Excerpt from The Man From Empire

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A winding residential street. They may not have been mansions on the block, but they were close. If any of them was less than three times the size of my parents' house, I didn't see it.

"That one, Grace." ScOsh crossed the street and headed straight up the driveway of the one across the street. I don't know anything about architecture, but it looked vaguely like some sort of Greek temple, Iron gates across the walk and drive, a little off the street in the case of the drive, hedges or ivy blocking most of the view from the street. I presumed he had a plan to get us past them. I saw no reason why he couldn't just do a short hop through those rather prosaic defenses.

Instead he stopped. "Interesting," he said, "I see alarm mechanisms, but they've been turned off. I love it when the ignorant try to be subtle."

"What are you going to do?"

"You being along makes it a little more challenging. Follow me."

We walked quickly around the perimeter. The neighbor to the left had a huge expanse of lawn, but no fences. There was less obscuring greenery, too. We moved about halfway back on the property line, then ScOsh pulled out a gun of a different sort, changed a setting and cut a hole in the fence, pushing the ironmongery in. "They're going to spring a teleport trap," he said, "Which means they're going to try and overwhelm me with firepower. I don't know where they're going to do it, so I'm building myself a second escape hole just in case." He went back around to the front, cut himself another hole, then opened the driveway gate, propping it open with a piece of the ironwork from his second hole. He moved towards the front door by a circuitous route, never choosing the easy or obvious path. Instead of opening the front door, however, he broke the window next to it, carefully breaking out the remaining glass before entering. Here's Johnny! I remember thinking, like in The Shining. He gestured me up to the porch. I tried to use the same sort of movement patterns he had. "So far, everything is like they're expecting some untrained idiot to just take the easy entrance for granted. However, I want to be ready in case there's someone who knows what they're doing." He deftly pulled the hinges out of the front door on the inside as I gingerly stepped over the windowsill.

He moved to the staircase, which was at least double wide with a large open area at its head, like something you see people making a grand entrance to the ball with. "You can't run an ambush like this without an observer," he said, "I'm blanketing the house with interference. Unless they have someone on the inside here, they can't see what we're doing."

He was on the third step from the top when they hit us. Six manesi suddenly appeared, two at the top, four at the bottom, roaring and screaming like they were having a jet race. ScOsh got the two at the top before I could react; we both turned towards the others. I pointed the gun he'd given me at the lead manes rushing up the stairs, took a breath and pushed the button. A hole appeared on its right side, and it staggered slightly, but kept coming. Grimly, I pushed the button again, and another hole appeared in what would have been the gut on a human. It stopped momentarily, then gathered itself as if for a final rush. I was dimly aware that ScOsh had killed the rest already. Almost in a panic, I touched the button one more time, and another hole appeared dead center in its chest, and it gently collapsed in place, sliding down a couple stairs in the trail of multicolored blood it left behind.

"Good shooting," ScOsh said, "Especially since you haven't had any training and it was your first time under fire." The whole scene was a nightmare of collapsed manesi and their pooling multicolored ichor. It was dripping from the balcony too, and running down the stairs by us.

"You got five to my one, and had plenty of time," I replied, "You could have gotten mine, too. It was getting close."

"You're right, but now we know you can defend yourself if you have to. A surprising number of people can't, without training. They freeze, they run, any of several other things, but for whatever reason, they don't fight when they have to. Now we know for a fact that's not you. I was ready to finish it if I had to." Carefully, picking his way between rivers of surreal blood, ScOsh climbed the rest of the stairs, and I followed. There was a hallway running the depth of the house, front to back, on the right of the stairs. Except for a bannister, it was open to the ground floor once it passed the head of the staircase, with doors to two rooms clearly visible. At the back of the open area was a third door, and as I saw when I moved to look down its length, two sets of paired doors opposite each other, about another twenty feet back and an open door at the end of the hall, probably leading into the master bedroom. The hall itself was at least eight feet wide. "Stay a couple steps behind me, but stay with me. Let me lead." Since I had no intention of doing anything else, that was wasted breath. I was firmly of the opinion that ScOsh was my best chance at living through this, but I wasn't going to be the one springing the booby traps if I could help it.

He moved swiftly, not interested in any of the lesser doors. "Nothing interesting in there," he said when I asked, "I'm looking for two things: ston terrorists and things that can tell me where to find ston terrorists. This house is organized like a fa├žade - people don't really live or work here. I think it's just a convenient place to meet with their tools." We got to the back door into the master bedroom. "Nothing," he said, disgusted, and turned back around.

That's when wave two hit. Smaller but nastier. Four more monsters like nothing ever seen on earth. Three of them were a god-awful fluorescent yellowish green, radially symmetric. Barrel shaped torso with four salmon pink arms at shoulder height, one every ninety degrees and four legs that were so articulated they could turn up to ninety degrees each direction, with the effect that although you'd think something like that could only waddle, it turns out they could really haul. The arms had a three fingered hand each, but also a long serrated bone blade, triangular in cross section, that the hand could either nestle against on its back side, or not. Their heads were the size of a large watermelon, mostly off-white bony, also radially symmetric, with four parrot-like beak mouths, and above that, a conical top that had housed thousands of eyes, faceted like a fly's. They were blocking our way out.

The fourth demon was something else again. It appeared behind us in the master bedroom. Eight feet high and almost human in shape, it might have almost come out of central casting for demons. It reminded me of the big devil in Fantasia, the segment were they have the demons dancing on All Hallows, except it wasn't the G rated version. Naked yes, neuter no - definitely a he. No wings, but the basic shape wasn't too far off. It even had the traditional hairy legs and cloven hooves like a goat. Two more or less human arms, heavily muscled. Except for a hooked spike on each elbow the arms looked like they might have come off human weightlifters. Each arm ended in a hand with seven recognizable fingers, the ones on each end capable of opposing movement like our thumbs. Unlike human hands, though, they had retractable tiger-like claws, steely black and at least four inches long. The horns on the head were turned to spike forward, not inward like most mythological demons. It wouldn't have been able to stand up in my parent's house, with its standard eight and a half foot ceiling.

It was purple, a light, lavender-ish purple, not central casting red. I remember ScOsh warning me about purple demons - "if it's purple, it's a probably a noble and has protections like the stons and I do"

I heard a voice in my head, let the big one take a couple of steps, then front roll and trip him. I'll be there. So I did that. I confess I might have hesitated if I hadn't seen Esteban do it to much bigger boys on the football field. Mi hermano played center on the high school team, despite being only five foot eight. We went to all his games when I was little. Not often, but every once in a while some huge ogre of a lineman would start manhandling him, and instead of meeting it head on, he'd roll and trip the ogre. He never did it more than once, but he didn't need it more than once. After that, the ogre was usually more careful, by which I mean restrained.

The big purple guy started moving, I threw myself at his feet, rolling into a ball but throwing my arms out to make sure I caught him. Damned thing was massive, but down he went. I wasn't sure the hardwood floor was going to survive, but it did, albeit with a couple of holes. I pointed my weapon at it and shot. It actually hit - I saw it hit - but it didn't do much more than nick his side. The demon screamed, mostly in outrage as I could tell it wasn't really hurt. I shot again, aiming for the feet, but I missed. I moved back to the center of the chest, and shot a couple more times. I could swear that I should have hit the damned thing dead center of the chest both times, but the beam was somehow deflected and attenuated. A couple more minor holes opened, one on the side near the first, the other on the opposite leg.

That was all it took. I didn't see what ScOsh had done to the round green demons, but two were down and bleeding, most likely dead, the third was still up but obviously hurt. I had really pissed off the big noble, but he was still trying to get off the floor when ScOsh's sword cut off one of its arms at the elbow, and it roared again, this time in real pain and hurt, and changed its target.

So did I. I figured since I couldn't really hurt the purple one so I'd finish off the other green one. I changed my target and dead centered that disgusting watermelon head, which obligingly exploded. Unfortunately, it turned out to be really caustic. Flying bits of demon head went everywhere. I'd managed to cover my face, but quite a few pieces hit my jeans and my sweatshirt, which started to smoke. I shook and brushed them off, but the acid kept eating at the clothes for a few seconds. I checked my hair, which had also caught a few pieces, brushed it out with my arms, grabbed a couple decorative doilies off a dresser, and used those to help wipe. No time to worry about my hair right then, just about getting the stuff out of my clothes before it burned down to me - whatever the damage, as long as it was just hair, it would grow back. I'd need new sneakers, too.

ScOsh, of course, hadn't been touched by the exploding acid whatever-it-was from the demon's head, damn him. The fourth demon was down, head split diagonally in two with the loose piece still rocking back and forth gently a few feet away, suspended between what was left of a horn and the curve of the rest of the scalp. Down the stairs we went, carefully avoiding the slippery rivers and pools of demon blood. I thought he'd want to leave, but, "I'm looking for a basement," is what he said, "They're trying to soften me up on the easy stuff, wear me out" he said, "Be ready for round three."

"You call that easy?"

"Three brakiri and a terostes? The only challenge was keeping you from getting hurt."

"A little bit of warning about exploding caustic acid heads might have been useful!"

"Sorry, I thought you'd shoot the body and that isn't caustic, as you can see. By the time I knew different, it was too late, and to answer the obvious question, I've got static defenses that handle that kind of minor annoyance. See the heavy arc on the floor? That's where I was at the time. We'll get you some new clothes soon as we leave here."

"The, terostes, you said? I was sure my shots should have been hitting it, dead center. But it was like they were getting deflected and weakened."

"Terostes are minor nobles. Think equivalent to landed knights or maybe minor baron. They do have some of the same protections I do. Not as good as mine, but kind of like a special armor that evolved because it helps them survive. Conditions in the fractal dimensions mostly aren't what we would consider congenial."

He had found the passage leading down to the basement; what initially looked like a broom closet between kitchen and bathroom. I didn't think California houses had basements, but here was one, or at least stairs down. They were steep and narrow descending about 12 vertical feet before the square landing in the corner, then became more normal the rest of the way down, along what appeared to be the long side of the room, which was shrouded but at least fifteen by twenty. "They would have known I would find this if I looked," ScOsh said, "And they should have known I'd look."

He got most of the way to the landing when he turned and vaulted the rail, dropping maybe ten feet to the floor. I didn't see anything, but he was concentrating too hard to be just standing there. He strode purposefully towards the back corner, hidden from my view under the stairs. Sounds of metal on metal rang through the enclosed space. For some reason, instantly I started getting shooting pains of headache. I descended as far as the landing, then craned around for a better look.

He was engaged in combat with a woman. Unlike anything I'd ever seen in the movies, there was no trash talking and no braggadocio that I could observe. No posturing, no snappy one-liners. Just two people trying to kill each other. Even if I could write the story, Hollywood would never be interested - it was too real. I didn't know enough to judge the contest as to who was winning. ScOsh was encased in a ghostly blue, his opponent in a wan orange-pink. The style and distance between them looked more Three Musketeers than Seven Samurai. At a glance, it looked like the swords part of the fight was close enough to a draw. From what ScOsh had told me earlier, I presumed there was some wizardly or mindlord jabbing and parrying back and forth, but I had no way of observing that, and no way of knowing who had the upper hand. Judging by his body language, I would say ScOsh was confident enough, but so was the woman. One of them was wrong, but which?

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This page contains a single entry by Dan Melson published on February 6, 2018 5:08 PM.

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