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The Shape of Evil

Chapter Text

 

 

            There is fire.

            There are eyes.

            Deep, black, unforgiving pits of malice. They stare at three figures, three obsessions, three victims. One speaks.

            “Goodbye. . .”

            They say a name, but it’s not its name. It is for them and them alone, to help them comprehend, to title their foe. But to it, it means nothing.

            The flames rage, licking the basement interior with a surging dance of wrathful oranges and reds. The house is falling apart, consumed, a temple of sacrifice to purge the darkness within it. It stares through this makeshift prison until the figures leave, escape. Escape for now.

            No words. No defiant remark, no screams of anguish as the fire draws ever closer, consuming the tall silhouette. As the inferno grows, turning the house into a pillar of rage and loss, it only stares.

            The blaze devours all.

-*-

THE SHAPE OF EVIL

-*-

            There are some souls that cannot be saved, some that thrive on death and destruction. Some choose their modus operandi, some that relish in the blood they spill. Some refuse redemption. Some, out of desire, embrace their destiny of wickedness.

            And then there is evil.

            It stares through the dark. The fire has gone, long since consuming its body and tearing it away from the mortal coil. But the flesh did not yield, the body did not submit to death. It is driven by a will, a machination of the dark, a force to continue, to simply be. It is not that it is a man, or even a soul.

            It is evil in the shape of a man.

            It is not a choice, not a desire, but the choice, the desire.

            It is somewhere and nowhere, caught in a rift of darkness absolute where neither living nor dead things dwell. It is sustained only by a singular motive, lead by the harrowing path of obsession. Where death demands it end, the nature of evil sustains it. This place is not a place, everywhere and nowhere. Could it go forever? It is forever. Ending and endless, never broken but broken still.

The coalescence senses something, somewhere. A place, a location, a domain where things linger. Foul things, fetid souls of rotten sin, and like a beast The Shape hungers for them.

            There is darkness, there is fog, and there are eyes. A silhouette moves forward, uncertain of how long its journey will take. There is silence here, broken only by the dreadful rhythm of breathing.

            Heavy breathing.

            But, the air shivers. The fog trembles, undulates, ebbs and weaves into something else. There, in the infinite distance, a beacon appears, a terrible, mutant light pulling and scraping its way through oblivion. A scar of bright orange shredding its way into the fog like a hot blade, creating a wound. An opening. The Shape only senses, moves towards it. Beyond this opening, there is something. No, someone. Many things that pulse in a different domain.

            The evil given form knows it, recognizes what lies beyond. They are strangers, but not. It is drawn towards it, this portal. . .

            It shall hunt again.

            The shape transcends the fog, reaches into the doorway of light. The energy is ravenous, hungry, and to any other being or entity, dangerous. But the purified resonance of malice wills itself through it, bending the light around it, until it steps through. Steps into a world it does not know but does not need to know. All it needs is prey.

            It is no longer within the fog. It is in a place, surrounded by a family of devices and machines. It is within a structure, and within this damned fortress, there are victims.

        

-*-

 

            This wasn’t supposed to happen.

            This was supposed to be simple.

            Baxter ducked a stay arc of energy as it carved a molten orange scar up the wall behind him. The machine shrieked and roared, the floor shook as the power rocked the sturdy metal bracings. Baxter shielded his eyes from the star-bright mass of writhing quintessence before him, the blood of existence itself as fabric between worlds was rent asunder by his meddling.

            It was times like this that he felt the most like God.

            But there, in the light, he saw something. A mass of motionless black. The kind of black that suggests not merely the absence of light, but its death.

            An abyss.

            A void.

            A Shape.

            For one awful moment, he saw it turn, felt its presence, felt its stare.

            A shrill keening cut the air like a knife and the portal collapsed, replaced only with a low thrum of a perfectly copacetic machine. Baxter might have heard what sounded like footsteps in the dissipating din, but if he did he paid it no mind. He reached into his pocket and produced one of these new-fangled ‘smartphones’ the more recent denizens were all up in arms about. He navigated the surprisingly intuitive interface with aplomb; no device was beyond his reckoning. The network selected, the password accepted, and this marvel of the modern world was his to exploit… and, by extension, the Hotel’s as well.

            “Ah,” muttered Baxter, the Wikipedia homepage appearing on the screen. “Wi-Fi.”

 -*-

 

            “Uh, hello everyone. My name is Vespa.”

            “Hello, Vespa,” replied the loose circle of seated demons.

            The demoness was of a smallish sort, with shoulder-length brown hair and blue eyes. Compared to the surrounding menagerie, her small serrated teeth, pointed ears, and painted red claws seemed positively mundane. “I’m here because I’m damned, I guess, and I want to get better. Yeah.”

            As she moved to sit down a robust demon in a leather jacket snorted and snapped his fingers, his general appearance a winsome compromise between a wolf and a crocodile, atop his head was a slick blonde pompadour. “Deets, darlin’! This ain’t detention, y’came here for a reason.”

            “Yeah,” said the busty, scantily-clad gorgon on his lap, her snake-tail arms coiled about her lover’s bull-neck and rippling shoulders. “Tell us why you’re here!”

            “Same reason you are, Chad!” Another demon in the circle cried, he was a short-ish fish-demon, closest in appearance to a catfish or some other sort of bottom-feeder, his thin, receding blonde hair combed to one side in an over-enthusiastic part. “‘Cause it’s Halloween and this place is a safe hideout!”

            “I don’t hide from nothin’, fish!” Chad snarled. “And I meant why’s she in the Bad End!”

            “Why do you need to know?” The fish-demon said, pushing his horn-rimmed glasses up his noseless snout, very obviously trying to keep his voice even. “You’re making her uncomfortable!”

            “It’s, like, the point of this circle, Krelboyne,” said a tall, thin cockroach-demon, the bag of potato chips in his greasy claws rustled as he dug about in it. “This is, like, an AA meeting or whatever, dude. We hash out our bads and focus on the goods. Right, Charlie?”

            At the head of the circle was a pale, blonde-haired young woman, in her hands was a notepad and pen as she scribbled away. Charlie looked up at the mention of her name and smiled. “Yes Roach, that’s right. But, if doing so is a source of discomfort, no one’s going to force you to tell. This is a healing circle, we’re all here to create a supportive atmosphere and help each other. Vespa, you don’t have to say anything that will make you feel uncomfortable.”

            “No, no,” said Vespa, shaking her head. “I want to. It’s just… suicide, okay? I, uh, I committed suicide. That’s a sin or something, right? So, uh, that’s why I’m here.”

            “Why’d you off yourself, doll?” Chad said, chuckling. “Get an A- on the big math test or somethin’?”

            “That’s a totally inappropriate question!” Krelboyne interjected, turning to Vespa. “That’s your own business. You’re doing really well!”

            “Ooh! Check out Mr. Chivalry here!” Chad scoffed in disgust. “Alright, Sir Lance-A-Twat, tell me this; why’re you here? Let your fair maid know what kinda shit you pulled.”

            “Uh, s-suicide, like Vespa,” Krelboyne muttered, eyes shifting to the floor. “Just like, yeah, suicide. I had depression and, like, really bad skin problems so-so, uh…”

            “Check out Romeo and Juliet over here, Stacy!” Chad laughed to the demoness in his lap, caressing her shapely rump. “Star-crossed lovers if ever I saw ‘em!”

            “Real romantic!” Stacy crooned, tracing his jaw with a finger. “Just like us, babe.”

            “O-oh yeah?” Krelboyne said, jabbing a finger at Chad and Stacy. “Well, what did you two do? Rob a convenience store on your way to an Elvis concert?”

            “Invoke the King’s name in vain at your own peril, good buddy,” Chad growled.

            “It was a Johnny Cash concert, actually,” Stacy chimed in. “And it was a gas station.”

            “Some pump-monkey got fresh with my Baby, so I brained him with a jerry can ‘till his cap popped off.”

            “It was hot,” Stacy hissed, pulling herself closer to him. “After that we just sort of, well, went on a bit of a tear through Southern California. The cops pinned us down in pumphouse outside San Diego and we went out in a blaze of bullets and blood!”

            “My Baby here plugged herself three pigs,” said Chad, nuzzling under her chin. “All told, we merced twenty-five people and five pigs in three days. That might have somethin’ to do with us bein’ down here. That and an unpaid parking ticket.”

            Stacy laughed and peppered his snout with kisses from her snake hair. “My man’s a rebel!”

            “I got whacked by some Cartel dudes in LA for not paying my dues,” said Roach, dejectedly looking into his empty bag of chips. “That, and I was a pimp for ‘em too. Like, literally.”

            “You’re all disgusting!” Krelboyne exclaimed, throwing his hands up. “The only ones here who aren’t complete scumbags is Mikey and Vespa!”

            The enormous demon at the far side of the circle looked up at his name, his long hair spilling down over his masked face and shoulders, in his brutal hands a delicate papier-mâché mask.

            “For all you know, Mikey here’s the worst of alla us!” Chad said, summoning a cigarette butt and flicking it at the mountainous masked demon. “Not that we’d ever hear it, since the retard never speaks!”

            Charlie set her pen down on the notepad with a resounding crack and locked the greaser with a withering stare. “Chad.”

            Chad flinched back and faltered. “Uh…”

            “Hey,” Stacy whispered into his ear, glaring back at Charlie. “You gonna let her talk to you like that?”

            “Stacy.” Charlie’s voice dropped an almost imperceptible fraction, but the effect could be felt in the air, a precipitous drop in temperature. “Stop escalating. Chad, do you have something to say?”

            The greaser demon fidgeted and ran a hand over his pompadour. “Uh… sorry.”

            “Not to me.”

            “But he’s not gonna–”

            “Chad.”

            “Mikey.” He turned to the hulking demon hunched over the mask in his lap, carefully applying paint. “Sorry ‘bout the R-word.”

            If Mikey heard he gave no indication, painting the mask with slow, delicate strokes of the brush.

            “Great talk, big guy,” Chad grumbled, turning back to Charlie. “See? We hashed it out, peaceful-like.”

            “Very good, Chad,” said Charlie, turning to Krelboyne. “While I like that you’re so dedicated to, er, defending Vespa, I’m going to have ask you to tone down the negativity. Roach is right, we need to air out our sins in a judgement-free environment so we can all move on, okay?”

            Krelboyne looked crestfallen, hunching his shoulders like a scolded pet. “But–”

            “Okay.” Charlie turned to look at Mikey, a warm smile on her face. “What are you working on there, Mikey?”

            The giant grunted happily and presented the mask to the group, it was a slightly horrific red and white clown mask with dark, empty eyeholes. Charlie smiled warmly and clapped her hands. “Very good, Mikey.”

            Mikey hooted and handed the mask to Charlie, who took it and turned it over in her hands and smiled, admiring the craftsmanship.

            Vespa leaned over and whispered to Krelboyne. “Is he making masks because it's Halloween or what?”

            “I think he just always makes them.”

            “Have something to share, you two?” Charlie asked, pointedly.

            Krelboyne flinched as though he’d been slapped. “J-just that Mikey makes masks all the time, n-not just on Halloween, Miss Magne.”

            Charlie cocked her head. “What does Halloween have to do with masks?”

            Krelboyne and Vespa exchanged looks. “Uh, like, everything? Or, it’s like a big part of it. You’ve never…?”

            “Well, I know what Halloween is,” said Charlie, spinning her pen in her fingers. “Just, you know, never participated. All the drugs and murder… not my style.”

            Roach laughed and summoned another bag of munchies. “Hahahaha… like, uh, Halloween isn’t about, like, murder and fuckin’. I mean, here it is, but up on Earth it’s, like, a holiday?”

            Charlie looked around the group for confirmation. “Really?”

            “Well yeah,” Chad said. “Up there kids dress up like monsters and ghosts and people from the movies. Then they run around their neighborhoods, goin’ door to door with pillowcases and get candy.”

            “Adults play dress-up, too,” Stacy cooed, tracing Chad’s jawline. “And have a good time while the kids roam~”

            “Real good time!” Chad chuckled, licking her cheek slowly. “Remember when you wore that nurse costume?”

            Chad and Stacy went off in their own lurid little world, Krelboyne sneered and turned back to Charlie. “Yeah, up there, Halloween is a fun holiday with costume parties, candy, and holiday specials from all your favorite shows. Down here, the local demon lords just withdraw all their protection for a night and day to see who dies.”

            “Costume… parties?” Charlie’s eyes shone, a little smile on her face. “Kids? Holiday? Specials? CANDY?”

            “In any order, I guess, but yeah,” said Krelboyne, a small smile on his face. “You’ve honestly never celebrated Halloween?”

            “I have, obviously!” Charlie gestured to all the heavy steel blast doors over the windows and exits. “But only down here. I’ve never tried an Earth-style Halloween before, though!”

            “Maybe we could give that a try?” Vespa ventured, turning to look at all the other members of the circle. “While we hunker in this bunker, maybe we could have a non-murderous Halloween for once?”

            “Say, now…” said Chad, rubbing his lantern jaw. “That ain’t a half-bad idea!”

            Stacy nodded, a sharp crescent grin on her face. “Get some punch, spike it, and we all dress up nice and slutty!”

            “With a big bowl of candy and chips!” Roach exclaimed. “Get some nugs up in this bitch!”

            Charlie shot to her feet, stars in her eyes. “We could have a great big party! With music! And costumes! And dancing! And CANDY!”

            “We’ll need some tunes, though,” Krelboyne grimaced. “And the only holiday music for Halloween down here are literally demons singing about who they killed last year, and who’s next this year.”

            The door flew open and in walked Baxter, followed closely by Angel, who was trying to look at something over the neurotic little anglerfish’s shoulder. “C’mon! Lemme see!”

            “I’ll have you know, I am a scientist!” Baxter said with a grandiose gesture. “I cannot, in good conscience, inflict such needless cruelty.”

            Angel looked crestfallen. “Whadaya talkin’ about? Cruel? What’s cruel?”

            “Inflicting you on a helpless Earth, for one!”

            “Baxter, Angel,” Charlie called out to them. “Good of you to join us! We’re planning a party!”

            “A party?” Angel perked up, skeptical. “Like, what, this a team-building party or something lame like that? A friendship festival? A, uh, a…”

            “A buddy bash?” Vespa offered.

            “Yeah! Good one, Bran Flakes!”

            “More like a simpleton soiree,” Baxter sneered, walking into the circle and holding his phone aloft. “Behold! The internet!”

            “Isn’t that the stuff they put in swim shorts?” Angel asked, snatching Roach’s bag of Funyuns.

            Roach boggled at his empty hands for a few seconds. “…Hey.”

            “No, it’s similar to the aethernet down here, only it has non-pornographic content as well.”

            Angel scoffed and threw up his hands. “Then what’s the fuckin’ point?!”

            “The point, you imbecile, is that the hotel now has Wi-Fi!” Baxter cackled in triumph. “I’m a genius!”

            “We already had Wi-Fi, Baxter,” Charlie said, examining the phone.

            “Yes, well, this Wi-Fi is free!” Baxter tapped on the screen for a moment before turning it back to the circle, showing a rotund blonde-haired man in a suit standing behind a podium, laboriously and soundlessly enunciating every word. “Also, it’s from Earth.”

            The demons crowded in around the diminutive angler-demon. “What?!”

            “Aaah!” Baxter squeaked in disgust. “Close! Too close! Personal bubble, you filth! Respect my personal bubble!”

            “You got a signal from Earth?! Vespa exclaimed, her blue eyes wide. “What? How?”

            “I built a machine that creates micro-fissures in the fabric of reality,” said Baxter, matter-of-fact. “We can now both send and receive signals from Earth. Specifically, Illinois, for some reason.”

            “You opened a two-way channel to Earth, like, the actual, physical Earth…” Roach said, stunned. “For Wi-Fi?”

            “For SCIENCE!” Baxter cried, hands raised in triumph. “Also, the fish over there whinged at length about ‘wiki rabbit holes’ and… ah, I can’t think of more stimulating pastime!”

            “I don’t whinge…” Krelboyne grumbled.

            Charlie pulled out her phone, thumbed in the password and squealed with joy. “Baxter, this is incredible! Now we’ll be able to pull off this Halloween party without a hitch!”

            “Halloween party?” Angel grinned widely. “Fuck yeah, Chuck! I knew ya’d finally let us have a bit ‘a fun ‘round here! Who’re we mercin’?”

            “No no,” Charlie said, chuckling. “An Earth-style Halloween party! With costumes and candy and absolutely no murder whatsoever!”

            “Oh,” said Angel, dejected. “Can I still dress slutty?”

            “Yeah, sure.” Charlie rolled her eyes but was unable to contain her enthusiasm for long. “Oh! This’ll be so much fun!”

 -*-

            Vaggie strolled up the hallway, checkboard in hand. It was her duty to check and make sure all the blast doors and shutters were activated for the night. The sounds of gunfire, explosions, and screams were muffled but noticeable when standing near the articulated steel window shutters. Vaggie grimaced, things were getting really heated out there.

            “All the more reason to polish off this list,” Vaggie said, aloud, to no-one in particular.

            She had started from the top down, and here in the west wing on the main floor, she was nearing the end of her patrol. Every blast door, shutter, and alarm were working perfectly.

            The hotel was secure.

            She scratched off the last check, a satisfied sigh escaping her lips. Now she could get back to the million other things she needed to do in order to keep this heap from collapsing. Vaggie moved to head back towards the foyer when she saw it. At the far end of the hallway was… something. It was standing right around the corner, in one of the long shadows cast by the deeply-nested lights overhead. She thought she saw a leg, perhaps even a hand hanging next to a hip, but at the same time it could just as easily be a small table with a decorative plant on it. Vaggie squinted and started down the hallway.

            “Hey,” she said, not sure what to make of the sudden feeling of dread that sat heavy in her gut: someone was there. Something. “Hey, who is that? The support circle is in session, you’re not supposed to be out here.”

            It didn’t move, whatever it was.

            “Hey! Did you hear me? Get back to the event center!”

            Nothing.

            Vaggie felt an uncharacteristic flush as cold sweat beaded on her brow; her line of work in life had lent her a sort of sixth sense for sniffing out sketchiness, and something about this shape in the shadows was setting her teeth on edge.

            Before she could take another step, a tiny hand pulled on her dress. Vaggie spun around with a rather undignified sound to see Nifty standing there, grinning.

            “Hey Vaggie!” Nifty chirruped, oblivious to Vaggie’s obvious nerves. “You done with the security thing?”

            “Yeah, I was just talking to…” she turned to look back down the hall. In that same dark corner was the now very distinct outline of a table and a potted plant; was that all it ever was? She couldn’t remember any features, just a… shape. “…Myself?”

            “Ha ha! That’s not weird at all!” Nifty said, giggling. “Whatever. Stop being crazy and give me a hand. Charlie’s throwing a great big party!”

            Vaggie sighed and rolled her eyes. “For what? Halloween?”

            “Yeah!” Nifty grabbed Vaggie’s hand and led her down the hall. “C’mon! We got a big ol’ room to decorate!”

            Vaggie looked back over her shoulder, to the corner: nothing.

-*-

            As the two demonesses disappeared around the corner, something stirred in the shadows, something without form, but not without Shape. The sound of slow, heavy breathing broke the silence as it turned away and vanished back into the darkness.

Chapter Text

The Shape of Evil – Part II

“There, perfect!”

Charlie, wearing a grin most pleased, set aside the final piece of her décor for the incoming celebration. A green, striped watermelon resided next to a family of its carved brethren, all of which wore a sprawl of different faces and features. Each was cored and relieved of its interior, replaced by lonesome candles as they glowed an ominous orange, giving the cut fruit a strange, but enchanting, appearance.

She pressed her hands to hips, offering a proud huff. That was the last of them! Behind her, the living quarters – and much of the Hotel – were also dressed for the occasion. Cobwebs, lights, plastic spiders, ghosts and melons all inhabited parts of the building, transforming the interior into something festive and appropriate. All that was left was the candy!

“Ey, Chuck.”

A familiar New Yorkian accent caught her attention. Angel Dust was staring at her and the décor, fighting back a whirlwind of laughter.

“Ya know those ain’t s’posed to be melons, right?”

Charlie turned, looking at the salacious spider, head tilted. “What do you mean, Angel? They’re Jack-o-Melons! Just like the ones Up Above!”

Angel coughed into his gloved fist, snorting. “Bwahah. Y-yeh. Right. Melons.

Charlie didn’t see what was so funny. Maybe the melons were doing just as they should! Angel was happy, after all. She noted, too, a bundle of clothes at his side.

“What’ve you got there?” she said with a gesture. Angel straightened, clearing his throat.

“Oh, dis?” he said, splaying it out before him, a fabric that was. . . skimpy.

“Costume.”

Charlie blinked. “O-oh. It’s um. Well. It’s a little revealing, don’t you think?”

Angel blinked back before flipping the dress towards himself, giving it a look over. “A little? Huh. Ya’ think?”

“Oh my, yes.”

Angel gasped, hand going to mouth. “Oh my god, you’re right! I could wear somethin’ skimpier!”

He dashed off, Charlie gawking as he did.

“That’s not what I meant!” she called after. Ah, damn. Well. At least he was embracing the holiday. This was going better than expected! While Pentagram City was busying itself with murder and maiming, they were going to have a great time! She could just feel it.

She went to the living quarters where most of the party was planned. Several massive bowls were set aside, most for candy. According to the traditions above, young children were meant to come to the door and ask for treats. But considering the. . . circumstances of outside, she decided to best reserve it for everyone inside the Hotel. After all, they were the ones trying to get better!

As she looked them over, her mouth swung open in horror. “Razzle! Dazzle!”

Two little shapes of goat sputtered and fell. They had been happily munching on the treats set aside, bleating in surprise.

“B-BAH!” Raz cried.

“Baaaaa! Baa baaaaa!” Daz protested, hooves wiggling in front of him.

Charlie raised a hand. “Bup! Not another word! Save the treats for everyone else you two! Understand?”

They bowed their heads, baa-ing in unison.

“Hmph. Do you at least have costumes?”

They looked between each other. Then, they produced two white sheets with a family of holes cut in them, before dawning the attire and fluttering in the air.

“BaaAAAaaaAAa!” bleated Raz, sounding a ghost. Daz repeated his mirror, mimicking a specter.

Charlie held back a snicker. “Oh my, that’s terrifying Bois!”

They both bleated their thanks.

“Good.” Charlie clapped her hands. “Now. Shoo! Scoot you two! Go and see if everyone else is getting ready! We’ll be starting soon!”

With one last mournful, greedy look towards the sweet-filled bowls, Raz and Daz set about their task, floating off, bumping into things as they did. Charlie gave one last look around herself, hoping that everything was just right. This was really coming together, wasn’t it? Humans were so fascinating! What a lovely little ritual.

Charlie strolled past a door decorated with various punkish memorabilia, a crudely scrawled sign saying 'Keep the FUCK Out!' hung askew as loud punk-rock blared from the other side.

Charlie knocked on the door and said in a musical, trilling voice: "Crymini~! Will you be joining us at the Halloween party? It'll be f~un I promise! Free candy!"

There was no response save for the music getting much, much louder.

"Oh, well!" Charlie said, chipper as ever. "I'll save you some punch!"

She proceeded towards the stairs, making sure there were no last-minute details to go over. Satisfied, she went to her room, preparing to change into her costume.

She didn’t notice the shadow move.

-*-

A cavalry of sounds assaulted the quarters with voices crashing over the other in a cacophony of celebration. All the Hotel guests were gathered together, flittering this way and that between servings of candy, food, and punch. Charlie – thanks to Baxter’s wi-fi breakthrough – was able to do a plethora of studying on appropriate themed food for the evening. After all, an army travelled on its stomach, and guests were much the same. She figured everyone would stick around plenty longer if there were things to eat.

She hummed a happy tune, finishing her attentive slices in the kitchen. Raz and Daz helped her whip up a wonderful melon pie, whip cream and all, served with punch and the cache of candied goodies they were able to rustle up. She set aside the kitchen knife before taking her main attraction back to the living room, where once again the sounds of “Halloween” consumed her.

Everyone, so far as she could tell, was getting into the vibe. It was indeed busier with all the additional guests, the music of their conversation bouncing off the walls. Wearing a bright, enthused smile, she set the pie down, much to the allured gaze of some.

Vaggie, at once, was at her side, loyal steward and all. Or maybe it was Charlie’s attire that drew her close.

“Charlie,” she said, features touched with a faint flush, “You look. . .”

Great was the word she wanted. Charlie, favoring class, adorned a trim, form hugging tux, black as sin. Her counterpart wore a witch’s outfit, short skirt accented by leggings and a tiny plastic broom.

“Oh, how pretty!” Charlie commented, giving Vaggie an approving look. “Where’d you find the broom? It’s so cute!”

Vaggie rubbed her silver hair, tugging at her dress. “A-ahah, you think it’s cute?”

Charlie nodded. “I see you’re taking after Angel.”

Vaggie blinked. “What!? What do you mean?”

“Sexy outfit.”

Vaggie’s cheeks went red hot. Meanwhile, Charlie looked about at the guests, some of which were locked in conversations.

“How’ve things been? Did I miss anything?”

Vaggie crossed her arms in usual display of disapproval. Primarily, her glance went towards Angel, of course.

“Just the usual. Everyone’s been playing nice. . . for now. Waiting for that to blow up though.”

Vaggie made a soft gesture towards Angel Dust, who appeared in a nun costume, if said nun had tossed away any notion of prudence or decency or morality. But, in typical spider fashion, he was simpering at the side of Chad, leaning in ever so close as he wore a sneer and fluttered his eyelids in come hither fashion.

Stacy, in the meantime, hung off her man’s opposite side, glaring at Angel as each of her coiling snake-hairs hissed in unison. Charlie giggled.

“Oh dear. Angel’s getting friendly, I see.”

Vaggie rolled her eye. “I’m not cleaning up the blood this time.”

Charlie waved a hand. “Oh, I’m sure it’ll be fine! Everyone’s having fun!”

Indeed. To the Princess’ delight, each of the guests – new and established – were in some kind of costume attire. Well, save for Krelboyne. Or was he? It was hard to tell.

She pranced forward, her arms outstretched. “Everyone!”

The chatter quieted down as eyes went to her. She looked at them all, wearing a grin. “Oh, you all look so fantastic!” she complimented.

“I’m so thrilled you’ve all gotten into the spirit. This is an important part of therapy, you know? Doing things in a fun environment and. . . oh, well, who am I kidding! Let’s relax tonight!”

“Relax?” piped up Stacy, voice cold and bitter. “How can I relax when this she-slut keeps trying to get in my man’s pants!?”

Angel Dust’s head flicked back as he wobbled with laughter. “Wehehe! Ey’, toots, don’t get all uppity at me. Maybe I show ya’ boy here how it feels to be with a real lady, eh?”

Chad only chuckled, leaning back. A hand came up in front of Angel’s face. “Easy, toots. Don’t want none of your business, you feel me? Only got eyes for this hot little number, dig?”

He gestured to Stacy, who at once flushed and kissed the wolf-croc on the cheek. Angel, on the other four hands, scowled, teeth clenched.

“Oh yeh? Maybe if I fuckin’ put a buncha’ holes in her you’ll. . .”

Charlie cleared her throat. “Anyway! H-hah! I’m impressed. Would you all like to tell me what you’ve dressed as tonight?”

Chad was the first to answer, pointing finger guns at Charlie and clicking his tongue. “Bonnie n’ Clyde. Fits don’t it? ‘Course, we had such a bigger head count, you know?”

Indeed, they were in form fitting suits, though torn in some places due to Chad’s size and Stacy’s “complications” thanks to her snake hair. Angel, opportunity lost, crossed his legs, fluffing his cleavage again.

“Yeah, real fuckin’ original,” he muttered, scoffing. He shoved a thumb at himself. “I, fer one, at least took some time t’look good, yeah? Any ol’ palooka can put on a ‘sexy nurse’ and pull it off, but it takes real beauty to look good as a nun!”

Charlie forced a grin. “Oh, y-yes Angel, it’s um, revealing about your personality! V-very creative!”

Vaggie hid a laugh while Angel looked plenty pleased.

“BaaAAAaaa”!

Baaaaaah!”

Interrupting was Razzle and Dazzle, who floated above the group in rotating swirls, imitating a ghost. Their choice of cloth fell over them, tails poking through the various holes cut in the sheets.

Charlie giggled again. “Oh my yes, very spooky Bois!”

The Goats baa’d proudly, spinning and flying about the room to appear as phantoms. Chad, at least, snickered.

“Whoa, ahah, you guys are fuckin’ hilarious!”

Roach chimed in now, his mandibles muffled, stuffed with entire handfuls of potato chips, or Hell’s equivalent. His blurry, reddish eyes attempted to fixate on the Bois who continued their pattern.

Charlie noted the insect’s attire. “That’s. . . interesting, Roach. Irony?”

Indeed, the massive cockroach was wearing a large costumed: a can of Raid. His head poked through, at the top, the stench of terrible weed drenching his attire.

To Charlie’s question, he shrugged. “Huh? Nah, I just think it’s funny.”

A scoff on the opposite side. “Yes, weed. How original.”

It came from Krelboyne, who had positioned himself next to Vespa, hovering in her proximity like she was his date, though, clearly not.

“Hey, lighten up dude, you oughta’ get blazed little man.”

Krelboyne made a face, his slimy catfish-like features tugged with an unpleasant frown. “No. I don’t smoke.”

“And besides,” he said, glancing around the room. “Hard to ‘lighten up’ with all this going on. Don’t you realize what an offensive holiday this is?”

Charlie tilted her head, gasping. “Offensive?”

Seeing his bait caught, Krelboyne nodded his head. “Of course! Bad enough it pillages the traditional pagan origins, but it objectifies women with misogynistic capitalism! Angel, you’re not helping either!”

The spider glanced, gawked. “Wha. . . are ya’ fuckin’ for real right now?”

“Booooooo,” Chad jeered. A snort in the distance. It was Husk, minding a family of alcohol, head shaking.

“Boo all you want, I’m right,” huffed Krelboyne. “Right, Vespa?”

The ‘plainest’ demonette glanced at Krelboyne, only shrugging. She was in a black suit, quite similar to Charlie’s usual attire, in fact, if there colors were instead muted.

“You raise some points, but I think it’s important to have discussions at appropriate times,” she said, her fingers folding together.

“Group therapy works better that way,” Vespa added.

Charlie blinked, eager to diffuse the situation. “Of course! Krelboyne, you have an interesting thesis, but let’s pin that for group therapy! I promise, tonight is for fun, nothing else!”

The catfish ignored Charlie, but at Vespa’s word, his position switched. “Ah, yes, what I meant all along.”

Again, Vaggie rolled her eye, leaning into Charlie. “Yeah, you missed this. Want a drink? Help you get through the night.”

At first, Charlie was deflective. Oh she didn’t need one, did she? But as she watched Krelboyne, his frustrated face awaiting an opportunity to say something “philosophical,” she realized softening the edges might not be such a bad idea.

Agreeing with Vaggie, she went to Husk who had corralled a slew of bottles, nursing his third. On the side of his face was a hockey mask, though he wore regular attire.

“Miss,” he said with a respectful nod as Charlie approached. “Nice bash ya’ threw. For once, I appreciate the lack of murder.”

Charlie brightened. “You think so? It’s so fascinating! Humans really do have the best holidays!”

Husk grunted. “One way of puttin’ it.”

She pointed at Husk’s choice of costume, or rather, lack of. “And what’s this supposed to be, mister Husk?”

The winged feline eyed his bottle, shaking the empty glass. He set it aside and pulled a fresh one, popping the cap and taking a long swig.

“Huh?” he said post guzzle. “Oh. Dunno’. Slasher thing. But for fuck’s sake, couldn’t find the overalls to go with it. Swear I put em’ out earlier.”

He flicked the slanted mask. “Eh, whatever. Don’t need it anyway. I’m fuck-off scary enough.”

Charlie blinked. “Slasher?”

Vaggie grumbled. “Don’t ask. Terrible movies where people get stabbed.”

Charlie offered a small ‘oh’ while Husk prepped her drink, something only mildly touched with alcohol while the guests continued their noisy conversations. She sipped at the drink, wincing from the stubborn content.

The princess reflected. “Hmm. They do sound terrible.”

-*-

Mikey was finished. Charlie’s party called for the crafting of a particularly special mask, a paper mâché visage pulled with a “friendly” smile, a white material dotted with two rosy circles on its sides. The lumbering thing looked at his work and mentally nodded, hunched over his desk as he put the final touches on it. Everyone else had already joined the party, but the noises bothered him. He preferred the corners and staying close to the Princess.

The ogre-like sinner left his room, scuttling along down the hall as he pushed the mask upon his face, strapping it carefully. His long, greasy hair fell over his shoulders matching his equally stained, dirty brown attire. Sounds of the festivities were muffled downstairs, though still loud. Too loud.

At least the halls were dark. Most of the lights were off, save for Charlie’s choice of decoration, lamplights of Jack-o-Melons scattered here and there, all sneering, flame-born grins peering through the veil of black. Quiet and nice. Reminded him of home.

Mikey continued to shuffle towards the stairs. Briefly, the audible conversations died down, giving way to a period of silence. For a moment, Mikey could hear nothing, only his breathing.

. . .his breathing?

The oafish demon pulled his head left, gazing down the dark hall. At the end, a family of Jack-o-Melons smiled at him, their silhouettes hidden, only orange grins visible in the dark. But there was something else, another sound, heavy and harsh, alien to this place. Its rhythm was wrong, out of place, a presence. Breathing. Heavy breathing.

Mikey shifted, turning towards the sound. He couldn’t see anything, couldn’t make out a source to the noise. Was someone there? No, everyone was downstairs, weren’t they? There were just shadows. Shadows and dark.

He didn’t like it. He didn’t like how the dark was looking at him, how the purity of its essence existed. He went for a light switch, only. . .

One of the snarling, lit faces at the hallway’s end vanished, the glow abruptly snuffed. Mikey squinted. It was put out? By who? Now someone was playing jokes! Playing games! Trying to taunt him! He hated taunters! He hated teasers!

Growling, he stomped towards the light switch and flipped it on. Illumination flooded the hall to reveal. . . nothing. Nothing aside from the mocking, grinning Jack-o-Melons looking down at him. It was a trick of a mind. No figure or shape lingered.

Like an agitated animal, Mikey growled and stomped off for the stairs. Must’ve been one of the guests trying to bother him. They were all the same, all looking at him in strange ways, planning to do bad things. Except for Charlie. Charlie was nice. He liked Charlie.

Eyes watched him go down the stairs.

-*-

Things were going well, quite well. Even Alastor appeared from his usual lurk-in-the-dark antics to participate in Charlie’s festivities, wearing himself of course. To see so many fiends in one place brought a smile to his face. . . or, a larger one, at least.

“My dear, it’s an astonishing event you’ve tossed together, ahaha! Commendable, even! Why there isn’t a hint of blood anywhere!”

He swung his arms, looking down at a partially intoxicated Charlie, who nodded her head with extra enthuse.

“Anywhere yet,” remarked Husk, watching guests from behind the bar. “I got money on someone dying tonight.”

Charlie gasped. “Mister Husk! That’s horrible!”

Vaggie kept a frowned but turned away to hide her laugh.

“A bet? Why, how scandalous!” chimed Alastor. “. . .with who?”

Husk smirked. “The Bois, of course.”

Now, Vaggie couldn’t hide a laugh, and Charlie wore a shocked, disapproving expression.

“Terrible!” she said. “That’s terrible! Everyone is nice, see?”

An accented cackle interrupted her. “Oh yeah, real fuckin’ nice guys ya’ got over there.”

Angel Dust swaggered over, his face stretched with irritation as he shoved himself against the bar, tapping against.

“Ey’, kitty, fix me up somethin’. Shit’s a drag out there.”

Husk rolled his eyes. “Just cause you ain’t pumpin’ pricks don’t mean the night’s a wash, Angel.”

Angel’s face switched to a sneer. “Aww, ya’ sound so worried. Maybe ya’ can help me with that too, eh?”

Husk shuddered. “I’d rather fill you with poison.”

Charlie’s instinct was to admonish them both, but. . . oh, it was a special night. What was the harm? At least Angel was sort of tempering himself, and everyone else was in a good mood. Aside from Krelboyne, at least, who appeared to shift moods based entirely on how his counterpart Vespa was feeling. And there was Vespa, who really looked alien to this place. She was so kept together, plain even. How did a demonette of her size and stature end up Down Below, anyway?

“Curious, isn’t it?”

The static-charged tone of Alastor pulled at her attention. She glanced to the Radio Demon, ignoring his menacing, fanged grin.

“And what’s that?” said Charlie.

“How one like her ends up in our little bangarang of an underworld,” said Alastor, wiggling fingers. “She looks oh so innocent, yes?”

Charlie glanced back to Vespa, who remained quiet, nodding with disinterest each time Krelboyne lobbed a conversation at her.

“I suppose,” Charlie offered. “I’m not judging her. Why, Alastor? Looking to make trouble again?”

The Radio Demon laughed. “Hohoh, me? Why miss Magne I’m hurt! Besides, trouble has a way of finding us, don’t you think?”

Charlie blinked. Hmph. It was too late in the evening for all of Alastor’s cryptic puzzle-words.

“I’m getting another drink.”

-*-

“Bah,” bleated Raz.

“Bah, baaaa,” repeated Daz.

Roach blinked at them, looking between the Goat Bois. His reddish eyes boggled, jaw going slack.

“Whooaa,” he mused. “That’s brilliant, little dudes. Brilliant. You guys should write a book.”

The Bois glance between each other, heads popped out of their ghost “costumes.”

“Baahh?” they bleated. Roach summoned another bag of chips, nodding in slow, wobbly motions.

“Hellll yeah, blowin’ my fucking mind, little dudes!”

Again, the massive cockroach started shoveling handfuls of salted snacks into his mandibles, emptying his summoned snack in moments. He burped, standing, swaying, stench of weed reeking off his Raid can costume.

“Hold that thought dudes, gotta’ shit. . .”

He trotted off while the Bois made a face, but then noticed his uneaten plate of sweets. In the meantime, the other guests were settling in well.

Stacy hung off Chad’s shoulder as they looked over Krelboyne’s head. The fish-like sinner had his eyes buried in smartphone, unblinking gaze scrolling over tiny text – most likely about “winning over your date with these simple steps” or some such. He grumbled with the heat of the couple behind him, turning away.

“You guys have anything better to do?” he snarled. “Go away.”

Chad laughed. “Lighten up squirt,“ he said, flicking Krel’s head. “We’re just wondering.”

Krel turned on them, glaring. “What?”

Stacy laughed. “Easy, nerd. God you’re tense. Really, you need to get laid.”

Krel made a face, at once adopting his horrified persona. “How repulsive,” he said, voice a little loud so Vespa could hear.

“You two are so typical. Predators. There’s more to things than just sex.”

Chad laughed again. “Oh god, that reeks o’ virgin. You say that, but you’ve never had a snake hair blowjob. Maybe you’d get one if you dropped the routine, kiddo.”

Again, Krelboyne growled. “What the hell do you two want?”

Stacy poked at his forehead. “Lighten up. Should I flash em’ my tits, hon? Maybe if he was at least near a real woman he’d relax.”

“Nah,” said Chad. “Don’t want this creep giving you an ogle. Besides, what we do wanna check out is us!”

“Oh yeah!”

Chad prodded at Krelboyne’s smartphone. “C’mon dude, give us a look. What was it called? Wikisomething? Bet we got our own page in spades. God, I love American television, they make you heroes with all the publicity!”

Stacy’s excitement grew. “Oooo I bet we even have our own TV special!”

The croc-wolf threw his head back in laughter. “Special? No way babe, bet it’s a goddamn three-part movie!”

Stacy’s snake hair hissed with approval. “Awww. . . you think?”

He turned to his girl. “With a bombshell like you? Baby, our love would inspire generations! Big headcount, big gains, they love it Up There!”

He grinned before pushing forward, his muzzle meeting the girl’s lips in a soft but genuine, passionate kiss. Were it possible, no doubt Chad’s pupils would’ve morphed into hearts, curling a strong arm around Stacy’s supple waist.

“Mmf,” he mumbled. “Neeeever gets old.”

Krelboyne just growled. “Disgusting.”

Chad tossed his gaze back down to the catfish, sneering. “Goddamn dude, just get a cheap hooker and get it over with. Put all that venom somewhere. Fucking at least give the spider a try, bet he’s so bored he’d even hookup with you!”

Exacerbated, Krelboyne thumbed in a search to Earth’s wi-fi via search engine, pulling up the result of the two romantic killers in a few seconds.

“HERE.”

He shoved his phone at Chad, who snapped it up, eager. “Whoa! Thanks, squirt. You’re a reaaaaal pal.”

At once he started scrolling over the factoid and articles about he and his girl, grin widening with each result.

“Oh my god, Stacy! Baby, look at this shit!”

At once, the two ogled their history, overwhelmed with the results. Krelboyne, in the meanwhile, huffed off, glad to be rid of the psychopathic – yet bizarrely healthy – couple. They tittered and simpered, snickering over the various factoids, especially the meaty details of some of their kills.

“Aww,” Stacy whined. “They left out the best part!”

Chad grunted. “Fuckin hell they did! What about. . .”

He shuffled into his coat pocket, pulling out a beautiful, heart shaped pendant of gold, a picture of his girl centered within it. Stacy did the same, hers similar in dimension and color, though with Chad’s image.

Chad dangled it in front of him. “True love conquers all, baby! The King knew it and so did we!”

Stacy flushed, kissing her mutual on the cheek. “Poet!”

Krelboyne shuddered, feeling quite repulsed. Ugh. He hated it. Not the killing part, not the murderous part, no. He didn’t care the two were sociopaths who butchered dozens of people and self-serving killers, or their total lack of moral code. It was their affection, their love, their real, genuine feelings for the other. It churned his envious guts and he was happy to have them ogle his phone if it meant they’d just go away.

He decided maybe a little alcohol would do him good. A little. Or maybe alcohol for someone else. Alcohol made hard decisions easier to make, after all.

He passed Mikey, the massive oafish demon, who was perched next to Charlie like some huge junkyard dog. Smelled about the same, anyway. Mikey held out a plain, near-featureless white mask, showing it to the Princess with an enthusiastic body language.

“Oh, aha,” Charlie said, rubbing her head. “This is um, very nice Mikey! A little different.”

The quiet man nodded, pushing it towards her. Charlie gave a nervous chuckle.

“For me? Ah, yes, ahm, it’s lovely Mikey, thank you.”

She looked it over, and all that stared back was a pale white visage. Not exactly comforting, especially those lightless, black cuts for “eyes.”

“I’ll go put this in my room, okay?”

Mikey tilted his head, but nodded.

Clearing her throat, Charlie made her way back to her room to set it aside. That was. . . probably never leaving a closet.

When she closed her door, she never heard the footsteps.

-*-

Damn, good party. Good food, good booze, good weed. Reaaaal good weed. Made everything a fuckin’ bopper. Helped the girls around here were extra fine too. That Vaggie? Not bad. That Charlie? Hoof. And man, Roach would have to thank Chad sometime, his lady sure wasn’t the prudent one in all that skimpy attire. Lucky guy. Then the spider. . . man. Instinctual fear kept him at bay but Angel Dust was giving him feelings.

But right now, he had two priorities: drop a deuce and get back to the Bois. They had some interesting points about Underworld politics. Never though he’d hear them talk that way about Lucifer’s empire, considering their job. Or maybe he was just blazed out of his fucking mind. Yeaaah probably that. He was kinda wobbly. When he told his legs to move, it took a few seconds for the command to get there.

Where was the bathroom, anyway? The Hotel was pretty huge and he swore he saw the building move on its own by itself now and again. These long, wide halls didn’t help either. They were dark for the holiday, fit with Jack-o-Melons and different decorations. Looked cool, but made the restroom impossible to find.

“Ugh, dude,” he said, his guts growling. “That pie ain’t sittin’ right.”

He continued to shuffle down the hall, surrounded by dark. Where was the fucking light switch? Shit, he was gonna’ get lost up here! They’d find him in the morning, a post-weed mess of roach. Lame.

Things were quiet. Like, weirdly quiet. How far did he go? He couldn’t even recognize the hall he was in. The noise of the party had faded off and now all he could hear was the creaking walls and his own breathing. Wait, the fuck?

His own breathing?

Footsteps. Roach spun around in his costume, squinting. In the dark, he made out a blurry silhouette standing in front of him. The shape of a man, or something, standing still. He couldn’t see the face but man, the breathing. It was like the shadows had lungs.

“Uh, Daz? Raz?” Roach said, wavering. Had to be them, right? They knew where he was going. Yeah!

“Holy shit, guys, that outfit is fucking great.”

Damn, those Bois could really make something look good when they wanted to.

“Hey, dudes, where’s the bath-”

A hand flung out. It was like an industrial piston smashed into Roach’s chest; a brutal, uncompromising strength shoving forward and slamming him into the wall. Roach gasped and sputtered, the merciless hand pushing through him until his carapace cracked and shattered. The insect tried to fight off whatever was doing this, grabbing the arm, clenching. Nothing worked. All he could hear was breathing, all he could see was a shape.

He gagged. His viscous, gooey innards spilled forward and burst from his mandibles in vile green coils. His body cracked and wheezed from the pressure, viscous blood oozing from his eyes, outright squishing him. Squishing him like a bug.

The attacker lifted Roach’s dying, twitching body until he was a messy smear on the Hotel wall, before dropping him to the ground. Roach’s innards drained and spilled from the outfit, pooling around him in filthy puddles and fleshy debris. The figure moved on, returning to the dark.

The hunt had begun.

Chapter Text

                THE SHAPE OF EVIL CHAPTER 3

    The party continued into the night, never quiet escalating or winding down, just percolating like a pot on a stove. Still, the threat of a boil-over was present in every raised voice, every pause in the music. Still, Charlie managed to keep her inclination to fuss at bay with some help from madam punch-bowl. It also helped that Vaggie was looking better and better as the night wore on.

    “So,” Vaggie said, dipping into the punch herself. “Come here often?”

    Charlie laughed perhaps a little too hard, but even in her state she could see that people were starting to pair up. Chad and Stacy were, of course, the power couple of the night. Their recent foray into Wikipedia had left them elated, bragging to all that would listen about their killer rep. Charlie admitted that she was impressed at just how extensively their little rampage had been documented up there, though not surprised; despite their boorishness, immorality, and general outright psychopathy, their single-minded devotion to one another was unmistakably charming. Which made Angel’s ever-more-energetic attempts to seduce Chad an ongoing issue. Charlie knew that Angel knew he had no chance, but she also knew him well enough to know his fall-back occupation when whoring was off the table: pot-stirring. The spider would get his kicks, one way or another.

    For a moment she considered getting in on Husk and the Goats’ little betting pool.

    Charlie took another sip, careful not to get too gooned, just in case she needed to intervene. A double-edged sword, because blowing this party for some fun with her one-eyed mini-skirt wearing witch was ever becoming a more appealing option.

    The night wore on, drinks flowed, and so too did the occupants drift into their various alignments. Niffty and Baxter, interestingly, had gravitated closer and closer together; Baxter was mid-rant over the ever-presence of filth and asymmetry in his surroundings, with Niffty interjecting with factoids and stratagems on how to best to clean different surfaces and keep them clean. To Charlie’s increasing amusement, the neurotic little anglerfish seemed to genuinely appreciate the advice, though Niffty’s dutiful refilling of his cup likely had something to do with it.

    ‘What a cute little ship,’ Charlie thought, smiling to herself. ‘Niffter? Baxty? Something to keep an eye on, anyway.

    To the surprise of no-one, Vespa pulled away from the slightly off-putting company of Krelboyne and taken up talking to Alastor of all people. Krelboyne’s dissatisfaction with this turn of events was about as obvious and noxious as a grease-fire but he clearly wasn’t about to intrude on their conversation. Krelboyne might be, well, is unpleasant, haughty, and even a little creepy, but he wasn’t stupid. No, the true surprise of the night was Alastor’s openness to Vespa’s company. Generally, his interactions with others were rife with faux-affable repartee and barely concealed contempt, but, for whatever reason, Alastor actually seemed to be interested in the aggressively plain and unassuming demoness. Charlie wasn’t sure if she should be concerned or curious. Well, no, ‘concerned’ was her default state when Alastor interacted with her patients, but this was certainly unexpected.

    Not unexpected was when when Angel, already a few sheets to the wind, ‘accidentally’ splashed Stacy with a cup of red, sticky room-temperature punch.

    “Whoops.” Angel declared, his tone flat and icy. “Aw, gee, shucks. Sorry doll, I got yer trashy top all sticky.”

    “That’s okay, bug,” said Stacy, her voice a dangerous flavor of saccharine as she summoned a switchblade into her coiled, snake-like arms. “I’ll just carve a new top outta your fuzzy hide!”

    Angel summoned a baseball bat in one hand and a lead pipe in another, breaking into an absolutely wretched Irish accent. “Call St. Peter, imma ‘bouta hwhack me some snakes!”

    Chad strode up next to Stacy, a length of heavy-gauge chain in his hard, scaly hands. “Awright, Spider-Twink, you wanna rumble? Let’s rumble!”

    “Oh, Chad, baby, ya oughta know,” Angel growled, summoning all manner of knife and bludgeon on his other four hands. “I like it rough.”

    “No fighting!” Charlie cried out, running over to the nascent brawl. “Everyone just calm down, this is a party.”

    Angel Dust glanced at Charlie and backed away from the pair, his weapons still raised. Stacy whirled about and loomed over the princess, her eyes blazing.

    “You know Chad, if there’s one thing I hate more than a skank, it’s a snoot!” Stacy sneered, baring her fangs at Charlie, knife glinting. “Bossy, snooty bitches what think they know everything! And I fuckin’ hate princesses!”

    Chad shrugged apologetically but still swung his chain around. “Oooh, when my baby gets steamed, there ain’t nothin’ but blood to cool her off. Sorry, Chuck, it was a nice party while it lasted.”

    Charlie stood her ground and looked around, all eyes in the room were on them now. The Bois stood at the ready, but were waiting on her summons. Husk regarded the whole thing with a flat disinterest as Baxter and Niffty stood frozen in place. Alastor cocked his head to the side, a wry look on his grinning face as Vespa, standing next to him, watched on with a peculiar interest. Krelboyne was watching, but still stealing the occasional glance at Vespa. Vaggie looked about ready to jump the table when a series of footfalls, low and heavy like rolling thunder, surged up from behind Charlie. A pair of massive, tree-like arms shot out over Charlie’s head, hands the size of catcher’s mits clasped around Chad and Stacy’s throats and hauled them into the air. The demonic lovers squirmed and kicked, ineffectually pounding and stabbing at the immovable orge-paws slowly tightening around their necks. Their increasingly urgent gurgles and sputters carried clearly over the festive music.

    “Uhm, thank you, Mikey,” said Charlie, turning around to look up at the gigantic masked demon. “We’re all okay now. Could you put them down, please?”

    The towering demon grunted and unceremoniously dropped the pair. Chad and Stacy landed hard on their rears, gasping and coughing, rubbing their necks tenderly.

    Charlie offered her hand to Stacy, who looked around at the various demons before taking it. “Sorry, Charlie. I get a little, uh, excited sometimes.”

    “That’s alright. We’ll just have to work some anger management into our schedule,” said Charlie, offering a hand to Chad. “Chad, I appreciate you being so supportive, but maybe next time you could try de-escalating instead?”

    “Not a bad idea,” Chad croaked, a strained smile on his gator-ish snout. “Save me a pain in the neck in the future, eh?”

    Charlie smiled and turned to face Angel Dust. “Angel?”

    Angel withdrew his weapons and crossed all six arms. “What?”

    “Angel.” She repeated.

    “But–!”

    “Angel Dust.” Her smile now a modicum less friendly.

    Angel sighed and threw up his arms, shuffling over to Stacy. “M’sry bout yer top.”

    “S’okay,” Stacy grumbled, glancing at Charlie as she oversaw the peacemaking. “I’ll just… shower and change.”

    “Great! Everyone’s happy!” Charlie said, clapping. “Back to the party!”

    “Wow.” Vespa muttered, leaning toward Alastor. “How does she do it?”

    “Speak softly and carry a big stick,” said Alastor, shooting her a knowing wink. “But I’m sure you know all about that.”

    “Heh! Uh…” Vespa cleared her throat and turned away from the grinning demon.

 

    
    Stacy stormed off in a huff, pulling the wet, sticky top away from her cleavage as she exited the room. The party slowly got back on its feet, with conversation returning as the music played. Niffty, after some cajoling and a significant amount of punch, managed to get Baxter out on the dance floor. Though, Baxter didn’t so much dance as he shuffled, appearing supremely self-conscious as he did so. Krelboyne stood off in the corner of the room, scowling at his phone, only occasionally looking up to spy on Vespa chatting up the spooky Radio Demon. He scowled harder and turned back to his phone.

    “So, y’got it bad for Bran Flakes, huh?” A familiar voice behind him said.

    Krelboyne looked back to see Angel standing there, skimpy nun costume hanging off his feminine curves in a way that somehow emphasized them. Krelboyne reluctantly admitted that the distasteful, sexist puerile fantasy presented by the get-up was appealing.

    “Busy eyes y’got there, fish-lips,” Angel Dust snickered, tracing his curves with his second set of hand. “Peep show’s free, but if y’wanna see it on the floor, it’ll cost ya!”

    “W-what?” Krelboyne stammered.

    “Four hunnit clams an hour,” said Angel, examining his nails. “Five if ya wannit weird.”

    “N-no! I don’t, I’m not–!”

    Angel cackled and clapped the much shorter catfish on the back. “Ey, I’m just joshin’ ya! Lighten up, Gills, it’s a party!”

    “I do like the costume, though,” Krelboyne said, smirking. “Really sticks it to the patriarchy!”

    Angel blinked. “The what-now?”

    “The oppressive heteronormative male-dominated church would have a conniption fit if it saw you, a homosexual male prostitute, dressed up like a sexy nun, an order infamous for its chastity and oppression of female sexual liberty.” Krelboyne sermonized, pushing his glasses up his noseless-snout, smirking. “It’s really empowering to see a refreshing spin on a tired male fantasy based around the debasement of women! Very bold.”

    Angel reexamined himself and snorted. “Nah, I just wanna make dicks twitch.”

    “Oh.”

    “Didja actually buy any a’ that bullshit comin’ outta yer mouth just now?” Angel scoffed, sipping some punch. “Or is that sorta thing what you think she wants to hear?”

    Krelboyne huffed in outrage and turned back to his phone. “Some of us actually care about ending systemic oppression. But, that doesn’t involve much sex, so you wouldn’t be interested.”

    “Ya got that right! Doesn’t look like there’s any sex in it at all!” Angel laughed and sat down next to him. “When was the last time someone snacked on yer bait there, chief? I see ya castin’ at the damsel over there, but ain’t no-one bitin’ on yer worm!”

    Krelboyne got up to leave when Angel grabbed him by the shoulder and pulled him back down. “Listen. I’m tryin’ t’help.”

    Krelboyne swatted his hand away. “I don’t need your help!”

    “Shaddup and listen, ‘cuz I’m bein’ serious here,” said Angel. “A chick ain’t some puzzle where ya just put pieces together and ‘solve’ her, okay? Ya don’t win a girl’s heart by bein’her slave, and there’s no magic spell to make ‘em like ya. Y’gotta be real, y’gotta be genuine, and for fuck’s sake have some fun once in a while, will ya?”

    Krelboyne pursed his lips and turned his shoulder. “Why are you even talking to me? Shouldn’t you be hitting on that cro-magnon greaser while his complimentary stereotype is away?”

    Angel regarded the seething catfish for a moment, a resigned look on his face. “Ya gotta point. Why am I talkin’ to ya? Whatever, look, just throw on a costume and try to have fun. If you do that, maybe she’ll find ya more interestin’ than Chuckles over there. Ya still got time, Grins McGee’s ace like deck a’ cards, so he probably ain’t gonna plow her. Anyway, Angel out.”

    With that the lurid spider excused himself, running over to the surly bartender and was immediately met with vitriol. The catfish demon smoldered for a bit before turning back to his phone, his scowl softening when he read what had engrossed him so thoroughly earlier: How to Get Women to Like You.

    “Maybe…”

    Krelboyne closed the window and shut off his phone, taking a hard slug from his punch before storming out of the room. There had to be some spare costumes somewhere.

 

    The patter of water reverberated off the walls, steam hung in the air along with a low, melodious humming sounding from the stall. Stacy ran her hands through her shining snake-hair, the serpents writhed happily in the warm water as suds ran in rivulets off her flawless, alabaster skin.

    “Fuckin’ donut-punchin’ silk-shittin’ penny-whore!” Stacy seethed to herself, tracing the bountiful curves of her body. “If that fuckin’ Disney bitch didn’t step in, I’da… RRRG!”

    She sighed as warm water ran clear through her snakes, clean and rinsed. Her eyes closed, she turned off the shower and reached out of the stall, pawing for a towel. Her brow furrowed as her fingers met the bare metal of the wall-rack. Hadn’t she hung her towel there just a few minutes ago? Whatever, she could bear being in the warm water a little longer. Helluva thing, that. Most places in Hell were, at best, lukewarm, alternating between that and liquid ice. Actual hot running water was a blessing! A lot of stuff around here was pretty nice, truth be told. The food, the coffee, even the beds and pillows and how they smelled of fresh, warm laundry. It all reminded her of Earth, of… home. When her Ma would bake fresh biscuits and Chad would swing by on his motorcycle and they’d eat them together on a hilltop. She clutched the heart-shaped pendant about her neck, she never took it off. That man of hers. Oh, that man. If it weren’t for him, Hell would be, well, Hell. And she knew he felt the same.

    It was then that she noticed a slow, rhythmic sound emanating from the far side of the bathroom: breathing, heavy breathing.

    “Chad?” Stacy ventured, unable to see much more than a shape through the steamy glass of the stall. “Chad, is that you?”

    No answer, just breathing in the mist.

    Stacy smirked, she knew that kind of heavy, wanting pant. Her man was het up, on the prowl, out for red, bloody meat. Ooh… she knew just the thing to do for her big bad wolf-croc.

    “Naughty booooy!” She trilled, stretching one of her long, shapely legs out of the stall, hot steam still training off her gleaming ivory skin. “Now what am I gonna do? I’m all hot, and weeet…”

    The breathing stopped, the shape vanished from the opaque glass.

    “Chad?” Stacy said, confused. Her man would never pass up an opportunity to sink his teeth into his peach. She stuck her head out of the stall. “Chad? You there, babe? …Krel, I swear to God, if you’re peepin’–!”

    The towel was held somewhat taught between two pale, calloused hands as it looped around Stacey’s head, the middle partially unfurled so it enveloped it entirely. The ends of the towel were bunched firmly behind her head, the white cotton pulled taught over her face. Stacy loosed a muffled scream of surprise and fright as she was hauled bodily out of the stall. She was swung about like a bag of potatoes and smashed head-first into the tiled surface of the opposite wall. Tile, plaster and wood shattered and splintered as Stacy’s choked scream took on a high note of pain, her fright now full-fledged terror and rage.

    “Fucker!” She snarled, shifting the towel off her face and summoning a lead pipe.

    She caught sight of her assailant, a huge dark shape in the mist, and swung with all her demonic might. The figure did not move, it didn’t so much as brace. Stacy felt the impact run up her arms, hard and sharp like she’d just hit a concrete pillar. She looked at the pipe in her hands, now warped and bent with impact.

    “…Shit.”

    Before she could so much as blink it grasped a handful of her ophidian hair and she was pulled forwards and thrown across the room, tearing bloody snakes from her scalp. She flew through the glass stall, shattering it into a thousand razor shards. Her head smashed into the porcelain hard enough to send long, dark cracks spidering across the pristine surface, specks of red flecked across the smooth white, washed away by the still-running water. Stacy stirred and groaned, dazed, when the bloody towel wrapped around her head once more. The increasingly stained towel pulled taught as she was yanked backwards. Stacy’s screams were frantic, terrified, she clawed at the formerly white, bloody fabric pulled across her face, fingers slick with blood. Again and again the figure dashed her against the walls, the sink, and floor. The toilet shattered on impact with a low, meaty crunch. Stacey was still now, quiet. The Shape examined her limp body, suspended only by the red, saturated rung of fabric clutched in its cruel hand. With one last violent snap, it swung her into the floor, shattering the shale tiles.

    It tossed the corpse backwards into the devastated remains of the shower stall, its head contacting the wall with a wet, spongey thud. A single snake lolled out from under the red, dripping towel, limp and boneless as blood streamed from its mouth. A pale, brutal hand reached down and snatched the necklace.

    The bathroom was empty, silent but for the sound of running water.

 


   Krelboyne stumbled about in the darkness of the hallway, his only guide the leering pinkish grins of the Jack-o-melons. Who’s bright idea was it to turn off all the lights, anyway? How did she hollow out all these watermelons so quickly? Where did she even get this many watermelons on the most dangerous night in Hell? He tripped on a rut in the rug and tumbled forward, skidding painfully on the hardwood floor. One of the melons tumbled from its perch and landed on his head, bursting with a low, wet crunch.

    “Why. Fucking. Watermelons?!” Krelboyne seethed as warm, sticky melon juice dripped down his face.

    He stood up and wiped the clotted, chunky mess from his head and cleaned his glasses, pushing them up his noseless snout. “If you must know, Krelboyne, Jack-o-Lanterns were originally an ancient Pagan charm to ward off evil spirits on the night of Samhain, the herald of the ‘Darker Half’ of the year. For this reason, pumpkins and turnips are banned in Hell, obviously… man, I really am a kind of a prat, huh?”

    He felt his hair, grimacing at the sticky mess and carefully made his way out into the darkened hall. “May as well shower, clean myself up before finding a costume. Now, if only I had a… flashlight.”

    Krelboyne slapped himself on the forehead and pulled out his phone, turning on the light. The hall lit up with the sharp blue-white light of the little LED. Once again able to see, Krelboyne knew immediately where he was: far from his room.

    “Shit.”

    Something up the hall caught his eye, just beyond the periphery of the phone’s illumination; the shape of something, a person?

    “Hello? Who’s there?”

    No answer.

    Krelboyne swallowed and walked towards, phone held out in front of him like a charm. “Hey… who is that?”

    The shape stood off to the side of the hall, leaning against the wall. No, not leaning, slumped.

    A Krelboyne drew closer he began to make out a cylindrical red costume. “Roach? Roach, is that you?”

    No response.

    “Roach, man, you really gotta lay off that shit. It can’t… be… good for you?”

    The tall cockroach demon was perfectly still, slumped against the wall, angled away from Krelboyne. He reached out and touched the rim of the can, giving him a gentle shake. “Roach?”

    Roach’s head shifted and lolled over towards him, huge red eyes rolled up, gummy green tears of blood streaking his cheeks, his mouth slack and open as now-visible chunks of viscera streaked down his chin and onto his costume. Krelboyne groaned in horror as the rest of the body followed suit and toppled onto its side, sending a new spurt of vile-smelling blood and innards splattering out of the gaping hole in Roach’s chest and across Krelboynes shoes. Krelboyne moved to back away, but lost his footing on a loop of intestine and stumbled forward, landing face-first in the still-warm pile of innards and blood already on the floor, his phone tumbling from his hand, plunging him back into darkness. Krelboyne retched and coughed, spitting the foul taste from his mouth before loosing a high, reedy scream. The catfish demon struggled to get up, hands slipping and sliding on the slick viscera and slimy blood as he scrambled in the dark. He finally found traction and leapt to his feet, hurriedly scooping up his phone and sprinting down the hallway. He ran senselessly, breath shrieking from his mouth as he panted and babbled. He came upon a door ajar, the lights behind it were on. He heaved a sigh of relief when he saw the room number; he knew whose dorm this was.

    “Stacy! Stacy!” Krelboyne panted, shoving his way in. “Stacy, are you here? Help! Someone-Roach is-we gotta… Stacy?”

    Krelboyne looked around, eyes wide, all he could hear was the dim sound of running water. He rushed over and pounded on the bathroom door. “Stacy! Can you hear me? Come out quick, there’s been a…”

    He noticed the water pooling out from under the door and the bloody handprint on the doorframe. Slowly, reluctantly, Krelboyne opened the door and peered inside, gasping in horror at the scene within.

    “Oh… oh God…”

    Krelboyne sprinted out the door and down the dark hallway, panting and huffing. He had to tell someone. He had to warn everyone! In his hurry, he didn’t see the Shape in the darkness, a figure blacker than the shadows it crept in.

    It followed.

 


    “…He won the ‘no-bell’ prize! Ah-ha-ha-ha!”

    Vespa chuckled weakly, a wan smile on her face. “Ha ha ha… I get it.”

    Alastor snapped his fingers and wagged one at her. “Ah, but you see, you didn’t. A joke that falls flat is the basic unit of raw despair. If you want to truly get under someone’s skin, you have to catch them off guard, to make them flinch, any way you can. A bad joke with good timing could be the difference between life and death!”

    “Oh?” Vespa contemplated this for a moment. “Or maybe some sympathy at the right moment? Make your enemy think you’re their friend.”

    Alastor winked and tapped his nose. “Now you’re getting the picture! It’s all a game, knowing how your enemies think and how they’ll react to a situation. Leading them along, toying with their heads, why, it’s at least as fun as landing the killing blow!”

    “And what about your friends?” Vespa said, looking around at the assorted demons still at the party. “Managing how they act must be important too!”

    Alastor chuckled, a much colder, raspier sound this time. “My dear, a friend is just an enemy you haven’t made yet. How else are you supposed to get to know them?”

    Vespa tapped her chin and nodded. “Hmmm…”

    She felt a tap on her shoulder and turned around and saw Charlie, a definite flush in her cheeks, her breath sweet and sharp with punch. “Oh. Hello, Charlie.”

    “Heeeey…” Charlie said, her eyes darting from Vespa to Alastor. “Have either of you seen Roach or Krelboyne recently? They seem to be missing.”

    “Oh, uh, no,” said Vespa, turning to Alastor. “Or I didn’t, anyway. Alastor?”

    “Been too busy jaw-wagging with Vespa here,” Alastor crooned, nodding towards Vespa, his expression almost fond. “Interesting gal, I must say.”

    Charlie fixed her gaze on Alastor, quickly shooting furtive glances at Vespa. “…Really?”

    “Oh, indeed,” said Alastor, beaming like a toothy lighthouse. “We’re getting along like a hotel on fire.”

    Charlie regarded Alastor with a sensible mixture of skepticism and concern before clearing her throat. “Ahem! Well. If you see them, let me know. I want everyone to have fun tonight.”

    “Maybe they’re having fun…” Vespa began, immediately regretting her choice of words upon saying them, but finished her sentence regardless. “…Together?”

    Charlie and Vespa digested the unintentional meaning and shuddered simultaneously at the unappealing mental image.

    Only Alastor seemed unmoved. “Who am I to judge how others get their grins?”

    “Right, well.” said Charlie, eager to move on from the unsavory implications presented. “You two just keep on, uh, keepin’ on!”

    Vespa watched Charlie take off towards the other party-goers, her tone wondrous. “She actually cares, doesn’t she?”    

    “More than anything,” Alastor affirmed, eying Vespa. “If I can fault her on one thing, it’s that. Amusing as it is.”

    Vespa turned back to Alastor, her expression hard. “Mercy’s funny, then?”

    Alastor leaned in, his smile widening to a grin. “In a tragic kind of way.”

    The door to the ballroom flew open with a clattering bang, all heads turned toward the new sound. Krelboyne, filthy, covered in green blood and watermelon chunks burst in, his eyes wide as dinner-plates.

    “They’re dead!” Krelboyne cried, his voice haggard. “Oh, God! They’re dead!”

    Alastor locked eyes with Vespa and nodded at the new intrusion, waggling his eyebrows conspiratorially. “Looks like I owe our barkeep a fiver.”

    “Krel?” Charlie exclaimed, running towards him. “What is it? What’s wrong?”

    “What’s wrong?!” Krelboyne sputtered. “They’re dead, that’s what’s wrong!”

    “Who?” Charlie said, Husk and the Goats exchanging money in the background. “Who’s dead?”

    “R-Roach!” Krelboyne said, gesturing at himself, at the gore, before lowering his voice and fidgeting nervously, looking over at Chad. “A-and, uh, Stacy, too. They’re both dead.”

    “What?” Chad growled, stomping over to the cowering catfish. “The fuck did you just say?”

    “I-I’m sorry,” said Krelboyne, squeaking when Chad grabbed him by the collar and lifted him off the ground. “Aaaah!”

    “Say it again, freak!” Chad roared, baring his teeth. “Stacy’s what? Stacy’s what?!”

    “Chad, I need you to calm down,” said Charlie, her tone even and stern. “Let Krelboyne go and–”

    Chad swatted her away and fixed his other hand around Krelboyne’s neck. “Shaddup ya twee bitch! Lookit this little shit, covered in blood! Bet he’s the one what killed ‘em! How’d y’do it?! Huh?! No way a pussy like you could take my baby! Betcha snuck up on her! All ‘cause you can’t get laid, you slimy little–HGGK!”

    Mikey’s huge hand snapped shut around Chad’s bullish neck, hauling both him and Krelboyne into the air. Chad didn’t let go, choking Krelboyne with one hand and summoning a baseball bat with the other. Chad growled ferociously and swung the bat into Mikey’s masked face with all the force he could muster. The solid oak bludgeon shattered into splinters, Mikey’s head snapped to the side and he grunted, but was otherwise unaffected. The towering demon growled and began to squeeze harder.

    “Oh-ho-ho! How marvelous!” Alastor chuckled, clapping his hands. “This party’s really picking up!”

    “Mikey!” Vespa cried, rushing over to the muscle-bound giant. “Mikey, please put him down! He didn’t mean to hit Charlie, he’s just, uh…”

    Mikey glared down at her, his blue eyes cold and flat like ice. He then looked over her shoulder and slowly set the pair down, posture deflating like a placated animal.

    “Oh, hey, you listened.”

    “Thank you, Mikey,” Charlie said, patting Vespa on the shoulder as she walked by.

    “Oh…” said Vespa, dejected.

    Charlie, suddenly very sober, walked up to Chad, who was still throttling Krelboyne, and effortlessly separated the two. “Enough.”

    “Whoa,” muttered Vespa, sharing her surprise with Chad. “Strong.”

    “I’ll kill that–!” Chad lunged back at the gasping, cowering Krelboyne, only to have Charlie set a hand on his barrel chest, stopping him dead in his tracks.

    “Chad.” Charlie turned to Krelboyne. “Krelboyne, no one thinks you killed anyone. Can you tell us what you saw?”

    Krelboyne recounted the states he’d found Roach and Stacy in, the nature of their wounds. “…And then I ran back here fast as I could.”

    “So, they weren’t stabbed or nothin’?” Chad scoffed. “How can they be dead if they weren’t offed by an angel weapon?”

    “They were pretty dead, Chad!” Krelboyne exclaimed. “She didn’t have much of a head left!”

    “Yeah, whatever,”  Chad snorted, storming off for the door.

    “Chad, where are you going?” Charlie called after him.

    “To find Stacy. Some chump got the drop on her, I bet she’s kickin’ mad!”

    “No, you’re not,” Charlie said, her tone stern. “The Hotel’s been breached and we have at least one murderous demon roaming around, the last thing we need to do is split up!”

    “Unlock the panic-room,” she said to Vaggie, who nodded.

    She then clapped her hands, the music died and every light switched on with a ‘clack’, before addressing the rest of the room. “Alright everyone, party’s moving! I need you all to pair up and follow me. We’re all gonna have a sleep-over in the panic–uh–party room!”

    “Fuck that!” Chad snarled. “My baby’s out there with some soon-to-be-dead sucker-punchin’ dipshit! I ain’t hidin’ in no pansy-ass safe-space!”

    “Chad, I’m sorry but you don’t have a say in the matter.”

    Angel Dust watched the argument with a flat sort of amusement, internally regretting not having scored some dank off of that foul git before he went and got himself squashed. Just one of his Hell-famous beej’s and the bug probably would have given him a brick of the stuff.

    Angel turned his head at the sound of the doors opening, his eyes widening. “Uh… guys?”

    “Like Hell I don’t!” Chad growled, getting in Charlie’s face. “I’d like to see you make me, Princess!”

    “So long as you’re here, you’re my responsibility,” said Charlie, not giving any ground. “And I will drag you there myself if I have to!”

    “Hey, guys!” Angel said, louder this time.

    “Don’t threaten me with a good time, bitch!”

    Vespa broke in, standing next to Charlie. “Chad, I know you’re upset, but–”

    Angel hooked his fingers into his mouth and loosed a shrill, sharp whistle. “HEY! ASSHOLES!”

    All heads turned to look at Angel, who pointed at the figure standing in the doorway. “Who’s that?”

    Standing at the far end of the room was a man, or something shaped like one, tall and well-built, dressed in baggy, shark-grey coveralls. He wore a blank-faced full-head mask with white, cracked skin, dry swept back brown hair, and two pitch-black holes in which nothing could be seen. No eyes, no hint of humanity or mercy, just cold black craters in a cracked, white face devoid of expression.

    The room was silent, save for the sound of heavy breathing.

Chapter Text

                    Shape of Evil Part IV

    They were all together now, standing before it, gawping. It let the other escape to lead it back to the pack. These beings, these fetid souls, so different in form, so varied in appearance, so much meat to slaughter. It would do as it had always done.


    “Uh, excuse me, sir?” Charlie said, slowly moving towards the figure. “Have you come in off the street? It’s safe here, in the Hotel. You’re safe.”

    It looked at her and an immediate chill raced up her spine. It was the feeling of being alone in a room, or walking by a dark alley at night. It was the feeling of being watched by nothing, the eyes of the abyss stared out at her and saw her.

    “Must be pretty hectic out there, huh?” She chuckled weakly, subtly gesturing at everyone in the room to move away from the Shape, which they did without hesitation. “As you can see, this isn’t our first Halloween. Well, actually, it is! Sort of, hahaha! See, we’re doing an Earth-style Halloween, with costumes and candy and… uh… you don’t talk much, do you?”

    The Shape suddenly extended a fist out in front of itself, causing the room to flinch. It relaxed its grip and out dropped a pendant on a gold chain, it was shaped like a heart, inlaid into it was Chad’s picture.

    “Hey…” Chad said, walking forward. “Where’d ya get that?”

    It said nothing.

    “Stacy…” Charlie muttered, horrified.

    “Shaddup!” Chad roared, stomping past the shaken princess. “You! I asked you a question! Where’d ya get that fuckin’ necklace?!”

    It turned to him, its breathing the only sound to indicate it was even alive.

    “No.” Chad mumbled, his eyes wide and harrowed. “Stacy… Baby…”

    Chad summoned a crowbar in one hand and a chain in the other and lunged at the intruder, roaring in fury. The figure did not flinch, did not brace, gave no indication it registered Chad’s charge until it suddenly stepped forward, catching his arm mid-swing. Before Chad could react it reached up with its other hand and wrapped its steely fingers around his throat. The strongly-built demon struggled futilely in its grasp, his enraged bellows choked grunts as he tried in vain to pry the implacable hands off his wrist and windpipe. He swung at the Shape’s head with the steel chain, only for it to pull its head back so that the length of chain wrapped around its arm instead. Its hand still clutching his throat, it wound the chain under its elbow and pulled it taut, snapping the steel links like glass. Chad’s eyes, bloodshot and bugging, rolled up as he began to lose consciousness, his struggles become weaker and weaker when another pair of pale hands entered the fray.

    “Stop!” Charlie shouted, grabbing the Shape’s forearm in one hand and Chad’s shoulder in another. “No fighting in the hotel!”

    With tremendous effort, she pulled the two apart, the Shape’s crushing grip forced off of Chad’s windpipe. The greaser-demon fell limply to the ground as the Shape’s attention turned to Charlie. She caught its other hand and the two stood, grappling, the figure reaching for her slender neck, only just fended off by her own strength.

    “You can’t just come in here and start attacking my patients!” Charlie said, straining against the shockingly strong being, its hands inching ever closer, grasping. “These people are under my protection! I won’t… allow you to… hurt them!”

    With an explosion of strength, the Shape lunged forward, both hands wrapping around Charlie’s neck. The second its skin touched hers she felt it, a pulling, an inexorable drawing from her. Like an open door on a cold day, she felt something being pulled from her, replaced with a paralyzing cold, an absence. Suddenly she needed to breathe, the pain in her neck became different, urgent. Charlie knew that if this thing kept touching her, kept squeezing, it would somehow kill her. Something within her blossomed, not panic or fear, but rage. Hot and bright, her power surged forth, her eyes glowing red as horns sprouted from her forehead, her mouth a nightmarish grimace of serrated teeth. She pushed back against it with this force, this power, and felt it drain away all the same, but not fast enough. She slowly pried its cold, deadly fingers away from her neck, from her skin, and felt the draining fade. But it was still strong, still pushing against her, seeking her neck once again with pure, predatory focus. She looked into its eyes, into those black pits, and saw nothing underneath. Nothing.

    A shimmering spear-tip erupted from its chest. The Shape grunted and its focus shifted to the angelic weapon skewering its body. Charlie seized the opportunity and pulled back, leaping away from the Shape, falling backwards and landing on her rear, legs wobbly.

    “Charlie!” Vaggie ran out from behind it, kneeling next to her. “Are you okay?”

    “Get away from him, Vaggie!” Charlie cried, her eyes wide, pointing. “Don’t let him touch you!”

    “What? Charlie, I got him with the spear, he’s…” Vaggie turned around, her eye going wide at what she saw. “…No way.”

    The Shape was looking down at the spear-tip extruding from its chest, it reached down and grasped the shaft, pulling the spear through its body. It examined the weapon for a moment before turning its gaze back to the stunned demonesses on the floor.

    “Holy shit,” wheezed Angel Dust from somewhere else in the room.

    “Pardon me a moment, my dear,” Alastor said to Vespa, patting her on the shoulder. “Got a wet sock to iron out. Back in a jiffy.”

    Alastor made his way across the room towards the menacing Shape, his aura flickering red and black as staticky wingdings swirled around him, his grin widening to a crescent moon as his eyes became red, glowing radio tuners. “While I must applaud you on your showmanship, I’m afraid it’s terribly gauche to walk in on a party uninvited. And while this humdinger of a wingding was a trifle dull, I’m afraid I’m gonna have to throw the book at you. On principle, of course.”

    The Shape turned to face the approaching Radio Demon, utterly unperturbed by the harrowing eldritch screeching humming in the air.

    Alastor chuckled and snapped his fingers. “Abyssinia, sourpuss.”

    Alastor’s frame emanated with a scarlet aura, the air around him shivering while his grin widened, pulling his features into a sinister visage. Sparks of red snaked and cracked as ritualistic symbols spun in erratic fashion, shadows mutating and writhing. At his feet, an inky darkness coalesced, a blackish, lightless ink spawning from the depths of oblivion, thick, writhing tendrils sprouting like mutated weeds. Static dilated reality and even Alastor’s form appeared distorted, breaking and crackling as his raw, absolute power screamed to life.
Alastor’s free hand raised, digits wiggling in farewell. At once, the tentacles roared forward to grapple the intruder, the dark matter spearing into the shape, piercing its body like knives. The other curled around its neck, preparing to strangle the interloper and eventually consume the being in a befouled maw of annihilation. A humdrum, a simple affair, of course. He was the Radio Demon, none could compare.

    He prepared to snap his fingers once again and put a lid on this affair, except. . . Alastor tilted his head. The Shape did not buckle, nor tremble, nor move, nor make a sound beyond its regurgitated, dirge-like breathing. Its hand rose and squeezed the tendril attempting to put it in a stranglehold, gripping – nay, crushing – with a bewildering level of force and strength. Alastor blinked, intrigued. Oh? Seemed the shark was flailing on the hook, he just needed to adjust. With a simple, unspoken command, he pulled back the army of tendrils to summon a greater forest of them.

    But they didn’t move.

    The Radio Demon felt. . . what? What was this new feeling? He could not retract the obsidian arms currently impaled into the foe, despite their struggling to break free. It was, in fact, as though an unseeable, ceaseless void had opened up, a gravity well of nothing holding the arms in place. No, not holding, pulling. For the briefest of moments, Alastor’s grin slightly faded.

    A cold, imperceptible void. That was what he felt. Not flesh, not cloth, not blood or even a soul. A boundless, unending ocean of raw, purified malice. It was as though the tendrils were at the door of a presence, the endless evil that found itself interwoven through all living things.

    “Oh my,” Alastor said, tone low. Worse now, the Shape clenched the tendrils with both hands, pulling them free of its body. With each motion, Alastor felt dragged, like he’d thrown himself into a roiling sea. This thing at the end of his assault? This… was an anchor.

    “Oh.”

    Alastor, with renewed focus and emphasis, yanked his summoned limbs back. The scarlet aura around him wavered, even shrank. He stared at his opposition which looked back, silent and ceaseless. He hoped to see eyes behind that mask. This was just a fool in a terrible getup, wasn’t it? But, no. No, now he understood. This Shape was a gateway, a form, fashioned from the clay of what Alastor could only sense as evil. Real, untampered, raw evil. The same, untarnished essence dividing all things. There, in that “man” wasn’t reason, or a voice, or a thought, or a perspective. It simply was. Evil given form.

    He was not fighting a man, he was fighting a force wearing a man.

    Alastor brushed his lapels and chest, the malignant energy around him vaporized. The tendrils vanished while the onlookers gawked.

    He turned to them, grinning with amusement.

    “I do believe this one’s a problem,” he said.

    Angel Dust stared. “…Wha? Whatt’ya mean a problem!? Do dat spooky fuckin’ thing you was just doin’! C’mon, turn em’ into cannoli, Chuckles!”

    Charlie’s eyes widened, looking between Alastor and the Shape.

    Alastor chuckled. “Ohohoh, I’m afraid he’s stuck like a bad diva on opening night! Alas, our new friend here is…”

    Before he finished his sentence, Alastor took a step back, huffing. He wiped his brow and for the slightest of moments, his vision blurred. He leaned ever so slightly, taking a breath. Oh my. He flexed his hands, spinning mic-staff in his arms. This wasn’t good, no sir, it wasn’t. He felt as though he’d directly gripped a surging current, the wires to a powerline, something slipping through him when he did. No wonder the Exterminator spear didn’t work. That fellow wasn’t a sinner, or a demon. It just was.

    He closed his eyes, his head felt like an egg, too thin and too brittle. Egads, did he wobble? He did. He had nearly lost balance but for the presence under his arm. At his side was the cooing Vespa, who caught him by the arm and propped him up over her shoulders.

    “Are you okay?” she said, holding an air of concern, big blue eyes practically glowing at the Radio Demon.

    Alastor adjusted himself, straightening his suit.

    “Why, I’m just peachy. Nothing like a good crutch to keep the legs steady!” he said, his sneer widening again.

    “Are you ladies fuckin’ done!?” Chad roared, summoning a sledgehammer and advancing on the Shape. “Fuck out the way!”

    Before Chad went charging in, Alastor caught him by the shoulder. “Oh, tut, tut, tut, my burly chum. Let’s stuff that stage prop for another time! This isn’t a tragedy… at least not yet!”

    Chad glared at him. “What the fuck are you talkin’ about!?”

    The Shape, free of its “restraints,” tilted its head, studying the squabbling prey before walking forward. Alastor and the rest glanced towards it.

    “I mean,” Alastor turned to Charlie, grinning despite the greasy pallor that had taken hold on his face. “Party’s over.”

    “Everyone!” Charlie called out. “Run!”

    Charlie rushed over and grabbed Chad by the wrist and, despite his protests and resistance, hauled him back as they fled.

    The Shape followed.

 


    The group sprinted down the hallway, the lights now on, casting their hard fluorescence over the baroque stylings and dimly flickering jack-o-melons. They ran past the splattered remains of Roach as he lay in the hall, Niffty slowing and stopping to examine the mess, a look of anxious disgust on her monocular face. Baxter doubled back and reluctantly grabbed her hand, pulling her along.

    “B-but!–”

    They came to a stop at an elevator, huddled around the door.

    “Alright everyone!” Charlie said to the rest. “We’ll take the elevator to floor six and make our way to room sixty-six, that’s where the panic room is. We’ll stay there until morning when the police start taking calls again!”

    “Fuck that!” Chad growled, futilely struggling against her grip. “We got that freak outnumbered! We got him outgunned! I say we all pile on and merc the pasty fuck!”

    “Let me know how that goes,” Alastor said, his voice strained despite his unwavering smile. “I could use a good laugh right about now.”

    Charlie stepped forward, reaching out to touch his forehead before stopping herself. “Alastor, are you okay?”

    Alastor chuckled and stood up straight, though very obviously still leaning on Vespa. “My dear, I’ve always found parties to be a draining experience, though perhaps this is a more literal case than most.”

    “So, you felt it too,” Charlie muttered.

    “Th’fuck are ya on about?” Angel cried, waving all six arms about. “What happened back there, Grins? I ain’t never seen ya job before! Ain’tcha s’posta be some kinda billy badass?!”

    “It’s not like that, Angel!” Charlie said, running her hands through her hair. “I can’t explain it. When he touches you it’s like, I don’t know, like you’re being pulled in. Like all the warmth in you is getting drained out and you feel…”

    “Cold, cold like nothin’ else.” Chad said, soberly. “Dying. It feels like dying.”

    “Dying. Great.” Husk took a hard hit from a bottle of bourbon. “Lookin’ forward to doin’ that again.”

    “But how?” Vaggie said, grabbing a handful of hair, her eye wide. “I skewered that bastard with an Exterminator’s spear! How’s he still alive?”

    “Ah, ah, ah, Vaggie,” Alastor chided. “You know what they say about when you assume!”

    The elevator dinged and the door rolled open with a whir.

    Angel’s mismatched eyes snapped open wide. “Oh, shit.”

    “Not quite, Angel, you see–” Alastor began to say when a hand shot out from the elevator and fastened around his throat, crushing his airway shut.

    “Alastor!” Vespa cried before being swatted aside by the Shape, sending her flying into the opposite wall.

    Alastor clasped his hands around its wrist as its hand crushed his windpipe, his aura spiking and writhing, tendrils sprouting from the shadows to aid their master, before sputtering and flicking out of existence as his vast demonic essence waned. It readied the spear and moved to thrust, only for Charlie to grab onto the shaft and pull, but its grip was immovable.

    “Please!” Charlie cried, trying to wrestle the spear from its grasp. “Please! You don’t have to do this! We can help you! Let us help you!”

    Vaggie rushed to Charlie’s side and grabbed the shaft, pulling with all her strength. The Shape would not budge. Chad weaved in around it and, with a roar, brought his sledgehammer down on the back of its head with all the force he could muster. Still, it did not let go, it didn’t so much as flinch.

    “Hey, chew on this, ya pasty, overall-wearin’, cold handjob givin’ goomba!”

    A wad of webbing slapped onto the Shape’s face, sticking fast. It grunted and recoiled, releasing Alastor and, grabbing the shaft with both hands, hurled Vaggie and Charlie across the hall. It whirled around to slash blindly with the spear at where Chad was a second before, but hit only air. The Shape slashed about, unseeing, its blade finding nothing but empty space. It tore the webbing from its eyes and looked about. They were gone.

 


    The doors to the kitchen burst inward and a group of terrified demons poured in. Angel Dust impatiently waved them all through. “C’mon, c’mon!”

    Charlie and Vespa were the last through the door, draped over their shoulders was a pale, semi-conscious Alastor. Once they were through, he grabbed a refrigerator and up-ended it in front of the doorway.

    “Angel, what the fuck are we doin’ in the kitchen?!” Husk growled.

    “Shaddup and help me, y’fuckin’ alky!” Angel grumbled, clambering up onto the stove, prying off the screen to the ventilator shaft. “These vents lead upstairs to my room. We can get to the panic room from there.”

    “Panic room?!” Baxter cried. “No, no! We have to get out of here! If we stay in this building with that thing, we’re all dead!”

    Angel spun around to glare at Baxter, his voice shrill and enraged. “Baxter! Whadaya know about that asshole?! This was all wunaya experiments, wasn’t it?!”

    “It was not my intention, I assure you,” said Baxter, dusting off his lab coat.

    Angel grabbed the small Angler Demon by the collar and hauled him off his feet, screaming in his face. “What did ya do?!”

    “Touching! Touching me!” Baxter squealed, grimacing. “Stop, stop, stop!”

    Angel threw him to the ground and summoned a Tommy gun, leveling it at the cowering scientist. “Unless ya want a real mess to deal with, you’ll tell me what the fuck ya did and what the fuck is outside that door!”

    “Angel this isn’t helping!” Charlie cried, stepping between the two. “Put the gun down, now!”

    “Not until this little shit spills the beans on that thing out there and how to stop it!”

    Charlie began to respond when Baxter cleared his throat, stepping out from behind her. He shuffled into the center of the room, addressing the assembled hotel staff and remaining clients. “I… miscalculated. Or, rather, I did not calculate more thoroughly. When I opened the bridge between here and Earth, it was strictly to permit the passage of signals, energy! Nothing like this…”

    “What, are you saying you brought him here?” Charlie said. “Why? How?”

    “The wifi…” Baxter started to ay before drifting off, mumbling. “It must have come here through the wifi…”

    Vaggie stepped forward, her expression flat yet incensed. “What.”

    Baxter threw up his arms. “The wifi! From Earth! When I created a channel between Hell and Earth, something slipped through, something… evil.”

    “Some evil from Earth invaded Hell?” Husk scoffed. “Think you got that shit backwards, Doc.”

    Baxter groaned and clasped his hands to his face. “I did all the research! My calculations were perfect! The channel should only have allowed immaterial things like radio waves and information through! But-but that thing–!”

    “What is it, Baxter?” Charlie said, her tone even, soothing.

    “Evil,” Baxter said, his eyes wide. “It eludes classification, for it is neither soul nor demon. The nearest thing I can think of is a virus, or-or a prion; a maliciously shaped conglomeration of evil energies that simulates awareness, but is naught but void, causing only destruction and mayhem. It has no mortality, or reason, or conscience, entirely devoid of any personality, its sense of life and death, good and evil, are extremely rudimentary.”

    “What are ya tryin’ to say?” Angel inquired, lowering his weapon. “It’s just… what?”

    “Nothing. A void. Something illusory. An entity,” Baxter whispered. “A Shape. That’s why it can’t be killed with angelic weaponry, why it siphons demonic energy, it can’t be purified if it itself is pure. If evil is merely the absence of good, that thing out there is like the cold dead vacuum of space! If we stay in here with it, if we do anything but run, we’re dead.”

    “But the hotel’s still on lockdown!” Vaggie said, pointing at the clock on the wall. “We’re not getting out of here until morning, when Halloween’s over.”

    “Great fuckin’ design, there.” Husk spat in disgust. “Who’s bright idea was that?!”

    Vaggie scoffed and rolled her eyes. “Think about it, if it didn’t completely lock down someone could pose as a patient and open up the hotel for all their anarchist buddies.”

    “S’what we were gonna do,” Chad said, sitting in the corner, staring into the middle distance. “Me and Stacy. Take the Princess hostage, get a nice fat ransom. Shit, just make some headlines! But the place locked down the second we signed up and she just figures ‘what the hell? Let’s go to heaven!’ Heh!” He looked down at the locket around his neck, the picture of his lost lover, tears welling up in his eyes. “My Baby, always lookin’ for a new kick. N-new ways to-to love. . .”

    The burly demon buried his face in his hands and sobbed. Vespa broke away from a semi-conscious Alastor and put comforting arm around his shoulder. “It’s okay, it’s okay.”

    “Do you think we can last the morning in here?” Charlie said, looking up into the ventilation shaft.

    A thundering boom echoed in the kitchen as the heavy steel doors shook on their hinges, the fridge skidding a few terrifying inches on the linoleum. Husk, the Goats, Krelboyne and Charlie rushed over and pushed back against the door.

    “That’s a ‘no’, huh?” Angel said, running over to the ventilation shaft. “Hold the door, I’ll be right back!”

    Angel disappeared up the vent, his many limbs making a staccato clamor as he ascended.

    “Mikey!” Charlie called out, bracing against another brutal impact. “Help us!”

    The huge masked demon cowered in the corner of the kitchen, huge hands clasped over his face as he rocked back and forth, sobbing in terror.

    “Forget the retard!” Chad roared, shooting to his feet, summoning a bowie knife and a bat studded with nails. “Let the freak in! Let’s ice this fuck!”

    “You can’t kill it!” Baxter screamed. “Don’t you get it? It has no soul! It can’t die!”

    “Bullshit!” Chad growled. “We just haven’t tried hard enough!”

    “I don’t wanna die!” Krelboyne wailed as the doors bent and warped outward.

     A strand of silvery silk dropped down from the vent, Angel’s voice echoed from some distance away. “Hurry up and climb, ya schmucks!”

    Charlie ran over and plucked another refrigerator off the ground and piled it on top of the other one. “Everyone! Into the vent! Now!”

    Vaggie gave the strand of silk a tug and, finding it secure, pulled herself up into the the metal tube.

    “How, exactly, did you find out this thing connects to your room’s vent?” She called up at Angel.

    “Lookin’ for ways to sneak out and get loaded,” Angel replied. “I’d sneak into th’kitchen and get sloshed on cookin’ wine.”

    “So that’s where it kept going…” Vaggie grumbled

    Chad snorted scornfully as the rest beat a hasty retreat, standing at the ready, weapons drawn, as the Shape battered away at the blockade.

    “Chad!” Charlie called out. “Please! You can’t fight it, you’ll die!”

    “Then I’ll die!” Chad glared at her over her shoulder. “I followed my baby to Hell, I’ll follow her to the Other Place too!”

    Charlie opened her mouth plead when the doors buckled and shook on their hinges. “Chad… please!”

    Chad felt a light, delicate hand set on his shoulder, he turned around to see Vespa, her expression that of sympathy, but he could see a low, steely glint in her blue eyes.

    “Chad,” she whispered. “I know you want to fight it, but this isn’t the time. Do you want to stay here and die, or do you want to kill it?”

    Chad paused for a moment. “Kill it.”

    “Then follow us.”

    He turned to the failing doors and then back to Vespa.



    With a final blow the doors burst inward, sending the refrigerators skidding across the floor like tin cans. It entered the room, scanning about for its prey.

    They were gone.

    It checked for sign of them, seeing the discarded vent cover it looked up just in time to see a thin, silvery strand of silk as it retreated into the open vent. It reached out for the chord, but the silk snatched away just in time, out of reach. It looked up into the darkness, hearing the bleating of its frightened prey through the metal corridor. No matter. It would find them eventually.

    It set out towards the door when something caught its eye, something familiar. A black handle with a long, polished, single edged blade. It reached out and grabbed the kitchen knife, examining it. If it ever felt anything at all, it felt whole now.

    The spear clattered to the ground, discarded. The Shape silently resumed the hunt.


    Vaggie and Charlie grunted and strained, each holding one of Mikey’s massive wrists, pulling the burly demon out of a shaft he had somehow managed to fit through. With a sound not unlike a cork popping, the mountainous simpleton popped out of the vent and tumbled across the floor.

    Krelboyne walked over to Angel as the spider coiled his silk. “Uh… t-thanks for getting us out of there.”

    “D’mention it, kid.” Angel Dust sniffed, tossing the perfectly coiled silk on his bed.

    A pause filled the air, each of the survivors were processing the situation in their own way. Husk looked as though he’d fight the Shape for a bottle of whiskey; the Goat Bois were quietly bleating to one another, their voices low and conspiratorial; Chad was glaring at a wall, his fists clenched; Nifty and Baxter huddled together, as Charlie and Vaggie tried to console Mikey. Alastor seemed to drift in and out of consciousness while Vespa watched over him.

    “So!” Krelboyne said, a little too loudly. “Where’d you get that silk from? You, uh, shoot it out like spiderman? Ha-ha!”

    “Like Spider-Twink?” Angel smirked and examined his wrists. “No.”

    “Then where…?” Krelboyne said, his eyes snapping wide. “Oh.”

    “Yeah, I’d wash my hands if I was ya, Gills.”

    Vespa made sure Alastor was comfortable, or at the very least wouldn’t slump over in his daze, and made her way over to Chad. He gave no indication of noticing her approach, and didn’t so much as move when she set a delicate hand on his shoulder. “Chad?”

    “You said we’re gonna kill it,” said Chad, not looking at her. “How?”

    Vespa shook her head. “I don’t know. But I know we can’t stay here, it’ll find us and slaughter us.”

    Chad sensed her holding something back, glaring over his shoulder. “Well?”

    “The panic room,” Vespa whispered, glancing at Charlie. “Floor six, room sixty-six. It’s supposed to keep out whoever could get through the lock-down, so it’s gotta be pretty tough. And it’s secure, too. No other ways in or out, right?”

    “Right? So?”

    “So,” said Vespa, slowly, the ghost of a smirk on her face. “Whoever goes in there will be trapped, right?”

    Chad’s face broke into a toothy smile. “Like a fuckin’ rat.”

 


    “It’s okay, Mikey, you’re safe,” said Charlie, stroking the giants greasy hair.

    Mikey shook his head and gibbered to himself, rocking on the floor.

    “He’s completely spooked,” Vaggie said, somewhat awed, looking up at Charlie. “But maybe he’s got a point? What do we do?”

    Charlie fidgeted and shook her head. “We can’t stay here. Not just this room, but the hotel! We have to get out…”

    “So!” Chad barked, turning to face Charlie. “What now, Princess?”

    Charlie looked up from the cowering Mikey. “What?”

    Chad gestured at the roomful of traumatized demons. “I mean, now that we know we can’t wait this thing out, and we apparently can’t fight it! What now? We run? Where to?”

    All eyes turned to Charlie, who paused for a moment before standing tall, a crease of determination in her brow. “We’re leaving the hotel. There’s a fire escape on the roof, if we can reach it we can get out of the hotel and lay low until dawn.”

    “But it’s a warzone out there!” Krelboyne exclaimed.

    “Better a warzone than a slaughterhouse!” Husk scoffed, tilting his hat to Charlie. “Lead the way, Chuck.”

    A round of agreements sounded around the room.

    Charlie smiled and nodded. “Okay, here’s the plan, we all take the service elevator at the end of the hall. It goes straight to the roof, so we won’t have to worry about running into That Guy. Sound good?”

    “Aren’t we forgetting about someone?” Came a weak voice from the corner of the room.

    “Alastor!” Vespa exclaimed, rushing to his side. “You’re awake! How do you feel?”

    Alastor fixed her with a wan glare, his grin somewhat strained. “Peachy.”

    “What do you mean, Alastor?” Charlie said, looking around the room. “Forgetting who?”

    “Bow-wow.”

    “Crymini!” Charlie gasped. “She’s still in her room! We have to go get her!”

    “Do we really, though?” Angel Dust said, his voice flat.

    “New plan!” Charlie said, clapping her hands. “First, we get Crymini, then we take the service elevator to the fire escape. Everyone okay with that?”

    Krelboyne looked around at the roomful of nervous demons, each of them contemplating walking the halls with that thing out there lurking in the shadows. “Uh, no?”

    “Tough!” Charlie chirped, reaching down and persuading Mikey to his feet. “C’mon! The longer we sit around, the more likely it is Masky will find us. C’mon! All of you! Up! Up! Up!”

    Vespa walked over to Alastor, kneeling next to him. “Alastor, can you stand?”

    “Certainly, my dear Vespa!” Alastor said, chuckling. “But walking might be a chore.”

    Vespa looped his arm over her shoulders and helped him to his feet. Alastor noticed Krelboyne glaring at him from across the room, his grin widening as he reached over to pet Vespa on the cheek. “My dear, sweet Vespa. I must admit, I’ve come to see you as someone I can depend on. My rock, as it were.”

    Vespa’s cheeks practically glowed as a blush lit up her entire face. “A-Alastor… I-I don’t know what to say. I-I-I–”

    Alastor pressed a crimson talon on her lips. “Rocks don’t talk, dearie.”

    Charlie opened the door slowly, peering out into the hall. “Coast is clear. Come on, everyone!”

    They cautiously filed out of the room, heads swiveling about, scanning every shadow, every corner for the Shape.

    Vaggie walked alongside Charlie, her voice low. “Nice moves.”

    “Huh?”

    “Commanding the room like that,” Vaggie gestured back at the trail of demons following them. “Not one fucker out of line back there.”

    “Oh, they’re just scared,” said Charlie, blushing somewhat. “Lack of options and all.”

    Vaggie reached out and took Charlie’s hand, squeezing it gently. “And you’re the best option. They wouldn’t follow you if you didn’t make them feel safe. If you didn’t know what you were doing.”

    Charlie smiled warmly at Vaggie, squeezing her hand back. “Thanks Vaggie.”

    Vaggie leaned in to kiss her when her eye snapped open wide. “Charlie, look out!”

    With a hard shove, Charlie was sent tumbling backwards, landing hard on her rear. Not one second later and the Shape swept in from behind her, grabbing a handful of Vaggie’s grey hair, hauling her off the ground and slamming her hard into the wall. The others screamed in alarm and scattered. Vaggie struggled and kicked at the Shape, pulling out a knife and burying it up to the handle in its neck. The Shape, unmoved by the injury, brought its kitchen knife glinting in the hard florescent light, and brought it down in a shimmering arc.

    “Vaggie!” Charlie cried, grabbing its wrist mid-slash.

    The knife, off-set by the intervention, buried itself in Vaggie’s shoulder, punching clean through and into the wall behind. Vaggie screamed in pain, pinned to the wall, feet dangling as she hung off the cold, hard steel. The Shape turned to Charlie, looming over her.

    “Wait! Please!” Charlie said, backing away from the advancing thing. “I’ve been told you’re pure evil, but I don’t believe that! There’s good in you somewhere, I know there is! Please, let me help you! I know you’ve made some mistakes, killed a few people, but I believe in you!”

    The Shape paused and tilted its head. Charlie breathed a sigh of relief as a pale, calloused hand reached up as though to pat her rosy cheek. It grabbed the side of her head and, with a grunt of effort, smashed her head into the wall, cratering the hard plaster with the impact. Charlie grunted, dazed, as it grabbed a handful of her hair and hurled her across the hall, her head bouncing off a solid corner, shattering wood studs and drywall. Charlie lay on the floor, the world spinning as she tried to think through the splitting pain in her head. The Shape stepped into view, looming over her.

    “P-please…” she mumbled, reaching out to it. “You don’t have to do this.”

    The Shape responded by raising its foot over her head, preparing to stomp.

    The overlapping click of magazines and the clack of feed covers snapping shut drew its attention down the hall. “Hey! Boogeyman!”

    The Shape turned to see Angel Dust, in each of his six hand as a MG42 with saddle drum magazine, on his face a vicious gold-toothed snarl. “Get th’FUCK away from my friends!”

    The six murderous gun-barrels sprang to life with light and sound, overlapping staccato roars thundering in the hallway as hundreds of bullets filled the air. The Shape grunted as each bullet found its mark, peppering its body with shredding metal. Angel growled and marched forward, the sheer weight of fire pushing the masked thing back on its heels. Angel pressed his advance until the Shape was pressed up against the elevator door, pinned by a sheer wall of copper-jacketed steel. The roaring machine gun fire broke off into low, hollow clicks as the ammo drums ran dry. The Shape stooped forward, its tattered coveralls mending, stitches melding back together as it reared back up to face its prey.

    Angel summoned six M1 Bazookas into his hands and leveled them at the Shape. “Yeah, FUCK YOU TOO!”

    The Bazookas fired with a bellowing crack, their rocket propelled warheads bridging the gap in a fraction of a second. The Shape vanished in a tremendous explosion, the hotel itself shook with the shockwaves. When the smoke dissipated, all that remained was the charred, twisted metal of the elevator door, the shaft an open, gaping pit.

    Charlie shakily got to her feet, rubbing blood out of her eye from the nasty gash on her temple. Her ears rang and lungs burned as choking gunsmoke and rocket fumes filled the hallway. Her watering eyes snapped open wide as she remembered. “Vaggie!”

    Husk and Baxter were helping Vaggie to the ground, having gotten her off the wall, Niffty and the Goats huddled around her, stabilizing the knife still sticking from her shoulder.

    “Vaggie!” Charlie cried, kneeling by her side. “Is she… ?”

    “Still alive,” Vaggie croaked, smiling weakly. “Dipshit missed everything important.”

    “She’s hurt real bad,” Niffty said, her eye huge and glistening with tears. “I-I think I can sew her up, but we gotta get her to a doctor!”

    “We will, just do what you can!” Charlie said, looking around at the now very empty hallway. “Where is everyone?”

    “All the newbies beat it when that thing showed up!” Husk growled, a small smile pulling at the sides of his mouth. “Silver linin’? They took that grinnin’ shitheel with ‘em.”

    Charlie shot to her feet, mortified. “We have to go get them! He’s still out there!”

    “We ain’t even gonna pretend like I killed that gruesome fuck?” Angel sighed, shrugging. “I mean, not even for my sake?”

    Husk put a hand on Charlie’s shoulder as she set off down the hall. “Hey waitaminute! Chuck, I know you wanna save those idiots, but listen! If we get even more split up, the more likely it is that thing’ll find us and gut us! Vaggie’s hurt, we gotta focus on getting her and ourselves to safety.

    “But–” Charlie began when Vaggie screamed in pain.

    Niffty held the bloody knife in her hands. “Sorry! Sorry! Get some pressure on that!”

    Angel was at her side in a second, ripping off a sleeve and pressing it against the gushing wound. Niffty handed the knife to Baxter, who squawked in disgust and tossed it away. She pulled a needle and a spool of string out of her dress pocket and set to work.

    “Chuck,” Husk said, his voice low and as soft as he could make it. “We gotta look after ourselves, here. Vaggie’s in a bad way.”

    Charlie winced as Vaggie bit back a cry and nodded. “Alright. You’re right. Everyone, as soon as we can, we head for the roof. Angel, how’s the elevator look?”

    “Uh…” Angel looked up from Vaggie and over to the smoking ruin that used to be the service elevator. “Fucked.”

    Charlie groaned and rubbed her temples. “Guess we’re taking the stairs.”

    “I’m way too sober for this shit,” Husk grumbled.

    
    A hand rose up from the elevator shaft, grasping the edge of the floor, followed by another hand. The Shape effortlessly pulled itself up and out of the darkness. It looked about for its prey, but the hallway was empty, the prey had since moved on. It walked down the hall, looking at the streak of blood on the wall where it had pinned one of them. Blood pooled on the floor and droplets led to a door, a glowing sign above it displaying a horned and winged stick figure tumbling down a flight of stairs. It looked around and saw ruts in the carpet where something had been dragged. The prey had split into two groups, both were hauling invalids. The Shape reached down and collected its knife from the floor and set off in pursuit.

Chapter Text

                                                                                The Shape of Evil Part - V

 

                Vespa and Krelboyne huffed as they hurried down the hall, a semi-conscious Alastor hanging limply between them, head bobbing unevenly with their steps. Behind them was Mikey, constantly peeking over his shoulder, paws fidgeting in terror. Well ahead of them was Chad, who marched with a singular purpose.

                “S-stop!” Vespa panted. “Chad! Slow down! We’re gonna stop!”

                “Have fun with that,” Chad grunted examining the framed hotel map on the wall.

                The roar of heavy machinegun fire echoed through the halls, followed by an earth-shaking explosion that sent vases and jack-o-melons tumbling from their perches.

                “Sssounds like Angel’s party-favors…” Alastor mumbled, weakly lifting his head.

                “Al!” Vespa exclaimed. “You’re awake!”

                Krelboyne reluctantly helped Vespa prop the drained Radio Demon up against the wall, crossing his arms and looking away as she brushed his bangs out of the way, palm against his forehead.

                “How are you feeling?”

                “Like I’m getting drunk,” said Alastor, a weak smile on his face. “From the drink’s point of view!”

                “Don’t worry, I’ll get you out of here,” she said, her voice soft and low as she cupped his cheek.

                Vespa’s head turned at the sound of a door opening, looking up to see Chad half-way through the door to the staircase. “Chad! Wait! Where are you going?”

                “To trap me some rats.”

                “What?” Vespa got to her feet and made her way over. “You can’t be serious!”

                Chad turned around, sneering at her. “Whadaya talkin’ about? This was your idea!”

                “Yeah, back when we still had, like, a dozen people!” Vespa waved an arm at the remaining demons. “We can’t fight that thing now! Especially with Alastor the way he is!”

                Chad arched an eyebrow and snorted. “I gotta easy fix for that.”

                “We’re not leaving him behind!” Vespa growled, or as near as she was able.

                Chad chuckled and ran a hand over his pompadour. “Alright, Princess. You stay here with your white night and dead-weight prince, see how long it takes for that pale freak to track you down and pull you apart like bugs. Me? I gotta date with a Shape. Later!”

                Chad swept into the stairwell and was gone, taking long, jumping strides up the stairs. Vespa seethed and pounded her fist against the wall. “You asshole!”

                Vespa stomped back over to where Krelboyne and Alastor, slumping down next to the crippled demon. “We won’t leave you, Al. Al?”

                Vespa looked over to see Alastor sitting with his head hanging limply between his knees. She propped his head up, noticing that even unconscious he still had a bright, chipper smile on his face. Her fingers found his pulse on his neck, relief spread across her face when she felt the slow drubbing of his heart. She sighed and leaned in, planting a delicate kiss on his ashen cheek.

                “I won’t leave you, Al,” she whispered. “ Never.”

                 A curious choked sound, somewhere between a squeak and a growl, drew her attention. Standing over her was Krelboyne, his skin blotchy and red with outrage.

                “Vespa! I-I-I…” Krelboyne exclaimed, hands a fidgeting blur. “I think Chad has a point!”

                “Not now, Krel,” Vespa sighed, exasperated. “Come on, help me pick him up.”

                “No!” Krelboyne barked, hands clenched fists at his side. “He’s slowing us down! H-he wouldn’t do this for us, why should we do it for him?!”

                “Because we’re trying to be better people, Krel.” Vespa gestured at the hotel. “You know, redemption?”

                “Oh, bullshit!” Krelboyne hissed, stomping his foot. “You just want to get in his pinstriped pants! Admit it!”

                Vespa glared at Krelboyne, blue eyes blazing. “…Krel. Now isn’t the time for this. Please, help me?”

                “No!” Krelboyne shrieked, his face full red now. “No! Damnnit, Vespa, why him? Of all people, why Alastor? He’s a psychotic, toxic, misogynistic fossil from a backwards era! He’s everything wrong with-with everything! Why him? Why him?! …Why not me? He doesn’t love you, but I do!”

                Vespa reached out and took Krelboyne’s hand. “Krel, it’s just… Look. You’re a really nice guy, and you’re so respectful and, uh, articulate. You’ll find a girl one day. I just think we should stay friends, you know?”

                Krelboyne snatched his hand away from hers, his face darkening. “You’re just like the rest of them.”

                Vespa drew away as Krelboyne advanced on her. “K-Krel…”

                “Fucking bitch,” Krelboyne growled, face almost purple now. “Fucking CUNT!”

                Krelboyne wound up and swung a sloppy haymaker at Vespa. She screamed and ducked, his wrist catching the back of her head, knocking her to the ground. Vespa tried to crawl away, but Krelboyne leapt on her back, wrestling her onto her side, then onto her back, pinning her. Vespa shrieked and tried to push him away, but he shoved past her arms and fastened his grip around her throat.

                “Just like all the rest!” He sputtered, his eyes bloodshot as he began to squeeze. “Just like all the rest! Fucking leading me on! Fucking bitch! See what happens! Fucking–”

                Vespa braced her hands against his and, with a powerful upward swing of her hips and push from her arms, shoved him face-first into the wall. Krelboyne’s glasses snapped and a thin, bony crunch sounded as his snout smashed against the carved oak molding. Krelboyne grunted in pain, Vespa knew she only had a split second to act, shoved against his leg with her hip and rolled out from under him, she was on her feet a second later. Krelboyne was on his knees, clutching his bleeding face. He looked up at her, eyes watering as blood poured from between his fingers.

                “Vespa, I–”

                Vespa roared and kicked out, her spats connecting with his moist, flabby cheek with a resounding slap. Krelboyne’s head snapped to the side, smashing into the wall, this time hard enough to dent the plaster. Krelboyne yelped and crumpled to the ground, covering his face and head with his arms as she rained kicks and stomps down on him. She wound up her leg and, with a roar of fury, planted the polished toe of her black and white spats into his crotch. Krelboyne yowled and reached down to his pummeled groin when Vespa grabbed him by the head with both hands, thumbs pressing into his red, weeping eyes. Krelboyne’s screams took on a high, horrified note as blood and other stuff pooled out around her thumbs and down his pallid cheeks. Vespa snarled, her teeth long and shark-like, her eyes a vibrant violet-within-azure, glowing as her hair writhed about, purple aura spiking. She pulled his head back before smashing it into the wall with both hands, over and over and over. Again, and again, and again, and on and on until the screaming stopped.

                Vespa stood over the limp body, panting, bloody fists clenched at her side. “Always wanted to do that.”

                She looked down at her hands, expression that of flat disgust. She reached down and wiped the mess off on Krelboyne’s shirt before standing back up and turning to face the others. Mikey cowered in the corner, he’d stopped gibbering and was now watching her warily with those strange blue eyes, shuttered behind greasy strands of hair. Alastor was awake again, his ever-present grin now positively glowing.

                “Heh!” Vespa said, hiding her blood-stained hands behind her back, smiling meekly. “Sorry about that, Al.”

                “Never apologize for a good show, my dear,” Alastor crooned, beckoning her over. “I always like a woman who’s not afraid to dirty her hands. And smile afterwards, too! I must say, Miss Vespa, there’s hope for you yet!”

                Vespa flushed and smiled even wider, walking over to Alastor and taking his arm, pulling it across her shoulders as she helped him to his feet. “It’s a dirty business, survival.”

                “The dirtiest! That’s why it’s always important to smile!” Alastor turned to her, talon tracing her jaw. “If you grin while you gut, folk wonder what happens when you stop grinning. So keep on smiling, my dear, and no one will ever want to find out!”

                Vespa set off down the hall with Alastor, Mikey stood in place, fidgeting. Vespa turned her head and looked at him over her shoulder, smiling serenely. “Come along, Mikey!”

                The giant demon grunted and followed slowly after her, not bothering to look at the still, bloody figure on the floor.

-*-

                Crymini lay on her bed, nose buried in her phone, watching the mayhem unfold outside as the music blared from the speakers.This Halloween was a shitkicker and no mistake! Whole warehouses were being plundered, weapons and drugs passed out like party favors. Some absolute mad-lad had made six lines of coke stretching the length of an entire racetrack, and now six contestants were making their way to the finish line as fast as possible!

                “And I’m stuck in here with Princess Smiles’ costume party!” She scoffed, rolling her eyes and flicking a strand of hair out of her eyes. “What kinda holiday is it if you can’t fuck someone up?”

                A frantic knock sounded at her door, followed by a familiar voice. “Crymini? Crymini are you in there? Are you okay?”

                Charlie sounded on-edge, something had probably gone wrong with the party, run out of candy or spilled the punch or some stupid shit. Crymini snorted and turned up the music, drowning out the muffled drivel coming from the other side.

                “You know what?” Charlie said, utterly fed-up. “Fuck this.”

                The door smashed inward, breaking in two down the middle before shattering to splinters when it hit the far wall. Charlie marched over to the stunned punk-wolf and grabbed her by the arm.

                “We’re leaving.” Charlie growled, drowned out by the music.

                “What?!” Crymini sputtered.

                Charlie reached down and crushed her phone, killing the music. “I said: we’re leaving.”

                “My phone! What the fuck!” Crymini exclaimed before being yanked to her feet and out the door. “Hey!”

                Charlie marched out the door, a struggling, protesting Crymini in tow. “Charlie! What are you doing?! Lemme go! What… uh…”

                The entire hotel staff and Angel Dust were waiting in the hallway, each of them looked as though they’d been through the wringer, their costumes rumpled and expressions harrowed. Vaggie was sitting on the floor, propped up against the wall, a horrifying amount of blood on her shoulder. “What the Hell is going on?!”

                “Baxter summoned an unstoppable being of pure evil and now we’re evacuating the hotel!” Niffty said, entirely too chipper. “People have died, all the patients except Angel are AWOL, and we’re all probably going to get violently murdered!”

                Charlie stammered her way through a half-hearted revision of Niffty’s summary before giving up and nodded. “Basically, yeah. Come on, we’re heading to the roof.”

                Charlie knelt down and picked semi-conscious Vaggie from the floor, carrying her gingerly in her arms. “Come on, everyone. This way.”

                Crymini looked around at the staff as they filed past her. “I–but–what, are you being serious?”

                “Stick around and find out,” Angel sneered as he walked by.

                Crymini looked around the now very empty hall, looking down the barren corridor, she suddenly felt acutely vulnerable.

                “Hey…” she called out, taking off after the group. “H-hey! Wait up!”

-*-

                Krelboyne whimpered as he stumbled around blindly in the empty hallway. His head was a lump of hot, throbbing agony, like a ripe tomato ready to burst. Blood and gunk caked his cheeks, cold gummy tears from the raw pits that used to be his eyes. His pace was slow and his stance wide, his groin a radiating, nervy pit of nauseating pain.

                “Vespa!” He cried out, his voice thick as he stumbled along, hand on the wall. “Vespa please! I’m sorry! I didn’t mean to–Don’t leave me, please! Please…”

                The corner of a small table jabbed into his crotch as stumbled into it, knocking the jack-o-melon to the ground with a rich ‘splat’. Krelboyne yelped and pulled away, stumbling out into the hall as he lost his balance. He tumbled to the floor, his broken snout smacking painfully on the carpet. Krelboyne shook as he sobbed on the floor, weeping.

                The floorboards creaked in front of him.

                “Huh? Who’s there?” He sniffled.

                There was no response.

                Krelboyne moaned and sobbed, hands pawing about in front of him. “Help me. Please, please help me. I–I can’t see, th-this girl, this-this fucking bitch, she-she… wait, Vespa? Is that you? I’m sorry, I didn’t mean it! I was wrong to-to lash out like that! You have the right to ch-choose whoever you like! I’m sorry, I just, I just… Vespa?”

                His hands found a foot, a heavy workboot. “Who is that? Wh-who’s there? Please, please… SAY SOMETHING!”

                The other heavy workboot stomped down on Krelboyne’s head with gargantuan force, crushing it like a rotten watermelon with a low, meaty crunch.

                It watched as the body twitched and jittered before finally lying still, the pool of dark blood expanding until it dripped off the carpet and onto the hardwood floor. The Shape turned and made its way towards the stairway, leaving nothing but a single print of blood and brain before shoving its way through the door.

-*-

                Vespa grunted as she hauled Alastor up the stairs, sweat dripping down her rosy cheeks. She looked over and saw him, a smile on his face despite the crease on his brow, ashen skin shiny with a flop-sweat. He smelled of tobacco and spirits, of blood and herbs, rituals conducted in dark recesses of Hell itself. He smelled like power. Even weakened and vulnerable, he gave no indication that his state effected his confidence. So unshakeable was his poise that Vespa bet not one of Alastor’s enemies would be ballsy enough to take a swing at him if they were here. The secret to that power, to that level of respect, the secret of him, all would be hers soon enough, she just had to prove herself to him. She had to be worthy, and nothing would get in her way.

                “Not even that thing,” she muttered through gritted teeth.

                “Excuse me?”

                “Nothing.” Looking over her shoulder at Mikey, who was lumbering up the stairs a few steps behind them, sampling the air and watching the flights below, twitchy as a spooked horse. “Mikey, do you think you could give me a hand with Alastor?”

                The giant ignored her, mumbling to himself.

                “Good luck with that one, sweetheart,” whispered Alastor, his breath hot and sour on her cheek. “Former muscle for a mid-size gang on the Southside. Mikey here is the sole reason they even rank that high. Talent for violence, you see. A talent for brutality. For rage. But then, one day, on the picture show, he saw a princess. A beautiful golden-haired girl who sang sweetly and spoke softly. No one ever thought Mikey even knew right from wrong, so it was something of a surprise when he decided to seek redemption. Some of the gang… objected. His rampage was so brutal, so savage, that none of the gang members were sane when they regenerated. Thus he came to darken our door.”

                “He’s here for Charlie?” Vespa whispered back, voice low, eyes narrowed.

                “He’s here for someone,” said Alastor, shooting her a wink. “Someone who’s not here. Sweet, loving Charlie’s just the nearest thing he’s found.”

                Vespa and Alastor cleared the flight and, panting, Vespa set Alastor down on the ground, sitting him up against the wall. “We’ll rest here for a bit.”

                “All the same to me, my dear,” Alastor crooned. “Rest your gams.”

                Vespa slowly made her way over to the lumbering demon, her voice slow and deliberate. “Hey, Mikey. How’s it going?”

                Mikey did not look at her, he stared down the stairwell.

                She reached out to touch his arm, her hand snapping back when he turned and snarled at her.

                “Okay…” she muttered to herself. “No touching. Got it.”

                A silence passed in the stair well, only broken by the occasional snuffle as Mikey scented the air. Vespa glanced over at Alastor, he was watching them, smiling, his eyebrow arched in fascination. She steeled herself and turned back to the damned hulk. “Mikey, look. We’re in danger, you know that. That thing down there, it scares you. That’s okay, it scares me too, but if we’re going to survive this, we’re going to have to work together.”

                Mikey snorted, grubby mitts wringing the hand-rail. He didn’t so much as look at her.

                Vespa felt Alastor’s grin widen, watching her, waiting to see how she managed this situation. Testing her, like a protege! She put on her best, warmest smile.

                “Mikey, Charlie needs us.”

                He glanced at her, a small furtive break from his vigilance over the stairwell.

                “She does. You saw it down there, that thing can hurt her, and it will, it will if we don’t get back to her fast.”

                Mikey grunted, mountainous shoulders tensing.

                “She’ll stay behind and wait for us. You know she will. Because she cares about us.” Vespa reached over and, very carefully, set a hand on his forearm. “If you help us get to the top floor, she won’t wait and that thing won’t get her, right?”

                Mikey grunted and brushed past her and plucked Alastor off the ground, effortlessly.

                “Mind the suit, Michael,” Alastor grumbled, sneering in disgust as his grubby hands stained his lapel.

                He set off up the stairs. Vespa followed after him when a reverberating bang of a door being slammed open echoed throughout the stairwell. Vespa looked down to the lower flights, her heart dropping as a cold sweat broke out on her brow. The sound of slow, deliberate steps echoed up at them like some Hellish metronome. She bit back a scream when she saw a pale hand in a light grey sleeve reach out and grab the handrail, just a few flights below them. Mikey spun around and bounded up the steps, with Vespa struggling to keep up.

                ‘Shit!’ Vespa thought to herself as she slowly but surely fell behind. ‘For a big guy, he’s fast!’

                She looked down and saw the hand grasp a handrail, somehow much closer now. ‘Shit! It’s catching up! This keeps up it’ll… I’ll…’

                “Mikey! Wait!”

                The giant stopped and turned to glare at her. Vespa pointed up at the top of the staircase. “We’ll lead it right to her! It’s following us, if we find Charlie, so will that thing!”

                Mikey moaned in dismay, hands flapping as he panicked, jostling Alastor about.

                “Give me Al,” Vespa cried, grabbing Alastor’s hand. “We can’t let that thing find Charlie! You can’t let it find her!”

                Mikey cocked his head at her, snapping to attention as when he understood. He grunted and dropped Alastor unceremoniously on the hard concrete, enormous hands flexing and clenching.

                “Watch it, you oaf!”

                “Mikey! I’ll make sure Charlie’s safe,” Vespa said, collecting Alastor off the ground. “She’ll get away, Mikey. I’ll make sure of it!”

                Mikey growled and brushed past the pair, rolling out his shoulders and neck, massive muscles bulging as he prepared.

                “I’ll tell her how good you were, Mikey!” Vespa called back as she hauled Alastor up the stairs. “She’ll be so proud!”

                Mikey stood at the top of the stairs and cracked his knuckles with sound not unlike gunshots. As the other two escaped, he waited, the frantic clopping of their footfalls waning until the only sound was steady, mechanical ‘tap tap tap’ of the Shape’s pace. Mikey steeled himself, growling like a bear.

                Tap.

                Tap.

                Tap.

 -*-

                Charlie peered out of the stairwell and looked up and down the hall. The coast seemed clear, but then that was a given considering how this thing seemed to teleport! Regardless, she could clearly see the access stairs to the roof. They were almost there, almost safe.

                “Clear!” She whispered, waving everyone on. “Go, go, go!”

                The demons poured out of the door and into the hall, their desperate haste just barely overridden by their fear. At once scrabbling and cautious, they made their way towards their salvation.

                “So, what’s this bad-boy look like?” Crymini said, looking about. “This thing that’s got everyone on edge?”

                “You’ll know ‘im when ya see ‘im,” Angel muttered all arms ready to summon his most powerful weapons. “Holler if ya do.”

                “Shit, now I’m dying to know!”

                “Hopefully you won’t ever know,” said Charlie, looking down at the semi-conscious Vaggie in her arms. “We’ve already lost so many people to him. Roach, Stacy, Vespa, Mikey, Krelboyne, Chad, Alastor…”

                “Shit!” Crymini exclaimed, a smirk on her face. “This thing iced the Radio Demon?”

                Charlie shook her head, gesturing so-so. “No! Well… we got split up a while back and, well, we haven’t seen the Masked Guy in a while, sooo…”

                “So that thing’s probably where they are, meanin’ they’re dead!” Husk growled, approaching the door to a stairwell. “Couldn’ta happened to a more deservin’ asshole, if y’ask me!”

                The door swung open and out fell Vespa and Alastor. Husk leapt back with an undignified caterwaul and Angel Dust instinctively drew and aimed six Panzerschreck rocket launchers, bellowing a throaty warcry.

                “Don’t shoot! Don’t shoot!” Vespa cried, shielding Alastor as he lay face down on the ground. “It’s us!”

                “Bran Flakes?” Angel lowered his anti-tank weapons. “Izzat you?”

                Vespa cocked her head. “‘Bran Flakes’?

                “Vespa! Alastor!” Charlie exclaimed, her relieved smile fading just as quickly as it came. “…The others? Krelboyne? Chad? Mikey?”

                Vespa shook her head, expression crestfallen.

-*-

                Anger and rage. Mikey extracted his strength from it, pulled from its boundless wells to fuel his bloodlust. With it he’d ended so many Up Above and Down Below, and he wouldn’t stop now. Fear vaporized, replaced by a surge of hatred. Because now he hated this thing, this foe, this Shape, how it haunted the halls like a phantom, threatening everyone, threatening Charlie. Sweet Charlie, the only one who could truly understand him, understand him like. . . like her. . .

                The taps grew closer, until they increased in volume, shifting to heavy, weighty footfalls. The darkness shivered, the shadows grew, the air felt cold, like a pair of icy hands around a throat. There, emerging from the void, at the stairs, was it.

                A pale, near-featureless mask gazed upward, lidless, black holes for eyes staring into Mikey. He clenched his teeth, snarling back, his makeshift mask a sloppy reflection of the ghastly visage staring him down. The two were near equal in size, but Mikey was larger, broader even. Stronger, angrier, and with that fury he’d put an end to this, turn the fiend into a bloody pulp. Mikey glance at the attacker’s arm, spying the shimmer of metal, a cold knife dripping with thick scarlet. He’d take it back.

                Mikey stepped forward, the Shape still, unmoving. It said nothing, filling the air with the dull metronome of its rasped breathing. It was mocking him! Mocking him like before in the hall!

                He couldn’t hold back. He shuddered with uncompromising rage and dove forward, leaping into the frame. With one defiant shout, he bellowed against this vision of death.

                “DIE!!!”

                He tackled the silent opponent with all forcing, managing to knock it back as the two flew back down the stairs in a messy, clunky cacophony of thuds. Mikey savaged the fiend, going for its neck, wrapping around any imitation of flesh he could find as they tossed down the steps like stones. Had to kill it now, keep the knife off, choke it to death, crush its head, destroy it, obliterate it!

                Mikey roared with animal growls and sputters, rasping through clenched teeth. He found purchase on the thing’s neck, yet, at the touch felt something like ice. Cold, dense, limitless. For the briefest of moments, he faltered, and in that fraction of weakness the Shape’s free hand came forward and shoved Mikey off with terrifying force, force that shouldn’t be possible even by the standards of a demon. Mikey found himself thrown into the wall, losing balance with the limited space offered by the stairwell. The impact to his back winded him, sending a spike of splashing pain over his spine.

                He coughed, but did not forget himself. The Shape, however, raises its torso, without so much as an utterance, until standing. It showed no sign of pain or injury. In a flash, it raised the knife-wielding hand and lunged downward at Mikey, who caught it in time with his hand. It was as though an avalanche was coming down on him, this harsh, limitless strength. How!? How was this possible!? Mikey’s rage increased, struggling to keep the blade away from him as it inched closer and closer.

                His other arm shot out and gripped the Shape’s side, slamming him against the wall. He managed to bang the masked fiend’s head against the unforgiving stone, again and again, but the thing’s momentum did not cease. With one final, defiant roar, Mikey summoned all his strength and shoved the Shape backward. It took several steps back, paused, staring.

                It didn’t move. It looked back, studying, waiting, and Mikey felt paralyzed. His anger wavered.

                Now came fear.

                The Shape shot forward once more with its free hand, catching Mikey by the throat. Mikey attempted to shove the arm away but it was as though attempting to stop a steel column. With brute power, the Shape slammed him into the wall, outright trading places with the oafish demon, gripping, clenching, shutting his windpipe. Mikey kicked, flailed, coughed, but could do nothing. His rage vaporized. He was scared.

                Someone was coming to save him, right? They had to. Charlie had to! She wouldn’t leave him alone to die, not like this! She was the only kindness he knew, she cared! And yet, as his eyes gave one last hopeful, failing glance to the ascending stairs, there was no one.

                With uncompromising force, the Shape lifted Mikey, slowly. Despite his massive size and weight, the attacker showed no difficulty in lifting him. What was meat and muscle to evil, after all?

                Mikey felt his neck start to crack. Strength was leaving him, evaporating. He watched as that sliver of metal appeared. Would that he could, Mikey would scream.

                He could only watch as the knife swung forward and pierced his flesh like butter, the metal sending a wellspring of hot pain through him as it sheared through his midsection. The Shape shoved the knife forward, hard, until the edge pierced all the way through and impaled Mikey to the wall, hanging him by the knife.

                Shakes, quivers, twitches. Mikey’s eyes went dull, head limp, his makeshift mask loosening and falling to the ground, revealing the face of not a man, or a sinner, but a scared little boy, greasy locks spilling over his wide, terrified blue eyes. The Shape took a step back, watching its victim cease, tilting its head from side to side in a macabre mockery of thoughtful observation.

                After a moment’s appreciation, it retrieved the knife in a quick motion, one last river of blood spilling free as the immense body collapsed to the ground.

-*-

                Charlie sighed and pressed her fists against her forehead, willing herself not to cry. “Well, at least you’re both okay.”

                “Better than okay, Charlie!” Alastor said, shooting to his feet and dusting off his suit. “Nothing like a bit of rest and relaxation to put the starch back in these old pants!”

                Vespa gawped up at Alastor, her flushed, exhausted face wide open in utter confusion. “A-Al?”

                Alastor made of show of stretching and bending, as though he’d been sitting a while, touching his toes and extending his arms over his head. “I feel like… well, fifty bucks? Seventy-five? Not quite a crisp hundy, but close!”

                “You’ve been able to walk this whole time?!” Charlie snarled, her fists bunched at her sides.

                “No, no, no! Of course not!” Alastor chuckled, polishing his nails on his lapel. “Around the time we all hid in Angel’s boudoir.”

                “But-but-but–!” Vespa stammered.

                “–s are for sitting!” Alastor crooned, before leaning over and nudging Charlie with a playful elbow. “Unless you have some devotees on hand to carry you! Ah! But to glide on luxury in times of crisis! If that isn’t the definition of class, I don’t know what is!”

                Alastor clapped his belly, throwing his head back for a hearty laugh as Vespa stammered out some kind of response.

                Despite herself, Charlie began to giggle, then chuckle, before giving in fully and belly-laughing right alongside the Radio Demon. The two stooped up against one another and cackled loudly to the horror and confusion of the other survivors.

                “Geez, Chuck, it ain’t that funny,” Husk grumbled, helping an exhausted, drained Vespa to her feet.

                “I know, I know,” Charlie panted, wiping a tear from her eye. “But sometimes you just gotta laugh, you know?”

                “So, Bran Flakes,” Angel said, looking around. “Where’s Gruesome?”

                Vespa turned away from the chatting Alastor and Charlie, looking to all the world like she’d just had the rug yanked out from under her. “What?”

                “The Boogeyman, dollface!” Angel said, tone urgent. “Didja give ‘im the slip?”

                A ghoulish grin crawled across her face, she shook her head. “It was right behind us.”

               With a splintering crack a hand burst up from the floor, grasping Angel by the leg. Angel yelped in surprise and tried to pull away, but its grip was inescapable. It yanked Angel’s leg down into the hole, stopping only when up to his hip.

                “Help! Help! It’s got me!” Angel screamed, summoning a sextet of Tommy guns and firing wildly into the floorboards.

                Charlie, Niffty, Baxter, and the Goats each took an arm and pulled. Angel grit his teeth and pushed with his leg. With one last yank, he was slammed into the floor board and went slack, the other survivors able to pull him away from the hole. Angel screamed in pain and outrage at what his saw: his leg terminated in a tattered stump at the knee, his hot pink blood gushing from the shredded flesh. Niffty set upon it immediately, tearing a shred of her dress off and making a crude tourniquet to stanch the bleeding.

                “Jesus Christ!” Husk said, hoarsely, turning to Alastor. “What fuck happe–”

                Alastor took a few large, unhurried steps backwards and, a moment later the Shape in its entirety burst upwards through the floor, looming over Husk.

                “OH SHI–” Husk cried, turning to run as the knife rose high in the air.

                The blade came down in a brutal arc, the tip catching the fleeing demon diagonally across the back. Husk screamed in agony as one of his wings fell twitching to the floor along with a thick splash of hot blood. He stumbled forward before tumbling to the floor. The Shape stomped after him, knife held high, ready to strike the killing blow.

                “No!” Charlie bellowed, grabbing its wrist, stopping the blade.

                The Shape reached out for her with its free hand, but she caught that too, pulling it into a grapple.

                “I won’t let you kill any more of my friends!” she growled, horns sprouting from her forehead, her teeth now fangs.

                The Shape gave no indication of hearing her, instead it pushed down on her with that same bottomless, irresistible strength. She felt her own power begin to wane, just being near this thing was like being naked in a tundra, sucking the very essence from her, she grit her teeth as she felt her arms begin to buckle. Just then, a dozen black, shadowy hands gripped the Shape all about its body. Alastor’s inky familiars groaned and strained as they pulled the Shape away from her and dragged it down the hall, away from the group. The Shape fought back, its fingers tearing through their inky flesh like they were made of merengue, leaving deep gashes in their shadowy bodies. One by one, the familiars fell, the last one screaming as its head squished through the Shape’s fingers. Its assailants now dissipating smoke, the Shape resumed its march towards the group of cowering demons, knife in hand.

                “Chew on this, y’fuckin’…” Angel roared, manifesting and throwing an anti-tank mine the size of a hubcap. “…FUCK!”

                If the Shape noticed, it did not show. It marched ever forward, its booted foot stomping down on the landmine. The survivors, except Alastor, dove to the ground as a massive explosion tore the air, filling the room with smoke and fire.

                “Did… did I geddim?” Angel said, coughing as he peered through the smoke.

                The floor, walls, and ceiling were engulfed in flame. Standing before the fire, backlit like a shadow over Hell itself, was the Shape. Its eyes, so black as to be visible in darkness, locked onto Angel.

                “No, no I don’t think you did,” Alastor said, face glistening with sweat as he opened the door to the stairs. “Perhaps we should scram?”

                The Goats gathered a swearing, spitting Husk up off the ground. Niffty, Crymini and Baxter followed suit with Angel, more dragging him than carrying. Charlie darted across the hall and picked an unconscious Vaggie up off the floor. She turned around to see the Shape, looming over her. Before she could cry out in alarm, it swatted Vaggie from her arms and fastened its grip around her throat. It effortlessly hauled her off the ground, slamming her against the wall. Charlie feebly pawed at its dreadful, cold flesh, feeling it siphon her strength every second it touched her. The knife rose, slowly, with something not unlike relish. Steel flashed in the orange light of the roaring fire, Charlie squeezed her eyes shut and waited for the fiery flare of pain. When it didn’t come, she opened her eyes and saw a huge hand closed around its wrist, a violent twist and the knife clattered to the floor. A trunk-like arm wove up and under the Shape’s arm and across its chest in a half-nelson. The pallid, frightened face of a little boy peered over its shoulder, Charlie knew who it was in an instant.

                “Mikey?”

                “Charlie,” he muttered. “…RUN!!”

                With one last burst of strength, Mikey hauled the Shape backwards, towards the flames and, leaping into the air, dragged it with him into the inferno. Their combined bulk was too much for the flame-weakened floor to withstand and they crashed through into a pit below.

                Charlie, tears welling up in her eyes, collected Vaggie from the floor and ran for the stairs.

                A slender, pale hand gathered the knife up off the floor. Vespa examined the blade, her eyes gleaming.

 

 -*-

                Up on the roof, the survivors panted. Angel stared at his stump, eyes wide and harrowed. Husk growled and swore as Niffty stanched the bleeding gash across his back. Vespa sat next to Alastor, who stood, contemplating a shadow. He waved his hand, his aura glowing. A inky black tendril sprouted from the darkness, twitched, flickered, and then evaporated.

                “Sorry, Charlie,” he said with something like sincerity. “Looks like that’s all I had left in the tank. It’ll be some time before I can get my pals on the horn again.”

                “That’s okay, Alastor,” Charlie muttered, gingerly laying Vaggie down on the roof. “We… there’s nothing we can do.”

                Alastor’s grin subsided into a smirk, he made his way over and set a hand on her shoulder. “I get a kick out of failure as much as the next fella, but there was nothing to be done for that lot. Nothing to be done about any of this. You mustn’t beat yourself up, my dear.”

                Charlie buried her face in her hands and sobbed. “I couldn’t save them! I couldn’t save anyone! Dad was right, I’m a-a-a–”

                Alastor hesitantly put and arm around her shoulder, Charlie turned into him and buried her face in his chest. Alastor, for as uncomfortable as he looked, allowed this, stiffly patting her on the back.

                Vespa glowered at the pair, her eyes glowing. Quite suddenly, she said. “What if it gets out?”

                Charlie’s eyes snapped open, she turned to Vespa. “What do you mean?”

                “I mean,” Vespa said, gesturing at the city presently embroiled in a city-wide gangwar. “What happens when that thing in there gets out here. Because it will, you know.”

                Charlie set a hand over her mouth, horrified. “I… we… oh God.”

                “Can yer pops kill that thing?” Angel said, hobbling over, leaning on Crymini.

                “Probably?” Charlie said, uncertain.

                “Will he?” Vespa asked, pointedly.

                “Probably not,” Charlie said, defeated. “He’d just say ‘Hell’s Hell’ and lead it towards an orphanage…”

                “Well, we gotta do something!” Vespa exclaimed. “We gotta stop it!”

                “Do what now?” Angel deadpanned, gesturing at his leg. “In case ya haven’t noticed, Bran Flakes, but we’ve been focusin’ on survivin’ all night! And been doin’ a pretty shit job so far, I might add! We don’t even know what it is, much less how ta stoppit!”

                “Yeah!” Crymini chipped in. “Like, why does it look like Michael Myers? What’s the deal with that?”

                Angel blinked. “Like who?”

                “You know, Michael Myers, the serial killer? The Haddonfield Halloween Massacre? Crazy dude in a mask knifed up a buncha teens on Halloween night. My uncle’s girlfriend lost a friend in that.”

                “Vespa’s right,” Charlie said. “We can’t let that thing out into the city. I made this hotel to stop the senseless slaughter of my people, not introduce new ways for them to die!”

                “But how?” Husk said, grimacing and wincing as Niffty sewed him up. “Nothin’ seems to hurt it, much less kill it! How we supposed to send it to the Other Place if we can’t even slow it down?”

                “Send…” said Baxter, eyes lighting up. “We send it back.”

                “What?”

                “Back to earth!” Baxter pulled out his smartphone and fiddled with it for a moment. “Here. It came here through a channel I opened between the realms, following a signal. If we can get it back to the machine and send a message to earth, there’s a slight chance it will be drawn back through the portal!”

                “How slight?” Charlie said, folding her arms.

                “Minuscule,” Baxter said, grimacing. “But, mathematically, that’s infinitely better than ‘no chance at all’!”

                Charlie clenched her fist, her expression that of grim determination. “I’ll do it. What do I need to do?”

                Baxter walked her through a rough layout of his lab, his devices, their functions, and what to do and when. He handed her the phone. “…Then you just pull the lever. The quintessence field should trap it long enough for you to send the message. Understand?”

                Charlie took it and nodded, heading off for the door. No time to waste.

                “Charlie, wait!” Angel cried out, hobbling after her. “Ya can’t go in there alone! You’ll die!”

                Charlie smiled and shook her head. “You’ll all need Alastor out here with you to protect you from the other demons. Besides, I’m the only one who’s still strong enough to hold it off. It has to be me.”

                “I’ll go.”

                Every set of eyes turned to look at the source, Vespa stood, waving awkwardly. “Yeah, I’ll go with you. I can still walk, and I’m stronger than I look.”

                “That she is,” Alastor said, winking. “And you’ll need another set of eyes down there.”

                Charlie opened her mouth to protest when Vespa raised her arm and pointed at her wrist. “Tick-tooock.”

                Charlie sighed and rubbed her forehead. “Yeah, alright, fine. Come on then.”

 

-*-

                It didn’t take long for the pair to get back downstairs, notable fatigue setting in. They leered at anything that looked like it might move, but it appeared, for now, the Shape was “paused.” Charlie grimaced, passing the remains of Roach and some of the others as they neared the foyer. Her mind flashed to Mikey and his terrified eyes, the stare of a scared boy. He sacrificed himself to save her, her friends. She would never forget that.

                But time was wasting.

                “. . .his lab is this way, I remember. And he’s got a room setup for uh, whatever he was doing. The science-y stuff.”

                Vespa watched Charlie glance around the empty living room, checking every shadow and dark corner, expecting the worst. Couldn’t blame her, all that happened was the worst. Death was alive and stalked every hall, every room. This Shape could appear at will, a phantom, a Boogeyman proper.

                “They all trust you, do they?” said Vespa, voice quiet, studying her counterpart.

                Charlie paused, somewhat taken off guard. “What? Who? The others?”

                Vespa gave a slow nod. “Even Alastor.”

                Charlie blinked. “Oh, well, yes. I suppose. Al is Al and is a creepy guy, but he has technically helped the Hotel. I’d like to think he’s a friend. . .”

                Vespa winced and her fists clenched. “A friend?”

                She shrugged. “I guess I’m using that pretty loosely, huh?”

                Vespa forced a smile. “Well, you two certainly had fun, didn’t you. Made jokes and all that. Seemed nice.”

                Charlie noted the tone, its tenseness. Something was wrong, but, she couldn’t play therapist right now, time was of the essence. Everyone was in danger, and they needed to move quick.

                “I. . . I’m sorry, Vespa, it was a little gag, that’s all. Alastor is like that, he’s just-”

                “I know how he is!” Vespa snapped. “Don’t tell me that! I know him! I know him better than you!”

                Startled, Charlie’s alabaster features when a yet paler shade. “V-Vespa, what. . .”

                “Oh, cut it out you uptight royalty bitch. This act of innocence, it’s exhausting. How does anyone put up with it!?”

                Now, Charlie’s features narrowed, sensing something. Not anger, not irritation, but motive. She huffed, straightening.

                “Vespa, this isn’t the time. We’ll deal with your. . . misplaced jealousy issues later, right now, we need to get to the lab so we can sav-”

                Vespa coughed with a loud, sarcastic laugh. “Jealous!? Oh you’ve gotta’ be kidding me. Get over yourself, princess. Jealous of what? You? Are you kidding? Hah, I was doing your job better this whole night, you just got here first. If it was me. . . hmph.”

                Now Charlie growled, her eyes flashing with a wave of scarlet. “Enough! Vespa, enough. I don’t have time for this! None of us do! You get an angry after everyone’s alive and then maybe you can, I don’t know, ask Alastor out or something! But you’re being a child and there are lives at stake!”

                “Lives at stake!?” Vespa spat. “Are you dense you overgrown spoiled brat!? Lives were lost because of you! People died because of you! You can’t save anyone, and I’m not sticking around for this. Try to fight that thing all you want, I’m done.”

                Charlie’s heart sank, chest going cold. “Vespa,” she tried again, voice wavering. “You need to stay with me, it’s safer.”

                Vespa snorted, hands going behind her, ruffling for something. “Safer? Hah, as far as I’m concerned, you’re the bait.”

                Charlie didn’t understand until Vespa took a step forward. Then, her eyes widened, boggled as Vespa brandished a knife. No, not a knife, the knife, the same one the Shape had been using, dripping with sticky scarlet from its previous victims. The princess gasped and raised a hand.

                “Wait!”

                Vespa screamed and lunged, carrying the blade in a frighteningly familiar stance. Charlie raised her arms, shrieking, while the attacker fell upon her, nearly toppling her over. Charlie struggled, trying to Vespa away, but the girl had a modicum of surprising strength.

                “Stupid bitch!” Vespa growled. “I’ve killed a dozen girls just like you! You’re not special!”

                Charlie felt the lunge attempts and rolled from side to side, dodging the sharp strikes. With a defiant yelp, she shoved Vespa away, this time falling on top of her assailing, grabbing wrist. But, with one burst of enraged strength Vespa cut in downward fashion, striking a hard cut into Charlie’s leg. She yelped, a flash of anger roiling through her frame, briefly tugging on the strength of her family lineage, a whimsical burst of golden energy surging through her palm, sour musical notes emitting from the point of impact. It was light enough to throw Vespa off with a loud thud, knocking her back.

                Charlie, though, winced, feeling the hot cut drool down her leg, pulling the metal. It left a small but notable wound as she pushed herself to a knee.

                “I’ll ignore what you just did,” Charlie growled through teeth. “If you get the fuck back upstairs.”

                Vespa snarled. “Screw you, cunt.”

                She wobbled to her feet, noting her loss of weapon. However, she eyed the injury, wearing a self-satisfied smirk.

                “You wanna’ be a hero? Let’s see how well you do now, you uppity bitch.”

                Vespa grunted and straightened herself, certain of victory. She shuffled off, waiving a hand. “Abyssinia, Charlotte.”

-*-

                Well, that wasn’t so hard, was it? Miss know-it-all with the stick up her snatch, already out of the picture. You see what being good gets you? Death and failure. She had no business leading this Hotel. Alastor had the right of it, that this was a tomb of washups and losers. Everything here was a scaling ladder of failure, ready to topple over at a moment’s notice.

                And when Charlie finally got nixed by the Shape, just as she figured, then Alastor would see she had what it took. The viciousness, the cunning, the ability to cloak her motives. Oh, he’d be thrilled, he would. Setting Charlie against the Shape and making off as the Hotel lead? If he was the psychopath, she knew he was, this was like a gourmet dish.

                She just had to get back to him and explain.

                Back up the stairs then, one more time. Get this night over with. She spit in disgust at the various jack-o-melons, even knocking one over in disgusted display as she hobbled down the hall. A grunt. Damn, she was hit harder than she realized. Charlie wasn’t much of a fighter, or at all, but for the briefest of moments she felt the echo of her family’s power. It might’ve been nothing but a spark, but, well, glad she’d thrown the deathless foe at her.

                A few steps more, then back to the upper levels, and then. . .

                A wave black, hopeless cold ran up her spine. An essence of purified and utter fear, a swallowing, all-consuming feeling that opened up and swallowed her hole like a boundless, unforgiving ocean, dark and lightless. She stopped, buckling, flesh erupting in goosepimples, gasping in horrified realization.

                “No...”

                She didn’t see it, but she knew. Vespa spun, eyes running with frightened tears. There, looming at her from a distance, perfectly still, hands at side, was the creature. It rasped with its metronome breaths, staring, studying. Dark shapes for eyes bore into her. All at once, her plan had failed. All at once, realization took her.

                She was going to die.

                She erupted into screams. “ALASTOR!” she pleaded, certain her scarlet savior would appear on the hall’s opposite end, flick his hand, crack a joke, and save her.

                Before she even shifted a leg, the Shape was upon her. She looked to the hall’s end, then back, and it was there. Its pale graveflesh hand sprang out, the one notably absent of knife, and crunched itself around the side of her head. With a sweeping, brutal move, it slammed her sideways into the hall interior, enough that the force of the blow sent dust from the ceiling and cracks spidering through the wallpaper.

                Dizzy, blinding white consumed her vision. But the Shape wasn’t done. Again, it reared back, clutching her hair, and swung her into the wall, again and again and again. Each blow shattered her skull, cracked the bone, her eyes gushing with red as she sputtered wordlessly.

                She could see red, but it wasn’t Alastor.

                One last resounding crack snapped the air. A squishy, meaty explosion followed by a stream of deep sticky red ran down the wall sides, while Vespa’s head chunk collapsed to the floor with the rest of her body. The hand dribbled with dewy blood, the Shape staring down at its newest victim.

                In the distance, it could hear something. Muffled sounds. It followed them.

-*-

                There, in her hand, was the fragment of the killer, its choice of tool for so much bloodshed. It was a terrible thing, so simple. Nothing more than a sharpened kitchen knife with wood handle, something everyone could have in their homes. It was meant for cooking, but, all it took was a change of motives, all it took was a will to do harm. With it, anyone could be a killer. Anyone could be evil.

                Even holding it felt wrong, but, she wasn’t much with guns anyway. She knew where a stash of them was but, if she did this right, they weren’t necessary. Until then, this would do. Besides, if it wasn’t in the killer’s hands, maybe he was less dangerous?

                A far, distant echo caught her ears. Something dreadful, an echoing thud, a vibration. The floor even rattled. Another spike of fear ran through Charlie as she heard the long, whining scream of Vespa, or, what she thought was Vespa. She grimaced. No! They were all dead because of her!

                “You bastard,” she said through clenched fangs. “Why are you doing this. . .”

                She’d forgotten herself there, in that brief moment, where concern was replaced by anger, where sympathy turned to hate. But, as quickly as it rose, she took a breath, counting to three. No, no, she couldn’t give into that. Father would be right about her if she did that. Kindness, sympathy, inside very demon is. . .

                Is. . .

                “Fuckin’ evil psychopath.”

                Charlie spun, bearing the knife before her. The rough, familiar form of a hulking, hybrid rushed out from the dark, wearing an exaggerated snarl. His wolfish features seemed extra furious and his crocodile body flexed with a bulk of furious muscle. In his hand he bore a sledgehammer, while the locket of Stacy hung around his neck like prayer beads.

                “Chad!” Charlie cried, both equally surprised and relieved. “You’re alive!”

                He spat.

                “Save it,” grunted Chad. “I know it’s comin’ for you.”

                Her relief faded. “W-what?”

                He stared her down before casting his gaze towards the upper levels. “And I’m gonna be here for it.”

                “Chad, wait,” Charlie started, approaching the greaser. He glared at her, all pretense of his friendly, jovial self gone.

                “You FUCKIN’ wait! I’m done with this coward shit! My baby’s GONE and I’m gonna’ make sure I send this. . . this piece of trash into the fuckin’ pit where he belongs!”

                She didn’t want to lose anyone else.

                “Listen to me,” she went on, her voice strained and wellspring of empathy running dry. “I have a plan! I’m going to trap it and, and. . . we’ll just trap it and figure it out!”

                Again, the demon spat. “Do whatever you want, I don’t give a shit. I ain’t going anywhere.”

                He looked at her hands, at the knife. “You really wanna’ be useful? Give that to me.”

                She looked down at the blade, wincing. It was so cold in her hands, wearing its victims like a scarlet suit.

                “You can’t,” she said, “If you stay, you’ll die.”

                Chad clasped his locket, eyes welling up with tears. “This ain't livin'.”

                She blinked, defeated. There was no changing his mind, he’d made it up a long, long time ago. What could she say? What could she do, except continue with her plan? She could activate the Hotel’s emergency systems and entomb herself so this didn’t happen again. The others would be locked out for the night, but so what? She’d failed them enough already.

                Chad was buying her time.

                “You’re a good person, Chad,” she said, tossing the knife towards his feet. “I’m sorry.”

                He didn’t respond. His back was to her, waiting for the fiend. Charlie rubbed her leg and started for another hall.

-*-

                Chad focused his thoughts on one the one thing he’d ever cared about in Hell: his girl, his Stacy. With him in life, in death, followed him all the way to fucking Hell itself. And now, his better half, his heart, his soul, was gone. He’d always protected her, always kept her safe, not like the little bombshell needed much of that. But he was her shield, her extra coat in the cold, her umbrella in the rain. And now, like a fool, he let his guard down for one night and. . .

                He didn’t even get to say goodbye, tell her how much he loved her.

                He shook. He’d do the next best thing. He’d pulverized this thing’s brain in.

                Based on the muffled noises he’d heard from before, that wouldn’t be long. He didn’t really care about that dame Vespa, she was as annoying as she was plain, but, holy hell, she didn’t deserve to go out at the hands of that freak. None of them did. Everyone deserved to die with a sword in their hands, at least have a fighting chance. If they were weak, that was that, but at least they had a fair shot. This masked goon was just cruel.

                His ear perked, distracted by his musings. Charlie was gone, her footfalls now long and distant. But, what he did hear. . .

                From the dark, all he could see was a pale, white mask. He turned to face it, sledgehammer brandished. Then, he looked down, grinning, snatching up the kitchen knife and flicking it through his fingers, dangling it before the foe in mock fashion.

                “Miss something, freak?”

                If the Shape indicated it had heard him, Chad didn’t notice. He stuffed the knife into his pocket, snarling now.

                “You took everything from me!” he bellowed. “YOU FUCK!”

                No more time wasted, no more words. He charged forward, hammer in arms. With every ounce of strength that was his essence, his soul, he swung the meaty instrument in a sideways motion, the heavy, brutal iron colliding into the figure’s head with a loud bang. The vibrations from the impact shook Chad’s hands, shockwaves rolling through his arms. The figure, briefly, buckled backward, stumbling by one foot. Chad heaved, roaring again.

                He did it again, this time bringing it up over the Shape and slamming downward, bringing the metal square on the forehead like he was braining a hog. A small, tiny, subtle grunt escaped the Shape, the single indication there was anything behind that ghoulish mask. But. . . it didn’t fall. It didn’t do anything.

                Chad rasped, summoning all his hatred for another blow. But this time the Shape responded, hands leaping forward to steal the grip from his attacker. At once, Chad found himself struggling to hold the hammer, wrestling with a storm. His biceps flexed, his muscles twitched, sprouting veins, but goddamn, it wouldn’t give. Slowly, with monumental force wholly unnatural, the Shape tore the hammer away from Chad in a rough motion before its grim hands clasped around Chad’s muzzle and head.

                “AGGGH!”

                He roared, but not from fear, only desperate anger. Anger at himself, anger at losing his baby, anger at this thing. He yanked the knife from his pocket and shoved it into the fiend, again and again. It made no notice of the impacts.

                Then, Chad felt it. Those fingers dug into his muzzle like worms, clasping his jaw. They didn’t squeeze, or crush, or choke. They pulled.

                “HGGHG!?”

                He realized what it was doing. He stabbed, over and over, trying to push away, but his only response was the rasped, unforgiving breathing of his foe. And then, his maw began to separate. The Shape pulled open Chad’s jaw to full length, slowly but surely. Then to an unnatural angle. Chad screamed in waves of agony, forced to his knees, squirming like caught prey. The knife fell from his grip as he stared up, up into the black, soulless pits that were the thing’s eyes.

                In a quick, jarring motion, the Shape ripped his jaw away, splitting the head, separating it from the neck. Chad made a wheezing, horrid, gasping noise. With one last ounce of strength his hand clutched his locket before the remains of his head and body fell to the ground.

                The Shape took one last glance at its latest victim before reaching down to retrieve its knife. When it straightened, the lights flickered, shifting. There was one more.

-*-

                With the improvised Hotel defenses online, every window and exit were barred closed or clamped down with a heavy barrier. Nothing was getting in or out. Flicking to its “emergency” setting, a dull red light filled the Hotel interior, an ebbing scarlet washing Charlie in the hue of blood. The rest was darkness. Shadows seemed to come to life, as though one might leap out at her at any given instant. She pressed her hands together, gaze strolling across the furnishings in hopes to spy the foe. Or, to run from it.

                She was so alone now, consumed by the dark. The sounds of Pentagram City were inaudible through the flanks of metal, leaving her with silence. Dead silence. She could rely on no one but herself. She couldn’t call mother for advice, she couldn’t have the Bois step in to defend her, and father, well. Father. Her friends were hurt, the guests were dead. This was her mess to fix.

                Charlie huffed. Okay. Count to three and inhale, count to three and exhale. She could do this. She had to lure this Shape away to Baxter’s portal room, and. . . convince it. Yes, she could do that, right? She believed she could. No one was beyond redemption. With enough time, patience, and understanding, anyone could change. She had to believe that. Even after all that happened, she had to believe that.

                Then again, no harm in taking precaution, right? She went to Husk’s bar, finding one of his stashed shotguns under the manifested wood paneling. Well, she never used one of these, but it could make a lot of noise, maybe scare the thing, right? H-hah. Yeah, right.

                “Ergh,” Charlie grunted, taking the Mossburg in hand, almost dropping it. Clunky and heavy. Well, whatever, it couldn’t be too hard to use. Now, it was time to find it and put an end to this nightmare.

                She made her way upstairs first, taking cautious slow steps, the gun trained in front of her. It was clumsy and wieldy in her grasp, but it would do. She’d seen enough movies to at least know to aim in the right direction, though everywhere she looked was bathe in either red light or darkness. When she reached the first-floor hall, she took a long steady look down the corridor. Nothing but the pinkish grins of the remaining jack-o-melons met her gaze, and a small part of her started to think the Shape had gotten out.

                No! She couldn’t let that happen! It had to stay here, inside! Because if it got out it would never stop! It had to remain until she could fix it. And she would! She would!

                A plume of shaky breath escaped her. She cleared her throat, going down a hall. First things first: luring it.

                “L-listen!” she called out, uncertain. “Please!”

                Of course, nothing responded, just the flickering glow of the red emergency lights.

                “I know this is hard!” she continued. “But I know you can stop this! I believe you can! It’s never too late to be a better person, please! It doesn’t have to be this way!”

                Again, more darkness and silence. Shit. Was it gone? Did it leave? No, it couldn’t be, it had to still be here.

                Charlie continued down the hall, her footsteps soft as leaves. Every creak of wood and scurry of insect caused a thread of panic to spike through her. Dammit, why was she so afraid? She was the heir to the Magne family! What would Father say if he saw her acting like this? Urgh. What would mother say? Pushing the thoughts aside, she reached the end of the hall, met with more resilient blackness.

                God, her chest was racing, heart hammering intermixed with heavy breathing.

                . . .Heavy breathing?

                Charlie shrieked and spun, firing off a round of the shotgun as a bright flash caught the air. A hand, however, gripped the crude barrel and shoved it aside as the round fired off, slug shattering the wooden walls. With all strength she shoved herself into the massive figure, sensing its brutal hand and equally unforgiving knife. She felt its arm crash upon her with a lunge, indirectly shoving her away, the scream of metal nearly cutting into her chest. Charlie toppled and fell backward, shotgun cast to the side, before scrambling back to her feet while the pale, masked figure began its slow, ceaseless hunt.

                “Wait!” she cried back with raised hands. “Let me help! Let me help! I can! You’re not a bad person, I know you’re not!”

She saw the fresh stain of blood on its hands. It’d had gotten Chad.

                The Shape gave no pause or any indication it was listening. One of its gruesome palms reached forward as it made another attempt to grab her, only to take a small thicket of gold-blonde hair. Charlie yelped in pain, tearing herself away. She wove passed it, back to the stairs. She needed to get down them, get to Baxter’s lab and find the room. From there. . .

                The Shape paused, briefly, to examine the locks in its fingers, before turning to give chase again. Charlie glanced behind her to see the ominous approach of the blurred shadow. It did not run, only stalked, and yet she was overwhelmed with the sensation she could not outrun it. Down, then, to the stairs. Her foot found the first step and-

                “HGHGK!”

                She felt a hot burst of searing pain ignite through her back and shoulder, the blade cutting through her porcelain flesh with one quick stab. It had gotten behind her, like a phantom, as though glancing away allowed it free movement. The ignition of anguish forced her off balance and sent her collapsing down the stairs, sending fresh shockwaves of dull pangs through her body. Trails of sticky, crimson blood followed, Charlie struggling to stand, gripping the injury while the hot release of her yolk leaked through her.

                She snapped her attention to the stairs, the Shape looking down at her, frame washed with the dull, scarlet illumination. It tilted its head, but did not move.

                The lights faded in dark. They came back. It wasn’t there.

                Charlie grunted, heart gripped with ice as she forced herself up and ran towards the other section of the Hotel.

                She just needed to get to the chamber, that was it. Get it there, trap it, and. . . and then what!? Something! Convince it! She could, she knew she could. She had to.

                Charlie moved through the corridors in a blur, the gash in her side oozing and staining her costume. Her head grew dizzy, light. Damn, it wasn’t looking good. She needed to stay conscious, not just for her sake but for everyone.

                Finally, Charlie arrived at Baxter’s chamber, or one of them. There were a pair of staircases, one leading to his laboratory and other that was the “portal” room or however he’d manifested the signals from Earth. It was here she needed to make her stand, here she had to trap the fiend and fix all this. She wobbled, knees nearly buckling as her hand came to the door. She tried to press it open, but strength failed her. The wound burst in another wave of fresh, stinging pain and she sucked a breath through her teeth.

                Her back pressed against the frame. She didn’t have long, the Shape was no doubt close behind. Once again, silence choked the air. She ran through her improvised plan one more time, remember what Baxter had said. There was a portal there, she could. . . keep it locked away and then get a message to the others. A text, a call, an email. . . and. . . that was it. She didn’t need to send it back, no! Not this thing, never. It had to stay here, needed to be fixed so it would never hurt another soul ever again, sinner or not.

                So many had died tonight, under her ward. She sniffed, wiping her eye, clutching the injury as blood pooled into her palm. She failed them, all of them. She couldn’t keep them together and now all her new guests were dead! If she didn’t stop this tonight, so was everyone else!

                Grunting, Charlie shoved the door open, a long flight of stone stairs meeting her gaze. Unlike the rest of the Hotel, they were unaffected by the emergency lights, where instead a sterile, flood of illumination consumed the chamber. Within it were a variety of machines and devices Charlie didn’t recognize, but there, at the center, a ring-like apparatus Charlie could only assume was the gateway. If she got it to the exact spot, she could fling it back to where it came.

                But that wasn’t going to happen because she knew she could change its mind. . . right?

                She slipped passed the frame and promptly shut it, sealing herself for a moment of safety. Enough time to think this through, she hoped.

                She couldn’t hear anything now, not even the sound of its breathing. But it wouldn’t be long. She was hurt, and it would be after her soon enough, a shark in water, and she left a long blood trail.

                She made it to the chamber floor, looking about, studying all the strange devices and machines filling Baxter’s lab. They whirred and clicked with activity, various monitors scrolling with graphs, lines of texts, and other data reads she couldn’t possibly understand. The one device of significance, however, as all she needed to know: the gateway. Quite literally, if she knew her terms right.

                An elaborate ring-shaped device hung in the center of the room, gently spinning in slow motions. Like a net without its string, Charlie understood. Get it directly beneath and it. . . pull the lever. There, at least, was something simple. But that wasn’t necessary, because, with just some kindness and understanding, everything would work out. It would.

                “Okay,” she muttered, wincing at the pain in her side. She ripped her sleeve to make an improvised bandage in an attempt to stop the flow.

                Count to three and inhale, count to three and exhale. Calm. She had to be calm. She had to-

                A loud, horrendous bang caught her attention. Charlie shrieked and stumbled, looking up to the door. The heavy steel frame wheezed and groaned, buckling as the foe behind it started to push its way through. Again and again, like the wailing of death bells. Every impact rattled the interior, sending pockets of dust and debris coughing into the air. The door whined, its foundations loosening. Over and over it was shoved and pulled, wrested from its based.

                “Wait!” Charlie screamed at the figure behind the frame. “I’m begging you! Just fucking listen!”

                The sounds didn’t stop. The Shape continued its assault on the door.

                “I know you think there’s no going back!” she pleaded. “I know you think you can’t be redeemed, that it’s too late! That you don’t have another chance because you’re here, but I don’t believe that! You can change, you can change!”

                Her tone resonated with defiance, striking from the core of herself. Everything she believed in relied on this, the idea that all were worthy of redemption, that anyone was good and kind.

                “You just have to stop now! I can help you! I can! You don’t have to do this!”

                Finally, the door groaned in rusted agony as it found itself separated from foundation, torn away. It creaked, promptly yanked and thrown to the side, revealing the ominous figure, the monolith of death and evil that had stalked her Hotel. It stared down, wordlessly, watching her with those soulless, black pits, its knife dripping with fresh blood.

                It took a step.

                Charlie felt her eyes grow hot and wet. “Please, please! There’s good in you, there is! Just tell me, tell me anything! Tell me your name, tell me what’s wrong! You’re not alone! You don’t have to do this!”

                As it took slow, commanding strides down each step, Charlie backed away. She glanced at the lever, tempted to reach for it. The presence gave no indication it saw the portal or even knew what she was doing.

                A stream of tears fell down her cheeks. “Please. . . say something. . .”

                There was nothing, only breathing. Heavy breathing.

                It stalked forward, creaking steps with heavy booted footfalls, approaching ever closer. Charlie sniffed, wiping her wet face. She couldn’t get through to it. She couldn’t even talk to it. It was clear now, so crystalline, that it would not stop. It would continue this, striking at victims, one after the other. It would hunt her down, her friends, her people, even her family, inflicting upon them death and misery. She couldn’t keep it here, she couldn’t salvage its soul. She had failed.

                The Shape moved forward, marching towards her, towards the ring, locked on with those ceaseless, merciless voids. Charlie held back a sob, her hand going for the lever. It believed her a victim, accepting death, not observant of the trap laid for it.

                It took one final step, where the ring hung directly above it. At once, Charlie sobbed, and with one agonized cry, pulled the lever.

                The lever swung down with an audible crack, and at once the ring spun to life. Angry, orange fingers erupted, snaking through the air in violent tendrils of energy, surrounding and consuming the shape. The residual force was enough to stagger it, freeze it, tear at the darkness of its form. The Shape stopped, looking up. It studied the strange contraption, offering another head tilt, only to return its gaze to Charlie. It couldn’t move forward.

                The Princess watched as the tails of bright red and orange found purchase in the presence, as though consuming it in a fire. Light drowned the room, and for the briefest of moments, Charlie could see something. An eye. An eye staring through the mask, locked to her. In it, she didn’t witness a man, a soul, a sinner, a shred of remorse, of humanity. She saw nothing.

                She only saw the shape of evil.

                Remembering, he pulled out her phone and typed a text into it, a message to the recipient, to all of Earth. It read: ‘I’m sorry.’

                She hit send.

                The angry jaws of the portal screamed to life, consuming the foe, removing it. Bit by bit its body vanished, yanked and torn from this existence, sent away, sent back.

                Charlie collapsed to her knees, face buried in hands, the weight of everything collapsing upon her in an avalanche of misery. Tonight, death had visited her Hotel. Death she could not reason with, could not stop. She witnessed, in the eye, the evil that lurked within all things, the knowledge that absence of goodness was real, that there were those who could not be saved. And now, she had to send it back, back to Up Above, to where it came, to release it upon the innocent. It would torment them, stalk them, and kill them just as it had here.

                As the machine spun into frenzied action, the expulsion of energy sank itself into the figure, and finally, devoured it. Like an isolated inferno, the Shape was gone, vanishing, fading into a bleak, blurred silhouette.

                One last echo of its breathing filled the room.

-*-

                Charlie wandered back to the roof, slow and pained, her features drawn with a distraught frown. The others, alarmed at her injury, rushed to her. Angel came first, hobbling, doting on her, the rest easing her down as they mended her wounds.

                “What happened!?” Angel said, wincing at the blossom of scarlet in her chest.

                She forced a weak smile. “We’re safe.”

                Her eyes went up, staring at the Pentagram, wondering.

                Wondering if she’d ever see it again.

-*-

                It’s quiet. The ruins of a home are guarded by an army of trees, night rustling with wind and chirp of crickets. Where memories once were, there are ashes. Where a life was once built, now rests a tomb. A place once burned, a trap once made.

                There, in the dark, there is new movement. Something rises from it, a phantom stalking the corner of eyes, a Boogeyman, a shape, Evil Given Form.

                It stands, observing its surroundings, the rasp of its breathing filling the air. It starts to move, wandering into the dark.

                It hunts again.

 

TRIUMPHANT