FREELANCERS #16 - 10/15/23
Aj Atherii. Well met, Freelancers.
Captain Davius Tolvaren here with a tale that may appeal to those with an interest in the esoteric.
Riding high after a daring rescue operation to save their employer’s prized pet, Skara Vranig and her rough but effective team stopped in the galaxy’s premier entertainment asteroid, The Diamond Star. After a particularly wild night, they awoke on an unfamiliar planet minus one of their crew.
They spent several days retracing their steps and facing the consequences of their inebriated misadventure. Some highlights include re-rescuing the client’s lost pet, tracking down a lost bumper grav car they took off-road, and annulling a shotgun wedding. At the end of it all, with a deadline for an important job across the galaxy looming, their compatriot remained missing.
Reports from those in the know whisper of ongoing personal strife between the errant team member and Ms./Mrs. Vranig (jury’s still out on whether that annulment was finalized). Their search turned up multiple sources citing that conflict frequently blew up in public. Considering their ship’s shuttle was also missing, evidence pointed to the crewmate getting fed up and leaving of their own accord.
But that wasn’t enough for Skara.
With their scent still in her nostrils, the Vulfar Sarakem freelancer refused to give up on her pack. She shirked her professional engagements and threw herself deeper into the rabbit hole. As fate would have it, she encountered a freelancer known as The Speaker. Though his eyes are blind to the sights of the Elemental Realm we inhabit, the bounty hunting shaman took Skara and her crew on a dangerous dive through the Spirit Realm. Retracing their steps and contending with the emotional resonance of their actions, the spirits revealed the missing piece of the puzzle.
Their scorned ally did not leave the system in the shuttle like they suspected (they apparently lost it in a bet). One of the planet’s local fauna, a massive brightly coloured bird, absconded with the wayward crewmate. After almost a week of being contorted into decoration for the raptor’s nest, Skara and the others freed their friend once the mating display ran its course.
I, for one, applaud the bone-headed pursuit of their colleague beyond all reason. Leaving people behind sets a poor example of loyalty for the others. True leaders make the right decisions. Even if they aren’t the smart ones.
An apt lesson for pirates and merc teams alike: keep a close eye on your comrades. Always remember: a happy crew that feels attended to is less likely to smother you while you sleep.
Though many Rakuurites were excited when the ubiquitous Wonder World franchise set up an amusement park on their soil, that pristine place was more for tourists and the wealthy. The park for the Rakuurite people was called Tau'u'wonga.
They named it after a Whenuwan children’s myth about a magical realm fuelled by the unbridled imagination of excited kids. A land without rules or parents to say no. The sort of place spirits would take children for a short time in the parables where they could vent all their boundless energy before returning to their families back home.
The real world location in Rax City was an expansive carnival ground of rusty girders, bright lights and jury-rigged electronics. Tau'u'wonga’s creators salvaged a chunk of the megacity’s derelict districts to make something fun and affordable. What it lacked in being built to code, it made up for in heart.
Rhaz Nira strode through the park with a spring in her step and a smile on her face. The shower of bright lights danced in her bright green feline eyes. Her pointed ears, decorated with a more extravagant set of jewellery than usual, bathed in the song of laughter and playful screams around her. Everywhere she looked, ghouls partied with pirates, witches, royalty, and other celebrities. For today was the spooky holiday of Hallow’s Veil.
More importantly, it was the Ra’Shasi woman’s 24th birthday.
Shortly after their less than successful brawl with the Knife Posse, she and the team needed to blow off steam. Always the glue that bound them together, Rhaz insisted her friends join her for some carefree fun. The kind she always wanted since she was little. After stretching her meagre finances to dress up and visit this park properly, she was determined to enjoy herself with her favourite people.
Someone spoke up beside her. “Hey, partner. Fancy meeting you here.”
Leaning against the foot of a large mechanical monster, the charming Captain Galen Malik from the popular show, Wayward Suns, offered a sly wink along with his catchphrase. After researching the role for ten seasons and practicing for hours in front of the mirror, Loren Oriah felt like he nailed it. Even with the occasional stutter or crack in his voice.
Rhaz giggled and beamed her good friend a wide smile. “Zsav ann. Pleasure to meet you, captain. Always nice to spend quality time with a fellow big shot.” He cocked his head to the side. She extended a fan and assumed a confident pose. “Don’t you recognize me?”
The birthday girl wore a striking, sparkly dress with tall asymmetric slits up the sides. She styled her black hair up in an extravagant updo and buzzed a flowing design into her undercut. A rainbow boa draped over her shoulders covering a bit of the deep V cut down the front of her dress. Every part of her that could wear jewellery did. Including her teal-tipped tail.
Loren’s mind raced as he tried to place the character. The wheels spun so fast smoke was liable to come out of his ears.
Another voice behind them cut through the awkward air. “Hey, pretty lady. Fancy meeting you he—“
Sir Seth Steele sauntered around and froze when he noticed his armiger’s costume. Loren’s outfit, mostly crafted by hand with love and care given to every painstaking detail, looked remarkably similar to the store-bought Captain Malik costume Seth wore.
Rhaz doubled over with laughter and leaned against Seth to keep from falling on the floor. She didn’t want to get her fancy clothes dirty.
Loren got back into character and stood with arms akimbo. “Well, well, well. If it isn’t my long-lost twin. Fancy meeting you here, brother.” Seth sighed and rubbed the bridge of his nose.
Rhaz caught her breath and fanned herself. “Ay Karazash. This is the best birthday gift ever.” She reached up and took a big bite of the sumptuous, half-eaten pulled meat wrap in Seth’s hand.
Someone slurping the last remnants of their drink approached the group. Zee dressed much like his usual self, with his weathered long coat similar to the one the other two boys wore. The main adjustment he made for the holiday was to wear a sticker on his lapel that read, “Captain Malek”.
He paused his sipping. “Well. This is awkward.”
Loren looked between them, and his eyes widened with delight. “Long lost triplets.”
The three doppelgangers formed a triangle standoff as Rhaz doubled over once again. The saucy meat in her mouth almost flew out of her nose, then tried to choke her as she couldn’t stop laughing.
The team weaved through the crowd, dodging staff members in costume chasing screaming park goers through the streets. They arrived at their destination, a dilapidated manor emitting mist and spooky noises. The building, once home to a noble family, witnessed a gruesome event almost 70 years ago. Now on the park’s property, the Tau’u’wonga planners leaned into the mystery and made an attraction out of it. The haunted house drew visitors from all over the planet. Especially during Hallow’s Veil when the space between the realms grew thin.
Zee, the team’s sniper, tossed his empty drink into a garbage can on the other side of the street as they stepped inside. “Listen, if y’all want to be cool like me so bad, you’d be better off just dressing as the legendary Fokazi Kain himself.”
Seth rolled his eyes. “What a humble sage you are, mate.”
Still in character, Loren adjusted his oversized coat. “You might be pretty cool, partner, but did you use reverse polarities to break through a Hadroth blockade and rescue a pair of Zyldari matriarchs in episode 130?”
A bystander to the side threw up their hands. “Wow, spoilers.”
Seth tapped Loren on the shoulder, then pointed a thumb at Zee. “Don’t listen to him, my lad. Putting in next to no effort isn’t the way to be cool.”
As they approached the kiosk, Zee lowered his sunglasses on his nose and turned to give Seth some scathing side eye. “You really want to start about little effort, mate?”
Rhaz snapped her fingers between them. “No! None of that. It’s my birthday. I’m the boss and you’re all going to play nice. That’s an order.”
She gave her tickets to the Octopan in the booth. The octopus-like teen wore a spooky outfit lit by bioluminescent nodules. Without looking up from their holopad, one tentacle took the tickets, a second pressed a button to open the ominous double doors into the manor, and a third pointed at a flickering neon display telling them to follow the signs.
Flashing lights outside the windows and a rumbling floor simulated lightning and thunder as the team stepped into the haunted manor.
With his hands interlocked behind his head, Zee nudged Rhaz. “So, who are you supposed to be?”
She wagged her finger and continued her strut. “Nuh uh. Guess.”
Zee tutted. “Come on, Rhaz. You dig into so much artsy, independent stuff, no way we can figure out which character you’re supposed to be.”
“It’s not a character. Think more abstract.” She looked at him expectantly.
Zee turned to Loren who looked away with sudden interest in the upholstery. “I wonder what age this manor’s supposed to be from.”
Rhaz’s face sank. “Come on, guys.”
Seth leaned closer to Zee. “Yeah, come on, mate. I thought you two were so close. Don’t you have some gems of elven wisdom to help you think more abstract?”
Not looking at him, Zee said, “This place is the real deal. Anyone else hear a boneheaded ghost talking shit and looking for a slap?”
Rhaz clutched either side of her head as a spike of pain drove through it. She sacrificed the fund for her medicine so she could afford to rent this outfit. The birthday girl had hoped all the fun she’d be having would buoy her through this evening, but the voices flooded in full force.
She roared and used her claws to rip the wallpaper before stomping into a dark hallway off to the side.
Loren called out and ran after her. “Ms. Rhaz? We’re supposed to follow the signs!”
Seth shook his head. “Look what you’ve gone and done, mate.”
Zee closed his eyes, set his jaw, and groaned.
All three captains chased after their friend. As they crossed the threshold, the lights flickered and a red holographic barrier reading “EXHIBIT CLOSED. DO NOT ENTER” appeared behind them. A flash of lightning illuminated a second sign on the wall next to a bloody handprint that read: “SERIOUSLY. STAY OUT!”
The boys stepped through the twisted, empty manor. They activated their holopads for light as not even the fake lightning reached into this wing. They heard only their breathing, footsteps, and calls for Rhaz as even the spooky ambience faded into utter silence.
Still in character, Loren stroked his chain. “Strange, there’s no staff around here.”
Seth yawned, then called out to the darkness. “Come on, Rhaz. We were just having some fun.”
Zee smacked Seth’s arm. “Give it a rest, man. You’re not helping.”
“Relax, mate. Why are you so tense all of a sudden? You scared of g-g-g-ghosts?” He flipped his holopad’s light to illuminate his face from underneath, giving it a spooky visage. The light turned off and on to enhance the effect while he made different faces.
In a room nearby, a bank of monitors displayed footage from night vision cameras tracking the party’s movements.
The boys entered a long room and wrinkled their nose at the musty scent. Loren widened the cone on his more advanced holopad. The entire far wall was a relief mural. It depicted monstrous entities writhing around portals spread around the room.
Seth and Zee strode forward to investigate closer. The former PAX knight said, “Huh. Impressive craftsmanship for such a kitschy place.” His eyes gravitated toward the form of an alluring succubus beckoning him closer. Zee stared into a dark section where he swore shadowy eyes multiplied to stare back at him.
In the dim control room, a clawed hand reached forward and pulled a lever.
Light jolted into the exhibit. The portals in the mural irised open and a powerful force sucked Seth and Zee inside.
Loren stood far enough back to brace himself against the suction. He watched in shock as the portals closed, leaving only shadows to keep him company.
Zee lost all sense of equilibrium as he hurtled through the tube. Everything was dark, but a loud sound somewhere between grinding gears and howling wind assaulted his ears. He spun out the other end and landed in an old chair. The sniper coughed and tried to get his bearings, but everything was pitch black and silent.
“What the f—“
An ancient incandescent bulb sparked to life on the ceiling. It emitted a light that somehow stripped everything of colour. The richly appointed, but antiquated dining room was decrepit. Zee sat alone at the table. Dim light from the chandelier flickered and figures now occupied the other seats. A mother, father, grandparent, and several siblings.
At first, their faces were smooth and featureless. The lights flickered once more and Zee could see their faces, but they were uncanny and unsettling.
The mother figure’s head snapped to look at him. “Aren’t you hungry, dear?”
Zee looked down as a covered plate appeared before him. He removed the lid, then looked down at his own head. It looked back at him with the same uncanny, unsettling features as the others.
When he looked up, the whole family stared at him. The lights flickered again and their spindly bodies contorted on and around the table much too close to him.
The mother spoke again with a voice that distorted into something awful. “You need to eat or you won’t grow big and strong.”
Zee shrieked and sprinted out of the room as the figures grew and their creepy smiles creased all the way to their temples.
“Hello? What in the Infernal did Rhaz get us into?”
The portal deposited Seth in a cavernous tunnel network. It was steamy and moist. The little light that diffused through the vein-like walls was a deep red. A low beat thrummed through him. He could barely see anything as he felt his way through a sea of silky veils.
Once he reached a larger chamber, the music shifted into a heart-pounding pulse. The lights dimmed, and he heard people breathing heavily around him. They grew louder as he saw the silhouettes of multiple figures writhing about. He took a deep breath of the thick air. His head swam and his heart quickened.
Seth chuckled. “If she told me this is what we had in store, I would’ve been much more enthusiastic about tonight.”
As the silhouettes shifted and multiplied around him, he felt the form of something real dancing around him. He knew the staff at these things were permitted to make some amount of physical contact with guests. But this one was bolder than he expected. A feminine shape caressed him as she danced to the beat.
He heard a voice whisper into the centre of his mind. “Clothes… off.”
Maybe it was the atmosphere or the sultry commanding voice, but Seth didn’t need much convincing.
Now down to his underwear and socks, he felt hands reach out from behind and wrap around his broad chest.
“Who do you desire?”
Seth’s mind raced through multiple options. His breathing elevated as his senses flooded and his skin tingled. The figures closed in on all sides. Something soft coiled around his neck.
Seth cried out as real, sharp teeth bit his collar, and claws raked across his torso. The figures, all fangs and claws, pressed him into the floor.
With the lights on after the portal opened, the infamous smuggler, Captain Galen Malik, was better able to find clues about what was going on. He backtracked and found the side room with the bank of monitors and controls, but there was no sign of Mr. Seth or Mr. Zee. With great care, he scooped up Rhaz’s sparkly dress he found on the floor.
He’d done plenty of escape rooms with his friends when he was younger, but this wasn’t like any haunted house he’d heard of.
His concern grew after he discovered a caved in section of the exhibit. The lad marvelled at how the special effects crew got such a real looking dead arm poking out of the mechanical wreckage. Even the smell of blood and death seemed real. It was enough to send shivers up his spine.
Loren’s ears perked up when he heard someone gently crying in a nearby room. He entered what seemed to be a classic little girl’s room from a bygone age. The sound came from a music box on the table next to the bed. When he opened it, he saw the small ghostly apparition of Rhaz.
He put on the character’s signature smirk. “Hey, partner. Fancy meeting you here.”
Rhaz sniffled and looked up. “Oh… Hi, captain. I have bad news. The ghosts… they got Seth, Zee and me. You’re all alone now.”
Loren looked up as the light flickered and the room dimmed. Not paying attention to the rest of his surroundings, he sat on the bed and leaned close to his ghostly friend.
“I don’t believe you. You see, I know we just met, but I can tell Sir Seth, Mr. Zee and especially you, Ms. Rhaz, are the strongest, best, most capable people I know. And I’ve met quite a few in my travels across the stars. It would take more than some two-bit ghosts to get the better of you. And even if they did, don’t you worry. I passed what looked like some spooky spellbooks in another room. I’m sure I can find a way to bring you all back.”
The darkness and stabby dolls creeping in behind Loren backed away. Rhaz’s voice caught in her throat and she wiped some real tears out of her eyes.
She laughed. “You’re the best, Loren. You know what the worst part of all of this is?”
“Nobody guessed what my costume was.”
Loren shifted uncomfortably on the bed and cleared his throat.
Rhaz looked up with pleading eyes as the darkness and stabby dolls resumed their creep toward him. “Please… you’re my only hope.”
With everything on the line, his mind kicked into high gear to solve this mystery.
After a few tense moments, he opened his mouth. “Uhhhh…”
Everything in the room receded as screaming echoed down the hallway. Zee sprinted past the door, screeched to a halt, then ran back inside and grabbed Loren.
“We gotta get outta here! Come on! Where’s Rhaz?”
Loren tried to explain, but Zee was too out of breath and frantic to listen. The shouting intensified as Seth, wearing only underwear, dirty socks, and a rainbow boa around his neck, barrelled into the room.
He tried to scoop them both up in absolute panic.
Zee held him back. “Seth! Focus!” He slapped their leader across the face. “Where are your pants?!”
Realizing they weren’t in any immediate danger, the ridiculousness of the situation dawned on them.
Holding onto each of the boys, Seth said, “Just had a wardrobe change, mate. Can’t walk around in the same costume as you two bozos.”
They all had a good laugh. Not noticing the small ghostly apparition of Rhaz looking incredulous on the table, Zee reached past Loren and picked up her dress. “Oh, hey. You found Rhaz’s dress. Is she still missing? Man, what the hell was she supposed to be?”
The boys all jumped as the closet behind them burst open. A dishevelled Rhaz, also in her underwear, surged forward and swatted at all of them while muttering curses in her native tongue.
“Buu’Gaji! I was dressed as me! In the future! When we’re rich and famous!”
As her assault abated, the boys exchanged glances. Loren said, “Ohhhhh… Now I… Hmm…”
Zee made a face. “Come on, Rhaz. How the hell were we supposed to guess that?”
Seth rubbed the bite mark on his collar. “Yeah, that’s a lot to put on us to figure out.”
She resumed her swatting. “It’s Hallow’s Veil, and it’s my birthday, damn it! The first one in a long time I got to celebrate properly. So excuse me for allowing myself to dream of having a good time with the people I care about and live a fantasy for one fucking night! But no! I can’t even have that without the bickering and selfish bullshit. This was my night to be selfish! Do you have any idea how hard it is to keep you assholes together? You’re driving me insane!”
The room rumbled and grew dark.
Zee held up his hands in defence. “Alright, alright! We’re sorry! Just quit it with the spooky shit!”
Rhaz got in one last smack, then said, “What? This isn’t me.”
The four of them noticed strands of long inky hair entering their huddle from above. They slowly looked up. A figure on the ceiling with long clawed fingers clapped with excitement. Its face, uncanny and unsettling like the ones in the dining room, grinned with a maw of black teeth.
The face twisted around in a full rotation toward them. A creepy, ethereal voice reach at them from another realm. “Did you like my exhibit? Isn’t it simply to die for?”
At the haunted house’s kiosk, a well-built ork with Whenuwan tattoos dressed to look like a denizen of the Dark jogged in. He laughed to himself with satisfaction after chasing around more patrons.
“Ahh, Hallow’s Veil’s the best.”
Still looking at her holopad, the teenage Octopan rolled her eyes. “Whatever, boss. Speak for yourself.”
The ork rested an arm on the counter. “Come on. You’re young. Why am I the one telling you to let loose and enjoy yourself? You should be more like that guy who designed the new exhibit. He loved Hallow’s Veil. Took it a bit too far, though.”
The teenager mumbled, “Funny way of saying it killed that wacko.”
The ork shivered. “Ugh. Don’t remind me. Hey, wasn’t there a party coming through for the regular haunted manor run? I didn’t see anyone come out the other side.”
They froze as a quartet of blood-curdling screams echoed throughout the house. Creepy, otherworldly laughter followed that chilled their bones.
The ork and Octopan exchanged a concerned glance before he asked, “Know any good exorcists?”
Hope you enjoyed that! I also hope it wasn't too spooky. But Halloween approaches and it's my birthday too!
Here's the link to the archive of newsletters in case you missed any.
Talk to you next month. Have a good one!