I found myself standing on the shore of a lake, at the edge of a great pine forest. The shoreline was covered in large rocks, boulders worn smooth by countless years of wind and water. The sun was setting over the lake, turning the sky into a brilliant tapestry of red, yellow, and violet. I walked over to one of the larger rocks, climbed on top of it, and sat down to watch the sun set. It was the most beautiful sunset I’d ever seen.
“Hello Stephen.” I whirled around as I heard the deep bass voice that I would know anywhere. There, standing before me, was Dr. Thomas Bryson. He looked exactly how I remembered him, with his thick wire-rimmed glasses and his slowly-receding hairline. He was wearing the red flannel shirt, jeans, and jean jacket that had been his preferred leisure wear. I couldn’t believe it. Dr. Bryson had been the pastor of my church from the time I was a baby. His family and mine had become very good friends soon after my parents had joined his church. He and I had become especially close over the years, eventually becoming something between father/son and older brother/younger brother. He’d been one of my closest, dearest friends.
He’d also died of a heart attack when I was 15.
“Doctor Bryson?” I said, unable to mask my disbelief. He nodded, his infections smile spread across his face. “How are you here?” I asked, “You’re… oh… oh my…” the lightbulb finally clicked on “I… I’m dead, aren’t I? Is this… heaven?”
“No, Stephen,” he said with that deep laugh of his, “This isn’t heaven. Don’t worry, you’re not dead,” he added quickly upon seeing my horrified expression, “We’re inside your mind.”
“Inside my… how are you doing that?”
“It’s, um, it’s a bit complicated,” he said, “difficult for me to explain.”
“Uh, okay,” I replied, “So… what are you doing here, inside my head? I mean, why are you here?”
“I’m here to warn you, Stephen,” he said, his voice suddenly turning grave, “Be careful. Things are not as they appear.”
“Yeah, no kidding,” I replied, “You’re not going to believe this: all those monsters from the really bad horror movies, well, they’re real.”
“Creations of the Evil One,” Dr. Bryson said with a nod, “and now you’ve chosen to hunt them.”
“Yeah, uh, yes, I have,” I said. “Don’t think I’m doing a very good job, though.”
“You’ve done better than most,” he said, “but that brings me back to my warning; something is coming.”
“What?” I asked.
“A threat, against you and your Team,” he replied, his voice grave, “but it will not be what it will appear to be.”
“What does that mean?” I asked. “What is this threat? And why won’t it be as it appears? What will it really be?”
“I can’t tell you, Stephen,” he said sadly, “I want to, believe me when I say that I want to tell you, but I can’t.”
“What?” I asked, suddenly angry at my former mentor, “Why not?”
“It’s… complicated,” he said, “There are rules. We’re not allowed to tell you anything that can compromise your free will.”
“So… what? You’re telling me that you can’t tell me what’s coming because doing so would impact any choice I’ll make in response to it?”
“Essentially, yes,” he said, “Which reminds me; when this threat finally manifests itself and you realize its true nature, you will eventually find yourself forced to make a choice.”
“What choice?” I asked, then caught myself, “Nevermind, you can’t tell me.
“No,” he said, “I can’t. I can tell you that it will be a life-or-death decision, and that you will have to choose between two lives.”
“What? I… I don’t… I don’t think… uh, I don’t know if I’ll be able to do that, Doctor Bryson.” I said at last. This was probably the last thing I ever wanted someone to tell me. “Can’t I try and save both?”
“You won’t have that luxury,” he said sadly, “Though I can tell you that no matter which life you chose to save, that person will be saved.”
“That’s… good, I guess,” I said after a long moment of reliving some very unpleasant memories. “I guess I can accept that.”
“That’s good,” he said.
“But the… the other person, they’ll die, right?”
“I’m afraid so,” he said somberly, “In all likelihood, that person will die. And now I’m sorry Stephen, but I have to leave.”
“What? No!” I asked. I hadn’t been able to talk to him in almost ten years; I didn’t want him to leave now. “Why do you have to go?”
“Because you need to wake up,” he said with that impish grin he got whenever he was making a joke.
“Oh, right. Uh, look, before you do go, there’s something I need to say. I’m really sorry I never told you about me liking James Bond.”
“Oh, that?” he asked. “That’s perfectly alright. In fact, I don’t blame you.”
“Think about it Stephen; I was your pastor, did you really want to tell me you like a character who kills people, sleeps with women he’s not married to, steals things, and lies about who he is? That’s four of the Commandments right there. I’m sure if we put our heads together long enough, we could come up with ways he’s broken the other six. Oh, and you’re right; I think I would have liked this Craig fellow’s portrayal of Double-Oh Seven.”
“Thanks,” I said with a smile.
“Though I must say, I’m not sure how I feel about you turning into a paranoid right-wing gun nut on me,” he continued. I opened my mouth to protest, only to see that impish grin of his return. “Goodbye, Stephen,” he said, as his figure slowly began to fade away. “Oh, when you wake up, tell the paramedics that your head, neck, and back are fine.”
“I know how much you love hospitals,” he said as disappeared completely, “I thought I’d do you a favor and spare you an unneeded trip.”
A moment later, the sun finally descended below the horizon. Then my world was filled with pain as bright light exploded in my eyes.
I was laying on my back atop something hard. My head felt like someone had just used it as a tapdancing stage. “Woah, woah, easy there,” I heard someone say, “Don’t try and move, just take it easy.” I opened my eyes to a blurry mess. I could see people standing over me, but I didn’t recognize the voices. I blinked a few times to clear my vision and tried to sit up. Someone immediately grabbed my shoulders and eased me back down.
“Hey, lemme go,” I said to the blurry figures above me, who quickly resolved into a pair of EMTs.
“Not so fast, buddy,” one of them said, “You hit your head pretty good back there, what with you trying to play human pinball and using a truck as a bumper. We don’t think you’re neck’s broken, but we’re gonna take you to the ER for some x-rays just to make sure.”
“I’m fine,” I said, “Let me up.”
“No can do, friend,” the second EMT replied, “You’re going to the hospital.”
“The hell I am,” I exclaimed, “Get me one of those AMA discharge forms for me to sign.”
“Hey, either that or you’ll be hearing from my lawyers.” I didn’t actually have a lawyer, but they didn’t need to know that. The two EMTs exchanged worried glances before one of them got up, walked over to where I assumed the ambulance was, and returned with a clipboard and a pen. They wouldn’t let me so much as stand up until I signed the forms. I slowly rose to my feet, only to nearly fall over as a wave of dizziness and nausea slammed into me like a rogue wave. Fortunately, I was able to stay up, because I knew that if I went down the EMTs would override me and bundle me off the ER faster than you could say “timber!”
The sensation passed after a minute or so, and I looked around at the aftermath of the wight attack. Surprisingly, there were no bodies; only smoking puddles of black liquid. It took me a second to remember that wights melted after they were killed. It took me another couple of seconds to spot the rest of the team. When I did, I let out a long groan, because with them were none other than…
“Agents Willard and Simpkin, how nice to see you two again,” I said as I approached, a fake smile plastered across my face.
“Andrews!” Willard exclaimed. “What the hell are you doing here? Please don’t tell me you’re working for these scofflaws.”
“Hey,” Dominique objected, “We’re a legitimate organization; everything that happened here tonight was perfectly legal.”
“For now,” Willard spat at her, “If it were up to me, every single one of you so-called Hunters would be thrown behind bars for the rest of your worthless lives. Civilians should have no place Hunting.”
“Yeah, about that,” Chris said, “remind me again, how badly did Monster attack rates go up during those six years you were able to shut us down? Something like three thousand percent, wasn’t it?” Willard’s face suddenly turned an unflattering shade of crimson.
“One day,” he snarled, “one day you’re all going to make another big mistake, and when you do, I’ll be laughing my head off as I toss you into your cells.” Through the entire conversation, I noticed Simpkin just stood in the background, shifting uncomfortably on his heels.
“In your dreams, Willard,” Dominique retorted, “We’ll be sending you the PUFF paperwork for these guys by the end of the week. Are we cool here?”
“Oh, yeah, we’re real cool,” Willard growled, then he turned to me. “You’d better watch your back, Andrews. Your ass is gonna be mine one day, I promise you.
“Thanks for the offer, Willard, but I don’t roll that way,” I replied. That earned a collective snort from the rest of the team and, to my surprise, Simpkin. Willard immediately shot his subordinate a glare that, if looks could kill, would probably have vaporized the unfortunate agent. He then spun on his heels and stormed off to the drab-looking Crown Victoria parked at the edge of the lot. We all watched them go for a minute, then everyone slowly moved back towards their respective vehicles to put away their weapons.
“So,” Odette said to me, “You okay?”
“Yeah, I’m fine,” I replied, “What happened?”
“What’s the last thing you remember?” she asked.
“Uh… me yelling at you to look out for the wight, knocking you out of the way, flying through the air, and that’s it.”
“The wight hit you,” she said, “it sent you flying about twenty feet until you hit a Chevy Suburban and were knocked out. Are you sure you’re okay? You left a pretty big dent in the door.”
“Yeah, I’m fine,” I replied, “How about you, are you all right?”
“Yeah, thanks to you,” she said, “I could’ve gotten him, you know.”
“Probably,” I admitted.
“So why did you do it?”
“Why’d you knock me out of the way if I could’ve gotten him?”
“I… I don’t know,” I admitted. “I wasn’t thinking, I just saw you in trouble and I acted.”
“And almost got yourself killed,” she pointed out.
“Hey, you’re worth it.” She stopped in her tracks and gave me a look of absolute disbelief. I mentally kicked myself. Why did I always have to go and say really stupid things to her?
“Hey Steve!” Scotty’s shout allowed me to quickly remove my shoes from my mouth. “Figured you want this back.” He was carrying my FAL. “Oh, man, that is a sweet gun!” He exclaimed. He was practically drooling over the thing. “Did you see what it did to that one wight? Absolute devastation, man! Pure, absolute devastation!”
“Uh, thanks,” I said. Odette took that moment to say a quick goodbye and head back to the diner before I could say anything.
“So, uh, Scotty, I noticed, uh, are those Schofields?” I asked, indicating the revolvers strapped to his hips.
“Yep,” he replied. “Well, not really; they’re actually replicas made by Uberti. .45 Long Colt.”
“Nice, but aren’t they, I dunno… a little unusual? I mean, I figured that all Hunters roll with .45 autos.”
“Well, yeah, most do” he admitted, “but thing is, I was into Cowboy Action Shooting ‘fore I started hunting. Schofield Scotty, they used to call me,” he said as his face began to glow with pride. “First and thus far only SASS member to win a National Championship with Schofields.”
“Cool, that’s really cool. But, uh, how do you reload them? When you’re under fire, I mean? Or attack or whatever you want to call it?” Scotty just smiled, reached into his pocket, and pulled out a small round gizmo with a half-dozen bullets sticking out of one end.
“Speedloaders,” he explained. “Friend of mine cooked ‘em up especially for my Schofields.”
“Are those silver PowR Balls?” I asked, “I thought they only came in .45 ACP.”
“Normally they do, but I special-order just the bullets from our supplier, load ‘em into the Long Colt casings myself.”
“Hey, Hunters!” A shout from the restaurant door grabbed everyone’s attention. It was Mike; he was standing in the doorway, an Ingram M10 submachine gun with a big silencer screwed over the barrel slung under his right shoulder, “Y’all want to come finish eating?” he asked, “Not that I mind or anything, but your food’s getting cold!”
By the time it was all said and done, it was long after midnight by the time we got to MHI’s Northeast Headquarters. The place was very similar to the Alabama compound, only significantly smaller. Fitting, since there were only seven of us instead of over seventy. The one big difference was that while the Alabama compound had dormitory-style housing, Scranton had small houses for each team member. They weren’t much; little single story affairs with a living room, bedroom, kitchen, and full bath, but they looked plenty comfortable for their size. Truth be told, I couldn’t care less at the moment; by the time Dominique showed me to my place, I had just enough energy to walk into the bedroom, strip down to my skivvies, and flop onto the bed. I didn’t even care that it was unmade.
That night, I had the strangest dream. I was in Philadelphia, running down the Benjamin Franklin Parkway. Corpses littered the road; some of them looked like they’d been shot, some looked half-eaten. Most look like they’d suffered through both. I was wearing my armor, which was laden down with weaponry; my FAL was in my hands, my full-sized P220 was in a drop-leg holster below my right hip, while its smaller brother rode horizontally in a holster at the small of my back. My Mossberg and Wakazashi were crossed over my back; the Katana hung in a scabbard on my left hip. My Kel-Tec PF-9 was strapped inside my right ankle, and my armor was covered in spare magazines and sharpened oak stakes.
I was chasing something. It was an enormously huge creature, flying through the air on great bat-like wings. A gargoyle, I realized. There was something clutched in its talons. The great beast accelerated, diving towards and then through the Art Museum’s roof. I charged up the Rocky Steps and through the front door. Raising the FAL to my shoulder, I began to slowly make my way up the main staircase. I eventually found myself in the Arms and Armor display.
There was a man there. His very presence exuded evil. I raised my rifle and dumped the magazine into him as fast as I could pull the trigger. He barely flinched. I dropped the FAL, pulled the Mossberg from its scabbard, and pumped 144 pellets of silver double-aught buckshot into him in less than three seconds. He hardly reacted to it. I drew my pistols one by one, emptying each one of them into the man, but yet again he stood there, the bullets seemingly having no effect on him. I drew my blades and charged him. A sword with a basket hilt, all black, suddenly appeared in his hands and he effortlessly swatted my blades aside. I swung at him again and again, every time he either skillfully sidestepped me or parried my strikes as fast as I could deliver them.
Without warning he struck, and pain raced up my leg as his blade tore into it. I collapsed to my knees as his blade descended again, plunging into my left arm. The wakazashi fell from my suddenly-numb hand, and I dropped the katana as I instinctively grabbed at my wounds. The man bent down, grabbed my hair, and painfully hauled me to my feet. One arm wrapped around me like a vice as he brought his blade to my throat. Through the roar of his malevolent laughter, I could hear Odette screaming my name.
I awoke with a start, sitting bolt upright in bed. My right leg was in the grip of the worst Charley horse I’d ever had, and my left hand was numb from me rolling onto it while I slept. As I tried desperately to both massage the feeling back into my fingers and unclench my calf muscles, I realized that there was someone knocking on my front door. It was Odette.
“Steve?” she called through the door, “Steve? Are you in there?”
“Yeah, I’m awake,” I called back. “Hang on one second.” I leapt out of bed and bit back a curse as pain raced back up my leg. I grimaced as I limped over to the door and started to undo the deadbolt when I realized I hadn’t secured it the night before. I must’ve been a lot more tired than I remembered. I muttered another curse under my breath and pulled the door open to find Odette standing there waiting for me. For some reason, her eyes grew as big as dinner plates when she saw me.
“Hey,” I said, “What’s up?”
“Huh? Oh, ah, we were just, ah, I mean, ah Shannon’s cooking everyone breakfast over in the cafeteria, in, uh, the main building. P…pancackes, eggs, and bacon.”
“Sounds great,” I said. I started to push the screen door open, but Odette abruptly reached out and slammed it back closed. “What?” I asked in surprise.
“Ah… well, uh, how can I put this?” she stammered, “Would… would you, ah, mind… maybe… putting pants on first?”
“What?” I looked down and discovered, to my complete and utter embarrassment, that I was clad only in a pair of boxer shorts. Even worse, they were the elephant-pattern ones my brother had gotten me for Christmas as a gag gift. “Aw jeeeez…” I said, “Odette, I am so sorry! Let me get dressed and I’ll meet you over there.” I raced back to my bedroom before she had a chance to say anything and yanked on a pair of cargo pants. Another minute or so of rummaging through my duffel bag yielded a shirt that wasn’t too horribly wrinkled, so I threw that on too. I fished my Timberlands out from under my bed, pulled them on and laced them, and hurried back to my front door. Odette was already gone, so I leaded over to the main building, making sure I locked my door before I left.
The cafeteria was basically a large room with a kitchen area on one side and a long table on the other I found Odette, Jon, Chris, and Scotty sitting around the table waiting for me while Shannon fussed over the stove. As I slid into the seat next to Odette, the table erupted with snickers.
“What?” I asked.
“You know Steve,” Jon said, “I knew you liked to wear your political affiliation on your sleeve, but isn’t that taking it a little too far?”
“Wha- you told them?” I asked Odette in disbelief.
“Sorry,” she said, trying, without much success, to hold back her laughter, “I just… I couldn’t help myself.”
“Oh, Lord,” I said with a groan, “I’m never gonna be able to live this down, am I?”
“Nope,” Scotty said with a wicked grin. Even the normally-impassive Chris was chuckling to himself.
“Come on guys, be nice to him,” Shannon said as she placed a heaping stack of pancakes in front of me. “It was an accident. Steve can wear whatever sort of trunks he likes.” The table dissolved into an uncontrollable fit of laughter when she said that. I wanted to just curl up under the table and die.
“Eat up quick,” we all turned around to see Dominique come striding quickly into the room, her face all business. “We’ve got a job.”
“Where and what?” Chris asked.
“Vermont. Werewolf sightings near Lake Dunmore.”
“Is this the same one we’ve been tracking for the last two months?” Jon asked.
“Probably,” Dominique replied.
“Just the one, right?”
“So far as we know, yeah, there’s only one, so we’ll leave the heavy equipment at home.”
“So…” Shannon said.
“Yes, Shannon, you can bring the Katera,” Dominque said with an exasperated smile.
“Yay!” Shannon squealed. Dominique just rolled her eyes; Chris and Jon followed suit.
“As I was saying, we should only need rifles, subguns, and shotties for this. No explosives. Sorry, Scotty,” Dominique gave the demo expert an apologetic look.
“Oh well,” he said, “I’ll just bring some FRAG-12s for the Benelli.”
“So, silver bullets,” Chris said. “We need anything else?”
“Yeah,” I said, “a couple industrial sized cans of bug spray.” At the rest of the team’s confused looks, I explained. “My family and I rented a cabin on Lake Dunmore for a week when I was in high school. The mosquitoes up there will eat you alive!”