“Em! Emma, get over here! Come look at this!” Halcyon shouted, beckoning her friend over to share in her latest discovery.
The two teenage girls had spent the better part of the afternoon wandering around outside the Commonwealth Shopping Plaza, lamenting the fact that it was open for pick-up only, on account of the lockdown. Eventually, their conversation turned to the old Zeller’s, which had of course been closed since 2013 when the retail chain went belly-up nationwide. The building had remained unused all that time, with no one else seemingly having any interest in repurposing it.
Out of nothing more than idle curiosity, the two girls had gone up to the lobby and searched for any breach in the boarded-up windows through which they might peer through, but to their disappointment had found none. They tried pulling on the front doors, only to find them locked as well. That had been enough to satisfy Emma’s curiosity, but Halcyon insisted on doing a walk around the building before giving up.
She hadn’t been gone a minute before Emma heard her calling for her. She ran around to the side as quickly as she could, only to find Halcyon standing in front of an emergency exit that could only be opened from the inside.
“What am I looking at?” she asked, mildly irritated at being called over for something so trivial.
“There, look,” Halcyon said excitedly, pointing at the bottom left corner of the door. There was a very small, very rough hole in between the door and its frame, just big enough for a rat to squeeze through.
“Okay. So, some rodents or something gnawed their way in here. So what?” Emma asked indifferently.
“It’s a steel door, with a steel doorframe,” Halcyon pointed out. “What the hell could chew their way through that?”
“Then it was rust damage or something. What does it matter?” Emma shrugged.
“No. There’s no rust. It's a stainless-steel door, and those are definitely teeth marks," Halcyon insisted. "Something chewed its way through that."
Emma bent down and studied the hole with renewed interest. While it looked like maybe it could have been the work of tiny teeth, she wasn’t sure she agreed that it had to be.
“So, what do you want to do? Just sit out here and freeze our butts off to see if whatever made the hole sticks its head out?” she asked.
Halcyon shook her head dismissively, instead bending down far enough to stick two fingers into the opening, hooking them onto the inside of the door. She pulled on it gently, and to her delight, it opened with ease.
“Awesome! The latch must be broken!” she declared. Before Emma could ask why that was awesome, Halcyon had opened the door just wide enough to squeeze inside. “Quick, before someone sees!”
“You can’t be serious! Why would we want to go in there?” Emma demanded.
“Why not? I’ve never been in an abandoned department store before. It might be fun, and maybe some cool stuff got left behind,” Halcyon suggested. “If we’re lucky, we might get a glimpse of whatever made that hole.”
“It could be dangerous! What if we’re not the first ones to find this door? What if there are violent or deranged guys hiding out in there, or rabid animals, or what if it’s structurally unsound and comes crashing down on us?” Emma protested. Halcyon just rolled her eyes.
“Look Em, I’m going in. Are you coming or not?” she asked. Emma crossed her arms and huffed, but nevertheless managed to drag her feet into the old department store.
The door clicked shut behind them, the tiny hole at its bottom the sole source of illumination. Anything more than a few meters away was completely cloaked in darkness.
“Wow. Can’t believe I didn’t want to see this,” Emma scoffed.
“ ‘Let me risk a little more light’," Halcyon quoted as she pulled out her smartphone and switched on the flashlight app. The small light brightly illuminated the immediate area, and cast enough light further afield that they could see much of the mostly empty salesfloor. The concrete support columns loomed haughtily above them, casting long shadows that performed a macabre dance as Halcyon moved her phone. “Behold! The lost retail realm of Zellers!”
“Come ride with me! All aboard the Zeddy Wheel!” a deep and distorted voice replied to her melodramatic declaration.
Emma screamed as she reflexively jumped behind Halcyon for protection, who didn’t so much as flinch at the insidious sounding invitation.
“Em. Em, chill out. It’s just Zeddy,” Halcyon laughed as she moved fearlessly towards the source of the sound. “You remember Zeddy, don’t you?”
The beam of her flashlight fell upon the forsaken mall ride. It was a miniaturized Ferris Wheel sort of contraption with a glittering grey chassis and blinking red lights, the Zeller’s mascot of Zeddy the Teddy featured prominently on its surface.
“Yeah, we used to ride in this thing when we were little, remember?” she asked as she nostalgically ran her hand along its surface. “They must have brought it in from the lobby, but I have no idea why they’d plug it in though. Has this poor thing been asking to be ridden over and over again for years, with no one to hear it?”
She pulled the machine out from the wall a little bit, just enough to reach the electrical cord and pull it from its socket. The Wheel had begun to speak its preprogrammed advertisement, but immediately faltered and fell silent as its sole source of electricity was cut off.
“There you go Zeddy; night-night,” she smiled.
“Halcy, what if it wasn’t plugged in for eight years?” Emma asked, her voice barely more than a whisper as she struggled to keep herself from flying into a panic. “What if someone else was here recently and they’re the ones who plugged it in? What if they’re still here now? Please, please, let’s just go.”
Halcyon shone her light down upon the floor, which had accumulated a noticeable amount of dust over the years. She and Emma had left clear footprints behind, but other than a few tiny pawprints, the dust was undisturbed.
“I don’t see any other footprints, Em. We’ve got to be the only ones who’ve come through that door,” she deduced confidently.
Her assertion was instantly rebutted by a very soft, very quiet squeaking, though in the deathly silence of the abandoned store it seemed far louder than it actually was. Both girls immediately turned to face the intruding sound. The light from Halcyon’s phone fell upon a large, black rat sitting up on its haunches, gazing at them with its head cocked inquisitively to the side.
The presence of a rat in such a place was hardly unexpected or concerning on its own, but this rat possessed a pair of bright crimson eyes, eyes that looked oddly familiar to Halycon.
“Ruck?” she asked softly.
“What?” Emma asked.
“Er, nothing,” Halcyon answered hastily. She spun around and shone her light back towards the emergency exit. “That hole in the door looks about his size. Do you think he chewed his way in here?”
“I don’t care. You do what you want Halcy, but I’m not going any further into this vermin-infested shithole,” Emma announced as she headed back towards the exit. She pushed down forcefully on the handlebar with the intention of storming out in a dramatic huff, but the door didn’t open. Instead, a siren began to wail and emergency lights started to flash. Everything became awash in red light and black shadows, each continuously chasing the other in a viscerally disorienting dance.
“Em, what did you do!” Halcyon demanded.
“It’s an emergency exit! I must have triggered an alarm!” she replied as she frantically pushed against the handle over and over again, the door refusing to budge each time. “Why won’t this open!”
“Forget about it! We need to hide before security shows up!” Halcyon shouted as she grabbed Emma by the arm and pulled her away. They came to a stop after only a few strides, however, as their path forward was now blocked off by a perimeter of rats.
Seven nearly identical rats, all pitch black with blood-red eyes, sat in a semi-circle around them. All glared at the girls intently, though it was impossible to judge the motive behind that intensity. Were they curious? Territorial? Hungry? The girls were at a loss to explain the strange behaviour.
“Why are we stopping? Just step over them!” Emma insisted.
“I’m not sure that’s a good idea. There could be a lot more of them in here. If we provoke them, they might swarm us,” Halcyon objected.
Before Emma could protest, the emergency lights cut off without warning, plunging them back into total darkness. The siren continued to wail, but gradually became more and more distorted until it was little more than a banshee’s cry.
All the girls could see was the red eyeshine from the rats in front of them. At first, there were only seven pairs, but more and more disembodied sets of reflective eyes started to materialize in the darkness, filling up with them like a night sky filled with bleeding stars.
“Fuck!” Emma cursed softly, cowering behind her more courageous friend. “Halcy, you got us into this! What do we do?”
Halcyon calmly studied the field of glowing eyes before them, and noticed that with the exception of the first seven pairs, they seemed to fade in and out of existence without apparent cause. The flashlight app from her phone was still on, but the light from it simply refused to illuminate anything. But most damning of all, all the text on her home screen was nothing but garbled nonsense.
“Em… I don’t think this is really happening,” she said cautiously.
“What?” Emma demanded incredulously.
“Just listen. Last summer, I had a lucid nightmare. It sucked, but, at the same, it was also kind of amazing. I kept wondering if maybe there was a way to minimize the sucky parts and maximize the awesomeness, and eventually, I tried again. I've been lucid dreaming for months now, and… this feels like a dream to me. It's still weird, since I remember how we got here, and I'm ninety percent sure you're actually here with me, so I don't know exactly what's going, but I don't think this is real. Or, at least parts of it aren't. Do you follow me?"
Emma considered the countless pairs of luminescent eyes around them, the ghastly howling that had begun as an emergency siren, and the fact that exit had inexplicable failed to let them escape. She had to admit that it all seemed very surreal.
“Let’s say you’re right. What do we do?” she asked.
“The most important thing is to stay calm. Nightmares are feedback loops. The more you give in to fear, the worse things will get,” Halcyon answered. It was then that one of the pairs of red eyes finally lunged forth at them, revealing itself to be a gaunt yet enormous rat, almost as big as a man if you counted its tail. In the nearly non-existent lighting, its features even appeared to shift fluidly between that of a rat and that of a man, swiping an uncannily hand-like paw at them as it dove past. Though it failed to make contact, it succeeded in forcing the two girls apart. The rest of the semi-humanoid rats emerged from the darkness, splitting into two roughly equal groups that each went after one of the girls.
Screaming, Emma ran wildly into the darkness, the horde right on her heels and driving her deeper into the abandoned building.
“Emma!” Halcyon shouted. She tried to follow her, but was immediately cut off by her own throng of monstrous rats. She couldn’t tell if they were taller than her or just jumping up and down, their forms were so nebulous. If she focused on one, she could make out details, but those details would change if she took her attention off them for even an instant.
She waited for the seemingly inevitable assault, but none came. They were all hissing and snapping their elongated incisors at her, but nothing more.
“You bastards can’t actually touch me, can you?” she asked. If she was right that these were dream-forms, but that she was not actually dreaming, then it made sense that they couldn’t interact with anything physical. Deciding to take a chance, she ran right through them. They darted aside just enough to let her through, but then immediately gave chase. “Emma!”
She ran forward at full speed, not to escape her imaginary tormentors but to find and rescue her friend. Sadly, she didn’t make it far before she felt a pair of small teeth biting into her calf. Screeching in pain she collapsed and crashed onto the cold, concrete floor, narrowly avoiding cracking her skull open. The rats, the very real rats were now crawling upon her, apparently determined to make sure that she didn’t get back up. She swatted at them, but she could barely see, and they moved not only with great speed but with seemingly prescient reflexes.
“If you little rat bastards are the ones behind all of this, you picked the wrong chick to give nightmares to!” she yelled. The time had come for her to summon her dream guide, though she had never done that while she was awake before. All she could do was hope that whatever the hell was going on was close enough to a nightmare for him to appear. “Red Ruck, run amok, crowned the Regent Red. Eyes aflame, soul untamed, come join me in my bed!”
As soon as she spoke the evocation, the wailing of the siren finally came to an abrupt halt. The numerous hazy pairs of glowing red eyes disappeared and were replaced with only one, vivid and bright and burning with both superhuman intellect and primal emotion. Their owner stepped forth, revealing himself to be a tall and muscular demon made of black shadow. He wouldn’t necessarily have looked out of place amongst the other dream creatures, were it not for the fact that the rats were clearly alarmed by his sudden appearance. The instant he took his first step towards them they skittered off into the darkness.
“Halcy! How’s my badass chick doing?” he grinned at her, extending a hand to help her to her feet.
“Dude, tell me you’re not the one causing this!” she demanded, gesticulating wildly to the waking nightmare around them. Ruck crossed his arms and arched his eyebrow, succeeding in giving off an air of mild offence.
"A few overgrown rats in an abandoned store? Really? That's what you think of me?" he scoffed.
“Well, this seems to be a waking nightmare, so I thought maybe you were more limited when you had to work with the real world,” Halcy replied. “But if it’s not you, then it must be those rats! Everything was normal until they showed up.”
She paused for a moment, hesitant to ask him for his aid, both out of fear of rejection and of what he might ask in return if he did say yes.
“Emma’s still in here somewhere. I don’t know what those freaky rats want with her, but it can’t be anything good. I… I don’t think I can handle them on my own. That’s why I summoned you. Do you think you could help me get her out of here?”
“Hmmm,” Ruck said with an overly slow nod of his head as he pretended to give the request deep consideration. “…I don’t see why not.”
“Really? Just yes?” she asked skeptically.
“No conditions? No promises? No sacrifices? Just… yes?”
“Well, I can’t very well have you mad at me just because I let your little friend die, now can I?” he asked rhetorically. “I swear, on the River Styx, to see both you and Emma out of this safely, solely as a personal favour and with no direct or indirect cost to either of you for my services. Happy?”
Halcyon nodded. His reasoning sounded valid enough to her, and as a demon, she knew that he was bound to any oath he made on the River Styx.
“Let’s go get her then,” she said, turning to follow the rats into the darkness.
“Hold on. Hold on, there. 'It's dangerous to go alone. Take this',” he quoted, offering her a black broom made of a rune-carved branch and a bundle of twigs with a silver pentagram charm wrapped around it.
“Ah, a broom?” she asked.
“A besom; a Witch’s broom, made by Morgana King herself,” he explained.
“Am I supposed to know who that is?”
“She and her brother were the founders of your city, and in one of our dealings she traded me this,” he replied, gently pushing it into her hands. “It will cleanse the space around you of dark energies. You can also just use it to swat the rats.”
She examined it skeptically for a moment, unsure if he was lying or if its power came with some horrible curse, but she hardly had the time to worry about such things now.
“Another personal favour?” she asked.
“On the River Styx,” he swore. She nodded, knowing that would have to do.
She bolted down the nearest aisle, with Ruck hot on her heels.
“Emma!” she shouted. “Fuck, why isn’t she answering? This place isn’t that big! Red, how about some light?”
There was a deep, resonant groan that echoed through the store and rattled everything within it. The overhead light fixtures started to flicker, before settling on a dim, hellish orange glow that bathed the entire building in an eerie and otherworldly haze.
Halcyon wanted to complain, but bit her tongue. It was light, and it was better than nothing. Now that she could see, she spied one of the rats standing guard at the end of the aisle.
She burst into a sprint, the rat hissing at her as she did so. It conjured up an illusion of an enormous, bear-sized rodent standing in its place, ready to take Halcyon down with one swipe of its distended paw.
Halcyon didn’t even slow down. She was an experienced dreamwalker, and knew that fear would only make things worse. She swung the besom like a baseball bat, and the moment it made contact the illusion dissolved into mist, leaving only a bewildered little rat in its wake. With another swing, she sent the rat flying across the floor like a hockey puck.
In the next intersection over, she saw Emma lying bound and gagged on the floor, her eyes wide with horror. The six remaining rats had formed a ritualistic circle around her, heads bowed and forepaws clasped as if in prayer.
“Emma!” she screamed, rushing to free her. The rats all turned and hissed at her in unison, each cloaking themselves in grotesque nightmare forms of bestial bog mummies with arthropod limbs extruding from their bodies at the most unconventional and horrifying of places.
With the strongest war cry she could muster, Halcyon swung the besom at the ground, ignoring the dream-forms and going directly for the rats. Each swing knocked at least one rat across the room, leaving their nightmare bodies to melt into a fog. When the circle was cleared, Halcyon dropped to her knees and rushed to free Emma from her bounds.
"How the fuck did they manage to do this to you?" Halcyon cried, hot tears rolling down her cheeks. "Emma, I'm so sorry I got you into this. I'm going to get you out, I promise."
“Halcy!” Emma said in a hoarse whisper, nodding behind her. Halcy spun around, only to see Red Ruck sitting upon the shelf like a spectator at a sporting event. He raised his right hand and gently waved at them.
“Ah, yeah. We don’t need to worry about him. He’s with me,” she assured her, tearing off the rest of her bonds.
“What the fuck are you taking about, and what the fuck do you have in your hand?” Emma demanded.
“There’s no time now! Let’s go!” she insisted, helping her to her feet.
The girls started to run towards the exist, but stopped when they saw that their path was blocked by all seven rats, all having taken bear-sized form, only this time mounted with cloaked riders wielding flaming swords.
Emma fainted at the sight of the monsters, with Halcyon catching her as she fell.
“Emma! Emma no! Wake up! Please wake up!” she pleaded, but Emma was out cold.
The rat riders chuckled smugly at their predicament. Though their forms were just as imaginary as the others, there was a very obvious problem: Halcyon couldn’t wield the besom and carry Emma at the same time.
She looked back up at Ruck to see if he had any intention of helping, but he retained the demeanor of a passive onlooker.
“Dude, you swore to get us out of here!” she reminded him. “I don’t know what happens if you break an oath, but you do, and if you let me die here, I swear on my very imminent grave that my soul will not rest until you have paid for your betrayal!”
Halcyon didn’t know how much weight her threat actually held, but judging by Ruck’s complete lack of a reaction, not much at all. Accepting that she was on her own, Halcyon turn back to face the rats, holding out the besom as defensively as she could with her free hand.
"Bring it on you rat bastards!" she taunted them. Rearing up on their hind legs and uttering a hideous hissing whinny, the rats charged all at once, the flaming swords of their riders held high and ready to cut her down. There was no way she could take all of them out before one of them succeeded in making contact. She still wasn’t entirely sure what such waking nightmares could do to her real body, but she knew that she didn’t want to find out.
But before they were able to reach her, Ruck pounced down and landed between them on all fours like a cat. The rats screeched to a halt, hesitant to provoke such a strange and powerful being. This proved a good decision on their part, as Ruck bent down and picked up the physical body of the lead rat with his teeth, swallowing it whole right in front of them.
Panicking, the remaining dream-forms violently disintegrated as the surviving rats scattered. They were fast, faster than normal rats it seemed, but not fast enough to outrun Ruck. One by one, he nabbed them with his teeth and swallowed them whole, entombing them in his stomach.
“Oh, they are vicious little bastards,” he chuckled as he patted his stomach, the rats quite obviously trying to fight their way out. He sauntered over to the emergency exit, pushing it open with ease and without triggering the alarm system. Holding it open with one hand, he gestured to the outside world with the other.
Halcyon limped towards him as quickly as she was able to while carrying an unconscious Emma, pausing tentatively at the threshold.
“You had to wait to the last second to help? Showoff,” she smirked. Ruck just shrugged.
“You could have taken them; I just didn’t want to risk the besom catching flame. It’s very valuable,” he claimed. She nodded graciously, and then stood up on her tiptoes to kiss him on the cheek.
"Thanks, dude," she said, walking Emma out the door. Before he closed it on them, however, she turned back. “See you tonight?”
“Wouldn’t miss it,” he grinned. She smiled back at him, and he let the door swing shut.
Before returning to his native nightmare realm, Red Ruck stopped by the Zeller’s restaurant, seating himself in a booth and vomiting up one of the rats on the table. The rat was drenched in hot bile and shaking in a confused amalgam of emotions and instincts, but eventually settled on trying to flee. It didn’t get far before Red Ruck grabbed it and held it up for inspection.
As he studied the creature, another shadow being slunk forth from the darkness, this one more gaunt and more bent than Red, with white eyes and dressed in a hood and mantle.
“That was rather generous of you, brother, letting her save her little friend,” he remarked.
“Not at all. It was a perfectly reasonable finder’s fee for bringing these little abominations to my attention,” he said, gesturing to the squirming black rat in his hand. “These, Rancor, are the Tantibus Rats of Erich Thorne. They must have escaped his lab. They can cast nightmares into the minds of anyone they wish, and on top of that are virtually unkillable. Do you realize what we could do with creatures like these?”
“Could we breed them?” he asked. “Not to sound like a choosing beggar, but we could do a lot more with an army of these rats than we could with seven.”
Red paused, examining the rat closer and giving it some thought.
“Well, all of these rats are male, but I think… I think that ‘life, ah, finds a way’,” he said at last, his toothy grin spreading as wide as it could.
Written by The Vesper's Bell