By Thomas J. Lauser
Jareth stepped off his motorcycle and drew both his handguns. A pair of Siren-22’s. Focused energy pistols gifted to only the best Reavers from the Order of Ten. The beast he had been trailing all day was near. He could feel it.
Dead, decaying trees stretched for miles like soldiers in an emaciated, war-weary army. He remembered a time when nature did not look so dilapidated. Like it had been abandoned by every deity civilization ever created. But that was before mankind’s reckoning. Before the Arrogant Invitation. The macabre ritual that brought thousands of wretched creatures from other dimensions to Earth. Those behind the desperate summoning thought it would free them from the oppression of The Commandant—the dictator of the worldwide Aeros government.
How fatally wrong they were. In their doomed bargain, they had merely traded a slow poison for a fast-acting cancer. As promised, the conjured horrors slaughtered The Commandant, but in his place, other tyrants rose up, warring for territory with the newly arrived Demon Lords.
At least some demons had their uses, Jareth thought, as he snuck through the woods. The Reaver wore a black witch weave military jacket, tattered blue jeans, a grey beanie, and a pair of red tinted goggles. An order of demon slayers created shortly after the Arrogant Invitation, Reavers utilized a combination of intense training, powerful technology, and careful study to protect their fellow man. But those days were over. Jareth had not seen another Reaver in ten years. If they still existed, they had long since given up the fight.
According to his D-Radar, a small watch-like device he kept on his right wrist, the beast was not far—perhaps a mile away at most. Corpses of butchered deer, rabbits, and squirrels hung from the branches of several trees he passed by. Evidence of his prey’s presence.
He approached one of the slaughtered deer and looked it over. A puncture wound on the head, broken apart at the ribs, and entirely devoid of meat. Judging from the size of the claw marks on the body, it appeared his prey was male, and at least three years old. Perfect, he thought.
Jareth tapped the screen on his D-Radar, but the beast’s marker did not move or fade. The Reaver grinned and started to move towards his prey, but the sound of moaning stopped him in his tracks. He whipped around, guns at the ready, to see eight Buzzard Men lumbering towards him.
They had pale green skin, yellow eyes, and mouths that hung agape while spewing foam in all directions. Lifeless and devoid of purpose, to become a Buzzard Man was the fate of anyone who prayed to a Greater Demon without a worthy offering. Unable to fend for themselves, Buzzard Men typically followed Lesser Demons and picked at the bones of their conquests. Human carrion in a world run by devils.
Jareth aimed his Siren-22’s and fired. A torrent of blue energy blasts ripped through two of the Buzzard Men, turning both into piles of bone and sinew. The others rushed forward, their undead arms swinging like pendulums. He had nearly pulled the trigger when his cellphone started to vibrate in his jacket pocket. A song of ages past then blasted from the device.
Carry on my wayward son. There’ll be peace when you are done. Lay your weary head to rest. Don’t you cry no more.
“Damn it,” Jareth said as he obliterated another Buzzard Man. “What the hell is this all about?”
The Reaver deposited one Siren-22 in the holster and ripped his cellphone out of his jacket pocket. Meanwhile, he stepped back and kept firing at the oncoming Buzzard Men. As he put the receiver up to his ear, he took out one more. Just four remained, but they were getting close.
“I told you not to call me while I’m –“
Jareth took a deep breath before blowing a Buzzard Man’s head off. Three more.
“Yes, Noah?” he asked. He backpedaled and fired again. Two.
“What’s the computer password?”
The Buzzard Men charged at The Reaver, but he sidestepped out of the way like a matador. He shot both undead in the back of the head, finishing off the pack. He could hear moaning from deeper into the woods. More Buzzard Men drew near.
“The same as it’s always been.”
“Nope. Won’t work.”
Jareth groaned and moved his gun from side to side, looking for the approaching Buzzard Men.
“Your sisters must have changed it again. Same thing as before, I’ll bet.”
“Well what is it?”
He shook his head. The second pack of Buzzard Men started to come into view. Ten in total.
“Boys Suck. Two words, no caps.”
Noah fell silent. A Buzzard Man walked right into Jareth’s sights. He pulled the trigger and it fell to the ground, tripping one of its comrades in the process.
“Dad,” Noah said lowly. “You know I can’t read.”
“Right,” Jareth said, taking a step back. “I’m sorry, son. I should have remembered.” Sorrow and embarrassment overcame him. Noah deserved better. How could he have been so forgetful?
“It’s okay. Like you said, you’re busy.”
“Right. Try this. B. O. Y. S.,” he spelled aloud.
He fired four times, taking out three Buzzard Men. Another lost an arm, but kept moving. The rest charged at the Reaver through the trees, moaning as they went.
“Okay. Got it so far. I think.”
“Good,” Jareth said as he took a few steps back and finished off the armless Buzzard Man. “Now, space. That’s the big bar at the bottom of the keyboard.”
“C’mon Dad. I know that.” Four more Buzzard Men dropped. The remaining two were nearly within striking distance of Jareth.
“Perfect,” Jareth rushed at one of the Buzzard Men, who lumbered towards him from behind a trunk. He shoved his weapon into the creature’s gut, fired, and then whipped it across the face. “Now, S.U.C.K” The Buzzard Man collapsed. Jareth spun around, looking for his final target.
“Perfect! That’s it! I’m in!” Noah exclaimed over the sounds of footsteps. Jareth turned his head to see a Buzzard Man running at him. The Reaver pointed his pistol behind his back and met the creature with two energy blasts to the face. Now headless, it quivered and fell, finishing off the second pack.
“Excellent. I’m proud of you, boy.”
“What was all that noise?”
“Just business. Enjoy your computer time, Noah.”
“Okay. When are you coming home?”
“I’ll be back later tonight.”
“Before I go to bed?”
“Before you go to bed.”
“Yay! Bye, Dad. Good luck at work.”
Noah hung up. Jareth shook his head and placed the phone back in his jacket pocket as he stepped over the slain Buzzard Men.
Jareth stalked his prey through the rest of the forest, following his D-radar and the trail of butchered animals until he came to a clearing. There, the creature lay amidst the wreckage of an old shack, tearing at the carcass of a cow. It was a Vorrund – a large, brutish beast with the body of a bear, the head of a gorilla, six limbs equipped with talons, and a maw filled with rows of sharp, jagged teeth.
As Jareth drew closer to the Vorrund, it ripped a chunk of meat from the cow’s body and devoured it. Seconds later, the Vorrund spit a volley of bone bits from its mouth, sending them flying into the nearby trees.
Jareth knelt down in the sickly yellow brush and placed both his Siren-22’s in front of him. He slowly turned the barrel on one of the weapons, causing it to pop off. Then he added it to the other, forming a single long gun. With a grunt, he picked up the newly created rifle in both his hands and peered down the sight.
A well placed shot to the head would only stun the beast. Vorrund were too thick skinned to be sniped so easily. Jareth lowered his rifle, opened up his coat and withdrew a stun grenade from his inside pocket. With luck, the blast would stall it long enough for him to place a barrage of energy blasts between its eyes.
He tossed the stun grenade lightly in his palm, and then hurled it at the Vorrund. To Jareth’s shock, the beast swatted the grenade away as though it were a pebble. It landed in the forest, causing an implosion that produced a small cloud of dust. The Vorrund then stood up, faced Jareth, and let out a ferocious roar, bearing its blood-drenched teeth at its attacker.
“Shit,” Jareth whispered as he frantically raised his weapon. Vorrund had the potential to be rather intelligent, but not until they matured. This one appeared to be three years old at the most. Was his assessment wrong?
The Vorrund charged, using four of its limbs to move while keeping the other two above its head. Jareth fired rapidly, but the beast lowered its free arms to protect its face from the oncoming energy blasts. It cried with agony as Jareth continued to shoot at it, and soon it lowered one of its limbs.
Once it got close enough, the Vorrund tried to pounce on Jareth, but the Reaver managed to roll out of the way at the last second. He reached into his jacket, pulled out a smoke grenade, and tossed it in front of the beast. The grenade exploded, filling the clearing with thick clouds of grey mist.
Jareth switched the filter on his goggles, allowing him to see through the smoke. The Vorrund wheeled around the ashen clouds like a blind bull looking for a matador. His attacker danced through the mist, an angel of war cloaked in battlefield miasma, firing twice in each spot before moving again so that the Vorrund could not get a read on his position.
After ten volleys, during which the Vorrund was unable to close in on Jareth, the beast let out a pathetic wail and collapsed. As the smoke started to fade, the Reaver tossed his gun to the ground and pulled his Verol knife from off his belt. Made from Charcas steel, the weapon had an azure blade and a black hilt. Jareth spun it between his fingers and then pressed a small button on the hilt, causing the blade to vibrate. He approached the wounded Vorrund cautiously with the Verol knife raised high above his head.
Just as Jareth prepared to slam the knife into the Vorrund’s skull, the beast roared and shot up from the earth. It slashed with one of its talons, cutting the Reaver across the chest and forcing him to tumble back several feet. The Vorrund then slammed the ground with two of its fists, knocking Jareth down. With heavy, labored breaths, the creature crawled forward.
Though his chest screamed with pain, Jareth ripped open his military jacket and felt around his inside pockets. The Vorrund gnashed its bloody, shark-like teeth. It then opened its mouth wide, reaching for The Reaver’s foot. Jareth sat up, groaning as he did so, and tossed a second stun grenade into the exposed maw of the Vorrund. The grenade went right down the beast’s throat. It stumbled for a moment as its attacker turned and crawled away.
Seconds later, an ear-crushing implosion rang out in the clearing. Blood, entrails and fur flew into the air as the Vorrund fell backward with its stomach blown open. Jareth looked back, nodded at his handiwork, and gripped the wound on his chest. He had two lacerations across his breasts, and blood soaked the upper portion of his military jacket.
The Reaver rolled over, pulled off his jacket, and let out a deep sigh. It had been some time since a beast cut him this deep. Clearly, he had underestimated the Vorrund’s age. A mistake he promised himself not make again. By the looks of things, he would need to hunt this particular creature at least once a year.
Jareth reached into a pouch on his belt and withdrew a small vial filled with green liquid. He popped the lid off it and poured it over his wounds. The green liquid foamed on contact with the Reaver’s injuries and produced small columns of steam. Jareth moaned, but in a few minutes, the lacerations had sealed.
He then climbed up off the ground, walked over to the Vorrund’s corpse, and pulled his cellphone out of his jacket pocket. Jareth unlocked the screen, pressed a few buttons, and looked up at the emerald, godless sky. After several minutes went by, The Reaver started to tap his foot.
“What the hell is the hold up?” Jareth said to the heavens. The sun had retreated behind black, smoke-like clouds. A cold wind began to blow through the dead trees. Darkness approached. He would need to get home soon, unless he wished to face the most fearsome of demons.
Eventually, The Reaver shook his head, went into his contacts, and made a call to the likely source of his delay. A few rings later, the sound of a young girl’s voice greeted him.
“Evening, Helena. What are you up to?” There was a humming in the background, not unlike the buzzing of a fan.
“Playing.” Jareth sighed and looked down his feet.
“No, not with who. With what?”
“You’re playing with my fleet, aren’t you?”
“Yeah. How did you know?”
“Because I need them.”
“Yes. Now. Right now.”
“Oh. Sorry dad.”
“It’s okay. Put them down, and I’ll press the call button again.”
“Okay dad. When will you be coming home?”
“Soon. Just got one more thing to finish up here. Then I’ll be back.”
“Awesome! See you soon, dad!”
“Bye, Helena. Listen to Reeves until I get back.”
Jareth hung up the phone and pressed the same buttons as before. About five minutes later, four large drones buzzed towards him from above the trees. Each one was painted yellow and black, and sported a pair of machine guns. They hovered right above his head, awaiting further orders. The Reaver pointed his phone at the dead Vorrund and tapped the screen. The drones flew over to the fallen beast and released thick toe cables from their bodies. One drone grabbed onto the creature’s head, two latched onto its arms, and the last gripped its backside. With another tap to the screen, the drones hoisted the Vorrund up into the air, and dragged it off beyond the dying woods.
Once the drones were out of sight, Jareth rushed back to his motorcycle, stepped on it, and sped off into the approaching blackness as fast as he could.
Just as the opaque, obsidian night enveloped the earth, Jareth reached his destination – an old, rickety shack in the swamps with a blown out roof and a missing wall. Rot and skittering, overgrown bugs cloaked the shack’s wood. He drove his motorcycle right through the doorway and stopped in the middle of the floor, which was noticeably more reinforced than the rest of the dilapidated building. Jareth pulled out his phone, pointed to the floor, and slide his thumb across the screen.
The floorboard then gave way, revealing a ramp down to an underground bunker. Jareth drove down the ramp, hopped off his bike, and pointed to the opening with his phone once more. The floorboard slid back into place, sealing the bunker’s entrance.
Jareth then walked over to a large iron door with a keypad in the center. He typed in the proper passcode, and the door opened for him, revealing the bunker’s first room – his armory. The room was rather tight, decorated with all sorts of weapons along the walls, and included a closet filled with his every day clothes. He placed his Siren-22’s down on a table, went over to the closet, and quickly changed out of his combat uniform.
Shortly thereafter, Jareth stepped out of his armory, now dressed in a thermal, fresh jeans, and a red flannel, and entered the bunker’s living room. Reeves, his assistant droid, stood near the doorway.
“Good morning sir!” Reeves was made up of red-painted metal, had six arms, and hovered above the floor. His body was bulky, his face square, and his eyes a crisp purple.
“It’s dark out, Reeves. It’s night.”
“Well maybe if you bothered to repair me, my time recognition protocols would work!”
“I told you, I’m going to get to it. Where are the kids?”
“In the theater room, watching The Princess Dairies.”
“Again? Least they have good taste.”
“I would comment, but I am not capable of enjoying films. Also your fault, if I am correct.”
“Right again,” Jareth said, as he walked over to the kitchenette in the back of the living room. “I’ll see if I can fix that. Maybe I’ll upload a few joke programs to your data files while I’m at it.”
“That would be fantastic. After all, at present, my programming is a joke, sir.”
“You’re full of em today, huh?” he replied as he rolled up his sleeves. “Say, do me a favor. Go to the theater and keep them entertained. If the movie starts to bore them or they want to leave, put on something else.”
“Make the kids prisoners of their own merriment. Righto, sir! I’m off!”
As Reeves departed, Jareth got to work. He attacked the kitchen with all the precision of a master sniper obliterating a room full of stationary targets. First he took some meat from the slain Vorrund, which his drones had deposited in another part of the bunker, and worked it into six thick burger patties. Then he put them in the oven, and started to steam up a pot of vegetables. Corn, broccoli, carrots. All the things his kids hated to eat.
After the vegetables were finished, he placed them in a large dish on the kitchen table. When the burgers were done cooking, he placed each on wheat buns, and added a slice of cheese to five of them. The plain one would be reserved for Noah, who despised melted cheese. Jareth then opened the fridge, pulled out a cake he had baked the night before, and put it down on the table next to the vegetables and burgers.
Jareth leaned back against the counter, sighed, and wiped his brow. He looked over the kitchen, which had been reduced to a mess from his efforts. Pots and pans littered the countertops, flour from the night before decorated the floor, and a castle of dishes overwhelmed the sink. But he would get to cleaning later. It had been some time since anyone else lived here who might chastise him for leaving the kitchen in shambles. Still, even then, this venue had always been his domain. She despised cooking nearly much as she did the demons that lurked in the wilderness.
Helena, Sarah, and Noah then burst into the room through a door on the opposite end of the living room. Reeves followed, desperately trying to corral the rambunctious children.
“I’m sorry sir, but I couldn’t keep them entertained any longer!”
“That’s alright, Reeves. It’s ready.”
The three children rushed their Jareth like a pack of wild animals fighting over a fresh kill, each trying to be the first to greet and receive a hug from their father. They were so overjoyed it took them several moments to notice the meal awaiting them at the kitchen table.
“Oh wow! What did you make for dinner?” asked Helena.
“Yay! My favorite!” Noah exclaimed.
“There’s a reason for that.”
“Oh yeah! Noah, today is your –“
“Hold on, Sarah. Let’s show him.”
Jareth took Noah by the hand, brought him over to the table, and pointed to the cake.
“Those letters. What do they say?” he asked.
“They say –“
“No. I want Noah to read it,” Jareth said, holding up his hand. Noah looked over the cake and squinted. He had short black hair, and looked to be about two years younger than his sisters, though he was already taller than both of them.
“H. A. P. P. Y,” Noah labored. Jareth nodded.
“Good job. Now put it together.”
“Hap – hap – hap – happy.” Noah said. He looked up at his father with a wide smile.
“Perfect. Now, let’s try the next part.”
“B. I. R. T. H.”
“Right. What does that make?”
“Bir – bir – birth.”
“Great. And now-“
“I know the next part, dad. It says day. Like in the New Day.” Jareth chuckled.
“Yeah Noah!” Helena said, clapping.
“You almost have it!” added Sarah.
“Never thought those old wrestling DVDs would be good for anything. Guess I was wrong,” Jareth said. “Now, let’s put it all together.”
“Happy. Birth. Day!” Noah shouted the last bit. “It’s my birthday! My birthday!”
“You got it, Noah. This is all for you,” Jareth explained. “Now, come on. Let’s eat.”
Jareth, Noah, Helena, and Sarah sat down for dinner. They tore into the Vorrund burgers and then made short work of the birthday cake. Reeves played Noah’s favorite music – some classic Michael Jackson tunes. After dinner, Jareth played board games and watched movies with the kids until they all fell asleep on the couch.
A family living as best they could beneath a broken, darkened Earth.
Thomas J. Lauser – TJ to his friends and family- is a writer and special education teacher from Wallingford, Pennsylvania. “Happy Birthday,” is his fourth published story, and his first in the Sci-Fi genre. He is currently working on several more short stories and a novel. His writing blog is www.adreamdeferredband.