The dock workers and sailors were in full force tonight, drunkenly singing their sea chanties, and howling and stamping their mugs on the tabletops. Only the occasional barking laugh, or sharp clink of glass on glass, pierced the revelry happening beneath the dim lamps in the rafters.
Squeezed between two meaty bodies at the bar was a well-groomed man in a tweed, three-piece suit. Lean, clean shaven, his dark hair styled in a neat comb over, Andrew Maxwell stood in stark contrast to the calloused regulars around him. He adjusted a thin pair of round, silver spectacles on his hawkish nose, through which vibrant blue eyes darted across the pages of a book called Vampiric Creatures and How to Slay Them, Volume 3.
Andrew grumbled irritably as a sloppy drunk bumped into him and pulled his attention away from his reading. He puffed on a cigarette tucked between his lips, trying to burn away the pungent smell of old sweat that hung heavy in the air, before turning his eyes back to the book; he barely got through a sentence before someone shoved him again—this time with enough intent that it knocked his glasses off his face.
Andrew blew out a long breath through his nose and picked up his glasses from the counter, then turned to face a bear of a man glowering at him.
“Move,” the man snarled.
A frown played at the corners of his lips, but Andrew did his best to keep his expression neutral. “What seems to be the problem?”
Beady little eyes peered out between the folds of the stranger’s face. “That’s my seat you’re sitting in.”
Andrew looked around, pantomiming surprise. “Really? Sorry about that—it’s just I didn’t see a name on the stool or anything.” He gave an ingratiating smile. “Tell you what, I’ll be done here in a few minutes, and then the seat’s all yours.” He turned back to the bar, but a firm hand clamped over his shoulder and spun him around.
The man’s doughy face came so close to his own, he could smell the sour stench of his breath. “I don’t think you heard me. I. Want. That. Seat.” His eyes wandered down to an object leaning against the bar. “And don’t even try reaching for your weapon. I’ll snap you in two before you get the chance.”
Andrew followed his gaze to a worn scabbard with a dirty, iron hilt protruding from the top, and without missing a beat replied, “That old thing? Wouldn’t dream of it. Besides, that’s meant for monsters from the Shadowlands.”
“Monsters?” the large man repeated dimly.
“Wraiths, spirits, the occasional daemon—that kind of thing.” Andrew smiled good-naturedly. “Come on, there’s no need for violence. How about I buy us a round?”
“Damn it, Andrew! I’m not even gone for an hour, and this is what I come back to?” a voice bellowed.
Those in the immediate area stopped what they were doing, and all eyes turned to a stout woman, dressed for a hunt with leather boots, khaki pants and shirt, and a gun slung over her shoulder. Big-boned and wide-hipped, barely standing five feet tall, her bullish stance looked ready to charge.
Andrew waved at her. “Hi, Penelope.”
The woman’s freckled face twisted into a scowl, and her emerald eyes narrowed on Andrew as she marched forward. Her fiery red hair, usually allowed to flow freely down to her shoulders, was instead tied up in a dense knot, enhancing the severity of her no-nonsense visage.
She came to a stop next to the man accosting Andrew and craned her head back to look him in the eyes. “Go on. Get!”
“Everything’s fine. I was just telling him—”
Penelope dropped her submachine gun onto the bar with a heavy thump, cutting Andrew off, and continued addressing the other man. “Now listen here, you thick-headed dolt. Do you see this?” She pointed to a golden badge pinned on her shirt, depicting a sword over a shield with six stars encircling it. “You know what this means, right?”
The man’s mouth fell open with a drawn out “uhh” while he studied her badge. It took several moments for realization to dawn. “Oh, shit,” he drawled. “I didn’t know you were a mercenary from Gast Academy.”
Penelope pulled back Andrew’s jacket, revealing an identical emblem pinned to his vest.
The other man looked between Andrew and Penelope with a sheepish smile on his wide face. “Look, I didn’t mean nothing by it. I’ll go find another spot.” He held up his hands in a show of peace and backed away.
Penelope glowered at the onlookers around them. “Go back to your damn drinks! Nothing to see here!” she snapped.
The crowd dispersed amid murmurs, and the jovial atmosphere came back in full swing.
Andrew straightened his jacket and turned back to the bar. “Always the diplomat, Penelope.”
“Why waste time mincing words?” she replied, shouldering aside a drunkard to make room at the bar. She side-eyed Andrew with a huff. “You can’t make friends with everyone, nor should you try. Most of them are real bastards.”
“You are the most cynical person I know. How did you get this way?”
Penelope snorted. “My mom always says the first thing I did out of the womb was kick the nurse in the face. I guess it’s my nature.”
“Your nature?” Andrew took his pocket watch out and opened the lid. “And what would that be? Being an asshole?”
“Now you listen to me, you little shit!”
Andrew gave her a roguish wink. “Shoot, would you look at the time, Penelope? We really need to get going.” She opened her mouth to protest, but he hailed the bartender before she had a chance. “Three shots of Pyrehaven whiskey.”
“Four,” Penelope corrected. “And you’re paying, Andrew.”
He dug through his pockets and tossed two silver coins on the counter as the bartender poured their drinks. Penelope took a shot in each hand and threw them back in quick succession, sucking in a breath through her teeth before releasing a satisfied sigh. Andrew grabbed his shot, tapped it lightly on the counter top, then downed it in one gulp. The liquid burned a hot path down his throat, settling into a nice pit of heat in his stomach. The second shot, he tapped again on the counter, but instead poured it out on the floor.
“For you, Samson,” he murmured.
Andrew picked up the sword and tied it across his back with a leather strap, then grabbed the submachine gun Penelope had brought and headed out the front door. A cold breeze greeted him outside, and salty, ocean air wafted over his nose. The faintest glimpse of a moon peeked over a dark blanket of clouds above, shining a sliver of light down.
“Are you two finally ready?”
He watched a slender woman emerge from the shadows, her face azure and her lips a slight shade darker. She wore clothes similar to Penelope’s and had a lengthy red scarf that draped over her shoulder; a golden pin on her shirt gleamed in the moonlight. This striking woman regarded him with intense, pupil-less eyes that reminded him of the storm clouds common to the area.
“Veera,” Andrew said, unperturbed by the strangeness of her appearance.
Veera was a kavi, after all. And like all other kavi, her skin was a pleasant blue, and her hair and eyes somewhere between silver and gray. She was also the third and final member of the Viridian Vipers mercenary team, having joined them only the year before.
“This’ll be your first time facing a jawman, right?” Penelope asked.
“Yes, but I have read the dossier,” Veera replied.
The redhead smirked at her response. “Reading about something and seeing it for yourself are two very different experiences.”
Andrew pulled out another cigarette from a silver case he kept in his jacket pocket, and tucked it into his mouth. Veera stepped in, offering her hand; she snapped her fingers and a small flame sparked into existence on the tip of her index finger. Andrew leaned in and took a few coaxing puffs to get his cigarette going, then pulled back to inspect the gun Penelope had brought him.
Given the nature of the contract, Gast Academy had authorized the use of a Puncher. It was a Ningxia submachine gun, to be precise, designed by some Zholese noble. Most folks just called it a Puncher, though, for the simple fact it was very good at punching holes into whatever you aimed it at. Its accuracy, high rate of fire, and general ease of use had made it a popular weapon for mercenaries, police, military, and gangsters alike.
He released the drum magazine to make sure all fifty rounds were in it, then clicked it back in. “You got a weapon, Penelope?”
She produced a small pistol from a satchel hanging at her side. “If we’re lucky, I won’t have to use it.”
Andrew slung his weapon over his shoulder with a chuckle. “If we’re really lucky, I won’t have to use mine either. Isn’t that right, Veera?”
She rolled her stormy eyes. “You rely so heavily upon my chanting, it amazes me you completed any contracts before I came along.”
Andrew started down the empty street before them, a lopsided grin plastered over his face. “Fight smart, not hard! Besides, I think we have a pretty great set up. You beat up the bad guys, Veera, and Penelope patches up the good guys.”
Veera shot him a withering glare. “What job does that leave you?”
He paused in a moment of thought. “Well . . . I guess I’m the leader, making sure you two stay out of trouble. Especially Penelope. Daemons know she isn’t exactly a people person.”
Penelope made a choking sound, and her face turned a hot shade of red. “Excuse me? Say that to my face, Andrew. Hey! Don’t you walk away from me!”
“Of all the boroughs in Hafland, I think Anchors is my least favorite. I despise the smell here,” Veera muttered.
Andrew took a deep breath through his nostrils, the salty air mingling with a fishy odor wafting from the nearby markets—closed now in the late evening. The smell brought back memories of his youth, running through the crowded docks with his brother; a nostalgic smile played at his lips. “I think there’s a certain charm about the place.”
“You get used to it, eventually,” Penelope said.
Veera wrinkled her nose. “I grew up in the deserts of Aahana, thousands of miles from the nearest ocean. I’m afraid I will never grow accustomed to this . . . stink.”
Andrew stopped the team at an empty intersection and ground his cigarette, now just a smoldering nub, under his heel. “Hey, Penelope, where’d the contract say the jawman was last sighted?”
“Hang on.” Penelope pulled a folded piece of paper from her satchel and moved under a street light nearby. “Says here it was spotted at . . .” She squinted at a detail on the bottom, her mouth turning into a tight line. “Shit, academy intel says it’s probably moved into the caves at the end of West Port. That’s not good.”
Veera peered over Penelope’s shoulder at the contract. “Why is this not good?”
“The caves out there are a branching maze that run beneath Hafland,” Andrew replied. “They aren’t exactly the easiest thing to navigate.”
Penelope pinched the bridge of her nose with a groan. “And it’s the last place I want to run into a jawman. Those bastards can get close to five thousand pounds. They usually stay in the deeper parts of the ocean, so if it’s come ashore—especially so close to civilization—it means the thing’s desperate for food.”
“Huge, hungry, and in dark caves. Not a good combination.” Andrew glanced in Veera’s direction and noticed her blue face was a hue lighter than usual. “Back in the day, my broth—” The last word caught in his throat. He cleared it with a cough and said, “This won’t be our first time putting down a stray jawman. We’ll be okay.”
Veera shuddered regardless. “The file said both its mouths are strong enough to break through bone . . . how can you both be so calm?”
“We’ve got a decade of mercenary work over you, sweety,” Penelope said. “You just get used to it. Now come on, we’ve got a monster to hunt.”
The mercenary team continued in the direction of the ocean until they entered West Port; keeping the water on their left, they walked along the docks, past lonely piers, empty warehouses, and full harbors. A strong wind blew a cold breeze in from the ocean, but with it the dense cloud cover began moving, finally, allowing a silver half-moon to shine like a beacon among the stars.
Andrew became lost in the sounds of the serene port. Wood groaned like old men, fighting to keep the boats moored against the pull of the ocean. Waves lapped against the docks with a hypnotic rhythm, and like the tide coming in, hard memories came flooding back.
He and his older brother had grown up in Hafland, born and raised, then abandoned. It wasn’t easy for two young orphans to survive alone on the small island nation, but they made it work. Wealth was all around them, and if they looked hard enough they could always find a loose purse to pinch a copper or two—just enough to get by. But as they grew older, they began getting into bigger cons, more dangerous crimes, and by the time they were young men, Andrew was ready to move into the criminal underworld.
It was Samson that had steered their lives to a new course, and he remembered that argument with vivid detail. Andrew had thought it was a mistake, but his brother was adamant: their futures were in Gast Academy. It had gotten so heated that words turned to blows. Andrew lost that fight—quite painfully, in fact—but was won over in the end. And though their fortunes had turned around for the better, Andrew wondered . . . if he had won that night, instead of Samson, would his brother still be here?
Before Andrew knew it, they were moving through a thick patch of beach grass, their feet sinking into white sand with every step. Behind him, he could make out erratic rows of orange dots from the houses and buildings far off in the distance, while before them the moon’s reflection darted across the ocean’s shifting surface.
“Over there,” Penelope said, pointing to a steep, craggy cliff in the distance. “That’s where it was last spotted.”
Andrew and Veera let Penelope lead them across the beach to the cliffs. As they approached, the yawning maw of an opening appeared from the darkness, like a great monster waiting to swallow them whole. Andrew stopped at the mouth of the cave and looked inside. The ocean spilled in, making a shallow pool of water on the other side they would have to wade through—much to his chagrin. Penelope took out three flashlights from her satchel, making sure each of them had one, and with a click, their beams converged on the void ahead.
“Guess it’s time to earn this month’s rent,” Andrew grumbled. He gripped the Puncher and took the first step in, sinking nearly two feet into freezing water. His legs protested to the icy needles piercing through to his bones, but after numbing to the pain, he began the trek in.
The wind at their backs howled relentlessly at first, amplified by the cavern walls, but eventually died out with a croaking gasp when they had gone in so deep the air became stale. By then, the only sounds came from their own movements and water dripping from the ceiling. As they ventured deeper still, the cave became more uneven, winding and dipping unexpectedly; at points, the tunnel walls were so low they had to crawl on all fours to squeeze through, leaving barely enough room for them to keep their heads above water.
Andrew never considered himself claustrophobic, but in here it was unnerving—especially knowing the dangerous prey they were hunting in the tight space. Minutes dragged into hours, until finally the tunnel opened into a large cavern. Andrew estimated they had been walking for almost an hour, which meant they were a fair ways inland now. He swept his light over the damp, glistening walls and counted no less than five branching paths out.
“Damn. Which way now?” The cavern echoed Penelope’s question back.
“A coin flip?” Andrew suggested.
“Got a five-sided coin on you, huh?” she spat.
“Just trying to lighten the mood, jeez.”
“What is that over there?” Veera whispered.
Andrew panned his flashlight to where she was pointing, revealing a black puddle by the far wall; he approached it with cautious steps, but already knew what he was looking at.
Veera gasped. “Blood!”
Penelope crouched over the thick liquid and studied it closely under her light. “Could be from anything,” she explained, but Andrew had the distinct impression it was more so a hope than a statement. She pointed out more blood splatters, trailing down one of the tunnels, then drew her pistol and beckoned for Andrew to lead the way.
He folded his glasses into his jacket pocket and turned to Veera. “Have your mantras ready.”
She nodded her understanding, her expression stony.
Suddenly, their small flashlights felt wholly inadequate against the suffocating darkness. The tunnel was no different from the one they had used to get to this point, but now the danger felt more real, imminent, squeezing them from all sides. For Andrew, though, the intoxicating cocktail of fear and adrenaline—the visceral fight or flight response you couldn’t get from anything else but true danger—coursed like electricity through his veins. It heightened all his senses, made him feel alive—superhuman, even.
Andrew stopped the team when he noticed a soft gurgling up ahead; his eyes fell upon a haphazard collection of hewn stone, sitting under a large hole that deviated from the cave’s natural path. He turned to the team with a finger pressed to his lips for their silence, then crept forward; his other finger danced lightly over the Puncher’s trigger, ready to unload all fifty rounds into the first thing that moved. Andrew paused just before reaching the hole, gathered his courage, and stepped through, gun first.
He stepped into a shallow flow of water and found himself looking down the long stretch of a man-made tunnel, just large enough that he could stand inside it at his full height.
“Must be a storm drain,” Penelope said, prying a loose block from the edge of the hole. “And it looks like the jawman made itself an entrance.”
Andrew’s ears perked to a barely perceptible noise from the end of the storm drain tunnel; he gave Penelope and Veera a look to make sure he wasn’t hearing things, but their expressions confirmed it. The three listened together in absolute silence, and a moment later they heard it again: a soft voice whispering—Andrew screwed up his face in concentration—no . . . crying.
Veera’s eyes widened. “Someone is alive down here!” She bolted ahead with Penelope and Andrew hot on her heels.
The sobbing came into sharper focus with every step they took; it was a pitiful, lamenting cry, heavy with grief, and soon, the storm drain dumped them out in a centralized chamber that connected numerous others. A thin stairway led into the wide chamber, where a rushing stream split the room in two.
Whoever they were chasing was in here, but something about her anguished cries set Andrew on edge, like hearing nails on a chalkboard.
“Where is she?” Penelope yelled, searching frantically with her flashlight.
“I-I do not know. It sounds as if it’s coming from every direction,” Veera said.
Penelope swore under her breath. “Can’t see a damn thing in here.” She rummaged through her satchel and emerged with two tubes. She struck their tips against the wall and yellow fires hissed to life, giving them much-needed illumination. She tossed the flares in either direction.
Andrew was the first to see her.
Obscured in the shadows at the very edge of the light’s circle, a woman in a dirty dress cried into her hands, kneeling over something just out of sight. She was missing a shoe, and it looked like a beast had ripped into her clothes, exposing her pale skin.
Veera and Penelope hurried towards the woman with Andrew a few hesitant steps behind, still unable to shake the feeling that something was very, very, wrong.
Penelope got to her first. She shined her flashlight over the lady’s back and revealed what the flare had missed: the reason for the woman’s sorrow. There was a paralyzing moment of confusion as they tried to comprehend the lumpy, wet pile of red before them, spilling out of a tattered dress.
Andrew’s eyes fell upon an arm protruding from the pile, fingers frozen into a stiff claw, and it was then that realization slapped him across the face: flesh and bone, or what was left of it.
“She’s already dead! That’s a ghost!” he roared.
In that same moment, the woman’s head twisted around, independent of her body, to reveal a gaunt and pallid face. Her body glowed an ashy white, and her face twisted into something inhuman; her jaw widened, stretching and tearing her cheeks apart, then, suddenly she was high in the air with an ear-piercing screech.
Penelope drew her pistol and fired off a few shots, but the bullets passed harmlessly through the woman’s body. The ghost spread her arms out and spiraled down like a torpedo, slamming into Penelope’s chest in a brief moment of contact before passing through her body.
Andrew watched his friend soar through the air, arms and legs flailing wildly; she hit solid stone nearly twenty feet away, hard, and rolled into a groaning heap.
“Take care of that thing!” Veera shouted, sprinting to Penelope’s aid.
Andrew hadn’t expected this, but was grateful he brought his sword out of sheer habit. He slung the Puncher over his other shoulder, then reached back and gripped the hilt of his blade, tracking the woman’s ephemeral form as it circled above. It turned up, abruptly, vanishing through a wall, though her disembodied screams remained behind as a promise of her return.
Andrew drew his sword and waited, eyes scanning for her return. The weapon was of a simple design, light-weight and easy to handle, but also worn by age; the handle was wrapped in faded, black leather, and the steel was dull and scored with nicks.
He brandished the weapon over his head and focused his thoughts on it, drawing upon a reserve of power he knew was hiding in plain sight. The temperature dropped several degrees as an unnatural force coalesced around him, making the hairs on his body stand at attention; with a small effort of will, he pushed that energy into the sword, feeling it crawl over his body towards the blade. A silver aura pulsed from his hand and shot up through the hilt to the tip of the sword, flickering like fire—curiously, though, it emitted no light.
Andrew shuffled in a small circle, looking for the ghost’s angle of attack, but she was clever . . . she was using her voice to confuse his sense of direction. He shut his eyes and reached out with his senses, probing into a place that permeated the world around him, a place only mediums like himself could find. He sensed emptiness there, cold and devoid of life, vast and unwelcoming . . . but he also felt a ripple, like a drop of water in a vast and serene lake.
Andrew’s eyes flew open, and he spun around in time to see the ghost burst forth from the wall with a bellowing wail, her grasping hands reaching out for him. Andrew gripped the sword’s hilt in both hands and drew his arms back. With a deep battle cry to match the ghost’s, he swung out in a wide arc.
There was no physical contact to the strike, but he knew he hit. The specter’s cry came to an abrupt stop as the silver blade sliced through her shoulder and came out her hip. The momentum of Andrew’s attack spun him around and he lost his footing, slamming into the slick floor. On his back, he had a perfect view of the ghost’s remains floating over him; wispy tendrils bled from her gaping wounds and disappeared into the air, as did the malice in her face. Her expression softened into that of a young woman with smooth skin and full cheeks, and for a fleeting moment, Andrew thought he saw a glimpse of gratitude.
Then, she vanished, leaving no trace of her existence. Andrew released his grip on his sword, and the aura around the blade dissipated.
Andrew looked over at Penelope, who was being helped up by Veera.
“I hate spirits!” she growled.
“Ghost,” Andrew corrected, pushing himself onto his feet as well.
Penelope gave him a dirty look. “What?”
Andrew elaborated. “That was a ghost. Spirits are the full-fledged remains of the dead. They can think and speak normally, like they would’ve in life. Ghosts, on the other hand, are just an imperfect copy, an emotional imprint of whatever the person was feeling at the moment of death.” He wandered over to the grisly remains the ghost had been guarding. “Great daemons,” he muttered, grimacing at the gore. “Whoever she was . . . she died a bad death. Her ghost was proof of that.”
Veera joined him and gave the woman’s remains a pitying look. “In the end, Mahaprasu claims us all.” She drew a triangle in the air and shut her eyes in a silent prayer.
Andrew rolled his eyes, knowing whatever Trimurt prayer Veera was giving was meaningless; Trimurts had very strong feelings about meddling with the dead. No, if he wanted to make sure the ghost was properly exorcised, he’d have to check himself.
Andrew closed his eyes and brought his breathing under control, opening his senses again to that dark and lonely place that existed as an invisible layer over the world. It had a name, of course. The Shadowlands. His training at Gast Academy’s Wraith Hall had taught him to fear and respect it, but to also detect the creatures that lurked there. If the dead woman’s presence still lingered, he’d find it here.
Andrew opened his eyes to Penelope’s brief, but jarring words, and turned to see her pointing out a storm drain. An ominous, red light glowed, and a deep, guttural rumble breathed out from the tunnel as something large and heavy dragged across stone, moving the light closer to the opening.
His stomach dropped out from under him, and all thoughts of the ghost left his mind as his mouth went dry. Andrew quietly reached for the Puncher, and Penelope and Veera fell into formation on either side of him. It was time to fulfill their contract.
Penelope faltered, catching herself on Andrew’s shoulder.
“You okay?” he whispered.
A small trickle of blood rolled down the side of her face. “I hit my head pretty hard on that landing. Fuck.” She shook her head, whipping loose tufts of hair around her face. “I can barely see straight.”
Andrew’s thoughts raced, thinking of the next step as the blood-red light encroached on their position. “We stick to the plan, I guess. I’ll keep it distracted, Veera gets a clean hit on it, it goes down, then we all go home and have a strong drink to celebrate.”
Penelope grabbed her head with a grimace. “You going to distract it all by yourself? It would’ve been dangerous enough with both of us doing it.”
He pressed his lips into a tight smile. “Since I’m doing your work, I think that means I get your portion of the bounty, too.”
“I’d like to see you try,” Penelope said around a half-hearted chuckle.
Andrew’s expression became serious, and he looked over his shoulder to give Veera an order, but she was well ahead of him.
She held her left arm out, taut, palm open, as if pushing against a wall; in her other hand, she held a cloth loop made of small knots. Veera’s eyes were half-lidded and unfocused, her face in a lax trance, and her mouth moving rapidly as foreign words whispered through her dark blue lips, “Agni forma jag, agni forma jag, agni forma jag . . .” After every repetition of the phrase, she pinched a knot on her loop, then moved to the next knot in line.
Andrew guided Penelope towards the tunnel closest to them, setting her down in the relative safety of the darkness inside. “Not a sound, you hear me?”
Penelope pressed the back of her head against the wall and nodded. “Don’t think this means you can give me orders from now on.”
“Wouldn’t dream of it.” Andrew gave her one last look, and then darted back to Veera. He snapped his fingers in front of her blank expression. “Hey, can you hear me in there?”
Veera’s head twitched an affirmative.
“Listen, don’t take too damn long with your mantras. I can only hold the jawman’s attention for so long,” he said, then thought to himself: “Before it eats me.” Andrew grabbed one of Penelope’s flares and carried it away, until Veera’s body was swallowed up by the darkness.
And not a moment too soon. He heard a deep sniff from the crimson tunnel’s entrance, the sound slow and labored, and watched a pair of clawed hands reach out. They grasped the edges and pulled.
A bulbous organ emerged from the tunnel, dangling almost seven feet in the air and casting a red dye around the chamber; it was attached to a drooping antenna, which led back to a hulking, wide-set head with black and blue, mottled skin.
Andrew stayed absolutely still as four glassy, black eyes registered his presence. The jawman’s lips twitched as a seething hiss escaped two gaping mouths, one on top of the other; each mouth was lined with daggers for teeth, so long and sharp they protruded even after it clicked its mouths shut.
Its muscular arms dragged the rest of its smooth, sluggish body from the tunnel. Two underdeveloped legs helped inch it along from the rear, and a powerful fin at the end of its elongated body slapped the floor as it slithered in. The jawman watched him for a moment before sweeping its head to the side, searching the area with the red bulb dangling over its face.
“Hey!” Andrew shouted, pulling the monster’s focus back on himself.
It made a gurgling sound in its throat, but Andrew remained calm. He began circling to his left, giving the monster a wide berth as he guided its attention away from Veera’s hiding spot.
“That’s right. Keep your eyes on the prize, you ugly toad,” he taunted.
The jawman hunched its broad shoulders and began crawling towards him, forcing Andrew into a hasty retreat. He dropped the flare and backed away, lining up the Puncher’s sights on the monster. It didn’t seem to mind, though, and maintained its slow and deliberate advance, like it had all the time in the world, but beneath its blotchy skin, chorded muscle twitched in anticipation. It was toying with him, waiting for him to make a mistake.
Sweat poured down Andrew’s brow, into his eyes, but he didn’t dare make a move to wipe it away. The wait was agonizing, but any moment now . . .
“Get down!” Veera shouted.
Her command rang out from the shadows like a gun shot, and Andrew and the jawman made their moves. The behemoth’s taut muscle snapped, and it lunged forward in an explosive display of speed and power. Andrew dove to the ground, and as he fell, time slowed; he became a passenger in his own body as the next second unfolded before him in brilliant detail.
First, a needle point of hot light formed in the space between him and the jawman. It was painful to behold, like looking into the sun, but it banished the darkness in a brilliant wave of white and illuminated every terrible detail of the jawman’s face.
The jawman’s claws flexed eagerly at the impending kill, and it opened its mouth wide to reveal a cavernous gullet. Razor sharp teeth formed rings all the way down its throat, ensuring any prey caught inside had no hope of escaping without ripping itself to shreds on the way out.
By all accounts, the next second of Andrew’s existence should’ve been his last, but not before Veera’s magic intervened.
The illuminating sphere between them erupted in an earth-shattering boom, and a ball of fire engulfed the jawman. Andrew shielded his face as an oppressive wave of heat pressed into him, sending him hurtling back; he hit the ground, tumbling head over heels, his world a blur of red and orange, until finally coming to a stop.
Andrew stayed there a few seconds, the cold floor comforting against his cheek, and then stirred to life. An exhausted groan escaped his lips as he pushed himself up on shaky legs, and he did his best to ignore the painful ringing in his ears. He had to make sure the job was done.
Andrew fumbled through his pocket and pulled out his flashlight, clicking on its small beam. He found Veera on her hands and knees, beads of sweat pouring down her chin. Not far from her, the jawman’s charred body writhed on the floor, flailing its arms and tail in agony. He was amazed Veera’s attack had sent it so far back.
But that feeling quickly gave way to dread.
Despite its smoldering, cooked skin and melted flesh, the jawman dragged itself up. It turned its attention on the person closest to it: Veera, and loosed a terrifying, rage-filled scream, and then charged.
She made a feeble attempt to get out of its path, but flopped back onto the floor after struggling a few steps away.
“Damn!” Andrew loosed a salvo of bullets from the Puncher, scoring hits into the monster’s muscled body, but they did nothing to deter its attack. “Why won’t you go down!” he screamed over the gun shots.
It opened its mouths and lunged head first into Veera.
Out of the corner of his eye, Andrew saw movement, then a flash of red. Penelope came barreling out of the dark and tackled Veera to the side.
The jawman’s teeth crunched over empty air and it slammed into the nearby wall, rocking the whole chamber and shaking dirt loose from the ceiling. It pulled back from a crater it had made and shook its head with a snarl before refocusing its attention on Penelope and Veera.
This was their last chance, he had to make the next shots count. Andrew steadied his hands, aimed, and squeezed the trigger. One of the jawman’s eyes exploded in a spurt of black blood, and it reared back with a howl, slamming its thick tail in a fit of fury, but he didn’t let up until the gun clicked empty.
Penelope saw the opportunity and took it. She practically threw Veera over her shoulders and darted away, leaving the jawman alone to square off against Andrew.
It slowly turned its dense head to him, its jaws clenched so tightly that its whole body shook from a barely suppressed fury. So, Andrew did the only sensible thing.
Andrew’s arms and legs pumped hard as the jawman gave chase. The whole room shook with every lumbering step the damn thing took, but despite its size, it was gaining on him at an alarming speed. A visceral roar escaped Andrew’s lips—part fear, part challenge—as his tiny flashlight searched frantically for an exit route.
He found a tiny storm drain coming up on his left, big enough to fit him, but small enough (hopefully) that the jawman couldn’t follow. He slammed his heel into the floor and made a sharp turn, but the floor was too slick for such an abrupt maneuver. Andrew’s feet slipped out from under him and he landed on his side.
He looked up as five thousand pounds of death pounced on him. There was no time to roll away, shoot his gun, or even utter a final curse. He could only watch as the jawman’s mouth snapped down on—
A man’s voice whispered into his ear, and he felt a pair of hands yank him aside. Andrew saw the jawman crash into the spot he was just in and slide past harmlessly.
Andrew looked around, bewildered, but was alone. And that voice . . . he recognized it, but it couldn’t be who he thought it was.
“RUN!” Penelope screamed.
His mind snapped back to the imminent threat of the jawman, preparing another charge. Andrew scrambled to his feet, pointed his head down, and threw everything he had into a dead sprint for the safety of the storm drain; the jawman closed the distance again with ease, practically breathing down his neck.
Andrew jumped the last few yards, pushing off his legs with everything he had left into a desperate dive; he slid into the tunnel and flipped over in time to see the jawman snap at his feet. His heart leapt into his throat, but its huge body hit the edges of the hole. Andrew crawled farther inside as it struggled to get in with a frenzied gnashing of teeth.
He heard a muted pop, and the jawman abruptly reared back, turning to face another threat. There were a few more pops, and each time, a small fountain of blood erupted from the jawman—though it barely flinched from the wounds. The jawman opened its mouths in a bestial roar, but an object streaked through its face and pulled it out of view, cutting its cry short.
Andrew heard it crash into the floor, followed by a gurgling cough, then nothing. He strained his ears, listening for the jawman, but only heard the gentle sound of water flowing through the chamber. Andrew thought about crawling out and checking if the jawman was dead, but wasn’t entirely convinced it was safe, so he decided to wait it out.
An uneventful minute passed, and Penelope’s face popped up by his feet.
“You planning on living in there?” she asked. “Come on out, it’s dead.”
Exhaustion washed over him, and he released a breath he hadn’t realized he was holding. Andrew shimmied out of the storm drain to find Penelope and Veera standing over the jawman. An icicle the length of Penelope’s body had pulverized the creature’s face and found a resting spot through its head.
Andrew watched tendrils of vapor fall from the thick shard of ice. “Good work, Veera.”
Veera could barely keep her eyes open, but managed a smile. “I am tired. Sleep would be nice.”
He ducked under her arm, so she could lean on him for support. “Let’s get out of here.”
Penelope started back the way they had come. “I’ll file the report when we get back to Gast Academy. They can send out another team to collect the jawman, maybe even figure out who that ghost belonged to.”
Andrew opened his senses to the Shadowlands, searching for an entity on the other side.
The ghost he had exorcised was definitely gone, and he couldn’t feel any other presences . . . so, then, what had saved him from the jawman? “Hey, Penelope, did you notice anything during that fight?”
Penelope stopped and turned around. “What do you mean?”
“I mean a person. Did you see anyone else down here?”
“No, definitely not.” She frowned. “Why, did you?”
Maybe he had imagined it, but that voice—it was so clear, so distinct and unmistakable. It belonged to his brother, but there was just one problem.
Andrew shook his head. “No. No, I didn’t.”
Samson had been dead for a year.