent sulfur. A thick cloud of gunsmoke filled the laundry room, causing him to cough and wince. He turned to see Carmen holding the revolver in both hands, a pistol as long as her forearms. Smoke poured from the barrel like a hellish portal. Strange runes glowed along the barrel, causing eerie lights on the nearby wall. Carmen's face registered with a disdainful sneer more than discomfort. Cyrus' jocose posture had stiffened, and Devi looked ready to throw up.
"Keep moving," Ian said, taking a note of his companions' reactions. "Almost there."
Ian brought up Devi, and ordered her to cover him from the door. Adrenaline surged through him as he prepared to enter the living room, where he'd spent at least a dozen holidays with relatives. He pushed those memories to the back of his mind as he found himself focusing once more down the barrel of the weapon. It was not the first time he killed someone, but he feared it would not be the last. An eerie, familiar blue glow reflected down the hall, and he hesitated for a second. Nevertheless, he charged towards it. He heard his own scream a moment later.
Flight of Fantasy
Twelve hours earlier, Ian unsuccessfully tried sleeping on a transatlantic flight. Stuck in the center isle between a screaming baby and complaining toddler, he jammed the earbuds deeper. He browsed through the shows and movies available on the console in front of him, looking for any series or movies he hadn't seen. As he resigned himself to eight hours of boredom, he recalled Uncle Richie's last email.
Ian looked through the cartoons. Among the most popular was a series called Stanley Cosmos, by Eibon Animation. That was the same studio as Uncle Richie worked for, he recalled. The target audience was young children, but he recalled positive feedback from adults. He typically didn't care for television, but the cacophonous kids changed his mind. He selected an episode and watched. For a show about the titular character and three otherworldly guardians, the Crystal Sisters, battling weekly monsters, it was far better than he'd thought it would be. The flight home was faster than he thought it would be.
A Radiant Homecoming
After the foyer, Uncle Richie's living room was easily the largest room in the house. Ian saw them clustered in the corner that Richie used for the Christmas tree. He was witness to a nightmarish lightshow, where three not-quite-human figures lashed out at the interlopers. Their forms suggested they were humanoid once, but were not bound to such a shape. A half-dozen Lost Boys surrounded them, armed with swords that radiated wisps of pale light.
Their figures were almost recognizable as feminine, in the same sense that a streamlined car was suggestive of a bullet. Instead of arms, the tallest and leanest of them turned her hands into a tendril of blue energy, which lashed like the arms of a hungry octopus. The shortest and widest among them transformed her fists into hammers, which swung out in wide, arching strikes. The third among them was almost human in height, but both of her hands were merged into a single, white-hot blade that ceaselessly probed for weaknesses.
The Lost Boys formed a single line, all standing within a chalk rectangle etched on the floor. Ian did not understand the significance of it, but the three ghostly women could not advance beyond it. Their manifested weapons vanished upon crossing the line. The swordsmen were limited by the length of their degen straight swords, striking only when a tendril veered to close to them. Both parties were preoccupied and stalemated, so Ian sprinted past them all.
Ian turned and covered the others with the sub-gun.
"Run-run-run-run!" Devi shouted, frantically.
As the Indian woman ran, her backpack bounded like a large, wagging tail. A tendril of blue energy arced from the trinity of translucent blobs. She screamed and ran faster, and the bolt only tore a small hole in her bag. With a blinding speed, she darted through the door as the tip of a Lost Boy's sword struck where she stood a moment earlier. He fired a spiteful shot at the Lost Boy, and he reeled forwards. However, the target did not go down. He saw a ceramic armor plate beneath his shirt, and he knew why.
"Keep formation!" shouted the Lost Boy's comrade.
Ian did not see Carmen cross the insane gauntlet, but she appeared beside him after he blinked. He chalked it up to his momentary distraction, as Cyrus charged across the room. The Lost Boys kept to their line, but their foes grew bolder. The tall woman with the lash-arm struck at Cyrus' head as he darted by an overturned table, only for the weapon to flicker out of existence as it passed over the chalk line.
To his credit, Dr. Black kept running regardless. A Lost Boy broke ranks, pivoting towards Cyrus with a well-honed thrust. He leaned into this strike, but the front of his foot crossed the chalk line. A manifested hammer knocked him to the ground, pulverizing the Boy's outstretched foot in directions unintended by nature. Ian did not see the finishing blow, but he heard the scream and the splat. He kept moving, wanting to save ammunition and burn stamina.
Ian stopped in the foyer to catch his breath. His Uncle's shelves had been knocked over in the chaos, spilling their contents all across the floor. He saw Carmen looked only mildly annoyed, with nary a drop of perspiration across her face or skin. Devi propped herself up against a wall, panting heavily. Cyrus smashed through the door and kept moving, not slowing himself until he'd smashed into a bookshelf. The remaining contents plunged to the floor, but Cyrus leapt back to his feet unharmed.
One book remained on the shelf, and Ian easily saw why. The spine was connected to a steel cable that vanished into the wall. Around the edges of the shelf were the vague outlines of a door. He jammed his bayonet into the slight gap, trying to force the door opened. The concealed door bent inwards, but he did not want to risk damaging the mechanism. He saw a large hand reaching for the book, and the next thing he realized, the shelf folded inwards.
"Haven't you ever seen a bad movie?" Cyrus asked. "Pretty blind for a big game hunter."
"I track more than tropes," Ian replied. "I'll admit, though, I haven't seen a space-age gimp suit like yours."
Devi chuckled. When Cyrus and Ian turned at her, she blushed and covered her mouth with her hands.
"Says the guy in the leather jacket in the middle of summer."
"Shh," Carmen ordered, pointing to the door they'd just left.
Ian focused on the making sense of what he saw, rather than futile verbal sparring. He tried justifying the bizarre skirmish in the living room by any rules of nature he was aware of, and he kept coming up blank. He remembered the cartoon characters that he saw on the flight, and briefly considered their superficial similarity to the entities in the living room. He recalled every memory he could of Uncle Richie, searching for any trace of insidious behavior or deliberate lies. He wordlessly descended into that dim tunnel, even after Cyrus pulled the door closed behind them. He felt his grip on his weapon tighten as they descended.
Ian beheld the strange things along the tunnel walls. Dim lights danced in an unseen breeze, like a flock of electric will o' wisps. Within those crisscrossing beams of light, he saw the shadows cast by dangling cobwebs. Even in the bulletproof vest, a chill climbed up his spine. Every shadow was a lurking demon, ready to pounce. While he was long past his days of jumping at darkness, the tunnel seemed to exude an abyssal pull.
"Scared of something?" Carmen asked disdainfully.
"No. Just being careful," Ian replied, his answer delayed. "Getting a bad vibe."
"Considering what you just saw," Carmen said. "I'm surprised you're taking it so well."
"So I am."
Carmen did not reply. Instead, she stared directly ahead of her. Ian saw it underneath the lying of a swaying bulb. He felt his arms grow limp as he beheld it, and the submachinegun nearly slipped from his sweat-soaked hands. The adrenaline high that propelled him through the insane gauntlet minutes ago ended. The weight of his burden and his excerption struck like a freight train. He staggered back like a punch-drunk boxer as he tried to comprehend what he saw. He saw Devi throw up, before his own vision went black.
Yolanda Jones never imagined waking up again, and she immediately knew something was amiss. She saw only abject darkness, although she could turn her head. Her entire body ached, like the time she tripped into a gully during a camping trip. She remembered the struggle with Richard, and then everything going black. She tried to move, if even to test whatever bound her. While she was captive, she would not make it easy on the duplicitous bastard.
Yolanda sent commands to the rest of her body. She forced herself to move, like a general rallying a routed army. She tried kicking her legs. She tried lashing her arms. She tried turning her torso. She tried jerking her head. None of them responded. She tried once more, trying to randomly strike out. Not a single part of her body responded. With growing horror, she heard the voice she hoped not to.
"Your birthday's in April, isn't it?" came Richard's voice in the darkness. "Your birthstone's the diamond."
Yolanda tried to speak, but her voice did not reply.
"It nicely completes the collection, you know," Richard said, mockingly. "The first ones didn't survive as long as you have."
Yolanda tried to blink, but her eyelids do not close. She wondered if she was immaterial, a phantom in the void. She wondered what horrible fate Richard planned for her. She could not feel her legs. She could not feel her arms. She felt neither her torso, nor the remainder of her body. Neither her hands nor feet responded to her commands. She wondered if she'd been drugged, or if circulation to those limbs was totally cut off. As her mind moved to macabre places, Richard spoke once more.
"The substance came from Central Hill up north," Richard said. "Without it, you wouldn't be alive. See for yourself."
A flash of light blinded Yolanda, as Richard removed the black box from around her head. As her eyes adjusted, she recognized she looked into a mirror. She would have screamed, had she still had vocal cords. She saw her eyes, her forehead, and the top of her face. She momentarily relaxed, but she continued looking. She could not blink, for her eyelids were removed. Her gaze tracked downwards in the mirror, and she saw what else was missing: the rest of her body.
Yolanda saw the horrific ways her body was defiled. Her lower jaw had been removed entirely, replaced with a long plastic tube jammed into her mouth. Two plastic tubes were jammed into her nostrils, preventing from smelling. Her ears were cut off, and bundles of wires shoved into each side of her head. Her hair was completely shaved off, exposing her scalp. A halo of dried blood caked around the base of her head, like sediment on a polluted shore. Above it all, Richard was beaming with pride.
Yolanda tracked the wires and tubes to a machine in the center of the room. In the dim basement light, she saw them lead into a large machine that rumbled like some great infernal engine. It circulated tanks of bright green fluid into her head's natural and recent orifices. She saw other alcoves in the darkness, barely making out the details. She saw another woman's head, a half-rotten mess denoted by an emerald. She saw another marked by a pearl, in a similar state of decay. She momentarily savored her lack of smell, for the whole basement would have smelled worse than a charnel house.
"Rest for now, Yolanda," Richard said. "Or, should I say, Diamond. You and your new sisters will wake up when I need you."
Yolanda felt her consciousness fading into darkness. She would have savored such a quick, painless end. As she faded, she saw one of the other preserved heads turn sunken eyes towards her. As she faded into unconsciousness, she did so with the terror of knowing it would not be the end. Fate was far crueler than simply letting her die.
Never in his wildest nightmares did Ian imagine what Uncle Richie was up to. He'd known the house was old, perhaps with secret passages from the Underground Railroad, Instead of bringing slaves to a new life, his uncle brought them down for cruel and unusual deaths. He always felt something amiss about Richie, but now it was laid bare for himself, and his new companions, to see. The grisly place was no more than a few meters from the foyer where he and his cousins had their annual Easter egg hunt. He wondered what would have happened if they'd pulled the wrong book of the shelf, while their Uncle watched over them.
Ian saw his fair of carnage, including dead humans. It was part and parcel of conservation work, especially dealing with dangerous beasts and poachers. The exhibition in the basement was enough to send him crashing to the ground. He did not know how long elapsed while he was unconscious, but he found himself cradled in Cyrus' massive arms. Devi poured cold water onto his face, jerking him back to the realms of the living. Jetlag was bad enough without the unpleasant discovery.
"He's back," Cyrus said. "He okay, Devi?"
"Shaken and stirred, but otherwise alright."
"I'm going to need a long shower after this," Ian complained.
Devi raised her canteen of ice water over his head. "More?"
"Not now. Forget I said that."
Ian turned to see Carmen wandering towards the nearest display. It was a partially decomposed human skull, denoted by a plastic placard with an image of a diamond on it. The eyelids were stitched shut, but the discoloration made it impossible to determine if it was pre- or post-mortem. The lower jaw, spine, and excess flesh had been removed, leaving a partially mummified head facing out over the tunnel. Despite the apparent age, it did not smell like the other corpses he'd smelled, perhaps due to whatever substance was pumped into it. The nostrils, mouth, and ears were connected to a bundle of narrow tubes and wires, which lead deeper into the wall. He saw two other heads preserved in a similar form, denoted by an emerald and a pearl.
"Yolanda, I'm sorry you had to go through this," Carmen said, solemnly staring into the head. "Rest assured, he will pay for this."
Ian recalled that name, but the context escaped him. The ceiling above them lurched. A familiar glowing tendril rose from the mutilated head, and Ian found himself lunging towards Carmen. He grabbed her in a fireman's carry, hoisting her over his shoulder like a military rucksack. She was lighter than he thought she'd be, even with her seemingly delicate frame. He did not stop to think why, especially as the two other heads began to glow. His many questions fled, as his survival instincts took over.
"Well, well, what have we here?" came Arnold's voice from behind them. "Looks like we found our intruders. Finish them!"
Ian turned to see the strange illumination in the tunnel momentarily banished by the sunlight from the opened secret door. Arnold stuck only a small portion of his face out from behind cover, instead gesturing with his hands to send his underlings into the tunnel. Three shorter figures darted into the tunnel, the first one spraying wildly with a submachinegun, and the other two brandishing their glowing swords. Arnold released an arrow into the tunnel, which whistled as it flew.
"Incoming!" Cyrus shouted.
Ian dove to the ground, remembering the time a group of poachers ambushed him with mortar shells. He closed his eyes and buried his head in his hands, hoping the blast would not hit the alcove he took cover in. He thought of Uncle Richie's shit-eating grin, and the horrors that hid behind it. The explosion made his ears ring as the tunnel resonated. Just when he dared to open his eyes again, he saw a translucent tendril emerging from the floor.
"Run!" he shouted, falling back deeper into the tunnel. "Fall-"
His orders were interrupted by a burst of bullets. Ian retorted with a burst of his own, aimed as he'd trained. The Lost Boy went down as his chest erupted like a range of bleeding volcanos. The other two, however, closed the distance in the time it took him to aim and fire. His old lessons on the Tueller drill burbled back into his head, just as something else moved in the corner of his eyes.
Ian saw the tendrils kept their distance from the armored swordsmen. A different savior stepped forwards, unleashing a one-two punch to a Lost Boy's head. Two shotgun blasts resounded like the grenade arrow in the cramped corridor, painting the walls with chunks of the man's chest and skull. Cyrus emerged from the darkness like a chthonic titan, his punch-guns still smoking. The other swordsman swung around, but Cyrus was ready.
Cyrus dropped the shorter swordsman with a judo sweep, ripping his weapon from his grasp in the process. The movement's momentum sent the weapon flying off into the darkness, clattering unseen along the floor. The glow vanished a moment after it was released from its owner's grasp. Ian did not stick around to see what ensued, for the strange crystalline, translucent figures closed in on the unfortunate Lost Boy. His scream echoed down the corridor as they ran.
They did not stop running until they reached a flight of stairs leading upwards. They were brick and concrete, hewn into the floor beneath them. They looked sturdy enough, but Ian lead the way up. The stairs crumbled beneath their frantic footfalls, as though yielding to entropy at their behest. The climb up was only two stories, but it felt a lot higher. While he'd climbed hills and mountains, his uncle's hidden stairwell was far more exhausting. The toll, as he realized, was not merely physical.
Ian stopped at the top of the stairs. There was a lever, connected to a door in the wall, which likely led somewhere on the upper floor. Nearby was a small wooden desk and filing cabinet, the generic sort found in almost any office. It smelled of marker fumes and old paper, rather than decaying flesh and charnel pollution. After what he saw at the bottom of the stairs, he wasn't sure made him more uneasy. Against his better judgment, he opened the drawer and skimmed over the contents.
"Despite never having met your uncle, I am not liking him so far," Carmen said.
"The same," Devi said. "I have never seen a medical preservation system like the basement, at least in mundane medicine."
"Nothing we've seen so far is mundane," Cyrus said. "But Ian's stilled rolled with it."
"When you're in unfamiliar territory, go with your instincts," Ian said. "And this is very unfamiliar."
Ian pulled out the files and set them on the table. He saw mundane bills, electrical, repair, and water expenses. He saw bank balances, credit card loans, tax receipts, and all the minutiae of property-owning expenses. It was curious to think of Uncle Richie handling the bills at his desk after conducting grisly corpse mutilation just downstairs. He continued pouring over the folders, until he came to one with no label. He opened it up, and he saw twelve photographs, each of a woman's face. In the corner of each frame was a month, with the appropriate birthstone beside it. His hands quivered as his subconscious drew connections he did not want to admit.
Ian recalled where he'd heard the name Yolanda before. He recalled several of the twelve faces. Uncle Richie introduced them as his dates to the family. Yolanda was the last of them, denoted as "April" under the birthstone "Diamond." He recalled the gem placards beside each of the macabre mummified heads, and the fates of those unfortunate women at his Uncle's hands. It would have been enough to stop him, had his curiosity not been unexpectedly excited.
Ian found other things in the file. He saw biopsy results of a potentially malignant tumor. He saw illustrations of peculiar machines, with occult symbols beneath them. He saw a laboratory report on a strange substance from an unspecified facility, written by a doctor with a Japanese name. He saw a quarterly funding report for Eibon Animation, with donations coming from a South African billionaire. He saw references on synthetic tissue culturing and grimoire acquisition in the same paragraph. He saw an empty envelope addressed to Arnold Reich. Whatever was afoot, Richie was in the middle of it. He took photos with his phone, as he left the documents to the others. Such was only a cursory sampling of the files, and he knew darker secrets likely lurked within.
"Can you make sense of this?" Cyrus asked, handing the sigil-covered schematics to Carmen.
"Yes, I can," Carmen said. "And it's worse than I thought."
"How can it get worse?" Ian asked. "My uncle's an insane serial killer, we're trapped here by monsters and maniacs, and I don't have any ammo left."
"Those poor women are not quite dead," Carmen explained. "This machine is a binding apparatus, trapping them near their decaying forms. They're compelled to attack any intruders in their incorporeal forms, even though it's against their will."
"I always knew Uncle Richie's house was haunted. Never imagined the bastard would make the ghosts himself."
"Given their ability to fight the ghosts, I believe Arnold and the Lost Boys may have known about the bound spirits, to some degree."
"And we aren't."
"I must disagree," Carmen said, grinning coyly. "My revolver is loaded with the powder of Ibn Ghazi. Each shot should be able to stun then, but I only have four left."
"Anything other than that?"
"Only destroying the heads."
"That would have been helpful a few minutes ago," Ian said. "We'll finish searching, we'll head back down, and finish it."
The others nodded in agreement. Arnold quickly tossed through the remaining drawers, hoping to find additional supplies or information. The third drawer from the bottom was loaded with emptied wallets, jewelry, and other items he'd presumably taken from his victims. Among the items was a semi-automatic handgun, still in its original packaging. The sleek, polished weapon was a gift from a South African company, the same Uncle Richie received money from. It was an FK Brno, a Czech-designed hand cannon for hunting large game.
The pistol itself was sleek and chrome, with ivy-like engravings along the slide. An elongated barrel had compensator notches cut above the muzzle, and the trigger was clearly adjusted for quicker shooting. A muzzle weight had been placed beneath the muzzle opposite the compensator, all to manage recoil. Along the slide was etched a Latin phrase, Terminus Est. The basic FK Brno was more expensive than an average new car on its own, let alone the conversion to a high-performance race gun and custom engraving. His uncle obviously did not understand how much the weapon was worth, having stuffed it into the bottom of a drawer of his victims' possessions. He resolved to put it to better use.
The other object of interest was stuffed into the bottom drawer, where it was connected to a large battery bank. To Ian, it was a nonsensical amalgam of dishes and blinking lights. It buzzed and droned as fans blew cool air over silicon heatsinks. Cyrus stepped in, examined the device, and then turned it off.
"Homemade signal jammer," he said. "Probably why there was no reception out here."
"Good work. Once we clear the out basement, we call the cops," Ian said. "Although I wouldn't want to be here when they arrive."
Ian took his new pistol in hand, and he led the way back down the stairs. He ordered Carmen to stand directly behind him, so she could cover both the front and back of the party. Devi and Cyrus took up the rear. He moved at a careful, brisk pace, not wanting to fall down the stairs or blunder into one of the guardians' immaterial bodies. As they descended, he heard a beeping. It took him a moment to remember exactly what it was.
Ian remembered the time Uncle Richie tried cooking a holiday dinner. He left the pot on the stove too long, and a torrent of smoke rose towards the ceiling. The smoke detectors went off, frightening all the partygoers. They ended up darting out of the house into the cold, waiting for the local fire department to arrive and give them the all clear. He wondered how a man so bad at cooking had the talent to indulge in twelve premediated murders for mad experiments.
The sound of the fire alarm brought Ian back to the present as the smell of smoke filled the corridor. He could not see where the flames were coming from, but something in the house was burning. He'd seen too many wildfires to miss the smell of burning wood. There was a single suspect in his mind: Arnold Reich. Perhaps he'd found what he sought, perhaps he'd been unable to retrieve it, perhaps he wanted to eliminate the evidence, perhaps he was just spiteful, or perhaps some combination. As they were now close to the bottom level, there was one way out: back out the bookshelf entrance.
Ian found it hard to see through the smoke filing the murder basement, with all its grotesque trophies. He saw some of the tubes were removed from the heads, but the remainder of the connections were intact. He wondered if Arnold or his minions had taken the samples they'd wanted after the fight, and decided to torch the rest. He trained his pistol on the nearest one, intending to finish the job. However, a familiar glow emanated from the floor beneath him.
April's tendril shot up from the floor, aiming between Ian's legs. He vaulted back, only to narrowly miss a swing from May's hammers. June's white-hot blade would have bisected him, had he not immediately leapt backwards. He felt his lungs scream for oxygen, but he fired blindly. His bullet went wild, but he saw familiar outlines in the smoke. It was then he had an idea.
"Carmen, shoot!" he shouted.
The antique percussion revolver roared like a furious dragon, belching sulfur and fumes into the chamber. The scent intermingled in the air, reeking like brimstone. Mad shapes cavorted and whirled in the smoke cloud, forming shapes as obscene as the visions of madness. May's large size made her a perfect target for the bullet, but it only phased her for a second.
Fortunately, a second was all Ian needed. Black powder, mixed with whatever witchcraft Carmen added in, created a large smoke cloud relative to modern gunpowder. In a smoky room, it was enough to indicate exactly where their incorporeal enemies were. It also indicated the relative geometry of the room, including one of the nearby heads. With reflexes trained by hobby and hunting, he put two shots where he saw the head's contours. He smelled the rancid odors from within, and he knew he'd struck it. The largest of their enemies, May, faded into a peaceful, and long awaited, rest.
June and April did not passively go to the grave. June's sword arm swept through the air like an invisible cleaver, heading directly for Ian. He heard Carmen coughing heavily, and then another shot from the Dragoon. The massive handgun vomited another torrent of flame, but the second shot went wide. Far too wide. He could not see either of his adversaries, nor any of his allies, even in the smoke cloud. It was fortunate, then, he rolled directly into a second head.
April's tendrils almost denied Ian his prize. However, he put two more shots into the head. There was a puff of smoke as June dissolved into nothingness. He thought he saw a smile where her head would have been. He had no time to muse over it, though, for his lungs screamed for oxygen. He dived to the ground and pulled his perspiration-soaked shirt up over his mouth and nose. He labored to breath, but his breathless enemy did not tire. Two tendrils lashed down towards him, ready to bisect him like they'd done to the Lost Boys.
A gunshot like a howitzer echoed through the hallway, and Ian saw April halt momentarily. His lungs protesting, he leapt back to his feet and felt blindly for the last head. In the twisting, maddening cloud, he could not tell which directly he'd come from. He saw the smoke part before the eerie light of April's lash, and he did not respond. His body ached. His brain was addled by fatigue, His aim faltered. His lungs were filled with smoke. In that moment, the will to survive that brought him through a hundred perilous hunts failed him.
Fortunately, his new friends did not. Ian heard another Dragoon shot, this one seeming to blow away the obscuring mist around him. For a brief second, he saw the last head. With the last bullets in the magazine, he fired. He prematurely relaxed, hoping his shot would destroy the head, even as the deadly whips descended on him. When the first shot went wild, he corrected his aim and emptied the magazine. A few strands of hair were burnt off by the tendril, before it disappeared. For a moment, he thought he heard a female voice whisper, "Thank you."
"Rest, Yolanda, you will be avenged," Carmen said.
Ian would have collapsed of exhaustion and died of smoke inhalation, had his other allies not intervened. He felt two familiar, strong arms wrap around him, and hoist him up. Cyrus had a rebreather mask on his space age "gimp suit," which he used to get him to safety. Behind them, he saw Devi carrying Carmen, using a medical oxygen mask to help escape the smoke-filled room. He saw them dart through the bookcase entrance, which had been forced opened.
Through the front door, Ian saw Arnold depart. The leader of the Lost Boys tore down the driveway in Uncle Richie's sports car, leaving the bodies of his followers to rot. The vehicle's engine faded into the distance, but he was in no mood to give chase. He had no doubts they would meet again, especially if both were after Uncle Richie. Besides, it was better for now to let him assume they'd all perished in the fire. If there was a next time with Arnold, he realized, it may be a last time for one of them. With that, Ian fainted once more.
Ian bobbed in and out of consciousness over the next several hours. He saw the others gathering their things, their evidence, and heading to the waiting zodiac. Cyrus carried him the whole way, being careful not to drop or hit him against anything by accident. He felt the boat engine roar beneath him as the craft dashed across the waves of the Chesapeake. Behind him, he saw the smoke of childhood memories burning on the horizon.
A Trap for Two
Ian had a strange dream while the others exfiltrated over the water. He was sitting at the Christmas dinner table across from Uncle Richie, as he remembered him from years ago. His uncle grinned confidently at his nephew, as if evaluating his recent actions. Ian felt an aura of nausea and disgust well up from inside him, although he could hardly find a single point. There was simply too much, too fast.
"Well, Sebastian, I never expected you'd blunder into that situation, much less survive it," Richie said. "Sorry about skipping town. I tried sending a message, but the jammer was already on."
"You sent more of a message than I wanted to know about," Ian said. "But I guess that whole situation was a trap, for Arnold and his flunkies."
"Right you are, kiddo. If they had more time, the girls would've mopped the floor with them."
"Really? It was more of an even match to me. The Lost Boys had some tricks up their sleeve."
Richie shrugged. "Eh, should've suspected that. Arnold's smarter than he looks, you know."
"Who is he? What does he want with you?"
"Look him up. He's bad news. For me, and for you."
Ian remembered the envelope. "But why were you writing to him?"
"Sometimes, you need someone to do dirty deeds. He got a little too ambitious."
"Uncle Richie, you are a sick bastard. Why did you murder those women?"
Richie shrugged and put on his trademark shit-eating grin. "A man has needs, you know. It's just my needs are a little different than most."
"What kind of sicko are you?"
"A successful one, kiddo. The best kid."
"Are you really a spy? Or is that cartoon studio job just a cover?"
"You really think the two are mutually exclusive?" Richie said. "You know, acting as a creative consulting for Eibon Animation's the best gig I've had a long time."
Ian began thinking of the storyline of Stanley Cosmos, and the fates of Richie's victims. "You are truly a disgusting man, Uncle Richie. You really made a kids' show out of your deranged experiments?"
Richie chuckled. "You really think that's the only one? Kid, I've been doing this long before you were born."
"When I find you, I am going to-"
"When you find me, kid, you're going to have a lot of other questions. So, save it for later."
With that, Ian awoke.
It was late afternoon when the zodiac pulled into a small, private harbor. Ian heard his phone buzz, signaling he'd got a new message. He figured he must have left it on. When he turned it on, he saw a text message from Uncle Richie. It was dated just before his arrival. Sorry kid, but I've got to go on an emergency trip. I sent some money to your bank account so you can stay at a motel. Again, really sorry. Just stay away from the house. Having some pests exterminated. -Uncle Richie
Ian turned the phone off and stared out into space. Cyrus looked at him.
"You know what, Ian?" he asked.
"Hmm?" Ian turned his head to Cyrus.
"We were only sent out to spy on Uncle Richie. We weren't expecting Arnold or the ghosts. Without you, we'd be dead."
"Without you, I'd be dead," Ian said, shrugging.
"I think we worked pretty well together."
"Yeah, comes with being a hunter."
"If you have no problems, we'd like to welcome you to the Juvenalia Task Force," Cyrus said, wrapping his long arms around Ian. Ian embraced him back.
"What now?" he asked.
"Now," Cyrus replied. "We're going to meet the boss."
"Don't worry," Devi said. "I think you will like him."
"I know you will like him," Carmen said.
Ian said nothing as he climbed ashore.