Duke and Linc were leaning against the wall outside a small Chinese take-out engaged in idle chat while Skip swung around overhead, crawling around on the upper floors of the buildings with aimless and joyful abandon.
“Skip, man,” Duke called up to him, “do you think people appreciate you crawling across their windows?”
“It’s cool,” Skip replied. “I got a thumbs up from this couple having…”
“Hey, idiot,” an old woman poked her head out a window and shouted, “quit crawling on my windows. Are you stupid or something? I’m trying to watch my stories.”
“It’s nine at night. The soaps are over by noon.”
“Ever heard of DVR?”
“I’m surprised you have.”
“I’m calling the cops.”
“Alright, alright, ya old crone, I’m getting down,” Skip swung down to the street and slid to stop in front of Duke and Linc.
“Told ya,” Duke said.
“Think I got time to pick up some lo mein?” Skip rubbed his belly. “I got a powerful taste for some crab lo mein right now.”
“I don’t know. Eller’s crew was supposed to meet us here a half hour ago.”
“How do they get anything done?” Linc asked. “Always late, never plan anything.”
“When they do make a plan, they never follow it.”
“I’m getting some lo mein,” Skip grabbed the handle to the door of the shop.”
“Alright, creeps,” Cheryl called from down the block. “Let’s start some shit.”
“Well, look who showed up,” Linc called back.
“Psamurai tried to kick a Red Bull can down a storm drain and got his foot stuck,” Sophie said.
Hunter wobbled up behind them on one flip-flop.
“Where’s the big guy?” Duke asked.
“He should be here soon,” Sophie said.
“Mechanic,” Cheryl said into her wrist, “ETA?”
The whirring of servers filled the sky and grew closer. Carl soared down and crashed into the middle of the street, causing a pothole to widen.
“Does the city bill you for that?” Linc asked.
“It’s Philly,” Carl replied, “they don’t even notice.”
“So what’s the plan?” Linc asked.
“Plan?” Cheryl replied.
Linc glanced at Duke with ‘I-told-you-so’ eyes.
“Well they usually hit this place up for money about now,” Duke said. “We wait.”
“See?” Hunter said. “We had time.”
“We give them hard time until they retreat into one of their portals, then you guys hold it open long enough for us to follow them. Can you do that?”
“If it’s technical in origin I got it,” Cheryl said. “If it’s mystical she’s on it.”
“Been studying all day,” Sophie said.
“Well,” Duke said, “now we just wait for them. Smoke ‘em if you got ‘em.”
“Psamurai,” Linc said, “can I bum a cig?”
Hunter waved a vape pen, “Made the switch. The old lady’s trying to get me to quit.”
“Instead, now he sucks on that thing all day,” Sophie sighed.
“A cruel mistress,” Hunter said.
“Nicotine is a mother,” Linc said.
“Right, the nicotine.”
Sophie jabbed Hunter in the shoulder with her bow.
“Hey,” he yelped, “that’s my swinging arm.”
An hour later they were all sitting on the ground, leaning against the wall in a line. Hunter and Ian were hurling rocks and debris into a storm drain across the street. Sophie was napping against Hunter. Skip was playing solitaire. Duke and Cheryl were chatting about cars made before 1970 and Linc and Carl were arm wrestling.
“It’s ten o’clock,” Cheryl moaned. “Way past Sophie’s bedtime.”
“Mrph uff niph,” Sophie mumbled in her sleep.
“Are these guys gonna show?”
Laughing and carousing began to drift toward them from around the block.
“This could be them,” Duke said.
From around the corner emerge a gaggle of drunken college students.
“Jesus, it’s only ten o’clock,” Cheryl shouted at them. “Are you even old enough to drink?”
The students passed, unheeding when they were attacked by a group of Centipedes.
“Public drunkenness is forbidden by Lord Pulsifer,” a Centipede declared.
“How about a public ass-kicking,” Duke said floating toward them.
The rest of the gang hoisted themselves to their feet and followed. The Centipedes unhanded the drunken kids and walked to meet them.
“Hovy shid,” a student screamed, “Id Masurai.”
“Of course he would be your favorite,” Cheryl said.
“If it isn’t Duke Dracula back for more abuse,” a Centipede said.
“He had to bring a crew with him,” another said.
“I almost had your master,” Duke said.
“Yeah, but had to protect your boyfriend.”
“Rude,” Sophie yawned, rubbing her eyes.
“He’s not walking away this time,” Duke said.
“You’re not walking away this time,” a Centipede said.
“You set him up for that,” Cheryl said to Duke. “Never set them up for a zinger.”
“Kid thur addez,” a drunken student shouted.
“Would you kids get out of here,” Cheryl said. “Shit’s about to get messy.”
“We’re gonna make a mess out you,” a Centipede said.
“Now you’re setting them up,” Duke said to Cheryl.
Cheryl’s hands ignited in crackling, blue light. The melee started. Fists, blades, arcs of electricity, glinting flutes, and glowing arrows scattered in every direction. Windows broke, tires burst and bricks crumbled. Skip grappled himself up the side of a building and hoisted Sophie up behind him. They perched on a window ledge looking for a shot, but the scrum was too chaotic. Duke and Linc were knocking a Centipede back a forth between them. Cheryl grabbed the ones running for her, jolting them back. Hunter and Ian were enclosed by a circle, standing back to back, bashing and cutting, until Carl swept the legs out from under the attacks. A Centipede covered in bleeding slashes fell back and opened a portal.
“Oh,” Sophie chirped. “I’m on. Get me down there.”
Skip clung to the side of the building and Sophie climbed on his back.
“Hang on,” he said and let go
They plummeted several stories before shooting out a hook and slowing their fall. Right before they hit the ground Sophie jumped off and ran toward the portal. The Centipedes filed through and disappeared inside. The last was inside holding the portal open until all of his comrades were safe inside.
Cheryl and Sophie stood on either side of the portal. It began to close. Cheryl held out a device that looked like a box with a stick protruding from the end. The stick was wrapped with a thick, coiled wire. The portal continued to close.
“This isn’t working,” Cheryl said. “You’re up, Priest.”
Sophie began to mumble an incantation in an incomprehensible language, waving her hand in a circle, her palms facing the portal. It shrunk further.
“I thought you practiced this,” Cheryl said.
“I said I studied it. Did you see any portals I could have possibly practiced on?” Sophie protested.
“Keep going,” Cheryl twiddled the device. The portal stopped closing. “What do you know? It was a little of both. Everybody in.”
“Unto the breach,” Skip said, “literally.”
“Get the hell in,” Cheryl shouted.
Skip jumped in followed by Duke and Linc. Ian ran through. Cheryl set the device on the ground and followed. Sophie through her arms wide and darted in after her. Carl poked his top half in and became wedged.
“Uh, Cher,” Carl said, “I’m stuck.”
“Why don’t you wait behind,” she said.
He wiggled, but couldn’t pull himself loose. He gave Cheryl a sheepish grin.
“Oh for fuck’s sake,” she sighed, “Piper, help me pull him in. The rest of you follow them.”
Cheryl and Ian yanked on Carl’s arms. Hunter rammed himself against Carl’s rear, trying to wedge him through.
“Get in, you fat bastard,” Hunter grunted. Hunter waved the drunken kids over. “Can you junior lushes give me a hand?”
The kids ran over pushed on Carl’s legs. With a pop that sounded like a suction cup pulled off a pane of grass, Carl tumbled into the portal.
“Thanks, kids,” Hunter said. “Stay in school.” He let out a loud giggle. “I’m just kidding.”
“Dude?” a student said. “Selfie?”
“Why the hell not?” Hunter said the kids gathered around him and snapped a shot on their phones.
The portal snapped closed behind them. Hunter stared at the space where the portal once was. Hunter turned a took a long drag from his vape pipe.
“So,” he said through a cloud of vapor, “you little bastards wanna party?”
The students cheered.
Sophie and Duke chased after the Centipede who ushered his brothers through the portal down a long red hallway. Linc and Skip followed behind but were cut off a door rotated in front of them like it was the spoke of a pinwheel. Linc opened the door and on the other side was a small room filled with bookshelves.
“That is trippy as balls,” Skip said.
A hallway lined with candelabras opened up to their right. They proceeded down it.
“Idiot,” Cheryl grumbled as the portal shut, locking out Hunter.
Cheryl, Carl, and Ian turned to follow the others. The room they were in was not the same. A wall with a fireplace stood before them. The wallpaper was red and covered in velvet floral patterns. Gold molding lined the walls at the floor and ceiling. The floors were a dark wood and covered in elaborate throw rugs. The furniture was antique and covered in thick, ornate upholstery. A crystal chandelier hung low and walls were lined with gilded candleholders.
“Victorian shit gives me nightmares,” Cheryl said.
Duke and Sophie pursued the Centipede down a long hall that seemed endless. As they followed the hall began to wind and curve off at odd angles. Duke bounced off the wall at each unexpected turn. The Centipede reached a large wooden double door. As he grabbed the knob Sophie drew her bow and fired. Her arrow pierced a burning hole through the Centipede’s hand. He hollered and gripped his hand. Duke grabbed him by the throat and pinned him to the floor.
“Where’s Pulsifer?” Duke growled.
The Centipede bit down. He foamed at the mouth and expired.
“Poison tooth?” Sophie said. “These guys watch a lot of TV.”
Linc and Skip came to the end of the hall.
“Dead end,” Skip said.
“Hey, guys,” Sophie said.
They turned toward her voice. The dead end was now an open door.
“This house is weird,” Linc said.
“It’s magic,” Sophie said. “It’s trying to get us lost.”
“Did you kill that guy?”
“He poisoned himself.”
“Well, shit son,” Linc placed his hand on the dead Centipede and collapsed.
The dead Centipede sat up and stretched out his joints.
“Nice and fresh. Mint condition,” Linc said stretching out his new, prodigious muscles. He looked at Sophie through the hole in his hand. “Near mint.”
“Sorry,” she shrugged with a sheepish grin.
They turned to go back through the door, but instead of the long red hall, there was now a large marble room. Sophie closed the door and opened it again. On the other side was a wall.
“I got this,” Duke said and walked into the wall, bouncing his head off of it. He staggered back and rubbed his forehead.
“What was that?” Linc asked.
“I assumed it was an illusion.”
“I brought cold compresses if you need one,” Sophie said.
She closed the door again and reopened it. This time there was a small room filled with antique circus memorabilia.
“Creepy,” she closed the door and opened it.
Now there was a dark corridor lined with paintings of strange people. Each painting had a single candle in front of it, casting an eerie yellow light on them.
“Still creepy, but better,” she said. “Quick go in before it changes again.”
“Priest?” Cheryl said into her cuff. “Priestess? Soph, did you forget your codename again?”
“Comms aren’t working in here,” Ian said.
“I got that.”
“What should we do?”