Spooky Girl Reads is pleased to present this excerpt from Mike Phillips’ most recent novel, Hazard of Shadows.
Hazard of Shadows
Chronicles of the Goblin King: Book Two
By Mike Phillips
Call It a Rescue
The woman was tall and lean. Her body was built for power and speed, her stride confident and even. Each step was smooth, causing as little jarring to her knees as a wheel turning on a roadway. Her arms pumped in rhythm with her steps, not as an afterthought but pressing her forward; as integral a part of the activity as the taking of breath. She was a runner but she moved with the grace no dancer had ever achieved.
Leaving little for modesty, her shorts and top accentuated every line and curve of her body. The play of muscle as she ran was as visible under its silken cover as though it were her own skin. Every anatomical detail in calve and thigh, buttock and back, stomach and shoulder bore witness to her physical perfection as first a hundred yards, then two hundred, then a quarter mile were left behind her.
Like every morning as the sun spilled over the horizon, the woman parked her car at a neighborhood playground. She stretched out on the monkey bars, doing pull-ups and squats, testing her agility against the park’s usual clientele on the steel bars. There was a playhouse built to look like a train. It was only an engine and two cars, but it allowed her to teach her well-toned muscles flexibility of movement as well as any yoga class. She leapt over and under the engine, jumped the sides of the cars, dove through the windows only to hit the ground and tumble back to her feet.
When finished with her unique calisthenics, she pointed herself toward the bay and took off at a fast jog. A paved trail ran along the edge of the park. Her shoes still damp from the morning dew, she ran alongside the strip of asphalt on well packed earth. The trail crossed the street and followed the river under the state highway.
Little did she know that even then she was being watched. Little did she know that she was being singled out as prey.
When she appeared from under the highway, she was on the eastern edge of Clinch Park; a strip of little developed public beach in the heart of downtown. At the old cottonwood tree, the paved trail left the river and she was on her way. The trail followed Grand Traverse Bay. This sheltered portion of Lake Michigan stretched farther than the eye could see, larger than many bodies of water that were given the title of lake.
The view of the rising sun was spectacular. She didn’t notice. She was building up speed. Her muscles were heating nicely and soon she would begin to pour it on.
By the time she reached the end of the east beach and the trail led her between the public marina and the small zoo, she had reached her full stride. This was the part she enjoyed. This was why she ran, for nothing more or less than the complete physicality. She was totally immersed, every thought and action finely tuned to bring her to this penultimate moment.
The woman ran with single-mindedness few embracing the sport ever achieved. She didn’t bring a water bottle, though the morning was already hot. Her phone was locked safely in the glove box of her car. A single key was laced and tied onto her right shoe, set in a plastic cover and wedged between the laces so it never moved. Thick and lustrous as any thoroughbred’s, her mane of black hair was pulled back with the only luxury she allowed, a thick band of cloth that would keep her from rubbing the sweat from her eyes.
Before she even realized it, she had passed the volleyball courts and was coming to the crosswalk. Here the trail left the bay and crossed the state road, continuing all the way to Greilickville on the boulevard. Increasing her speed, she came to the crosswalk just as the light turned red. She vaulted onto the right of way, crossed four lanes of traffic, and hit the other side even before the first car came to a complete stop.
At the little grocery store parking lot, she paused to stretch, feeling loss to know she was already half finished. When the light turned, she began the return trip. At the end of the boulevard, she timed the light so she need not disrupt her pace. Leaving the trail, she headed toward the bay. This last part of her run would be finished on the beach.
Under her feet, the sands were churned as fine as sugar. It made for a slippery footing. With every step, her ankles and knees and hips had to adjust. The unusual motion caused her muscles to burn, to challenge her body in a whole new way. Fighting to keep her pace, she pumped her arms and legs even harder and triumphed over this new obstacle.
When she passed the volleyball courts, the beach was quickly coming to an end. On a manmade spit of land reaching out into the bay was the public marina. Steel pilings an inch thick kept the endless torrent of summer waves and winter ice from washing it away. The place where marina and beach merged, a large pile of stones marked the transition.
Not missing a stride, she extended her foot and struck the first stone at full speed. It was large and heavy, ten times as big as she was, and it didn’t even tremble under her weight. From the first stone to the next she went. This stone too was bigger than she and did not yield as she passed to the next. Half way up the pile of rocks and she could clearly feel instinctually every stride she would take; the speed and placement of every step that would bring her to the top.
Confidence building, she increased her speed, extending her left leg so far she could feel the muscles tense. But when she looked down, there was nowhere to set her foot. Blackness, a giant hole opened up before her eyes. She could not stop. Her momentum was too great. The hole seemed to open like the hungry maw of some great beast before her eyes. In one gulp, it swallowed her whole.
Before she remembered what happened, the runner heard voices. Somewhere in the psychotropic haze and the deep recesses of her dulled mind, warning bells were ringing. They were telling her to run away, run harder than she had ever run before. Something bad had happened to her, though at the moment she could only vaguely remember what that was. The warning bells were ringing, but they were far away and becoming less and less a concern.
The voices sounded strange. She could comprehend the pace and cadence of speech, though the language might have been Eastern European if not for the occasional sounds her mind could not explain. Those sounds were guttural, almost like the bleating of farm animals. If not for the interplay of voices, she would have sworn she was in a barn with sheep, or was it goats?
Little by little she became aware of what was going on around her. She was seated in a chair; the metal frame cold on her skin. Rough cloth bound her wrists, arms, ankles, and legs. Her throat was dry. But these physical sensations were distant, secondary to the spectacle of light and pleasure in her mind.
When she tried to open her eyes, everything was a blur. She saw flickering shapes. Demons manifested and dispersed before her eyes. They danced in shades of red and yellow; joining in lurid postures before merging into a greater whole. Surrounding her, the demons stuck their pitchforks at her breasts, her legs, her buttocks and her womanhood. They tried to put their dirty fingers in her mouth and ears and eyes. She shook her head to knock them away, but nothing worked. They only laughed. Desperate to fight them off, she screamed.
The voices went silent. The last of their echoes died.
Only cowed for an instant by her ferocity, the demons came back. Pulling at the bands that strapped her wrists, she struggled to fight them. She kicked so hard with her athletic legs that she knocked the chair over. She screamed again as she fell onto her back. Now everywhere she looked demons, demons, demons of fire.
Like the bleating of lambs, she thought she heard laughter. Afraid, she froze, holding her breath. Something large stepped up behind her and looked down. The thing had the body of a man. His legs and arms were thick with muscle. Showing off his physique, he wore only a loincloth. It looked like a red and white striped, extra fluffy, beach towel. A woman’s belt, leather painted a bright gold and a belt buckle the size of a hubcap with a stone figure of a bull rider, was strapped around the beach towel to keep it from falling down.
Intrigued, the runner looked up from the belt buckle, eyed the rippled midsection and swollen chest, and expected to find some handsome cowboy come to rescue her. What she saw was no comfort. It wasn’t even human.
Atop the creature’s broad shoulders was the head of a goat. Big, blue eyes bulged in their sockets. A black nose ran with slime, thick and green, down its snout into a mouth filled with crooked yellow teeth. Worst of all, its head was crowned with curling horns, jutting forward like daggers.
“No, no,” the runner screamed, “the devil, not the devil! Save me lord, forgive me!”
The devil only bleated like a child, taking hold of the chair behind her head and jerking her upward. She was righted once again.
“Stay put,” the goat devil said. “We needs you in good order but not too good, see?”
“Yes,” the runner replied weakly, surprised she could understand what was being said. Sufficiently intimated, she was too afraid to ask questions.
“Right, drink some of this.”
The goat devil reached behind his back and pulled out a bag. Momentarily confused, the runner blinked her eyes. The bag was purple. It was a Coach bag. She loved Coach bags. The style had gone out a year or two ago. The goat devil fumbled with the clasp. With a closer look, she saw that his hands were not quite human, were in some way reminiscent of cloven hooves. She too remembered having had some difficulty getting the clasp open one handed at the store, but not as much as he was having. Finally, the goat devil stopped trying to be smooth and focused all his attention at getting the bag open. With two hands, he was barely able to manage it. Successful, he peered inside, shifting through a few items before finding what he wanted.
“I had that in suede,” the runner said, admiring how the well the strap rode on such a muscular shoulder.
“What?” said the goat devil, momentarily distracted.
“That purse, they never should have stopped making it, fits everything you need.”
“It’s a man-bag,” the goat devil snorted. “They’re very popular in Europe.”
In his hand was a glass vial. He pulled the stopper with his teeth. It gave a satisfying pop as the pressure was released. White smoke fizzled from the opening. He let it breathe for a moment and then set it to her lips.
“Then why is it purple?” she asked, the drugs in her system making her dreamy.
“It was left out in the sun too long.”
“No way,” she laughed, “you could leave a bag like that out in the desert for a week and it still wouldn’t fade.”
“Shut up and drink this,” he grumbled. “We need you awake.”
“What?” she said, pressing her lips tight as the smell of it wafted into her sinuses.
The goat devil stuffed the end of the vial into her mouth and pushed her head back. Rough liquors ran down her throat. All the way into her gullet, it felt like molten metal was burning her insides. The more she struggled, the faster it ran until the goat devil cast the vial away. Glass shattered in the distance.
“That will chase the spiders away little missy,” the goat devil taunted, much to the delight of his fellows. “Now behave, you. We’ve got work to do and the night ain’t getting’ any blacker.”
As promised, her head began to clear. The difference was remarkable, as easy as waking from a dream. With every breath she was that much closer to her usual self. She didn’t even have a headache from whatever it was they had used to keep her compliant.
Of the abduction, she had no memory. She knew she had been out for a run. She had made it as far as the marina and was tackling the rock pile when a hole opened up beneath her. She remembered the sensation of falling; gravity like a bowling ball in her stomach, the primitive fear that no human ever really overcomes. She remembered nothing between then and waking to the sound of voices.
The goat devil and his companions were ignoring her. They had returned to their conversation. Their language was English, but thickly accented. With the occasional barnyard guffaw and the horrible echo of the room, it made what they were saying as difficult to understand as before.
Besides the bare chested goat devil, there were five others. Unlike their leader, they were dressed in robes that hid their true shape. The robes were a mishmash of colors and fabrics. They had been regular bathrobes once. Hoods had been sewed on but only half of them bothered to cover their heads. All of them had strands of cheap costume jewelry encircling their waists.
Down at her feet were white lines. The lines were only a few inches wide, just like the baselines on a ball diamond, but these lines were not made of chalk. The muddy floor would have soaked that up in moments. It looked like some kind of spray paint had been used. The lines radiated outward from where she sat. She followed them with her eyes, watching them crisscross and meet again at points. A candle holder was at each point.
That was what the demons had been, she realized. Not hellish imps come to torture her, but the flickering flames of candles. The wicks had been trimmed so the flames were inches in height. The little fires danced in time with the movement of the air, barely perceptible in the close quarters she found herself. It had all been her imagination.
Maybe not all, she told herself a moment later. There certainly was devilry at work here. There were five candles. Each candle was placed at the apex of a five pointed star. The star was encircled by a final line of white. She was sitting in the center of a pentagram.
Thoughts racing, she closed her eyes and took a deep breath, focusing like she did each morning before her run. There were six of them, all large men. She would have to assume they were armed and sought to do her harm. What the goat head masks were for, she could not guess, except maybe that they imagined themselves some sort of practitioners of the satanic arts.
They finished their conversation. Their echoes faded to nothing.
The runner watched them as they walked single file into the darkness. The candlelight didn’t allow her to see far beyond the circle where everything else was utter blackness. Soon there wasn’t even a flash of reflected light from their costume jewelry. There was no way to know how far they had gone, but she could still hear them moving around.
A flashlight was turned on. It wasn’t so close that she could see what they were doing, maybe ten or fifteen feet away. They seemed to be standing in a half circle looking at something on the floor. Their backs were to her. Someone opened a chest. The hinges creaked. Tools clanked dully against each other as they were taken out and distributed. A great deal more went on that she couldn’t make sense of.
Flashlight leading the way, the men started back toward her. The first carried a wooden stand, what might have been a pulpit in a church once. The wood was hacked up and defaced. Rude scrawls marred its surface. Any nobility had been sullied long ago. They set the stand down in front of her, making sure it was level on the ground before the next goat-man came along and placed four tablets upon it, stained dark as night.
This she had almost expected from her memories of Hollywood horror movies, novels that spoke little of history in their ancient rituals. What came next surprised her. A large bowl was set on the ground and filled with water. Next were added soap and a sponge.
“No thank you, I’m fine. I showered yesterday,” the runner said, her voice shaking, not nearly as confident as she wanted to sound.
The goat devil, the leader, only laughed an insane, Billy-goat laugh. A pair of scissors was in his hand. He opened and shut the blades. The sound was like the scraping of a butcher’s cleaver on a sharpening stone.
One of the goat-men, his robes less dingy and more colorful than the others, began reading from the tablets. It was no language the runner understood. The others backed away, giving their leader plenty of room for his work. The goat devil stepped over the circle, avoiding the crossing lines of the pentagram as he approached her.
“No” the runner screamed, toppling herself backward in her chair.
“Stop that nonsense,” the goat devil said, “or I’ll carves you up good just for the sport.”
“You there,” the goat devil said, jerking his head. “Pick her up and make sure she ain’t go nowheres, got it?”
“Got it boss,” one of the two replied.
The runner felt herself lifted and set upright. A goat-man was at each side of her, holding onto the chair. There was nothing she could do. The goat devil laughed and slipped a single finger under the leg of her running shorts. The silken fabric lifted like skin. He opened the blades of the scissors, sliding cold steel up her thigh.
There was a loud bang from the far side of the room. The goat devil froze. He barked an order and the reading of the incantation stopped. There was another bang, louder than the first. The goat devil stood, carefully making his way out of the pentagram and toward the noise.
The two remaining goat-men took the opportunity to draw their weapons. They had short swords, clumsy things that might have been made from lawnmower blades. With their leader, they made their way toward the sound.
“Open up,” the goat devil commanded.
The runner could tell he was in no mood for argument, and hoped to gain some advantage by being compliant, so she opened her mouth. A waded up rag, not entirely foul, was unceremoniously shoved in her mouth. Not entirely unexpected, the gag came next.
“Trouble boss?” one of the goat-men asked.
“Ain’t no one knows about this here place,” the goat devil replied. “But if they is, I tell you they’s find they get more than they bargained for.”
Something large, either a rock or a door, was rolled away. Light as bright as the sun flooded the chamber. The goat-men and their leader howled and shielded their eyes with their hands. The runner could not cover her eyes and even squinting she couldn’t see much at first.
The goat-men were arguing amongst themselves. They were talking fast and their accents were growing more pronounced. She couldn’t understand what they were saying, but it seemed they were not expecting this. Remembering countless police dramas, her lips curled into a smile. Perhaps she had not been as alone that morning as she had thought. Perhaps time had run short for the goat-men and their games.
Now that her eyes were beginning to adjust to the light, she could see she was in a small room. The walls and ceiling were a poorly constructed combination of rocks and timbers. The area in which she sat was only thirty feet across, though the dimensions were irregular to say the least. The back of the chamber where the chest had been was only a small niche in the wall. The tunnel at the far end where sun was shining was maybe ten feet long.
“Time’s up, fun’s over,” a voice called into the cave. It was a man’s voice, clear and confident.
The runner was expecting something more along the lines of, “Freeze, police.” She strained to look down the tunnel, but there was nothing to see.
“Who’s that?” called the goat devil.
“Yeah,” said one of the goat-men, “come on out so we can see you.”
“But I’m standing right in front of you,” said the voice, seeming to be very close but coming from every direction at once. “I have nothing to hide.”
The goat-men looked about them, frantically searching, bleating comments back and forth. One of them spotted something and pointed excitedly at a spot on the floor. There seemed to be a thin shadow on the muddy ground, but nothing more. No one was standing there.
The runner barely had time to recognize what she saw before the two goat-men reacted. They threw themselves forward, swinging their swords down upon the empty air. Acting like they had expected to hit something, they stumbled when they missed, knocking each other into a heap on the ground. One of them had broken his sword in the fall.
A man appeared, leaning casually against the wall opposite them. The light must have kept them from seeing him as it had her. The man didn’t look like a police officer. He had long, curly hair, jeans, and a black t-shirt with the logo of a metal band printed on the front. He was big; over six feet tall. His arms and chest bulged with muscles, even more than the goat devil.
The runner was hoping he might have a weapon of some sort, like a shotgun, but she couldn’t see that he was carrying anything. As far as recues went, this wasn’t going as well as she had hoped. Afraid, she sat quietly and waited for whatever would happen next. There was little else she could do.
“Guys, over here,” the man said.
“Tricky, tricky,” the goat devil snorted. “But we’ll see who’s got the laugh now. Me and my mates here will show you a thing or two.”
“Oh, well, if you plan to invite your friends, perhaps I should do the same?”
“Wait a minute. I knows who you are. You’re that Mitch, the new lord high and mighty of the World Below.”
“I prefer Interim Manager, thank you,” said Mitch. “And you are tin-can-eater or poops-on-the-lawn or something like that, right?”
“Oh, you may have killed Finkbeiner, but the way I heard it was a fluke. You ain’t got that Lady Elizabeth and her faerie magic with you now.” He stroked the edge of his sword. “Time to get down to a little slice and dice.”
“No, you’re right. She’s at work, but she wanted me to send her apologies. A few buddies of mine came along. If you want to fight, we might as well get things started.”
Mitch gave a whistle. “Gentlemen, time to go to work.”
Small shapes appeared at the end of the tunnel. Cats, immediately recognizable, trotted in. They were all shapes and sizes, big ones, little ones, fat ones, thin ones. There must have been a dozen of them. The cave filled with the sound of their mewing. They crowded the floor, surrounding Mitch, raising their hackles and hissing if the goat-men got too close.
“What’s this?” laughed the goat devil. “You got to be joking.”
One of the cats left the others, lazily making its way toward the runner. It was a healthy looking creature, plump; its fur was well tended. The eyes were strange. It had yellow eyes that seemed to shine in the dark, unlike any cat eyes she had ever seen before.
“No, no, I’m very serious.” Mitch cleared his throat and went on, “You are hereby ordered to desist from these activities of blood sacrifice and heinous ritual. Release the prisoner and banish yourselves to a distance of not less than five hundred miles from this place and you will not be harmed.”
The goat devil roared with laughter. “By you and your little kitty cats? How frightening,” he said mockingly.
One of the cats standing near Mitch began to change. It stood on its hind legs, growing taller and thicker in the body. Its front paws turned into hands. Its fur became a leather vest. When the transformation was complete, the creature stood about knee high on Mitch. It looked like an overgrown toad. With the scrape of metal, the toad drew a long bladed knife.
That gave the goat-men pause. They weren’t laughing anymore.
“Rat guts and zombie puss,” the toad swore, exasperated. “Mitch, what you got to learn is hows it is to talk to folks. I means, deal wit’ them in a more construction-like manner. All them there fancy words does nuttin’ but confuse the likes of them. They ain’t seen the inside of a toilet, no less a magazine to wipe their bottoms with. You got to talk on their level, see eye to eye if you know what I mean.”
“Well said, Thudrott,” Mitch told the toad. “Demonstrate if you please.”
“All right you ruddy nanny goats, get the hell out of here or I’ll rip your bleedin’ heads off, got it?”
“Now here’s what we call the dip-lo-matic part,” Thudrott confided to Mitch in a whisper that was loud enough for everyone in the cavern to hear. He cleared his throat noisily. “You rotten finks talk it over, right? You got five minutes to get your water buckets and take off. Right?”
“Nice touch about the buckets, real compassionate,” Mitch replied, nodding. “Hey, Gullysack, how’s the girl?”
“She’s pretty,” said the cat in a high-pitched, whining sort of voice.
Still in the shape of a cat, this Gullysack leaped up on a nearby rock so it could look the runner face to face. Then it too changed. It was another one of the toad creatures. Only this one wore the loudest Hawaiian shirt the runner had ever seen and cargo shorts that were as long as pants on its stubby legs. Gullysack looked her over like men did when they were drunk. It gave her the creeps.
“No, I mean, is she hurt?” Mitch called out.
“She sure looks good to me,” said Gullysack lasciviously.
“Oh, you can’t trust that one wit’ nuttin’,” Thudrott complained. “Not a brain in his head most of the times.”
The toad waddled a step or two closer to the pentagram where the runner sat. Peering down his long nose, he said in appreciation, “Would you look at the cans on that junk pile.”
“Yeah, but I don’t think they’re real,” Gullysack said.
“Naw, that’s just ‘cause she’s wearin’ one of them sports bras.”
“How about, lady. Are they real? Huh? Are they? Huh?”
Mitch interrupted, “Guys, come on. You can argue about that later. Is she hurt or not?”
“Naw, they ain’t even stripped her nekked yet,” Thudrott said, disappointed. “So, technically, we shouldn’t even be here. What do you say we come back in five or ten minutes?”
“No, I think we know what’s going on here,” said Mitch.
“What? I just want it legal and all. That’s what you tell us, got to do things on the up and up or we ain’t no better than the rest of the scum.”
“Yeah, wouldn’t want to be unfair,” Gullysack agreed. “We wouldn’t even have to go nowheres. We could stay and watch real close and maybe even help out a little with the washing part and make sure it really is going to be a sacrifice and then put a stop to it when we know for sure. Wouldn’t that be the right thing to do? Huh? Wouldn’t it?”
“Seems logical to me,” Thudrott said, nodding his head.
Exasperated, Mitch said, “Guys, come on, get it together, would you? This is serious.”
While Mitch and his toad friends were arguing, the goat-men began reorganizing. At an almost imperceptible pace, they gathered together near the tablet stand. They each managed to find a weapon and were quickly ready to fight. The goat devil began giving orders with a clever tilt of his head. He and the two from before had weapons hidden behind their backs and were beginning to make their way closer to Mitch. Three others began a flanking move. The goat-man with the brightly colored robes who had been reading the tablets was slowly inching up to Gullysack from behind. Still, the would-be rescuers continued quarreling amongst themselves.
Seemingly unnoticed, the goat-man in the colored robes was almost right behind the little toad. The runner felt terrible for the little guy, even though he was a letch. She tried to get his attention, mumbling as best she could through the gag and shooting her eyes back and forth. Gullysack took notice, but just gave her a flirty wink in response.
“I don’t really mind if they’re not real,” Gullysack assured her. “You can’t help what you were born with and I admire people who are into self-improvement, especially with something as worthwhile and important as that. I mean, look at you. Huh? Look at you. Those big old bazumbas of yours really make the whole package. Now, if you only had a little up top, even though only a mouthful is really all a guy needs, what a disappointed that would be. So, you know, if they are fake, you made a good decision getting that taken care of before the rest of your body went to pot.”
The runner jerked her head in the general direction of the goat-man in colored robes, trying to turn Gullysack’s attentions away from her chest. It did no good.
Thinking he was making progress, Gullysack leaned toward her, putting a hand to his chin in an entirely unattractive manner and went on, “As long as they did a good job, that is. The real problem is that they should be soft. When they’re hard as rocks it’s no fun for anyone. Things have gotten better in the last few years, but those saline bags got nothin’ on good old fashioned silicone.”
“Behind you, look out,” the runner tried to say through the gag. It came out as a jumble.
It was too late. The goat-man in colored robes was within striking distance. He wasted no time, raising an axe over his head, ready to come down with a crushing deathblow.
A figure appeared from nowhere. It was another of the toad creatures. He was wearing a plaid shirt. A belt with many pouches and unfathomable gizmos was cinched around his middle. Nerd glasses hung on his face, taped in the appropriate locations.
The goat-man in colored robes was startled by this new toad’s appearance. He flinched, pulling the axe back so he could defend himself. He didn’t have a chance. The new toad creature pulled what looked to be a meat fork from his belt. A cord ran from the handle and there was a switch, which the toad creature flicked with a stubby finger. Electricity crackled to life between the tines of the fork, spreading in a wide arc.
The toad creature made a savage lunge, driving the fork into the goat-man’s crotch. The goat-man in colored robes screamed. His goat face turned red. His body shook. The axe fell to the ground. The goat-man began to wail; his limbs totally out of control. Next moment, his entire body exploded like a water balloon, splashing what looked like crude oil everywhere. Some of it landed on the runner. She turned away in disgust. Just as quickly, the black slime began to melt away into nothingness.
“Thanks, Glitch,” Gullysack said in an offhand way; hardly acknowledging his life had just been saved.
The toad creature called Glitch put the fork away. He nodded and turned invisible again.
“Now, what do you think you’re trying to pull?” Mitch demanded of the goat-men.
Weapons in hand, coming almost close enough to Mitch and the cats that they could attack, the goat-men froze. They looked one to another, trying to get some sign from their leader. The goat devil was as dumbfounded as the rest. He stood gaping at Mitch stupidly.
“We came here in good faith, opening civilized negotiations, giving you a chance to renounce what you have done and redeem yourselves.”
Mitch was no longer leaning against the wall. He was standing, hands on his hips, in the middle of the tunnel. From his easy manner, the runner had not expected the man capable of a reaction like this.
“And to pay us back for a little law and order you try to slice and dice one of my crew?”
“Tolds ya’ they’s nuffin’ but scum,” Thudrott said. “Not an inch of respect in all them nanny goats combined, I’d say.”
“Thudrott, you’re right again. I should have listened,” Mitch sighed. “So what now?”
“Rip they lungs out.”
“Let’s do it.”
With that, all the cats changed into toad creatures. The three goat-men that had been moving into a flanking position had their feet pushed out from under them. All three went crashing to the ground, landing hard on their backs. Glitch in his plaid shirt and two more of the toad creatures appeared, laughing. One of the toad creatures quickly gathered up the goat-men’s weapons and waddled back to the group while the others made threatening moves with knives and other weapons.
“What a bunch of idiots,” said the new toad creature. He held up a sword. “Hey, would you take a look at this, pretty.”
“What’s that, Puttygut?” said Thudrott.
“Found a replacement for Old Lockjaw. Take a look. Pearl handle and everything. Nice to snag a bit of treasure on a bad job. With the looks of things around here, I didn’t think they’d have two pennies to rub together.” Puttygut offered up the sword for inspection. “Want it? Felt naked not having some major hardware lying around myself.”
“Yep, I hears what you’re sayin’,” Thudrott replied. He looked the handle and blade over appreciatively. “Real Cavalry sword, great condition, what must have come from some collection.”
The goat devil stared dumbstruck. Though defeated, he wasn’t ready to give up.
“Right of Combat,” said the goat devil, quietly at first, as if an afterthought or perhaps that he cared not for that alternative either. “I demand the Right of Combat.”
Walking up to the goat devil, Mitch said, “This isn’t about you and me. This is about law and order. I’m not here to get into a pissing contest.”
More confident now, thinking that he had perhaps found the advantage he was looking for, the goat devil said, “The old ways are law. I demand the Right of Combat.”
“Well, I think what he may have a point and all,” Thudrott said, scratching his noggin.
“If the nanny goat claims the Right of Combat, I say give it to him and be done,” Puttygut agreed.
“Yeah, come on, afraid now you’re girlfriend ain’t here?” the goat devil sneered. “Come on little boy, I’ll teach you a lesson.”
“Sticks and stones,” Mitch said to the goat devil. To the toads, he said, “I’m trying to be merciful. Turning him into a pool of thirty-weight isn’t very merciful.”
“Price of leadership,” Thudrott said with a shrug. “Besides, it’s his choice.”
“Oh, are you afraid?” the goat devil taunted. He and his cronies were laughing. “Miss your little girlie friend?”
“I do feel like shutting him up,” Mitch confided.
“Been more than fair and ain’t none what can say otherwise,” Thudrott said, egging him on. “Ain’t that so?”
The toad creatures all heartily agreed. They began chanting expletives of every color and sort.
“Right of Combat it is,” Mitch decided, looking the goat devil in the eye.
“No tricks,” the goat devil said.
At that moment, Mitch disappeared. He reappeared a moment later, leaning casually against the wall where he had always been. It had all been an illusion. The toad creatures laughed and applauded in appreciation.
“You got him good with that one,” Puttygut said, patting Mitch on the leg. “Couldn’t have done it better myself.”
“Clear the way, gentlemen,” Mitch said, walking toward the goat devil.
With a flick of his wrist, a sword was in his hand. It was short and broad. The blade was so black that he seemed to be holding a sliver of midnight. Mitch walked within striking distance and raised the blade up and down to indicate he was ready.
The goat devil had managed to get a spear with a long point. He took a step back, using the spear’s length to his best advantage. In the close quarters, he would have an easy time defending himself. Holding the spear in both hands, he faked a lunge, going high at first, but driving the spear point toward Mitch’s belly.
Stepping in, Mitch cut the spear handle in half with one smooth sweep of his arm and curved round to slice off the goat devil’s left horn. The goat devil jumped back in surprise. He looked at the severed horn lying in the mud; already dissolving into the black sludge that wicked creatures like him are made of. In moments it became nothing but black smoke.
“We can stop now,” Mitch said.
The goat devil had no intention of stopping. He tossed the useless end of the spear away. The other half of the spear in his hand, he charged forward. As he closed on Mitch, the goat devil brought his hand down, using the spear more like a club, aiming at his opponent’s head. Mitch dodged out of the way, but there was a knife in the goat devil’s other hand and he jabbed it toward Mitch’s guts. Bringing his sword up, Mitch knocked the spear away, swung back to block the knife but severed the goat devil’s right arm instead. The goat devil grabbed his arm and cursed.
“I believe that satisfies the Right of Combat,” Mitch said. “Now, you are under arrest. Return with us to the World Below and we’ll get you some medical attention.”
“Never!” shouted the goat devil, lunging toward him.
Mitch could not get out of the way fast enough. The goat devil rammed into Mitch at full speed and impaled himself on the sword. Mitch landed on his back with the goat devil on top of him. The creature began changing, his body turning to black jelly.
“Be at peace, then,” said Mitch. He stood up and tried to rid himself of as much of the sludge and mud as he could. “Yuck, and these were my only clean pants. Okay, how about the rest of you? You want a fight?”
The goat-men looked from one to the other. They seemed unable to decide.
Finally, one spoke up, saying, “We surrender.”
“Good choice,” said Mitch. “Gentlemen, hog tie them please. Sorry, but it’s going to be more work for you than I thought. We can’t exactly rely on their honor, can we? I’ll get some beer to go with that pizza.”
The promise was met with cheers. The toad creatures immediately set to work. The goat-men were pushed into the mud, their hands and feet held together by two or more toad creatures as another wrapped their limbs with thick rope.
“Gullysack, how’s the woman?” Mitch asked.
“Looking fine as ever,” said Gullysack, his eyes once again appraising the runner’s body like meat.
“Good, just keep her occupied while we finish things up, okay?”
“You got it, Mitch.”
The excitement over, Gullysack returned his attentions to the runner. He hopped off the rock he had been sitting on and swaggered over, making eyes at her the entire way.
“Though I can hang with the rest of the crew if I have to, I’m more of a lover than a fighter,” Gullysack explained. “But don’t you worry, baby. I won’t let anything happen to you.”
With hardly a downward glance, Gullysack deftly avoided stepping on the lines of the pentagram. He began looking at how she was tied to the chair, testing the strength of her bonds with a disapproving ‘tsk’.
“Bet this is all pretty crazy,” Gullysack confided, not removing the gag so the runner could respond. He made his voice low and smooth. “Bet you can’t make heads or tails of none of this. Poor baby, you’re probably scared out of your wits. You must think you’re in a loony bin somewhere, or ought to be.”
Bending down to look at her legs, he went on in the pimp voice, “And after a fright like this, a girl might think that there is some kind of debt to be paid.”
The toad thing looked up at her from between her thighs, winked, and said, “Well, you know, we goblin-hero-types live a tough life. A little lovin’ goes a long way. You may not think that you’re up to my usual standards, and you’re right about that, but I feel like you and I made a deeper sort of emotional connection today.”
He began stroking the naked flesh of her ankles, moving his way up her legs as he spoke. The runner flinched at the touch. She tried to move her legs to make him stop, but she was so tightly bound that she could do very little to discourage his explorations.
“Mitch, Mitch!” she screamed through her gag, thinking she had gone from a bad situation to one that was much worse. Her pleas brought no rescue. Mitch and the others were too busy taking care of the goat-men.
“So what do you say, baby? Huh? Ready for a little monkey sex?”
“No, uh uh,” the runner said, throwing her head back and forth. “No way.”
“What? No? Shy? Don’t worry, I’ll take things slow.”
“No!” she screamed, feeling his hands on her wrists.
The next moment she was free. The bonds had all been cut. Her gag and even the rag that had been stuck in her mouth were gone. Surprised, she looked around, expecting Gullysack to jump her bones at any minute but he was nowhere to be seen. Like the other toad creatures and the goat-men, he was gone. The only one left was Mitch.
“You have been through quite an experience,” said Mitch. “If it means anything, your attackers will receive justice. Otherwise, maybe you should just forget about everything you saw. We could do something about your memory, but you’d be missing time and still have flashbacks, and I understand that makes everything worse.”
“Okay,” the runner began weakly, still feeling confused about everything that had happened. “If you think it’s best.”
Moving around the pentagram, Mitch blew out each of the candles. When that was done, he kicked in the outer ring and broke a few of the points of the star. It was quiet and lonely and the runner was beginning to worry that Mitch had something else on his mind. Except for the light at the far end of the tunnel, it was dark. She had never gotten a good look at his face, what with the action and all the hair, and even now with him right next to her, she couldn’t see what he looked like.
“Take my hand now. Don’t fall. Your legs might be a little wobbly.”
She took his hand gratefully. He had more a paw than a hand. The skin was rough and the muscles were thick. He was someone used to menial labor. He led her across the ruin of the pentagram to the tunnel.
“Okay?” he asked.
“Yes, I’m fine.”
“Think you can get back to your car?”
“Yes, I think so.”
“We’ll keep an eye on you all the same. Just walk to the end of the tunnel and this nightmare will all be over.”
“Okay, well, thank you.” She hugged him.
“You’re welcome. Go on now.”
“Will I ever see you again?”
“Never, and you’ll never again see any of my people either.”
“No? That’s good, actually.”
“That’s the way it should be.”
Taking a single step toward the end of the tunnel, she found herself outside. She was standing on the beach looking out over the bay. Behind her was the rock pile. There was no opening; just a pile of rocks. Everything was as it had been a hundred days before.
Slightly confused, she decided she had better finish her run and get to work. People were already setting up their spots on the beach. The sun was almost midway across the sky. Her muscles were cold and her body was sore so she decided to walk. As she turned from the rock pile, she looked back and decided to go another way.