The Nexus Games [Chapters 1-3] + Audio

Hey peeps!

My newest release, The Nexus Games, has just hit the shelves! In case you’d like to see a preview of the story (or listen to Dan Calley and his amazing voice) here it is!

This would best be described as “the Squid Games meets the Chronicles of Narnia.” I hope you enjoy!

Chapter 1 – Dan Calley Narration

Chapter 2 – Dan Calley Narration

Chapter 3 – Dan Calley Narration

—Chapter 1—

—Stalkers—

            Alex Kellan wasn’t the type of person who stalkers typically targeted. He carried a loaded .45 handgun in his shoulder holster and regularly bench-pressed two hundred pounds. Most thugs could do the math—he wasn’t worth the inevitable hospital bill.

            Yet, for some unknown reason, a pair of men had been following Kellan wherever he went. For the last seven days, his stalkers had watched his every movement from the safety of distant shadows. But each day they grew a little bolder. Each day they moved a little closer.

            Curiosity was getting the better of Kellan. He had called in the suspicious behavior, and his contacts were investigating, but there wasn’t much to go on.

            Kellan took a swig of beer, content, for the moment, with the seedy bar atmosphere. Nino’s Place was a rinky-dink location stuck between a Japanese restaurant and a UPS store, both of which had been closed for years.

            Despite the grit and grime, there were four others seated around the establishment. One man, heavy set and bearded, sat with a trucker’s posture. Another man, his hair silver and his naked ring finger permanently indented, likely drank to escape the memories that lingered.

            Two others sat in the corner booth, hidden by the shadows of a burnt-out light, as silent as the broken jukebox.

            There they were. Kellan’s stalkers.

            He decided he’d wait them out. Perhaps once he stepped outside, he could get a word with them.

            A bartender walked over and offered Kellan a quizzical lift of her eyebrow. All the hair on her head had been dyed dark purple—a flashy statement that didn’t match the woman’s plain black shirt and unassuming jeans.

            “It’s Christmas Eve, ya know,” she said.

            “Seriously?” Kellan replied. He finished his beer with one last swig. “Huh. That explains the holiday music on the radio.”

            Obviously unimpressed by the sarcasm, the bartender frowned. “Don’t get cute. Shouldn’t you be with family? What’s someone like you doing in Nino’s Place?”

            “Clearly, I’m here for the company,” Kellan quipped.

            The trucker belched.

            Kellan forced himself to smile. He pushed his empty glass toward the bartender. “Pour me another.”

            “You on leave or something, military man?” the purple-haired woman asked as she filled the glass with needless showmanship, twirling it once and spinning it afterward.

            He wasn’t wearing a uniform, but a veteran could always spot fellow military.

            The faint shrapnel scars on the woman’s arms told Kellan she had once served.

            “Like I said, I’m here for the company.” This time, Kellan met the woman’s eyes straight on.

            Anything would be better than being alone on Christmas. Kellan hadn’t really dated in years. His old moves—which consisted of way too many dark or sarcastic jokes—didn’t usually work, but he hadn’t taken the time to learn anything new.

            A smirk came to the corner of the bartender’s lips. She walked with a slight limp, a detail Kellan had taken quick note of when he had first entered the bar, but the other puzzle pieces of her appearance were what caught Kellan’s interest. Despite her dyed hair, the freckles on her forearms and shoulders gave away her Irish lineage. He found it attractive.

            “You’re here for the company?” she asked as she slid over his beer. “You haven’t even asked for my name.”

            Kellan shrugged. “I don’t need to.”

            “Oh? Why’s that?”

            With no hurry, he sipped his beer. The quiet in the bar wasn’t comforting. Any car that drove by could be heard through the thin walls.

            But before the bartender grew irritated with Kellan’s silent treatment, the trucker at the far booth scooted his mug to the edge of his tiny table. “Mavis, can I get another?”

            “Your name is Mavis,” Kellan said, lifting his glass in a toast.

            She rolled her eyes as she ambled over to the trucker’s table.

            For years, Kellan had gone through special training for observation and analysis. Figuring out someone’s identity without speaking to them wasn’t particularly difficult, but it always impressed civilians. Mavis was a veteran, though. The cute trick probably didn’t win him any points.

            By the time Mavis had finished with the other patron, Kellan had downed his drink. Mavis rested her weight on the bar and gave him another questioning eyebrow.

            “I’m on mandatory leave,” Kellan said before she could ask again. “Trust me. I’d rather be working, but I guess Santa has a different gift for me in mind.”

            She whistled. “You get in trouble with the MP? That why you’re not working?”

            “Let’s just say it was a psychologist’s orders.” Kellan toyed with his empty glass.

            “Got cold feet? Or you another one with PTSD?”

            “No, but I’m going to have traumatic flashbacks about frequenting this bar,” Kellan said as a cockroach scuttled across the countertop.

            Mavis grabbed a towel, but before she could shoo the insect away, Kellan slammed his glass down on the roach, breaking the quiet atmosphere with a clack. The trucker and the widower both glanced up, but they quickly returned to their own drinks when nothing else happened.

            But the two men in the dark corner…

            They neither flinched at the racket nor altered their behaviors.

            Kellan couldn’t help but scratch at an itch on the back of his neck when he glanced in their direction. Something wasn’t right about his stalkers. They didn’t act like normal men who were undercover. They didn’t act like normal men, period.

            “Sorry about that,” Mavis said, flushed in the face as she wiped down the bar. She took his glass and thoroughly scrubbed the roach guts from the counter. “We don’t usually have a problem with bugs.”

            “Don’t worry. I’ll leave it out of my Yelp review.”

            Mavis chuckled.

            She grabbed a new glass, filled it to the brim, and slid it to Kellan. Although he had intended to drown his evening in booze, the uncomfortable feeling Kellan got from the two in the corner put a halt to his plans. His perceptions were dulled, but only slightly. Instead of drinking more, he’d keep his wits about him.

            Kellan leaned forward and lowered his voice. “Hey, do you know those two over there?” He motioned with his eyes to the dark corner occupied by the two suspicious men.

            “Nope,” Mavis said. “But I can do a quick walk around.”

            Making good on her word, Mavis walked out from behind the bar and approached each customer with a smile and small talk. The two regulars chatted it up with easy topics and a jovial Merry Christmas.

            “Do you need anything else to drink?” she asked the widower. “Sorry about the lack of music. Apparently, there are only so many times one man can listen to Jingle Bells.”

            “I don’t need anything,” the man replied. “I hate Christmas music as much as any other sane man.”

            Kellan gritted his teeth. The two in the corner watched his every move.

            He had gotten used to having background checks run on every new acquaintance he made, as well as having his phone watched and his conversations recorded. It was for his safety as much as his unit’s—there were some who would do Kellan harm simply for his position, and others who wanted to dismantle the US Special Forces from within.

            Kellan watched the corner of the room through a mirror mounted behind the bar.

            Mavis returned to her post behind the bar, rubbing her bad leg and grimacing. Clinking bottles together in a faux attempt to straighten up, she whispered, “Those two in the corner aren’t very talkative. Just a pair of weirdos ordering a single beer each and never touching it.”

            “Huh.”

            “You’re a little paranoid, is that it?” Mavis asked, giving him the once over. “I can see why they put you on mandatory leave.”

            “You got me,” Kellan intoned. “Kellan the Paranoid. That’s me.”

            Mavis stopped fiddling with the glasses. “Your name is Kellan, huh? Well, I don’t like this serious version of yourself, Kellan. You have an intense expression when you’re quiet.”

            “Oh, I was just thinking about what I was going to write on that Yelp review. Maybe something along the lines of; great drinks, but they pale in comparison to the beauty behind the counter. Ten out of ten, would visit again.

            Mavis grew red and silent. “That was cheesy.”

            He shrugged. “I’m not the smoothest. You’ll get sick of me.”

            She took a moment to gather her thoughts. “The bar closes at two,” she said, her ears still a shade of pink. “We can grab a coffee afterward. I know a place.”

            “I have a strict schedule I need to keep. Two is past my bedtime. You understand.”

            Mavis nodded and turned away. “You’re right. I forgot you’re still active. Never mind.”

            “You have any days off?” Kellan quickly asked. “I’m still on leave, after all. We could get a bite to eat and then grab a coffee. That is, if you haven’t gotten sick of me.” He gave her a playful smile.

            Mavis shook her head and chuckled. “I definitely should’ve gotten you talkin’ earlier. Are you free Sunday? I have the whole day off then.”

            She pulled an index card from the cash register and wrote out her phone number. Then she tucked it into the front pocket of Kellan’s jacket.

            “You better call me,” she said.

            “Of course.” He tossed another twenty on the counter—plenty for a tip—and gave her one last nod. Mavis returned the gesture.

            “I’ll see you then.”

            In reality, Kellan could have stayed longer, but the two in the corner booth had started gathering their things to leave. He wanted to get a good look at them before the night ended. What were they planning?

            As Kellan walked by, he slowed his pace and looked them over. His open observation gave him next to no information, however. Both men wore gray hooded sweaters, dark-blue jeans, and white T-shirts. Plain. Nondescript. Lacking all personal flair.

            Unusual.

            Their muddy-brown hair and short haircuts also did little in the way of distinguishing them. No tattoos. No scars.

            Kellan exited out onto the sidewalk and turned toward the parking lot two blocks down. He heard the door behind him, aware of the trailing stalkers.

            The cold night air blanketed Fayetteville in icy fog. Closing signs hung on doors and security gates secured windows along the barren street. Black clouds blotted out the moon and flickered with the hints of a storm. If there was Christmas spirit to be felt, it wasn’t in the dank alleys behind Nino’s Place.

            Kellan approached his vehicle, taking time with his keys to allow his pursuers to catch up.

            When footsteps echoed between the buildings that lined the parking lot, Kellan smiled to himself.

            “Finally got the stones to say something to me?” he asked.

            Kellan turned around.

            To his surprise, it wasn’t the two men from the bar—there were four others walking out from the harsh shadows cast by the streetlamps. They all had jewelry jutting from their lips, ears, and eyebrows. The words Fear Nothing had been tattooed on their forearms. They were teenagers, like all local street gangs, and the four thugs approached from different angles.

            “Good evening, gentlemen,” Kellan said.

            The four didn’t reply as they advanced.

            One goon withdrew a switchblade and Kellan instinctively placed a hand on his sidearm hidden in his jacket. Kellan stopped himself from drawing his gun when he noticed the teen’s poor grip on his blade.

            Why are they so desperate? Kellan asked himself.

            The thug with the switchblade rushed in. Kellan grabbed his wrist and easily kicked out the kid’s footing. Then he ripped the blade out of the thug’s hand and hurled his attacker to the ground.

            Two of the thugs lunged, and Kellan met the first with a solid strike to the liver—kid never saw it coming—and the shock sent the kid’s internal organs on a cigarette break. The second guy got a punch on Kellan’s right ear and then wrapped his arm around Kellan’s neck. In a sheer display of power, Kellan flipped the boy over his body and slammed him against the asphalt.

            The fourth thug, a mere two feet away, pulled a .22 handgun from the waistband of his jeans. Kellan grabbed the barrel and smashed it back against the kid’s face, breaking his nose and chipping a tooth. Then Kellan tore the handgun from the kid’s weak hold, backed himself against the side of his car, and watched in confusion as the first thug got to his feet.

            Without a switchblade, the thug stumbled forward, his arms outstretched in a poor and ineffective mode of attack.

            Kellan tucked the stolen gun away and grabbed the kid before the idiot could try anything else.

            “What’s wrong with you?” Kellan asked, holding back a laugh. “If you needed money this badly, you could have—”

            The boy vomited, coating Kellan’s arm in a yellowish mass of writhing worms and fluids.

—Chapter 2—

—Mistakes—

            Kellan yanked his hand away in horror.

            Worms? What the?

            Kellan shoved the kid into a nearby car, his combat reflexes kicking in. He ripped off his jacket. The worms squirmed down his forearm, the sticky slime of the vomit causing them to cling to everything they touched. The sting of the worms burrowing into his flesh shocked him more than anything else.

            Shaken, Kellan pulled off his shirt and raked it across his skin.

            “What was that?” he shouted.

            Kellan threw down his shirt and examined his arm, all while keeping an eye on his attackers. His skin appeared unharmed, though the phantom sting lingered on Kellan’s thoughts. He twisted his forearm and saw nothing that indicated damage—no evidence the worms had even existed. 

            But they had, right? Kellan turned his arm around several times, pressing his fingers against his skin, hoping to feel something.

            Nothing.

            The thugs scrambled to their feet and then took off into the darkness.

            Kellan let them go, his desire to corral them nonexistent. After a few shaky breaths, he glanced around. His gaze fell upon two figures across the street.

            It was the two stalkers from Nino’s Place. They stood under the light of a streetlamp, their hoods up, but their attention locked on Kellan. For a moment, they just stared. Without a word, they turned away and then continued down the street, leaving Kellan to his lonely parking lot.

            Had they been watching the entire time?

            Kellan took in a deep breath.

            “I have to report this,” he said with a sigh. “Goddammit.”

            With shaky steps, he returned to his car. He pulled his shirt back on, started the engine, and then waited in the growing warmth of his vehicle.

            He pulled out his phone and dialed his commanding officer. No answer. Kellan left a message explaining the fight. He was low on energy, hating the fact that he had to report a conflict. He hadn’t wanted to fight a bunch of kids in a parking lot. That wasn’t why he had joined the Special Forces.

            Fayetteville was half-empty for the joyous holiday. Kellan sat in his car, staring at the dashboard. He dialed Dr. Hanley, hoping he would be working. Normally Dr. Hanley was always working, but it was 12:30am, technically Christmas Day.

            Kellan glanced at his arm.

            No signs of the worms. No marks or scabs. As a matter of fact, Kellan was just as healthy as ever. He worked out for two hours every day—as per his mandated training—and jogged another hour at night, to keep his endurance high.

            Kellan couldn’t get the image of the worms out of his head. Where were they?

            Mistakes are written in blood. That was what his old commanding officer would say. I should’ve been more careful. I shouldn’t have let those thugs get so close.

            “That’s okay,” Kellan said aloud—his shadow his only company. “Dr. Hanley will call me back soon. Everything will be fine.”

            Kellan looked at himself in the rearview mirror.

            “What?” He narrowed his eyes. “You think that’ll take a while?” He leaned back in his chair. “I can wait. I’ve got plenty of time.”

            His own joke amused him, but the silence that followed was deafening.

            “Maybe I should go to the hospital.”

            But if the doctors didn’t find any worms…

            Kellan sighed. “Nothing would say crazy like raving about imaginary punk-parasites. I’d be removed from active duty permanently.”

            His thoughts remained on his encounter.

            The worms he had seen…

            Kellan closed his eyes, exhaled, and buckled his seat belt. When he opened his eyes again, he felt a sense of determination. It was his life, wasn’t it? He was in control?

            His old Delta Force buddies, Greer and Jones, wouldn’t have wanted to hear he was alone on Christmas.

            He hated thinking their names…

            Kellan glanced at the time on his phone.

            1am.

            His joking and wits indicated good mental health, but they didn’t help with the profound loneliness Kellan occasionally found himself facing.

            Mavis had wanted to meet at 2am. Maybe she still would.

            I’ve stayed up for three days in a row on several occasions, Kellan reasoned. What’s one night of missed sleep while I’m on mandatory leave?   

***

            Kellan ran his fingernails over his body.

            Everything itched, right down to his gums. It took a permanent piece of his brain’s processing power to ignore the urge to scratch, and with what willpower he had remaining, he shoved his hands in his pockets and continued as normal.

            “I didn’t think we’d be seeing each other again tonight,” Mavis said as she straightened her shoulder-length hair. The coffee in one hand spewed a pillar of steam into the winter air. “I thought you had a curfew. What changed your mind?”

            “Let’s just say it was the psychologist’s orders.”

            With a restrained smile, she asked, “Oh, really?”

            “I have a strange psychologist, I know.”

            “I dunno. Prescribing a date sounds like my kind of remedy.”

            Kellan scratched at his side. He almost called it quits, but he gritted his teeth and refused to leave. If he excused himself at the beginning of a date, he knew it would be misconstrued as something horrible. Besides, he couldn’t be alone, not with his dark thoughts and a fridge full of beer. Without work to distract him, what did he have?

            Kellan walked the path of the Fayetteville city park, Mavis close by his side. The place was lit and vacant, and it suffered from the cold just as much as the rest of North Carolina. He zipped up his hoodie, disappointed that his sullied jacket sat in the trunk of his car.

            For their first date, Mavis had asked to grab a drink and walk through the park. Kellan couldn’t believe she knew a coffee stand open on Christmas morning, at 3am, but she had proved him wrong. Mavis knew Fayetteville better than he did.

            Kellan glanced around as they walked, squinting through the early morning fog. The streetlights pierced the darkness in the park, keeping it bright, but the gloom beyond the sidewalk remained untouched. He stared off into the distance, straining his ears to keep track of various voices and footsteps. How many people were in the park Christmas morning? Kellan and Mavis weren’t the only ones… Could the others be his stalkers? Were they following him?

            While caught in his own musings, Kellan hadn’t realized how far he had gotten from Mavis. He stopped and waited for her to catch up, cursing himself for being so inattentive.

            She hurried after, unable to hide her limp, and kept her gaze low.

            “Let’s address the elephant in the room,” Mavis said once they resumed their walking.

            “There’s no elephant. Just us.”

            “Everyone asks about my scars. Everyone stares when I walk. You don’t have to pretend. Let’s just get it out of the way so that you don’t have to speculate behind my back.”

            “I know why,” Kellan stated. “We don’t have to talk about it if you don’t want.”

            Mavis narrowed her eyes. “You just know everything, don’t you? Why don’t you tell me what you think happened?”

            “It was a grenade. Something homebrewed. If it had been military grade, you would’ve died, but you have too many scars, so I assume you were close, but it lacked the punch.” Kellan rattled off the information with the cold tone of a dictionary. He had seen similar injuries in the past. They had ended careers.

            “Yeah,” Mavis muttered, turning away. “I can’t believe you got all that information from a few scratch marks.”

            Kellan half smiled. “Trust me. It’s the product of years of training.”

            She straightened her leg and walked a little faster. “Yeah, well, I’m not so bad. You should’ve seen the others in the truck. They’re chair-bound now. The medics say I was lucky I didn’t lose an eye.” Mavis ran her fingers through her hair, along a line on her scalp.

            “Is that why you dye your hair?” Kellan asked.

            Mavis pursed her lips. “You notice every little damn thing, don’t you?” She huffed and then sipped her hot coffee. “Women like to have secrets, pal.”

            “I’ve heard that hair growing on or around scars can come out discolored, even gray. It’s a logical conclusion that you’d dye it to cover that up.” Kellan shrugged. “You probably picked the bold color to distract from your other scars. But I’ll let you have your mystery.”

            “Yeah, okay—enough about me, hotshot. What about you? What branch are you in?”

            “It’s classified.” Kellan smirked. “Men like to keep secrets, too.”

            Mavis rolled her eyes so hard, she almost lost her cup. “You’re one of those Special Forces guys. Of course. It all makes sense now.”

            “Of course?”

            “Look at you.” She jabbed his side with her finger.

            Kellan lifted an eyebrow.

            Mavis replied by attempting to wrap a single hand around half his bicep—and failing to do so. She stared up at him with a sardonic expression. “Look at how tall you are. And look at your scruff! Grunts don’t wear five o’clock shadows like you Special Forces guys.” Mavis reached up and ran her knuckles along his unshaven jawline.

            “Welp, you’ve done it,” Kellan said with a smile. “You’ve cracked the mystery. You can expect a call from the chief of police thanking you for your dedication and investigatory skills.”

            “Oh, so when you deduce everything about my injury, you get to be all smug, but when I figure out your rank and file, all I get is sarcasm?”

            “I told you that you’d get sick of me,” Kellan quipped.

            “Uh-huh. What branch of the Special Forces are you in?” Mavis touched a finger to her bottom lip. “SEAL Team Six? ISA? I bet I could guess if you showed me your gun.”

            Kellan didn’t register her question. He stopped walking and stared across the park to the far walkway. Two men stood near a grouping of trees, their nondescript gray clothing blending with the fog. Had Kellan not been looking, he might have missed them.

            His stalkers. They had to be.

            Kellan broke from the path and took a few steps onto the grass before stopping.

            “Hey, what’s wrong?” Mavis asked.

            The men by the trees… In every way they were the men from the bar except…

            Kellan rubbed at his eyes and then glared. The guys in the bar were different, he thought. Right? The two men in the park had olive skin and slick, black hair. Not the two men from before, yet they were so very similar, right down to their hooded sweatshirts and jeans. They even stood at the same height. Were four men following him? Why? What was there to gain? How had they known he had gone to the park?

            Mavis met Kellan out on the grass and followed his gaze. The men turned and hustled away.

            “Why’re you staring?” she asked.

            “Don’t they look familiar?” Kellan whispered. “Just like the guys from the bar?”

            “No. They’re different.”

            “Didn’t you see their clothes? Jeans and sweatshirts.”

            “You’re wearing jeans and a sweatshirt. What’s wrong with that?”

            Kellan watched the two men fade into the fog.

            He itched… so much. He scratched while he stared.

            The men stopped at the precipice of the fog and turned one last time, staring for an extended moment before resuming their escape. Did they want him to follow? Or were they worried Kellan would approach? Were other thugs and gangsters lying in wait around the corner? Maybe it was a mistake to go to the park, Kellan thought. I shouldn’t have met Mavis. Not after what happened.

            “You’re seriously weirding me out,” Mavis said with a forced laugh. “Those two guys look nothing like the guys from the bar. They’re probably brothers, or maybe they were just enjoying each other’s company. I bet you scared them off with your staring. Honestly, you look like you’re ready to run them down or something.”

            Mavis didn’t know of his stalkers, or his fight in the parking lot, or about the worms. Kellan scratched at his itchy arm while his mind mulled over the myriad of possibilities. He exhaled and returned to the park’s designated pathway. Perhaps he was wrong, but should he take that chance?

            “Sorry,” Kellan said. “I got confused.”

            “It’s fine. Just don’t go freaking out strangers in the future, okay?” Mavis overhand-tossed her empty coffee cup in the nearest bin, murmuring a swoosh noise.

            Droplets of water sprinkled over the cement. Kellan flinched when a raindrop hit his eye. He didn’t care for the rain. Visibility became impaired, the constant beat of water drops drowned out all other sounds, and the slick chill made movement difficult. Perfect for a mugger or group of thugs, on the other hand…

            “We should get to my car,” Kellan stated. Anything to get out of this park.

            “All right.”

            Kellan broke into a jog, heading straight for the street he had parked his car on. Mavis kept pace for a short distance before her foot slipped on the water, causing her to nearly trip. She corrected herself, but the grimace on her face betrayed her agony. The sudden increase in rain didn’t help anything either. Her clothes soaked up the giant droplets, adding unnecessary weight.

            Kellan walked back to her, but she avoided glancing up at him.

            “Go on ahead,” Mavis said. “I’ll catch up.”

            He scooped her into his arms, holding her like a bride.

            Mavis jerked and struggled. “Put me down,” she commanded, her voice unsteady. “I don’t want people thinking I can’t walk.”

            “Trust me,” Kellan said with a reassuring smile. “If anyone sees us, they won’t be thinking, that girl can’t walk, they’ll be thinking, that guy is tryin’ reeeaaal hard to get laid.

            Mavis snorted and laughed, unable to hold it back.

            Kellan waited, ready to put her down if she insisted, but content to carry her if she acquiesced. Mavis relaxed in his arms and tucked her head under his chin as though the spot had been made for her. He took the gesture as acceptance and continued his way to the street.

            Fourteen-mile hikes, dead drops in the middle of the wilderness, and endurance training made the walk an easy task. Kellan knew he couldn’t carry Mavis forever, but what strength he had he was more than willing to share with a comrade-in-arms.

            Kellan kept his alertness high as he made his way through the park. Two separate lights flickered and died, blanketing sections of the park in darkness and allowing the gloom to creep up on him.

            Each light was closer to him than the last—it couldn’t have been coincidence.

            Had Mavis seen? The lights were going out around them!

            Kellan held her tight, fearful he would need to drop her if it came to a fight. The water rushing over his skin quelled the itching, however, and his body felt more like its old self. If they were thugs like the last, they’d be sorry.

            He made it to his car unmolested and glanced over his shoulder.

            No pursuers.

            At least, not that he could see.

            “You never told me anything about yourself,” Mavis whispered. “Why are you on mandatory leave?”

            Placing her down, Kellan pulled his keys from his pocket and unlocked his two-door Honda Accord. Kellan opened the passenger door. As Mavis stepped in close to enter the vehicle, he stopped her.

            “When you were deployed, did you ever find yourself behind enemy lines?” he asked.

            She glanced up and met his humorless gaze. She shook her head in silence.

            The only assignment Kellan hadn’t aced had been three months ago. Until then, Kellan had had a spotless record.

            Every mission successful.

            Every hostage saved.

            Every extraction perfect.

            But his luck had finally failed while he had been in Syria. Kellan and two of his Delta Force teammates—Greer and Jones—had been caught inside a warehouse during a bombing. The collapsed roof had trapped them in place. Over the course of six days, Kellan had freed himself, killed the neo-terrorists who had attacked, and even dragged his two teammates all the way to the extraction location.

            His supervisors had deemed him a hero, even though all he had to show for it were the bodies of Greer and Jones.

            Six days in enemy territory. No food. Barely any water. Kellan had known Greer and Jones had been dead days before he’d reached American forces. He had wanted to return their bodies to their families, but carrying around two corpses…

            The nightmares that had followed had put Kellan on the “at risk” list.

            In order to avoid a “mental break,” he had been placed on mandatory leave until Dr. Hanley supported his return to the Delta Force.

            “I want to protect people,” Kellan said, his voice quieter than before. “That’s why I joined the military in the first place. But one time… I couldn’t.”

            He had never told anyone outside the Delta Force about his assignment.

            Kellan stepped around Mavis and made his way to the driver-side door. He shouldn’t have said anything, even as vague as he had been. It was against the rules. Kellan regretted mentioning it by the time he sat down in the driver’s seat, but at the same time, it felt good to tell one other human being besides Dr. Hanley. Just saying it aloud took some of the weight from his soul.

            Mavis buckled herself in, her brow furrowed. “Are they making you—”

            “It’s not like that,” he interjected. “It’s complicated. I just… haven’t recovered.” Kellan brought his car to life and glanced between all the mirrors. Still no signs of trouble. He took an easy breath. “Where did you park your car?”

            “Actually, I was hoping we could continue the evening.”

            Kellan lifted an eyebrow. Mavis turned away, hiding her face in the darkness of the vehicle.

            “Unless you don’t want to,” she added.

            It occurred to him that Mavis had been working the graveyard shift at a second-rate bar on Christmas Eve. Perhaps she didn’t have anyone either.

            Perhaps she wanted company just as desperately as he did.

            “Where to?” Kellan asked.

            “Do you live in the barracks or here in the city?”

            “I have an apartment here in town.”

            “Then that’s where we should go.”

—Chapter 3—

—Alone—

            Kellan unlocked his apartment with a quick click.

            He stepped into his 700-square-foot abode and then hung his keys on the ring by the door. The sterile living room, complete with one couch, a lonely TV, and a cheap coffee table, had all the welcoming charm of a motel lobby. No pictures hung on the walls, no plants filled the corners. Everything was neat, but everything amounted to three plates and a fork stacked in the attached kitchen sink.

            Mavis followed Kellan inside and took note of the surroundings. She walked, scanning every inch, until she stopped behind the dusty couch.

            “Quaint,” she said.

            “Thank you. I decorated it myself.”

            Mavis pointed to the dark-green suede couch, the off-white coffee table, and then to the black flat-screen television. “I see you have an eye for cohesion.”

            “What can I say? I don’t like to discriminate. All colors are equal.”

            Again, Mavis snorted and laughed.

            Kellan peeled off his wet sweatshirt and shoulder holster, tossing both onto the kitchen counter. Mavis followed suit and removed her own sweatshirt. She had changed her outfit after work. As a bartender she wore form-fitting jeans and a black T-shirt. As a civilian, she wore a pair of low-riding cargo pants and plain gray T-shirt.

            Not much of a difference.

            He understood why the tips would be higher in her bartending outfit, but he also understood the need to be comfortable. Women’s clothing baffled Kellan from time to time. He had seen torture techniques less sadistic than some fashionable high-heels, and he appreciated the fact Mavis wore a practical pair of black flat top shoes.

            She gestured to the walls. “No pictures?”

            “Nope.”

            “None? Why not pictures of your family? Your mother and father?”

            “I thought it would be depressing to have pictures of tombstones on the wall.” It was a dark joke, but Kellan couldn’t take it back now that he had said it. With a chuckle, he tried to play it off.

            “I’m sorry,” Mavis muttered. “I didn’t know.”

            “Forget about it.”

            Kellan walked over to the fridge but stopped himself before opening it. He already knew the contents. He didn’t want to drink, especially given the circumstances. With a sigh, he turned away from the fridge. Kellan didn’t have any cups, so offering water was out of the question.

            Mavis forced half a laugh and angled her gaze to the countertop. “To be honest, I figured you would have pictures of a girl somewhere.”

            “So, this was a recon mission?” Kellan asked with a smile. “You didn’t think I was single, and you had to make sure? Sneaky.”

            Mavis lifted an eyebrow. “You might still have pictures hidden away somewhere.” She glanced around. “This place is really clean. Like maybe… you threw everything into a closet to hide it all.”

            “Huh. Perhaps. You’ll never know till you search the whole apartment.”

            “Oh, we’ll get to that.” Mavis ran a hand through her hair, leaving her wet locks disheveled. “But first, I say we watch a movie. I’m sure Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer is playing nonstop on at least three different channels.”

            Kellan shrugged. “Sure.”

            “It’s cold, though. You should shut your kitchen window and we should huddle together to conserve body heat.”

            He chuckled, the idea of “generating heat” on the edge of his thoughts. Then he cut himself short. “Wait, what?”

            Mavis threw herself back on his tumbledown couch and craned her head up to get a better look at him. “Shut the window and come join me on the couch.”

            The… window?

            Catching his breath, Kellan whipped his head around and stared at the window above the sink. How had he missed it? The window… was open. Kellan walked over and glowered at the sill. Holy shit, he thought, his mind a white noise of realization. Someone has been in my apartment.

            With unsteady hands, he closed the window. He never forgot to shut it. Hell, most days he never fucking opened it. Kellan could hear his own heartrate as he continued to stare. They aren’t messing around. Someone is watching me—following me—invading my privacy. How could I have let it get this far? How could I have been so unobservant?

            “Are you coming?” Mavis called from the living room, her voice sultry.

            “You need to get out,” Kellan stated. He turned around and went straight for his bedroom, snatching his gun from the holster on the counter as he went.

            Mavis jumped up, her body stiff. “What’s wrong?”

            Kellan’s stalkers could try to kill him. But with what?

            His mind raced with ideas.

            Hydrogen cyanide, sarin, and botulinum were all odorless, colorless and extremely deadly. Improvised explosives had been known to decimate entire vehicles or bedroom-sized areas with ease.

            But one guy lying in wait with a gun was all it would really take, and Kellan knew he wasn’t safe. He couldn’t stop reviewing each and every possible situation.

            Kellan kicked open the bedroom door and allowed his muscle memory to do the work. He waited a few moments, in case of possible gas threats, and shifted into the room, his back always to the wall and his gun held tightly in front of him. His bedroom—no immediate threats—had only three places to hide. Kellan kicked in the door of his bathroom. Clear. He ripped open his sparsely populated closet. Clear. He tore open a window and unceremoniously flipped his queen-sized bed over to get a better look at the underbelly. Nothing.

            Mavis stood in the middle of his tiny hallway, her eyes wide. “What’re you doing?”

            Kellan took a few backward steps out of his room and turned to Mavis. She had her arms crossed and her hands tucked tightly into her armpits, a wide-eyed look of disbelief written across her face.

            “Someone’s in my apartment,” he said. “You should leave.”

            “Your apartment only has three rooms,” Mavis replied, motioning to everything with a sweep of her hand. “Clearly, no one is here.”

            From his position in the doorway of his bedroom, Kellan saw every inch of the apartment, from the kitchen-living room combo, to the cramped bedroom and bathroom. Mavis was right. No one was here.

            He took a deep breath. “Someone was here. It’s not safe. It’s—”

            “How can you tell?” Mavis interjected. “Unless that’s why your house is so empty. Because thieves ransack the place on the daily.” She half laughed and then motioned to his living room. “Thieves who leave the TV, for some reason.”

            “I know someone was here!” Kellan stormed into the kitchen and reexamined the window. “I never leave the window open. And… And I saw those guys in the bar and park. I know it was them—somehow it was them. They’ve been in my apartment!”

            He turned around.

            Mavis took a step back, her shoulders bunched around her neck. “Wow. You really are paranoid.”

            “I—” Kellan stopped himself short of yelling. He inhaled and exhaled with calculated breaths. “I’m not paranoid.”

            With slow and dramatic timing, Mavis turned her gaze to Kellan’s bedroom. The mattress—overturned and smothering the collapsed nightstand—sagged and then crashed to the floor. The two stared at it a long time before Mavis returned her gaze to Kellan, her eyebrows lifting to her hairline.

            Kellan shook his head. “Listen. There are these guys. Two. Maybe four. I’m not sure. It’s been going on for days now. Days. I knew, but, I just couldn’t—” He slammed his gun down on the kitchen countertop and ran both his hands through his hair. His head hurt with anxiety. He couldn’t articulate his situation without taking a moment to comb through his own convoluted thoughts.

            Mavis approached with a furrowed brow. She placed a hand on his shoulder. “It’s okay. Calm down.”

            “Can you calm down on command?” he snapped, jerking away from her touch.

            He tensed and Mavis flinched back. Kellan held his breath—a technique he had learned throughout his time in boot camp. For a moment, the apartment sat cold and silent, neither person moving. Rain pelted the roof unabated.

            Mavis once again crossed her arms over her chest. “I should go.” She grabbed her damp sweatshirt and threw it on. “I’ll get an Uber.”

            “Wait,” Kellan breathed. “I apologize. I…”

            What explanation did he have? More ravings?

            He scrunched his eyes closed. In his mind, Kellan knew what he had seen and what he thought, but when he heard his own voice, even he doubted. What would he tell Dr. Hanley? Anything he said about the evening would end with him being discharged from the Delta Force. A mystery group stalking him and entering his apartment to no end? What was he thinking?

            “Hey.”

            Kellan opened his eyes, surprised by Mavis’s close proximity. She stood directly in front of him, her gaze locked on his chest.

            “I’ll stay,” she muttered. “Just take a deep breath, relax, and tell me everything you can.”

            Mavis wrapped her arms around his torso in a gentle embrace.

            Kellan’s teeth hurt. And his stomach. And his chest burned. He returned her embrace, but not without grimacing. He felt… ill. And it came on without warning. Much like the itching had.

            “I’ll be right back,” he murmured.

            Kellan grabbed his gun out of instinct and stepped around Mavis. She watched him go, but said nothing.

            Once he entered his bedroom, Kellan shut the door. Mavis moved around the kitchen, likely looking for something to drink.

            It had become difficult to swallow.

            Kellan barely made it to his bathroom before doubling over the sink. He closed the door and waited, feeling the dry-cotton sensation that heralded vomiting. After a few tense moments, nothing happened. Kellan stood back up and ran his tongue over his teeth. He felt something stuck between two molars—a piece of spaghetti, perhaps?—and he dislodged it with his thumb and forefinger.

            He examined his hand.

            A yellow worm writhed around his finger. It left him pale and speechless.

            Kellan threw the wretched blood-coated worm into the sink. His hands shook. He staggered back into the wall. He couldn’t breathe.

            Something was terribly wrong.

            As if the apartment were going through the same ill effects, the lights flickered and strained. One light above the bathroom mirror burst in a shower of glass. The power drained from the entire complex with a single soft electrical sigh.

            The rain ceased.

            Kellan didn’t move. In the darkness of his bathroom, he felt the twisting of tiny creatures beneath his skin. Squirming. Struggling. Wriggling.

            Somewhere in his unconscious mind, he heard a thump in his bedroom. Then silence.

            “Mavis?” he asked, his lungs devoid of air and his voice inaudible.

            Kellan forced himself to breathe. Before he could call out again, the bathroom door handle turned with the slow, quiet precision of a master surgeon.

            He readied his gun and waited.

            The bathroom door creaked open, and the silhouette of a person emerged from the darkness of Kellan’s bedroom.

            It definitely wasn’t Mavis. Too large. Clearly masculine. They walked without a limp.

            Kellan didn’t hesitate. He threw the door all the way open and fired. One shot to the chest, one shot to the head. The intruder flew back from the force of the Colt .45, crashing to the floor of the bedroom sprawled out on his back.

            Then something flashed across Kellan’s eyes—text that only he could see.

[Alex Kellan] shot [Puppet2] twice for a total of 14 damage. (9 +50% Sharpshooter Modifier)

[Puppet2] stops functioning.

            It was as if the text was across the flesh of his eyeballs. It was so thin and transparent that it didn’t affect his sight, but it was still clear enough that he could read.

            Kellan rubbed at his eyes, his heart racing.

            What the?

            But he heard more noise, and his training kicked in.

            Kellan stepped out of the bathroom, his gun still at the ready.

            A second figure appeared at the edge of his peripheral vision. The second man lunged from the corner of the room—he had been waiting. Kellan pivoted on his heel and shot twice more.

            Clean. Perfect. Efficient.

[Alex Kellan] shot [Puppet1] twice for a total of 15 damage. (10 +50% Sharpshooter Modifier)

[Puppet1] stops functioning.

            Both men dead.

            Both… puppets?

            Kellan’s heart raced faster than before. He didn’t know what any of that meant, but at least the information was straightforward. He had dealt damage. The enemy had stopped functioning. He could give it more thought later.

            He checked his body and gun.

            Minimal bullets expended. He had four more shots before he had to reload.

            Kellan’s pulse ran quick, but his nerves held firm. Even the ear-shattering bang of the heavy handgun hadn’t broken his concentration. He had been in this scenario too many times to choke, and his adrenaline drowned out the aching of his gut.

            There wasn’t any light. All the bulbs in the house seemed to have shattered.

            In the past, when the power had gone out, the lights from the nearby street had always provided visibility. Kellan’s attention lingered on the open window. He heard the rustle of leaves and wind, but he saw nothing in the void of black beyond the sill.

            A thunderless strike of lightning illuminated the room for a fraction of a second. A rumble of power shuddered through the floor of the apartment a half second later. No other sounds. No other murmurings. In the brief glimpse of his room, Kellan identified the men. They had been the two in the park.

            Kellan forced himself to take a deep breath as he moved to the living room.

            “Mavis?” he asked, his voice carrying only a few feet before dying.

            Nothing.

            The low hum of the television caught his attention. Kellan glanced over, his arms tense and his gun up. The television sat on a channel with no programming, the white static offering a tiny amount of light to the otherwise bleak room. Kellan didn’t bother to turn it off, but a small piece of his mind gnawed on the mystery of its apparent power. Everything else was dead. Why did the TV remain?

            And why static? Modern TVs didn’t do that, did they?

            Another strike of lightning cast long shadows from the windows and trees outside. He walked to the front door and noticed it was ajar. Had Mavis left? Kellan felt the urge to look.

            The inky darkness that surrounded his apartment couldn’t be pierced, only the occasional flash of lightning brought about any information.

            Kellan’s apartment complex, a series of one-story buildings with a single pool and a laundromat, appeared empty in the brief flashes. His car was missing—all the cars were missing—and the nearby walls seemed half-busted and cracked. Paper trash clung to the powerful winds that blew between buildings and gathered in corners.

            The short bursts of light weren’t enough for Kellan to feel confident about exploring. He stood one foot outside his front door, and knew he was in a vulnerable position. What if his stalkers had cut the power to the apartment complex? They were clearly after him. If he ran around in the dark—without proper protection or gear—he was practically giving them an easy kill.

            Kellan turned his gaze to the sky.

            In the distance, between fog and jet-black clouds, he saw the flashing of red lights, similar to those of an airplane or a radio tower. No stars. No moon. No Christmas lights or trees. The subdued enigma of his circumstance left him on his toes and in an odd mix of pensive tension. 

            Was he alone?

            Was he… going insane?

            The wind howled.

            Where had the rain gone?

            Kellan stepped backward, and right before he returned to his apartment, he spotted a figure in the darkness, lit up momentarily by another flash of lightning. He readied his gun and stared.

            Another flash.

            Nothing there.

            “Mavis?” he called out, his voice steady and loud enough to carry.

            No answer.

            The skittering of metal on pavement brought shivers to his spine. His training had prepared him for the unknown, but he never thought it would be used in such a dreamlike circumstance. I should fall back to familiar territory, Kellan thought, repeating the words of his CO in his mind.

            Kellan returned to his apartment and closed the door, locking it behind him. He went to the kitchen, the apartment layout ingrained in his mind. With quick ease, and quiet movements, Kellan opened the topmost counter drawer. Two flashlights sat inside, along with a handful of batteries. He turned one on and slowly illuminated every corner of his apartment.

            He was alone.

            Taking a deep breath, Kellan made his way back to the bedroom. The flashlight turned his apartment into a glowing fishbowl—he couldn’t see outside, but he knew the light would act as a beacon in the darkness. He kept the flashlight low and avoided shining it toward the windows.

            Kellan pointed the light at his bedroom floor.

            He caught his breath and tensed. No bodies.

            Kellan took short breaths as he scanned the carpet. No blood. That’s not possible, he thought. I definitely shot them. I saw it. He even rubbed at his eye. The notifications had said…

            What notifications? That was insane. He knew it.

            Information on his eyes?

            Impossible.

            Wheeling around, Kellan frantically searched the walls. To his relief, he found the bullet holes, but that led him to two conclusions…

            Either the bloodless men had picked themselves up and left… or there hadn’t been any men at all. Kellan had shot at figments.

            Logic demanded he settle on the latter.

            Am I paranoid? The thought swirled in his head. Perhaps… Mavis left because I was just blindly shooting shadows in my apartment. And words were scrolling across my eyes like popup ads…

            The doubt clawed at his confidence.  

            Kellan shut his bedroom door and ambled to the window. The wind continued its howl. He tightly shut the window and locked it. Then he drew the blinds and stepped away.

            “Hey, God,” he said, addressing the empty room. “I know I’ve never spoken to you before, but… I get it. I really do. I’ve got PTSD. Or unresolved psychological issues. Or I was drugged by the enemy. Or whatever this is. I won’t deny it anymore.”

            He grabbed his mattress and hefted it up onto his metal bedframe, positioning it in place. Once situated, he haphazardly threw his sheets and pillows on top. 

            Kellan continued with, “You’ve convinced me. I’m unstable. I shouldn’t be in the Delta Force. I’ll resign immediately.” He chuckled, the sound more nervous than jovial. “What’re the stages of grief again? Denial, isolation, anger, fucked-up-hallucinations, acceptance? Can we skip the other stages and go straight to acceptance? I’m ready now. I’m more than willing to admit whatever it is you want me to admit. I’ve learned my lesson.”

            Silence reigned supreme.

            Kellan reached into his pocket and pulled out his cellphone. He dialed Dr. Hanley, but the device beeped with an error message.

            No service.

            “Of course not,” Kellan murmured, unable to stop another anxious chuckle. “That would’ve made sense. Who needs sense when you have trauma-inducing nightmare scenarios to deal with?”

            His mind overflowed with history lessons of soldiers from Vietnam who came home with terrible nightmares and horrific delusions, all of which were brought about by the reality of war and death. They spoke of seeing things at all hours of the night and hearing voices. Tragic tales. None of them ended well. Most, in fact, ended in suicide.

            Kellan glanced down at his gun. The idea that he still had control over whether he lived or died gave him a small bit of reassurance. He had control over something, at least. With a deep breath, Kellan calmed his excitable heart rate, switched off his flashlight, and stared into the darkness of his room.

            “I’m going to sleep,” he announced. “And when I wake up, I’ll be well enough to visit Dr. Hanley. No more hallucinations. Deal?”

            Kellan sat down on his bed—fully clothed and uncomfortable with the idea of undressing, even in his own home—and rested back, his head cushioned by his lumpy pillows. He inhaled, closed his eyes, and placed his handgun on his chest.

            The minutes dragged.

            Outside his window, the wind moaned, and tree branches scratched the glass of his windows. He gripped the blankets, refusing to investigate, and instead, focusing on sleep. He had to sleep. Everything around him was nothing more than a nightmare brought about by stress.

            It would disappear in the morning.

            Kellan laughed to himself. “Was Mavis even real?” he asked aloud. To no one.

            Knowing my luck, she wasn’t. He half-smiled. The first girl I’ve connected with in a long while was nothing more than a figment of my imagination.

            The silence of the apartment seeped into Kellan’s spirit.

            He lay motionless, only daring to open his eyes after what felt like an eternity. Sweat pooled around him. What would he do in the future? How would they treat his illness? Would he ever be normal again? Kellan had never heard of a case of severe anxiety being “cured” as much as being “dealt with” via copious amounts of drugs. Would that be his new reality?

            His body itched. Kellan felt squirming just behind his eyes. He had a knife—in the drawer of his nightstand—and the idea of digging into his skin and removing the struggling worms just beneath crossed his mind.

            Kellan laughed again—dark and sardonic. “Nothing is more insane than cutting yourself to remove illusionary worms.”

            They weren’t real. They couldn’t be.

            Sleep never came, only new worries and possible outcomes. Kellan stared at the ceiling, watching the reddish gray hue of the dawn break through the darkness and creep past the drawn blinds. The clouds—fog?—weakened the intensity of the light.

            “Good morning, Fayetteville!”

            Kellan jerked upright, his gun tumbling into his lap. The energetic announcement had emanated from the living room, like a ringmaster was somehow in his apartment.

            “This is the morning news! I’m your designated host, here to deliver you information straight from the Arbiter.”

            Confused and disoriented, Kellan leapt from his bed, threw back the blinds, and glanced out the window. The fog obfuscated everything. He could make out the hints of trees and the black of the street, but not much else. Kellan rotated his arms. He was stiff from the long night of tension, never having managed to relax.

            His mouth dry, Kellan walked out of his bedroom and headed straight for the kitchen. The television had remained on for the entirety of his “rest”—the news program had started on its own—and the volume allowed for the voices to carry throughout the tiny apartment. Kellan ignored it and went straight for the fridge.

            Although it wasn’t a breakfast of champions, Kellan withdrew a beer. He uncapped the bottle and drank the thing in one long take, guzzling the drink as fast as he could without choking. He needed to numb his thoughts.

            Kellan gasped for breath once done and grabbed another. He hesitated for a moment, holding the second bottle in one hand. He turned it over in his hand. The drink was warm. Kellan stared into the fridge. The light was off. He clicked the switch on the side of the fridge door. Nothing.

            Right. The power was out…

            But how did the television remain on?

            “—and now that the Conflux is upon us, a curfew has been levied across the city,” the TV continued. “Those found out on the streets at night will be punished! What a time to be alive.”

            Kellan ambled over to the couch, his eyes fixed on the television.

            The news anchor, a thin and narrow man with sharp features, sat manacled to a metal desk, his wrists raw and his fingers blistered. He wore a suit with a uniform color scheme of black and white, stitched tight enough to constrict the man’s breathing, but it was clean enough to be brand new.

            Across the man’s face, snug over his eyes, was an ivory blindfold, the same high-quality fabric of the man’s white tie. The man had dark-red hair, matted with dried blood, creating a disheveled and unkempt appearance from the shoulders up.

            Despite his bizarre appearance, the man smiled with perfect white teeth, his voice strong and confident. “Remember, those interfering with the duties of a Pestbyter will also be punished! And—most importantly—those who defy the orders of a Justice will be severely punished! No one is to interfere in this year’s competition! It’s much too important. Much too special.

            The background of the “news” program was just a rusted wall. No TVs with displays. No scrolling words. It was just… an ominous room, with a blindfolded man chained to a desk.

            Kellan almost dropped his warm beer.

            What the hell is going on?

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