Valerie had only been on the mainland for three days before the sand and the gunfire began to echo in her heart. She was travelling from city to city with a publicist hired by the army, giving talks to schools, television stations, and recruiters. It was all a bit of a whirlwind. Not the type she liked, not the kind that made her feel alive. She was an ex-soldier, wounded in the Middle East, but it was more painful to be away from the adrenaline than anything else.
Currently, she was staying in a Live In Sweet in Fridley, Minnesota. Tomorrow night she was going to conduct an interview with the Star Tribune. It was always the same types of questions:
“How many insurgents did you kill?”
“How did you kill them?”
“What type of weapons did you have to use if you were out of bullets?”
“Did you ask for help from god?”
“What was going through your mind?”
Valerie had run out of ammunition in a firefight outside a small village and was forced to kill four insurgents with just her knife. Now she was a fable in the states. A small-town girl Steven Segal. A member of an elite crowd of killers worshipped by American history. She was stuck in Minnesota for two weeks doing this press junket. She missed Oklahoma and the desert, but the money was good, plus, she didn’t have to check her bunk for Camel Spiders.
Valerie wasn’t happy with her appearance since she’d left the service. She was still somewhat thin, square, and tan. Her face was thin, her hair pulled back tight, and her glasses were as square as her jaw. She’d put on weight since she started the tour, she’d also added tattoos to both her shoulders. She was also smoking like crazy since she’d gotten back, a habit she needed to satiate before it got too late into the evening and the mosquitos would swarm her.
Valerie was at the very back of the hotel in room 42. She hadn’t noticed many other people staying at the hotel. In fact, she’d only noticed the front desk attendant. He was short, stocky, with sickly looking skin and no hair. He had a green sort of aura to him, and he barely spoke when she checked-in. She washed her hands three times after she got her room key from him. The man said nothing to her as she walked the long, dim hallway of green doors and patterned carpet. There was a lounge right by the entrance, which had two sliding doors with a few dusty carts for luggage. The doors made an electronic hiss when she exited to have a cigarette. It made her jump slightly, like all unexpected sounds did after war.
The air outside was humid and thick. It was late July in Minnesota. Everything looked inky and dense. Bugs droned and bit in the dark. Valerie wandered just beyond the entrance to the Live In Sweet. She found a streetlight to stand beneath at the edge of the parking lot. A few moths bashed their bodies against it, like they had nothing better to do.
Valerie went through her first cigarette too fast, so she needed a second one. She was staring at the building attached to the Live In Sweet, which was just a small section of one long eyebrow of industrial shapes. The hotel was connected to a large hardware store called Menards, which stretched for the entire block. The retailer had massive windows to showcase every type of home appliance product. Valerie found it odd that a hotel shared space with it.
Halfway through her second cigarette, Valerie noticed something approaching her from across the empty parking lot. Just beyond the hotel and store was a busy highway and stretch of businesses that threw a muddle blanket of light into the night sky. The shape mixed into the shadows as it approached. It stopped about fifty yards away from her. It went as still as statue.
“Um, hello?” Valerie said to the shape. She was wearing a tank top and yoga pants. She was happy to get out of the formal uniforms she used for appearances.
The shape did nothing.
“Um, okay, well then,” she said. She was feeling a bit uneasy. There weren’t a lot of details to discern from looking at the person, but she could tell they were tall and wide. The instincts that were forged in the sweat and sand of the desert were firing off between her ribs and stomach. She quickly walked inside the front of the hotel without looking back. The attendant had vanished from the desk. Valerie peeked and prodded her head around looking for him, but he was gone. There was a sweet smell, like a dozen flowers had bloomed within the walls. Carved into the deck where the odd man had been standing was the number “42.” Whatever has dug into the wood of the desk was large and blunt. There were still flecks of sawdust outside the slashes.
“That’s… that’s my room number,” Valerie said under her breath.
Somewhere out in the velvet darkness a drum sounded for a fleeting second.
Valerie started to walk briskly to her room down the long hallway. Halfway there she heard the sliding door open in a mechanical groan. Some balmy air rushed into the building and bounced against the back of her tan legs. She coughed nervously so she could look behind her.
Nothing. Just an empty lobby with a few couches and CNN blaring on a flat screen television.
“What the hell is going on?” she whispered to herself.
She started to walk again and tripped on a small piece of metal at her feet. She bent down and squinted. It was a black boot knife, like the one she’d used in the desert. How did it get here?
Then she heard it.
It was a rush of weight coming towards her. The building seemed to bend and contract, like she was caught inside an amusement ride. She started to run towards her door, but the corridor wouldn’t let her. It bloomed out like a wasteland road away from her.
Her fight-or-flight instincts left her only one choice. She twirled around, bending her knees while keeping them level with her shoulders. She was ready.
Nothing. Again, just an empty hallway for her to trade stabs with. It looked the same, only there were a few vines crawling out of the walls and desk. It reminded her of that movie Jumanji.
Then it finally hit her. Something sharp and oblong suddenly dug into her feet, slashing the tendons just above her feet. She fell to one knee and twisted her body already in a stabbing motion, even though she couldn’t see behind her. Her blade knocked against something sturdy. She fell to her back and rolled in somersault to her knees. Blood from her foot flipped around and into her mouth.
It paled in importance for what was standing behind her.
It wasn’t human, but it had the dim outline of one. The shape from before had returned. It was tall, flowing, mixing into the dim light of the hallway like some renegade heartbeat. There were shoulders and a head, only there was a cloak of breathing shadow covering the features. There were golden horns and ribs, which glowed like some unholy sun. Valerie could only focus on the forms overall details for so long. The claws took up the rest of her sight. They were giant. If they were spread out they’d be longer than Valerie. They were rounded but sharp, like golden canine teeth. They heaved up and down quietly, like they had their own lungs.
“What are you?” she stammered. She readjusted the grip on the boot knife. Sweat had made it slippery.
The Unnamed slashed. Its claw went from floor to ceiling tearing Valerie in two. The last memory she had was of her body crumpling down beneath a rain of crushed plaster from the ceiling. Her body split open like a microwaved hotdog. She was in shock before she realized she was holding her stomach. The shape stood still over her. Its hidden face nodded beneath its living hood. On its way out, it carved a long slash through the 42 on the front desk. It would head north for more tests. It needed more information. Who would be their champions when the drum began?
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