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From Friday the 13th to Candyman, Ryan had seen all the slasher movies.

He had acted in a few too, either as the relentless terminator during his brief Punisher phase, or as the lonely target pursued by malevolent Psychos. He still looked back fondly on that run where he escaped the Centipede with only his boxers on. Good times.

So the current situation was nothing extraordinary. Night Terror was just Freddy Krueger, except he could attack people while they were awake. Pluto was Death from Final Destination. The Vamp was a trap; literal death by sex. As for Sparrow… she didn’t fit any box.

Perhaps she would be the final girl? The assassin was a bit old for the role, but Ryan was nothing if not open-minded.

Anyway, he and Atom Cat had managed to escape through the woods, eventually moving far enough that Sparrow could no longer target them with lasers. The duo followed a hiking path down a wooded valley, surrounded by lush green ferns, verdant trees, orchids, and cascading water. Ryan recognized the area as the Valle Delle Ferriere, a natural reserve pre-war.

Unfortunately, the courier sensed Pluto’s power active on his person. His heartbeat raced unnaturally, his fingers twitched with tension, and he almost tripped on a rock at one point. They had put distance between the Augusti Underboss and themselves, but she wouldn’t relent.

“If we continue south, we should reach the rendezvous point with Shortie.” Ryan checked his phone, trying to contact the Soviet Supreme without avail. “Something is jamming my cell phone.”

“Probably Vulcan’s tech,” Atom Cat said. “Cut your phone off, they might be able to track it down.”

Good point, and it would spare Ryan more messages from Lucky Girl. “How far do you think Night Pajama’s range extends?”

“I don’t know,” Atom Cat admitted, checking Ryan’s neck. Red marks marred his skin where the Bloodstream hallucination had choked him. “Are you okay? I admit I was quite scared when I saw you freak out like a man possessed.”

Aww, he cared! Though after putting Ryan through such a scare, Night Pajama would suffer the Luigi treatment. “Continue south, I will go east.”

“You want us to split?”

That was a big no-no in slasher movies, but the courier was no helpless teenager. “Cruella can only target one person at once, and she’s focusing on me. I will lead her into a trap. If you escape, we’ve won.”

Also, Ryan couldn’t risk having the Killer Seven track them to the rendezvous point. Risking his own life was one thing, endangering Len’s was another.

Felix immediately protested, “I’m not leaving you to die, Ryan.”

“Trust me, Kitten,” the courier said, while grabbing a revolver in each hand. He would have taken a dose of Rampage too, if he didn’t worry Pluto’s power might worsen the side-effects. “I do better without teams.”

“But—”

“Do I have to shoot you too?”

The Kitten finally understood it was time to let the adults do their thing. “Okay,” Felix said, though he clearly didn’t like it. “Okay, I will trust you. But don’t you dare die for me.”

“God forbid, your sister would nag me in the afterlife if I did. Now go.”

With one last glance, Atom Kitten followed the hiking trail south, while the courier moved east.

Ryan strolled through the woods, even as he sensed Pluto’s invisible pressure growing stronger. He passed before the mossy ruins of houses and mills, and eventually followed a path following a tumbling river. He soon reached a wide area, with woods on one side, and a small waterfall on the other. A river coursed through a path of whetstone, which allowed one to step from one side to the other.

Leaves bristled as shadows approached. Ryan raised his guns, as multiple figures seemed to surround him; with the darkness, he couldn’t see clearly.

And yet… as a sweet, delicious perfume filled the air, the courier couldn’t help but relax. The tension in his body seemed to vanish, as an invisible voice told him to relax.

Slowly, a figure emerged from the bushes; she was the most beautiful sight the courier had seen in his entire life, in all his runs combined. A gorgeous redhead with a curvaceous body, and perfect skin; even her few freckles only enhanced her appeal. Her lips were red as blood, her eyes shining emeralds. Her red jacket seemed like a forbidden frontier, the promise of untold pleasure to whoever could get past it.

When he saw her, Ryan immediately wanted to drop everything, slam her against a tree, and give her the Full Romano Special.

“Hey,” the Vamp said with a warm, lovely smile, revealing her empty hands. Even her voice aroused the courier. “It’s okay. You’re safe. My poor boy, you must have been so scared, all alone in the woods.”

“Are you an angel?” By now, Ryan’s pop culture-infested subconscious was in full control of his body. “They're the most beautiful creatures in the universe.”

“I can be your angel if you want,” the redhead said, putting a hand on her jacket’s zipper. “Just throw your weapons away, and… I’ll show you heaven.”

Who was Jasmine again? This was the perfect waifu. The romance endgame, the true ending.

But as Ryan was about to turn this horror movie into a porno, he realized one problem with this scenario.

“Gingers can’t go to heaven,” he said, “they don’t have souls.”

“What?”

And then he shot her.

The bullet impacted the killer’s chest and tossed her back against a tree, but didn’t shed blood. Oh, come on, what kind of supervillain wore a bulletproof vest nowadays? Ryan knew he should have aimed for the head!

“You shot me!” Vamp protested in shock. “You shot me!”

“Begone, demon!” Ryan raised his guns and fired at will like a maniac. “I know your game, succubus! Each of your freckles is a soul you stole!”

Vamp looked at Ryan as if he were mad, before fleeing behind a tree to avoid getting shot. Damn, this always happened when he tried to blow off stress! “Richie, get your ass over here!” she shouted. “How can you resist my pheromones, asshole?”

“Well, when you have taken as many mind-altering substances as I did, eventually you build a tolerance,” Ryan replied, as he reloaded his guns. “Frankly, I’ve tried much stronger aphrodisiacs than your pheromones. You wouldn’t believe half the things I’ve done.”

“No matter,” the ginger devil replied from behind her cover, “a kiss and your vitals will fail you.”

As she said that, all too familiar inhuman faces emerged from the woods to surround Ryan from all sides. “Dear guest.” Five vicious clowns, each armed with napkins and silver cutlery. “The Monte-Carlo is currently closed!”

“Bring it, Pennywise,” Ryan replied, shooting the closest one as it collapsed into a white substance. These illusions could harm him like the real ones, but they died like the originals too. They only had as much power as his mind gave them.

As he engaged the clowns, Vamp left her hiding spot and moved around bushes like a stalking lion, her hands now letting out some kind of colored smoke. Lethal pheromones, most probably.

Ryan briefly stopped time, the Monaco illusions vanishing instantly. However, unlike Bloodstream’s ghost before, when time resumed, the clowns returned to life.

“Is that the best you’ve got, Pajamas?” he taunted Night Terror, as he slaughtered his way through the clowns. “I killed thousands of them! I even ate one!”

Then, as he was surrounded by darkness and dead clowns, a new smell filled the air. One that filled him with anxiety and dread. The stench of death and disease and—

“Riri.”

Ryan turned around, and faced her.

She stood on the whetstone near the waterfall, wearing clothes drenched in blood.

“Shortie?” Ryan asked, though intellectually, he knew this was all in his head.

Len opened her mouth, only to vomit blood. She cried crimson tears while letting out an ear-piercing shriek, and charged at the courier with a knife raised.

Ryan was so startled by the sight, that the illusion had closed the gap before he could aim. She used one arm to push him against a tree, and the other to try and stab him with a knife. The courier had to drop one of his guns to catch her hand and keep the blade away; he then attempted to aim with his remaining gun, even as his attacker started shocking him...

“You never left Monaco.” The illusion’s voice didn’t belong to Len, but Ryan himself. “You’re still in that bed, and this is all a dying dream.”

That was probably the worst thing someone could have said to the time-traveler, and it made him lose focus for an instant. Night Terror’s blade instantly hit Ryan’s thigh, though the courier managed to deviate the attack away from his vitals.

Unfortunately, while the scary special effect failure kept him pinned to a tree, Vamp emerged from her hiding spot. “You should have taken the easy way out, jackass,” she told Ryan as her pheromone-charged hand moved towards his neck. “At least I would have fucked you first.”

“Maybe next time,” Ryan replied with a scowl of pain, before freezing time.

He expected the illusion to vanish, but instead, it merely transformed. From a nightmarish, twisted version of Len, to a masked man in a full black suit.

“There you are.”

Ryan pushed the paralyzed Night Terror away, and shot him twice in the head.

When time resumed, the Blue Genome’s corpse crashed against a surprised Vamp and caused her to trip on the whetstones, nearly falling into the waterfall nearby. One hand on his thigh wound, Ryan raised his gun at her.

“Wait,” the Vamp pleaded while raising her hands in surrender, her scent filling Ryan with a mix of desire and regret. “Don’t kill me! I can make it worth your while!”

Yes, she would be his. His mind, his body screamed it at him. She would do everything Ryan wanted; he just had to drop his gun, and take her now. “What’s your name?” the courier asked, pointing his gun at Night Terror’s remains. “His and yours? For later.”

“Richard Pinkman, and Karen Ricci!” She forced herself to smile. “Yes, lower that gun, and I will kiss your wound—”

Ryan shot the ginger menace in the head before she could tempt him further.

“No sex before marriage,” he quipped, as the waters dragged the assassins’ bodies down the waterfall. “My purity is my shield!”

Afterward, Ryan let out a sigh of pain, Night Terror’s knife still embedded in his flesh. He couldn’t remove it without risking bleeding out, even with his enhanced physiology. At least, not until he found a safe spot.

However, he didn’t have time for this. The courier heard an explosion in the distance, south of his location. It seemed Atom Cat was fighting for his life too, in spite of the time-traveler’s best efforts.

Ryan could barely hear himself think, as his heartbeat rose in intensity. His heart felt as if it would burst in his chest, and his vision blurred at the edge.

“I’m impressed.”

Pluto.

Ryan immediately raised his gun in the darkness, but couldn’t locate her. Was she hiding behind a tree? Down the waterfall? No, the voice was a distant shout, far away.

“No one has survived against us so long before, at least not without backup.” Pluto fell silent for a brief instant, while Ryan tried to locate her by sound. “You are Quicksave, are you not? My niece asked us that no harm befall you a while ago.”

“She asked me to spare you too,” Ryan replied with a scowl. He couldn’t hear right with that heartbeat drum in his head! “You know, I’ve been meaning to ask, are you single?”

“I’m widowed,” she replied with a tone that made Ryan wonder if she was joking. “Why?”

Either it was the lasting effects of the pheromones, Jasmine’s absence in his life, or sheer masochism, but the courier couldn’t help but be a relentless flirt. “Can’t we solve our differences the noble way, with an arranged marriage? I swear, I will be the best you ever had.”

“I will pass,” Pluto replied, all business. “Your thought process is painfully transparent. Separating so I could only focus on one of you only. But Sparrow is giving chase to the traitor as we speak. Your scheme changed nothing.”

“Don’t you know cats eat sparrows?” Ryan shook his head, on edge. No calamity had befallen him so far because Pluto wanted an audience, but he had no idea what would happen once she fully unleashed her power at this distance. “You don’t know anything about the animal kingdom.”

“I have studied your marker from afar, and it seems strange. As if connected to a second one, far, far beyond my reach. A universe that my curse cannot touch.” Her voice was getting closer. “You’re not really here, are you? You’re just a projection. Even if my calamities kill you, you will pop up again.”

“Honestly, I don’t think the Earth would survive two of me.” At least it meant that while Pluto could kill Ryan now and track him in future loops, she couldn’t put the courier down permanently. The news came as a relief.

Now, if only he could confirm the same with Cancel, that would be perfect.

“If you fight so ferociously to live, then there is a cost to pay, even if you can recover,” the Underboss said with sharp insight. “Stay out of this, Quicksave. My brother wants his godson dead for his treachery. He doesn’t care about you. Just… look the other way.”

“Sorry, you’re too poor to afford my rates.”

“Then die.”

Pluto unleashed the full strength of her curse at him, and the world trembled.

Literally. The ground quaked below his feet, and a terrible wind blew through the trees. Leaves flew in his direction, and before Ryan knew what hit him, they cut through his clothes and skin like razors. The gun in the courier’s hands made a worrying sound, and branches fell on him at the speed of javelins.

Ryan hurriedly froze time to dodge the projectiles and toss his gun away, just before the gunpowder inside caused it to explode mid-flight.

“I see how your power works,” he heard Pluto taunting him as time resumed. “You freeze time for a few seconds. Five? Maybe ten? You can gain a respite from my curse by breaking the flow of causality, but at this distance, you can’t escape everything. At some point, you will slip up. Eventually, you will die. Everything dies.”

Ryan opened his mouth for a clever retort, only for something to catch him from behind. A noose-shaped branch from a tree grabbed his neck and raised him above the ground, tightening its hold. At the same time, Night Terror’s knife moved on its own, worming its way through his flesh as if wielded by an invisible hand.

At such a short distance, Pluto’s curse outright warped reality. It caused the world itself to want Ryan dead.

Worse, the courier heard a gunshot in the distance. Pluto had decided to speed his demise along the old-fashioned way.

Hastily freezing time, Ryan managed to break the branch holding him prisoner, removed Night Terror’s knife, and tossed it aside before it could worm its way to his vitals. As he moved, he noticed Pluto’s bullet frozen in midair; its trajectory had clearly deviated to target the courier’s head.

Should he use the plushie? No, the risk was too great. If Pluto’s power could affect it, then it might do worse than just turn against Ryan.

No sooner did the courier step out of the way and time resumed, than he almost tripped and broke his skull against a large stone. His movements slowed down, his heart beating so fast his enhanced body couldn’t keep up with the blood flow.

Beep.

Ryan heard a familiar sound coming from inside his suit.

The A-bomb!

Shit, shit, shit! Pluto’s power prioritized killing him over collateral damage!

Without any other choice, Ryan froze time, dragged the device out of his clothes, and hastily disabled it. Thankfully, the temporal anomaly canceled the calamitous power and he managed to remove the detonator.

However, when time resumed, he found himself without any defense.

The ground collapsed beneath his feet, dragging him into the river and down the small waterfall. Ryan managed to protect his head with his arms before he hit a large stone below, but part of the natural structure collapsed behind him. A pile of rubble buried him from the chest down, crushing his legs.

He only had the strength to raise his head, as a lone shadow loomed over him from atop the waterfall.

“This is as far as you go, Quicksave,” Pluto said, raising a gun at him from the higher ground. The distance between them was no more than fifteen meters now. “I will tell my niece you did your best.”

“I’ll…” Ryan rasped, the water level rising and threatening to drown him. “Be... back…”

“And I will kill you as many times as it takes.”

“No, you won’t!” Both Pluto and Ryan turned their heads, Felix emerging from the woods with a weapon, charged with his explosive power.

The panda doll from the Pandamobile!

Yes! Ryan thought, his lungs too squeezed by rubble to articulate his words. Use the power! Use the panda power!

“Take this!” Felix snarled, as he prepared to throw the projectile at a stoic Pluto.

The courier felt the death curse’s pressure vanish, as it targeted Felix next.

A rain of branches and leaves hit the young hero from behind just as he tossed his projectile, two wood spears impaling him through the right leg and shoulder. Felix collapsed while the leaves hit the panda doll in midair, detonating it at a safe distance.

Pluto could use her ability defensively?

“Where is Sparrow?” Cruella asked calmly while dusting off her dress. Kitten’s valiant effort had achieved exactly nothing.

“Dead,” Felix said with a snarl of pain. The branch-spears had pinned him to the ground, and his blood mixed with the water falling down the waterfall. “Took her by surprise... and blasted her.”

Pluto’s scowl deepened, and she aimed at Kitten’s head with her gun. “She was a loyal soldier," she said, taking a step in his direction. Felix coughed blood, as the curse intensified and attacked his vitals. "Truly, my niece was too good for you.”

It couldn’t end like this!

This run… it had started so well, and he had made so much progress… Ryan was so close to breaking his own curse, to solve the secret of carrying someone across loops. It couldn’t end like this, not after everything!

God answered his silent prayer with a meowing sound.

Pluto stopped before she could fire a bullet, as a white furball hopped out of the forest and right in front of Felix. The animal sat right in front of Atom Kitten, and looked at Pluto with its adorable eyes.

Eugène-Henry!

“What is…” Pluto’s expression had changed from bored professionalism to a hint of fear. No more wooden spears or leaves fell to finish her prey off. In fact, strands of yellow energy seemed to flicker around the area, as if something challenged the Underboss’ power. “What is this thing?”

And someone had followed the cat through the wood. A striking young woman with hair as bright as the sun, the most elegant costume, and a gold-plated gun.

Fortuna.

Of all people, it was Fortuna who came to the rescue. A living good luck charm.

Even better, her power seemed to interfere enough with Pluto’s that no calamity or heart attack finished her brother off. Instead, a golden cloud surrounded Fortuna like a halo, and shielded Felix thanks to the physical proximity.

“Godmother…” she said with a frown, before noticing her brother and immediately rushing to his side. “Felix! Felix are you alright!”

“Fortuna.” Pluto frowned deeply, her gun still pointed at Felix. “You were to stay with Livia.”

“I… I tried to follow—” Fortuna’s eyes noticed Ryan down the waterfall, and widened in shock. “Ryan!?”

The courier tried to wave a hand at her, but his body failed. Now that Pluto’s death curse didn’t target him, the water level had fallen and no longer threatened to drown him, but his body remained crushed, battered, and bleeding. He was in no shape to interfere.

Fortuna’s horrified eyes moved from Ryan to Felix, as she quickly put the two and two together. “No…”

“Your parents gave their authorization,” Pluto said, almost reading Lucky Girl’s mind. “The task fell on me, specifically so you wouldn’t have to sully your hands.”

“But…” Fortuna’s voice broke in her throat, as she tried to form a coherent sentence. “It can’t be!”

“He betrayed the organization to the Carnival,” Pluto insisted, growing annoyed with Felix’s continued survival. “Now move out of my way. It has to be done.”

Fortuna’s panic turned into a scowl, as she silently reached a decision.

“Godmother.” Fortuna raised her own gun at Pluto’s head, while stepping between the killer and Felix. “Get away from my brother.”

If she wasn’t such an annoyance, Ryan might have fallen for her on the spot.

“You’re turning traitor too?” Pluto glared at the siblings. “You disgrace your parents, both of you.”

“Get away from my brother!” Fortuna repeated, her fingers trembling on the trigger. “I’m… I won’t hesitate!”

The two women exchanged a glare, the tension rising between them. “Fortuna, no…” Felix pleaded, his eyes widening in dread. “No, don’t…”

“Spare the rod,” Pluto said, calmly aiming her weapon at Fortuna while the death curse found a new target. Yellow strands surrounded Fortuna’s cloud, like spears ready to fall on a shield. “Spoil the child.”

Two gunshots echoed across the forest, and then silence.

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Void Herald

Bio: I'm Maxime Julien Durand ([email protected]), a European warlock living in the distant realm known as France, spending half my time writing and the other half managing magical websites.

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