Earlier this year writer Justin Aclin and artist Ben Bates took MySpace Dark Horse Presents by storm with the story of the Secular Humanist Occult Obliteration Taskforce -- S.H.O.O.T. First or, as Sean called them, the Super-Atheists.
Now we're really excited to present an original prose story that Justin wrote for Robot 666 Week -- S.H.O.O.T. First: “The House That Ate Halloween." And Justin even invited his brother, Jesse, to contribute illustrations for it!
So a big thank you to the Bros. Aclin for spending part of their Halloween with us ... check out the story below!
S.H.O.O.T. First: “The House That Ate Halloween”By Justin Aclin. Illustrations by Jesse AclinS.H.O.O.T. First created by Justin Aclin and Ben Bates
“We have a Craigslist ad?”
The man who currently called himself Codename: Infidel took off his baseball cap and shook his head in amazement. An average day with the Secular Humanist Occult Obliteration Taskforce was strange—S.H.O.O.T. had the very important job of protecting humanity from seemingly supernatural creatures who were trying to manipulate and harm us for their own reasons, so things tended to get weird pretty frequently. Maybe it was the fact that he had never celebrated Halloween in his native Afghanistan, maybe it was the fact that he was currently dressed up as a member of the Boston Red Sox—complete with cleats and a large, awkward practice duffel. But for whatever reason, S.H.O.O.T. having a Craigslist ad struck Infidel as just about the weirdest thing that he’d heard in the few months since he’d joined up.
“We’ve got lots of Craigslist ads, all over the world,” said his team leader, Mrs. Brookstone. She was dressed as a sexy cop, which was a radical departure from her usual buttoned-up demeanor. Even more disconcerting to Infidel was that she really pulled it off. “And none of them say ‘S.H.O.O.T.’ anywhere. They’re ads for monster hunters, ghost-busters, exorcists… It’s just a way of trying to dig up intelligence on situations that might have flown under our radar otherwise. Like this one.”
This particular situation came to the team’s attention through one of the Craigslist ads for monster hunters: in an upscale Massachusetts suburb, a haunted house had opened up the week before Halloween. It attracted throngs of neighborhood children, eager for an early taste of Halloween…only after going through it, all of them changed. They seemed listless, quiet, and none of them showed any interest in trick-or-treating any longer. In less than a week, the haunted house had destroyed Halloween for nearly an entire town. And no one who went through could remember or describe exactly what had happened…although church attendance had been way up throughout the week. A desperate mother who couldn’t understand why her son had suddenly lost all interest in his favorite holiday responded to the ad, and S.H.O.O.T. flew halfway around the world that Halloween night to investigate.
After finding a costume shop that was still renting outfits, they found themselves walking through a crisp New England night, with dry leaves crunching under their feet and the air just warm enough that they couldn’t see their breath, in full costume. To blend in. Although there was hardly anyone to blend in with—here and there a small group of younger kids could be seen darting from yard to yard, ringing bells, but the haunted house seemed to have done its damage. The streets were largely deserted.
“In a case like this, it’s usually Outside Actors in the form of some kind of goblin,” said Kenshin, the team’s technician. His Phantom of the Opera half-mask was good coverage for the infra-psycho scope he wore over his good eye, although it ironically left the scarred half of his face exposed while covering the normal half.
“Usually?” Infidel asked. “This happens a lot? The haunted house and everything?”
“Every few years,” Kenshin said. “The Outside Actors who’ve chosen to self-evolve into goblins don’t get a lot of belief energy except at Halloween, so sometimes they’ll set up shop in a haunted house, frighten some people, make them doubt what they’re seeing. It’s a tricky balance, but if they play it right it’s a nice boost of belief, which can carry them through the lean times of the rest of the year.” “Outside Actor” was the categorical name S.H.O.O.T. placed on the creatures who fashion themselves as goblins, or demons, or angels, or any number of supernatural creatures, in an elaborate attempt to feed on the psychic energy of humanity. And belief—blind faith—was their favorite dish.
“Or maybe they’re really goblins,” said Lord Byron, who lived to play devil’s advocate, and who was dressed as the world’s hardest-living Roman Centurion. The top-brush on his helmet looked like a less colorful version of the rainbow-colored Mohawk it was covering. “Or aliens. I’m always saying we’re bound to run into some aliens one of these bleedin’ days.”
“Sod off,” said Bett, slapping him on the back of the head. She shifted uncomfortably in her sexy cave-woman outfit—the costume shop only had sexy costumes for women, which struck many on the team as unfair and Byron as extremely fortunate. Robot, who was a robot and was dressed as a very large man dressed as a robot, didn’t have an opinion. “Everyone’s probably just worked up over some shadows and spooky sounds,” Bett said. “Believe me, I grew up in the 19th century—I know how scared people get of the unknown.”
“Time for game-faces,” said Mrs. Brookstone as they rounded the corner of Elmwood and Second Street. “And no more ‘real goblin’ talk, Byron. If we slip up and start believing in these things the fight’s already over.”
The large old house on the corner lot looked like any Halloween Haunted attraction from the outside. The yard was strewn with fake cobwebs, store-bought ghosts and Styrofoam gravestones, plus a large, hand-painted sign that read “House of Fear.”
As the team made their way down the walkway towards the front porch, two teenage boys approached from the other direction and filed in behind them. They got a good look at them as both groups reached the porch; they were about 17, dressed in black hoodies with a little black make-up under their eyes and fake blood in the corner of their mouths—just the minimum amount of effort to be considered “costumes.”
It was only then that the Secular Humanist Occult Obliteration Taskforce realized that they’d gone through way too much trouble getting dressed up for Halloween.
Laughing amongst themselves and totally ignoring the weird adults, the two boys opened the front door and stepped inside. They swept through the initial hallway quickly, ignoring the motion-sensitive animatronic ghosts that popped out from either side of the hall, turned a corner and disappeared deeper into the house. S.H.O.O.T. moved through more slowly, to allow Kenshin time to scan for Outside Actors. “Nothing here,” he said, “but I’m getting definite readings from somewhere inside the house. We should keep moving.”
“First things first,” said Mrs. Brookstone. She walked over to Infidel’s practice bag and unzipped it. It was filled with guns—the advanced weaponry that S.H.O.O.T.’s parent organization, Secular Humanist Applications Research and Development, built for them using technology gleaned from the scientific exploitation of the bodies of fallen Outside Actors. In the right hands, the guns proved deadly to these creatures that were ordinarily extremely hard to hurt. And S.H.O.O.T.’s were the right hands. “Everyone pick a party favor,” Brookstone said.
As Byron grabbed the last high-tech weapon, a commotion suddenly erupted from deeper in the house. “Go!” Mrs. Brookstone yelled, and they took off down the hall, rounding the corner they saw the boys take earlier. As they did, they entered a large, open living area…which was overflowing with small, hairless creatures with large, pointy ears and tiny, pointy teeth. They were coming out of the fireplace, out of every doorway, streaming down the staircase…all advancing on the two terrified-looking boys on the far side of the room. “Well, I was right,” Kenshin said.
Five guns simultaneously began to fire, and wave after wave of goblins fell to the glowing bullets. But the goblins kept coming, climbing over the fallen bodies to get at the team. The two boys, momentarily forgotten, turned and ran through a nearby open door. “Robot!” Brookstone shouted. “Follow those kids, make sure they’re all right!” Robot took off running, mashing goblins beneath his feet as he strode, but leaving an opening in S.H.O.O.T.’s flank that was instantaneously filled by the creatures. There were simply too many of them.
Suddenly the goblins (which weren’t goblins at all, of course—so the theory went) were all over them. Bett, with her costume’s exposed skin, was the first to feel their creepy little fingers on her body as they climbed over her, and consequently the first to freak out and start trying to fling them off her like mad. The others followed suit shortly as the goblins began to climb their heads, turning Kenshin’s mask askew so he was temporarily blinded. Lord Byron had grabbed one of the goblins by the leg and was using it to club its comrades, with limited success.
Soon there seemed to be more goblins behind them, cutting off their access to the front door, than there were in front of them. They had no choice but to press onward if they wanted to escape. “Head for the door!” Brookstone bellowed, and they all followed, firing ineffectual shots behind them as they ran.
As the team approached the door, they could see that it was, in fact, stairs leading down to a basement. Otherwise, it was a dead end—either the basement, or turn around and face the goblin horde. Brookstone knew a basement was a terrible tactical position, but she couldn’t see much choice, especially with Robot and those kids already down there. “Everyone down!” she said.
As they started to descend, Kenshin gripped the banister with one hand as he tried to right his mask with the other, muttering under his breath. Finally he got his good eye lined up again with his infra-psycho scope…and gasped. As he did, the door swung shut behind them. “There’s something down here,” he said. “Something big.”
”I knew it,” Bett said. “Those little grabbers were herding us towards this damn door.” Mrs. Brookstone tried the door—it wouldn’t budge. “Of course,” she said. The stairwell was nearly pitch black, with only the lights from their guns visible and the barest hint of light coming from below, flickering like candlelight.
Brookstone took a deep breath. “Look,” she said, “whatever’s down here, we’ve faced worse. Just take a moment to get your composure, remember that whatever it is, it’s just another Outside Actor, and we’ll be fine.” Everyone tried to take her advice, breathing deeply and trying to get re-centered…but in that silence, they began to hear something from down below. Whispering. It was barely audible over the sounds of their breathing, but it was unmistakable, and unearthly. A whisper like none any of them had heard before.
Mrs. Brookstone’s whisper was just barely louder. “On three,” she hissed, “we are going to slowly walk down these stairs and see what the hell is going on down there.” The whispering continued below. “One…two…three.”
Every creak of a wooden step seemed like a cluster bomb going off as they began descending, as quietly as possible. The further down they went, the more of their surroundings they were able to take in by the candlelight—it was a large, unfurnished root cellar, with a dirt floor and a few scattered candelabras on the wall casting all the light. And in the far corner of the room stood the Angel of Death.
There was no question who it was meant to be. It was tall, clad entirely in a dusty black hooded robe. Whatever of its body was visible—face, hands—was bone, except for the huge wings emerging from its back. Once they might have been white, but they were now grey with ash and dust. Death held the face of one of the teenage boys delicately in its bone fingers, and its jawbone raised and fell as it whispered closely into his ear. The boy’s face had drained of all color, and his eyes stared at nothing as he listened to the whispering. His friend was sitting on the dirt floor, the same expression on his face, hugging his knees and rocking. And Robot slumped against one of the walls, his lights completely dark, unmoving.
Mrs. Brookstone took careful aim with her gun and fired. Without looking up from the boy’s ear, the huge wings beat once, and a terrible wind filled the basement. The bullet was buffeted from its path, and S.H.O.O.T. was knocked off their feet and tumbled down the bottom of the stairs. The candles, however, didn’t so much as flicker.
The Angel of Death lifted his lipless mouth from the boy’s ear. “Come,” it said in that same unearthly voice. “Wait.” The entire team found itself forced to comply—leaving their weapons where the lay, they picked themselves up off the ground and walked over towards the creature, forming themselves into a neat row, and then standing still, waiting.
Death touched the hand of the boy on the ground, and he got to his feet and stood beside his friend. Death bent down to look the two of them in the eyes. “Go now,” it said. “You will forget what happened here, but in the depths of your mind, you will remember. ” The boys turned and walked up the stairs, as if in a trance. They never so much as glanced at S.H.O.O.T., who stood waiting their turn.
“Know…what you…really are,” said Mrs. Brookstone through gritted teeth. It was almost an unbearable effort to speak…even to think something that the Angel of Death wasn’t bidding her to think.
“You know nothing,” it said, “and I know so much. So much I can tell you. So much I tell all who enter this house.”
None of the paralyzed members of S.H.O.O.T. could work up the strength to ask, but the question hung in the air anyway, unspoken.
“I tell them,” the Angel of Death said, “of their deaths, and the deaths of those they love. The exact day, and time, and method.”
Somehow, the skull managed to smile. “You all want to know. Knowing it will rob the joy from every remaining day, but you can’t help it.” It looked from one end of the line to the other. “Who would like to hear first? Shall I go in chronological order? It will be quite soon for some of you.”
One bony finger extended and traced the air back and forth, from one end of the line to the other, waiting to settle on one of them. Though they could scarcely move enough to breathe, every one of them held their breath. Finally, the finger stopped. The Angel of Death was pointing at Infidel.
“Or maybe…we’ll talk about your families first. You,” it said, drawing close to Infidel. “So many you know are going to die so soon.” It bent towards him and whispered, and a change came over his face. It strode over to Bett and stroked her cheek with a bony finger. “Everyone you cared about died so long ago. But true happiness lies in your future. I will tell you when he dies, instead.” It whispered in her ear. It whispered in the ear of Kenshin, and then Lord Byron. Their tears fell to the dirt floor, and they couldn’t even move to wipe them.
Finally, it turned to face Mrs. Brookstone. “And you,” it said. “You’re dying to know.” It began to whisper in her ear, but its voice was quickly drowned out by Mrs. Brookstone’s scream—it took everything she possessed to move her arm, draw the hidden gun in the holster of her Halloween costume, and fire. Even the Angel of Death seemed caught off guard, as the bullet, fired at such close range, passed through its chest before it could so much as flap a wing.
Blackness began to leak from the hole in the Angel’s chest. “No!” it croaked, and took off into the air, flying right through the basement ceiling. They could hear the goblins screaming overhead as the team shook themselves out of their trance, gathered their weapons and pressed the button on Robot’s chest that jump-started his processors. Infidel tried the basement door to find the handle turned easily, but when the team walked back upstairs expecting a goblin horde, all they encountered was a thick sheet of ash. Whatever the Angel had been leaking, it apparently didn’t agree with them. Kenshin quickly scooped some up in a sample jar, and S.H.O.O.T. walked through the front door and out of the house.
No one looked back, and no one spoke for a long while as they walked through the night. There were no more trick-or-treaters, and most of the porch lights had been turned out for the night. Halloween was ending. Finally, Kenshin spoke. “It was drawing energy,” he said. “We all know that was an Outside Actor. I mean, I could tell you you’re going to die in 20 years, and by the time I was proven wrong you’d forget, or you’d have died alrea…” He cut himself off before he finished his thought.
No one spoke again until they reached the van that had brought them to the town, what seemed like years ago. Byron clicked the remote, unlocking the door, and the act of doing something so mundane suddenly made everything seem that much more strange and sad.
“Bollocks to the unknown,” Byron said. “It’s knowing things that’ll really do your head in.”
They drove away.