Sylvia is halfway out the door of the store when she hears a scream. She turns momentarily back into the narrow expanse.
A young Asian girl with streaming hair that reaches the threads of her worn jean shorts is clutching at her t-shirt, where a red stain is blooming. Her other hand drops the canned beans she had been perusing, and she stumbles to her knees.
“Who did this to you?” Sylvia asks, running to her aid. But the Asian girl steps back, shuddering. Her bulging eyes dart every which way.
Catching on, Sylvia retrieves her wand from her purse. “Reveal yourself, phantom,” She says, waving her wand.
Strong gusts of wind surge through the storehouse, threatening to rip it down from its framework. Sylvia raises her arms to protect her eyes from the debris being scattered everywhere.
The girl, left unprotected, falls into a shelf, injuring her shoulder in the process.
“Shit, I’m no good at this,” Sylvia mutters, looking around for her shop assistant, who had been behind the counter only a moment ago but is now nowhere to be found.
The wind roars on in retort, and the shadows at her feet swarm into each other repeatedly until they rise above the ground altogether. A dark head appears, and then a pitch black torso, sheathed in purple rags, oozing an inky liquid. It is missing an arm, but its left arm wields a silvery hunk of metal.
“Gui!” The girl hollers, scrambling backwards. Her movement seems to attract the shade’s attentions, and it flies at her, the metal glinting through the airborne dirt.
The creature’s one arm is outstretched and its shadowy being attaches itself onto the girl, consuming her flesh by the second, as it stabs her repeatedly in the same wound area.
Sylvia looks on in horror. Her spell has given the ghost more physical form, and she doesn’t know any other spells to fight it off with. In fact, she’s fortunate that the ghost has decided to go after the girl and not her.
Aware that any movements from her will attract the phantom to her, Sylvia keeps silent, looking at the ground in distress.
The girl’s body is now almost completely submerged, but the ectoplasm enveloping her does not keep her from screaming. Her shouts echo through the store and Sylvia is forced to keep eye contact with her.
“I hope you go to heaven,” Sylvia whispers, her nails digging into her palms. The wires of the wand leave an imprint on her right palm from the pressure.
“Tch, that’s how you deal with messes in the shop? No wonder you’re losing capital.”
Sylvia looks over at the counter. Sure enough, Sam’s back from his cigarette break.
“Save her, please Sam.” Sylvia pleads. The phantom, now intrigued by her voice, detaches half its body, which now floats around, seemingly indecisive over who to attack.
Sam rolls his eyes and adjusts his vest over his bound chest. “If you say so.”
The phantom’s second body now dives at him intently, headed straight for his torso.
“No, you don’t,” Sam says, now with a serious look in his eyes. “Phantoms one and two, return to your own personal hell, six feet under.”
With a gloved hand, he shoves the ghost into the ground and stomps on it. Then he charges at the girl and with both hands, he extinguishes the shimmering ectoplasm. What is left is jello-like bits that cling to clothing. The girl is safe, but only the blood gushes at her abdomen.
“That doesn’t look good.” Sam comments, before picking up the canned beans that had been dropped earlier. “Good thing we’ve got some meds right here.” He pops the can open and shakes out a few pills.
“Sam! You’ve been keeping pills in there?!” Sylvia cries, looking appalled.
Sam turns a dry eye on her. “I’m an alchemist, not a drug dealer. Get your head together.”
Sylvia is nonplussed. “Sam, even though you’re my daughter—I mean, son, you can’t talk to me like that.”
“Keep misgendering me, mom, and I can talk to you however I’d like.”
“I’m sorry. It won’t happen again. Thanks for saving me.” Sylvia looks sheepish. “I guess I’ll head to the market now.”
“You do you.” Sam replies dismissively, now fully absorbed in doing first aid for the girl. The store bell rings as Sylvia exits, and Sam continues to insert pills into the girl’s wound.
“…What are you doing?” She asks weakly, trying to prop herself up on her injured arm.
Sam doesn’t reply, just concentrates by hovering a hand over the girl’s belly. Wordless minutes go by, as Sam’s hand begins to glow purple.
The girl blinks, startled, as organs reconnect and flesh touches flesh again.
“You’re welcome,” Sam says, standing up.
“You’re not going to help me up?” The girl looks miffed.
Sam opens his mouth, then shuts it. He shrugs, pulling out a bottle of bourbon from under the counter and pouring himself a shot. “Chivalry’s dead. Don’t tell me you actually believed that bullshit.”
The girl, now fully healed, stands up on her own. “Well, then. No thanks for saving me.”
Sam downs the shot and then looks at the girl, not much shorter than he is, and shrugs once more. “Manners are another thing I don’t have.”
He pauses and seems to regard the wall behind the girl.
“But you’re pretty cute.” He pours another shot and holds it up to her. “What would you say to having dinner?”
The girl shakes her head, refusing the shot and the date. “I don’t even know you.”
“Yet, you come into this store like every day for supplies. You work for Hammer down the road, am I right?” Sam’s eyes narrow. “That’s how you got the phantom following you. He’s trying it again, isn’t he? Trying to raise the soul of his dead wife?”
She shakes her head. “I don’t know anything about what you say.”
Sam puts the glass down and hops over the counter. The girl takes a step back in caution. He clasps her hand and she flings it aside.
“Hey, I know you might look at me, and think, you’re nothing but a strange queer,” Sam says somberly, years of hurt reflecting in his pitch black eyes. “But I’m just looking out for you.”
The girl chews on her lower lip before responding, “I don’t need your warnings. Mr. Hammer’s my boss, and his business is none of yours.”
“That may be so…but don’t head back there without protection,” Sam reaches into his pocket and hands her a piece of cloth. “So you may not know any alchemy, but this piece of cloth helps to ward off phantoms. If any appear, they’ll haunt ol’ Hammer instead, which they probably already are doing. But this time, even if you say anything or move quickly, the phantoms won’t even come close.”
He tears off his leather necklace and melds it to the cloth.
Then he delicately ties it around her neck and melds the two ends so they’d stick.
“Just call my name if you need me.”
“Sam…?” She wonders.
“No, my other name,” Sam rolls his eyes. “That one won’t activate the seal. The Alchemist.”
Perhaps startled at his kindness, or just otherwise unsure of what to say, the girl retreats from the shop, looks backward with a wary glance and then heads decisively down the road.
Sam puts the bourbon back under the counter and lounges back in his chair.
“Damn, what does it take to see some real adventure around here?”
The light in the store seems to shift, and the sharp gray of the shelves seems to harden into a sterner silver.
“Wow, it’s almost like you wanted me to melt off those extra appendages.” A cold voice cuts in, as a hand extracts itself from out of the counter and a body surfaces. Its head is female and its body is naked.
Sam stares at the being, then says, “Miser. You’re working with him again?”
The woman, Miser, made of an opaque liquid, jumps into the air and sidles near Sam, who strategically moves away.
“Clearly,” she says, “But you handled that with not nearly your usual speed. Could it be you’re losing your touch? Are you getting old, Samantha dear?”
“I’m 27, not even a tenth of your age, Miser. Maybe it’s you who needs to graduate from seances?”
“I wouldn’t call them seances,” Miser has a wicked grin on her face that comes across as a gash across a stone sculpture. “Not if they’re coming back alive all the time, with or without the rituals.”
The shrill noise reverberates through the store, and possibly, Sam imagines, down the rolling hills outside.
“But ooh, now I’ve said too much.” With that, Miser sinks back into the counter and out of the realm.
Sam curses again, whatever calm he had gained on his smoke break now irrevocably demolished.
“Tch.” He deposits a gloved hand deep into the wood of the counter and pulls himself into the other side.
The other side has four winding staircases that go on for levels that he cannot foresee. From inspecting all sides, he makes out that he is encircled within a great, unending tower.
Instead of choosing a staircase, he aims a gloved hand at the ground and pushes off.
His wrist begins aching past the sixty seventh floor, but Sam pushes onward, paying the rings of pain no mind.
By the hundredth and eighty ninth floor, his wrist is roaring with pain, but Sam continues.
On the five hundredth floor, Sam can no longer withstand the pain—his entire body is shaking and numb. With agony, he flings himself onto the nearest staircase. The moment his legs touch the stairs, the entire plane flips sideways, and he is lying on his stomach, feeling the air knocked out of him.
He lies still for a minute, eyelids fluttering, wondering if he can make it.
Laying flat on the staircase, Sam is momentarily at a loss for what to do. The way the plane has now tilted ninety degrees, Sam can walk straight on the ridges of what should be steps. And he can see what lays in front: a thick miasma that he is unsure his aching wrists can fend off. Slowly raising himself, Sam reaches a hand into his baggy pocket and pulls out a crystal. It is a Gemini crystal, one of two in his possession. He’d been told not to use them, maybe one day sell them for a significant profit. He and his mother could live cushy lives off that profit. Velvet curtains…
Sneering a bit at the thought, Sam hurls the crystal, which emits a faint yellowish-light, into the thickest of the miasma.
***From out of nowhere, a revolving object, spinning too quickly for its eyes to register, knocks straight into the forehead of the hulking sculpture guarding the portway. It snarls, huffs, and blows its bangs out of its face.
“Goddamnit, Samantha Heyward!” comes a booming sonic wave, too loud for Sam to make out, which is probably fortunate for the citizens of Delta, considering he was already in a bad, destructive mood.
The giant artwork’s forehead crack causes other tiny tremorous cracks to appear. The whole creature disintegrates, taking the ghastly smoke with it. Sam breathes relief as the way is cleared. Behind, and beyond, daylight greets him. He now quickly runs through the ridged ground and arrives in his place in the sun. Once the warmth strikes him, he realizes the light was largely an illusion and that there is a door beside him. He unlocks it, and then, nursing his right hand in his left, steps into Hammer’s mansion.
“Should have figured it’d be this place,” he mutters and stops to take a leak. It takes him slightly longer than usual, and in his black fury, he flicks his lighter at a cigarette and inhales. This makes him a thousand times less steadily, but at this point, he could care less.
He heads for the living room. Two phantoms are swimming with each other; a swirl of purple and black. Sam cuts them down before they spy him and continues on his way, looking grim. At last, he comes to the fireplace.
“Miser,” he whispers, and a shadow flits by.
He tries again, louder. “MISER!” The place shakes with the force of his rage but Miser does not make an appearance. Instead, four more shades appear in her stead, each wielding a dagger better formed than the one used against the girl earlier in the store.
“Give it a rest,” he sighs, punching two of them out of this plane. The other two shuffle away before he has a chance to land a hit. Sam peels ectoplasm off his gloves with a heaving sigh.
Miser appears like a mist, enveloping the ground, Sam’s shoulders, the ornaments, Hammer’s paintings. Her eyes are stone where they should be pulsing, and her clothes are melded into her being.
“Well, took you long enough, sailor,” She purrs at Sam, a ghostly hand trailing over his chest.
Using his gloved hand, he seizes her arm and rips it from its faint, rock-like socket. He narrows his eyes, and walks away, toward the staircase leading to the bedroom chambers. She floats into his path and screeches, “You can’t enter!” A hint of pain and injury is in her voice.
The disembodied arm is tossed aside. Sam crosses the threshold, looking directly beyond Miser, so that her being can’t stop him. She lets out a cry of frustration and picks up one of the daggers left by the phantoms.
Snarling, she heads for Sam’s throat but Sam is too quick for her. He jumps up the stairs, where as he suspects, she cannot follow.
He sprints up to the top and then stops, wheezing. The binds on his chest are too tight but he has no time to loosen them.
He is running, running away from the perils of yesteryear and headed to face the new threat. Hammer and his phantoms and his seance rituals.
He pulls out a cigarette and with a gloved hand, he uses the cigarette to light a path to Hammer.
“That one looks like she’s having a rough time with it,” One comments.
“It’s a he, I think,” The other one rejoins.