“Come on, Cutter. Concentrate.” Blowing a few stray dark blond hairs from her face, Hammer replaced the mashed pomegranate with a fresh one, handing the damaged fruit to Catch to salvage something edible.
“I am.” Cutter sighed and rubbed his hand around the ribbon. The muscles didn’t feel sore like they would have when he was alive. It was just a dull echo of living pain, a mockery of the real thing.
“It would be easier against something outside,” Hammer grunted, folding her blue-lined arms over her thin chest in frustration. “We’ve been cooped up here for weeks. This is bullshit.”
“Isn’t it better when it’s quiet?” Catch rescued as many seeds as he could and collected them into a bowl half full from Cutter’s previous efforts with quick, precise movements of his long pale fingers.
“Don’t you want to get this shit over with?” Hammer sighed in annoyance. “Do you want to be doing this till the end of time?”
Catch and Cutter looked away but Mastiff clicked her tongue. “Rushing through doesn’t do much good. You’re here until whatever’s in charge says you don’t need to be.”
“You may buy that bullshit but not me,” Hammer grunted, rolling her eyes and giving Cutter an elbow to the ribs. “Keep it up, new kid. You don’t wanna get left behind.”
Feeling a strange tingle up his arm, Cutter’s black eyes focused on the ripe fruit on the kitchen counter. The ribbon on his hand glowed and a red slash of light materialized above the pomegranate. Forehead creasing with effort, Cutter slowly cut the fruit into four even pieces before letting the crimson blade vanish.
“Awesome!” Mastiff with a gleaming white smile clapped her palms together, keeping her fingers splayed to protect her wet nail polish. “You’ve developed great control!”
“At a snail’s pace,” Hammer grumbled, snatching up one of the slices and picking at the juicy seeds.
“It’s only been a few weeks. Give the kid a break.” Blowing on her polish, Mastiff gave Cutter a thumbs up. Catch nodded, unable to keep a smile from his face. “Unless you want to end up on the wrong end of one of his blades because you ran your mouth again, idiota.” She smirked.
Before another argument could break out, the mirror in the living room rippled and Key jumped through. “Hello, my dearies!” He smiled and bowed with an extravagant flourish. Despite the dramatic entrance, his suit and nearly translucent blond hair remained impeccably in place. His ever-present sunglasses didn’t slide an inch over his sharp nose. “Ready for some action today?”
“Fucking finally!” Hammer stretched and licked her fingers clean of sticky juice. “It’s so damn boring sitting on my ass doing nothing.”
“More Howlers?” Mastiff put her collection of polishes away and hopped to her feet.
“A different flavor for you all this time. Some phantoms!”
“These are fear-based.” Mastiff caught Cutter’s confused expression. “They tend to gather where really bad things have happened. Either people died in fear or managed to survive whatever took place and their fear is left as an impression.”
“Come on, now! Let’s not dawdle!” Key gave an exaggerated wave to usher them along as they filed through the spinning vortex. “The sooner you get to work, the sooner you reap the rewards!”
“Good luck, chickadees! I’ll be back to collect you as I have some other business to attend to!” Key gave them all a curt wave and spun into the portal. Cutter watched it close behind him while the others headed for the house.
The dizziness felt more tolerable this time but Cutter felt grateful when his feet hit solid ground. The wind rustled in the field around them, making the dry reeds hiss as they swayed into each other. He reached out and touched the withered plants. “What is this?”
“This is supposed to be corn.” Catch muttered, pulling one of the stalks down. “But it’s all dried up.”
Mastiff poked at one of the plants, frowning when flies jumped off. “Is this a farm?”
“Who cares?” Hammer’s hand glowed as she summoned a giant mallet under her feet to raise her above the corn to get a better view. “There’s a house that way.” She pointed to a faint source of light nearby impossible to see through the dying crops and recalled her weapon, heading for the home without waiting for the others.
“Stick close to us. These can be intense.” Mastiff shared a look with Catch, who tried to give a reassuring smile but it was clear he didn’t feel sincere. “And they bring back rough memories.”
“What do these look like?” Cutter whispered, flexing his hand to feel the security of his ribbon.
“They can vary depending on what happened to spawn them.” Mastiff gingerly waded through the field, trying to keep her nails from getting smudged and keep her balance in her high heels. “Usually no eyes, no lower jaw a lot of the time… Appendages may vary.”
“And they don’t scream.” Catch’s eyes narrowed as they approached the open yard. “Just click and whimper.”
“Like when someone plays with a balloon to make it squeak.” Mastiff shuddered. “Don’t let them touch you. Their skin oozes a paralyzer.”
“Figures.” Cutter ducked a stalk as it broke when he tried to push it aside.
“Wait.” Catch put his arm out in front of Cutter and looked around.
“I hear it.” Mastiff summoned her dog; glowing bright red among the dying plants. He sniffed around, circling the three of them before growling at a shuddering spot in the dark. “There!”
Catch threw out a wide net and collapsed it around the shadow, dragging it into view. It clicked and hissed, much like the dry corn stalks brushing against each other. Before Cutter could even summon a blade, Mastiff’s dog crushed it in his jaws.
When she swayed on her feet, Cutter held on to her arm. “Are you alright?”
“Watch out!” Catch pushed them aside and trapped one blob in mid-air as it leaped towards Mastiff and crushed it in his net. Like Mastiff, he stumbled back gripping his head in pain.
The ground hissed and clicked as Mastiff tried to focus, her giant dog circling to protect them. Catch’s ribbon sputtered to life but not in time for the coming enemies. He barely held them back and Cutter prepared to attack despite his fear.
“Will you hurry the fuck up!” Hammer screeched as a series of glowing red mallets flew through the air. Each one landed hard on the approaching forms in the darkness. They all hit with the same sickening wet crunch from the shapeless forms skittering through the field. The assault continued until all that could be heard was the breeze and the panting of the three among the dead creatures.
Mastiff patted Cutter on the hand and pushed away to stand on her own. “Thanks hon. These things pack a wallop.”
“Pack a what? Who says that anymore?” Hammer threw up her hands in exasperation. “They’re gone! Let’s go!” Hammer left them to collect themselves and stormed off to the house.
“You guys alright?” Cutter looked back and forth between them and tried not to notice the tears in their eyes.
Catch sniffed and went after Hammer without a word. Mastiff dabbed at her eyes with her fingertips and took in a shuddering breath. “Yeah, kid. We’ll be alright. Just be careful with these.”
“Sure,” Cutter mumbled, watching them go. He looked around the darkness and followed, an electric chill dancing over his spine.
Once they cleared the field, a small barn and farmhouse with a single flickering light inside came into view. The barn was shut tight and locked with a chain. A rancid smell grew in strength as they neared the open door.
“Fucking stinks. Of all the senses we get to keep.” Hammer waved her hand over her face and only succeeded in disturbing the flies in the air.
Cutter’s stomach rolled as the sound of flies filled his ears. Hammer strolled right in but Catch touched Cutter’s elbow. “You may not want to go in there.”
“I’ll be fine.” Cutter gagged as the smell thickened as they moved deeper into the home.
Cutter made a supreme effort not to look at the shape lying motionless in the chair in front of a television with a broken screen. He told himself the brown stains were coffee or tea. It couldn’t be the natural result of the figure unable to see the screen due to missing most of a head. The kitchen was a break in the smell of human decay to that of rotting food. Dinner prepared and left uneaten; one plate broken on the floor with a smeared footprint in the spilled food. It tracked to the carpet where someone ran upstairs.
“I hear clicking up here.” Mastiff had her hand over her nose and motioned for the others to follow her.
The stairs creaked but the clicking and whining overshadowed the old wood. Hammer pushed forward, the light of her ribbon filling the dark hallway as she armed herself with a small mallet with spikes on both ends. Cutter followed suit, calling a small dagger into his hand but Mastiff stayed in front of him. He didn’t want to feel coddled but Cutter had to admit while he kept control in the kitchen and didn’t flee when he saw the body in the living room, facing a new enemy didn’t compare and he was glad for the support.
Hammer stopped in a doorway and even in the bad lighting, they all could see the usually snide expression on her face warp into disgusted horror. “Oh my God.”
“What is it?” Mastiff ran to her side and looked into the room; immediately turning away. All the color drained out of her dark skin. “No. Oh, no.”
“What?” Cutter went to the stairs but Catch stopped him on the first step.
“They’re all dead. Just little kids.” Mastiff let tears fall, not caring about the smeared makeup.
“Shotgun, maybe.” Hammer’s voice caught and she pushed Mastiff away from the door. She whispered but was cut off by a gloppy shadow knocking her to the floor. Her gleaming weapon barely kept the phantom at bay.
Mastiff’s dog flashed to life, knocking the phantom away and snapping its neck, and throwing it away into the darkness. “Are you alright?” She grunted against the pain of killing the creature and memories snapping into place.
Hammer pushed away from the offered hand without taking her eyes from the room. “There’s more.” She rasped. “They’re coming!”
The glowing red dog growled and jumped to Mastiff’s side. Catch moved forward, taking Mastiff’s place as Cutter’s guard. Before the young man could object, lumbering horrors oozed from the room, clicking and whining. The first had a head with no jaw, tongue dangling from whatever arcane substance kept them together, glaring with one intact eye socket as it dragged itself forward with a collection of molten appendages with long nails and misplaced teeth. Catch threw a net to catch the advancing creatures, his heels digging in as the phantoms keened high in agitation and regurgitating bile and acid burbled through the red strands.
“Cutter get back.” Catch pulled as hard as he could but the relentless scraping kept pulling him forward. “I can’t hold them!”
“I can help!” Cutter summoned a long dagger; ready to charge forward.
“No,” Mastiff’s dog tore through Catch’s net, devouring the creatures. “Too much for you-” She gasped before sinking to her knees.
“You fucking idiot!” Hammer threw herself on top of Mastiff and crushed a phantom ready to pounce on her. “You should have just let me take the lead! This is worse than last time!”
“We can do this.” Mastiff struggled to her feet and her dog helped her stand, ready to fight. “You’re not in this alone no matter how much of a bitch you are.”
“Stop being stupi-” Hammer was cut off when a rope from Catch pulled her off her feet to avoid another clicking form of wiggling fingers with no nails but eyes at every tip.
“Pay attention.” Catch crushed the creature in his net but almost sank to his knees in pain.
Cutter ran to his side but a black rolling tangle of knees and heads snapped at his feet, forcing Catch to push him away.
“Run.” Catch’s eyes lost focus but he managed to contain the black knot and destroy it before passing out.
A hollow ache sank in Cutter’s chest where once his heart would be pounding, his ears rang but not loud enough to drown out the clicking and whining all around him. A dark cloud rose, somewhere he heard Hammer and Mastiff yelling his name. The cloud rolled and looked at him with a cluster of eyes, a dozen or more mouths opened with too many teeth to fit properly and let loose with whines pitched so high, it pierced their ears and rang in their heads.
Holding his ears, Cutter turned and ran down the stairs and the deformed mass rolled after him; through the living room and to the front door. The phantom slammed against it when Cutter pulled it shut behind him, still screaming in the children’s voices.
Cutter looked around, more clicking and moans came from the field. He felt the darkness closing in around him, panic rising as he looked for a place to hide. He ran to the back of the barn, finding it unlocked. He slammed the door as hard as he could, gasping for air and coughing when it stank of car fumes and the same rot inside the house.
When he looked around, Cutter backed away from the door until he hit the truck. Flies jumped into the air and a wet thunk hit the window near Cutter’s head. He turned to see someone sitting in the driver’s seat. When he peered through the window, he saw letters with red words demanding payment and a man dead in the driver’s seat with a shotgun in his lap.
More creatures bubbled out from the crack under the driver’s side door and the straggler from the house slithered around the same door Cutter used. Cutter backed away as they joined and formed into one mass of eyes and mouths and rolled towards him.
“No, don’t.” Cutter sobbed, his ribbon glowing in the darkness of the small barn. The hissing from the mouths increased as it advanced, reaching at him with blinking empty eyes dangling from wet fingertips.
“Stay away!” Cutter screamed at the top of his lungs, lashing out at the creature with as much power as he could. A spray of sharp crimson razors went out from his hand in every direction, a deadly cloud shredding not only the phantom in front of him but all of the ones surrounding the barn.
Cutter screamed in pain and collapsed, writhing in agony while the phantoms sputtered and died.
“You—how—yo-fault—disgusting—if he finds out—“
“We can’t let him catch us.”
“Just once. Just a little bit.”
“He might hear…”
“You little shit! What have you done!”
‘What have I done…’
Cutter woke up this time with his head aching and he curled into the softness of his bed. The voices of that fragmented memory echoed through the pain as he struggled to make sense of it.
“You should rest more.” Cutter opened his eyes to see Hammer sitting at his bedside reading a book. “Phantoms are some of the worst. The others are still resting, too.”
Cutter tried to sit up but his head swam, forcing him back to the pillow. “How come you’re okay?”
Hammer looked down at her long fingers. “I’m used to it. There’s not much left for me to remember.”
“Oh.” Cutter rubbed his eyes. “Thank you.”
“The new memories must have been bad. You were crying in your sleep.”
‘It was that same voice screaming. I did something wrong; something really bad.’ Cutter let his hands fall to his sides and stared at the ceiling. “What if I don’t want to remember? What if I was a bad person?” He muttered.
“None of us are really ‘good people’ or we wouldn’t have ended up here.” Hammer leaned back in her chair and fiddled with her ribbon. “Key said we’re here to make up for something we wasted. We’re being punished.”
Cutter pulled the covers up to his chin and curled up against the pillow. He didn’t want Hammer to see him fight his tears.
“At least you probably only screwed up your life. I was pregnant when I overdosed.” Hammer stood and left the room without another word, closing the door behind her.
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