The Transmundane, Episode 14: In the Face of Death

Seitetsu drummed his fingers on the table. Shit. I hate this. Ashlyn's right about not burning our bridges, but I'm going to go crazy if I have to sit here not doing anything!

"Valeroso, this is detention, not music. Do your drumming later."

"Yes, Ms Frigarsen." Maybe the troll will bust in and we can get it to eat her instead of us. There's probably some professional courtesy thing, though, like lawyers and sharks. He looked up at the back of Ashlyn's fair head, but she was bent over her homework or something. Maybe she's working on a spell to avert prophesied doom. He checked the time again. Two whole minutes. Only twenty-six to go. Shit.

Something creaked behind him. He jumped and whirled, sending the chair clattering across the floor, and grabbed for his backpack.

Johnny Maclain looked up from his shoelaces. "Huh?" Everyone else just stared.

"Uh. Sorry. Floor must be slippery." Feeling every set of eyes like laser sights, he retrieved his chair and sat back down.

Frigarsen noted something down on her blotter. "Valeroso, you have an appointment with the counselor at noon tomorrow." A snicker crossed the room.

Great, now she thinks I'm whacked out on drugs. Well, I guess adrenaline is a drug. Kind of. Argh. He put his head down on the table, feeling the grain of the wood print stripes into his forehead. Huh. If I can break trolls into pieces and punch all the way through demons, shouldn't I be invulnerable or something? Wouldn't be much fun to hug Ashlyn if I had steel skin, though. He checked his watch. Twenty-five minutes. Argh.

Twenty-two minutes. Maybe a cave will open up and swallow Manuel and his stupid Mustang. Except he's probably already gone, because he's not sitting in after-school detention while monsters set up an ambush for his girlfriend!

Twenty minutes. I never thought I'd spend the last twenty minutes of my life in detention.

Seventeen minutes. What if they blow up the whole school? But, what if they're waiting outside with a sniper rifle? Magic isn't the only way to kill somebody.

Fifteen minutes. I wonder how long it takes to bleed to death? Just because we die at four twenty-three doesn't mean that's when they attack.

Thirteen minutes. Why isn't Ashlyn's second sight or whatever it is telling us how to get out of this? The answer was obvious. Because there isn't any way out, or if there is, it's through. But which is it? He laughed to himself. I guess death is confusing to everyone, even when they know the time and date.

Eleven minutes. I really should have told Mom and Dad. And Shoji. Even if they can't do anything, they deserve to know. I'll call them after Frigid lets us out.

"Valeroso, it's not going to kill you to sit there for ten more minutes," Ms Frigarsen said exasperatedly. Ashlyn's shoulders convulsed, although she didn't make a sound, and Frigarsen stared at her. "What is wrong with the two of you?"

Ashlyn shook her head. "Nothing time won't fix."

Frigarsen shook her head in response, and went back to her paperwork.

The nine minutes after that were as long as the fifty-one before. What's going to happen? How can I stop it from happening? What am I going to do?

The sound of the bell shocked him out of his thoughts and he sprang up again. He blushed again, but everyone was too busy jumping up themselves, having spent the past few minutes packing up their stuff instead of worrying about prophecies from the astral plane. Good thing I never unpacked.

Ashlyn was putting her books away without any particular hurry. When she noticed him jittering over her, she raised one eyebrow. "Hurrying won't change the clock." She buckled her bookbag and stood up, looking around the nearly empty room. "But I guess going slow won't either."

How does she stay so calm? As she led him out of the room, though, her hand was cold and damp in his. Oh, she's just cooler than me. I knew that. It did make him feel better, though.

An hour after classes had ended, the school was almost deserted. Far off, Tetsu could hear voices, but the wide locker-lined corridors were silent except for the buzzing of the lights and his own heartbeat. The school-floor brown carpeting muffled their footsteps, just like it would those of anyone else. From general paranoia, he swung wide around the corner, dragging Ashlyn after him, but was still surprised to see Mikey Hong there. Looks like he's waiting to jump-- What an asshole! He took his hand out of his backpack. "Mikey, don't you have anything better to do?"

Mikey smirked. "Real jumpy, aren't you? You know, if you're running short, I can hook you up."

Ashlyn stepped forward. "Mikey, go away."

He didn't lose the stupid smirk, but he stepped back against the wall and put his hands up defensively. "Hey, just sayin'!"

A sudden horrible thought struck Tetsu, but there were still seven minutes until the deadline. It would have been so embarrassing to be killed by Mikey Hong.

Ashlyn dragged him on past before he could thump Mikey just to be sure.

"Give her what she wants!" he yelled after them.

"Maybe we can get him killed instead?" Tetsu asked hopefully.

"Only if we're scheduled to die by Roach Motel."

Tetsu snorted. Although I wouldn't mind checking into a motel with Ashlyn, I'd prefer one without poison. And in Hawaii. No, bad brain! He whapped himself on the head. Think about not dying!

Ashlyn gave him a Look. He shook his head. "Never mind."

"Okay." She had to let go of his hand to open her locker, so he stood with his back to her, watching the hallway while she put away her books.

It wasn't until the metallic slam of Ashlyn trying to get her locker to latch that he realized that it could have been booby-trapped. Didn't I see something like that on TV? Catholics trying to free Ireland from the Protestant scourge, or something. I wonder what they would think of what we've seen. Maybe the Suburb of the Dead is Purgatory? I hope I don't end up there, although it might be okay if Ashlyn's there. Shit! What if she makes it into Heaven and I don't? If there is a heaven, but we saw there's an afterlife, and some parts of it have got to--

"Tetsu, isn't that your locker?"

He jumped. "Shit!" Idiot! There could be a troll anywhere!

Ashlyn looked at him strangely again. "Are you okay? Is that a stupid question?"

"Sorry. Just being morbid."

"I can't blame you, but could you keep an eye out for monsters while you do it?"

Ow. I really am an idiot. "Um, yah. Sorry." He turned to his locker to avoid having to see her expression.

He jumped again as a warm soft body pressed up against his back and arms clasped around his waist. "Sorry," she whispered in his ear. "Like I said before, being about to die makes me bitchy." She craned over his shoulder to see his watch, squishing her chest against his back. "Which is scheduled to happen in about three minutes."

You can be as bitchy as you want if you stay in that position, he dizzily refrained from saying. And keep wearing that perfume. "Uh. Yah. That's okay. Um. Just keep watch while I ditch these stupid books."

"Okay." She let go and pulled away, but he could still feel her warmth just centimeters away from his back.

He hurriedly stuffed the books he'd been pretending to study into the locker and pulled out his jacket. Maybe it's thick enough to help, and if not, at least I'll leave a well-dressed corpse. "Okay, let's go." He turned around and she was in his arms again, kissing him. Suddenly he was dizzy again, but not too dizzy to know what to do. She clutched him tightly, fingers digging into the back of his neck, pressed against him from feet to shoulders. There was no way she couldn't feel what he was thinking about, and he was pretty sure he could feel her nipples through blouse and bra. That classroom is probably empty...

Finally she broke the kiss, though she didn't move away; he could taste her breath when she gasped for air. He felt her lips brush against his, but could only tell it was a smile from her eyes. "Now we can go."

He didn't let go either. "Reminding me what I'm fighting for?"

"Well, that can't hurt, but mostly... If it goes wrong, I don't want to die without having done that at least once more." She looked away. "Goopy, I know."

Wow, maybe she really does like me! "I won't let anything happen to you," he said, and he meant it.

Her eyes met his again. "I know." It sounded like she meant it, although he was already feeling stupid for making a promise he didn't know if he could keep.

But if I can't, I'll be dead anyway. I hope I get bonus points with God for dying trying to keep a promise even if I fail. Some corner of his attention noticed that although Ashlyn's eyes were just as gorgeous in life as in the astral plane, he wasn't getting hypnotized -- except for the blood flowing away from my brain -- maybe because his spine was already starting to squirm with apprehension, and not of anything good.

Maybe she felt it too, because she stood up away from him and held out her hand. "Well, shall we go meet our fate?"

He glanced at his watch, which showed 4:21:37, and then took her hand. "Sure. Though I guess if we don't, it'll come meet us."

Her face was as calm as before, if slightly flushed, but she squeezed his hand tightly. "I'd rather not face it in school. This place is soul-sucking enough already."

"I can't argue with that."

They walked together through the empty halls, alert for an attack that never materialized. At the exterior door, he peered through the little wire-reinforced window, but couldn't see anything except sidewalk and roof, and beyond them the dirty black expanse of parking lot with a few scattered cars, ending in the screen of tall narrow trees that separated it from the street. He remembered the demon-boy who had wanted to be invited in, but couldn't think of a way to get a better look outside without opening the door. "Stay behind me," he warned Ashlyn, and she released his hand with a final squeeze and stepped back. Carefully, braced for it to be either slammed against him or yanked away, and with one hand in his backpack, he pushed open the door.

Nothing.

He opened it all the way and stepped out, checking behind it as well as up and down the covered walkway that ran along the front of the building, but it was all deserted. More nervous rather than less, he extended his free hand behind him for Ashlyn, but she stepped up beside him rather than taking it; he glanced over and saw that she had her bag slung out of the way behind her and her hands up in the guard stance she'd used against the troll. I wonder what I did to deserve someone as cool as Ashlyn.

"We should be okay when we get to the street," she said. "There'll be people there." She paused and tilted her head, listening. "There should be, anyway."

Now that she mentioned it, he realized that there was no traffic noise from the usually busy street, only the distant hum of the rest of the city. He looked down at his watch, which changed from 4:22:59 to 4:23:00 as he watched, and by the time he registered Ashlyn's gasp and looked up again, the silent car was almost on top of them.

He shoved Ashlyn away, sending her tumbling and sprawling across the asphalt, but there was no time to do anything for himself. He flinched in expectation of impact.

The car went from what looked like thirty or forty to a dead stop a bare centimeter from his leg. After a second or two, he realized he wasn't hit and started to straighten up, but just then the car rolled forward half a meter, knocking him over on his butt.

It was big and black and old-looking, not the tailfins-and-ridges style of the Fifties but far from the smooth roundness of modern cars, and its California license plate was blank, but the registration sticker bore an infinity symbol. From where he half-sat, the windshield was an opaque reflection of empty blue sky.

The driver's-side door opened, but blocked his view of the person getting out until she moved past it. A wind that nothing else felt blew her black trenchcoat out behind her like wings, exposing a painfully thin but not unfeminine figure in a clinging black minidress and lace stockings of a strange angular design. Her hair was black too, and short enough that it only ruffled in her personal wind, but her skin was white as snow, paler than a living human could ever be, and her face showed no expression. A silver ankh hung between her slight breasts, and the round coppery lenses of her sunglasses looked like heads and tails of a penny. She briefly glanced around at him, but turned away to stalk toward where Ashlyn was picking herself up. In her left hand, she held a pair of large scissors point-downward like a dagger.

Oh "SHIT!" He pushed himself to his feet with more than the strength of terror, but they were too far, and the car was between. He grabbed for his pack, tearing the rip-stop nylon like paper, and yanked out the crowbar. The woman caught Ashlyn's kick casually in one hand and leaned over her, impossibly voluminous coat falling forward to engulf her. Baseball wasn't his sport, but he threw with his entire body, and so much followthrough he almost fell on his face.

The penny-shades flashed as his target's head snapped around, but it was too late. The steel bar tore through the coat and smashed into flesh and bone, spinning her around and knocking her head over heels. It sounded like an axe hitting a tree, but horribly wet in a way that made him want to vomit.

She lay face-down without moving, lace-covered legs trailing across Ashlyn and the crowbar jutting from the red ruin of her shoulder.

Tetsu leapt the hood of the car without touching it, and his heel gouged the asphalt as he wrenched himself to a halt beside Ashlyn. The crowbar came free with a splintery tearing sensation and a spray of red, and he spun in a complete circle, scanning the parking lot, the school, and even the sky for the next threat.

He raised the crowbar to fling at the person standing in the door at the far corner of the building. Tiffy's eyes rolled up and she slumped to the ground.

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