I bashed through the shoji paper screen before the Syndax mercenaries could sacrifice the family they’d kidnapped.


Don’t ask me why the soldiers had a middle-aged dad and mom, plus two teen-aged boys, spread out on the polished granite floors like the world’s biggest wingless butterflies. I wasn’t so much interested in the whys as the hows—as in, how was I going to stop the murder of four people. And also, the what.


The what being the massive machete a mercenary in full tactical armor slashed down at the dad’s chest.


Bamboo and shredded translucent paper exploded into the dingy confines of the abandoned restaurant. A blast of gold and white energies from the pulsar stave melted the machete in mid-swing. Molten steel sprayed the soldier’s arm, rewarding me a with a big angry scream.


The spray also stained a garish wall painting of a sumo wrestler, vaporizing his hideous grin. Talk about tacky. No wonder Black Lotus had been closed for a year. That and, you know, the twenty cases of food poisoning had turned it from San Camillo’s latest sushi restaurant into a boarded-up business on the Promenade facing the bay.


“It’s him!” Two of the mercenaries swung around, automatic rifles aimed.


Yeah, it’s me.


Mercury Hale, resident monster slayer and occasional foiler-of-crime, trying to enjoy his first few months of marital bliss. I should have been home with Loredana, making sure the TV was streaming Dr. Who re-runs while we cooked up a batch of shrimp po-boys.

Instead, one abnormal tachyon spike later, I was swinging my weapon at the helmeted head of a guy who probably should have stayed in jail or picked up a gig as a nightclub bouncer. Working for an evil syndicate with ties to the previously-mentioned monsters was not gonna look great on his resume.


That single strike put the first of my opponents face-first into a booth. Something cracked. Plastic? Bone? I didn’t care. What mattered was that he and his other seven compatriots were focused on me, instead of the four sobbing victims.


Make that five. There was a black lab straining against his bindings as he whined and snapped at the nearest soldier.


“Are you kidding me?” I blurted. “You’re gonna kill the dog, too? Guys, there’s villain and then there’s villain.”


Guns crackled to life.


Big surprise. But maybe those clowns hadn’t seen me in action before. They sure weren’t expecting me to blast out of their line of fire as bullets shredded chairs and splintered tables behind where I’d been standing. My supersuit was a motley display of black and gray patterns crammed together, with blazing lines of yellow light illuminating the edges. The suit’s intricate technology siphoned the pulsar stave’s power, enhancing what I could draw from the weapon and storing it for lots of fun purposes. Like moving super-fast, which to be fair, I didn’t need the suit to do.


Or camouflage.


I blended into the restaurant’s background, little more than a hazy, transparent figure against the ugly furnishing and even uglier artwork. Seriously. If you ever meet a white guy from North Dakota who thinks it’d be a great idea to open an ethnic restaurant, save him and twenty people the stomachache. Tell him no.


“Forget him!” The voice that shouted the command between the fusillades had an edge of pain to it. Probably because the guy’s hand was suffering blistering burns from his melted machete. “We have the sacrifices. Initiate the rip.”


Hang on. The rip? That was Procyon Foundation lingo—as in, the term for a breach between this world and the nasty, monster-filled dimension known as the Interstice. You could get to a lot of other realms by taking a transit through the Interstice, but I wouldn’t recommend it for a vacation. Unless you wanted to die.


“Hey, Mercury!” The voiced stabbed through my earbud. If it’d been a person sneaking up on me, I would have stabbed it. Him. Her. Whatever.


“Bad time, Liz.” I whispered. Not that I needed to, with these goons insistent on shooting up every square inch of upholstery in hopes of perforating me.


“Oh! Wow, I’ve got those thirteen heat signatures the drone’s recording and a whole new set just bloomed but they’re not as diffuse as a person’s body temperature so I figured it has to be guns and then I heard over the earbud—”


“Liz! Stay on target!”


A silhouette stepped in front of the shoji screen four feet in front of me. I blasted through with the stave, then hurtled into the sizzling remnants, stepping on the knocked-over body and leaping horizontally at the next guy.


I caught a glimpse of eyes as black as night fringed in glowing purple.




The mercenary swung his weapon too fast for me to avoid. The blow struck my shoulder and sent me careening over the stainless steel chef’s station.


Forgot. These guys liked to juice with a Syndax Multinational concoction—tachyon-infused astral fiend goo. Monster blood, basically. It would amp their strength, temporarily. Not sure what the side effects were.


Didn’t matter in the middle of a fight like this.


“Garvey and Wilhelmina are on their way!” Liz yelped into the earbud. “But I don’t know how soon. SCPD has barricades going up at either of the Promenade.”


“Great. More potential targets for these jokers.” I said this upside down. Took a second to get righted, even as a mercenary rounded each end of the counter like human versions of the barricades Liz had just mentioned.


I let them both get unobstructed fields of fire before I separated the pulsar stave into two pieces of equal length emblazoned with intricate carvings and slapped both against the damp tile.


A sparking shockwave sent both men tumbling like leaves blown down the sidewalk. Good deal. I was evening the odds.


And better yet, when I leapt back over the counter, I saw no one had tried to fillet the kidnapped family. The dog was still snapping at anyone who got to close. As much as I wanted to free him and let him join the fracas, I knew they’d shoot him dead before he could do much damage.


Which left things up to me, as usual. At least until my backup could arrive.


The soldiers stopped shooting. Burnt Hand, their leader, reached onto his back and drew a second machete. Because of course he had a spare. “Don’t think you can stop the inevitable. We will appease the hungry to gain access to our fallen.”


A gust of wind blew through the restaurant—or rather, blew out from it. Scraps of mildewed menus flitted across the floor and over tables. The wind whipped into a mini cyclone, gathering speed near the door to the kitchen.


Purple lightning skittered around the frame.


“That sounds terrible.” I tensed, the staves’ power coursing through my body like a second circulatory system, running side by side with my blood. Every heartbeat urged me to launch into their midst. I was on the wrong side of the family. The Syndax boys said they wanted a sacrifice and, apparently, that involved stabbing, but I wasn’t gonna chance them using plain old-fashioned guns if I made the wrong move. “Since everybody I’ve sent into the Interstice hasn’t come back, why don’t you rethink that plan?”


“It is your doing. We mean to undo the damage. You’ve deprived us of our leaders.”


“Yep. And good riddance. But hey, if you want to keep talking, keep talking.”


A shadowy form spun through a booth, colliding with the leftmost mercenary as it entered the lit area of the restaurant. No ninjas on Procyon’s payroll. Wilhelmina was just as agile when she wielded her dagger, a long, slender blade forged in my home dimension of Meda. She landed atop the man’s chest and slashed the blade through his gun, leaving the halves tinged with glowing red. The dagger sparked with gold-white, like the pulsar staves, courtesy of the tachyon enhancement module Liz had rigged to its hilt.


“Here I though you was the one who did all the jabbering.” Wilhemina’s voice was warm and soothing, like a grandma offering cookies. You know, like the Oracle, from The Matrix. Not ninja material. A perfect fit for a short, stocky black woman in her seventies, though.


If you think my appearance startled the cult-in-training, Wilhelmina’s really threw them for a loop. The mercenaries glanced back and forth between the two of us, looking like they were debating whether to take on the costumed Millennial or the Baby Boomer wearing red-striped exercise pants and a zipped-up fleece jacket, both midnight black.


Turned out, the astral fiend ended their internal debate.


The rip, well, ripped the barrier between Earth and the Interstice, disgorging a slobbering monster that bumped its head against the ceiling. I used the term “head” loosely. The astral fiend was more of a ten-foot-long lump of knobby hide, a dark violet with spikes protruding from eight tentacles. Three misshapen eyes glowed blood red over a gaping mouth packed full of fangs. He could have swallowed any one of us whole.


First thing the fiend did was shriek so loudly everyone, bad guys included, covered their ears, because ow.


Except for Burnt Hand. He raised his dagger, eyes crazed with—fervent devotion? Abject terror? Too much tachyon steroids? All three, I’d guessed. “For the Whisperer and his servants!”


I was already moving.


I’d slid across the floor, alongside the family. The pulsar staves cut their leg bindings as I passed them. Wilhelmina copied my move and freed their hands.


But the dagger plunged into Burnt Hand’s chest, not his intended victims’.


Never did find out if an astral fiend preferred sacrifices to live prey, because the fiend wrapped Burnt Hand in a pair of tentacles. His cry cut through me worse than the fiend’s, even though it lacked the volume. I spun around and threw a stave, a clean shot that severed one of the tentacles. Wasn’t enough to prevent my enemy’s death, though. The fiend drained his life from his body in seconds, reducing what had been a musclebound, armor-clad mercenary into a shriveled mummy, empty eye sockets and all.


The twin boys screamed in unison and everyone snapped back into action.


“Come on, y’all!” Wilhelmina seized the mom’s collar and dad’s sleeve, dragging them out of the line of fire—because those idiot Syndax guys started shooting again. Bonus: They were emptying their magazines at the astral fiend instead of the family or me or Wilhelmina.

“Guess it’s not so fun summoning the devil when he actually shows up,” I muttered.


I took the opportunity to yank the twins clear, in the opposite direction, but I figured since they were teens I could do so with more gusto. They wound up across a divider between tables, landing on a heap of discarded seat cushions.


Then there was Fido. Excuse me—I squinted at his collar. “Agamemnon?”


He bared his fangs.


“Easy, Agamemnon.” I flicked the stave across his tether and jumped back, as an astral fiend tentacle whipped above my head. “Go protect your owners.”


The lab barked, then pounced at the nearest tentacle, pinning it to the ground. He pulled on that sucker like he’d found a new chew toy fresh out of the box.


Screams echoed from the fiend.


Great. Now the dog was gonna get himself killed!


“Hey, Liz!” I shouted over the gunfire. I slashed through a tentacle and spun through the air, whirling toward where my other pulsar stave half had landed. One of the mercenaries picked it up and pointed it at me. No dice. It was just a dead stick of metal to someone who didn’t possess the genetic code of a Medan descendant.


As in, a person born in another dimension.


“Garvey’s in position! He’s at the railing opposite the Black Lotus entrance!” Liz yelped. “Get the fiend outside and he can reverse the rip!”


Those were a lot of exclamations for one statement, but since shouting was the way to go, I wasn’t gonna complain. I landed in front of the mercenary. He seemed befuddled by the inactive stave.


“Here, let me.” I grabbed the end he was pointing at me and sent a surge out the backside. It flashed against his chest and put him deep into a shoji screen, his boots protruding from between splintered bamboo posts.


Another hideous cry—the fiend had found a second meal. Thankfully, it wasn’t the family. I glimpsed Wilhelmina herding them out a broken window at the front of the restaurant. The astral fiend cast aside the limp, uniformed body of a Syndax mercenary. Don’t get me wrong. His death was as sickening as if it’d been the innocent victims I’d come to protect. But those guys should know better than to mess with monsters. Fiends weren’t big on taking requests from anybody outside of the Interstice.


That left me, two Syndax mercenaries who’d ran out of ammo, and a furious Labrador intent on avenging his owners.


“Okay, Agamemnon. Heel!” I caught the dog as the astral fiend whipped its tentacle toward me. Oof! Beefy boy. He about knocked me off my feet. But I siphoned pent-up energy from the suit and hurled the pup like a discus toward the front. His howls faded as he arced through the same window the family exited. A meaty collision of flesh against flesh, followed by cries of surprise, pain, and joy told me I’d hit the target.


So, I threw a dog. Get over it.


I sliced through the tentacle, but two of the previously severed were already growing back, and the fiend looked like he’d put on weight. As in, grown by a couple feet in all directions and sprouted handfuls of fangs.


That was enough for the Syndax boys. They bolted through the front door.


“Not a fan of multi-tasking,” I muttered. “Wilhelmina, do me a favor and trip up the two who dined and dashed.”


“Be glad to oblige. You need help? Want me to come on back in?”


The astral fiend charged.


I brought the stave back together and held it out as a shield, pouring its energies from the suit. The burst of light reassured me but didn’t stop the freight train that was one outraged fiend. He collided with me and my attempted barrier.


The impact exploded the front wall of the restaurant, spilling us and the shattered remnants out onto the Promenade.


Any other night, I’d have enjoyed being there. Maybe when vendor booths full of local artisans crammed the boardwalk between storefronts and metal railings, or when musicians had fans packed into the bars and cafes. But the Promenade was empty. As was every other venue in town.


That was the deal when your city was locked down because of the COVID-19 coronavirus. Look, I hadn't checked off “pandemic” on the New Year's Eve bingo card, but you roll with it.


There were police barricades way down either end. Red and blue lights flickered. But at least SCPD wasn’t shining floodlamps to illuminate the scene. Which meant Lt. Gabriel Ramos was kindly keeping my masked face and general likeness out of the public eye and off the interwebs.


A tentacle snaked around my waist.


“Yeah, no thanks.” I severed it, pinwheeled the stave toward the fiend’s yawning maw—


It slapped aside my attack and plowed into the boardwalk’s surface. Timber snapped as it burrowed through wood planks as easily as a kid digging a trench in the sand. Where the heck was it going?


Right toward Wilhelmina, and the family extricating themselves from Agamemnon’s happy, bounding licks.


“Garvey!” I flung myself atop the fiend and stabbed deep into its hide. The monster roared but kept on its rampage. My boots slipped, but I hung on to the stave. “Do it!”


A purple glare flashed from the shadow by the railing. It hit the fiend, halting its advance a car’s length out of reach of the family. Wilhelmina parried the tentacles. I dumped the stave’s power into the fiend but couldn’t get deep enough to its core to kill it.


Finally, the familiar windy crackle of a rip opening filled my ears. I could hear the portal stretching itself across the restaurant, streaming out onto the Promenade and reaching for the fiend.


Garvey stepped nearer, muscles in his arms bulging through the gray compression shirt as he steadied the portal emitter—big old device, like a radar gun triple the normal size. Handy for shoving astral fiends back into the Interstice when they proved finicky.


Which this one surely did.


Suddenly the rip expanded, and my ride dissolved, its form disintegrating as it screamed itself to oblivion. Which meant I fell right through the giant hole torn in the boardwalk. I bounced off planks, slammed into a piling—


And the beam dropped on me.


It pinned me to the slope of the shoreline, a crushing, nauseating pain that would not let up. I thought I’d pass out. Kind of wished I could. But the agony was unforgiving.


Water rushed over my head.


In an instant, I was drowning. No time to catch my breath. The pressure unrelenting. I could only see a glassy blur. Debris pelted me from all sides.


Airfoil. He was overhead, somewhere, a white flash here and there lost an instant behind the bits and pieces that were dropping from the sky.


I wasn’t gonna die down there. Not after all this.


But I was, if I didn’t get free. I couldn’t push it off or worm from underneath. I hacked at the beam with the ax’s blades, but it was too thick. Switched to the energy-blade end of the pulsar stave. No luck.


Blackness pressed in on the sides of my sight.


One way out.


I twisted the stave-ax one last time. Its energies fizzled as my consciousness started to bleed away. Soon it’d be useless, because I’d be knocked out.


So, I cut.


The intense heat was as bad as the pain of the crushed limb. I ignored it, clawed my way through the water, wondering if I’d bleed to death or suffocate first—


A hand grabbed mine. I broke the surface of the dark churning water. I couldn’t catch my breath. “Don’t—don’t let go.”


“Mr. Hale? Sir, hold still! Stop thrashing.”


Sir? Who had me? I couldn’t see. I punched against him, struggling to get free, even as he swam me toward the banks underneath the boardwalk.


That’s where I was, right? Not on the pier outside the destroyed Procyon Foundation headquarters. Not drowning at the end of our fight against the Hedron of Orbits. Not cutting off my leg to stay alive.


“Easy. Sir.” Garvey dragged me onto the bank. “Mr. Hale. Can you hear me?”


“I … Yeah.” I wiped water from my face. Hands wouldn’t stop shaking. Heart couldn’t stop pounding. “The … fiend?”


“Gone, sir.” Garvey brushed mud off his nose. “But so are the Syndax guys—the ones not dead, that is.”


“Then we’ve got to—” I tried standing up, but my legs gave out. I collapsed, shuddering, my mind a jumble. “I can’t. I can’t.”


Garvey touched his earpiece. “Wilhelmina? Get the family clear and meet me at the truck. I’m calling for a medic.”


The rest of their exchange was a muddle of nonsense. I couldn’t get focused.


I was full-blown terrified.