The Mistaken Quest

 

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Chapter 1

Sly slid the tension wrench into the top of the key-way, then eased the slightly hooked pick into the bottom of the key-way and started working the pins from the back. Two minutes 40 seconds until the next patrol came by, plenty of time. He thought to himself.  Pin 3 was a binder, so he set that one, and moved on to the next and so on.  Until the lock gave the final ever so quiet 'snick' of the last pin dropping into the bible of the lock and the cylinder gave a satisfying turn. He slid a bypass shim made of steel into the top corner of the door, fastened it in place with the double sided tape he had added earlier, turned the handle and eased inside.

He gave his watch a glance, 1 minute, 53 seconds, damn, he was slipping in his "old" age.  To think, in this day and age, being almost 40 made him "old" in the cat burglar for hire circles.  Though, he guessed, being considered old in those particular circles was more a badge of honour than a negative.  Still, a minute fifty was plenty of time to get the safe open and be gone before anyone ever knew he was here.

He waited the five and a half seconds for the camera to pan past the arched opening to the large ballroom turned display to his left, and slid across the gap to the darkened corner on the other side.  From there, he eased behind a very expensive vase on a pedestal and slid the small yet exceedingly expensive oil painting off the wall brackets (a shame he hadn't been hired to pick up that one, and doubly a shame he never stole for himself) and set it aside on the floor.

Just as his informant had told him, the safe purported to claim the object of his latest contract, a very old, very dull looking medallion, was right where it was supposed to be, with a minor hitch.  The safe, which was supposed to be a [name of older formerly secure safe brand and model] and yet here in front of his very eyes, was a [name of very expensive very secure dial model safe].  Ah well, time for a challenge, no job was ever as easy as this one had appeared to be.  He checked his watch again, one minute thirty four seconds left.  It was going to be close.  He put his ear to the safe just beside the dial, spun it quickly twice clockwise and then started slowly turning, in short order he heard the almost imperceptible thunk of the first [safe cracking lock mechanism] dropping into place, he reversed direction spun the dial around once, then again slowed right down, almost immediately the second thunk, another [safe cracking lock mechanism] dropped, and the third was done in no time flat.

Forty eight seconds to go, he swung open the safe door as quick as he dared and reached into the almost too black interior, he couldn't feel the amulet on the inner shelf at all, so he moved the money from the bottom of the safe, up to the shelf and started feeling around the back of the safe. Had he been misinformed, had someone come and removed the amulet since his informant had seen in put in there?  Had this all been a setup?  Was he truly losing his knack?

Then, he felt something through his [super thing, high sensitivity glove], there, in the back left corner, he tapped around the object several times just to be sure there were no wires etc. Connected to it, one surprise was enough for today.  Feeling nothing, he started sliding the amulet toward the front of the safe, then, without warning, he felt was was like a mosquito bite at the very tip of his index finger, as it brushed across the top of the amulet. 

Sly quickly pulled his hand out of the safe to see what was going on, there, on the tip of his index finger, where he expected to see blood, was an ever so tiny black dot. 'Sylvester Gauthier Bean, what has gotten into you?' he asked himself quietly.  Why was he so full of self doubt and so bloody jumpy this evening.

Seeing as he wasn't bleeding, and thus not leaving any DNA evidence, he went to reach back into the save to retrieve the amulet, as he did so, he felt a shock of icy cold from where the black spot on his finger was, and to his dismay when he looked at it, it was spreading.  Agonizing pain, like being plunged into icy fire, started to spread through his hand, with the inky blackness, that seemed to absorb all light, expanded.  As the blackness spread it seemed to gain speed exponentially, and the pain grew with it.  Before Sly could stop himself, he screamed.

His scream was cut off abruptly as the blackness covered his head, then the only remaining sound was a very slight 'fwip' as, in the blink of an eye, the Sylvester shaped blackness shrunk down to nothing and seemingly vanished.

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[generic guard name, cuz we don't really care] was just coming up on the private collection wing when he heard the primal scream, like a field mouse when it is picked up in the claws of a falcon and knows it's life has come to an end.  Though this scream was considerably louder, and far more human, though oddly not quite, than that of a field mouse.  He quickened his pace, worried that someone had been horribly injured or killed on the grounds and that, as per usual when something went wrong, it would be attributed to him.  Let's face it, one does not pull night guard duty on the private collection wing through exemplary service and a perfect record.

He approached the garden door of the private collection and swiped his badge through the card reader just beside the door frame, the light on the card reader went from yellow (standby) to green (pass).  [generic guard name again] opened the door, and stopped.  No beep.  There was no telltale beep when he opened the door, that was very odd indeed.  In a rather unusual flash of intellect he looked up at the door sensor, and noticed the bypass shim that Sly had not had (and to be fair, likely never would have) the opportunity to remove.  Immediately [generic guard name] thumbed the mic button on his radio "Hey [generic guard #2], I think we have a problem in the private collection wing, somebody stuck something to the door sensor, so it doesn't know when the door is opened"

"Yeah, so, that could have been anyone when the exhibit was open earlier, probably just some dumb kid lookin' for a bit of fun." [generic guard 2] replied, sounding put out that he had to be doing something other than reading the book he habitually brought with him on night shift.

[guard 1] thumbed his mic again, "But what if it ain't, what if somebody actually broke in? A few minutes ago I could swear I heard the most terrible scream."

"Do you see anybody in the exhibit?  Does anything look missing?" [Guard 2] responded, his impatience growing.

"I don't see anyone inside, and all of the ar..  Oh hell, there's a painting on the floor, and an open safe."  [guard one] said, panic very evident in his voice now. He moved quickly over to the safe, careful not to kick the painting on the floor.  He shone his flashlight into the safe "There appears a large quantity of money in the safe, as well as a necklace of some kind."

[guard 2] came back on the radio, "Hang on, I'm grabbing the inventory." The sound of shuffling papers continued over the radio while [guard 2] shuffled through the lists. "Looks like the safe should have [dollar amount] and one [fancy shmancey amulet name]"

"If the marking on these bill bundles is correct, it's all here." [guard 1] said quizzically. "Maybe the scream I heard was whoever broke in being scared off by something, do you want to start the paperwork while I call it in?"

Almost immediately [guard 2] was back on the line, "Hell no, if nothing is missing, and we have no suspect, I am not wasting the rest of my night talking to cops and filling out reports, besides [guard 1] can either of us really afford another black mark on our record?"

"No" [guard 1] replied in a sober tone.

"Right, so close up the safe, put the picture back, stow the bypass from the door, and we'll both say this never happened.  Nobody was ever here, got it?" [guard 2] stated perfunctorily.

Sounding apprehensive, [guard 1] responded, "As long as you are sure about this [guard 2], I can not afford my child support on minimum wage, so I can't afford to lose this job."

"You are not going to lose your job over this, trust me, if we both stick to the same story, we will be fine, just close the safe and continue your rounds already." [guard 2] growled.

Without further argument, [guard 1] reached out and slid the amulet back farther into the safe (so as to not catch it in the door upon closing) the eased closed the door of the safe.  He heard the [name of bars in a safe] clack into place.

With that done he picked up the [expensive painting] and slid it back onto it's racking on the wall, once again hiding the safe and hopefully, hiding what had transpired that night.

As [guard 1] turned to leave, his elbow brushed the vase on the pedestal, causing it to wobble and swirl around the top of the pedestal like a poorly spun coin.  He tried quickly to grab it but, SMASH, it hit the floor and broke into hundreds of, now somewhat less, expensive pieces.
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"Step right up, if I can't guess your card, you double your money!" Vincent called out to the busy Las Vegas evening theatre district cried as they passed by. He had already bilked 4 marks out of a couple hundred bucks each, and he'd only been working the graft for two hours.

A petite, somewhat nondescript woman with strawberry blonde hair separated from the crowd and started moving toward his table at the mouth of the alley. He gave her a quick once over, she was wearing quality clothing, if not fancy like most of the folks on the strip tonight. She was well groomed, a little sin burnt, so odds we're good she was a tourist. And best yet, she appeared to be alone. Likely here for a conference or some such, an easy mark.

"Care to play miss?" Vincent asked, smiling a Cheshire grin and flourishing his hands over his pop up table.

She smiled an uneasy smile back at him, "So how does it work? What's the trick?"

"No trick miss, you can check the cards and I will move real slow like. So as not to cheat with slight of hand." Vincent promised pushing his sleaves up past his elbows.

Vincent flipped over the deck of cards sitting on his table and spread them out, gesturing for her to look through them. Knowing she wouldn't find anything amiss, because in that particular deck, there wasn't anything for her to find.

After she had checked the deck he picked it up and began shuffling the deck. As he shuffled his shirt sleeves started to sag back down past his elbows, in the meantime he shifted his right foot ever so slightly under the table to press a button under the heel. Right on cue a pre recorded cat fight scream cage rather loudly from down the alleyway behind him. The mark startled and instinctively glanced up past him. I'm that split second Vincent moved to push his sleeves back up past his elbows and swapped out the standard deck for his rigged one.

When the mark's eyes returned to his hands, he was, for all appearances, still shuffling away. "Let me know when to stop." He asked nonchalantly.

"Now is good."

Vincent placed the deck face down on the table, "All right, you can pick as many cards as you like, just a ten dollar wager for each card, look at them, memorize them, then put your money on the table and stick them back in the deck."

She reached out and pulled 5 cards from the spread, she looked at each one for several seconds, then fed them back into the deck. "Like this?" She asked.

Vincent nodded, "Just like that." He swept the fanned cards into a single stack, then presented them to the mark. "Cut the deck anywhere you please."

She cut the deck about one third of the way down, and he put the remaining bottom onto the top of the cards in her hand.

"Exellently done, you could become an amazing magician's assistant one day." He admonished, with that cheshire grin getting just a little bit larger. "Now I'm going to fan the cards out again, and you pull 5 cards at random once more." Vincent did so, and she frowned. "Don't worry, you don't have to pay again." He said with a chuckle. "Just trust me, and be prepared to be amazed."

She started to draw out the five cards, and Vincent quickly said, "Now do not look at them just yet! Let me just make sure you understand the rules about how this all works.  If I have managed to make it so that those five cards, which you have randomly drawn, from a deck you cut, are the same as the five cards you drew before, I get to keep your money.  If the five cards you just drew, are in fact, different than the ones you drew before, you double the money you put on the table. Understood?" She nodded in response, they always did. "Great, now is your last chance to double the money you have already bet, do you want to put more money on the table?"

She thought for a moment, then shook her head. "I think I'm good."

"Ok then, look at your cards." Vincent said with a flourish and a flair for the dramatic.  He loved this part.

She flipped over the 5 cards one at a time, and her eyes grew wider with each card.  Vincent knew for a fact that they were the exact cards she had seen before, that was how the deck was designed.

Before she could even confirm out loud that the cards were indeed the same cards, Vincent reached for the money she had put under the rock on the table.  As he was doing so, her hands went into the inside pocket of her jacket, this was the best part, the bit where the mark threw another wad of bills on the table, just to see it again.  That was when you knew your magic was good, when they were pretty sure they had been duped, and yet were so amazed by it, that they were willing to pay you, knowing they would lose the second time, just to see it again.


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Vincent's left hand lifted the rock, while his right pocketed the money. "You want to play again?" He asked, as affably as he could.

"Nope." Came Bethany's terse reply, as she slapped a handcuff on Vincent's left wrist, while he was still holding the money rock. "Vincent Emery Hancock, you are under arrest for [legal thingy here about what laws he has broken]"

Vincent immediately started to laugh, "You're a cop, seriously, and you call me a con artist?  I am a magician, just trying to earn a living doing the very thing I love!" and with that, he threw the stack of cards that were on the table at her face, and ran.

She stood there stunned, still holding the handcuff that had held his left wrist only moments before.  "Why do they always run?" She muttered. Damn magicians, she thought, then gave chase. It was her first year out of the academy, and some jerk with a badge higher up the food chain figured it would be good for her to be on foot patrol along the strip. Some stupid idea about building character and getting a feel for the city.

She chased Vincent farther down the alley, which she was pretty sure was a dead end. Vincent had a couple years on her, but she could tell he lived a pretty lean mean kind of life, boy this guy could run.  As they neared the end of the alleyway, Vincent slowed, looked up, and jumped. He caught a low hanging fire escape, and started climbing.  Bethany pulled up to a stop underneath him, drew her service pistol, and fired, hitting the ladder release, and dropping the extendable portion of the ladder.  With the sudden stop of the ladder's decent, Vincent fell off, and lay sprawled on the ground.

"Crazy chick!" Vincent yelled, "You shot at me! You could have killed me!"

"No, if I had shot at you, I would have hit you, I shot at the locking latch on the ladder, and you will notice I hit it." She said as she rolled him onto his stomach.  Top of her marksmanship class in the academy, and she was never more proud than this moment. She sat down on Vincent as she pulled his arms behind him and began cuffing him on both wrists.

"You have the right to remain silent and refuse to answer questions. Anything you say may be used against you in a court of law. You have the right to consult an attorney before speaking to the police and to have an attorney present during questioning now or in the future. If you cannot afford an attorney, one will be appointed for you before any questioning if you wish. If you decide..." Just as she had finished cuffing him, and was helping him to his feet, he cried out in pain.

Bethany stopped, still holding his arm tightly and asked, "Were you that badly hurt by the fall, or is this just a distraction so you can leg it again?"

"I'm not sure, I've got a really sharp horrible pain from my right side, and..." Vincent gasped, "it's spreading, it burns, you've got to help me." 

Just then Bethany noticed a deep dark blackness spreading out from around the edges of Vincent's sleeve, and up his neck.  "What the he.." She was abruptly cut off as Vincent screamed a horrible scream, and she realized that the black had come out from under his left sleeve, and where it should have passed under her hand, was spreading onto it.

The pain, as Vincent had said, was excruciating, it was like burning, but imagine the coldest sensation you have ever experienced, and magnify it one hundred fold.  Before long, Bethany was screaming too. Then, as the blackness enveloped her, and she and Vincent seemingly snapped out of existence, the alley fell dead silent.  The only sign that anyone had been there, was the magic table and cards scattered about at the mouth of the alley, a spent shell casing by the fire escape, and Bethany's service revolver, lying halfway up the alley, where her nerveless fingers had dropped it, once the blackness had started it's tortuous work on her.


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Ezekiel 'Zeke' was following his usual routine of tidying up after bible study.  He started with clearing off the snack table, carefully putting the surprisingly uneaten cookies (to be fair there weren't THAT many left) back into their resealable package, that way they would still be good for the next night's meeting. He then moved on to wiping the copious amounts of spilt sugar off of the table.  Zeke wondered just how many cases of adolescent diabetes were the results of youth group or bible study coffee.  He had actually seen kids put twelve teaspoons of sugar into half a cup of coffee. He had to rinse the cloth off several times just to rinse the sugar away.  As he was moving on to tidying up the study area, with it's discarded scraps of paper, and coffee spills there came a faint tap at the youth centre door.

"Who is it?" Zeke yelled as he made his way to the front door.

It's Mika" came the reply, ah, one of my volunteers he thought.  But what could she possibly need at this hour?  He opened the door, and she handed him a small metal box. "Somebody came by the church and dropped this off for you, they said it was urgent that you get it."

"OK that seems a bit odd, I wasn't expecting anything." He said as he took it from her hands.  It was covered in a very fine filigree of leaves and swords. There was a beautiful shield shaped crest on the top, faded but still recognizable as such. The box was actually quite beautiful, with just the right amount of tarnish to seem old, but not junky.  "Thanks, anything else? Any kind of message along with it or anything?" He asked, leaving the door open and setting the box down on the centre's dining room table.

Mika shook her head, "Nope, just said that it needed to get to you ASAP."

"Did you get a name, or what the person looked like?" Zeke asked, hoping to get some idea of who would gift him such a peiece of apparent value.

"No, I wasn't the one who got the delivery, that was [generic church office lady name here] and she was a little fuzzy on details.  She is getting up there in years, and I don't think her glasses prescription has been updated for at least a decade.  I just happened to stop by the church for my mail on the way home, and she asked if I could run it to you as she doesn't get around very well lately." Mika rambled, that was one of the things that the kids seemed to like about her, when she was trying to teach a lesson, they found it was easy to sidetrack her into the conversations they wanted to have. Of course, they didn't realize that this was the precise reason why I had her teach on occasion.  Youth were sometimes hard to read in regards to what their real questions and areas of interest were.  And typically if you asked them straight out, they'd sit there with blanks looks on their faces and a lot of "I dunno" would follow.

"Anywho, I gotta go, Jeff's waiting at home, he actually postponed his dinner so we could eat together, he's such a sweet man." Mika said, already ducking back out the door she had just taken a step into.  If there was any cure for Mika's ability to talk non-stop, it was her newlywed husband Jeff.  Those two were so deep in love it was amazing to watch.

Zeke turned and followed her to the front step, "Thanks for popping by, and dropping of the mystery box Mika, you tell Jeff I said hello and I will see you both Saturday night for youth group."

"See you saturday." Mika said, sliding into the front seat of her late model sedan.

As she drove away, Zeke slowly closed the door and turned back to the table.  Who would have given him such a beautiful trinket, the box was small enough to fit in the palm of his hand, and beautifully ornamented. His love for old ornamental things was very well known to both the youth he worked with, and the congregation at his church.  Anybody who knew him could be responsible. "The rest of the cleaning can wait." He muttered as he reached out and picked up the box.  Maybe there was something inside that would help identify the giver.

Zeke attempted to lift the top of the box, but it wouldn't budge.  He flipped it over in his hands, attempting to see if there was a catch somewhere, and realized he couldn't even find a seam.  A fine piece of work indeed if the seam was buried so well in the filagree. Or, maybe it was a puzzle box?

Cleaning forgotten, Zeke dropped down on one of the many sofa's in the youth building and started poking and prodding the little silver box.  He took a picture of the crest with his cell phone, and tried doing an image search on it to find out what the crest meant. The results he got were less than optimal, a bunch of links telling him it was a heraldic crest, but nothing giving anything specific.  After about an hour of searching he gave up on that route. 

His phone rang just after he put it down, it was his wife, "What time are you home tonight love?" She asked, used to him being home late by this point in their 6 year marriage.

"I'll be along shortly dear, I've just got to figure something out, then I'll be on my way, say half an hour tops." Zeke reassured her.

"Alright, do you want me to start warming your dinner?  The kids and I ate already, and they're ready for bed." April asked.

Zeke smiled, she was such an amazing woman, "Sure, and tell the kids I'll read to them as soon as I get in."

"OK I love you, see you shortly." Came her reply.

"I love you too, see you soon." And with that he hung up the phone.

He set the box back on the table and did a quick scan of the centre, he turned the coffee machines off, made sure the fridge was closed and locked, and double checked his office door, which was also locked.  He didn't have time to finish the cleaning tonight, and keep his promise to April, so he vowed to finish up in the morning.  He turned off all the lights and made his way out of the centre.  The little metal box all but forgotten for the evening.  He did in fact go home, and read to his kids, ate his dinner, and turned in early that night.  Oddly exhausted, he slept very soundly until the next morning.
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When he awoke, he had 10 minutes before he had to be at the youth building, and it was a 15 minute drive.  He threw on a pair of track pants, and shirt, then raced out the door.

Zeke arrived at the centre 20 minutes late to find his church council overseer waiting in the parking lot.

"Hey Zeke, is everything ok?  You look crazy stressed." Jack asked, as Zeke climed out of his car.

Zeke waived a hand through the air in a dismissive gesture, "Yeah Jack I'm good, I think I'm coming down with something, so keep your distance.  I was crazy tired last night and slept through my alarm this morning.  On top of that my head has been fuzzy since I left here last night."

Jack smiled a knowing smile, "Hey man, you've been at this gig for a few years now, maybe you just need some time off?  When was your last REAL vacation? Like, one where you didn't hang out with the kids you work with or have any of them staying with your family?"

Zeke stopped and thought about it. "I don't recall honestly." Maybe Jack was right, maybe he did need to get away for a week or so.

"Yeah, then it's definitely time for a break.  Why don't you take next week off and go somewhere to recharge your batteries a bit.  I'll make sure it's good with the rest of the council and organize your volunteers to make sure everything is business as usual here."

"That would be fantastic Jack, thanks." Zeke said, feeling chagrined, he must look especially rough for Jack to be recommending an immediate vacation.

Jack clapped him on the shoulder as he was unlocking the door to the building. "You got any ministry stuff happening today?"

"Nope, just cleaning today, we've got a group coming in tomorrow during lunch, and I'd like to have the place ready for them." Zeke replied.

"Good good, take it easy then, can't have you burning out on us, what you're doing here is truly important, I hope you don't forget that." Jack said earnestly.

Zeke smiled at Jack, "No worries Jack, I'll always remember it, even if it's only because you tell me every time you see me. And don't take me wrong, I really do appreciate that."

"Right, well I'm off to work. Remember, take it easy, maybe close the door for today's lunch and do some reading and prayer, just try to relax." And with that, he gave Zeke an affectionate clap on the back and turned toward his car.

Zeke went inside and finished the cleaning he had started the night before.  It wasn't until lunch time, as he sat down to eat, that he remembered the little silver box, sitting right there in front of him on the table.  He turned the problem over and over in his mind, it wasn't heavy enough to be a paper weight of any substance, so it must be hollow, which lead credence to the puzzle box idea.  As he ate, his curiosity grew.  Finally, when he was done eating, he put his dishes in the sink and picked up the box on the way to the couch with his coffee.

He tried touching all the leaves in the filagree (there were a lot of them) and nothing happened, then he started touching the swords inlaid on the top and sides of the box, nothing.  And then it dawned on him, there were only 5 swords, unevenly spaced around the box.  He tried touching them all at once, still nothing. Then, looking again at the pattern they were laid out in, he realized he could put all 4 fingers and his thumb of his right hand, each on a sword, somewhat comfortably.  Still nothing, but, thinking he might be on to something, he continued to hold it that way, and decided to poke the shield shaped crest on the top of the box with his index finger.

He felt a jab, the pain was instant, and incredible, the blackness spread out and over his whole body with such swiftness he barely had time to draw in breath for the scream that never came.

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Chad Sheridan

FYI if it's in square parentheses [ and ] that means it's a detail for me to fill in later, on my first revision.

Chapter 2

Sly slowly came to, at least, he was pretty sure he was awake now.  He couldn’t tell, as he was surrounded by nothing.  At first, he thought he was blind, that is, until he brought his hands up to rub at his eyes, and he could see them (his hands, not his eyes, this isn’t that kind of story). So, not blind, dead maybe?  Is this what happened when someone died?  It would be pretty disappointing if that was the case.  He started searching for, well, anything really.  Another person, a light source, anything at all to break the endless black.  He knew he was standing on something, as he could feel it under his feet, but he couldn’t see anything.

“OK,” he thought to himself, “survival steps, what are your survival steps?”

“Step one, assess injuries,He couldn’t find anything wrong, so either he wasn’t injured in any way, though he vaguely remembered pain, so either not injured, or actually dead… Sly decided to go with the former option, as being dead was just too hard to think about, given that he could think.

Alright, step two, assess your location.  That was going to have to wait, because, as far as Sly could tell, he was literally in the middle of nowhere, or, more aptly, in the middle of nothing.

Step three, what do you remember about how you got into the situation? Thinking back, he had no recollection of time passing, and no way to measure how long he had even been conscious in the place, so, he had to just assume he had been unconscious for less than half a day, as he wasn’t hungry or thirsty at all.  Though this could also be explained by the possibility he was dead.  Which was a though he pushed down almost as quickly as it occurred to him.

OK, last thing he remembered was that he was working a job, ah yes, the amulet.  Then he remembered the prick on his finger, and the creeping agony of the blackness spreading up his arm.  Had that actually happened, it seemed so distant.  Then, once the blackness had covered him, he remembered screaming, then… wait… “fwip?!” had that been the last noise he potentially made of his life, bloody fwip?

“You have got to be kidding me, possibly the last noise I made in my existence, if I am actually dead, was the same sound that the tail end of a piece of spaghetti makes as it’s being sucked into a child’s mouth?” He called out into the darkness angrily.

That train of thought wasn’t going to solve anything, so he just had to continue on.  Step four, find shelter, that was going to be a bust, as were steps five and six, find water, and food.  That left only the seventh and final step, stay put.  He was damned if he was going to just sit here in this nothingness for the rest of eternity.

The particular turn of that last thought struck him as absurd. What if he was damned, and the fact of that damnation was the very enveloping nothing itself?  Wasn’t the Judeo-Christian theory in some circles that Hell was in essence total separation from everything?

Sly started to laugh, to truly laugh, he wasn’t entirely sure why he was laughing, but he couldn’t help it.  It just seemed to bubble up from somewhere in his middle, and kept of coming.  He laughed for what felt like an eternity, until his sides and stomach and face hurt from all the unaccustomed exercise.  His laughter devolved into tears at some point, more tears than he had cried in as far back as he could remember.

Then a thought struck him, if he was dead, and truly damned, why did his sides hurt when he laughed.  Was that just part of the torment experience? He mulled over that thought for quite some time.

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Beth woke up first, she was just starting to think she was totally alone, when she turned and saw Vincent laying the the non existant ground beside her.  What the hell was going on here.  Was this another trick of the con man’s?  Or was it someone he had crossed coming to get revenge and she got sucked into it with him. She walked over to where he lay and kicked him lightly with her boot.  “Vincent, get up, I’ve got questions for you.”

“Mmffph wha?” Vincent rolled away from the next kick with a groan.

“Get up Vincent!” Beth growled at him. “Wherever we are, you are still under arrest, and thus under my discretion as well as my protection.  I need you to wake up and help me figure out what the heck is going on.”  She gave him another firm nudge with her boot.

Vincent grabbed her booted foot, holding it firmly. “I’m awake, stop with the kicking or I’ll be talking to my lawyer about police brutality.” He growled back.

“Where are your cuffs?” Beth asked, this one was going to be more trouble that he was worth.

Vincent’s hand patted the ground beneath him and held out the handcuffs as he finally opened his eyes. “What do you mean ‘Figure out what the heck is going on’” he said in a very poor impression of her voice.

Beth spread her arms in an all encompasing gesture at the unending blackness around them, “Pay attention to your surroundings once in a while. Or is this just some other kind of ‘magic trick’ or scam you’ve got worked out?”

Vincent looked around them, then patted the ground he couldn’t see, just to be sure it was there.  He couldn’t feel any texture or temperature or really anything, except that his hand definitly hit something. “Huh, weird.  What kind of scam could this possibly be?  If I could pull off a trick like this, do you think I would be performing street magic to scam tourists out of their money?” He pulled his pockets inside out, just to show how broke he was. “How do I know this isn’t some kind of sick new interrogation trick?  What force did you say you were with?  I didn’t even get to see a badge.  How do I know you aren’t some government spook or a rich psycho of some sort who has kidnapped me?”

Beth, rather than answer, fished in her jacket pocket and tossed her leatherette badge holder at Vincent. “Las Vegas PD buddy, the arrest was genuine, and don’t you dare try to pin this on me.”

“Alright, take it easy.” Vincent said, rubbing the spot where the leatherette had struck his chest, maybe Beth had thrown it a little too hard at him, it was possible she was starting to freak out.

Vincent stood up and handed Beth’s leatherette back to her. “We shouldn’t be fighting, I believe that this isn’t your doing, and I can only hope you’ll believe it isn’t mine either.  This has got to be someone else, now we need to work together to find a way out of, well, whatever this is.”

Beth put her leatherette back in her pocket and crossed her arms, “So what, I’m just supposed to believe you had nothing to do with this, simply because you say so?”

“Aw come on!” Vincent said, getting exasperated. “Do you rememver the blackness?  How much it bloody well hurt?” Beth nodded. “Yeah, and which of us got hit with it first? I did, why would I put myself through something like that?  Over a petty [charge name here] charge?  That any decent lawyer could have gotten me out of without breaking a sweat?”

Beth, still not totally convinced uncrossed her arms and started pacing. “So what’s your theories then, who do you think is res……”

The faint sound of tears sounded in the distance, interrupting Beth’s tirade.

“What the hell was that?” Vincent asked, sounding nervous.

“Hello! Who’s out there!” Beth called out into the blackness.  There was no response.

Vincent looked around as he spun in a circle. “Do you know what direction it came from, I couldn’t tell.”

Beth pointed ahead and slightly to her left. “I believe it’s this way, but I can’t be sure.  We should definitely check it out though.  We might find some answers.”

“Are you nuts!  I’m not going towards the crazy soundign laughter, if you want to get killed by whoever finds this place amusing, be my guest.  I’m staying right here.” Vincent said firmly.

Beth started walking in the direction she thought she heard the laughter come from.

“Hey, don’t leave me here!” Vincent called after her. “What about your duty to protect me?  What if I escape?”  

This got her to pause. “Either you come with me, while I check this out, or you stay put, and I’ll come back for you, there doesn’t seem to be aything here to hurt us, so I’ll leave it up to you.  I know you are a con artist, but are you a coward as well?”  As she said this, she spun on her heel and started walking again.  She noticed Vincent hurry to catch up with her out of the corner of her eye, and noted that she didn’t hear his footfalls as he ran, sound behaved oddly here too, that could prove a problem in finding the owner of the mystery laugh.

They walked in the direction of the laughter for quite some time, and then it suddenly grew much quieter, had the person laughing moved farther away?  Was it someone testing them, trying to mess with them?

When the laughter changed to tears, Beth drew her [standard issue LVPD sidearm] and held it at the ready, pointed at the ground in front of her.

“You think you’ll need your gun?”

 Vincent asked, sounding nervous.

Beth shrugged, “I truly hope not.” But she didn’t put it away either.

They kept walking in silence for a while, now that the laughter had morphed into crying, it sounded more forlorn and ominous than sinister. And the fact that it had a tone that hinted at madness, set Beth’s nerves on edge.

Again, there was an oddness to the way sound behaved in this place, the sobbing kept fading in and out, as though moving closer then farther away.  Perhaps the person they were hearing was wandering, though the sound seemed to be coming from one direction constantly.  That is, if Beth and Vincent were in fact walking in a straight line.  With nothing to focus on or use as a marker, they could be walking in a very large circle for all they knew.

After what seemed like an eternity, the sobbing stopped.  The silence was almost terrifying in it’s completeness at this point. “Oh crap, do you think it was just a trick?  Or did the guy die or something?” Vincent asked. He really was a worrier wasn’t he?

“I think he probably just passed out from exhaustion.” Beth said reassuringly, it was almost a relief to have the unending sounds of soul wrenching sadness come to an end. “Now the only concern is that we don’t have a marker for what direction to go in.”

Vincent stopped, Beth stopped a few steps ahead of him. “I have an idea.” Vincent said, oddly thoughtful. “We just need to keep going in the direction the sound was coming from right?”

“Yeah, though that’s kinda hard without anything to keep us from wandering off track.” Beth responded impatiently.

“I was thinkin that too. Breadcrumbs…” Vincent said, and reached inside his jacket. “What if we leave a trail, that we can use to keep us going in a straight line?” He said, as he pulled out four decks of cards. “If we place these far enough apart on the ground so that we can still see at least two of them while we walk, we can always keep the same bearing right?  Just make sure we are always lined up with the cards, and it’s not like there is any wind here to blow the cards away.”

Beth smiled, trust a street magician to have pockets full of decks of cards, likely all of them altered for some trick or another, but they would definitely do as a trail of breadcrumbs to keep them going in a straight line. “Those should definitely do the trick!  Put one on the ground where you are standing, then run back the way we came, so we can see how far we can spread them out.  Just keep the card and me in sight, and in line.”

Vincent did just that.  It turned out that their field of view was certainly not very big. At about 30 feet out Vincent started to be hard to see, as though a black fog were surrounding them that they couldn’t see as it was blackness on blackness. “That’s far enough!” Beth called out, not wanting to lose Vincent in the odd black fog.

Vincent placed down a card from the deck, and came rushing back toward Beth, as he ran, Beth noticed that it seemed to take much longer for him to come back, even at a full on run, then it had taken him to walk back to where he had placed the card.  This place was so very very odd.  How could they trust anything, when even distances seemed to be a lie.

When Vincent made it back, they continued on, placing a card on the ground just as the card at the edge of their view faded out of sight.  They kept on at this until two decks, and three quarters of the fourth were used up as markers, meaning they had travelled just over a mile.

Then without warning, everything around them started to change.

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Chapter 3

At first, it started as just a change in the lighting around them, or rather, there started to be a noticeable form of lighting around them, in contrast to the odd direction-less light before, this had a finite, and direct source.  Along with the mysterious directional light, the blackness around them seemingly started to bleed colours.  First there was a smear of grey, then of green, and more and more colours started to almost fade into existence.

With a sickening visual lurch to the side, made more so by the fact that there was no detectable motion by their bodies, and a somewhat liquid looking swirl and snap. They found themselves standing in a forest clearing, a man in his late twenties, lying huddled and rocking on the other side of the clearing.

His head snapped up, eyes open at the sudden assault on all of their senses, as the sounds of birds, and the smells of field flowers and the gentle caress of the wind all seemed to come into existence at once.

Behind them, almost missed because of the sudden onslaught of sensory input, Beth instinctively reacted to the sound of snapping branches, and whirled, gun raised.

There was a young man, in a [Christian logo or something] shirt stepping out of the woods who quickly raised his hands in defence. “Don’t shoot,” He moved his raised hands up and down as if to say, ‘see, I’m no threat’, “Um, please?!”

“Who are you, where the hell are we, and where were we just now?” Vincent rattled off, obviously flustered.

Beth lowered her [LVPD service firearm] to the ready position, pointed down and just off to the left of the young man’s feet. “Sorry, you can bring your arms down, but don’t do anything stupid.”

“My name is Ezekiel Smith, I’m a youth pastor at [some church in a small fictitious town in the middle of nowhere USA], I don’t know where we are, though it doesn’t seem like any kind of Hell I’ve ever been taught about. And as for where I was just before being here, I was sitting on the couch in my youth room just a few seconds ago, I pricked my finger on this mystery box.” He held up the silver filigree box, “And next thing I know, I’m sitting on a fallen tree in the woods.”

Beth looked at him quizzically, “You didn’t see the blackness that seemed to go on forever?”

From behind Beth and Vincent came a raw hoarse voice, “Wait, you saw the blackness too?  I wasn’t alone?  I thought I was in hell for all eternity, it certainly started to feel like it.”

Beth spun around, startled again.

                                        #

Sly, quickly ducked his head as the woman with the gun spun around on him. “Easy there miss, nobody needs to get shot.  I’m sorry if I startled you, I assure you that was not my intent.”

The young woman replied, “No, I’m sorry, it’s been a very rough day so far, and I’m extremely jumpy.” She holstered her [LVPD standard issue sidearm] for good measure.  “Ezekiel?”

“You can call me Zeke” He said offhandedly, as he moved around Beth into the clearing so that everyone could see each other.

The young woman looked him up and down and said, “OK, Zeke, I’m Beth and this is Vincent a good for nothing street con man.” 

“Street Magician.” Vincent interjected with some pride.

“Whatever you want to call it, you were conning people out of money.” She gestured at Sly, “And who might you be?”

Sly took a very gracious bow. “Sylvester Gauthier Bean, professional photographer to the rich and powerful of the world.” He said, with a flourish of his hands and arms out to the sides as he raised up from his bow.

Beth looked him up and down, “Photographer huh?” She said, almost off handedly, but there was a hint of challenge in her voice.

“Why yes, why the sound of doubt?” Sly asked her, trying to think if he had said something.

Beth held up a hand and started counting on her fingers as she spoke, “First off, no upper class photographer would be caught dead wearing a solid black athletic material outfit. Secondly, you’ve got matte black makeup around your eyes. And third, you’ve got a rather impressively large kit of lock-picks sticking out of the side satchel slung over your shoulder.  So my guess, is that you are some kind of thief.”

Damn, this girl was good, give the [LVPD standard issue sidearm] and the way she handled it, coupled with her mannerisms and the way she referred to this Vincent character, she was a cop, and a damn fine one at that.  Though if she was busting street magicians, she was pretty low on the totem pole. “You will make a fine detective one day Elizabeth.” He said, conceding her point.

“Actually it’s Bethany, or officer Desroches.  How on earth did I get stuck with 2 criminals, and a youth pastor in the middle of the woods, in God knows what forest.” Beth grumbled.

“Um Guys.” Came Vincent’s voice from the middle of the clearing, “Come look at this.  I don’t think even God knows where this forest is…”

They all rushed over to where Vincent was staring up at the sky.  Hanging just above the tree line was the moon, larger than any of them had ever seen.  “OK, so we’re somewhere near the equator, and the moon’s proximity to the trees is making it seem so big.” Zeke pointed out.

Vincent shook his head, “That’s not our moon, there’s no face, and if you turn around, there’s another one…”

They all turned around, sure enough there was a smaller moon, much closer to how Earth’s moon appears on a regular night, just about half way up the sky above the trees.

“Yeah, that’s going to be a problem.” Sly said, without thinking.  “Everyone calm down, Zeke shared his story of how he got here, now you two.” He waved at Beth and Vincent. “Tell me how you got here. Then I’ll tell you how I got here and we can see if there’s a common thread.”

And so, they shared their stories.

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