Hey there, Lurks in the Shadows... I already belong to a writer's forum, so I have gotten some feedback on my new work. It's a first draft so I know that there are mistakes (and probably will be more!!). It wasn't exactly critique I was aiming at here, but do feel free to tear it to shreds if you so feel like...criticism is always productive!!
My eyes burned from squinting against the harsh glare. I was trying to concentrate on the voice that floated from above the three gleaming towers, made of ivory and some strange metal that I could not even begin to put a name to, the glitter from which served to dazzle the eye and draw attention from the Three perched atop. Probably the very reason it was carved from such attractive matter. The Three don’t like being scrutinised. Again the voice drifted towards me as I knelt upon my cushion, sipping the goblet of water I had been served by the attendant.
“How do you propose to make recompense?”
The voice – neither male nor female, but some hybrid of both – was gravelly and hoarse, as if more used to whispering than booming as it was now. Once again I shivered and thought furiously. How could I ever make amends? How could I ever make things right?
Awaiting my hearing in the shadowed hallways of the ‘Tween, I had asked myself the same question over and over, my head whirling with the speed of my thoughts. The air here felt different; insubstantial, and warm. I couldn’t breathe properly, and my lungs burned for some semblance of fresh air. Lungs blazing, I drew more of the muggy ‘air’ into myself and mentally prepared to admit that I had no idea. The admission would surely bring all the wrath of the Three upon me swiftly. As if I hadn’t already done a fine job of that.
The Three sat in wait upon the immense, shining pedestals. I could feel their impatience coming at me in waves, shimmering and almost visible to the naked eye. I wished I could ask what they wanted me to say or do, but asking questions of them is frowned upon. I was here on the sufferance of the Three and to anger them was to risk the meagre existence I had eked out of my afterlife.
“I really don’t know…” I could almost feel the silence, pressing down on me, making me regret my admission. Eyes wandering, wanting to gaze anywhere but above, I took in my surroundings slowly. It wasn’t every day you were summoned to the Three for judgement. And even through the layers of fear and nervous energy, curiosity raised its head.
The chamber was mammoth in size and I wondered how a place so huge could keep the cold from the ‘Tween lands at bay. Apart from the three columns made of their strange metal and ivory, rising from polished black marble, there was very little else in the space. Plain white walls rose up and up to disappear into what appeared to be a roof of blueish-gray mist above the Three’s heads. A serving girl, sedately holding a pitcher of water with which to refill the goblet laid out in front of me on the floor stood stiffly erect facing away from the Three on their shining towers. Face empty of emotion, she seemed to me a puppet laid aside until the need to use her arose.
I took a sip of my water, gently replacing the cup and dared not raise my head towards the figures perched atop the pillars. I never normally accepted the Three’s hospitality, which I thought, made them seem slightly more bad-tempered with me. Today, I thought, I would take anything they offered, even if it be a cushion of nails to kneel upon while I drank a cup of poison, delivered from the serving girl with a smile. I needed all the help I could garner, today.
I could hear them whispering so rapidly and faintly that I could not make out a single word. They were obviously deciding my fate. And little wonder if I escaped with my hide still attached. I had messed up big time. In my line of work there is no room for miscalculations. I wished I was still in the hallway beyond, awaiting my hearing with the Three. At least there I didn’t have to listen to them whisper and scheme and plot my punishment. Wishing I could fan myself without drawing their attention, I considered my predicament.
The ‘Tween space consisted of the gigantic chamber containing the Three, the hallway beyond, in which was the entrance to the real world, and the vast grey landscape of the ‘Tween lands, haunted with the souls of the dearly departed who refused to move on. Those sorry souls who drifted from one place to another, sometimes finding a tear in the fabric of the ‘Tween in which to leak back into the real world for a period of time, spying on the living, jealous of the animated bodies that they themselves no longer possessed. They were what humans called ‘poltergeists’. The memory of life in the shadow of a body, floating in the ether between worlds.
Very rarely, those souls would find a body in which to squat, taking on the façade of life recaptured. But more often than not, those souls were driven out by a fanatical priest, thinking it a demon taking over one of his beloved parishioners, and he doing his Catholic duty by opposing Satan in the eternal battle of good and evil. Rarer still were the cases where a body in actuality was taken over by a Soldier of Satan. Those were my jurisdiction. Along with the more determined spirit who flat out refused to leave the body of its host, leaching the life from the poor individual, leaving them a living husk of sullied flesh before being flung out by the death of that person.
Those souls, those malevolent essences were then returned to the ‘Tween before being literally marched to their destination in the order of life, be it above or below.
Another anomaly that I was responsible for were the undead. Those I had to hunt down with all the ferocity of a wild animal and forcibly transport to the Three for judgement. I never knew what happened to the unfortunate undead. I didn’t like to speculate. I had my own worries.
On the hunt of a Squatter, found skulking around in the body of a teenage girl, I had tried and failed to expel the spirit and the result was the death of the girl. Not entirely unusual, since Squatters were the very boils on the face of death, but the said Squatter then escaped me in the aftermath of the girl’s passing and succeeded in evading me since. It had been three weeks and all I had to show for my pursuit was the death of an innocent girl and whispered stories of triumph among the Grey Men – those unfortunate spirits existing in the lands of the ‘Tween. A revolution could be on the cards if they thought for a minute that a Squatter could become lost in all that humanity and make a new life for itself.
So I was summoned to the Three for review. I was a Death Bringer, a Spirit Hunter. I have been employed by the Three since I was twenty four years old, when a strange sickness emptied out the shell of my body and took with it my last breath, leaving me lingering beyond my own bedstead, glaring at the lifeless image of myself and the gathering of mourners that had arrived to see me on to the next life. The next life wasn’t all it had been cracked up to be. And neither was this job.
I had so far failed in my attempt to bring the Squatter under control. This did not bode well for me. The Three were infamous in their ruling and I had just appeared on their radar. No, this did not bode well at all.
I couldn’t tell how much time passed before the Three once again turned their attention to me, still kneeling where I had been directed. Time runs strangely in the ‘Tween. Hours here might only be minutes or seconds in the real world. And the reverse is also true. It felt like a lifetime, but was probably only a few minutes in ‘Tween time. Fighting not to blanche at the interest they were apportioning me, I vaguely fixed my gaze roughly half way up the middle tower, yet again narrowing my eyes against the harsh glare and attempting to keep my eyes from streaming tears as the glow stung.
“We propose a partnership,” they stated in unison, those hybrid voices straining my ear for distinction.
Before I could utter a yea or nay, a large pocket of air beside me began to flicker and spark. Blood pounding in my veins, I glared at the sudden intrusion as if by my stare alone whoever it was would reconsider interrupting. I was shamed enough at being lumped with a partner – a partner! – without having someone barge in to witness my rebuke.
Hues of gold and blue and red swirled and popped within the pocket, growing solid for a moment only to convert back to barely there patterns. A bright flash signified the arrival of the intruder and I fought not to jump as he bowed deeply and turned to face me. I had noticed him skulking around in the hallways earlier and never imagined he was here in connection with me. So, the Three had my punishment decided before they had asked my opinion. Well, what had I expected? They were ever cunning and sly, the Three.
Not daring to part my lips for fear of what would come lunging out, I stared at the man who slowly lowered himself to perch on his heels beside me. He smiled at me gaily and I wanted to smack him for shock value. Anything to wipe that grin off his face. Who was he?
“We trust that you will be more competent in your work with someone to watch over you, and offer assistance where needed.”
I couldn’t believe it. They thought me a novice needing a master to teach her how to hunt. Knowing I was lucky they didn’t separate me from my flesh and move me on, I only nodded and awaited further instructions. If they would offer me a branch, I would cling on to it in the hopes of avoiding a drowning. I would endure this partnership, and I would find my Squatter. Then I could impress upon them the utter inadequacy of a partner. All decisions regarding Spirit Hunters could be appealed – up to a point – and I intended to appeal this one… eventually.
“He is Ashtaroth. He is as much yours as you are his.” The voices seemed smug at the revelation, husky whispers following the statement, while the man in question lowered his head quickly. “You are both each other’s right arm, for now. Go, both of you. Find what must be found and deliver it for retribution. You are granted a week.”
Confusion smothering me, I barely noticed the air make another pocket, this time around both of us, and transport us back out into the shadowy halls of the ‘Tween space. I knew a Soldier’s name when I heard it. I glanced at him warily. Very pleasing to the eye – weren’t they all? – tall, dark, and dressed for a night on the town in black cotton shirt and tight, black jeans he reminded me of a cover model. A very dangerous, very beautiful and very evil cover model.
Why would the Three bind me to a Soldier for a week? Was I to be made an example of, then? Resignation weighed me down like a ton of bricks and I sighed. A week I had to find my Squatter, and I would make use of the time, starting now. Ignoring the slender hand offered to me by the Soldier, I instead turned away and strode towards the doorway. “Come on,” I whispered harshly. “We will have time for introductions and speculations after we find the scent of my Squatter”.
The scent, or trail of a Squatter was usually simple enough to locate, like a slimy ribbon of viscous fluid hanging in the atmosphere of Earth. All I had to do was concentrate hard enough and I could see it. Usually. But there was nothing usual about this case. There seemed to be no trail to follow, although I was open to assurances that I just hadn’t found it. After the death of the girl, awaiting the Squatter to emerge with a Leash in my hand, I had failed to notice that the normal chain of events were not unfolding as I anticipated.
Expecting to see the shade surface as if straining for air, like a new born babe, struggling and panicking to escape the faltering bonds it had forged with the host body lest it be dragged down into death again, I had seen instead the air shimmer and pop as if someone were using Travelling Pockets. Instead of snaring the Squatter with the Leash, it had zipped out of existence not leaving me so much as a foul smell to track.
My brow furrowed as I thought that over. What sort of Squatter doesn’t leave a trace? In my head, the only trail this one would leave would be a trail of bodies, and I had to stop that. Correction – we had to stop that. Shaking my head as I advanced towards the doorway, I wondered how I could have forgotten for even a moment that there was a Soldier behind me, following my every step. His black eyes flashed as I swung my head around to take in the view of him. So, he hadn’t liked being rebuffed back there? I had to keep it in mind to do it more often. I wasn’t happy about having a partner, and I would make sure he knew it!
“Ashtaroth – is that your name? – we’ll start with the scene of the body”. I knew he wouldn’t like me ‘not remembering’ his name, which was exactly why I conveniently forgot it. Good to keep him simmering gently until I could get him to agree to an appeal. If I could persuade him that he would be miserable partnering with me, then he would be only too happy to agree.
“Ash, if you please,” he told me, in silky tones. His voice grated on every nerve I had. “Would it not be better to begin at the seam it entered?”
“The seam?” Of course it would be better to start there, but since I had no way of knowing where it came through, the point was moot. “I have no way of knowing where that is,” I told him begrudgingly.
“I do,” was the simple answer he gave me before – damn him – actually opening the doorway for me.
I sneered openly. “Thanks”. As if I couldn’t open a doorway for my damn self. I stepped through the unadorned oak door that, with a little power surge, sliced a path through to the land of the living.