Note that this is a spin-off prequel series to "Upon a Crimson Throne." While reading that story is not necessary to fully enjoy and comprehend this series, it does add a lot of context.
Stories are an interesting thing, everyone has one to tell, but so few are heard. So what makes mine any different? Far too often, geezers babble on about the experiences that made them alcoholics. I might be the only one, but I loathe hearing those; it shows how weak they were in the end. So maybe my angle is that I can offer a perspective that you might not be used to. I just turned 40, but in the last 20 years I’ve lived through enough crazy shit to eclipse dozens of lifetimes. There's too much to go over in just one entry, so I’ll have to break this up across multiple posts, God knows how many. I could just hop around aimlessly through the timeline of events that led me here. You can have your entertainment in short bursts without having to think too hard about how it all connects. I know that’s popular right now, so I’m gonna take the contrarian route and structure this a little more cohesively, force you to remember shit from entry to entry. This won’t be a series of half baked events hamfisted together into a flimsy narrative, there is a point to it all, or I like to think there is at least. I’ll skip past most of the boring parts with this entry and start at the point when things get moving.
The beginning of the 21st century was met with optimism so short-lived that it’s almost funny. A particular incident in 2001 guaranteed 2 decades of paranoia and unrest, but for me, that began the year prior. October of 2000 was when I was forced to flee my hometown and set out in a world I was unfamiliar with. I spent the following years wandering aimlessly; it wasn’t until 2003, during the beginning of the Iraq war, that I found a lead towards a goal that was at this point nebulous at best.
While other men were riding the tidal wave of patriotism and enlisting en mass, I had spent the previous year with a group of thugs contracted by private art collectors to go around breaking into the storage units of other private art collectors and retrieving pieces they were interested in. I joined as a lookout in hopes of scraping together enough change to fund my goals. We disbanded after I shot an overly-invested security guard, and though at the moment the intention was to lay low for a while, we never truly regrouped. I kept in touch with the leader, a douche named Brett since he had connections to many influential people. I was surprised when he pulled through with a legitimate lead. He knew that I was looking for info of the occultic and incredibly esoteric variety, stuff that was hard to come by, at least anything legit.
He pointed me in the direction of a supposed collector with a keen interest in objects with supernatural significance. This collector was looking to hire some firepower, and if my failure of a father had succeeded in anything was teaching me how to handle a gun. I was and still am a great shot. Brett put my name out, and the guy was interested in “conducting an interview.” He arranged for us to meet in a bumfuck town in the middle of nowhere, Nebraska simply named “Lucky”. Fortunately, I was at the edge of Wyoming. By the end of the week, I was in the tiny office he wanted to meet at. His name was Dalton; if he had the last name, he didn’t find it necessary to share. There were 5 others in the room beside us, making the space feel far more cramped than it already was. He spoke in a droning monotone, conveying no discernable emotion; the scent of some exotic cigar clung to every word.
“I’m here representing a client; we have reason to believe that we have stumbled upon an area of interest. We can’t risk our men, so in this case, we’ve decided to have hired muscle to ensure the safety of this location before we proceed.”
“You’re being vague,” said an abnormally muscular woman
“Yeah, there’s a lot that’s being left out,” said a gruff older man.
“There might be a… living element at play,” continued Dalton
“What’s that’s supposed to mean?” asked the other woman
“Are we going up against armed forces?” said a red-haired man.
“I need to reiterate that we don’t deal in the mundane; our focus is on what can’t be readily explained by science.”
“So something supernatural, paranormal, something like that?” said a handsome blond-haired man.
“Really? Here I thought someone was yanking my leg?” said the older man
There was a moment of silence, tension building in the air; it pissed me off, so I decided to finally speak.
“Whatever, let’s just get this over with.”
Near everyone turned to look at me with bewilderment, except for Dalton and the blond-haired man, they looked to me with amusement.
“Fuck it; I’m in,” said the blond man.
“Why so rash?” asked Dalton
“Because I doubt you’re dumb enough to try to pull one over on anyone in this room; I don’t think there’s anyone here who hasn’t killed someone.” The blonde answered.
Dalton cast a curious look towards me; I only answered with a shrug. That’s all it took for the rest of them to join, a few murmurs here and there, but there was much less resistance than expected.
The location Dalton wanted us to investigate was an abandoned building located in the town’s historic district. It was not a historic building but instead a newer addition. It was deep into the night by the time we saw it.
My stomach lurched at the sight; it was a brutalist building, concrete formed into painful jagged angles. The windows had slabs of concrete dividing their surfaces, giving it the impression of prison bars. Light could not exist here; it was black, stark against the ill-lit night itself as if the material swallowed any illumination. I couldn't help but think of this eldritch edifice as anything else but an inverted Tower of Babel. Reaching towards some heretical depths, deep towards the center of the earth, beyond perhaps to some layer prohibited to humanity. That was my first impression, it was instinctual, and I did my best to push it to the back of my mind, dismissing it as nerves.
“You’ll set out tomorrow night, prepare until then,” was all Dalton said before escorting us to a hotel to book some rooms. We had been paired up, each pair getting a room to themselves; since we had free time, the others had gathered in one room, taking the time to introduce themselves since there was nothing better to do.
The most outspoken was a woman named Erica; she was of above-average height and built like a quarterback, she was part of a contracted private military agency. Next was a short and attractive redhead in her early 30s named Nicole. She carried the typical traits of feminine beauty and was quite analytical, was an accountant for many prominent white-collar criminals. The first of the men was an obvious ex-military named John; the grizzled vet was almost as tall as me, standing at 6 feet exactly, his muscular form was apparent even through his clothing. His hair was dark, wisps of grey just barely starting to take form in his scruffy beard. The red-head was named Larry, there was nothing noteworthy about him, except that he annoyed everyone with his terrible jokes. Finally, Cade, the blond was closest to my age out of the group at 23; he was also the one that I was most wary of. He was discharged in the middle of war efforts; he didn’t say why exactly, but there was an edge of violence to the man. He was just my type, and if I were a more naive man, I would have let my guard down; instead, I made sure to keep my distance.
A rivalry between Cade and John formed almost instantly, and they expressed this through increasingly passive-aggressive displays of one-upmanship. Nichol found it endearing when the two vied for her attention, Erica was openly annoyed, and I was indifferent, something the others noticed. But I was always the odd man out; here was no different. Cade and Larry were military; Erica had a decade of experience as a private military contractor, and John was a navy seal. I had no education, no talent, nothing that gave me a reason to be here, at least to them. The room cleared out after a while, leaving me alone with Cade. Nothing was said between us, but there existed a mutual agreement to silence.
Our hotel overlooked the abandoned building, and I stood out on the balcony staring at for about an hour, unfettered by the night chill. Instinctively my hand found its way to my revolver as if at the current moment I was in danger. I pushed my anxiety down and tried settling into bed, but that anxiety rose to the surface again, this time refusing any attempts to dispel it. The fact that my senses were peaked in a state of hyper-awareness didn’t help. I could hear fucking in the adjacent rooms. Feel slight air pressure changes in the room, jolting me awake every time I was about to slip into sleep. By the time morning came, and the others had risen, I hadn’t slept at all.
“Jesus, Don you look like shit,” said John
“Just tired is all,” I croaked out.
We made our way to a diner to get breakfast and discuss how we would proceed; Nicole was the first to speak.
“I tried doing some research on the building, and I couldn’t find very much. I made a call to the local historical society, and even they were short on answers,” she said.
“Find anything at all?” I asked
“Just the name, it’s the city utilities building, government. I can’t find when it was abandoned and why; all I got was that sometime in 1992, what would become the new utility building was built. But it wouldn’t be occupied until 1994, other than that there isn’t much of anything,”
“Sounds like someone’s withholding information on purpose,” said John.
“You think? This entire scenario is built on withheld information, who knows what the fuck is waiting for us in that building” said Erica
“You knew that and still chose to tag along, shows how much of a dumbass you are,” said Cade; all he got out of Erica was a snort.
“Wait, doesn’t that make you a dumbass too? I mean, you were one of the first to agree; that makes the first guy the biggest dumbass.” Said, Larry
All eyes turned to face me, and I glared at Larry, an old lover told me that I had an intense stare. Those unaccustomed to it tended to be unnerved.
“I was going to be here regardless; you guys choose to follow; if you wanna bitch about it, that’s on you, but leave me the fuck out of it.”
Larry shriveled a bit, and he tried cracking another shitty joke to recover, but no one was listening. John elbowed my side with a slight wink, something I decided to ignore because it worked only to piss me off. The conversation quickly devolved into arguments about room arrangements. Erica was airing her grievances about sharing a room with Larry; something happened that led to a pissing match between Cade and John. I tuned out, my mind focusing on the building and why it unsettled me.
“That sound good to you?” said John, snapping me back to reality.
“He wasn’t listening to a single damn thing,” Erica answered for me.
“Was anything of interest even said?” I mumbled
“Not really, just a bunch of assholes trying to play leader,” said Cade.
“Enough, I’m the resident badass here; I get to call the shots,” John said (Note if someone has to say they’re badass, they are more than likely not.)
“So, what's the plan?” I asked.
John outlined a straightforward plan, breaking in late at night and doing sweeps of every room looking for any evidence of inhuman inhabitants; we would be armed lightly to arouse too much suspicion, which meant everyone had to resort to using handguns. I wasn’t worried since I was using my grandfather's Smith & Wesson Model 27, I had seen it punch holes into car engines. Much later, the others would lament bringing such light weaponry, at least by those who survived long enough to recognize that the weapons wouldn’t suffice. I don’t think it would have made any difference what we brought; what we faced wasn’t something that could be killed by conventional weaponry.
It was just past 1 am when we finally stood in front of the building; it was nestled between a local nature reserve and a railway. There was a 4-foot flimsy metal fence around the property, along with the relative isolation gave the impression that it was left purposely unguarded, as if it was meant to lure the curious in.
“There.” pointed Nicole at a tear in the western side of the fence, a stray cat slipped through and disappearing into the building through some obscured entry. John took the lead, strutting forward with unfeigned bravado; I saw and recognized a natural leader’s traits and saw how the young and naïve could be charmed by it. Though I also realized that the typical characteristics of heroism didn’t guarantee success. John held the tear open as we all slipped in and made our way to the front of the building, even up close, light refused to be reflected off its surfaces. Erica tried the front door, and as expected, it was locked. There was a vent on the lower side of the building that explained how the cats got in. A gate blocked entry into the underground parking garage, though it looked flimsy enough to be easily kicked down. Not wanting to draw attention, we opted to climb up an escape ladder that led to the roof; there we dropped down into the top floor through a broken window.
I immediately noticed something off about the interior of the building; it was far too preserved. There was a lack of graffiti and no evidence of looting. A thick layer of dust coated most of everything, showing that much of the building had been undisturbed.
“Looks like this place was abandoned in a hurry,” Nicole said, picking up a dusty framed photo of a smiling family off a random desk. Erica clicked her flashlight and shone it around, illuminating several smaller cubicles containing similar personal effects.
“Take a look at this,” Erica pointed at a pile of papers.
They seemed to have been printed hastily at the moment of evacuation since they laid at the foot of a mid-90s printer. Erica picked one up and showed it to the rest of the group. There was only a single bolded phrase repeated throughout the entire page.
“The dead shall be defiled,” John read aloud.
“It's on the other pages too; what do you think it means?” asked Erica.
“Maybe it's a necrophiles manifesto,” joked Larry.
“Can you shut the fuck up for once? You never have anything useful to say; why are you even here if you’re gonna fuck around. Say something stupid again, and I’ll hamstring you,” Erica snapped.
“Sheesh, I was only trying to lighten the mood,”
“I was planning on beating the shit out of him myself, but I’m glad to see that I’m not the only one that finds his antics insufferable,” Cade spoke.
Larry, seeing that his attempts at comic relief had failed spectacularly, shrunk into himself.
“That's enough, let's check out the 2nd floor,” said john
“There's 3 floors and an underground parking garage; we can always backtrack if we don’t find anything.” Nicole continued.
“And if we do find something? What then?” asked Cade.
“Then we’ll deal with it,” John said
There was a slight jolt of anxiety at the thought, what exactly would we be dealing with? I buried the thought and walked towards the staircase. My foot hit something buried at the bottom of the pile. I bent over to pick it up; it was a journal, a peculiar scent wafted off of it, something I thought I recognized. I wordlessly showed John the notebook.
“Hold on to it; we’ll look through it later.”
I wasn’t interested in waiting; I flipped through the pages, noting no date, as we walked towards the stairs.
“There’s something wrong, I know it. I have to get this down, to prove to myself that I’m not losing it. I think the walls are its conduit like it has to exist between transitional spaces, something that's not defined as habitable but acts as a prerequisite for habitation. I told Cathy about this, but she just sent me home to get some rest. I don’t think it’ll change anything, it's too late, this building has already been compromised.”
“Look at this,” John interrupted my reading.
He was pointing at a series of rust-colored splotches scattered along the stairway and in the green carpet.
“Dried blood, and a lot of it,” Cade said.
“Keep moving,” was all John said
“You know I'm getting real sick of you making the calls; who made you the leader?”
“I’m the most qualified, navy fucking seal while you’re some brat that couldn’t control himself and got kicked out.”
“Guys, this isn’t the time for this,” Nicole tried to intervene.
“Can we just get going? I’m tired of this pissing contest between you two; let’s just finish this job,” Erica cut it.
“This isn’t over,” snorted Cade.
I was glad she took the initiative in deescalating the situation; I wasn’t in the mood to deal with them. My head throbbed in irritation; I was trying to take this seriously. I kept what I had read in the journal to myself, unsure how it would affect things.
The sweep of the second floor yielded nothing, except for a dark splotch of old blood-soaked deep into the carpet; it was fresher than the others. As we made our way to the ground floor, I read more of the journal I had found.
“Its presence is suffocating; how could something completely unseen charge the air with the weight of promised violence. This goes beyond a predator stalking prey, that implies that there was a chance of escape. This was more like a farmer waiting for that season's bounty to ripen, it was only a matter of harvesting.”
I snapped the journal shut as we reached the ground floor; I noticed that as we descended, the feeling of being watched intensified.
“You guys feel that?” I asked
“Feel what?” Erica asked
I jolted to the side, my hand on my revolver, ready to draw.
“What is it?!” Erica
“Nothing, just jumpy is all.”
“Funny I didn’t peg you for the type to scare easily?” John said
I didn’t try to rebuke anything; my heart was still racing from what I saw; I know I wasn’t mistaken. From my periphery, on the easternmost wall, I saw a human eye. It had vanished the second I turned to face it, to where was impossible to determine. I wrestled with the choice to tell the group or to keep it to myself. I decided that there wasn’t anything to be gained from making myself seem unhinged.
We cleared the room, finding nothing of worth except for more signs of a hasty abandonment; I wondered what locals thought of the place. I wondered if Nicole had even dug into that, or if it even mattered. What Dalton wanted us to find was still vague, but John amended his previous statements; as soon as we cleared the garage, we would leave as Dalton had assured payment regardless of what happened. I didn’t read the journal as we walked down to the parking garage. I didn’t want it to have adverse effects on me anymore.
The lot was mostly abandoned, but there were still 3 cars parked there, the newest one being a 1989 Camry. It didn’t get us any closer to figuring when the building was abandoned, but that was starting to matter less and less.
We were sweeping across the lot when I spotted something that made my stomach drop. I shined my flashlight at it and said, “fuck.”
“That's impossible; there wasn’t anything in the blueprints about lower levels. This parking garage was supposed to be it,” Nicole said
“Yeah, well, maybe someone lied or forgot, or maybe they’re fucking with us.” Cade sneered
It was undeniable; we were all looking at them now, another staircase leading deeper into the building, inverted tower, whatever the hell this place was.
“So there's a second parking garage, we’ll just sweep and clear it and be done with this place,” John said
“I don’t think it's a parking garage, there's no way to access the lower level with a car,” Larry spoke up.
“A basement then, we do a preliminary sweep and get out.”
We agreed reluctantly and made our way deeper into the building, what awaited us was, for a second time tonight, impossible. It was a living room like someone had cut out someone's apartment living room and placed it here. It was fully furnished, burgundy carpet, felt couch, pale mint striped wallpaper, all the fixings. There weren’t any adjacent rooms, just a living room; the diminished size added a sense of claustrophobia.
“Why the fuck is this down here,” asked Erica
John ran his finger along a coffee table and noted much less dust than the upper levels.
“Maybe this is the-” Larry started to speak but Erica’s glare quieted him.
“Guys, you’re not gonna like this,” Nicole said, pointing to yet another staircase leading deeper into the earth.
“How deep does this thing fucking go? Should we cut our losses and leave? This shits getting irritating,” said Cade
“That's not your decision to make,” John said
“Fuck you; we’re just wasting our time here,”
“We should put it to group vote,” Nicole spoke up.
The group broke into arguments on how to continue, Cade and John’s confrontation increasing in intensity. They were starting to piss me off, the anger caused a vein in my head to throb as a migraine set in. I think we all heard the movement behind us simultaneously, but because of my constant tense state, my reactions were on a hair-trigger. The exact moment the sound came into existence, it sprung me into action, and I swung around, aimed at the source, and fired a single round. My aim was perfect; hitting it right between the eyes, the bullet tore through its head and obliterated its skull, peppering the area with skull fragments intermingled with brain matter. It was a cat.
“Jesus, Don, are you even fucking human? I don’t think I’ve ever seen anyone move that fast,” John exclaimed
“It was a fucking housecat, and now whatever is here knows where we are. So are you guys gonna sit here fighting over petty bullshit or we gonna get a move on?” I responded
“What was here,” speaking it aloud, cemented what we all were thinking, that there was a presence here. It was unseen, but it was felt; even the most oblivious would know that something was always here. John nodded and turned to face Cade.
“We’ll settle this later asshole, don’t think I’ll let you off the hook.”
“Fine by me.”
John once again took the lead, Cade was 2nd to last, and I dead last.
“Fuck me,” John rasped
I saw why when the room was visible, it was a child’s room, stuffed animals lining shelves that wrapped around the room. The air was stuffy, mildew clinging to every inhaled breath; I had realized then that every room had a distinct atmosphere. The previous floors had lacked the mildew stench because they were separated from this space in ways that I found difficult to comprehend. Transitional spaces, I flipped open to skim through while the others searched the room.
“It's getting worse, the others have noticed it, but they don’t say anything, don’t acknowledge it at all; it’s like everyone is holding a collective breath waiting for it to finally strike. I see it in corners now; every time I look away, I can feel its glare intensify. I think it's only a matter of time; I wonder how it’ll play out, will I be in a position to escape? Or if I'll fall victim to circumstance and bad luck? I know what it is now, it's a noose, it's been tightening around our necks the whole time, it may be too late to slip from its grip now.”
“Another fucking staircase!” Erica hissed.
“How far down do you think this building goes?” Nicole asked
“I don’t think it has an end,” I said reflexively, not thinking about the implications.
“What the fuck do we do now?” asked Cade
John got close enough to the stairs to look over to the room below, a dilapidated gym locker room. He couldn’t see any more staircases but suggested doing a thorough inspection to make sure.
“Fuck that, I’m staying here,” Cade said
“Fine, but Don and Larry stay back to keep an eye on this fucker.”
John descended with Erica and Nicole covering him; as soon as they were out of earshot, Cade tried pulling me to the side.
“What do you want?” I said, refusing to budge.
“You and I are nothing like the rest of those fucks; let’s ditch em.”
“You can’t be serious-” Larry started to say
“Larry shut the fuck up and stay out of this unless you want me to bash your skull in.”
I leaned my weight against the flowery print wall, looking way, showing that I wasn’t interested in humoring Cade, but he persisted nonetheless.
“I saw it in you, that killing intent when shot that cat; it could’ve been anything, a kid even, and you still pulled the trigger without any hesitation. It was that bold nature that got me booted in the first place; you and I are the same, willing to kill to get what we want and fuck anybody who says otherwise. So let’s team up here; I know that navy seal fuck pisses you off too”
“I’m nothing like you.”
“Fine then, be like that, but don’t expect me to come to your rescue when shit gets bad.”
When shit gets bad, his open acknowledgment stirred something in me; I shifted the journal in my hands, deciding to show John the contents when he returned.
“You guys aren’t going to like this,” John shouted up the stairs.
“I’ve found another set of stairs,” he continued.
“Fuck,” Cade murmured under his breath.
I was about to speak up when I felt the presence, but this time it was much more intense; I tucked the notebook into my waistline and drew my gun.
“What the fuck is that?!” Cade said, drawing his gun
“John, get the fuck back up here!” Larry shouted
I heard John running back towards us, but at the same time, the sound of creaking came from the walls themselves. Something emerged briefly, it caused a stuffed seal to fall to the floor. I turned to face its general direction and fired 4 rounds into the wall, Cade opening fire on it moments after. Stuffing and drywall peppered the air, but by then, the thing had merged back into the wall. I saw the floor shift in the split second of respite, like something was underneath it, distorting the space. I aimed at it but before I could fire, something sprang out; it was fast, but in my panicked state, time slowed to a crawl, and though it was still a blur, I got the impression that it was massive, serpentine, and segmented. Instead of opening fire on the thing, I pivoted out of its path. As soon as I was out of its general direction, my senses returned to their normal state, and the thing resumed its lunge towards Larry; there wasn’t any time to react as it slammed into him full force and pulled him to the ground, a spray of blood shooting up and staining the ceiling and stuffed animals. Before I could get back up on my feet, the thing had disappeared back into the floor, leaving only Larry’s severed leg and a pool of blood.
“What the fuck happened?!” John said, finally reaching the top of the stairs and entering the room.
“It was too fucking fast for us,” Cade said.
I took the time to quickly reload and spoke.
“We have all the evidence we need here; let’s get the fuck out of here,” I said, pointing at the journal tucked into my waistband.
“Jesus fuck,” Erica muttered as she gazed at Larry’s leg.
“What was it?” Nicole
“Didn’t you hear you dumb bitch? It was too fast to even see.”
“Cade shut the fuck up; let’s just get out of here, and we’ll look through the journal after.”
“John’s right,” Erica said, gaze still locked on Larry’s remains.
I realized something then. If it could merge into the walls and floors, then it could have attacked far earlier. It had waited for us to split up; this implied intelligence.
“We group, move as a unit to the ground floor and break the windows if we have to,” I said
“Who’s gone and made you the leader?” Erica said.
“Listen to me; this is the best chance of survival we’ve got; if you want to go and get yourself killed, at least be a distraction.”
“He’s right, you know, that thing is too fast for us to deal with it,” Cade added.
“Oh fuck off, I’ve been in worse situations; if the thing wants to make an appearance, then we’ll deal with it. There’s a reason it went after the most incompetent of us.”
I remembered that this thing had been active the moment we got here; even from outside the building, I felt it. Was it possible that it grew in intelligence with every person? If that was the case, then the fact that it was a fully occupied building at one point might have accelerated its influence. And what about the impossible subterranean levels?
“Where is it now, and where did it take the rest of Larry?” John asked
“It can hide inside walls, floors; I’m not sure if there's a limit to the type of surfaces it can habit.”
“What you’re suggesting is an impossibility,” Nicole said
“Well, we’ve already experienced a few impossibilities tonight. I know what I saw, that thing dove into the ground like it was a pool of water. What's solid to us is permeable to it.” Cade interjected.
Cade was onto something; I had seen the wall and floor ripple like water whenever the thing moved through them.
“From my perspective, it seems like you and Cade are colluding,” Erica said.
“Stay and die; I already told you I don’t care,” I responded.
“We stick together; whatever we’re dealing, we’ll be better equipped to handle it together.”
“Goddammit,” Erica hissed.
She reluctantly joined our shitty conga line; it occurred to me that I should reload; I had fired 5 shots thus far. I was only able to load 3 bullets into the chamber when the spike of fear returned, the sensation of doom forming in the pit of my stomach. I snapped my gun up and aimed wildly around the room.
“It’s about to strike!” I yelled as I saw the ceiling above us ripple like water.
“What the fuck!” John yelled as he let loose a spray of bullets, chunks of ceiling rained down on us adding to the further confusion.
“Fuck this” Erica yelled.
She tried to run past the rest of the group; I was the first to see ripples appear in the wall next to the doorway. I aimed and fired two rounds at the wall; it emerged at that moment, it was like a claw or pincers. It swiped at Erica with incredible speed and force; I thought I heard the distinct clang of bullets ricocheting off it. A spray of blood peppered the side of my face, and Erica fell back down the stairs, a deep gash across her midsection. She tried to gasp something out when she started to sink into the floor. A row of insectoid legs curled around her, John was firing at it, I could see that the bullets just glanced off it. One of John’s shots hit Erica directly in between her forehead, and she slumped a bit; the legs snapped close like a flytrap and pulled her into the floor. Nicole was openly sobbing now.
“Shut her the fuck up!” Cade yelled at John.
John stood staring at the bullet-ridden floor, eyes blank. I was trying to figure out the riddle of why there were so many ripples all at the same time. Was the thing able to traverse that quickly, or perhaps, there was more than one?. I turned to run up the stairs; Cade was right behind me, John caught on and grabbed hold of Nicole and dragged her up the stairs.
I froze in my tracks upon reaching the top of the stairs and held down the urge to jump back; John made an apprehensive noise at the sight. Eyes, hundreds of them peered down at us from every surface of the room. It emerged then, fully; it was a giant centipede thing, coiled around the room. From every segment of its body, a massive humanoid eye was set in its center; smaller regular-sized eyes were fixed in every leg joint. I could tell that they were functional; I saw dozens of pupils dilate and focus on us. Its carapace was an iridescent blue-green, like a peacock's feather. The thing was gargantuan, at least 5 feet wide, and impossible to know how long. The head was just this split maw, 3 overlapping pairs of spike lined mandibles. It merged back into the wall like it was diving into water. Cade tried dashing towards the stairs, but an emerging leg forced him to recoil. It had been bait, the centipede creature’s head lunged out from the general direction that Cade was heading towards, it had aimed slightly too high, and cade was able to slip past its jaws and behind it. He started firing at its carapace, John joining in; the creature coiled and lowered itself to the ground. Bullets were completely ineffective, its carapace deflecting every single round. I thought briefly about using my final shot to hit some soft tissue, one of its eyes, but the thing had already closed them. It had coiled itself in a way as to minimize the chance of striking them, with the same agility that it had emerged with, the creature dove back into the floor.
“Where!” John yelled.
But, his cry was cut off by the thing re-emerging, one of its colossal eyes peering down at Nicole, a burning hunger radiating from it. I had the chance then, to take a shot, I wouldn’t have missed. But I had a feeling that it wouldn’t have done much; losing one eye out of hundreds wouldn't have made a difference. I instead saw an opportunity. I ran across the living room, jumping on the coffee in an attempt to stay off the floor. Cade understood my intentions and turned to run towards the door. John stayed back, intent on saving Nicole. Maybe he knew it was a fruitless effort, or perhaps he held to some misplaced hope, or was it lust mistaken for something more? I’ll never understand why he would doom himself for someone he hardly knew. I didn’t look back, but I heard the sickening crunch, the gunfire, and the screams. I made a final desperate dash towards the stairs; Cade was right at my heels, breath heavy. As I scrambled up the first steps, Cade let out a small yelp. Instinctually I looked back briefly and saw that the tail end of the centipede creature had emerged from the floor, and its pincers had Cade’s left ankle in its vice. Cade raised his gun to fire a couple of rounds; all glanced off the beings carapace.
"Fucking help me out here!"
I locked eyes with him for a moment; he knew what I was gonna do before I did it, he saw it communicated to him through my eyes. I had one final bullet left, I could have used it for a myriad of reasons; I could have aimed for the center of his forehead, ended it quickly. I don’t know if I should have, but at that moment, I was saving that bullet for someone else. I turned and sprinted up the stairs, only catching the tail end of a string of profanities being hurled at me, and then silence.
I emerged into the parking garage and headed straight for the locked gates, with 2 of the strongest kicks I could muster; they burst open, and I was out of the building with a frantic sprint ending with me tripping and falling in a heap. There surrounded by the dim glow of nearby streetlights, the reality of what had happened set in. I sat up and let the adrenaline wear off, then waited. When he finally approached he was alone like I had expected; I drew my gun and aimed it at his head. Dalton showed no fear; he kept the same emotionless mask as when I had first met him.
“What happened?” He spoke in that monotone voice of his.
“You set us up; that’s what happened.”
“Do you have any way to back up your accusations?”
I reached into my waistband and pulled out the journal I had found; I waved it at him and then tossed it at his feet.
“That’s yours, isn’t it? I thought I had recognized the scent, and now that you’re in front of me, I know it’s the reek of your cigars.”
“You’re far more impressive than I had been led to believe, to have such refined senses. No, the journal isn’t mine, it was salvaged from the building and was held at my office for some time. It was placed back inside for this expedition to test certain investigative skills. I suppose the scent of my habit must have imprinted itself onto the pages.”
“I don’t buy that; give me a reason for why I shouldn't blow your brains out right now.”
“For starters, it would serve no purpose. They would just find someone else to replace me; I’m just as disposable as you.”
“Start talking, tell what the hell is in the building, who the fuck are you, and why did you send us in there knowing what was inside?”
“It was a test meant to screen potential candidates for my employers, though it was only meant to be administered to John, Erica, and Cade. You, Nicole, and Larry, were meant to be a sacrifice of sorts. See, we don’t know when exactly that thing came to inhabit the building, just that it started feeding on the workers, slowly at first, then it tried all at once. That led to its evacuation on the night of July 17th, 1999; the survivors of that day don’t talk about it; the trauma runs that deep. At first, the city council elected to leave the building alone, the national guard was informed, and they had no interest in even dealing with the creature. But condemned buildings have a habit of luring a certain crowd. The city council didn’t complain when migrants, vagabonds, and squatters never emerged from its depths. And they rejoiced when the homeless population was nearly eliminated in under a year, drug use dropping to all-time lows alongside. The town became much cleaner, picture esque even. So they left the place purposely unguarded, but as word got around and the numbers of intruders decreased, they feared that it might tunnel somewhere else to repeat the harm it had done years ago. So they rounded up the remaining homeless and fed them to the thing. When there was no one left, that's when my employers intervened. The city council would give us a nice sum of cash, and we would use it as a sort of proving grounds, and the thing got to feed on the ones that failed. It seems that this batch was different from what I’m used to, You overperformed, and the others underperformed spectacularly. As for who I work for, it’s a collection of wealthy elites interested in the unnatural world. I’m just an underling; killing me would serve no purpose other than meaningless vengeance.”
“What makes you think I wasn’t just lucky?”
“Luck can only get you so far, Mr… Don was it? I’m sure you were able to put pieces of a puzzle together far faster than the others, and you used that to survive; that you stand before me now is evidence of that. You figured me out quickly enough and had the evidence to back your claims, you’re quite gifted at this.”
“So what the fuck do I do now?” I said, tightening my grip but lowering my weapon slightly.
Dalton gestured to a briefcase he was carrying, opened it, and tossed several rolls of money at me, as well as a black Nokia.
“That's 12k, half of what I was paid for setting this up, keep it, go home. I’ll put in a good word for you with my bosses; if you wanna continue working with us, just pick up the cell when it rings. If not, don’t, and you’ll never be bothered again.”
I told Dalton to fuck off, not lowering my guard until he was gone for good. I counted the money, and it was indeed 12 thousand, not nearly enough in my opinion, but I knew I would answer when the phone rang regardless.
And thus, from here onwards, my tale truly begins. About the others, did you think they would survive and that we had just started off on the wrong foot? That we would grow to be some kind of band of comrades, that John and Nicole would blossom into something more than just a wasted sweaty night, that Cade was actually a lovable jerk, that I would grow alongside them as a person. Sorry but that's not how things work; you’ll learn pretty quickly that looking for the best in people, trying to play by the rules only bogs you down. I wouldn’t have lived this long if I had any of that naïve optimism left in me. I don't miss them; I don't look back on this event with trauma. I won't sign out saying that I'm drunk and that whiskey is the only thing that holds me down. Looking back now, I know that my resolve, no matter how selfish, paid off. I’ll leave for now, but soon I’ll return with the tale of my first official assignment under Dalton’s employers. Until then, remember not to be so trusting; it might work to save your life.