The crick in Jeanne’s neck brought a reminder that she wasn’t dead yet. She remembered someone saying pain was good, that it was a sign the body was trying to heal. That was bull. This kind of pain just mumbled, “you slept in a stupid position,” over and over, never pausing for a breath.
Details of her current situation swam to the surface of her mind. There was some kind of weird message, and before that she’d nearly been killed by some huge tentacled thing. Someone named Apollo Stardust somehow slipped a tiny e-reader into her bag and promised to find her and to avoid anything that could be considered “warped.” Last, and this less a memory and more a realization, she’d picked a dust-laden abandoned building for her nap. She pinched the bridge of her nose, willing her sinuses to clear up.
The thick air pressed against her as she made her way further into the building. Exploring outside would come later. Right now she was on the hunt for some tissues, or an antihistamine. It seemed whoever came before her had taken everything of value long ago, leaving nothing but crumbling plaster and a few sticks of empty furniture. The carpet of dust lay thick and undisturbed. There was nothing here for her, or anyone else.
She stepped through an empty doorframe into the outside world. The gloaming light cast harsh shadows, rendering the world black and orange as the sun set. There was no sign of the moon, if this place even had one. Thank God for small miracles. One less nightmare to deal with.
The message had said someone would find her though. Aside from somehow supplying her with a machine to deliver a message, she’d seen no sign of anyone. Without a watch she had no idea how much time had passed—
The thing vibrated in her bag. Maybe this Stardust guy had more to say. She pulled it out, her hand brushing past GC’s feather in the process.
Is anyone out there?
She rolled her eyes. This guy wasn’t so smart after all then, trying to discover if anyone got the initial terrifying message. The chances of him showing up or sending an emissary were dwindling before her eyes.
“You know what? No. I’m not here.” Just as she opened the bag to put the thing away again, a little light at the top flashed green, followed by a short beep. She saw her words appear on the screen, the sarcasm somehow making itself clear despite the text appearing the same as in the other messages. Another green flash, and new words appeared:
“That wasn’t supposed to be—Don’t send this!” she said. She thrust it deep into the bag, hoping it didn’t decide to touch-type or something and send a message composed of gibberish as it bumped against her other belongings.
“How can you not be here?” said a voice that seemed to come from nowhere. Jeanne froze. It could have been a perfectly ordinary woman speaking, but something felt wrong. She stepped back into the shadows, near the doorway to the building she thought of as “hers.”
“I heard you speak. Are you…are you trying to trick me?”
Something huge stepped out from behind one of the buildings. Something with tentacles. She shuddered in revulsion.
“You can’t hide. I can hear you breathing. Come out!”
It came closer, a huge asymmetrical mass. There was a head though, one that looked as though it belonged to a human girl. The humanness continued through shoulders and the top half of the torso, before melding into something almost hexagonal, a dull red-brown color. She looked like a walking human heart. Clearly this thing was one of the Warped. No matter what it was called, it was certainly some kind of monster. Why did this always happen? Never something small and easy to deal with, always a massive terrifying monster.
“I said, come out!” the creature shrieked. A new tentacle, one that didn’t seem to have been there before, lashed out at Jeanne. The fragile plaster crumbled on impact. She jumped forward, hoping the ability to speak indicated it wouldn’t just kill her when she came into range. She wished for something to defend herself if this got any uglier. The gun was still in her bag though, and that was the best bet. She’d have to pull it out and load it for it to be any use, and that would be time that this heart-monster could use to attack.
“I’m out. What?”
The heart-creature tilted her head. “You were speaking to me.”
For the first time, Jeanne noticed the gruesome image of a second head, this one lifeless, hanging from one of the human arms. It’s insane.
“I was told I’d be met by someone,” she ventured. “Is that you? Did…Are you with Apollo Stardust?”
The heart-thing shrieked in rage. A flaming tentacle appeared, and another. Both of them lashed out at Jeanne. She dived, barely avoiding nasty burns.
“Do not mention him. He is wrong. He and the others lied about Hotori, and about everything!”
“Hotori?” Another flaming tentacle flew through the air. This time she was not so lucky. It grazed across her shoulder. The smell of burning and the blistering pain roared into being. Nevermind about the time it would take to load that gun. If she didn’t get it out, she’d be killed. This thing was too fast, and too insane, for her to get away easily. She’d have to fight. She’d have to win.
In the meantime, she’d have to keep moving.
The gun was easier to reach than the journal thing, but the ammunition was crammed into a small inside pocket so as not to get loose. Another tentacle, this one seeming to be made of air, grabbed hold of her ankle, dragging her off balance.
“Hotori! Where is he?” the monster screamed. “He is alive!”
Another tentacled strike, this one in the gut. Winded, Jeanne’s grip on the gun, still in the bag, loosened. She fell heavily. There wouldn’t be time! For the second time in a day, she was about to die at the hands—or suckers, or whatever—of a monster.
“He’s alive!” she agreed, trying to stall. “He’s probably….he’s with GC.”
“You lie too!” the creature screeched. Wind and fire swirled around her, adding dramatic effects of an already near-silhouetted nightmare image. “Liars deserve to die alone! ALONE!”
A huge tentacle, this one with flesh and fire and wind all in one, flew towards her face. She couldn’t dodge, couldn’t do anything. This was it.
It stopped, inches from her face.
Actually, it was moving. Slowly though, so slow she could convince herself time stopped. Pre-death relativity or something, maybe, although she’d never experienced it. A blur appeared beside her, something pink and grey. It disappeared before she could turn her head to look. In fact, she was moving slowly too. Not as slowly as the monster’s tentacle, but the further the blur moved the slower she felt.
Something loud, an enormous explosion or something, went off. She felt deaf, but couldn’t move her hands up to her ears fast enough to block the noise.
Things returned to normal without warning. The flaming death-tentacle was still coming in fast. The heat pressed against her face, and the smell of singed hair assaulted her senses. Just before it connected, everything went limp. The flames flickered out, the winds died away, and the thick fleshy tentacle fell lifelessly to the ground. The monster wobbled, staring at the severed head attached to one hand. Her jaw worked, but no sound came out. She fell to the ground heavily. In the middle of her chest, a red liquid flower marred her chest.
Jeanne realized her hand was not in the bag any more. Nor was the gun.
“What happened?” she said, looking around. Near where the grey and pink blur had been stood a teenage boy, wearing nothing more than tight workout pants. In his hand was her gun.
“I saved you,” he said matter-of-factly. “I’m Ethan Hornette.”
He looked crestfallen at her less than enthusiastic response. “I saw someone answered my question, when I asked the machine if anyone else was here, so I came looking. I thought you might be one of the Eos people. Are you?”
She shook her head. “No. Thought you were. How did you…?”
“I saved you. He grinned. “Combustion weapons are a bit crude, but they worked pretty well here. Glad you have one. I saw you were in trouble, so I slowed things down and…yeah.”
Slowed things down? He was faster than Superman, for crying out loud. Superman didn’t sway after saving the day though, or look like he was about to faint.
“Thanks. I owe you.” She glanced at “her” building. She’d rather not take him into that dust-ridden box if she could avoid it, but so far it was the safest place she’d been in this place. Still, if the monsters were all that nuts, it wouldn’t stay standing for long.
“You look beat. Where’s home?” she asked.
“I…” He looked down, the flush in his cheeks increasing.
“You’re not Eos-ian either,” she remembered. “All right, let’s find somewhere giant heart monsters won’t call us liars and get some rest.” She struggled to her feet, feeling as shaky as the boy looked. “I’m Jeanne.”
“Yeah, you said that.”
They didn’t lean on each other as they walked, but she made sure to stay close enough to him that she could catch him if he fell. Hopefully he would do the same for her. Together they walked, looking for a place to recover from their ordeal. She didn’t know who this kid was or what he’d done, but for now she was glad of some sane company.