“Fast wasn’t it? It all seems so long while you’re goin’ but it’s nothing but a blink when it’s over.”
The thin figure on the floor moaned and a trembling hand reached towards the voice. A bleached blonde head with indistinct features leaned over dangling a red string in his line of sight.
“Here. This goes on your hand. Then you’ll be able to talk.”
The world solidified when the soft string was wound around the thin wrist and his black eyes blinked up at the stranger over him.
“Where?” The voice that came from his throat didn’t sound right.
The stranger’s rump hit a hard surface nearby with an indelicate thud. “You probably have a lot of questions but you should get off the floor first.”
His limbs felt heavy as he took in the empty, plain apartment that was not where he remembered laying down; everything beige and foreign. The boy sputtered in fear and tried to scramble to his feet, slamming his shoulder into a door frame before the stranger caught him by the collar of his t-shirt and pulled him back into a seated position on the floor.
“Whoa there, kid. You came in pretty rough. You may want to take it easy before you go running around.”
The boy wiped his face as if to scrub off confusion. “What is going on? Who are you?”
The stranger pushed his sunglasses up his nose and stood with a slanted grin. “Long or short version?”
“Short.” He grumbled through a pounding headache.
“Short version?” The man tapped his sharp chin with a bleached eyebrow raised high. “You sure?”
The stranger picked the boy up by the arm and led him to a nearby couch. He picked up the two brown hands in his pale ones to turn them palm up. The boy blinked to clear his blurry vision and saw the man’s right hand was blood red before focusing on the bright blue slashes on his otherwise smooth wrists.
The boy’s eyes widened in horror as he stared at the blue lines. “What? How?”
The pale man grabbed the boy by the collar of his shirt and pulled him to his feet. “The long version always works better! And there are handy visual aids! Time to go!”
He dragged the stunned boy through a mirror that rippled like gel when they touched it. They both came out of the portal on a rooftop in the cold. The boy landed on his back and pale man on his feet with his shoulders back to make the severe lines of his black suit almost comical in how much effort Key put into appearing professional.
The boy looked up and a twisted shadow with a jagged beak flew at him with an ear-splitting shriek. Before he could scream in terror, a glowing red hammer crushed the thing into the tiles between his feet. Trembling violently, the boy looked up from the twitching shadow to the only other figure on the roof with them; a thin blond woman looking down at him with disgust. With a flick of her wrist, the translucent hammer vanished, leaving the dusty remnants of the creature behind.
“Ah! Too close! Too close!” The stranger with the sunglasses squealed. “You need to be more careful with that thing!”
The boy watched her turn away to inflict her weapon on a flock of those creatures in the air above them and saw two other people doing the same; a tall man wielding a gleaming red net and a heavyset woman with a vicious red dog chewing on one of the bird-like creatures.
The stranger looked down at the wide-eyed boy then back at the hammer-wielding woman. “Naughty! You’ll scare the new guy!” He yelled at her retreating back.
In response the woman ignored him and the boy screamed at the top of his lungs.
The stranger bent down to the boy’s ear. “Want the long version now?”
The boy whimpered and backed towards the ledge.
“I’ll take your stunned silence as a yes.” He looked down at the terrified kid then back up to the flock of creatures. “Your life ended before the fated time. Because of this, you are here to work off the debt you owe for that missed potential. One demon at a time.” He crouched down in front of the boy and snapped his fingers to make the dark eyes focus on him. “Then you can cross over. Simple, right?”
The boy passed out.
His head hurt when he woke up and the boy rubbed his eyes. Squirming, he found himself in a comfortable bed.
He jumped and pushed himself away from the voice before seeing the smiling face of one of the women from the roof.
“It’s ok! You’re safe here.” She smiled, leaning back in her chair. “They call me Mastiff. We don’t remember our old names from when we were alive so we end up with new ones. Yours will come to you eventually.” She tilted her head, gleaming auburn curls tumbling over one shoulder. “Didn’t Key tell you?”
The boy shook his head. “You mean… I’m really…” His voice caught, unwilling to say the words.
“Oh, sweetheart.” Mastiff shook her head and leaned forward in her chair extending her hand but he shrank away from her. Like the boy, a red cord crisscrossed her hand and was knotted at the wrist. “Yes. I’m sorry. You’re dead. Just like me.”
“But I… But I didn’t…”
“Think hard. Most of your old life is gone but those last moments are always the first to drift back.”
The boy felt hot tears on his cheeks and covered his face, choking back sobs as he tried to think. He couldn’t remember his name, his home; but he could remember shouting. Pain. He remembered a kitchen knife and a warm bath.
He dropped his hands and stared at his wrists, the thick blue slashes standing out bright in accusation against the dark warmth of his natural skin tone.
He started when Mastiff reached out and gently touched them. “We all have these; the marks of how we died.” She turned in the chair, spinning her hair in her hand to pull up over her neck with one hand and pulling up the back of her shirt with the other. A blue burst like a paint splatter went from the back of her neck and down the tan skin of her spine. “I fell off a roof. Snapped my neck first thing so I didn’t suffer.” Mastiff straightened her clothes; fancy things the boy knew would have cost a fortune back when she was alive. “Key really should have told you. He can be such a dramatic little bitch sometimes.”
The boy calmed as it all set in; the lingering emptiness, the sensation of flying apart and being put back together when Key put the ribbon on his hand. “That blonde guy. That’s Key?”
“In all his glory, chico.” She smiled, bright white teeth gleaming between lightly glossed lips.
“Is he dead, too?”
“I don’t know. He’s not like the rest of us. He discovered us, you could say. Sent by whoever made the rules for us.”
He looked up at her, taking in the news. “And who is ‘whoever’?”
Mastiff leaned back in the creaky desk chair with a sigh. “Mama would say we angered God by wasting our lives. But the things I’ve seen, I’m not so sure about the God part.” She cursed under her breath in Spanish before looking back at the boy. “There are things we all should have done in life but we ended up dead. So, we make up for it by hunting things like you saw on the roof. We won’t know our work is done until we pass on so we just keep going.” She lifted her left hand. “The cords keep our spirits here and give us each an ability to fight them. You saw Hammer’s up close and personal.”
Frowning, the boy nodded and scooted closer in attention.
“The more you fight, the more stuff comes back. Hammer’s been here the longest so she remembers the most and she’s always pissed off. Remembering isn’t always fun.” She said, wistfully. “But I get off track. I do that. I can remember I was always a talker.”
The boy nearly smiled but it didn’t hold.
“While we work off our debt, we live here. All four of us. This is your room. We still sleep but no toilet. You won’t need that.” Mastiff blushed a little. “We can eat only pomegranate seeds. That’s the only way we can keep going and no regular food does the job anymore. Don’t ask me why.” She said at his look of confusion. “That’s just how it is.”
The boy blinked slowly but said nothing. In the silence, he didn’t hear his heart beating and he sighed. “This is crazy. But I know it’s true.”
Mastiff grinned wide. “We all said that when we got here. It all sounds like total crap but in our being, we know this is real.” She stood and held out her hand again. “Ready to meet the others?”
“I guess.” He took her hand and Mastiff pulled him to his feet. He wobbled a moment before she let go and he walked on his own. He was taken aback at how tall and pretty she was. From what he could remember about clothes, every item on Mastiff from her shimmering blouse, black jeans, and high leather boots fit her perfectly as if they were custom made for her. He looked down at his plain t-shirt, jeans, and filthy battered sneakers and was a little embarrassed. Until he saw Hammer in ripped stockings, a tight miniskirt, and faded halter top with her bare feet on the table as she lounged on the couch. In the light, he could see the same blue of his scars in every vein on her skin; even into her short blonde hair. When they walked in, she turned away from the news on the television and scowled at him.
“Don’t fucking stare at me,” Hammer growled.
Mastiff rolled her eyes. “That means ‘hi.’ Over there is Catch.” She pointed to the kitchen where a tall, lanky man in a turtleneck sweater sipped on a mug of coffee. His olive skin blushed brightly and he stuttered a greeting before staring into his cup. Like Mastiff, Catch’s marks weren’t obvious and the boy wondered where and what they were.
“Guys, this is the new kid. Key said he came in harder than most do so take it easy on him.”
“He got a name yet?” Hammer snapped looking back at the screen.
“Cutter.” The boy piped up, his blue marks tingling. “Call me Cutter.”
It didn’t take long for Mastiff to show Cutter around. Each person had a room, there was a small kitchen, a large living room with a television and plenty of places to sit around it, and a huge mirror where a door should have been. Mastiff was right about the toilet but there was a tiny room with a shower stall tucked away in a corner as if an afterthought.
“We don’t really sweat or anything.” Mastiff shrugged. “But we get guts and stuff on us sometimes.”
“Are we trapped in here?” Cutter chewed on his lip. “There’s no door.”
“The mirror is our way in and out.” She said, smiling at Catch when he handed her a steaming mug of coffee. “We can go whenever but there’s always a pull in our spirits leading us back here. Think of it as home base.” She giggled.
“And Key has to get stuff for us.” Catch mumbled. “The living don’t see us or hear us so we can’t shop for things.”
“We pass through people like ghosts. The only things we can touch outside this room are whatever we’re standing on and the things we kill.” Mastiff took a long sip of coffee. “More proof the world isn’t for us anymore. Coffee doesn’t give me a jolt. Still tastes halfway decent, though.” She mused.
“That’s lovely…” Cutter sighed, hugging himself.
“That’s fucking perfect.” Hammer hissed, pushing him aside to get to the refrigerator. “No assholes to get in our way.” She pulled a pomegranate from the pile in a big glass bowl and let the door shut on its own Hammer tossed the fruit at Catch, who fumbled it one-handed before clutching it to his chest. Cutter blinked, impressed the shy man didn’t even spill his coffee.
“Cut that up, will ya?” Hammer snapped, turning her back on all of them to watch TV.
Without responding, Catch reached into a drawer and pulled out a sharp knife while Mastiff rolled her eyes and took the coffee from him to free his hands to work. With expert skill, Catch removed the top, sliced the skin, and parted the fruit into four even slices without losing a single seed. Catch plated the slices and went to serve Hammer but Mastiff stopped him.
“Don’t be shitty. At least come and get it yourself.”
Heaving a dramatic sigh, Hammer turned and snatched the plate out of his hand; not even looking at the other three before assuming her position on the couch with her feet up while she ate.
“Don’t let her boss you around, hon.” Mastiff nudged Catch with her elbow.
“But I like to cook.” Catch looked away, somehow looking smaller despite being the tallest of the four. “I don’t get to really do it. We don’t eat much…” He trailed off, picking up his cup again and hiding his lips behind it.
“You used to cook?” Cutter leaned over the small island in the kitchen, eager to know about these strange, new people.
Catch turned red and looked away. “Yeah. I remember a little. Now, anyway. But my hands never forgot.”
Mastiff rescued him before he could bite his tongue off with his babbling. “Somehow, we retain our talents when we get here. I remember how to do my hair and makeup. I was a model when I was alive.” She winked at Cutter with a perfectly lined eye.
Cutter leaned his chin on his hand and tried to think. “I don’t think I was anything.”
“You look pretty young. Not old and jaded like the rest of us.” She chuckled and ruffled the tight curls of closely cut black hair. Cutter thought he saw Catch smile a little.
The mirror door hissed and rippled, then Key tripped through carrying much more heavy bags than a man his size should be able to carry. He stumbled and several smaller boxes fell over Hammer’s feet causing her to pull her knees up in a huff.
“What the fuck? Watch it!” Hammer shrieked at him, shoving the boxes away from her in disgust.
“Oh dear, oh dear.” Key repeated over and over as he rushed to gather up the mess. Cutter wrinkled his nose in confusion, torn between wanting to help and knowing it wasn’t really needed.
“You saw that, right?” Mastiff whispered, her eyes so serious her gaze sent a shiver down Cutter’s neck.
He only nodded. Key stumbled on purpose and Cutter noticed how controlled every move he made was; even if Hammer had no clue. And Mastiff noticed, too; how unnatural Key looked when trying to feign clumsiness. It was creepy and grating to the eye, sparking a distant unease echoing in memories he couldn’t access.
His musings were cut short when Hammer slammed several grocery bags on the kitchen island. “God, that stupid little ass. I’ve seen toddlers with more coordination.”
While Catch busied himself with the task of searching through the bags, Mastiff gaped wide-eyed at the thin woman still muttering angrily under her breath. “Some idiot let you near children?” Mastiff gasped in faux horror.
With palpable venom, Hammer glared at Mastiff. “Well, someone let you near cake, so.” She sneered.
“Oh! A fat joke? Typical. Don’t hate because this fat made more money than you could ever shoot up.” Mastiff laughed, finishing her coffee and moving to help Catch with the bags.
‘She overdosed.’ Cutter thought, the blue lines on his wrists itching in sympathy. ‘That’s why her veins are blue.’ He distantly remembered being told to stay away from drugs and needles but no details about who or when he was told this information were gone.
Key scuttled around the apartment cleaning up the toppled boxes. Balancing three in one hand, he slipped around the furniture and Cutter to offer one of the smallest ones to Mastiff. “Here ya go! As requested, honey!”
Cutter had to cover his mouth to hide his silly grin when Mastiff squealed like a little kid and snatched the box away to rip the top off.
“This is a discontinued, limited edition shade!” She gushed, tossing away the box, which Cutter clumsily caught, and held the bottle of dark nail polish lovingly to her chest. “How did you find it?”
“You don’t wanna know.” Key pushed his shades up on his nose and handed a rectangular box to Catch who froze like a deer in headlights before turning away from the grocery bags to take it. “One for you, too. This one was much easier.”
Catch opened the box and Cutter leaned over the counter to see the tall man lift a slim blade from the box and mumble a “Thank you.” that could barely be heard. He turned immediately to wash it and set to work unpacking the rest of the shopping bags.
“Tut tut! So shy! We’re all friends here!” Key spun like a dancer and dropped another box into Hammer’s lap.
Ripping it open, Hammer let the remnants of the cardboard fall to the floor. “About time.” She groaned, twisting the cap off the tall bottle of rum and taking a long pull.
“What a waste.” Mastiff sighed, shaking her head and looking at Cutter. “We can’t get drunk.”
Key didn’t wait for Hammer to respond before patting Cutter on the back and handing him two huge plastic bags. “I grabbed some spare clothes for you. Toss ‘em in the room, eat quick, and get ready to head out. We got some Howlers to clean up.”
Mastiff sighed again. “They’ve been all over lately.”
“It’s good on the job training for our new kid!” Key chirped while he intercepted a small bowl from Catch full of seeds and slid it in front of Cutter. Key bounced on his toes while Cutter stuffed the sweet red morsels in his mouth. Still swallowing the seeds, he tossed the bags in his room and wiped at his lips with the back of his hand, rejoining the group feeling more energized and refreshed.
“Stick close to me and Catch.” Mastiff hooked her arm around Cutter’s elbow. “We’ll keep an eye on you while you figure out what you can do.”
The younger man looked at them both, nervousness and uncertainty pooling in his chest like tar. He tensed as he was lead toward the mirror. Cutter gulped and tried to force himself to be amused by Key excitedly waving them over like he wanted his buddies to try a new amusement park ride.
Mastiff patted him on the shoulder. “You’ll be fine. Nobody gets a kill on their first day out. You probably won’t even manifest.”
“Time to go find out!” Key pulled Cutter along by the arm and into the mirror.
Not really knowing what to expect, Cutter gasped and stumbled a bit when his feet met concrete. He never felt the sensation of travel; in a blink he and his companions were in a new location. Getting his bearings, Cutter didn’t recognize the city around him. He could smell food and car exhaust. The voices he heard weren’t speaking English. “Where are we?”
“Rome.” Key proclaimed with a flourish. “But more importantly, howlers!” he squealed, flipping his hand over as a game show host would reveal a new prize.
Hammer pushed passed Cutter, the red ribbon on her hand glowing bright as a shimmering crimson mallet the size of a cereal box with a long handle appeared in her grip. Cutter watched her run headlong into a flock of twisted, black shadows in the sky. A chill went down his spine as they flickered and warped in shape rather than flap their wings. Sickly yellow eyes in varying numbers burned in their direction.
Mastiff urged Cutter forward while Catch walked silently by them both. “Remember, don’t stray far from me.” She said, her cord glowing as well. The light formed into a dog tall enough for Cutter to easily rest his elbow on top of its head without bending far. Mastiff stroked the head of the wolf-like creature. “Good boy. You ready?”
The beast growled, hackles raised and gleaming teeth bared.
Cutter gasped as the dog sped right passed Catch and Hammer, leaping into the air to snag a bundle of twitching, oily feathers in its jaws. The dog shook the howler in its teeth until the screeching stopped with a sickening crunch. The howler’s body burst apart in a scatter of ashes and glittering dust. Then the dog bounded gleefully to a cluster of the beasts in Catch’s net; crunching down on as many as it could in a mouthful and returning for more.
“Hey, Catch!” Mastiff pointed a beautifully painted nail up to a straggler flapping weakly in the air. “Nab that one before Hammer has all the fun. We’ll give the new kid a try on an easy one.”
Catch threw out a net to catch the demon, but Hammer got to it first; shattering it in midair.
“What are they?” Cutter watched the poof of dust scatter into the wind.
“Howlers are minor demons made up of lies.” Mastiff said, scratching the back of her glowing dog’s neck when it bounded back to his master for rewards.
“Stop wasting time and let’s get this done!” Hammer stomped up to them and tapped her foot.
“And how is Cutter going to get his weapon if you hog all the targets?” Mastiff let loose a heavy sigh and her red companion huffed and pushed his nose against her hand.
“And how is that my problem?” She shrugged her shoulders and turned her back on them to see if any more remained. In the distance, another swarm closed in and Hammer ran to face them.
Catch shook his head and his net vanished. “It’s easier if you have a live target.” He mumbled so low, Cutter couldn’t make out the words.
“Your weapon manifests easier if you have a live target to focus on.” Mastiff curled her fingers in her dog’s fur, making him thump his leg against the ceiling tiles. “And howlers are pretty weak.”
Cutter backed away from the thing and looked up at Hammer, watching her smash her way through the flock. “These are horrible.” He said, cringing at every wet crunch as they were destroyed.
“They should be. Every time a person tells a lie, one of those things is created.” Mastiff set her dog loose again and he batted one bird out of the sky and snapped its neck in his teeth.
Cutter fiddled with the cord wrapped around his wrist. “And I use this thing to fight them?”
Key hooked his pinky finger around Cutter’s and spun the confused man to face him. “That’s right! This string not only keeps your soul form intact; it also focuses your will into a weapon to fight the baddies!” He chirped while Cutter tried to squirm away from him. “Sometimes it’s offensive like Mastiff or defensive like Catch. It all depends on what kind of person you were before you died.” Key dropped Cutter’s hand and tapped his fingers on the side of his head, nudging his dark glasses but not enough to see his eyes. “Or is it how you died? Eh, dead, alive, it’s all the same at this point.”
“It’s really not.” Mastiff shook her head.
Catch reached out towards the furiously battling Hammer, lifting his palm so the string ends swayed in the air at his wrist. The woven thread glowed and as Cutter watched in awe, a glowing red net trapped a screaming bird and pulled it out of the way of Hammer’s last strike. Ignoring her barrage of curses, Catch brought the net and writing creature to his feet. He looked at Cutter before hiding his green eyes behind his thick, black bangs. “Now, you can try.”
Cutter cringed at the sight of the creature; a lame, broken looking thing with too many eyes all looking at him with hatred.
“Wow! That was really cool! I didn’t know your range was that far!” Mastiff gave Catch a soft smack on his bicep. “You must have been practicing without me!”
Catch’s olive skin turned cherry red and without his concentration, his net flickered. The bird lunged at Cutter who screamed and raised his arms to shield his face. Its final screech was cut off in a burst of black dust and Catch had to shield himself and Mastiff to prevent the glimmering red blade from hitting them as well.
“Ohh!! We got a blade user!” Key gushed, bouncing on his toes. “It has been forever since I had one of those!”
But Cutter didn’t hear him. He stared at the black dust as it faded away, dizziness overtaking him as a memory came back to him. Someone was hitting him. Blood on his lips, his eye swollen shut. The sting of hot water on his bruised and battered skin. The clean cuts of a knife as teas of relief rolled down his cheeks.
“Hey, kid!” Key’s black glasses suddenly filled his vision and Cutter pushed himself away. “You ok?”
“Someone hit me. I got beat and I couldn’t take it anymore!”
Hammer landed hard on the roof, cracking the tile underneath her feet. “That was my kill, you brat! Don’t you ever fucking-”
“Shut up!” Cutter screamed and a storm of red blades launched from his hand at Hammer. She barely got a blunt weapon together to block them but Mastiff was faster, her dog leaping into the path of the sharp slashes of red lights. The glowing red beast burst out of existence in a flash of crimson.
“Oh God! Oh, my God, I’m sorry! I didn’t mean to!” Cutter panicked, his body quaking and tears blossoming in his eyes.
Mastiff ran to his side and tried to take his hands but Cutter shrank away. “It’s ok! Cutter, look at me. You didn’t kill him. He’s just a manifestation. See?” She lifted her hand, the red thread shimmered, and the dog reappeared at her side. “He’s fine, kiddo.”
The dog whined and pushed his head against Cutter’s leg as he wiped his eyes. Cutter reached a shaking hand down to it and the dog poked Cutter’s palm with a dry but shockingly cold nose.
“Remember, they’re weapons.” Mastiff knelt down and ruffled the massive canine’s fur. “An adorable one but still a weapon.”
Cutter struggled to catch his breath while Key took his hand and shook it cartoonishly hard. “Amazing! Just amazing!”
“I don’t give a fuck what he can do!” Hammer shrieked but before she could take another breath to continue her rant, Catch stepped in front of her and shook his head.
“It’s the first memory.” He whispered, his voice shaking. “You remember that’s the hardest.”
Hammer sneered at him, blue eyes flashing with practiced spite and hatred. When Catch couldn’t meet her gaze, she hissed “Fuck it.” And turned away from him. “We’re done! I want out, Key!”
Key released Cutter and used his red hand to draw a man-sized oval in the air. Reality ripped and a glowing portal appeared. “You all go rest up! I think a little break is in order. I’ll finish up here!” He chirped, grabbing Cutter by the elbow and swinging him towards Mastiff, who caught the stumbling youth and let him through the portal in a smoother motion than Cutter would have expected from someone not expecting to have a person tossed at them.
Even without the throbbing dizziness, Cutter decided the portals were torture and sighed in relief when the mirror closed. Everything was noise and aching up until he felt the softness of his new bed under him.
“Poor thing.” Cutter heard off in the distance, the kind voice warbling as if he were underwater. “I’ve never seen the first memory hit so hard.”
“Hmm.” Catch’s low baritone magically refrained from aggravating the pain rolling in Cutter’s head. “Me neither. But it’s been the three of us for a long time. And you came after me.”
‘Nobody knows anything. Nobody can help me. Why am I here?’ Cutter whined and curled up tight. ‘I hate this. I hate everything. I don’t want to be here. I don’t want anything.’
Strong fingers with long nails massaged his scalp and a pair of thinner hands held the fist Cutter had clenched tight enough to hurt; urging his fingers to relax. Though the pain continued, those points of contact anchored him and his spiraling thoughts; allowing Cutter to slip into fitful rest.Recommended1 Simily SnapPublished in