The Apocalypse Shift is Almost Here!
The release of my novel The Apocalypse Shift is only a couple weeks away, so just to give everyone a taste I'm posting the cover here, along with the first chapter. I hope you enjoy!
The Apocalypse Shift
By Derek J. Goodman
People called that section of the city the Hill. During the day it was just a large neighborhood with shops and industries that catered to the alternative sets, and it more-or-less thrived. But at night the neighborhood changed. Every resident of the Hill knew it, even if they only registered it in the primitive chimpanzee part of their brains. The sun set and all doors got locked, all blinds were closed, and religious symbols were hung in conspicuous places. Those who went out after sundown were heavily armed and fleet-footed, going about their business before the things in the night knew there was something out there to catch. At night on the Hill insanity gained physical form.
At the center of the Hill, though, there was a place of refuge, a place of safety. Those who watched over it had to be stout of heart and true of spirit. They were the bane of the night things and the heroes of humanity.
Except, of course, for the one who was screaming like a little girl.
“Eeee!” Lucas dropped his sword and crouched with his hands on top of his head in a semi-fetal position as another arrow of flame spewed over his head and crashed against the brick outer wall of the OneStop Mart.
“Idiot! Pick up your fucking sword!” Caleb screamed at him. “We need all three!” He was barely able to get the words out of his mouth before the creature once again swooped down out of the darkness, sucking enormous amounts of air into its lungs as it prepared to attack with another volley of napalm breath. The prophecy had called it “a creature of fearsome strangeness,” but Caleb didn’t think it that strange at all. Sure, other clerks on the night shift at other convenience stores might have to look twice at a giant fire-breathing bat-winged armadillo, but to Caleb it was just another night at work.
Caleb waited until he could see flames forming at the corner of the creature’s lips, then ducked and rolled. The fire scorched the place where his head would have been and the creature, trying to adjust its trajectory at the last moment, flew lower than it should have. Hoping that the thing’s anatomy was similar to a normal mammal’s, Caleb thrust his sword up between the bony armor plates on its chest where the heart should be. The armadillo-thing screeched and almost fell out of the air before it regained some altitude, the sword still sticking out of its chest and blue-black blood leaking from its wound. Caleb gave a primitive war-whoop. That had to have been a heart-shot. Now they just needed to get a sword into each of the other two.
Phil, the third clerk on duty tonight, whistled at the thing, and Armadillozilla turned sharply in the air, searching for the source of the noise. It had to be colorblind, since it apparently couldn’t see the tall African-American man in a bright blue OneStop smock standing right beneath it.
“Try waving your arms!” Caleb yelled, but he turned away before he saw if Phil took his advice. Phil had been working at the OneStop Mart for six months now and had proven himself capable on more than one occasion. Now Lucas, however…
Caleb stalked over to where Lucas was cowering near the store’s glass front door. The acrid scent Caleb smelled as he got closer was enough to tell Caleb that Lucas had wet his pants.
“Lucas,” Caleb said. Lucas responded only by staring into space. Caleb snapped his fingers and Lucas finally looked at him, his expression dull and stunned.
“Lucas, what did I tell you before?” Caleb tried to keep his fury from coming out in his tone. This was something he was never able to get used to, despite having worked the graveyard shift- or the Apocalypse Shift, to those in the know- at OneStop for over two and a half years. The employees always freaked for the first two days. It was understandable, Caleb guessed. He’d been weirded out in his first few days, too. And even now that the manager had some understanding of what went on after hours at her store she still couldn’t exactly mention it in the want-ads. OneStop Mart seeking full-time employee for third shift. $8 an hour starting. Experience fighting brain-sucking zombies and ancient evil demigods is a plus. Apply at the 13th and Pearl location. No, as long as the larger world continued thinking such things didn’t really happen it just couldn’t work like that.
The armadillo screeched from somewhere behind Caleb, but he didn’t turn to look. Lucas jumped at the noise, but at least he was starting to stand back up. “Answer me, dude,” Caleb said. “What did I tell you?”
“You said this job wouldn’t be like anything I had ever done before.”
“And it’s not. I gave you a chance to walk right on back out the door as soon as I came in tonight. I told you things happened around here that might just scare the piss out of you.”
Lucas gestured down at himself. “But I didn’t think you meant literally! I thought there might be the occasional robbery.” Caleb sighed at that. Sometimes he would lull himself to sleep at night with pleasant thoughts of the OneStop only getting robbed for a change.
There was another screech followed by something that might have been a cry of pain from the armadillo. Lucas tried to look around Caleb to the noise, but Caleb snapped his fingers in the newbie’s face. “Uh-uh. Eyes on me.”
“But that thing could be about to kill Phil!”
“Exactly. It could be. And it could be that the only thing that might have been able to save him was if you had held on to your sword and did what the prophecy said! Prophecies are key around here. Nothing is more important to a convenience store than prophecies.”
Lucas cocked his head at him. Caleb shrugged. “Okay, maybe not most convenience stores. But you get my meaning.”
There was the sound of glass breaking somewhere behind Caleb, followed by a pained comment from Phil. “Son of a…! That’s going to leave a mark!”
“Now you ready to do this or not, kid?” Caleb asked.
“Tough shit.” Caleb finally turned around. For what was a relatively small parking lot, there certainly seemed to be more than enough space for an epic battle. Phil was trying to crawl back through the window of the crack house next door that he had been flung through, probably by a wayward flick from the armadillo’s tale. The armadillo was going back up into the sky and looked like it was preparing for another fire-breath strafing run, but at least Phil had managed to jab his sword into what was hopefully the creature’s second heart.
“Go grab your sword,” Caleb said to Lucas. “I’ll try to distract it.” Caleb turned to run back into the store, but Lucas grabbed him by the shoulder.
“Hey, don’t leave me out here!”
“Don’t worry,” Caleb said. “I know what I’m doing.”
Phil snorted at that as he fell out the window and onto the parking lot asphalt. “Screw you, Phil,” Caleb said. “I’ve got an idea. Really.”
It only took Caleb a few seconds to grab what he needed off the shelves and come back out. The creature was on its way down again, but at least Lucas had managed to get his sword back and stood in the center of the parking lot, holding it up to the oncoming beast in a poor imitation of bravery. Phil limped up to Caleb, and Caleb gave him a quick once-over. Phil’s arm was kind of cut up, but he didn’t look like he was bleeding that bad.
“You gonna be okay?” Caleb asked.
“That’s nothing. I’ve had much worse while doing this goddamned job.”
Caleb raised an eyebrow. “When? I don’t remember anything worse than that.”
“What, you got amnesia? What about last month when my soul got trapped in Hell?”
“Oh, that. That doesn’t count. Not technically an injury.”
“Sure, tell that to my soul. It still has scabs from all that damned fire.”
“I told you, there’s no real fire in Hell. It’s just a metaphor. And your soul can’t scab.”
“Real fire or not, it hurt like hell so don’t tell me it doesn’t count. It does.”
“Fine, fine. It counts.”
“AHHGGGH!” Lucas screamed. Caleb turned back to him in time to see the armadillo fly past and over the store. The beast had gotten off another blast, and despite the fact that Lucas had been facing it head on he had somehow managed to catch the seat of his pants on fire.
“Doesn’t count as much as that,” Caleb said. “Lucas, just stop, drop, and roll, dude!”
Lucas started to run around in circles. “I’M ON FIRE! I’M ON FIIIIIRE!”
Caleb shook his head. “I know you’re on fire, just… No! I fucking told you not to drop the sword!” He sighed and ran a hand through his hair before turning back to Phil. “Could you put him out please? Looks like I’m the one who has to slay the armadillo.”
“Yeah, sure,” Phil said as he jogged to where Lucas was running around. “Be careful, huh?”
Caleb waved a dismissive hand at him as he walked to where Lucas had dropped the sword. “Whatever. Why start now, right?”
There was a loud thump, and although he couldn’t quite see it from his current angle, he guessed that the armadillo had landed on the roof. He bent down so the sword would be within easy reach but he didn’t grab it yet. Instead he unwrapped the package he had grabbed from inside, tossed the cellophane and cardboard aside, and held up the item in his hand so the armadillo might be able to get a whiff of it.
“Here, demon-armadillo-willo. Come to Caleb. Come and get the nice treat I have for you. You like Twinkies, right?”
For a moment there was no sound but Lucas’s continued screams and Phil’s frustrated attempts at getting the newbie to stop acting like a decapitated chicken. Caleb had to hold back a frustrated grunt. Sure, the manager knew full well that the night shift was nothing like the day shift. Sure, she knew that everyone on the Apocalypse Shift had important things to do during the course of the night. None of that changed the fact, though, that she would be pissed if they didn’t manage to get rid of the demon-armadillo before it scared away the bar rush that would be starting soon. Caleb had told her that wouldn’t happen as much if she just hired another person for the night crew. Now she had, and this stupid creature was trying to make a liar out of him. He almost thought to himself that it was enough to make him want to quit, but he quieted that idea in a hurry. If he was stupid enough to stay at this damned job this long, he was stupid enough to continue at it.
“Aw, come on,” Caleb called. “Everyone likes Twinkies. They’re the eighth food group. Just come and get it already, stupid.”
Maybe he was operating on a false assumption, he thought. Maybe armadillos, or at least freakishly huge winged armadillos from Hell, didn’t have enough of a sense of smell. No sooner did he think that, however, when the beast stuck its snout out over the edge of the roof. Its nose twitched in Caleb’s direction, and he waved the Twinkie more vigorously.
“Yeah, that’s right. You know you want some delicious extruded cake product. It’s right… there!” He tossed it away from the store towards the far end of the parking lot. The nose twitched one last time, and then the armadillo launched itself over Caleb’s head to shake the earth as it landed on the far side of the Twinkie. As the armadillo lumbered around to give the Twinkie a closer sniff Caleb quietly picked up the sword. He tip-toed towards the creature, all the while trying to figure out how he was going to get at the thing’s heart from this angle.
The armadillo grunted, and Caleb stopped as the thing pushed the Twinkie aside with its snout before cocking its head to stare at Caleb full on.
“Aw, you’ve got to be kidding me!” Caleb said. “It’s a freaking Twinkie! What’s not to love?” He gripped the sword handle harder and muttered to himself. “Knew I should have grabbed a Ho-Ho instead.”
The armadillo started to beat its wings. With so much weight it didn’t appear able to get airborne too quickly. Caleb rushed the creature before giving himself the time to wonder if he was just being stupid. He dodged out of the way as it blew a stream of fire, ran around its side, and jumped just as it started to come up off the ground. Its wings, thankfully, didn’t have the same armor plating as the rest of the beast, and Caleb brought the sword down right where the wing joined the body. The armadillo screeched and dropped to the ground, falling lopsided as the remaining wing still beat at the air. Caleb tried to get out of the thing’s way, but it bumped him and sent the sword spinning off to underneath the glowing OneStop sign at the edge of the parking lot. Caleb rolled out of the way just in time to avoid being crushed as the beast fell onto its side. Unfortunately, it rolled right between Caleb and the sword.
“How you doing over there?” Phil called.
“Just fucking peaches and cream over here,” Caleb yelled. “I’m getting too old for this.”
“You’re twenty-three, numbnuts!”
Caleb didn’t have time for a comeback. The armadillo had managed to get back to its feet, and it huffed as it turned to face Caleb head on.
“I don’t suppose ‘sorry’ is gonna cut it at this point, huh?” Caleb said to the armadillo.
The creature responded by rearing up on its hind legs. Caleb hadn’t even been aware armadillos could do that. Standing like that the thing was at least twenty feet high. The two other swords were still jabbed deep into its chest, but they didn’t appear to be affecting it at all. It huffed a couple of times, and smoke and flames licked out from the edge of its mouth. It appeared to be taking deep breaths in anticipation of some particularly vicious round of fire breaths.
There had been many times on this job when Caleb had idly wondered if he were about to die. Sometimes he had actually believed it would really happen. But never, in his whole two and a half years at OneStop, had he ever been embarrassed by the way he was about to go out.
Death by armadillo, however, was embarrassing enough to actually make him blush.
From somewhere behind him Caleb heard a twang, and the air beside his ear whistled as something flew past him. The armadillo had exposed more soft spots between its armored plates when it reared up, and a crossbow bolt buried itself in the creature’s flesh to create a perfect line with the two swords down its center. The armadillo gave a whine like a kicked puppy, then teetered forward.
“Get out of the way!” a female voice said from somewhere behind him. Even as he was rolling away from the falling monster Caleb had to smile. He knew that voice instantly. It had been too long since he had heard it.
The parking lot shook and the windows of the OneStop rattled as the armadillo crashed to the ground. It gave one final burp of napalm breath and then stopped moving. The streets were quiet for several seconds, then a window on the top story of the crackhouse opened. A woman poked her head out and leveled a finger down at Caleb. “Hey, keep it down out there. You’re ruining my high!”
“Sorry,” Caleb called up. He stood from where he had been on the ground and turned to Phil. “All good?”
Lucas was sniveling on the pavement where he had been rolling at Phil’s feet. Despite his tears, Lucas didn’t seem to be harmed. His pants were missing their backside, however, showing scorched SpongeBob Squarepants boxers underneath. “Good as we’re gonna get,” Phil said. He turned to Caleb’s rescuer. “Good to see you, Gloria.”
“It usually is,” Gloria said, and Caleb finally turned to look at her. The twenty-one year old Hispanic woman had a crossbow in one hand. She wore skin-tight black jeans and a black leather jacket over a red halter top. A black cowboy hat was cocked forward on her head, and there was a makeshift necklace around her neck that looked like it was made of various sharp teeth. He would have whistled if he didn’t think that would get her to put a bolt into his chest next. It was a far different look for her than when he had first met her and she too had been wearing the blue OneStop smock.
“I had it under control,” Caleb said as he went to retrieve the sword. He tried to walk with a sort of cocky confidence, but it didn’t work so well when he almost slipped and fell in the blood leaking from under the armadillo.
“Of course you did, Butcher. You always do.”
Caleb was about to say something snarky back, but he was interrupted by Lucas’s moaning as Phil helped him up. “I’m not sure I like this job,” Lucas said.
Caleb smiled at Gloria, who smirked back. “Trust me, newbie. You’ll learn to love it.”