Jake's cruiser had slowed
to a crawl by the time he turned into the long, curving drive to
Netherwood. He tried to explain away the increasing foot traffic as he
approached (Halloween block party somewhere around here, I guess, he
told himself). But now, with his car caught up in a sea of shuffling,
blank-eyed people, he had to accept the truth: something was seriously
wrong in his city, and whatever trouble there already was at
Netherwood, it was about to get a whole lot worse.
adrenaline beginning to flow, the way it always did right before the
shit really hit the fan, Jake radioed Dispatch.
"This is Unit 122
I'm gonna need backup." He gritted his teeth as someone who
looked an awful lot like Larry Patella, the guy who ran the local dry
cleaner's, stumbled forward when the bumper of the cruiser connected
with the back of his knees. "A lot of backup. There's something
weird going down at Netherwood. Copy?"
He waited, but there
was nothing. No response, not a sound. He tried again, and this time,
the calm, cool voice of Tabby the dispatcher had been replaced by one
that was both familiar and horrifying.
down at Netherwood but the biggest Halloween bash this big bad world
has ever SEEN, son! Why don't you get yourself down to the basement and
join us all in congratulating Merlin Jones, the grand prize winner of
the best damn prize a worthless soul like her could ask for?"
Jake jerked the
cruiser to a halt, his hands tightening on the wheel as he started
mutely at the speaker through which Uncle Rob Jobs' voice had just
blared. It couldn't be possible. Had to have been the radio, even
though he was sure he'd turned it off
and even though it had sounded
an awful lot like Uncle Rob was talking directly to him.
As though it knew
exactly what Jake was thinking, the police radio crackled to life
again. And this time, the familiar voice of Uncle Rob, always friendly
and more than a little manic, had deepened to something closer to a
growl, dripping with malice and bubbling with an undercurrent of a sort
of black glee that had the hair prickling at the back of Jake's neck.
"Of course, I'm
talkin to you, Jake! You think I don't know you didn't buy a ticket?
Well that's okay, son, that's all right
I've got souls aplenty for
the reaping tonight. And you've got yourself a choice."
Jake asked, his voice sounding strange and foreign to his own ears. "What
choice is that?" He felt as though he'd stumbled into some fetid
crypt that stored his darkest nightmares. Maybe he had.
"You can turn your
wannabe hero ass around and hightail it out of town. Or you can get on
down to the basement and GET DOWN with all the local ghoulies and
ghosties to celebrate one hell of a grand opening, AWOOOOOOO!"
The ridiculous, radio
host wolf howl was so loud that Jake had to clap his hands over his
ears, and even then the pain rang through his head as sharply as if
whatever demon had come in to replace Uncle Rob was yowling directly
into his ear at top volume. When it finally stopped, Jake cautiously
lowered his hands, staring at the police radio as though it might
decide to grow teeth and bite him. He barely noticed the people
continuing to lurch along outside the cruiser, keeping up their slow,
steady, mindless march toward Netherwood. All that mattered was that he
find out what he was dealing with. Because he already knew what his
choice was. It was why he was a cop: when confronted with putting his
life on the line to make something right or running to save himself, he
was always going to pick the first option.
Instead of fear,
anger began to bloom, hot and blood-red, inside his chest.
hightailing it anywhere, you sonofabitch. Except to the place where I
can take you down. You can't do this to my city."
Uncle Rob's voice
deepened into something thick and inhuman. "It's my city now, Jake.
The virgin will be sacrificed to open the way. The gates of Sheol open
this night, and there will be a fine, fleshy feast for all of my
minions before we begin the new reign of Hell upon Earth. Come if you
will. There's always room for one more on the table."
There was a final
wet, gurgling chuckle, and then a loud pop from the radio, accompanied
by the smell of burning plastic. Fine tendrils of smoke drifted up from
it as Jake watched, utterly still, his mind reeling. What was that show
Angie had always watched? The thing about the cheerleader who staked
vampires and lived awfully close to the Hellmouth? He suddenly wished
he'd bothered to do more than roll his eyes at it. Maybe then he would
have a few ideas about how to prevent the gates of Hell from swinging
open right here in his hometown. As it was, all he had was a gun and
sheer nerve. It had gotten him through before, Jake decided, his lips
settling into a grim line. It was going to have to do tonight.
He shoved the cruiser
into Park, killed the engine, and took a deep breath as he looked at
the dark, imposing shape of Netherwood looming just a short way in the
He was going in.
huddled in the supply closet, staring at the faint glint of the
doorknob in the darkness and listening to the approaching sound of
footsteps. In her hands she clutched the only weapon she could find in
a hurry, a letter opener swiped off of a supervisor's desk during her
quick trip up, and then back down, the back stairs.
She'd left Willy
crumpled in a corner, unconscious, and made a break for it. Something
in the basement had begun to feel wrong, and it wasn't just the fact
that she'd been selected as the winner of a contest she hadn't even
entered and then attacked by a woman who was generally about as
dangerous as a lazy housecat. As she'd dialed 911 from her cell, she'd
begun to feel watched, somehow, her skin crawling under the greedy
stare of some hidden, malevolent creature that stalked the basement of
Netherwood. Merlin had laughed at herself then, shaking her head at the
sudden case of the heebie-jeebies. Maybe Willy was on drugs. Maybe
she'd just gone as nutty as some of the people that had, according to
rumor, had experiments performed on them in this place. But there had
to be an explanation. And she knew she'd feel a hell of a lot better
once the cops showed up.
Except the cops
hadn't come. And there had been something weird about the way the
operator had sounded on the phone. But that had been nothing next to
the sound of hundreds, maybe even thousands of footsteps that had begun
to echo throughout the darkened research facility.
Somehow she knew,
just knew, that they had come for her. So she'd swiped the pitiful
little letter opener, which was at least sharp, if ineffective against
legions of crazed homicidal maniacs, and hidden in this barely
noticeable little supply closet in a shadowy corner of the basement.
The footfalls above her had increased, seeming to fill the entire first
floor of the cavernous research center. No voices, not a word. Just
slow, shuffling footsteps.
Merlin swallowed hard
as one particular set grew slightly louder, as though someone else had
found their way downstairs. Not quite a shuffle, she thought. Quicker.
Then, all of a sudden, they stopped, and her heart leaped into her
throat. She didn't move a muscle, didn't dare take a breath, suddenly
sure that whoever it was had silently drifted to stand right in front
of the closet door. That somehow, someone had smelled her fear and come
like a fly to honey.
Slowly, the doorknob
began to turn.
herself, crouching into the corner and trying to brace herself for the
possibility that she was about to slit someone's throat. I don't
want to die, she thought urgently. I don't want to die, I don't
want to die, get ready, get ready, here it comes
The door slowly swung
open, bathing the shelves of stacked cleaning supplies in dingy
artificial light and revealing a tall, lanky figure with sharp grey
eyes and severe features that were both unconventionally handsome and
somehow predatory. And when those piercing eyes lit on her, there was
only one thing that stopped Merlin from shoving the tip of the letter
opener right into his neck.
She spied the police
badge clipped to his belt.
said in a throaty whisper, not a question but a statement of fact.
Merlin nodded, afraid that if she opened her mouth, it would draw the
teeming horde upstairs to her. Dread coiled in her stomach as the cop
looked her over, his expression giving away nothing. Then, to her
surprise, he gave a curt nod and held out his hand to her.
"We've gotta get
out of here."
It was all the
encouragement she needed. Merlin sprang to her feet without his help.
"Is it safe?"
she whispered so softly she was nearly mouthing the words.
Grey Eyes looked to
each side of him, then returned his steady gaze to her and nodded. "Yeah.
Well, no, but right here is clear so far. They're going to find you in
there. I can get you out, but we don't have much time."
"How did you find
me before they did?" Merlin asked, slipping into the corridor and
finding it as deserted as promised. She let out a shuddery breath as
they moved quickly down the hall.
Grey Eyes said, and one corner of his mouth quirked up in a small,
self-satisfied smirk. Merlin had to blink quickly and remind herself
that this was not the time to be noticing that her rescuer was kind of
hot. But his dark brown hair was tousled, as though he'd run his hands
through it a few times in agitation, and it gave him the sort of
rumpled sexiness she'd never been able to ignore.
To not notice, she
would have had to be dead. That dead was probably one of her options
for tonight was what got her brain back on track.
"If I had to hide
in a hurry down here, a closet would be a likely place," the cop
continued. His eyes swept her quickly, a more thorough inventory of her
that left him with a look she was sure was surprise before he turned
his attention back to their path.
Merlin fought back a
snort. She got that a lot, the shock when people found out she was a
cleaning lady (for now) in her off time. For some reason, everyone
always expected a sturdy, kindly middle-aged woman.
She was a far cry
the cop offered suddenly. "Jake Smith."
Merlin returned, nervously looking behind them. All those shuffling
footsteps had gotten a lot louder all of a sudden.
"Like the wizard,
huh?" he asked, picking up speed, grabbing her wrist as he began to
jog towards the door at the end of the corridor. Above it, in glowing
red letters, were the words EMERGENCY EXIT.
"This is a hell of
a time for introductions," Merlin snapped, beginning to break out
in a cold sweat. She knew those footsteps were closer now
"You got a spell
to disenchant a bunch of demonically-controlled zombies?" Jake
asked, ignoring her comment, and she detected the bleak humor in his
tone. Oh God, she thought. He doesn't think we're going to make it.
she said breathlessly as she worked to keep his long-legged pace,
frowning over the fact that he could joke at a time like this. She knew
it was a coping mechanism for some people, but it had never been one of
hers. "Zombies freak me out. This is weird enough without you making
up crap like
Merlin's words died
in her throat as the exit door in front of them slammed open, and
legions of dead-eyed people began to stagger-step out. She couldn't
scream. She couldn't even breathe. All she could manage to do before
her legs gave out completely was to whirl around and try to get away.
But it was too late.
Jake, pulling her into him, obviously ready to protect her. If only it
was going to do any good, Merlin thought in mute horror. But the
pale-faced men and women now flooding the other end of the corridor
told her that their one escape hatch had just slammed shut. And when
their milky white eyes lit upon her, their blank, impassive faces
curled into hideous, gargoyle sneers.
"Get the virgin!"
they cried, rushing forward. Merlin heard a piercing, heart-wrenching
scream slice through the monstrous, joyful shrieking as many hands
seized her and began to raise her up, moving to bear her off to
who-knew-where, tearing Jake, her only ally, away from her, though he
was hanging on for dear life.
It was several
seconds before she noticed the screaming was coming from her.
you crazy creatures of the night!" boomed a voice that Merlin
couldn't help but recognize. It echoed all through the corridor,
reverberating off the tiled walls, coming from nowhere and everywhere
and driving the zombies into a further frenzy. "You all bring that
virgin right down to Lab 13666 and we'll get this party started with a
or should I say, with a scream! The gates await, boys and
ghouls, and Merlin Jones is gonna make it all possible. She's won the
honor of opening the infernal gates, so let's hear it for a flowing
river of virginial blood! AWOOOOOOO!"
As all the lights
turned from white to red, Merlin felt Jake's hand finally slip from her
grasp. And moments later, all the world went black.
conclusion: Act IV