Sneak peek: The Laughing Man Chronicles

The Laughing Man Chronicles
By Robert J Barlow

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coverfront.jpgA homeless man wandered the streets of Berlin, his hair was thinning and he wore three threadbare coats over each other, pushing his few possessions in a shopping cart. He shook his head and searched for something, his hands roaming through thin air as he became frustrated. A black sedan pulled up in front of him and four men in suits got out. Without a word, they bundled the struggling man into the car and took off. They were never seen again.

     In New York a young woman with a power suit and power hair made her way out of work, cutting a shortcut down an alley and plugging her headphones into her ears. A tall, bald man in a leather jacket approached her from behind, the sound of boots on gravel obscured by the tune. She hit the ground seconds later.

     In London, a mohawked musician slung a guitar onto his back and walked out of the bar he’d been playing in. He sung softly to himself and stopped when three beautiful women approached him. He gave them his most charming smile and the most stunning of them approached him. She leaned up to kiss him and broke his neck.

     On the Stockholm leg of her tour a popular teen singer was gunned down in broad daylight. Security reports said she was shot by a crazed fan. The police never identified the killer.

     A pair of children ran through the Beijing streets, scrambling and stumbling through a crowd. They tried to give away no angle of attack, to vanish into the crowd and hide behind people. They didn’t blend well enough.

     A building that contained the boardroom of a fortune 500 company was bombed. The explosion took out several floors and cost thousands of innocent lives, including the company’s entire board. No clear motive was presented.

     Only one thing was found in common on every scene. Two circles, one white with a red dagger inside it and one black with two intersecting triangles.

To those who didn’t understand, it seemed random, like a sudden burst of unreasonable violence in a world full of unreasonable violence. Dead men and women in a world of dead men and women. Senseless tragedy in a world of senseless tragedy.

     To those who did understand, the answer was clear. The Seraph were falling, the Eldritch were rising, and the Legion and Lost were going to war.

     It was harvest time. Magical potential was about to be discovered and for a few of those who would be caught in the crossfire there would be adventures, or tragedies. The rest, would be found by the wrong side and killed before they ever began to understand why.

     Forty seconds either way changed everything for one.

Chapter One

Adam Westbrook made his way home from a house party he’d been at until later than he should have, shaking his head as he walked. He’d probably been too drunk to make this a good idea, and he’d definitely been too drunk to get in without waking his housemates and having to answer some awkward questions.

     The late-night bus pulled up at his stop and he got to his feet, carefully putting one foot in front of the other until he made it out the door. Shit, his head was already spinning, this was stupid. He took a shortcut across the street, one foot in front of the other, not more than a few hundred steps from home, right? Shouldn’t be a problem.

     He could take a break in the park, get his breath back. He made his way across the street to the park and admired the familiar scenery. The swings, did he want to go on the swings? He liked the swings after a couple of drinks. Made him feel like a stupid kid again. No, bad idea, things were spinning, he was too far gone for that to not go bad.

     He took a few more steps and found the bench, falling back onto it. That was it, he could wait until his head cleared, then get himself home. Where were the keys? He checked his pockets, patting himself down. Everything was spinning, if it could just stop spinning for half a second he could find them.

      ‘Fuck.’ Okay, spare key it was. Where was the spare key? Wouldn’t be too hard, couldn’t be too hard, he’d find it.

      ‘Excuse me, Sir?’

     The guys he was looking at looked too rich to be here. They were both in blue suits with watches and ties. They looked like they were brothers, tall, short slicked back hair and the exact same smile.

      ‘Yeah? Whatcha want?’ He blinked to clear his eyes and looked at them.

      ‘Are you lost?’ The taller of the two looked at him. The smile was widening. Too many teeth, it looked like he had too many teeth.

      ‘Huh?’ He shook his head and yawned.

      ‘Huh?’ the other one mimicked him, pulling a comically stupid look on his face. The taller one shook his head and smiled, leaning down to look at Adam.

      ‘I asked if you were lost, Sir,’ he repeated.

      ‘No.’ He managed to shake his head. Maybe these guys were okay after all. ‘I’m good. I live down the street from here. Just clearing my head.’

      ‘Well then,’ he shook his head and sighed, ‘that is quite disappointing. I was truly hoping you were lost.’

      ‘Look guys.’ He shook his head and got to his feet, stumbling a little. ‘You’re starting to creep me out.’ He didn’t want to get up, but he really didn’t want to be here with these weirdos. It was only when he looked back at them he saw that the shorter brother was pulling a knife out of his coat.

      ‘Yes well,’ the taller one said, taking a step in front of the short one so he couldn’t see it. ‘This is our nature, nothing we can do about it. We are unsettling and it breaks our hearts. Not to worry though, you shouldn’t have to endure it long.’

      ‘I’m afraid I can’t let you do that gentlemen.’ The voice from the other side of the park didn’t even look alarmed. Adam’s fear was sobering him up and he could see the weirdo for what he was. He was tall, thin and smiling, wearing a bright red suit with a black shirt, a black top hat and no shoes. His smile was too wide and creepy, just like the suited guys. ‘After all, killing a boy before he even has a chance to get lost, that’s just ungentlemanly. It is the action of a coward, the lowest and most contemptible act and I’m afraid I must step in.’

      ‘Must you?’ The two suited men turned to the new voice, the smaller of them was actually laughing a little. Adam got up and walked backwards. He should run, take advantage of this psycho’s distraction to get away.

      ‘Yes.’ The man in the top hat spun the silver cane in one hand, in the other he was smoking a cigarette in a long, old fashioned style holder. He took a moment to blow smoke and looked across them. ‘I’m afraid I must. I have no desire to do so, and I will take no enjoyment in it.’ He laughed and shook his head. ‘That’s a lie, but I have to give you the chance to retreat. So, feel free. Go on.’ He flicked one hand. ‘Scat.’

     ‘Well since you have such a fanciful parlance then allow me to respond,’ the taller one said turning around to face him and advanced. ‘We feel disinclined to retreat and since you have chosen to make this business your own we will have no choice but to inhume both you and the young gentleman. Prepare yourself.’

      ‘He means we’re gonna kill ya both.’ The small man suddenly grew, his skin going dark and thickening, his body twisted and grew bigger, bulkier. He wasn’t short anymore, his hands doubled, doubled again, doubled again and grew massive, his claws hooking and twisting.

     He looked at Adam and raised his hooked hands. The tall one had become taller and thinner, paler and his arms had extended into long whip like tentacles. He then sprouted more and more of them. He smiled at Adam again as his mouth vanished and his skull contracted into a white skull with two slit-like eyes.

      ‘Slender man,’ he whispered, suddenly feeling much sicker than the booze had made him.

      ‘Very good,’ the man said softly in a harsh rasp. ‘Now you will die, in agony. You have two minutes left to live.’ His tentacles began to swing and whip as he advanced on Adam, then turned around as he heard a whistle.

      ‘My apologies,’ the man in the top hat said, dropping his cigarette holder in his pocket, then removing his jacket slowly and swinging it over his shoulder. ‘But I fear I will not be able to give you that long. Some of us have things to do tonight.’

      The guy removed his hat and threw it in the air. As eyes went up toward the hat he made his move. He ran toward the two figures and the cane flashed, a sword slipping out of the dark wood. He slid between the black one’s legs and rolled forward to his feet, ignoring the tentacles and simply moving out of their way. He turned and tossed the coat over the shelled creature’s head, then spun around, pushing the sword clean through its body. The sword glowed for a moment and the Slender man fell into a puddle of goo. He took a few steps and caught the hat, chuckling a little.

      ‘Kill you!’ the big creature roared.

      ‘Ole!’ He turned and tossed his hat at the creature’s arms and the band cut them clean off. He hurled the sword at the back of the creature’s head, landing it between a crack in the armour on the neck. The creature buckled and fell, collapsing into goo, which immediately caught fire around his jacket. He walked over, picked it up and slipped the sword away, fetching his hat and throwing his coat back over his shoulder. The smell of tar and burned plastic filled the park and Adam threw up, his dinner and lunch pouring into a puddle on the floor.

      ‘Sorry.’ He burped and slumped back on the bench.

     ‘Think nothing of it.’ The hat was back on his head now and he flashed a kind of nice smile. He had a comforting face, kinda, well, if he was a little drunker he would have called the guy pretty. ‘Natural reaction to one’s first encounter with a Blank,’ a hand was on his shoulder. ‘Put your head between your legs and breathe deep, focus on that. One, two, three, breathe, one, two, three, breathe, one, two, three, breathe. Do you have the pattern?’

‘I do.’ He nodded. ‘Thanks.’ He let himself breathe for a while, then straightened up. ‘What the hell just happened?’

‘Never mind about that.’ The top hat man smiled, putting his jacket gently around Adam’s shoulders. ‘Where are you?’

      ‘In a park.’ He shrugged. ‘In Brisbane, near my house. Why?’

      ‘Where are you going?’ the voice was calm, but it rang warning bells in Adam’s addled brain.

      ‘Home,’ he shook his head. ‘Why do you wanna know?’

      ‘The suspicion.’ He nodded. ‘That’s good for you, well done.’ He slapped a hand on his back. ‘I just wanted to know if you were lost.’ He said it like it really mattered, like being lost was something important to be. ‘But if you know where you are and know where you’re going then I suppose that would be about the furthest thing in the world from lost, is it not?’

      ‘Yeah.’ He shivered a little and held the coat closer to him. ‘Yeah I guess so.’ The guy pulled the jacket closed around him and, all of a sudden, he was warm. ‘What the hell just happened?’

      ‘You already asked that.’ He smiled and started to walk Adam down the street. ‘Though I suppose now would be the time for it. ‘I killed a pair of monsters who wished to end your life. Who are you?’

      ‘Adam.’ He smiled up at the weirdo. ‘I’m Adam.’ The sober part of his mind tried to tell him he didn’t want this guy knowing where he lived, but the bigger drunker part told him it was fine and to stop whining. ‘You?’

      ‘You may call me Xavier.’ The man chuckled a little. ‘Or you may call me the Top Hat Man, or the Red Gentlemen. Any of the names are appropriate, and any would be welcome.’

      ‘Xavier.’ So the guy was a little nuts, who wasn’t? The world had apparently turned a little nuts lately, a few more days like this and he might take to wearing stupid hats and funny names himself. ‘What were those things, the Slender man and the… other one?’

      ‘Slender man.’ Xavier nodded and the voice had a chuckle in it again. It seemed like half of what the odd man did was laughing. ‘Yes, the things you see on the internet were based on psychological triggers implanted by sightings of those beings. I suppose it is as good a name as any for them. Very well, the things you call the Slender men are inhuman servants of the Legion, the least of these servants. Believe it or not they were men once, men like you and me.’ He paused and appeared to be thinking for a moment. ‘Well, like you anyway. They lost their faces and destinies. Now they have only what the Legion chooses to give them.’ He spat on the ground.

      ‘Oh.’ He nodded. ‘So, you’re insane.’

     Xavier appeared to think about that as they walked down the quiet suburban street, a couple of street lights flickering onto them as they walked. It seemed so strange, walking through normal streets and houses, a car in the middle of the night cruising slowly down the street slowed down just a little to look at them. ‘Well that is actually distinctly plausible. I may be insane. That is a definite possibility that I have discussed in my very own cranium.’ He knocked his skull with his knuckles.

      ‘I may be mad, off my rocker, out of my mind, losing my marbles. I may be going around the bend or up the wall,’ he said, poking Adam in the chest, ‘but you saw the thing I saw, you watched me kill what I killed. So, either you’re as mad as I am, or a great deal madder, to imagine a figure like me.’ The man considered for a moment. ‘Or I’ve imagined you, which makes your relative sanity rather unimportant doesn’t it?’

      ‘I’m seein’ shit,’ he decided. ‘That’s what it must be. Someone slipped something into my drink and now I’m seein’ shit. All I gotta do is get home, fall asleep and I’ll be fine.’

      ‘Let us hope.’ Xavier smiled. ‘If we are lucky then when you awaken you have no memory of anything that has just happened and can live your entire life never experiencing anything like it again.’ He handed Adam his top has and Adam took it, though the man kept his hand on it. ‘But just in case you do remember everything, let me give you something worth remembering.’

     With that he turned sharply, spun on his heel and threw Adam through his own second story window, the hat spinning in his hand, and him spinning as he flew, by some miracle of luck ending up just the shape to get in the window.

     Adam fell onto his bed and held his stomach for a moment. He shook a little and tried not to puke, he closed his eyes and took a few deep breaths. He must have walked upstairs, and just thought he was flying through the sky by a strange man’s hat. He relaxed against his bed, pulling his shirt and the jacket off. It was time for bed, everything would be better tomorrow. The dark room lit up by streetlights was covered in his familiar posters and he stared at them, letting the familiar figures comfort him.

      ‘Excuse me, Sir?’ He was shaken out of his admiration of a movie poster by the voice. The voice was soft, but it carried. ‘If you would not mind tossing me down my hat? You may keep the jacket if you should so desire. It is a fine garment, but I have more of its kin. However, I require my hat, as it is unique in all the world.’

     Adam looked down at the hat, he hadn’t realised he was holding it, but one of his hands was still gripping it so tightly his knuckles were white. He got up, walked to the window and threw it out, making a token attempt to aim for Xavier. Xavier reached up and caught it with ease, smiling widely and waving before he headed off down the street, twirling his cane in one hand as he walked.

      ‘I’ll go to sleep,’ he said to no one in particular, laying down and pulling the blanket over him. ‘I’ll go to sleep, and I’ll wake up with a headache, heave my guts and this’ll all have been some kinda screwed up dream.’ He closed his eyes and quickly enough he was asleep, the warm comfort of the dark, letting him forget for a few hours.

Adam woke up with a smaller hangover than he expected, and no need to throw up. He managed to make it to the bathroom and start brushing his teeth to get the corpse stink that came with a long night of drinking out of it before he remembered the night before.

      ‘Must’ve been spiked,’ he said to himself, spitting toothpaste into the sink, then moved into the shower, remembering that he hadn’t showered after, well, afterwards. He took his time getting himself clean, letting the hot water wash off tired body and mind alike, and by the end of it had more or less convinced himself that the whole last night had been a kind of weird, but very interesting dream when he stepped back to his room. That the mysterious Xavier was some weird picture in his mind and things like that simply didn’t happen. He headed in with a smile on his face and…

      ‘No.’ He looked down. ‘No no no, this is not happening!’

     But it was, regardless of what he thought and with no regard for his protests a red suit jacket sat on his chair. It was slightly rumpled and messy, but it was still bright red and laying exactly where he’d left it. He bent down and picked it up, and it felt just like the fabric he’d felt, that strange softness that suits didn’t usually have. He pulled it on and felt the same strange warmth he’d worn that night.

      ‘What is that?’ He heard a voice from the background and turned around, wrapped in a towel and wearing a jacket. He shook his head and closed the door, pulling on some pants and then stepping back out holding the jacket.

     Bethany was Adam’s roommate, one of them anyway. They lived in a two-bedroom house along with her long-time boyfriend. She was nice enough Adam supposed. She cleaned up after herself, didn’t get in his way and neither of them bothered him, but they weren’t exactly close.

      ‘Hey.’ He held the jacket up. ‘You like it? I picked it up last night, someone left it behind.’

She thought about it for a second, one blond eyebrow raising thoughtfully. Bethany always thought about anything before she spoke. ‘I mean it’s not exactly your usual style.’

      ‘My usual style hasn’t done wonders for me lately. Maybe this will be the start of a whole new thing.’ He smirked. ‘Or maybe I’ll leave it in the closet forever.’

      ‘You got any plans for the day?’

     He’d have to go back to university soon, the break was over in a couple of days, and he intended to make the most of it.

     ‘I’m gonna eat, game, crash, that’s the plan. I might go outside at some point if I absolutely have to.’

     ‘All right, well, you have fun now.’ She smiled, then turned and closed the door behind her. He sat down on the bed and stared at the coat. Had he really seen what he thought he’d seen? Had some kind of red-suited lunatic really cut through two monsters and set things on fire, with this coat no less?

     ‘I’m going nuts.’ He shook his head and pulled some clothes on., There was only one sure-fire way to find out. He tucked the coat under his arm and headed out.

     ‘I thought you had no plans?’

      ‘Fresh air and sunlight is good for headaches.’ He rolled his shoulders. ‘I have one.’ He headed out of the door and to the park at the end of the street. There were no kids there, because police tape covered the scene. He didn’t hesitate. Normally the idea of stepping over a police cordon would have terrified him but today, for whatever reason he wasn’t even shaken.  He pushed it away with one hand and walked through the park to the place the fight had been.

     There were ash marks, strange footprints and, there it was, a puddle of black goo sitting on the ground, bubbling gently as he looked at it. He looked at it and unfolded the coat. This would prove it, this would prove that none of it was real, he fanned it out and laid it over the goo. After a few seconds of nothing happening, he picked the coat up and turned to leave only to reveal the grass being scorched and blackened away.

      ‘What the fuck?’ He looked at the ground. He looked at the coat to reveal only a small scorch mark on the cloth. He folded it up and looked at it for a few long moments, then realised he’d sat down without meaning to.

     It didn’t make any sense, but he’d never not trusted his own eyes before. He leaned back on the ground and shook his head. What the hell was going on, and what was he going to do about it? There were suited freaks that turned into Slender men, and guys in coats that could make black goo burst into flames and had a magic hat. He had a cane sword and talked all weird and there were monsters in the world.

     He lay there for five minutes before he remembered that there was police tape in the park and people were driving by. Not wanting to end up arrested he got to his feet and walked home, trying to talk some sense into himself.

     He spent the rest of the day trying to distract himself, playing games, each one given up on within half an hour, drawing and writing. He tried entertaining himself with his roommates but he got bored pretty quickly, and he slept badly that night, dreams of monsters and fire and blades in the dark. He hung the coat on the door of his closet, looking back at it every time he tried to convince himself that something didn’t happen.

     It was important to face reality no matter how ridiculous it was, no matter how little you liked it you had to face it. His old man had taught him that, it was important to be realistic, even when reality was insane. Of course his dad had been talking about his mum leaving, not the existence of monsters, but it boiled down to the same thing. He had no intention of deluding himself further; this was his reality now. So how was he going to deal with it?

     He’d keep his eyes open and wait. He’d have to.

Everything was more or less normal for the next few weeks. He went back to university, hung out with friends, flirted, goofed off in class and lapsed into his usual patterns of drinking, socialising and occasionally studying. Until the day he saw the Top Hat Man again. He was in Queen Street, getting something to eat with his friends when, walking down the middle of the busy mall, was that obvious hat.

      ‘Do you see that guy?’ he pointed to him. ‘The one with the hat?’

      ‘No.’ His friend Shelly shrugged. She was usually the first to notice any man who stood out. As she looked around, apparently unable to see the man who was right in front of her face he dropped his meal and got up, walking away from the group. ‘Where are you going?’

      ‘Gotta do something.’ It was the best answer he could give, though it wasn’t exactly a good one.

     He moved quickly across the food court and hid behind a pillar, watching the strange, jacketed man as he moved. The top hatted man moved through the group and Adam followed, trying to keep to the crowd and ducking his head under normal people’s sight lines.

     He didn’t really know anything about tailing people, other than the fact that you should do your best not to look at them too often and try not to be seen, so he ducked in and out of a few shops to keep busy. He had to let himself get ahead of him a couple of times so he could avoid looking two suspicious, only to realise, after one of them, that the guy had taken an unexpected turn and he’d lost him.

     He took a lucky guess and found him again. This process repeated itself a few times, losing the man for seconds or even minutes before finding him again. For a tall guy with a top hat and a cane he was surprisingly good at not being followed. Honestly, Adam was starting to wonder if the guy didn’t want to be seen, why wasn’t he taking his hat off?

      ‘Though if I’m going to be asking that kind of question I might consider asking why I’m spending my afternoon following a complete stranger down alleyways rather than, you know, going to him and asking what the hell is going on,’ he muttered angrily to himself. ‘Or better yet, letting the hell go and going back to my friends.’ But he kept moving, ignoring the few strange glances he was getting for mumbling to himself. The streets of Brisbane weren’t exactly crowded, but there were more people than he was used to having to deal with.

     In the end, he managed to follow the guy into a tiny café he’d never seen before, a little hole in the wall place covered in graffiti he only just realised was on purpose. He took a few seconds to gather up his courage; he was supposed to talk to the guy, right? Then he should go talk. He took a couple of breaths and walked inside.

     The place kept up the graffiti theme all throughout, every wall painted with imaginative designs. The bar stools, because apparently it was a bar and café, were made of what looked like junk sculptures you sat on. He took a deep breath and sat down at one of them, ordering himself a coffee and looking around, the bartender/barista, a small tattooed man with three piercings in his eyebrows nodded to him as he studied the place.

     Since the top hat man hadn’t come out, and there wasn’t a stage or a private area he could be in, he’d have to go into the staff only areas. He’d have to slip back there one way or the other. He walked over to one of the tables near the back and started to sip from the cup, sitting down at the booth. He waited until no one was watching him and slipped through the “staff only” door.

     Behind the staff only door was pretty much what you’d expect, a small hallway and a stockroom. As he pushed his way into the stockroom, stacked high with supplies, coffee, cutlery, cookware and a bunch of cardboard boxes full of god only knew what. He was halfway into the room and headed for the back door when the lights went out.

      ‘Jesus!’ He jumped back. ‘What the hell is going on?’

      ‘Where are you?’ The voice coming from directly behind him was soft and quiet, and he didn’t recognise it.

      ‘What’s going on here?’

      ‘Where are you?’

      ‘Turn the fucking lights back on!’ Adam moved across the room and fumbled for the switch, but he found nothing.

      ‘Where are you?’ The voice was different this time, but still male, from the other side of the room. He backed himself against the wall, if someone came at him he at least wanted his back to something solid.

      ‘In a café, somewhere.’ His voice was cautious.

      ‘And where is that café?’ The voice was calm, infinitely patient, like it could stand there asking one question for the rest of its existence.

      ‘I don’t know,’ he admitted. ‘Now let me out of here!’

      ‘Where are you going?’ He jumped. The voice from behind him was a woman, and it was from behind him, in spite of the fact his back was to the wall. He reached up, but there was no vent or hole in the wall. Take a deep breath Adam, be as calm and honest as you can until you can get the hell out.

      ‘I don’t know,’ he shrugged. ‘Wherever the hat guy’s going I guess.’

      ‘Doesn’t sound like much of a plan.’

      ‘There wasn’t exactly a destination in mind.’ He headed across the walls, checking the shelves with his hands. He grasped something that felt solid and heavy in one hand and made ready to swing it if anyone touched him.

      ‘Who are you?’ The third voice wasn’t from behind him, it was from across the room, this voice was deeper and hoarser and from the far corner.

      ‘My name,’ he took a couple of deep breaths and held his fear back, don’t let them see you’re scared, ‘is Adam.’ But his voice wavered a little. Dammit now they knew he was scared, still, he was blind, surrounded and locked in a room so it was a pretty reasonable time to be afraid.

      ‘Oh?’ the woman’s voice rang out from over his shoulder again. ‘And what does it mean to be Adam?’ This time he saw her, a brief movement, a quick flash of long hair over his shoulder. She gave a soft melodious laugh.

      ‘What do you mean what does it mean?’ He shook his head and lashed out with one hand to push her away from him, making no contact at all.

      ‘What does it mean to be Adam? What does it mean to be you?’ She was in front of him and he saw her for a second, just a flash of pale skin and dark eyes.

      ‘I don’t fucking know,’ he snapped. ‘What does it mean to be anyone?’

      ‘Doesn’t know where he is.’ The light flashed on, a figure in the corner with a deep hood and a jacket.

      ‘Doesn’t know where he’s going,’ the first voice spoke again, showing a tall man with spiked hair. It revealed thick shoulders, folded arms and a vest.

      ‘Knows who he is,’ the girl spoke up again and the light flicked on, showing a whirl of colour on a female form.

      ‘But doesn’t know what it meant to be him.’ This last one he could recognise by the red jacket and black top hat. The light began to flicker, showing the different figures one by one. First the hat man, the hooded man, the woman, and the big man, again and again, finer and finer details showing.

     Finally, they all appeared around him, moving slowly without ever seeming to take a step. The tall guy wore black gloves and vest, he had a mohawk and a tattoo of the word LOST on his skull. The girl had green and pink hair, a long rainbow skirt and a heavy black jacket. She had about a dozen piercings in her face. The next figure was a small, hooded man, all in black.

      ‘Seems lost to me,’ they all said together.

      ‘What’s going on?’ He swung what turned out to be a coffee maker at the big one’s head, who took the hit. The metal crumpled on his skull and he ignored it completely.

      ‘All things will be explained in time,’ he said softly. ‘But first, we need you to answer a question.’

      ‘Are,’ the woman spoke.

      ‘You,’ the man in the hood muttered.

      ‘Lost?’ the hat man finished. He tried to get out, pushing at the hooded man and then the girl, neither of them moved, standing as solid as if he was pushing solid steel. He heard the question echoed in his head over and over again. Are you lost, are you lost, are you lost?

      ‘Yes!’ he screamed. ‘Yes, okay I am!’ He looked at them for a few more moments and then the lights went out. In front of him the lights began to flicker faster and faster and the room filled up with bodies. People who looked strange and odd and different and frightening and beautiful in a hundred different ways. He saw a woman naked but for hundreds of tattoos that covered every inch of her skin. He saw a man dressed like a Victorian dandy wearing a metal arm, he saw a tall man in a business suit, hunched and howling like an animal as claws burst from his hands. He saw and he saw and he saw.

     The world around him shifted, and he felt like he was spinning and falling plummeting and then standing still on the air, on the air in a giant city he’d never been to; a city he didn’t think anyone had ever been to. The skyscrapers went up as far as he could see, massive buildings of glass, concrete and steel, but no colour. As he looked around he saw hundreds of people in suits, women with power hair in grey outfits, men who were bald, or balding, or had over-styled slickness about them, walking down the street looking at one another, chatting about things he couldn’t see.

      ‘They know who they are,’ the voice rang across the sky. ‘They know where they’re going, and where they came from. They know that this is their world. They have had the fact that they own it comfortably explained to them ever since they were young, and they continue in that knowledge their entire lives. They do not look around, they do not look inside, they are contented and do not need to. That is their right, burden, and privilege. They have the ability to know what they are and what they do, and, in exchange all they must do is stay on their path.’

     Suddenly he was on the street, and walking with this crowd of people who didn’t notice him. He saw the path, a simple red line that everyone followed. None of them looked at him or met his eyes. They didn’t move to step away from him, they just, didn’t seem to be in his path, even when he moved directly into theirs, their path simply changed to not include him. As soon as he did, he saw a large black clad man whose eyes swung to meet his.  He moved confidently toward Adam and in spite of the fact he’d seen eyes just a moment before he could swear the man in black had no face.

     As he moved they turned to step around him, rather than the unconscious parting for Adam. He reached Adam and seized him gently but forcefully, leading him calmly and silently back onto the clear path. The implication of a smile appeared on the faceless face, and he turned back to the crowd.

      ‘The Legion is what guides them, the Legion is what controls them, the Legion is what keeps them safe in exchange for their freedom, for their will, their right to choose any path other than the one they were born to. Walk the Legions path and you will be safe, as long as you continue to walk it as the path grows ever more narrow.’ He had walked off the path without realising it and the faceless creature turned its head. He knew it could see him, it was looking at him, and this time when it reached him it wouldn’t be a gentle correction.

     It started toward him, and the people moved out of black suit’s way; not in the gradual general way they got out of Adam’s, or even the neutrality with which they moved before but with deliberate intent. He shifted them, gently but firmly from his path and Adam took off running down an alley shoving without restraint. He pushed a few of the suited people who didn’t move fast enough into black suit’s path, forcing him to correct them as he moved and giving Adam a little space to manoeuvre. He saw a bridge passing over a river, took a deep breath and dove in, landing with a small splash in the freezing water. It seized up his muscles and knocked the wind out of his lungs, but he managed to swim to underneath the bridge, righting himself to breathe and hanging onto the support pillar.

      ‘What the hell is going on?’ he asked the voice that seemed to be everywhere and nowhere.

      ‘The Legion locates the extreme, the strange, the wild and uncatchable. They kettle and control them, and the ones they cannot control they destroy.’ Suddenly he could see so much clearer, his eyes zooming in on the man in black, his eyes scanning the area. ‘This is the world as it truly is, beyond the world you know, beyond all you see and understand. The place you see here is truer than reality, though it may be only the smallest piece of the puzzle. Until you have seen what you need to see you must not return to the world you know.’

     Suddenly he was dry again, standing on the street, the cold slowly leaving his bones. He took a few deep breaths and looked around for the ones in black. He saw four, but none close and none with eyes. This time he kept himself unobtrusive, walking slowly and following the path of the others. He stayed quiet and made sure not to bump into anyone or walk off the path.

     And then he saw the others doing the same. People taking too much care to walk with the others, people who flashed with colours and brightness, glitter and shine. As he watched them he saw hair falling long, piercings in their faces, flashes of emblems across their skin. On some it was subtle, a suited man whose hair was a little wild and smiled a little wide. A woman with streaks in her hair and her dress showing a little more than the others, taking care to stay in lockstep with three other women. Then, in a sudden momentary flash of movement she disappeared down an alley, unnoticed by anyone. Anyone but Adam that is.

      ‘These are the Lost,’ came the voice. ‘They have stepped off their own paths, opened up their own roads, ignored the path that was so deliberately and clearly laid out for them, or refused to compromise themselves to walk it forever. Those who refuse to accept where they are, where they are going and what they must do have no choice but to make their own path. Some are born without a path, others choose not to have one. They will destroy the Legion if they can, and have everyone free, even if it endangers themselves and the world around them. This may not be a wise choice, but it may be the right one.

     If you intend to lose yourself, then you must accept this reality. You must endeavour to find a better path than the one you were on. It is fine to break something, but you must have something to replace it with. You may attempt this if you wish.’ Adam turned down an alley, following the running girl, picking up his own pace.

     She didn’t move with panic, but with joy and soon she filled the air with laughter. She kicked out at a panel in the ground and it fell away, allowing her to slip down it. As she reached up to replace it he took it from her gently. She gave him a smile with bright blue eyes as he took the panel and then turned from him and headed off running. He slipped down, popped the panel back in place and dropped onto the ground. He started to walk down a sloping path as the world lit up around him. As the lights went up the faintly glowing figures started to light up like beacons.

     The lights on the roof, as well as the ones whirling off the people, lit up the strange architecture, buildings lit up in abstract art styles with no consideration for practicalities and statues that made no sense at all. The colour scheme seemed to be more or less completely random. And the people! They seemed to be playing a series of weird games, jumping and playing, painting the walls and putting on strange performances for each other. They used the architecture as an obstacle course as they ran from building to building. In front of Adams eyes, a large man, lit up with yellow, ran up the slope, waving at him as he ran past, launching himself up and knocking the top of the panel loose in order to climb up and out.

      ‘What is this place?’ he whispered. To his surprise the response wasn’t a voice that came from nowhere, it came from behind and below him. The man with the LOST tattoo smiled, climbed up a pole and came to rest beside Adam, the tattoo burning bright red on his scalp.

      ‘It’s one of the lands of the Lost, the silent hidden places, known only to those who don’t know who they are, or where they’re going.’ He laughed and settled on his feet, wiping his gloved hands on his pants.

      ‘Who are you?’

      ‘Call me Pan,’ he smiled.

      ‘A member of the Lost, called Pan?’ he stared at the man, who had the decency to look a little embarrassed.

      ‘It’s a little on the nose I know.’ He nodded. ‘But yeah, and now you’ve found the place, I can show you the way out if you like.’

      ‘Okay, but first,’ he looked around, ‘what is, all of this?’

      ‘This place is a Lost bolt hole in the Upper City. In any one place we can see, there are always at least three places in reality. The one you know, the upper world, which belongs to the Seraph, and the lower world, which belongs to the Eldritch.’

      ‘What are, those things you just said?’

      ‘The Seraph are the creatures that live above our world. They’ve been angels, they’ve been called aliens and they’ve been called plenty of other things. Everything in their world starts out bright, white, silver, gold, shining and sparkling, eerie and glowing. The Eldritch…’ Pan almost seemed possessed as he talked, spreading his arms wide, the light inside him blazing brighter and brighter, a gleaming white and purple spiral.

      ‘The Eldritch are the beings that live below. They’ve been called demons and boogeymen and a dozen other things too. They live in places that are dark, black, purple and blue, slithering and shadowy, passionate and warm.’ With that he turned in three sixty and fell on his back on a ruined looking couch that was sitting there for no good reason. He relaxed into the cushions and Adam sat down beside him. ‘Our worlds reflect each other, but they don’t affect each other, except during harvest time.’

      ‘Harvest time?’ Adam looked away from the other man and stared at his hands for a long moment. ‘Well, that’s… ominous.’

     Pan pulled a pack of cigarettes out of his jeans and tapped one out for himself, then offered one to Adam, who waved it away. ‘Oh, it is more than ominous.’ He lit up and took a long puff. ‘The harvest is what happens when the walls between the worlds start to crack and leak. Powers from the Eldritch and Seraph begin to bleed into our world, and if we are quick and clever we can take that power and use it to strengthen ourselves. It lets us walk between worlds, and use that power to make ourselves stronger.’ He shook his head.

      ‘If we are very smart, and very quick, and very lucky. Anyway, some of us show potential to become Legionnaires, and some show potential to get Lost. While we’re busy recruiting, those of us who are a little less than scrupulous,’ he grabbed Adam’s head and forced him to look the bigger man in the eye, ‘attempt to track down the other side’s potential recruits and remove them before they can access any power.’ He released his head.

      ‘As I’m certain you remember,’ the familiar voice came from his other side, as Xavier jumped over the couch to land on Adam’s other side, ‘from when the Blanks were trying to do that to you before I strode onto the scene.’ He gave a strange little bow from the waist from his seated position. ‘You are welcome, by the way.’

      ‘Well if it aint the Top Hat Man.’ Pan held up the spare cigarette, sounding more annoyed than pleased. ‘How ya doin’?’

      ‘Well enough.’ He snagged the cigarette and put it behind his ear before looking at Adam. ‘So you managed to find your way here after all? I can’t say I’m surprised. I do hope you managed to get some use out of my old coat?’ He ran his hands down his new one, which was exactly the same. ‘As you can see I crafted a new one, so you are welcome to retain the last.’

      ‘Thanks man.’ He didn’t know what else to say. ‘So what, this was an entrance exam? I get to be one of you now?’

      ‘Well,’ the Top Hat Man made a show of being uncomfortable, though Adam didn’t buy it, ‘less get to and more, must be one of us now.’ He sighed and shook his head. ‘I am explaining this poorly. You are one of us. You have been one of us ever since the Blanks first identified you as a threat. You will need our help until you have something to defend yourself with.’

      ‘So what?’ He got up off the couch and turned to them. ‘I’m supposed to just go by some weird new world’s rules all of a sudden?’ He spread his arms. ‘I’m supposed to just accept all this?’ He dropped his arms and shook his head. ‘Fuck that I’m going home. I’m not dealing with this. Pan, take me home now.’

      ‘That is of course your choice,’ Xavier said with a smile. ‘Well, good luck.’

      ‘Really?’ Pan snapped. ‘That’s it, you’re not going to warn him or anything?’

      ‘Well he’s obviously a clever lad.’ Xavier’s patronising tone dripped from his lips. ‘I wouldn’t want to put any undue duress on him. He might feel forced, and that’s bad.’

      ‘Worse than him feeling dead?’ Pan folded his arms.

      ‘I don’t know.’ Xavier was smiling now. ‘Perhaps he truly values his freedom of choice.’

      ‘Okay.’ He shook his head, feeling a little ridiculous and sat back down. ‘Why don’t you tell me what’s going on?’

      ‘The Legion know where you go, they know what’s in your home. They know how to find you, and if you can’t defend yourself against them…’ He gritted his teeth and looked awkward.

      ‘You’ll die.’ Xavier didn’t seem at all awkward about it.

      ‘So what?’ He looked around. ‘I’m supposed to stay here?’

      ‘Oh, gods no,’ Xavier laughed. ‘If you stay here you’ll go insane!’

      ‘You’re supposed,’ Pan cut across the conversation, ‘to go and gather some Eldritch or Seraph Presence with which to defend yourself. If you can gather them and you make it clear that you’re willing to leave them alone, they will decide you’re problem enough and leave you alone.’

      ‘So,’ Adam got up again and this time the others got up with him, he looked at them as he walked over to a nearby railing, ‘I suppose you both have these, Presences?’

      ‘Two.’ Xavier smiled and spun in place. ‘Eldritch here.’ He tipped his hat. ‘Seraph here.’ He spun the cane. ‘You’ve met them of course.’

      ‘Three.’ Pan raised both hands. ‘Eldritch.’ He then reached up and tapped the side of his skull. ‘And that one’s special.’

      ‘So what?’ He looked at them. ‘I go on some grand quest to find some hidden power? I’ll die before I get twenty steps.’

      ‘Worry not, kitten.’ Xavier patted his shoulder. ‘It may be dangerous for you to go, but we have a vested interest in watching you return. You see, there is a value in allowing any agent to take on a Presence, and a far greater one in allowing a new agent to take on a Presence. This places another piece on the board and the Lost,’ he rubbed his hands together, ‘we love new pieces. So you won’t be all on your lonesome.’

      ‘You two are coming in with me?’ He looked at them. Well that was a little hope, he supposed.

      ‘Not just us.’ Pan smiled and wrapped one big meaty arm around Adams shoulder, leading him off in the right direction. Xavier fell into step behind them. ‘Now keep up, we’ve got a concert to get to.’

      ‘We’re going to a concert?’

      ‘That’s what I said.’ Pan’s voice was gentle and amused. ‘Concerts are one of our best spots, and one of theirs too. We gather around bands that draw our kind of people. You’ll find the Legion around teeny boppers and hip hoppers, you’ll find us around punk bands, rappers and metal heads. The band we’re going to see is one of ours. We’ll also meet the rest of our team there.’ They picked up speed, climbing down gangways and across rooftops before they finally came to their way out.

      ‘It’s a slide.’ Adam looked at the two of them.

      ‘It is a slide.’ Xavier nodded.

      ‘Why is it a slide?’

      ‘Why wouldn’t it be?’ Pan shrugged and climbed onto it, pushing off.

      ‘It is as good a question as any.’ Xavier put his hat under his arm. ‘I don’t have a better answer I’m afraid. Whoever made the way down into our world liked the idea of it being a slide, so we made it one. Don’t worry, you’ll be fine.’ He grinned and started to slide. ‘You know, probably, if you’re lucky!’ The voice died away, fading into a laugh. Adam took a deep breath and looked down, then started to slide.

     As he began to move he decided that he didn’t mind the ride. It was a little childish, but actually kind of fun. As they cleared the dark area they went into the light, and he saw the skyscraper city again. He started to see obstructions and rails riding up around him, coming to a sharp turn and he started to struggle, scramble and try to slow himself down. His scrambling only seemed to serve to bring the walls closer to him, so he just relaxed and tried to let what would be, be. A half dozen times he swore that the guard rails and walls were going to turn him into salsa; he just hugged his arms close to his chest, feeling his heart pounding and his gut twisting, but they never seemed to hit him.

     He hadn’t noticed he was picking up speed, how fast was he moving now? Faster than he could believe you could move on a slide. As he got faster and faster the colour of the sky began to change, from white to black to red to gold, purple to blue to silver, over and over again and again, spiralling patterns of clouds and lightning and swirling until he could barely place one single colour and he began to feel sick. As he started to get dizzy things blurred and something started to appear in front of his eyes. A giant white winged creature that shone like a diamond. Its face was cold, its eyes were black, but its wings lit up with golden fire. It swooped down at him with an eagle cry, and then pulled up suddenly, chased away by a set of black tendrils.

     The creature, unnoticed beneath him, began to rise and unfurl, slowly but surely. He couldn’t describe what was going on, what this creature was. Its body extended at all the wrong angles, sometimes it seemed inside out. It twisted and deformed and collapsed on itself again and again. It wasn’t ugly, wasn’t grotesque or deformed like he thought it might be, but it was so impossibly strange that he couldn’t describe it with anything other than its lack of description.

     He watched the two creatures fight, fierce swoops and swipes from the white monster undone by a reforming, striking, shifting attack from the creature below. The angel moved rigidly, swooping and diving in sudden movements, by comparison the creature from the bottom struck with a strange flowing pattern he couldn’t understand.

     He saw a giant man in a black suit with a white metal mask locked over his face, he saw a flash of white and red striking at an ocean of black figures. He saw a figure wreathed in pure blackness advancing indomitably toward a crowd of bright figures, undaunted by the fire and light they hurled at it. He saw himself crawling across pavement, bleeding red as black and white sludge oozed out of his body.

     He struggled to his feet while a crowd of monsters laughed and jeered around him.  He saw himself wielding white weapons in black armour that swirled and changed shapes, unable to stick to one for more than a second. He saw himself at the centre of a crossroads with dozens of roads running in dozens of directions.

     And suddenly the slide was over, and he landed quite simply in some kind of strange fabric. It slowly ripped and tore and he fell through it, letting out a scream. He lashed out with both hands, trying to catch hold of something. He reached out and caught a pair of hands, he slipped and caught hold, then slipped and caught hold, then slipped and caught hold. In the end, the final set of hands caught him and placed him on the ground. The grip hurt his arms, pain running down from his hand to his shoulder and jarring up his chest. He let out a wail of pain and took a seat on the ground.

      ‘Did you have fun?’ Pan was laying on the ground where he’d apparently fallen. He had apparently lit himself another cigarette and decided to finish it before he got up. As Adam looked around he saw that he was in a completely normal stockroom. ‘I didn’t like the slide the first time. But now it’s a kinda fun little journey for me.’

      ‘I always enjoyed it.’ Xavier spun his cane in his hands, smiling to himself.

      ‘I don’t know how I feel,’ he admitted. ‘I mean it was, kind of fun, but also kinda, I don’t know. I mean all that stuff I saw; will it actually happen?’

      ‘It may.’ He shrugged. ‘It may be prophecy, it may be possible prophecy, it may be a lunatic dream you had due to vertigo and dizziness and because you’re a loon?’ He approached Adam, and he did limp when he wasn’t using his stick to walk. He reached out the walking stick, tapping him gently on the head. ‘Or it is distinctly possible that even after all this time this may just be one very long dream. Perhaps you’re in a coma, perhaps you were never born and you’re just an alien consciousness making up stories so it will feel less alone in the void. All of these things are relatively plausible and a I hope you possess enough wisdom to give each and every one of them their due consideration.’

      ‘The Red Gentleman is good at spinning stories.’ Pan flicked his ashed cigarette. ‘If you’re smart, you’ll listen to what he says, examine every detail and choose to disregard it all. He is a fucking lunatic after all.’

      ‘I may in fact be a fucking lunatic,’ Xavier allowed. ‘But I am eminently useful and occasionally insightful. You will be relying upon me for your survival.’

      ‘So, what’s the band we’re going to see?’ He chose to ignore the ranting of the Top Hat Man and let Pan speak.

      ‘They’re a punk band called Lash Out in Anger. They have a small, loyal following.’

      ‘And they’re you guys, I mean,’ he swallowed, ‘they’re us?’

      ‘Just the drummer.’ He shrugged. ‘For the band itself I mean, but a few of the tech guys and road crew are among our number. We use the band as cover, so we can walk the paths we need to walk without too much suspicion or scrutiny. No one asks where the truck loaded down with speakers manned by serious looking guys in black go. Of course they’re setting up the sound system, what else would they be doing?’ He laughed. ‘Now come on.’