Slipping Through A Sideways Door

by hornethead

Chapter 49: For Better Or Worse

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Chapter 49: For Better Or Worse

James trod as quietly as he could. It was a painful task when even the smallest sound echoed like a gong in the spacious tunnels. The tunnels smelt rancid and weren't adequately lit, James silently thanked whatever was helping him to see in the darkness, but cursed his olfactory functions in the same thought. At least it wasn't stifling like he had expected, that would have been the diarrhea icing on the fecal cake.

He reached an intersection and checked it fast. There was scant evidence of it being used, so he chose the path with the most footprints in a wager that it would leave him closer to his goal. He had to get there soon. There was no sure way to know what Jackson would do, but James had a fairly good idea. He had to finish it before that happened.

His carefully placed boots making muffled crunches on the tunnel floor, James stalked the passages. After a few minutes, he heard the unmistakable sound of disgruntled grumbling ahead. He came up to a corner and peered around it. There were two Lotkin soldiers arguing with each other, evidently over the proper use of a small flame lantern.

James raised his rifle, the scope now missing in favor for good old iron sights, and prepared to end their lives. But then he thought better of it. He kept his rifle trained on the two, but allowed them to play out their inconsequential quarrel. The one doling out the lecture seemed to be in charge, the other delivering short, affirming responses as he re-lit the lumination tool and pointedly kept it well away from the walls.

Speculatively, James dragged a finger across the dry, almost powdery stone that made up the walls. He brought the digit up to his nose and took a whiff. He recoiled slightly as the acrid scent flooded his nostrils. He recognized it. It was sulfur. He had wondered how his enemy had been supplying its troops and now he had part of the answer.

James snapped from his thoughts as he heard a sound, the two soldiers were now walking away. He tracked them and watched as they moved towards another side passage, this one bigger and somewhat better lit. Keeping to the shadows as best he could, James followed behind them.

One branched off into a little room dug into the wall while the one with the lantern continued on. James followed the lecturer into the room and placed the muzzle of his rifle against the back of his head. There was a small pop and James rushed forward to catch the body and gently lower it to the ground without a sound. James then swung around and brought his weapon to bear on the entrance to the room. Nothing came to investigate.

James edged his way to the corner and took a peek around. The lantern bearer as still plodding down the passage, none the wiser for the event that had gone unknown behind him. Sticking to the wall, James accompanied the soldier without his knowledge or consent. James could feel he was getting close, very close.

James followed the clueless soldier towards a brightly lit opening. He slowed, hearing the sounds of reckless discourse that could only be either a large fight or a celebration of sorts. After the events in the canyon, James didn't think it was the latter.

Either way, he couldn't go any further without risking detection, he would have to find another way around. He began to turn, but stopped. It had suddenly become eerily silent. He heard a cup bounce off the floor and a chair fall over, but that was it.

Something was wrong. He turned and began to book it down the passage. He got maybe ten feet when there was a flash of white light in front of him that slowly resolved into sickly mist. The mist began to solidify and James heard strange echoing words in his mind, "The prodigal returns..." then the mist lunged forward and the world closed in around him.

Weightlessness, emptiness, nothingness. James floated along, aware of himself, but not of his surroundings. He struggled to make sense of his situation. A minute ago, he was creeping through the dusty halls of his enemies' stronghold. The next... he didn't know. There was some strange apparition and now he was here.

James struggled in the void. He began to feel something. He flailed around for something to grab, something to stand on. Unexpectedly, he suddenly found himself tossed onto hard packed earth. Slowly, he got up, dusted himself off and looked around.

He could see for about twenty-five yards in any direction, but after that, it was nothing but that same white haze. He heard a scuff to his rear. James whipped around to confront the noise and dropped to a fighting stance. It was now he realized he had no weapons. He was clothed, but that was it.

It didn't matter much though. What came to meet him he found rather odd and unthreatening, he relaxed. It was a man sized silhouette, made all of white, but lined around the edges with a strange blurry blackness that seemed to move of its own accord. James flinched when it spoke. A sickly sweet and malodorously smooth voice, "Glad to see you've finally returned."

James cocked his head, confused at the greeting, "I never left. I've never even been here."

The thing's head turned ever so slightly and James knew it was looking at him, even though there were no eyes. "I was not speaking to you."

"Then who?"

The being raised one immaculate hand and pointed a digit over James' shoulder. James turned around slowly and looked to where it was pointing. There was a cage that hadn't been there a moment ago aside a fully grown tree that seemed to have just sprung up. The cage seemed to be made of some strange iridescent metal. Inside, sat with legs crossed, was a red-ish black figure of nearly the same dimensions of James himself.

James approached the cage at a slow pace, transfixed on the captive inside. As he neared, the being stood up with an aggressive posture and came up to the bars, but stopped, hesitant to get closer to them. "What in the hell are you?" James whispered to himself.

The other being appeared at James shoulder. He stepped back in surprise at it began speaking again, "It is of my brethren, and of you. You should be proud! Few are strong enough to contain us for so long and use us so effectively without turning so black and brackish as ourselves. Though, of course, you did have help." It said, gliding around the cage.

"What do you mean? I haven't been controlling anything, least of all this thing." James gestured. He could have sworn it growled at its mention.

"Ah, but you have!" The white being glided up to James' face, emitting a darkly gleeful radiance. "I believe my brother here has been itching to get out for quite some time. In fact, it was one of the reasons you arrived here, we are always drawn to each other amongst the worlds we share."

"Worlds you share... you're not making any sense. Where are we, anyway?" James demanded.

"You don't know?" The being glided up and leaned its back against the tree. As it did so, James felt a strange pressure inside his own head. "Quickly, think of something, picture it, concentrate."

Cautious, but curious, James did as it suggested. He didn't like the way things were going and wanted something to give him an edge in there. So he imagined what he thought was the logical choice. He held out his hand and concentrated. Particles of light began to gather and swirl about his hand. The grouped and collided, coalescing into a single solitary form.

James' sidearm appeared in his hand. As his grip closed around it, he dropped his arm to his side and clicked the safety off. The being tilted its head and regarded him for a moment. "Hmm.... predictable.Disappointing. Still, I'm glad you chose such a destructive device."

"So what does this mean, I can do magic now or something? Still doesn't answer my question."

The being laughed, a mad and tortured cachinnation, "Magic, how droll!" It recovered and stared at him. "Can you not think of anything else?"

At this point, James didn't know what to think. He was in a strange place he'd never experienced before with a strange being he'd never met beside a strange cage that apparently held a captive of his. He thought of what his friends would think of the singular situation.

Peculiar phantoms began to flutter around the edge of the hard packed dirt. Startled by the new development, he snapped his weapon up and focused on one of them. It soon began to resolve into the tall hulking figure of his old friend and brother. "Jackson?" Others began to appear. Sparks, Flash, the girls, Dash. Even some of his old teammates from back home on Earth. Among them he even saw the macabre apparition of Feather, as healthy as the day before his untimely demise.

James looked on in wonder and bewilderment, even sadness, as he saw the faces of friends he hadn't seen in many, many years. Another thought popped in his head, wondering at what this could all mean, then they all vanished. James whipped his head around, searching for them, at a complete loss for an explanation of what had just occurred.

"Bravo! Bravo!" The being applauded, though its claps echoed strangely in the space. "It seems you are finally getting it!"

James shook his head, "No, stop it! I'm not playing head games with you!"

"The only head games here, are your own." It pointed out. "So why don't you be good and release your...darker half?"

"Darker half?' James gazed over at the blackened thing that still stood menacingly in its coop.

"Why yes! He's as much a part of you as you are of him, now. How inspiring! Just look at how similar he appears to you! You two could pass for closer siblings better than he and I at this point." The being said wistfully.

"Brother?" The darker being inside the cage shuffled uneasily.

"Yes, you really should let him out. I just can't bear to think what his isolation is doing to your relationship!"

The thought wafted across James' mind. Should he release it? What would happen. Then he thought of his friends again, the suffering they'd endured. He also thought that this thing that was speaking to him might not have his best interests in mind. "How 'bout I don't!" James shouted as he raised his pistol up and centered it on the white being's head.

It laughed again, "Really? Go ahead. Shoot."

James was all too happy to oblige. He squeezed the trigger three times in quick succession, producing an echoing report inside the space. Then he lowered his weapon, confused. The being was still there, still laughing. There was nothing to indicate anything had happened, not even marks on the tree it was leaning against. The dark one in the cage glared at it, the hatred he radiated was almost palpable to James.

"How sad. No power even in your own mind." It cackled. "Are you getting bored? I must admit, I am a little. Let's see what's going on outside, shall we?" The being strode over to the edge of the packed dirt and waved an appendage.

Colors swirled and blended together, wavy images struggled to resolve and show themselves. James soon saw that the images were trying to display what he assumed was the outside world. Finally the image cleared up and James was treated to the sight of Jackson and his team running towards the gaping mouth of a tunnel in the moonlight.

Their movements were hurried and precipitous, as if they were being chased by some great beast. "Ah, they seem to be making fine progress to the heart of things." The being commented casually. "Would you like to hear?"

Without waiting for James' response, the being lazily waved a hand again and sound popped into existence from the images, "Go go go!" Jackson was yelling, "Get in, quick! Swift, up front! Topher, grab some cover with Sylver and Flash, set up a hasty ambush and keep our tails covered!" Jackson jinked to the left as plumes of dirt spat up from the ground to his right in a long line.

They rushed into the relative safety of the tunnel. Mayfield and the two stallions ducked behind some small boulders by the entrance, spun and began to lay down fire on their pursuers as they came in range. While they held down the entrance, Jackson and the rest plunged into the darkness of the tunnel. Dull red light blinked into existence as they snapped on torches attached to their weapons and chests.

Their breathing was loud in the confined space, but they pushed on at a furious clip, intent on reaching their target. They dashed through twists and turns, heading for what they thought would be the likely center of events. On one turn, they surprised a group of defenders heading for the entrance. Jackson dropped to a knee, promptly mowed them down and then moved on.

James seethed in anger as he watched his best friend and brother throw himself into danger, regardless of how well he was doing. "That's enough!" He shouted, taking a threatening step towards his captor. The bars of the cage flickered and the dark version of himself let out a low growl. "Why the hell are you showing me this!?"

"Ah yes, there's that deliciously potent anger, mixed with a bit of real fear." It said in a mockingly dulcet tone. "Be careful, lest it get out of hand."

"Get out of hand?" James glanced over at the cage, the dark form inside seemed to be glaring menacingly at the other being. All the pieces seemed to fall into place, why he was being toyed with in this strange prison. "So that's what you want, huh? You want it to get out of hand?"

The being pivoted around without moving its legs, arms folded behind its back, "Perhaps."

The foggy barrier surrounding them flashed a dark scarlet as certain morbid thoughts flashed through James' mind. Something solid popped into his hand. He looked down and grinned as he saw his old knife. Behind the iridescent bars, his darker half seemed to vibrate with energy, though it never took its gaze from the opaque tormentor.

"You know, we have a saying back where I'm from." James said as he strode towards the cage. "Be careful what you wish for."

The being cocked its head to one side, "Curious. I thought it would take a bit more."

The dark form behind bars turned as James approached, the new development grabbing its attention. James raised the knife and savagely slashed at the bars. Each one screeched as if in pain as it was severed. Each time, sharp piercing pains blossomed in James' skull, but he kept it up. The dark form seemed to realize what James was doing and began enthusiastically knocking away weakened fetters.

The corrupted white humanoid chuckled softly at what was a delightful sight to him. Soon the darkness would be free. James hacked away at the bars and ripped them apart until there was nothing left, the remains fading into oblivion. Then he stood, staring at his mottled malicious equivalent. The dark one let out an animalistic snort and squared its shoulders, staring James down. The other being looked patiently on in interest.

The darkness across from James shifted its gaze, staring over James' shoulder. James followed it and saw the other being. He smiled and stepped to the side, turning to face the warden of this nightmare.

"Well, what are you waiting for?" It queried, watching the two of them. "Get on with it." The dark form resembling James growled and took a step forward. "Odd." The being would have cocked an eyebrow if it had any as the darkness took another step. "What are you getting at? Brother, destroy the last of your shackles!" It shouted, pointing at James.

James continued to smile with a low, pained laugh. "You said he's a part of me, right?"

"What of it?" The being replied, "He is still of my kin."

"So...he wants...what I want."

The being took a defensive stance, "No! I am master here and this is my domain!" The space seemed to tremble as its ire rose. The dark form kept advancing. "You will do as you are meant to do!"

James began his own advance, gleefully raising his knife, "He's not listening, is he?"

They inexorably advanced closer and closer, their captor taking a few involuntary steps back. It was nearing the edge of the plain they were all standing on edging towards the precipice. When it had almost reached the end of the line, it swiped a hand angrily through the air, "Enough!" It shouted.

"What's the matter, feeling a little fear?" James mocked.

"You know nothing of what you speak!" It spat.

"I know plenty."

James lunged for the being, his other side doing the same. In tandem they rushed their captor for the chance of doing it harm. But the being unleashed one final burst of energy, knocking them both back. James landed hard on his back, his world flashing with pain and light.

His eyes fluttered open and he sat up with a start, searching for his target, but it was no longer there. In fact, he was not even in the same place he was before. He looked around and saw he was now in a small rocky alcove. James wondered if what he'd experienced been real or just a dream, it was hard to tell.

No. He felt something. His insides. His insides felt like there was a raging fire burning through them. But it didn't hurt. No, it actually felt like it was fueling him, giving him strength. Then he remembered. He remembered what had happened.

James checked himself, moving his arms around and flexing his legs. He still seemed to be himself, his memories were still there and he seemed to be in control of himself. But he still sensed something, something...other.

He pushed the thought from his mind, it would have to wait for now. He had a hard target now. That thing that had trapped him, whatever it was, was certainly real. He knew that. It resembled what had rushed him in the tunnel before all that craziness in his head went down. Now he knew what he had to kill. But how?

He glanced around for his weapons, patting himself down in the process. Nothing. All his weapons had been stripped from him, even his knife was gone. The fact that all of his weapons were missing, including the special package he'd brought, worried him. Warily, James got up and scanned the room. There were drag marks leading to him from the exit. At least now he knew how he'd gotten there.

James pulled himself to his feet and dusted off a little. Then he froze and dropped to a crouch as he heard footsteps out in the corridor. As they came closer, the steps became heavier. James listened and heard the jingle of poorly secured equipment...along with the guttural grumblings of an annoyed Lotkin.

It sounded like it was approaching his position, so James quietly positioned himself against the wall by the opening and waited. It wasn't long before a disgruntled looking Lotkin soldier came stomping in and looking around. Its brutish face briefly registered shock as it scanned the floor only to find it curiously devoid of its previous occupant. That's when James pounced.

Unseen, he launched himself off the wall and quickly wrapped an arm around the Lotkin's throat, bracing against his enemy's head with the other. Its airway suddenly cut off, the soldier began to thrash around and grasp for purchase on its attacker. James held on, flexing and further cutting off air and blood flow.

Panic soon set in and the Lotkin resorted to clawing weakly at James' arms while backing up and bashing him against the wall, choking out a few gurgles and wheezes. After a couple minutes, its legs finally gave out. It kneeled to the ground heavily, tried once more to pry the arm from around its neck, then collapsed in a puff of dust on the rough dirt floor.

Slowly, James extricated himself from around the soldier's neck, wincing as his sore muscles flared in protest. He leaned over and checked for a pulse. It was there, but faint. Double checking to make sure it was still out, James gave the soldier a quick pat down and smiled as he recovered an old rusty dagger and, to his utter joy, his sidearm.

Tucking his pistol into a side pocket, James turned to leave, but stopped. The Lotkin soldier was still breathing shallowly on the ground, body struggling to restart itself. James knew he couldn't just leave it there, he had to cover his back. So, flipping the dagger in his hand, he knelt, pulled the Lotkin's head up by the forehead, and unceremoniously drew the blade across its throat, the jagged edge catching and tearing the rough skin apart.

Dark blood promptly spilled out and began to pool and thicken in the gray-ish dirt as James stood up and walked away without a glance back. His enemy was still around here somewhere, along with the rest of his equipment. He needed to find his gear and finally put an end to all this.

Next Chapter: Out With A Bang Estimated time remaining: 60 Minutes
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