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A note from stellajo

Here's the last chapter of act one! Please let me know if you have any comments or suggestions at this point.

The jabbering and high emotion settled like dust once the hall was empty. Orl still leaned against the rustic door, silent as a stilled heart, thick black eyelashes feathering her cheeks. Her communication issues had their pluses; usually, partner mind-noise drove him up a tree; he much preferred to work solo, doing what he knew: simple work, interviews, hostage negotiation, conflict resolution, sifting dialog for emotional undercurrents, lies, motivations, and weaknesses. In this circumstance, he could use a partner’s input, since he had no freaking idea what to do.

Her chip bounced a test signal. “You picking anything up?”

She didn’t answer, hopefully communing with the entity and not malfunctioning. The door felt cool against his ear. Inside, a mass lumbered slowly across the floorboards.

Hello?

No answer. Ghosts were usually chatty, dying to tell you their tale, so to speak. This thing felt…desolate, never-alive. He shivered; they must not bother heating the hall. He glanced down at Orl’s unruly dark hair snaking over her shoulders. Hoping to sound of use, he ventured another question.

“So Orl. What are we dealing with here?”

No response. Crikes, this girl was tedious. But how blue her lips appeared in the emergency strip’s meager light. Or… Or maybe her lips were actually blue! Had her skin always been that pale?

“Orl?”

He touched her hand and recoiled; her skin was glacial.

“Orl! Are you alright?”

Her shoulders remained rigid when he shifted her away from the door. Her eyes remained closed as she leaned into him, stiff as a board.

“Orl?”

He hugged her tight. Maybe some of his body warmth would penetrate. But she just stood like a fence post.

He gave her a shake. “Wake up, Orl.”

The hall seemed too quiet now. Blood of a contagious whore. What to do? He laid her down, dashed into the room across the hall, grabbed a blanket from the bed, and wrapped it around her. A tub of warm water or a hot shower might help. Evangeline Ramirez would probably fire him when Brandt yakked to her about “excellent” ghosts, but best to chuck Orl into a bath fully clothed, avoid any additional accusations from HR, and preserve his severance pay. She didn’t look heavy; he’d pick her up and…where was the bathroom? Did Berg shut off the hot water at night? His thoughts fragmented and ricocheted like hysterical shrapnel.

Think.

The hall is cool but not frigid like Berg’s door. So the monster radiated cold. Therefore, that creature must be freezing Orl. He probed around for a link between the girl and the creature; perhaps it was an energy parasite. But he couldn’t detect a connection. Could he be more useless? Maybe thoughts would shake her loose: fires, stoves, blood, mittens, his old red parka, everything that evoked warmth. Her lashes fluttered, and she gasped.

“Orl?” Her eyes were wide with fear…or something.

“What happened?”

Thud. Berg’s door shuddered in its frame. Philip’s heart lodged in his throat. He wasn’t a physical action guy. He was a mental guy; his weapons were communication, observation, and analysis. He’d observed enough and he couldn’t communicate with an empty creature. Time to run elsewhere and analyze.

“Let’s get you out of here.” He bundled Orl to the head of the stair, where Brandt nearly rammed them with a liquid nitrogen canister.

“This outta slow it down, then we can hack it into pieces.” He hoisted the canister as if it was a package of lentils and shook it in Philip’s face.

“Ah. I’m not so sure… It’s already pretty cold. It nearly froze Orl.”

Bam. The door bulged outward with the impact.

“Oh, wow. So she okay now?”

Philip glanced at the girl. Her cheeks had pinked up. She pointed at Brandt’s canister. Then looked up at him, a question on her face. “You think it’ll freeze?”

She shrugged. Great, thanks. Thanks for the insight. But at least she had come around. He set her down. She grasped the banister and sidled down a step or two.

“Orl, buzz downstairs to the common space. They’ve lit a fire in the fireplace. You can warm up.” Brandt pointed down. “Go on. You looking so blue is making me nervous. And me and Phil have a monster to clobber.”

Oh, freaking terrific. Now he was stuck being a hero. Pounding echoed down the hall.

Agnet bounded up the stairs, paused for a moment to speak to Orl, then continued toward him. “Here you go.” She thrust a short-handled ax into his hands.

An ax?

The ax’s cutting edge gleamed in the low light, meaning it was sharp. But despite the ax, he would die because he wasn’t an ax wielding guy. He was a talker, not a doer. Should be obvious.

“Maybe I should assist Orl downstairs.”

Agnet shook her head. “Spool, you open the door. Brandt hit it with the nitrogen. Frosty-freeze. Then I’ll hack off its head.”

“Might still move, headless. It’s not—” But Agent was already at the door, Brandt right behind her. They fell into ambush poses on the knob side, Brandt brandishing the sprayer, Agnet wielding her ax. Thump. The door strained at its hinges. “Okay, Philip. Pull it open. Be quick and it might lose its balance.”

A horrible but comforting realization dawned. “Sorry, but it’s locked! Berg has the key.”

Brandt sputtered an elaborate string of curses.

Crea-craa-crrsh! A splintery seam split door and spread outward, like a gaping wound. Agnet and Brandt drew back but held their positions, precluding a dash to the stair. He had to maintain a shred of self respect.

A pair of thick thumbs wrapped around the wood. The door pouched outward and snapped in two, same as a rye biscuit. A gust of frigid, moldy air, redolent of wet sock tucked behind the washer gasket, struck his face. And there it stood, about seven feet tall, vaguely anthropomorphic, brown-green, and dripping. And…gadgets stuck out of it—tools and…a rusty wheel out of that shoulder…metal studs from the thigh, and other…fix-it doodads studded its chest. He’d noticed that wheel an hour ago, hanging on the wall, Berg’s idea of decor. The monster had accreted Berg’s odds and ends and—grown.

“What the—I thought these monsters were kid-sized!” cried Brandt.

“It looked big coming out of the floor, but not this big.”

It stepped a spindly curved leg forward, the foot tapping the hall’s floor, a nightmarish blind man’s cane. The leg ended with a small hoof… No! That was a chair leg! It’d swallowed furniture! No wonder it’d expanded. “Chop the leg! It’s wood.”

The monster loosed a gurgling roar, sounding and smelling similar to air escaping through a sewer drain. Brandt hurled the nitrogen canister, which plunged into the monster’s chest and sank out of view. Without missing a beat, the big man knelt and swung his ax. The leg splintered, Brandt rolled clear, and the thing toppled into the opposite wall with a hideous splot.

Green muck oozed down the paneling and puddled on the floor. Bits of metal clinked and clanked as they tumbled free. A chair with a broken leg toppled sideways out of the disintegrating mass and clattered to the floor. Layers of slop spilled away, gradually revealing a man-sized core. It rose unsteadily. Agnet hefted the slime covered canister, but before she could pull the trigger, the thing’s head and arms sloughed off. The head rolled toward Philip, shedding hair, tissue, and teeth, and stopped about half a meter from his feet. The jaw, still attached by a rotted sinew, clacked weakly. Reflexively, Philip kicked the repulsive object to the wall, dislodging the jawbone which lay still.

“Welp. That was revolting,” said Agnet.

As if trying to outdo revolting, the monster’s torso crumbled like a piece of moldy fruit. Its legs teetered, then fell—first one, then the other—and lay twitching. Philip whacked one apart with his ax. Brandt and Agnet also hacked and nitrogen sprayed anything twitching, and a few minutes later the trio stood awkwardly, axes dangling from their hands, the surrounding floor cluttered with Berg’s flotsam, piles of dirt and moss, bones, scraps of door, chess pieces, a broken chair—

And—oh, gross—that small unraveling cardboard tube was his chapstick.

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About the author

stellajo

Bio: Writing about unusual people in unusual situations with works falling somewhere between science fiction and contemporary fantasy. Author of Harmony Lost and Discord and Harmony, available direct from website or multiple ebook retailers.

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