Wake Up Call
I blinked open a bleary eye, then shook my head, fighting clear of the hazy fog lingering inside my skull. What in the hell had happened? Where was I?
I hunched forward, forearms resting on my thighs, and heaved onto the floor—a stream of rancid black bile, like a combination of hot tar and dirty gasoline, splattered across dull gray stone. I reached down and found the familiar shape of a toilet beneath me. I gripped the bowl, steadying myself just in time for another round of violent vomiting, which ripped past my esophagus, through my nose and mouth, before finally splashing over my black boots, stained with chalky, gray dust.
For a long beat, I remained doubled over, staring at the pitted floor, fighting to get my breathing under control.
Slowly, the urge to vomit passed and I slumped back against the porcelain tank, lazily wiping a stream of bile-laced spittle from my nose and mouth. Gross. Though, believe it or not, the sharp stench of bile was actually less disgusting than the smell loitering in the air like a gang of scented street thugs looking to mug my nose: equal parts sulphur, old BO, and literal shit. I pressed my lone eye closed, took a hitching inhale, then ran a hand through sweat-drenched hair, which fell well past my ears in a crazy tangle.
Strange. The hair, I mean.
I hadn’t sported long hair since before my Marine Corps days. I shook my head, sweat-matted locks swaying back and forth, slapping at my neck and cheeks.
Damn, that was trippy.
A wave of dizziness socked me right in the gut and I promptly ceased moving. It was the heat—and holy shit, let me tell you, it was hot. The bathroom felt like the inside of an oven. An oven inside of a volcano on the surface of the friggin’ sun. Seriously, it had to be pushing 110, easy. Finally, I opened my eye and stole a look around. I was in a cheap bathroom with cement walls, a chipped sink, and a crude shower, but no windows or mirror. The metal fixtures were all tarnished and badly pitted and a lot of very questionable stains in various hues of mud brown and noxious yellow coated just about everything.
Seriously, it looked like someone had set off a stick of dynamite inside a porta-John.
Aside from the actual shit stains, there was also an obscene amount of graffiti tattooing the gray walls.
Crudely drawn schlongs and ginormous boobs. Lots of very creative curse-words, a few of which I committed to memory for future use—you never know when the phrase butterface-gutter-turd is gonna come in handy. Plus, some odd lines proclaiming things like “HAIL ASMODEUS OR DROWN IN BLOOD,” followed by an equally eloquent rebuttal: “Asmodeus is a butterface-gutter-turd—Long. Live. The Succubus Queen!” Another writer added, “For the best B.J. in Pandæmonium call the Succubus Queen at 1-666-EAT-A-DICK.”
More graffiti covered the floor around me. But this was different from the crude scrawling on the walls.
Someone had inscribed a golden circle which took up most of the bathroom floor—looked like a containment ritual, complete with a whole host of complex sigils and ancient runes. A few I recognized as demonic containment wards, straight from the Clavicula Salomonis Regis, and a couple more had to do with exorcisms. Most were a mystery, however. I know a thing or two about summoning circles and containment seals, but this thing was leagues beyond my skill-set. At best, my ritual-craft was workman like, which is to say functional, but only just.
The circle around me, however, was the Mona-Lisa of ritual wards. The intricate flourishes, detailed Hebraic text, and flowing rune-work were a work of art I’d literally hang on a wall if I could.
Another wave of nausea rolled through me and I hunched back in on myself, groping at my stomach. I noticed for the first time, I was shirtless. Even stranger still, I felt abs beneath my sweat-slick fingers. Abs, dammit. I’ve never been fat, exactly—my metabolism burns too fast for that—but I’ve always been more of a keg-man than a six-pack man in the ol’ belly department. Not anymore. I rubbed one palm over clammy skin, feeling the tight muscles below. I sat up with a grimace and glanced down.
Yep, abs. And they weren’t the only difference. Somehow, I’d acquired a pair of meaty pecs and jacked arms, which belonged on a man a third my age. And then there were the tattoos.
Jagged black symbols—Haitian Vodun markings—decorated my shoulders and chest. Those, I recalled, were compliments from my pal Pa Beauvoir, the Voodoo shitheel who carved me up before scooping out my left eye with a melon baller. But those tats had since been augmented with colorful tribal swirls, pulsing neon glyphs, and otherworldly seals of power. My right arm, from shoulder to wrist was a sleeve of colorful skin art, the symbols unknown to me and burning with a soft golden light.
There was a power in that light, a sort of earthy life, which I’d never felt before, not in all my days as a mage and Fix-It man.
Seriously. What in the nine-hells had happened to me? How had I gotten here?
My time in Haiti was still vivid and fresh—unfortunate, since I’d rather forget most of that shitshow. After Haiti, I vaguely recalled paying Lady Fate a visit before storming off to some weird shrine in Thailand. Images of stone creatures rampaging through the night flashed in my aching noggin, then blew away like dust in the wind the moment I focused on ’em. I pushed harder, straining to remember. To churn up some fragment that might tell me how I’d gotten here. Gradually, a muddy picture of Ong, the Fourth Seal bearer, and the great Naga King, took shape in my head:
First, a glimpse of his towering serpentine body, his scales—polished onyx, blood-red ruby, shimmering gold and copper—gleaming under the light of a purple moon …
Then, his many heads, each the size of a minivan, swaying and bobbing to some unheard rhythm. Teeth snapping at me as I soared through the air, astride a bulky creature with massive wings …
Finally, a flash of a dark, spike-lined gullet, swallowing me, drawing me down into Ong’s belly—except I wasn’t bound for his belly. I was after his heart …
My head throbbed with the memories and though I could sorta piece together that battle in a half-assed fashion, everything felt jumbled. Distorted. Every picture, every recollection, riddled with pockmarks before blurring and bleeding together on the edges. I pressed my palms into my temples, arms shaking, trying to pull any other memory from the train-wreck of my brain. But nothing came. After Ong … Well, everything went black. A yawning cavern in my mind between that last image of pure nightmare fuel and this shitty bathroom.
I opened my eye and stood. Time to get this show on the road.
The blood rushed to my head and my legs felt numb from sitting on the shitter. For a moment, I just stood there, swaying listlessly as blood rushed to my head and my legs tingled like mad from sitting so long on the crapper. What I needed right now was a gulp of fresh air and a breeze to dispel the awful heat beating down on me like a hammer.
After that, I could figure out where I was. Might be, I could piece more of this nightmare together and come up with a proper game plan. I took a few uncertain steps, cautiously testing my legs. Satisfied that they’d hold me up, I headed for the door, only to smash face first into … nothing. I stumbled back as a wall of golden light flared around me in a full circle, emanating from the containment ward so painstakingly scrawled on the floor.
I inched forward, pressing my fingers against the golden wall of light, feeling the steady thrum of arcane power. Not Vis, not exactly. But not Nox, either. Something else. Something different. New. The earthy power thrumming through the fancy tattoos along my right arm resonated with the golden light like one kindred soul recognizing another.
A rusted door knob rattled and I shuffled back until my calves bumped against the toilet.
The steel door swung inward admitting a dumpy, bespectacled man in his mid-forties with terrible posture and a pooching potbelly. He was mostly bald and had a creepy red molester ’stache above too-thin lips; he sported thick denim pants, a plaid button up, and a beige Carhartt jacket despite the god-awful heat. The newcomer stared at me, his brow furrowed, anger and hate smoldering in his muddy gaze. Despite his mundane appearance, he looked like the kind of guy you crossed the street to avoid. A weirdo, and not the good kind either. The serial killer kind.
After a long moment of deep scrutiny, Molester ’Stache nodded his egg-shaped head, wrinkled his nose, and let the door swing shut with a soft whoosh. “You remember who you are yet?” he asked, voice a dull monotone—almost bored like we’d done this dance before.
“Yeah, asshole, I know who the hell I am. How’s about you tell me who are you.”
“Say it,” he said, ignoring my demand. “Your name, I mean. I want you to say it.”
I hesitated. What game was this psycho playing? “Yancy Lazarus,” I finally replied.
“Lazarus,” he said with a short, satisfied nod. “Good. That’s good. And how much do you remember?” he asked. “Do you remember where you are or how you got here? Do you remember Asmodeus or the assassinations?” His eyes narrowed into thin, suspicious slits. “Anything after Ong?”
I paused, on the verge of saying something vaguely threatening like how’s about you tell me what’s going on before I set you on fire, but instead, I offered an inarticulate, “Uh, what?”
He frowned and he rubbed his hands together, a nervous tic maybe. He looked like he wanted to say something more, but froze instead, coming to an unnatural stillness. He frowned, lips drawing down at the corners, then canted his head to one side, listening.
“Everything alright, pal?” I asked, folding my too-big arms across my too-big chest. All these newfangled muscles were definitely gonna take some getting used to.
“Quiet.” He held up a hand as though to physical stop me from speaking, then squatted down, fingers tracing over the floor. He caressed the stone with an odd, familiar fondness and a flash of worry sprinted across his plain face before vanishing, replaced by cool neutrality. “No time,” he mumbled more to himself than to me. “They’re coming. Near now. Closing in. They’ve got the scent. We need to go.”
He scooted forward and dropped to a knee near the golden circle scrawled on the floor. Carefully, meticulously, he smudged a blocky line of Hebrew script running along the top of the containment circle—the golden wall wavered, danced, flickered, then died with a pop as the pent-up energy fizzled and dispersed into the drab, concrete walls.
Before the man could fully stand, I charged him, throwing my body into his hunched form with every bit of strength I could muster. I’m suspicious by nature and waking up in a disgusting bathroom, lacking a memory, with a mustached weirdo, sends up all kinds of red flags. Since I’m a big fan of not having my organs harvested, I figured a good ask-questions-later-policy was the right approach here. My shoulder slammed into his face, a sledgehammer blow that should’ve laid him out right and proper. But no. Instead, my body met unyielding flesh as hard as old cinder blocks.
The guy didn’t even rock back on his heels.
I, on the other hand, reeled away like I’d just run headlong into a brick wall, and promptly dropped onto my ass with a thump.
The balding man stood, eyes narrowed, the slight frown lingering on his lips. “Don’t do that again,” he said evenly, “we don’t have time for any nonsense. Name’s Levi Adams. I’m here to help.” He offered me an awkward, half-hearted smile and extended a nubby-fingered hand. I regarded the limb with supreme suspicion. I wasn’t sure what this creeper’s deal was, but I’d bet my left arm he wasn’t some regular ol’ Rube; no average joe could take a hit like that unfazed.
Still, after a moment’s hesitation, I accepted his hand and allowed him to pull me back to my feet.
He didn’t seem to be actively trying to kill me, after all, and you know what they say: any port in a storm.
“Here’s the deal,” Levi said, pinning me in place with stare harsh enough to peel paint. “There are creatures headed this way. They intend to capture you. That or kill you. I’m here to see that doesn’t happen. So stay close, keep your mouth shut, and do what I say. If you can follow those rules”—he paused, placing on hand against the stone wall—“well, I think we’ll be alright.” The words weren’t delivered with any particular malice or heat. No cockiness or snark. They were the words of a construction foreman calmly explaining the safety procedures for a work site.
He turned and slipped through the door, leaving me to follow if I wanted more answers.
Begrudgingly, I trailed after him because I did want more answers. A metric ass load of ’em.
The filthy bathroom connected to an equally rundown hotel room illuminated by a single, uncovered lightbulb in the ceiling. The floors were pitted stone without carpet and the walls featured stained and bubbled 1950s floral wallpaper. A full-bed—yellow, heavily-stained, and sans sheets or bed linens, which looked like it belonged in a Goodwill dumpster—dominated the center of the room. There was a monstrously old television, big and boxy, with a formidable set of bent bunny ears perched on top. There were no pictures. No phone. No hum of air-conditioning. No minibar or fridge.
I’ve been in some world-class dumps, but this one took the cake. I mean, even in the most down and out palces, the staff usually tried to polish things a little. But this one? Nope. This turd of a room had been left to fester in the bowl for a good long while.
A stained black T-shirt, my ever-familiar black leather jacket, and my shoulder holster, complete with monster killing pistol lay on the bed. Since I didn’t feel like running around topless, even if I did have some nifty new muscles to showcase, I took a minute and slipped the shirt on, followed by the holster. I hesitated at the jacket—the thought of wearing leather in this heat was sickening—but finally slipped it on. I’d rather be hot than dead, and my specialty jacket might keep my alive if things went sideways. And considering the current situation, it was really more a matter of when than if.
Next, I inspected my black steel handcannon, glad to have its comforting weight in my hand. A quick brass check revealed the bad boy was loaded, which was great, and a quick search of my jacket pockets revealed a pair of speedloaders and a handful extra rounds. Groovy.
Levi stopped at the front door, palm once more pressed against the wall as if he were feeling for something. Listening. “We need to be quick,” he said over his shoulder, voice carrying a thread of barely-suppressed urgency. “We’re going to exit and hang left. Keep your head down. Don’t talk. Don’t look behind you—wouldn’t want someone to spot you before we get to the safe house.” His nostrils flared a bit and he absently pushed his glasses back up to the bridge of his nose. “Understand?”
“I’d understand better if you explained a few things,” I replied, holstering my pistol. “Like where we are, and why you’re interested in helping me. I tend to be suspicious of folks who give me a hand out of the goodness of their hearts.”
His nostrils flared again and his face rippled, wriggling like he had a brood of snakes living just below the surface of his skin. “I’m not helping you out of the goodness of my heart,” he said, thrusting a plump finger at me. “You’re going to help me murder someone. A mutual acquaintance of ours.” His eyes narrowed, hate radiating off him in waves. “A man by the name of Arlen Hogg.”
Arlen Hogg. Now there was a blast-from-the-past. Last I tangled with him, he was working with the Little Brothers of the Blade at this lab over Hub-side, working to create an uber virus that’d make a loyal army of the near-dead. I didn’t know his story, but the guy had some awful powerful backers—including the Irish Morrigan—and was as crazy as a college kid on bath salts. I’d shut him down, burned his mad-scientist lab to the ground, and killed a bunch of his goons. He’d managed to beat feet before I could turn him into meat paste, though, and I hadn’t heard anything about him since.
What could this guy want with Hogg? Hogg had done some brutal, messed up experimentation of humans and halfies alike, so personal revenge maybe?
Before I could ask him, Levi simply pulled open the door and strode out onto a wide street packed with the hustle and bustle of commuters on their way here or there. Except these weren’t your typical urbanite dwellers. Ahh, no. Not even close. Many were human, men and women of every nationality, but they all looked oddly washed out and pale. Plus, most of them were rotting and moldering, their skin sloughing away in places, revealing ropy muscle beneath or the gleam of white bone. Many of the fresher-looking corpses were missing big chunks of meat, as though someone had taken out a big bite.
Uncomfortable recollections of the zombies Pa Beauvoir had summoned in Cité Soleil flashed through my mind. Except, these zombies didn’t seem all that interested in eating brains or terrorizing the unprepared living. They seemed like people, just dead ones. The craziest thing, though, was that the almost-zombies were the most normal looking freaks in the crowd.
Horribly disfigured people—clad in dusty leather and adorned with barbed wire, wicked hooks, and rusty chains—bebopped along like this was just another day at the office. Most were hairless, their lips and noses carved away, their skin melted like wax or flayed clean off. Other, less-human things, scuttled by en mass. A prodigiously fat, bald man slithered by on a set of giant octopus tentacles, studded with fleshy spikes. Further up, I spotted a cloven-hoofed woman with saggy tits and decaying wings protruding from her back walking a praying mantis, the size of a large Rottweiler, on a leash.
And that was just the opening act of this horror-show.
There were nightmares of every flavor, in endless iterations, for as far as the eye could see. I faltered for a second as a little girl of ten, with blonde hair, big blue eyes, and a faded floral dress ambled by on my right. She looked perfectly normal. Absolutely adorable, really. The bleeding-heart in me almost stopped to see if she needed help, but then I noticed the bubble of open space she moved in. Monsters on every side shot secretive, fearful glances at the girl and gave her a wide berth as though she was the real nightmare walking these streets.
I shuddered involuntarily.
I’d been to a lot of awful places, but this was the worst, hands down.
Still, I couldn’t afford to freeze and since none of the commuters glanced my way, I edged out into the flow of the crowd. My skin, clammy before, instantly broke out in rivulets of sweat, matting my shirt to my chest, while perspiration exploded across my brow. Holy shit. As unbearably hot as the inside of the room had been, it was even worse outside, and the press of too-hot bodies certainly didn’t help. Maneuvering through the crowd was like doing the back-stroke through a pool of liquid magma. The blistering heat was a sucker-punch to the teeth, which left me drunkenly reeling, fighting off a wave of dizziness.
Naturally, no one else seemed to notice the ungodly weather, and I briefly wondered if it was just me.
Was I sick, maybe? That would certainly explain a few things.
A few people—again “people” only in the most generous sense of the word—jostled me in passing, their disfigured faces contorted in hateful malice. Whatever those monsters saw in me gave ’em pause, though, because they all kept right on trucking, biting back any angry remarks. Remembering Molester ’Stache McGee’s warning, I coaxed my feet into motion and carved my way through the foot traffic, stealing cautious glances at the ginormous city stretching out around me.
Craggily black spires, tall as sky scrapers, clawed at an infinitely dark sky devoid of stars but stained with chaotically swirling clouds of deep purple and sooty gray. Pinpricks of fiery light, which could only be windows, dotted the towering structures like insect eyes while huge veins of glowing magma zigzagged over the building faces. For some reason, all I could think of were termite mounds. Ginormous, otherworldly termite mounds. Though the unnatural buildings flanked me on either side, stretching forever upward, the street itself was filled with shops.
I mean they didn’t look like shops, just twisted black mounds with crude doorways slicing into the huge termite-towers, but the riot of neon signs advertised the wares within. One sign, burning a merry fire-engine-red, looked like another motel: Wayfarers Rest. Another advertised high-quality body-shop work, but instead of mufflers or head gaskets, there were actual human body parts dangling in the grimy window: hands, arms, feet, lungs. Other signs—fallout-green, lightning-strike blue, cotton-candy pink—boasted everything from sex and pain to gambling and food.
Honestly, I was expecting the weird shops, but there was also a variety of mundane business which gave me real pause: Payday Loans. Greasy Spoon Fast-Food joints. A ghoulish lingerie boutique with monstrous manikins, sporting far too many limbs. There was even a shop offering tax-auditing services—“Don’t lose an arm and a leg this tax season,” their sign read. I simply dropped my head, refusing to look at the twisted cityscape, the horrible shops, or the stomach-churning city folk, and forced my feet to keep on keepin’ on.
Survival was the important thing now, and survival meant not gawking like some country bumpkin in the Big Apple for the first time. That was a surefire way to get picked out as an easy mark in a place like this.
Levi trudged along at a good clip, so I picked up the pace, each footfall churning up a small cloud of dust the color of chalky cat-litter. I raised a hand and covered my mouth, blocking out the fine grit fighting to get into my nose and clog my lungs. Like the oppressive heat, the dust didn’t seem to bother any of the other denizens, so my odd gesture drew a few unwanted eyes, but I couldn’t help it—the shit made it impossible to breathe. I edged my way past an emaciated woman with two hairless heads and found my flannel-wearing guide waiting patiently for me at a tight intersection.
He was leaning stiffly against a stone wall, shooting for casual and inconspicuous.
He failed spectacularly.
I hadn’t known Levi for long, but I got the feeling he wasn’t really a casual sort of guy. No, he looked perpetually uptight, like he had a stick shoved so far up his ass he wouldn’t be able to sit right. And as for inconspicuous, the guy was groping the wall with one hand, his muddy eyes hazy and unfocused; lost in whatever strange magic he was up to. After a few seconds, he snapped out of the trance, his gaze latching onto me. He nodded and jerked his head toward a connecting street, one lined with more shops and filled with more weirdos, which quickly snaked out of view.
I beelined toward him, cutting through the ebb and flow of bodies.
“Think we might’ve lost them,” Levi said matter-of-factly as I drew near. “They’re still in the area, though, so we need to be careful. Come on, we’ve got a ways to go before we get to the safe house and a lot can happen between here and there.” Without offering any other explanation, he turned and headed down the connecting street, sticking close to the wall so he could drag his plump digits along the stone.
“How’s about you tell me who is after us. I might only have one eye”—I tapped at my temple—“but it works alright. I can keep watch if you tell me what to watch for.”
He stole a sidelong glance at me then shook his head. “If you see ’em it’s already too late. From that close, they’ll taste your scent in the air and be on us like a school of piranha.”
“Still,” I replied dryly, “I’d feel a tad bit better if I at least knew who I should be on guard for.” I absently squeezed over to the left, making room for what I could only call a minotaur. The passerby had an actual bull-head and was covered head-to toe in coarse brown hair. Poor fella had to be hot as balls. He certainly smelled like he was hot as balls—the odor wafting off him was a delightful perfume of musty cheese and rotten old cabbage.
“Flesh-Eaters,” Levi replied, pitching his voice low and eyeing the passing minotaur suspiciously, as though afraid of being overheard. “They’re Asmodeus’ secret police.”
Asmodeus again. The name was so familiar—like it should be easy to remember, like it should mean something to me—but it didn’t.
“You say that like it outta mean something to me,” I offered, before stealing a look over one shoulder. Maybe Levi’s paranoia was spreading, but it almost felt like we were being watched. Nothing. Just the awful heat, the press of unnatural bodies, and the warren of shops illuminated by the constant glow of neon-lighting.
“But I can’t remember anything,” I continued. “Not you. Not this place. Not Asmodeus. None of it, pal. So maybe you could pretend like I know all of Jack-Shit and start at the beginning. Just tell me who this Asmodeus guy, why he’s sending people after me, and where we are. I’ve traveled all over Outworld, and I’ve never heard of a place like this. Never.”
Levi sniffed, pushed his glasses up the bridge of his nose. “You really don’t remember any of it?” he asked, voice brimming with skepticism. “No recollection since Ong?”
“Sorry.” I tilted my head and puckered my lips into a thin line. “Bad, bad hangover. I’m sure you know how it is.”
“Maybe I do,” he replied with a cryptic nod. Carefully, he ran squat hands over his pants, his thin lips pressed into a tight line. “Your memory loss is probably a side-effect of the exorcism,” he threw out off-handedly like it was no big deal. “It should come back to you in bits and pieces,” he continued. “As to where we are, you’ve never heard about this place, because most people who come here, don’t leave. We’re not in Outworld. We’re past Outworld. In Hell.”
“Hell?” I asked, the word distasteful in my mouth. That couldn’t be right.
Demons occasionally crossed the threshold, but the living didn’t go to the Underworld, and the dead, in turn, didn’t venture back to the Mortal Planes—Inworld or Out. Ghosts and Specters managed it by not crossing over in the first place, but once over … Well, that was it. End game. Checkmate. The final nail in the coffin. And to top it off, Hell’s Gates were guarded by Arawn the Horned, Protector of the Unfettered Fae, who maliciously hunted down any unfortunate soul stupid enough to try and escape from the fires of the Great Below.
No one got past Arawn. I knew from personal experience that the guy was about as dangerous as a dirty bomb.
Levi nodded his head. “Gehenna,” he confirmed. “We’re in Pandæmonium, the capital of the Second Circle. Presided over by King Asmodeus. The very same Asmodeus who wants you dead.”