As Bryan Romel hurtles headlong through the mystic portal, every cell in his body screams out in objection.
Traveling between realms is a last resort for a reason.
Pandemonium runs rampant as his mind and body struggle to comprehend exactly what was happening to him. The year of preparation and training for this moment escapes him, much like the soundless screams emanating from his raw throat.
The haunting roar looming around him is all-encompassing, steadily growing in its intensity with each passing moment. Even the surrounding colors manage to be loud as they circle past. Vivid streaks of purple swirl in his orbit in great, looping arcs. A violent swarm of flailing arms in an otherwise desolate reality.
Violet and amethyst fingers clasp around his being as they drag him further and further away from his own world. The further in he travels, the tighter those fingers seem to grip. It is only a matter of time before he is trapped entirely in the clutches of the Nether.
Bryan squeezes his eyes shut in an attempt to shield his beset retinas from the visual bombardment before him, but it is a futile effort. The colors may as well have been seared into the backs of his eyelids.
Asante? Where is she?
He wants to look over, to see if his comrade is managing any better since they stepped hand-in-hand into the portal, but every attempt to turn his head leaves him feeling as though his face is pressing against a slab of concrete. It takes everything in him just to manage a breath or two as he continues to plumet. All he can do is hope she’s alright.
Rogue waves of intensity crash into him with increasing regularity as he continues down the uncertain route. A plethora of sensations well up inside of him as if it were an impending tsunami, a florescent force preparing to slam against his innards.
When that wave finally does hit him, will he buckle?
Will he explode like some blood-filled water balloon against the side of a wall?
Or, will he simply cease to be?
Which alternative is more frightening?
Like everything else at the moment, he didn’t know.
Only one thing is certain...it won’t be long until he finds out.
As it begins bearing down on his wayward form, a single image slips into his mind. It’s about as painful as the portal.
It is not an image of his nearby comrade, a mental snapshot of his beloved Pontiac, nor is it a still from any of the friends they’d left behind on that fang-infested world.
No, no, no. It wasn’t any of them. That would’ve provided him far too much closure for the universe to allow.
Despite everything that had happened, everything that was bound to happen, he still sees her and her alone.
He sees Lucretia.
A tear forms along the corner of his eye before whipping across his cheek and into the nebulous vortex of energy before him.
He reckons he won’t mind ceasing to exist, so long as it helps him to forget that damn face again.
It’s at that moment when the blinding light crashes into him, sending him spinning round like a pinwheel.
While the force of the blow remains, the light itself crescendos into a brilliant, blinding flash before dissipating entirely, leaving him to tumble blindly in the pitch- black abyss.
When Bryan finally comes to, his body is still once again. The motion, or lack thereof almost inspires tears. In all his years alive, he’s never felt so wonderfully still. The ground beneath him, albeit unflinchingly frigid, has got to the most comfortable patch of dirt he’s ever laid on, bar none.
His icy eyes flutter open and he is greeted by the awe-inspiring sight of a new world.
The base of the mountains he’d spied through the portal are a few feet in front of them, their jagged points jutting up high into the grey, overcast sky. Even that glum sight, devoid of any color, inspires his heart to race with joy.
Seven hells, they’ve actually made it.
Not even the pain from his aching ribs can cast the smile from his face as that fact begins to set in.
“Bry-guy, you still kicking over there?” Asante asks, stirring him from his moment of introspection.
He can’t see her from where he landed, but he can tell from the sound of her voice that she is close by.
Was he? It feels as though part of his mind is still somewhere in-between the two worlds. He flexes his hands and toes, gives his feet a wiggle before releasing a small sigh.
“Yeah...yeah. I think so,” he croaks, his tone haggard as he forces himself up off his side and into a sitting position.
His ears pick up the crunch of grass and gravel and he turns to see Asante approaching him. The pair of goggles covering her eyes make her look more bug-like than human.
Without the eyewear obscuring her forehead as it normally does, Bryan is able to see a myriad of scars along her brow clear as day. He’d been present when she’d received a couple of them, back when he ventured down the same seedy paths she tended to stay on.
Her wild hair whips around in the wind, alongside the bellowing tail of her leather coat. The chill that accompanies it prompts her to pop her collar up before resting the chunky ocular apparatus back along her brow.
It’s weird, the way that is what reminds him he’s cold, too.
Asante blinks a few times, getting her bearings before reaching out a gloved hand and helping him to his feet.
He gives her a nod before quickly buttoning up his jacket.
“I’m thinking denim may have been a poor choice, Bry,” she says as she crosses her arms.
“I’m inclined to agree,” he replies with a shudder. “How are you holding up?”
“Right as rain, just itching to get away from these mountains,” she says.
Bryan nods absentmindedly as his eyes carefully scan the surrounding landscape.
There is a road, or at least the remnants of one behind them, mired by a period of disuse. Small clusters of grass had begun their efforts to retake the worn dirt patch, but for the moment, enough of it remained to guide them.
“Got a path over here, not so sure where it leads, but at least it’ll get us further away from these mountains.”
The threat of a storm rides along the heavy wind, along with the scent of a potentially far-graver threat, bringing him from elation back into reality. The hair on the back of his neck begins to bristle as he gulps down the panic rising in his chest.
No matter what it was they planned to do, if they wanted to survive, they’d have to get away from here. They’re not alone.
“You caught that too, huh?” she asks.
Bryan nods, “It won’t be long before it’s is right on top of us, especially if it realizes it’s downwind.”
“Think we’re just dealing with one?”
“Seems that way, but they may be using the cold to try and mask their numbers. Could be a nest somewhere out here, maybe in a nearby cave.”
“That’s what I was thinking too. Dammit. Is your necklace gone as well?”
Her voice sounds more annoyed than worried as she shakes the dusty remnants of her talisman from her glove.
The pair of silver necklaces they’d used to access the nether portal had been imbued with the arcane sigil of their order, enchanting them with a potent magic. The talismans had served them well over the years, helping them dispatch many fangs during the war they’d raged against the Darkmother. Other beasties, too.
They really could’ve used the silver.
As mighty as the necklaces were, even artifacts as powerful as those have their limits. Portal travel was taxing on the traveler, but even more so on the ‘keys’ used to access it. It would have been a miracle if their talismans would’ve survived the journey.
The same can be said about anything metal, really. The energy almost seems to pick and choose what it chooses to vaporize and what actually survives to the other side.
“Nothing but shavings left for me either,” he replies as he brushes the glimmering dust from off of his hand.
“Did any of your weapons survive?” she asks.
“No dice. I’ve got a dagger handle, but the pointy end is toast. You?”
“I’ve got a gun with no barrel and that’s about it.”
“Huh, that’s not good at all,” Bryan says, his hands resting on his sides.
“We better get on the move, I ain’t taking on any beasties without knowing what I’m up against, especially if we’re armed with nothing but our good intentions.”
“Amen to that,” he says.
A lone howl rings out in the distance, followed by chorus of other howls, much closer than their counterpart. Asante and Bryan share a brief, wide-eyed stare before turning their attention to the seemingly endless possible locations of the call.
“I just hope that’s a choice we’re left with,” he grumbles as he begins walking down the path.
Another hour of panicked journeying in the darkening woods passes before the pair stumble upon a sign of civilized life. As they walk, they are drawn to an otherworldly green glow that almost seems to call out to them, bathing the surrounding area in a faint lime hue.
When they finally break through the line of scraggily trees that dot the mountain’s base, they are greeted by a two-story wooden building tucked away amidst a series of gentle slopes. Past this glowing domicile appears to be a nearby valley, which seems to be the very picture of tranquility.
While there wouldn’t be many opportunities for ambush along the way, the route was also devoid of cover, shelter, or any other chase breakers that would be essential for their survival.
No, better to scope out the building first, he figured.
As he got a little closer to the building, it felt safe to assume it to be a farmhouse of some kind, based on the more familiar portions of the aesthetic. While its color was obscured by the glow, it was a safe bet to guess the paint color is red.
By all accounts, it looks to be your standard, everyday house, nothing special... save for the sizable clear tube poking out from the ground and connecting to the building’s second floor. Through this sizable addition, he watches a strange, shimmering green substance being dredged up from the depths beneath the barn.
Bryan cocked his head as he looked over the building, a crease forming steadily along his brow as he did. A brief glance to Asante and her bemused expression reveals the keeper is of a similar mind as they grow closer to the tube. Whatever that goo is, it is radiating seriously potent magic.
A single, burning lantern hangs from the bottom story of the dwelling, illuminating the warped stairs leading up to the dimly lit wrap-around porch. Another light flickers from inside the dwelling, casting orange shadows through the windows. Silhouettes milling about throughout the room briefly block out the candle’s dance as they pass in front of it.
Bryan and Asante exchange fretful looks once more, but before one or the other could voice an opinion, another batch of howls erupts from behind them. The angry cries sounding much closer than before. They both opted to keep silent as they make their way up the creaky steps. It was apparent that they’ll have to seek refuge here, whether they want to or not.
As Asante goes to knock on the door, it swings open wide, causing them both to instinctively jump back. The space in front of them is filled by strikingly tall man with pale skin and an intense stare. A frown hangs upon his long face, appearing as much a part of his uniform as the simple, threadbare clothes.
His coal black eyes move from Asante, then to Bryan before being drawn by some distant rustling from the nearby trees. Bryan holds out his palms towards the farmer as he gestures towards the noise with several worried nods. The farmer’s stare softens as he exhales. He looks at them both once more, then slowly steps to one side, granting them both entry into his home.
As they pass through the threshold, several vicious growls erupt from behind, prompting the farmer to promptly latch the door close behind them. Before his hand leaves the lock, there are several hardy slams into the door, causing the glass panes to rattle in its windows.
“That was a close one,” Bryan mutters, his wide eyes still trained on the shaking door.
He hears Asante thank the farmer, hears his flat response, but is unable to focus on what either of them are actually saying past that point. All he can hear is the deep growl rumbling from behind that door. For a brief moment, he somehow sees through the door, sees the pack of beasts. He isn’t sure how, but he knows what they’re thinking. He can feel their longing to rip the skin from their bones. He can feel the urge to clamp down onto—
“Boy, stow you fears and follow us. The door’s warded from their kind,” the farmer says, snapping Bryan from his trance.
Bryan’s eyes fall to the floor as his cheeks begin to burn hot.
“Apologies, sir. Thank you for the hospitality,” Bryan says, his shoulders still rigid.
“Name’s Jonah, and you’re welcome. Now come along, we’ll see that you two are fed.”
“We?” Asante asks.
“Essie, my wife. She’s somewhere in the back tinkering with one of her projects, but you’ll be meeting her soon enough. Busy hands make for an empty stomach,” Jonah says, almost cracking a grin.
As Bryan follows behind Jonah and Asante through the foyer and into the dining room, he has to fight the urge to keep looking back to that door. The modest décor of the small rooms offers him little distraction from the beasts lurking outside. Still, he follows them to a solid slab of oak that Jonah calls a table and forces himself to sit atop of one of the many colorful pillows that line the outside of the table’s perimeter.
Jonah is away, fetching his wife, or the food. One of the two, anyway. Asante rests her chin on the palm of her hand, her eyes becoming distant as Bryan shifts in his seat.
“Bry, try to relax,” Asante says.
“What does it look like I’m doing?” he whispers through clenched teeth.
“It looks like you can’t make up your mind whether you’re about to shit yourself or you already have,” she says with a wry grin.
Bryan sighs and pinches the bridge of his nose.
“I just...I don’t know. Something’s wrong.”
“What’s going on?” Asante asks.
“What did Master Ramos always tell us about this place?”
“That it was free of fangs, the vampiric kind, anyways. Safest place for us to head.”
“Right. You know what else it was supposed to be free of? Los lobos que caminan! But, guess what? They’re right outside! Magic is supposed to be weaker in this plane as well, easier to hide, right?”
“Then explain these people out in the middle of freaking nowhere have wards powerful enough to block a pack of bloodthirsty lobos from pillaging this entire place! That’s some next-level spellwork...not to mention the magic goop this dude’s wife is sucking out of the ground as we speak.”
Bryan plonks his head onto the table, causing a sad knock to echo out across the room.
“Ow,” he mutters before slowly lifting his head up.
“What is it you’re saying?” Asante says, her voice growing quieter by the word.
“Ramos was wrong, I don’t know how it happened, nor do I know why, but he must’ve got the two worlds backwards or something. We shouldn’t be here.”
“Are you sure, Bryan? Are you absolutely sure? Because if you’re just basing that kind of statement off of a hunch then...”
“I could sense the lobos’ thoughts just now. All six of them.”
“You could sense...wait, there were six of them out there?”
“Yeah, but that’s not the point. I heard what those monsters wanted to do to us, pictured it clear as a bell. I could never swing an ambient reading like that, not without some crystals or a talisman at the least. It’s like I’m on magic steroids or something here.”
“Christ...okay. Say your hunch is right. Wouldn’t that be good for us? I mean, won’t that give us better odds to complete the mission?”
“Are my abilities cranked to eleven? Yeah. But we are at an incredible disadvantage in every other way. If Ramos somehow botched where we were actually heading, then that means we might be in a plane where the fangs are even more plentiful and powerful than back home.”
“And back home they almost wiped us all out,” she says.
“Unless that is somehow not the case, I don’t see us surviving.”
The color drains from Asante’s cheeks as her eyes widen.
“You’re saying that we’re—”
“Dinner!” Jonah calls out as he lumbers into the dining room, clutching a large cooking pot and a handful of bowls.
As they fix their bowls and dive in to the delicious smelling stew, a small, pasty woman with jet black hair and a white lab coat joins them, taking a seat at the head of the table.
Essie seems perfectly pleasant as she introduces herself to the room. She’s all smiles as she greets them, but Bryan can’t focus on a word she is saying.
All he hears is the word ‘KILL’ radiating out from her mind as she locks eyes him.