Adriana Priest drifted through a suffocating marsh of heat and sweat. She was in pain. Molten rivulets of fire cascaded from her neck to her shoulder and down her arm, exploding in fireworks at her fingertips. Thankfully, the agony was only a ghostly echo, as if she were watching a raging fire in the distance and feeling only gentle warmth.
In time even that sensation went away, and merciful nothingness enveloped her in a relaxed embrace.
She awoke with a jolt, her mind sharp and fully able to process her surroundings.
She was in a medical room, covered floor to ceiling in white tiles. She lay under a white sheet on a hospital bed. The bed was old fashioned, with a metal headboard and footboard, no side rails, and no electronic controls. There was a white metal cabinet to her right, against the wall.
The room smelled vaguely of antiseptic, with a hint of bleach.
She sat up, and when the sheet slid down she realized she was naked. She pulled the sheet up above her breasts. Her left shoulder was bandaged and throbbed slightly with each heartbeat.
Her rings and bracelets were gone. Both hands. In a panic, she felt her ears and face. All of her earrings were missing, and her nose ring. She ran a hand across her stomach and over her feet. Her belly button ring, anklets, and toe rings had been taken. Her necklaces—with their charms and gris-gris bags and crosses and pentacles and triquetras and hamsas and evil eyes—were gone, save for one: the pendant with the tiny window and glass coil inside.
These objects weren’t mere trinkets. Each was a talisman, and together with her mehndi formed a white light field about her person. Only the most dedicated Shriexers wore such protections, and she was certainly counted among that number. Now she really felt naked.
Why would her captors leave her just one amulet? There was something strange about this one with the coil. It has shocked her, just before the mutilated cattle fell from the sky. It came from her first haunt, the same one that had turned half the hair on her head white.
At least her mehndi was still in place. She couldn’t see her own back to verify that the large design still coiled down her neck and spine, but the sigils were still on her wrists and fingers, and a quick look under her sheet verified that her feet were similarly covered.
That was some relief, but why would someone want to rob her of her other supernatural defenses?
She tucked the sheet under her chin. “Hello?” Was she in a hospital? No. She didn’t think so. There wasn’t any medical equipment in the room. The bed looked like a prop from a horror movie. This was a prison.
Vague memories of pain came back to her, streaking down her hand like tearing red knife wounds. She had been tortured!
She broke into a cold sweat and her heart skipped. She had just escaped abduction and torture, and now here she was again, in a similar situation. It was unbearable. After years of traipsing through valleys of darkness without a care, she felt the first crack of madness open in her mind.
She rose from the bed, wrapping the sheet about herself like a toga. The tile was cold under her bare feet. She walked to the door and tapped it lightly with her knuckles. It was painted metal, painted white. The handle was lever style and turned freely when she tried it, but the door didn’t budge.
She was locked in.
A piece of paper was taped to the door, folded in half, covering a small window. The paper glowed like a lantern, indicating a bright space on the other side.
Adriana removed the note and opened it. The paper was heavy and expensive, and the handwriting was delicate cursive. It read:
Hello! Please don’t be alarmed or frightened in any way. We found you wandering in a state of delirium, and we think you were probably in a lot of pain! You were ranting about ghosts and haunted houses that other people couldn’t see, and about a bloody mattress. The problem seemed to be some kind of blood poisoning from a wound in your shoulder. We have treated both and have been monitoring your condition closely. You’ll feel much better soon!
When you wake up, please knock loudly on the door, and I’ll come to let you out. We only locked the door to prevent you from wandering away while you were recovering – you are NOT a prisoner and are free to leave whenever you are ready!
Also, I’d like to talk to you about potentially sponsoring your Shriexing services.
Your new friend, Agent Rosemary
P.S. I’d like to reiterate that you are completely safe and among people who care about your wellbeing.
At the bottom of the page, the author had drawn a series of butterflies with smiling faces.
Blood poisoning? Could that be true? Was it possible she hadn’t been taken prisoner and harmed? She felt the ice in her chest melt. Slightly.
But who would care to help her?
Agent Rosemary. Agent of what?
How in the name of the Goddess did she get blood poisoning, of all things?
She peered through the window and saw a long hallway that stretched away from her… room? Cell? The white walls were practically incandescent under banks of bright fluorescent lights.
She knocked on the door as hard as her knuckles could stand: three loud clangs.
After a moment, a figure appeared at the end of the hall. Adriana had to lean forward to make out that it was a woman, her hair pulled back in a bun or cut short. She stood stiffly, her arms at her sides.
“Hello?” Adriana called again. She knocked on the door three more times. “Hello, can you hear me?”
There was a burst of static, and then a tinny voice issued from a speaker recessed in the ceiling. “Hello! Hi! Adriana Priest? Can you hear me?”
“I can hear you. Can you hear me? Are you Agent Rosemary?”
The figure at the end of the hallway did not move. “Yes! I’m so happy to see you, up and about. And yes, I can hear you loud and clear! How are you feeling?”
“Um, kind of naked?”
“Sorry about that! Your clothes were soaked with sweat that we tested as toxic. They were laundered and are waiting for you. But don’t worry; we’re all women here. No man has seen you. Believe me.”
“Would it be possible for you to… let me out?”
“Absolutely! How is your shoulder?”
She tried the door. The handle turned and the door remained firmly locked. “It hurts a little. Not much. Did you… what happened?”
“We’re not sure. We think you may have fallen victim to what’s happening outside.”
“What do you mean? What’s happening?”
“Something right up your alley, I think. It already has a name in the occult community: The Rust Belt Mega Phenomena. Major nonlinear phenomena are being reported across several states.”
“Nonlinear? Like what kind of phenomena, specifically?”
“UFOs, hairy humanoids, reptoids, sky phenomena. You know, all the classics. We have dozens of reports of significant poltergeist activity in Iowa, multiple cases of violent dogmen attacks in Wisconsin, a mad gasser in Indiana, airships in Ohio, and, oh, West Virginia has gone insane. There is so much going on in West Virginia right now. Some of it is low level enough to make it into the news. But mostly we’re talking Level X, all the way. Totally under the radar. Except for people like you. And like us.”
“That’s… incredible. Do you know the cause?”
“No, not yet. We’re investigating.”
“Who is investigating?”
Okay then. She changed the subject. Whoever this ‘Agent Rosemary’ was, she clearly did not want to name her employer. “Do you know what happened to me? How did I get sick? I don’t remember much.”
“The contamination was introduced in that shoulder wound there. When we found you, your fingers were swollen like balloons. Honestly, I think if you had gone even another hour, you’d be investigating ghosts on the other side, as one of them.”
“I owe you my life then. What can I do to repay you?”
“Maybe you can tell me how you got the shoulder wound? We’d love to know, as part of our research.”
“Ah, OK. Easy enough. I was caught in a downpour of cattle mutilations. My shoulder got laid open by a hoof.”
“Oh, that makes sense! Cattle mutilations are often highly toxic, as you know.”
The woman was still standing at the end of the hallway, her features obscured by the harsh lighting. She hadn’t moved since the beginning of their conversation. Not a muscle.
“Agent, uh, Rosemary, it’s a bit strange having any kind of conversation with you over a speaker. Can you, like, maybe come closer? And open the door for me?”
“I sure can! You’re free to go at any time. All your things are here, waiting for you, as well as your little ghost friend in your sling bag. Oh, and don’t worry, we had to remove most of your jewelry in order to operate, but it’s all here. It’s an awesome collection, by the way, I’m so jealous! The only thing is that pendant around your neck there. We couldn’t remove it. Strange thing, that one. We’d love to try to examine it sometime, with your permission of course. Hey, can you do me a tiny favor and go over to the cabinet by the bed, and look inside?”
Adriana blew air through her lips. Agent Rosemary wasn’t going to let her out of the room. Goddess damn it. She went to the cabinet and opened it. The shelves were bare save for one object: a small, featureless black box.
She held it up, assuming she was being watched by a hidden camera. “This?”
“That’s it! Adriana, my agency would like to commission your services. In effect, we’re hoping to be another one of your Shriexing sponsors. And here’s all you have to do. Just carry that box with you as you go about your business out in the world. Put it in your bag and forget about it until the end of each day. Then, before midnight, what I’d like you to do is throw the box away. Anywhere is fine. Down a sewer, into a river, into a dump truck as is passes by. Just don’t leave it where regular people might come across it.”
“You… want me to throw this away.”
“We’ll retrieve it, don’t you worry about that. And we’ll supply you a replacement by the next business morning.”
She examined the box. It was somewhat glassy and fit easily in her palm. It had no buttons or seams to indicate where it might open. “What does it do?”
“That’s classified. I’m sure you understand.”
“And if I do this for you… you’ll let me out of here?”
“Of course! We want to pay you! Five hundred dollars per day. How does that sound?”
Adriana nearly dropped the box.
Five hundred dollars? Per day!
That was good money for a real job, held by a normal person in vanilla society. It was a fortune for Shriexing. With that kind of cash… with that kind of cash, she wouldn’t have to worry about her funds running out. No living hand to mouth. She could afford decent shelter and food while continuing her work. She could afford transportation to get from place to place.
“It’s… a deal?”
The speaker was silent.
The door opened with a loud click.
She peered through the window. The figure at the end of the hallway was gone.
She pushed the door wide with her fist around the small black box, clutching her sheet around her with her other hand.
“Agent Rosemary? Are you there?” The empty hallway smelled slightly of ozone. The fluorescent lights buzzed.
She walked to the end of the hall, where the figure she presumed to be Rosemary had stood. There, she found a juncture. One direction ended at a door. It was unlocked, and on the other side was a small room. Her things were laid out on a long steel table.
Everything looked accounted for. Her clothing, her jewelry, her backpack, Chibihome. Her personal items had been emptied from her bags and laid out on the tables in rows. Her clothes had been laundered and neatly folded, as Rosemary had said, and her jewelry arranged in a spiral pattern, like the coil in the necklace she still wore.
Whatever. She could figure out what it all meant later. She set the black box down, let her sheet drop, and replaced her jewelry. A couple of her ear piercings had begun to seal, and she had to painfully push the earrings through. How long had she been here? She dressed quickly.
When everything was in place – clothes, earrings, nose ring, finger rings, belly button ring, toe rings, bracelets, anklets, and multiple necklaces – she finally felt like herself again.
She repacked her bags, slipped Chibihome’s strap around her shoulder and hoisted her backpack.
The only thing left was the black box. It sat alone on the table, reflecting the fluorescent light across its glossy surface.
Should she take it?
Five hundred dollars. All she had to do was carry it, then chuck it somewhere at midnight. How was she going to be paid? Rosemary hadn’t addressed that.
It was all too easy, and life was never easy. There had to be a catch.
She took the box and slipped it into one of Chibihome’s hidden pockets.
She went back to the hall and found another door leading to a warehouse-sized space. This area was not pristine like the rest of the facility. The area was covered with debris and garbage, the walls illuminated with neon graffiti.
In the center of the vast floor was a human figure. It was the same one that had stood unmoving at the end of the hall.
“Agent! Rosemary! Hey!”
The figure didn’t move in response. The light wasn’t as harsh here as it was in the hallway, and Adriana saw that something wasn’t right with Rosemary’s face. The left half of her body, really. She walked closer.
It was a life-size female anatomical doll, the kind used in medical schools. One half of the doll’s body was pristine and smooth. The other was a grinning skull and exposed organs.
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