Fair to Middlin’: Chapter Five

Chapter Five

 

 

Oliver chose a small diner a few streets over, and on the way there we both kept silent. What he wanted to know wasn’t fit for discussing out in the open, I was sure, and I didn’t feel the need to fill the air with chatter. I wasn’t a talkative person by nature, but the atmosphere around us as we passed others and they knew what Oliver was, didn’t exactly promote idle conversation, either. In fact, it felt more like being escorted to the principal’s office.

 

The Dancing Devil Diner was set in the middle of a small parking lot, unconnected to any other buildings on the block. It had that classic diner look, but hadn’t always been a diner. It was a sort of living entity, like a demonic genius loci, and it changed throughout the years depending on what would attract the most people or beings. In my Sight, it rippled like a mirage in the desert, both there and not.

 

The demons and devils who ran the place wandered in the grey area of the law most of the time, where their only responsibility was to make sure the person was of sound mind prior to making a contract. The magical beacon the place projected, to attract the destitute, depressed, and stranded on the rocky shores of life type of person, fell under the umbrella of ‘advertising’. As long as the beacon didn’t make them go to the diner, only suggested, it was all kosher. It took the form of a lovely woman sitting on the roof, loosely clad in a toga, singing an endless song of promises, proposals, and unchecked desire. Not many could See her, and when we locked eyes a predatory smile spread across her face.

 

I set back on my heels and glared at Oliver, again. “What are we doing here?”

 

“We’re eating a late, decent lunch, and having a chat,” he said, his tone light and amiable. My scowl deepened.

 

“In a place where all the employees are itching to get their hands on someone like me? I’ll pass,” I said, and turned to head back…Well, not home, but I’d figure something out.

 

A warm, firm hand took hold of my forearm, the pressure not light, but not so hard that I was threatened. Master of the middle road, was Oliver.

 

“I have a running contract with them when it comes to talking to people in their place of business. They give me a booth, where no prying ears can overhear, and don’t use any information they pick up. In return I warn them of any health inspections, or minor magic violations, that could shut them down,” he finished, and let go of my arm when I hadn’t moved further from his reach. The absence of his hand left little tingles along my skin, which I studiously ignored.

 

I hunched my shoulders and headed back to the diner door, resigned to going in and having a chat. “Fine, but if they eat my soul I’m holding you personally responsible, and I’ll figure out a way to haunt your ass for the rest of your life and beyond,” I ground out, though there probably wasn’t a way for me to accomplish such a feat.

 

“I’d expect nothing less from you.” His eyes crinkled at the corners, though luckily for him he didn’t laugh, and his longer stride made it to the door before me. He opened it, motioned for me to go through first, and my already bottom-of-the-barrel confidence waned further when I stepped into the delicious, fried food aromas of the Dancing Devil.

 

As expected, all eyes turned toward the door when it opened, but what wasn’t usual for a normal diner were the expressions of intense hunger on the faces of the staff. They’d gotten a whiff of the desperation riding my aura, and of course the true nature of what I was. I wasn’t 100% confident Oliver could protect me from this bunch, despite his contract, as the disappointment that graced their features when they saw him quickly turned to calculating. They’d do their best to figure a way around the agreement, because I was just too tasty to willingly pass up.

 

Oliver waved at the staff, unconcerned as only the powerful tend to be, and led me to a booth at the far end, near a side door and the bathrooms. When we sat and slid across the vinyl, a light pressure enveloped us, like moving through a bubble without popping it, and a rippled of light fell around the booth. It disappeared once we were through, and it was likely a spell to keep curious ears from hearing what was said. Though there was no one else in the diner besides the staff, it helped the knot between my shoulders ease a touch.

 

A female demon, whose uniform was diner waitress meets porn, came over to take our drink order. Her name tag read, ‘Ruby’, and hair to match the name, in a long ponytail, slid across her shoulders when she tilted her head at Oliver. Her star-burst pupils widened, almost enveloping the scarlet of her irises, and she pushed out her ample chest. I was worried the buttons that strained there wouldn’t hold up for much longer. Someone could lose an eye.

 

“What can I get for ya, sugar?” she asked, her voice low and sultry, as the phantom image of a classic demon tail swished behind her. The offer for more than a thick shake and good burger hung on the air like a heavy cloud of incense, heady bordering on dizzying.

 

When a supernatural creature takes on the form of a human, or most of one, I see their true forms as sort of ghost images overlaying the projected human one. Depending on the power level of the entity, would depend on how hard I had to concentrate to see it, if I could at all. Like with my landlord, sometimes it was just flashes.

 

“Water for me, please,” Oliver said, his tone polite, but disinterested. She pouted, and thrust a hip in his direction, but turned with a sigh to me.

 

“Coke, please,” I said. She sashayed off to get the drinks and give us time to look at the menus. After she brought back the beverages, batted her eyelashes a few more times, and took our food order, she wandered away to give us privacy.

 

“Want to tell me what was going on this morning?” Oliver prompted, and I slouched down in my seat, like a kid who got caught doing something wrong.

 

“Yeah, I was trying to get a job when those jerks busted through the front windows,” I grouched, and took a sip of Coke. The carbonation was a nice little burn down my throat, and helped settle my stomach.

 

“Looked like it was more than that,” he pressed. His insistence made me sigh, and look out the window over the deserted parking lot to keep from making eye contact.

 

“I saw a group of Strixes attack a shifter this morning, and I’m guessing it was their packmate. They must have followed my scent to my job interview, and you know the rest,” I finished.

 

I glanced back, and Oliver frowned as he swirled the ice in his drink, lost in thought, until Ruby brought our food. I’d ordered a Turky BLT, and the first bite was pure heaven. There was silence at the table while we ate, but Oliver was chewing on more than his food.

 

“There’s been trouble as of late. Things showing up that don’t usually wander out of the nether, or wherever they come from, and strange things happening in the middle of the day–like the Strixes,” he said, and took another bite of his cheeseburger. He licked some ketchup from the corner of his mouth, and my brain wandered into a place that wasn’t fit for polite company where his tongue was concerned. I might avoid him, and he might irritate me most of the time, but there was no denying the man was incredibly attractive; as Ruby’s behavior could attest.

 

“You could always come work for the Omnies,” he said casually, and all thoughts, horny or not, crashed to a halt.

 

“What?” I breathed, eyes wide. He shrugged, and finished chewing his food.

 

“Your talent would be handy at a crime scene, or for investigating, and I’ve been authorized to make you an offer,” he stated, and pushed the empty plate away. The bell over the door rung, but I barely heard it over the thunderous silence of my mind.

 

I was in such a state of shock, it took me a moment to register the cloud of malice and evil intent headed right for us. As he looked over my shoulder, Oliver’s expression turned from amiable to guarded in less than a blink. Heavy, booted footsteps approached, and my skin crawled with the sensation of insects scurrying over it. I did my best to contain a shudder, and only just managed.

 

Where Ruby had stood to take our orders, a demon in the guise of your typical, leather-clad biker, stopped. He placed a heavy, hairy hand with strength made for wringing the life out of necks, flat on the table, and leaned forward into Oliver’s personal space. The over-image was a gruesome sight, with multiple wicked horns, jagged teeth, green skin, razor sharp claws, and deep-set, bottomless black eyes.

 

“Oliver, I told you you’re not welcome here,” he growled, the sulfur on his breath nearly making me gag. The sound of more boots on the linoleum greeted this proclamation, and my spine stiffened.

 

At least the trouble wasn’t mine this time, but I still sat between multiple demons and the target of their, for whatever reason, barely contained violence.

 

I never should have gotten out of bed, ran through my mind, as the demon at our table sent a fist flying in Oliver’s direction.

 

Fair to Middlin’: Chapter Four

 Chapter Four

 

 

The first crony shifter that rushed Oliver, who sidestepped the charge, got a nice blow to the back of his skull with the Null Stick. Halfway through his change, the Null Stick worked its magic–or rather the lack thereof–and canceled out the energy, magic, or whatever you wanted to call it, of the transformation. The dual-purposes of the Null Stick were for physical violence, as well as canceling all magical energy fields surrounding and/or being used by whoever, or whatever, was the target.

 

Shifters are strong, capable fighters, and since their skeletal structures sport heartier bones the hit did not knock him out. However, being forced to reverse a change and swallow that energy back into his body left him writhing on the ground in agony. One of my rare friends, who happened to be a Snow Leopard shifter, described it as something close to all your bones breaking at once and nerve endings feeling as though they were being flayed. Ouch.

 

Unfortunately for the next two crony shifters, who were close on the heels of the first, they received similar treatment before they had time to register what had happened to their compadre. My breath caught as I watched Oliver move, because shifters are known for their speed–but he was faster, much faster. I knew he wasn’t human, but like my landlord I couldn’t See what he truly was.

 

I’d asked him once what he was, after he’d cajoled me into a highly annoyed state over my penchant for winding up in situations terrible for my continued survival, and he’d simply graced me with an enigmatic smile. The bastard.

 

From five-on-one down to two-on-one, because let’s face it I’m not prize fighter material, Oliver’s chance for victory and mine for walking away with my life had increased. The leader hadn’t charged like the other three, and the one who might be second in command based on the physical position he held in relation to the leader’s, hadn’t either. This meant they were slightly smarter than the average bear, or dog I suppose, and held off from feeling the bite of the Null Stick.

 

“Now, ya’ll can collect your pack mates here and mosey on back to where you came from, or we can draw down and finish this now,” Oliver said companionably, the Null Stick resting nonchalantly on his shoulders, and stance so relaxed you might think he was getting a massage and not fighting a small skirmish.

 

The leader’s eyes narrowed, the same as when I’d mouthed off to him, but he dipped his chin despite the rancor coming off him in waves. Apparently it takes bravado and a Null Stick to get them to back off. I knew I’d been missing something from the equation.

 

Oliver and I backed away so the leader could approach the subordinates, but instead of helping them up, he and the other shifter simply kicked them and let out a few guttural commands. The three downed men, no longer in an altered state, stumbled to their feet in pain and not a little confusion. The pack leader cast one final look my way, and still in his half-shifted state loped toward the other end of the alley, followed by his packmates. This wasn’t over–not by a long shot–and I knew it the way I’d known the Strixes were bad news.

 

“It’d be nice for you to go a week without getting in some kind of trouble. It’s almost a full-time job keeping an eye on you.”

 

“You’d be bored and you know it. Plus, who asked you to go and play ‘knight in shining armor,’ anyway?” I huffed, and turned to face the aggravatingly suave man. He could charm the habit off a nun and not feel an iota of guilt afterward.

 

He chuckled and collapsed the Null Stick, disappearing it back to wherever he had it stashed for quick and easy access. I was always wary of the weapon, because unlike the supernatural community Null Sticks reacted oddly to mids. The one time I’d been touched by one it was like being thrown into a sensory deprivation chamber–I couldn’t see, hear, or feel anything. It was the most terrifying thirty seconds of my life.  

 

Well, at least in the top five, I mulled, coming to the conclusion, and not for the first time, that maybe I needed to reevaluate my situation. I shook my head, partially thankful to be able to put that can of worms off for another day, as well as in response to the man in front of me, and moved to leave the alley.

 

“Care to join me for some lunch?” he asked, halting my escape attempt. I suppressed a grimace; I barely had enough money at the moment to go window shopping, let alone to a restaurant.

 

“Not particularly,” I responded, disinterested tone betrayed by the audible grumbling of my stomach. He didn’t react, which grudgingly earned him some brownie points in my book, though I wouldn’t put it past him to make up for the overlooked opportunity to embarrass me, just at a later date.

 

“I invited you, so it’s only polite that I pay.” He kept his tone and body language mild and neutral, not trying to sway me one way or the other, and it helped me to let go of a fraction of my concern.

 

I made a point to avoid Oliver, though admittedly he was one of the nicer Omnies, as well as anyone that could connect me to the supernatural. It didn’t do well for someone like me, that stood no chance against these things, to advertise I was different. Though with Oliver blabbing my mid nature to the shifters, and the nagging feeling that the omen the Strixes were heralding hadn’t shown its face yet, it was probably better to go with him. Safety in numbers and all that jazz. Also, I’d yet to see anything Oliver couldn’t handle–the man could stay cool as a cucumber in the face of an enraged Minotaur.

 

I let out a long, resigned sigh in regards to the mess I’d landed myself in, and motioned for him to lead the way.

 

“Not particularly,” I responded, disinterested tone betrayed by the audible grumbling of my stomach. He didn’t react, which grudgingly earned him some brownie points in my book, though I wouldn’t put it past him to make up for the overlooked opportunity to embarrass me, just at a later date.

 

“I invited you, so it’s only polite that I pay.” He kept his tone and body language mild and neutral, not trying to sway me one way or the other, and it helped me to let go of a fraction of my concern.

 

I made a point to avoid Oliver, though admittedly he was one of the nicer Omnies, as well as anyone that could connect me to the supernatural. It didn’t do well for someone like me, that stood no chance against these things, to advertise I was different. Though with Oliver blabbing my mid nature to the shifters, and the nagging feeling that the omen the Strixes were heralding hadn’t shown its face yet, it was probably better to go with him. Safety in numbers and all that jazz. Also, I’d yet to see anything Oliver couldn’t handle–the man could stay cool as a cucumber in the face of an enraged Minotaur.

 

I let out a long, resigned sigh in regards to the mess I’d landed myself in, and motioned for him to lead the way.

 

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Fair to Middlin’: Chapter Three

Chapter Three

 

 

I peeked back around the corner of the alley I’d darted into, to make sure the police had their full attention on the store, and let out a gusty sigh. When I shrank back around the edge of the red brick my back thunked against the wall and I slid down, legs finally calling it quits after two close calls. With my forehead resting on my knees and heart rate winding down, I tried to think through my next move.

 

“You!” a voice growled, and I started. Before I tried to identify what was after me I attempted to dive out to the street, and to those wonderful law-enforcement officers I’d been trying to avoid, but whoever they were, they were quicker. A rough hand scraped down my neck in a flash and grabbed the back of my collar. With a yelp they yanked me up and around to look into seething pus-yellow, bloodshot eyes, with a hint of satisfaction of catching their prey–me.

 

“You have some questions to answer, meat, and how you answer is going to determine if I snap your neck before we eat you, or if you’re still alive,” he growled low, and in my face. The stench of rotted meat on his breath caused me gag.

 

“How about I tell you what I know and you let me live?” I coughed out, eyes watering. His eyes narrowed and he gave me a good shake, properly scrambling my senses, all to a chorus of approving growls behind him.  Lovely: an audience.

 

“Mouthy meat.” His voice had grown deeper, and when I looked at his face again, his jaw had lengthened. Hair was slowly sprouting upward and outward from his scruffy black mutton chops, growing between one blink and the next.

 

“She’s always had a mouth on her, I can tell ya that for nothin’.” The voice came from behind me, smooth like gravy with a southern accent thick as pudding, and worse for your heart than both.

 

The man’s eyes shifted over my shoulder and I did the dirtiest, but sometimes most warranted, thing a girl can do to a guy–I kicked him in the nads. It doesn’t matter what manner of supernatural creature a male was, if it had testicles it hurt to have them kicked.

 

He choked and grunted, his grip only loosened slightly, so I bunched a leg toward my chest and kicked against his. I fell down to the ground with a painful ‘umph’ of air, and scrambled backward like a crab toward someone I was only a hair happier to see than the dog shifters in front of me. It wasn’t a dignified movement, but it got the job done.

 

Shifters had more controlled changes than Weres. Once a Were started a change they did it all in one go, whereas shifters could do the slower, more gradual change. It also meant I couldn’t get sick if they’d injured me and on the off chance I got some of their DNA in me. Shifters are hereditary, whereas Weres are made through biting or DNA-on-DNA contact. I couldn’t actually change into a Were, because while I’m not technically a full-blown supernatural I’m not Grade-A 100% human, either. It just made me sick–it’s happened once.

 

Another hand grabbed the back of my collar and hoisted me up to my feet. This was getting old. I turned and spared a brief glare for the devilish smile, warm amber eyes, and curling brown hair that always teased that line of needing a trim.

 

“Leave the girl to us, Omnie, and walk away with your life,” another dog shifter growled, as they all progressed further to a full change.

 

“I don’t reckon I’m gonna do that, boys,” he drawled, and shifted his body just in front of mine. “It’s my job to protect everyone–even the mids like Bad Luck Bell here.” He jerked a thumb at me and I did my utmost to resist punching the guy who just saved me.

 

“Not helpful, Officer Oliver,” I ground out when the dog shifters’ eyes sharpened at the mention of me being a mid. “Also, it’s not Bell, it’s Sophie, you jackass,” I muttered the last under my breath.

 

The dog shifters took a step forward, and at the same time Oliver slid his Null Stick down into the grip of his right hand. With a flick of his wrist it collapsed open, much like an asp, and they hesitated. Maybe they’d back off in the face of the Null Stick; if only I was so lucky.

 

The leader, as evidenced by his larger size and take-charge attitude where my demise was concerned, stumbled to his feet and leveled a murderous snarl my way. A sharp sound came from the street, and like the bell at a race track the dog shifters charged.

 

Fair to Middlin’: Chapter Two

Chapter Two

 

“You’re late,” the man behind the counter proclaimed, and I nodded but didn’t meet his eyes just yet. While it was rude of me, I couldn’t stop staring at the guy’s nostrils. You could fit a quarter in those suckers–the large way. It was difficult to tell if he was flaring them on purpose in response to my irritating tardiness, or if they were stuck that way. When he took a deep breath, lifted his chin–which only enhanced my view because of my short stature–and relaxed his shoulders, his nostrils remained their impossible size. Bummer for him.

“I do apologize about that, Mr. Colville. I was delayed on my way here,” I replied, bowed my head slightly, and broke eye contact to appear properly put in my place. It also gave me a minute to take in the clothing boutique.

While it wasn’t a large store, and therefore not capable of providing an excessively lavish experience, there was a refreshment table, lovely racks holding the gorgeous clothes, a shoe and jewelry section, and a decent-looking dressing room in the back left corner. Not one that has curtains that don’t completely cover the doorways, so you’re always worried someone is seeing a sliver of your rear-end if they look through it; it had lovely dark-stained wooden doors. I caught sight of a price tag out the corner of my eye, did a mental double-take, then had to suppress a low whistle.

It was a little rich for my tastes, though most of the time anything outside of a thrift store was. Budgeting for bills and food didn’t leave much wiggle room for getting new clothes, though you could find some pretty nice stuff in thrift and secondhand stores–if you knew which parts of town to look in.

He gave a snide harrumph and I looked back up at him. His suit was tailored close to his scrawny frame, so he couldn’t completely cross his arms over his chest or he might rip a seam, and it took away from the stern stance he was presenting. Blond hair that was short on the sides and back, but long on the top, was combed toward the front to give him bangs. With an index finger he delicately brushed the bangs from in front of his ash-blue eyes, and brown marbled, thick-framed glasses with an index finger.

“It’s Sebastian, not Mr. Colville, and in the future I expect you to be here at least ten minutes early to review your work orders for the day with Kessa–she’s the head seamstress and she’ll be your direct boss,” he said, and peered at me over the brim of his glasses.

I’d been sewing most of my life, and I’d learned from my mother and grandmother. While most stores these days didn’t have tailoring services, you could usually find them in places like this, for which I was eternally grateful. I was a jack-of-all-trades, of sorts; learning skills as I needed them for new jobs, but I’d always been just a little better at sewing. Apparently, ‘getting into trouble,’ doesn’t count as a viable skill on a resume.

“Yes, sir,” I said, and nodded my head for good measure. He looked me over once again, a sneer curling the corner of his mouth, likely at my wardrobe choice. I did my best not to fidget, reminding myself I was used to the opinions of others coming down hard on my eccentric behavior and, at times, worn clothing. This is no different, I intoned, and I need the job.

I smiled in return to his narrowed eyes and doubtful sneer, and did my best to appear harmless…which might have worked if three large men hadn’t barreled right through the storefront window, quickly followed by two more.

Sebastian ducked behind that counter faster than rabbit darting into its warren. I dove behind a rack of clothing, thankful for its solid, if not pretentious, design, and waited. Adrenaline pounded through me, and I wasn’t sure how much more I could take of the ambushes today. It was getting stressful and weird–even for me.

“Where is she?” a voice growled, and I grimaced. See? Those damned Strixes were bad luck, and I had a sinking feeling I knew the ‘she’ they were after.

Sebastian spluttered, his tongue failing him, and a couple of the men emitted low growls that had the hair standing up on the back of my neck.

“Sh-sh-she wh-who?” he stuttered, finally capable of speech–unfortunately for me. Sebastian didn’t seem overly fond of me, and likely wouldn’t bat an eye at me being taken or killed in front of him. Damn it.

“The girl we know came in here–we can smell her,” the only one who had spoken so far, insisted.

Smell…and I almost thunked my head back on the wood of the rack. They were probably pack-mates of the guy who was eaten earlier, making them some kind of shifter or Were-animal. Yeesh, what rotten luck. It’s not as though I could stand up and explain what happened, that I just happened to be in the wrong place at the wrong time–they’d probably still eat me, given their rage and bloodlust. I hadn’t seen any fur, but when shifters and Weres were this angry a change wasn’t far behind.

Before Sebastian could confirm or deny my suspicions on his character traits, sirens wailed in the background–close. An advantage of crossing one of those crazy wealth-poverty lines of the city, and being in such a hoity-toity part of town, was that the police response time was faster.

A couple of the men let out half-yell, half-howls, followed by a thunk when they dropped what I assumed was Sebastian, and glass crunched as they made their escape. I stood, still shaky, and met Sebastian’s wide eyes with my own.

“Get. Out. Now,” he ground out, and pointed emphatically at the ruined doorway and windows. His tanned skin was pale, and his shocky expression was morphing into something uber-pissed that even a Mountain Troll would be proud of. The front of his otherwise crisp shirt was wrinkled with a couple of broken buttons, from where they were probably holding him in the air, and I winced at the red markings around the base of his neck. It was hard to believe, though, but now that he was angry and truly flaring his nostrils, they were even bigger. Wonders never ceased.

I didn’t say anything, just nodded and carefully my way over the glass to leave the store before the police showed up. Last thing I needed was to be outed as a Mid by any Omnies that would show up, which was bound to happen due to the strength and strange behavior exhibited by the men.

Can’t go back to the apartment. I bit my lip, not a clue where to go, but headed right out of the store just as a crowd was gathering to gawk. I slipped by and made it around the corner just as a police car squealed to a halt in front of the boutique. Despite my predicament I could only sigh–more cup of noodles for me until I could find a job. At this rate, though, I might not live to see the next sunset, let alone my next meal. Some days it just doesn’t pay to get out of bed, in more ways than one.

 

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Fair to Middlin’: Chapter One

Chapter One

 

Nothing good ever happens after three a.m., and I would know–it was when I was born. 3:07, to be exact, because whatever force drives the universe wanted to make sure the nurses couldn’t fudge the times; couldn’t give my parents any hope of having a normal child. Not that it would have mattered if they’d been able to, though, because paperwork does not have as much power as people believe.

This is not a case of mind over matter, where a person can will something, a wish or desire, into existence simply through the power of their denial. The time of my birth is an invisible brand on my mind, body, and soul, forever setting me on a path outside the realm of ordinary.

Even as a slavering Hellhund–visible only to a couple people on the street, me included–bounded down the sidewalk after its prey, I couldn’t say I was complaining. Sure, it was hard to keep a job around the Ords, (ordinary folks), when they couldn’t see the zooming lights of tiny Pixies waging a full-scale, miniature war on the Snarks, or evil Pixies, in the copy room. Difficult for my parents to fully understand why my attention wandered so often in school, because teenage angst attracted Wraiths like Black Friday deals did for bargain shoppers. However, it made for an interesting, albeit bumpy, road that is my life.

It’s not that the Ords don’t know these things exist, because they’ve been made well aware of their presence, but there is a long way from knowing and seeing on a constant basis. I can’t even fathom how awful my life might have been if my parents merely thought me insane. On the other hand, they can sympathize but not empathize. The supernatural forces that had physical forms tended not to announce their presence, and unless you sought them out they left the Ords alone; with only a few exceptions that saw them as snacks. But where Ords were snacks, I was a four-course dinner.

I tucked my head and dropped my eyes to count the cracks in the concrete as I walked, before I caught the attention of the Baba Yaga that used the bus stop in front of my apartment. To Ords she looked like a harmless old woman with a penchant for odd jewelry, but to me her smile was full of sharp, flesh-rending teeth, and the bones that made up her adornments rattled ominously.

The chilly autumn wind made me pull my purple, knitted beanie, a gift from my mother, back down over my ears. It didn’t bode well for my bobbed, copper blonde hair, but it was too damned cold to do without. I was on my way to my next temp job, because as you can imagine it’s not easy for me to hold a permanent job. Something–inevitably–shows up, happens, or tries to kill me. Temp jobs weren’t ideal for most, and could be hard on the wallet, but if you budgeted and scheduled well, the holidays became your bread and butter.

It was the beginning of November, and while people bemoan Christmas coming earlier every year, I could only do a happy little dance with my cup of noodles and praise consumerism. On the other end, though, a new set of post-Halloween nasties come out this time of year. Creatures that crawled from whatever dimensions they called home and gorged on the despair, greed, and depression that went hand-in-hand with the holidays–like bugs feeding on a corpse. But I had to pay the bills, and this time of year tended to do that in spades.

If having a job was the ice cream, then the whipped cream and cherry would have to be having a job within walking distance of my apartment when I didn’t own a car. After swerving to avoid the ghost of a boy that died and haunted a particular stretch of road the DMV used for its tests, and nearly totaling my parents’ car, the instructor, my parents, and I decided to invest in a bicycle.

Mine was in the shop for repairs at the moment, but the new job was only a couple miles away. I’d thrown on my faded, purple canvas shoes with their ratty shoestrings, a fluffy, insulated down jack to match the beanie, jeans, my only nice, bright blue, button-up shirt, and headed out the door. If it sounded like I was a freshly minted twenty year old trying to find my place in the world, you’d be wrong–I was creeping up on thirty with no real direction in my life, and none seemed imminent.

My walk-up apartment wasn’t in the best part of town, but there was something about the landlord, who lived on the first level, that made most creep-a-deeps give the building a wide berth. I’d nodded to the landlord, a man with dark, bushy eyebrows and shaggy hair in need of cut, on my way out, and though he rarely spoke except in monosyllables, he raised a work-roughened hand in acknowledgment. There were times, if I looked out the corner of my eye just right, I’d get a flash of a furry face with a long snout. I never asked him what he was, because I couldn’t think of a polite way to ask, but it made me wonder what else out there could hide from even my Sight?

Other than the relative safety of my building, I’d have to say the best part of my neighborhood were the trees in the middle of the sidewalks, for blocks and blocks. The leaves were turned and falling, in those gorgeous reds, browns, and golds you get in autumn, but there was rarely a leaf to be found on the ground. Even as I blinked, one solitary leaf on the sidewalk ahead of me disappeared faster than I could snap my chilled fingers. The Faeries that called the branches of the trees on our street, home, were exiled from some Fae court or another. In exchange for the Omnies, (a joking nickname short for omniscient, omnipotent, omnipresent, supernatural police), not kicking them back to their part of the Never realms they called their former home, they kept the sidewalks clean.

As for me, well, I didn’t suppose I was useful to anyone except those interested in eating me. Apparently Mids, people sitting on the fence between the supernatural and Ords, tasted delicious; human vintage with an extra ker-pow to get the engines going.

Hunkered down as I was in my coat, combined with the beanie, it took a minute for me to hear the pounding footsteps on the sidewalk behind me. My heart rate picked up speed and I clenched my hands in my pockets. This wasn’t typically an Ord neighborhood, and while the nastier supernaturals that would eat you outright tended to come out at night, the minute you start relying on that fact was the minute you were watching one of them eat your still-beating heart. I didn’t want to turn and look, because at times surviving came down to ninety-percent bravado, but I did so anyway.

There was a man running full-tilt, I’ve-got-a-demon-on-my-heels type of quick, but apart from him moving too fast to be an Ord I couldn’t tell what he was. I cursed under my breath and moved out of his way, putting the trunk of one of the sturdy trees between him and my short, petite form. I peeked just a fraction around the rough bark, and we locked eyes; his yellow, and speaking of some kind of Were or Shifter, with my blue-hazel ones. Just then, a flock of Strixes descended from the sky and fell on him like the ravening beasts they were, tearing into his flesh like a pack of piranhas.

I ducked back behind the tree, thankful for its width, and closed my eyes until it was over. I wasn’t fast enough to not have the image of their red wings buffeting his body and the air, each of them with their four clawed, black legs dragging him down to the ground, while their long, golden beaks started in on the softer parts of his body. The frenzied light behind their sickly, pupil-less, amber eyes gleamed with bloodlust. The screams didn’t lost long, but their brief, sharp sound seemed to echo over the eerily quiet urban landscape. In gang neighborhoods you don’t act witness to the gang activity, and in supernatural territories you keep your nose out of their business–lest you have it ripped off and fed to you.

It didn’t take them long, as there were five of them and only one regular sized guy, before the sound of their retreating wings rushed overhead. Once again I was grateful for the tree, as well as the warm weather we’d had late into this year, since it meant there were still enough leaves left to conceal my presence should they look down.

It was another five, excruciatingly counted minutes after that before I was brave enough to look back around the tree. Strixes closely resembled owls, which meant nary a crumb of bone was left on the sidewalk. All that remained of the man was a good-sized splotch of blood on the concrete. Even as I watched, and blinked, the Faeries got to work again and within another minute there was nothing physical of this man left in this world outside the stomachs of the Strixes and Faeries. Faeries were carnivores, and wouldn’t pass up a blood meal left so generously on their proverbial doorsteps.

I blew out a breath, squared my shoulders, and continued on toward my new job; thankful I’d decided to leave a little earlier than planned, or else I might have joined him in the bellies of the beasts. As I walked, though, I worried at my lower lip and frowned. Strixes were bad omens. Not only because they might very well eat you, but their presence in general signaled bad things to come.

One minute at a time, Sophie, the voice of my closest friend, long dead, rang through my mind; don’t hurry trouble to your doorstep. I sighed, but acquiesced and put it to the back of my mind. I needed to make a good impression on my new boss, who I’d yet to meet except through e-mails, and showing up like someone who seemed in need of a large dose of anti-anxiety medication wasn’t a good way to do that. I continued on, feeling just a hair better, but still keeping one eye on the sky.

Just another beautiful day in the neighborhood.

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  • venteen
  • Final Chapter

 

Hell Bent for Leather, Part Two

Part Two

The address was for a news station, and while they weren’t exceedingly difficult to sneak into, it was still wise to be cautious. Most important of all: make sure you look as if you belong and no one really questions you.

I drove back home to throw on the only suit I owned, and ran the plan by my roommate, Sorren, as well as the price for the job.

“You mean we’ll actually be able to eat something besides Ramen for the first time this month?” he asked, somewhat joking and hopeful.

He was a Half-Fae himself, and since our kind were not looked on with anything but contempt, we tended to congregate amongst ourselves. We formed our own little families since our blood relatives didn’t want us, and if our other half was mortal we tended to outlive that half of our bloodline. Sorren was a couple hundred years older than me. After a while you don’t keep track of the specific number. Essentially, he was the brother I never had.

I punched him lightly on a well-muscled and tanned arm. His handsome face was a shadow of the awe-inspiring beauty some of the Fae possessed, and his hair was the color of night spun into soft curls.

“Yes, hopefully,” I said, and grabbed my purse. He gave me a quick hug, and opened the front door.

“Just be careful,” he replied back, concern lightly coating his tone.

“I’ll be fine.” I threw him a half-smile to reassure him, and got into my car to drive to the news station.

I grabbed two cup holders full of coffee on my way to the station, completely for show. Personally, I hated coffee. Juggling my props as I walked toward the back door, a guy on his smoke break was kind enough to let me in with a swipe of his card. It was always easier to sneak in the back than the front, I’d noticed.

Moving my way toward the dressing rooms, I began my snooping. Whenever someone asked me what I was doing, I feigned confusion, and stammered a different room number, and implied I was an intern of some kind. I’d even snitched some dry cleaning, that I swore I’d return, from a random rack to support the cover. Most rolled their eyes and pointed vaguely toward where I could find the room.

Then I came across a room that made me stop for a moment, wondering. No, it had to be too obvious, right? Sure, Thor’s powers to create thunder and lightning were limiting in concerns to weather, but the jacket was something special.

I had heard a rumor about the jacket a few years ago. It was a gift from Coyote, a well-known Native American trickster god, to Thor, after Thor managed to best him in some game of chance; a game that Coyote was rigging. Coyote was so impressed he presented Thor with the jacket. No one really knows how Thor managed it. I mean, look at how many times Loki, a trickster from Thor’s own pantheon, had gotten the better of him.

Coyote told Thor that the jacket was from Alignak, an Inuit weather and moon god. The word ‘from’ might make it sound like the jacket was a gift or some such. In all likelihood, Coyote stole or tricked it away from Alignak. Coyote told Thor the jacket had a limited version of Alignak’s powers, making Thor more powerful by being able to manipulate and create weather. Augmenting Thor’s powers over lightning and thunder. Thor accepted, and has had it ever since.

Opening the door with the meteorologist’s name on it, there was the jacket hanging on the back of the chair. Interesting concept, I had to admit: a weatherman using Thor’s jacket to help create weather and accurate predictions for his news station.

Slipping the jacket onto a hanger I found in a small closet, I stuck it between two of the dry cleaning outfits and headed out of the room.

Then, of course, my luck ran out.

“Hey! What were you doing in my room?”

When I turned to look, a man was walking hurriedly over to me. He was short, average height and weight, nondescript brown hair set in an atrocious comb-over, eyes to match, and plain features. I could have turned around and forgotten his face seconds later. That was how some gods and goddesses preferred to travel—incognito. Not all of them of course, but since their religions have hit the back burner some of them are attempting to live normal, human lives.

So I made a logic jump.

“Alignak, right? You’re pretty far from the Arctic.”

He stopped a few feet from me, as if someone had jerked him by the back of his shirt. The surprise at hearing his true name caused the illusion of his current form to shimmer, giving me a quick glance at his godly visage. His face was wide with high cheek bones and young. However, a closer inspection showed fine age lines at the corner of his eyes and mouth. Instead of the typical dark brown eye color that borders on black, the eyes that gazed back at me were a light gray. His matte black hair was cut surprisingly short, and his skin was the color of cinnamon.

Once I knew what he was, his aura of power enveloped the immediate area. While it wasn’t imposing, it wouldn’t be easily brushed off, either. There was a tense moment when he was trying to decide what to do about me, when a coworker walked down the hall and hailed him. That broke the staring contest between us, and I relaxed a bit. It wasn’t like I could run off and not cause a scene.

Alignak replied back and said he would be right with them. Turning away from the coworker, he looked back at me, raised an eyebrow, and gestured toward his dressing room; Easy way, or hard way?

I considered my options for a moment, and decided to head into the room like a rational person. It never hurt to be reasonable first and violent later if necessary.

After a few tense moments of sizing each other up, we settled into a hesitant truce. While talking with Alignak, it became clear he wasn’t the one who stole the leather jacket from Thor. In fact, he was just as surprised to see it back in his closet one morning as he had been when it had disappeared from the same closet a few years ago.

Coyote was the one to steal it in the first place, and in spite of Alignak having the jacket for many years and liking it, he didn’t deem an article of clothing worth getting upset over.

“Do you think Coyote gave it back to you to stir up trouble?”

I asked him while sipping on a bottle of water he so generously offered. I was sitting down in a brown fold out chair from the stack against the wall, and he pulled up one not too far from me. If I lunged, it would be just far enough out of my reach to give him time to react. Trusting bunch, supernaturals, weren’t we?

“It is possible—he has been growing bored lately. People just don’t believe in us the way they used to. Even though they’ll shake hands with various supernatural creatures, believing in gods and goddesses is still a little much for them.

“So, the only way for Coyote to get his kicks is by tormenting those who do believe in him—other gods.”

He continued with this line of complaining for a while. There’s nothing like getting someone in the room who believed, and understood, what you were going through. I confirmed a couple of my suspicions, asked to borrow the jacket with a promise to return it, and headed out to see if it was possible to trick a trickster.

****

I called my roommate, running my suspicions and plan by him for the second time that day.

Hearing the sigh on the other end of the line, I couldn’t help a twinge of guilt that twanged in my conscience. What I had planned meant we wouldn’t get paid, and the fridge was running a bit lean while of course the bills were running high. We had recently moved to Jacksonville, so we were still trying to find real jobs while we did these odd jobs in the interim.

“Don’t worry about it, Kella—we’ll get by like we always do,” his deep voice grumbled over the phone line.

“That doesn’t mean I don’t feel bad about it. Who knows, though, maybe we’ll still get paid,” I said, trying to keep a note of hope in my voice. Judging by the snort I heard on the other end of the line, I hadn’t succeeded in reassuring him.

“I’ll call a few ‘people’ up—just be careful,” he said, hanging up the phone. No goodbyes for us.

I was back at the restaurant where I met the demon Thyla earlier. There were only two other people on the porch this time, both of them older gentleman hunkered behind their newspapers on opposite ends from each other.

Paying them no mind, I settled down with a margarita watching the sky darken as the sun dipped below the horizon. It was sending streamers of oranges, reds, and yellows across the clouds in a last ditch attempt to make sure we’d miss it once it was gone. Fat chance of that, I thought, fanning myself with a menu.

I didn’t have to wait long for my guests of honor to show up, though, and they didn’t look particularly happy with my choice in tablemates. The two of them stopped about seven feet on opposing sides from where I was sitting, and began a staring contest that would have done the Wild West proud. All we needed was a tumble weed rolling behind us on the beach and pistols at their hips. Cowboy attire need not apply—I wasn’t into chaps.

My voice broke the silence that had settled over our little corner of the world, and I had to bite my cheek to keep from laughing as they turned identical annoyed frowns my way.

“Loki, Coyote, will the two of you join me, or does a girl have to dine alone?”

Thyla quirked a pleased smile, and her features dissipated like smoke in the breeze, leaving behind an equally pleased Loki.

Loki was certainly a handsome deity, with the difference between this form and Thyla’s being minimal. Everything was paler, and more masculine and mischievous. One glance at Loki and I could understand where the phrase, ‘roguish looks’, came from.

Falling into a chair on my right and laughing, he slouched into the same position I sat in earlier and gave me his best smile.

“You’re always looking for an excuse to wear women’s clothing, Loki,” I said teasingly.

“Guilty as charged. Plus, you caught us at our game. However did you figure it out?”

“I was suspicious about the job, and it wasn’t too hard to figure out once I phoned your friends over there,” I said, nodding my head in deference to the older gentlemen on the porch. Behind Loki, Odin nodded back with a serious expression on his face, but an amused glint in his one eye.

Meanwhile, the other man, Amotken, was plainly showing us how entertaining he found the situation on his age-lined face. He was a creator god, and having been the one to set Coyote on the world supposedly, I guess I could expect no less. He tilted his head in response to me, and the two elder gods went back to reading their papers.

Coyote sat on my left, across the table from Loki. He was the one I had encountered at the news station, not Alignak, and he had also dropped the illusion of his alternate form. Alignak was the real weatherman at the station.

“I’m assuming you called in the parents to make sure we behaved ourselves?” Coyote asked, with a glint in his eyes to match Loki’s.

“Yes, and to make sure you both leave Alignak alone after this. I gave him his jacket back, by the way,” I said to Loki, who shrugged.

“I was only getting it back for Thor to be honest.”

“And I was getting it back for Alignak, since Loki cheated,” said Coyote, shooting a look to Loki. Whether it was admiring or annoyed, I could not tell; mayhap it was a little of both.

Apparently, when Coyote thought he was playing Thor in a game it was actually Loki in disguise as Thor. Loki had heard about Coyote’s plans and was not pleased that a trickster from another pantheon was meddling in his, so he decided to play a trick of his own. Loki gifted the jacket to the real Thor, but Coyote found out. Coyote then duped the jacket from the real Thor, and Loki hired me in turn get it back; because Coyote would be on the lookout for Loki.

“What made you suspicious?” Coyote asked, curiosity threading through his question.

“Loki coming in demon form did. None of them would ever be caught dead with me, and if they were caught, in all likelihood they would be dead,” I said, giving a small smile to Loki. He just laughed and nodded.

“Ah well, I guess the game had to come to an end. Truce?” Loki held out his hand to Coyote and the two of them shook.

“Will I still be paid?” I asked as I looked over to Loki again, but no one was there. All four of them had vanished like food near a hungry seagull.

I sighed, finished my margarita, and headed to my jeep. It was probably the last little splurge I could do while I waited for another job to come in. Good deeds never go unpunished, especially by the gods.

 

~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~

Hell Bent for Leather, Part One

Hell Bent for Leather, Part One

Part One

The start of a headache pounded behind my eyes, and I looked over at my companion. The sensation was not going away and neither was she.

Graced with a natural, All-American girl beauty that conjured images of a preacher’s daughter, she was average height and slender. She wore jean cut-off shorts, sandals, and a sheer peach tank top with a white bikini top underneath. The outfit cost more than four of my own combined; all to show off a nice, even tan she likely paid too much for. Who pays for a tanning bed when you live in Florida?

She had a heart-shaped face, button-cute nose, deep dimples, and needed almost no excuse to flash a white smile that showed teeth belonging in an orthodontia commercial. To top it off, her hair was a natural golden wheat blonde with just enough curl to give a bouncy appearance, and her eyes were the blue of cornflowers. Just gag me with apple pie now.

We received our fair share of glances from both genders. Correction, she got the appreciative glimpses with a double-take. When they saw me, they likely wondered what this girl was doing hanging around with someone so below her class.

That is not to say I’m hard on the eyes, but compared to what was sitting across from me I’d go out on a limb and say I paled in comparison. Almost in a true sense of the word.

My jeans were a faded dark wash, ragged, and torn in places. Not through design, but work, play, and the lack of caring to go shopping for new ones. Worn flip-flops graced my feet, and a faded black t-shirt that had a few holes advertised a café I frequented. It hung a little loose from my frame, sure, but these days loose consisted of anything not skin-tight.

Where her hair had the blonde that most chased in a bottle, my hair color could not be mistaken for anything but white as the driven snow. It stayed pulled back in a braid to keep it from spazzing out in the humidity, and the tip brushed right between my shoulder blades. Given the chance, and freedom, I could look like a walking dandelion inside of five minutes out my door.

My own tan wasn’t half bad, though I would assume the word golden comes to mind instead of brown. It was a pale gold that echoed the skin color of my human mother. It was the only thing I inherited from her, along with just enough mortal blood to put a target on my back.

I was more athletic than slender, so my body wasn’t soft like hers. My eyes are the same light blue as a husky’s, set in a triangular face that doesn’t smile enough—or so I’ve been told.

However, if people look below the aesthetics for more than a couple minutes, they might be able to sense something wrong with the woman across from me. Of course, that was the whole point in looking the way she did, wasn’t it? People weren’t likely to look beyond the gorgeous exterior. It worked for models. Most of them were some kind of supernatural or another, like Succubi, and no one cared a whit.

The breeze rustled the palm trees not twenty feet away, but didn’t seem to reach the porch of the restaurant. The air sat stagnant around us, as if we were in the swamp instead of a stone’s throw from the beach. Some of the other patrons were fanning themselves with their menus.

A perpetual cloud hung over us, and it left the area in more shadow than anywhere else on the sunny afternoon. The other people were also sitting as far away from us as they could manage, and they likely did it without realizing. Certain supes—supernaturals—tend to have that affect over their surroundings and normal humans. The more powerful the supe, the more powerful the effects. I was betting the lovely girl across from me was one of the nastier kinds.

Her evil aura pushed out anything good for a certain radius, and it was all contained in that cute little unassuming bundle. Once a person knew what to look for, that shining smile had more sneer than cheer, and her bright eyes held a cold sheen of cruelty. Mayhaps Little Miss All-American was a demon. I didn’t run into those too terribly often.

There were two ways a demon came to walk around on Earth: inhabit the body in conjunction with a corrupt soul, (which wasn’t too hard to come by these days), or manifest their own body. I could not sense anything in her that indicated there was a soul hanging about, shoved to the side, so I grudgingly had to admit that she was a powerful one. Only demons of a certain level could manifest their own bodies.

When she spoke, her voice was happy, upbeat, and completely insincere.

“Well aren’t you just the prettiest little half-Fae this side of the Abyss, Kella? Who’d have thought you’d have the looks to go along with all that yummy power? Despite, of course, from what I hear on the grapevine about you being half-human.”

I didn’t even bother glaring at her—it wouldn’t do me any good, and it would only make her happy. However, I couldn’t help rolling my eyes.

“Before you continue your insincere and snarky observations, Thyra—if that’s even your name—keep in mind that you called me here, and I have no qualms walking away.” My voice was calm, unconcerned, and bored as I reclined back in my chair. I crossed my legs at my ankles, and folded my hands across my stomach with my elbows resting on the arms of the chair.

What I said was mostly true; I could just walk away, but of course I was curious. Demons didn’t usually look me up for a couple of reasons. Despite what mainstream media believed, Fae and demons didn’t usually mix. We intermingled about as well as oil and water. For me there was another reason entirely.

Thyra pouted, even sticking out her lower lip for effect.

“You’re just no fun, you know. I thought the half-Fae ballsy enough to lay waste to the Demon King would be more interesting,” she said, leaning forward and putting her chin in her hand. I could see the expectant look in her eyes, as she hoped her words would provoke a reaction. They did, but none I would let her see.

It was a fluke that’d I won out over one of the Demon Kings. He’d been trying to sacrifice me to gain the attention of my father—who couldn’t summon a fatherly feeling toward me if someone held an enchanted object to his head that was capable of killing him. No one was likely to save me, and I wasn’t into the whole damsel in distress thing, so I snagged the knife he was about to use on me. Not thinking me a threat, he’d left it on the table next to me. Who knew that daggers made to kill Fae worked just as well on demons? The only thing that saved me as I escaped, was that no one had believed what I’d done.

I could tell by her words she was a juvenile when it came to her race, and thought she was hot stuff coming to visit me. I was like a bogeyman to young demons. Which was silly—I hadn’t killed any demons before, or since, the King; and all this happened a couple hundred years ago, give or take a decade.

“If you’ve come here to hash out grievances that are older than you, then I really am leaving. If you have actual business, state it.”

I leveled my gaze at her, and kept my face unsmiling. Her pout deepened for a moment and then vanished into a smile that said, ‘geez, I was just kidding’. Mentally shaking my head, I wondered who they were breeding down there to get demons like this.

“Fine, down to brass tacks then. I want you to find Thor’s leather jacket and bring it to me. I have a buyer lined up and ready for the purchase. It disappeared a few days ago, and I’d like to get it before Thor finds it again. I’ve heard you are, at times, willing to…creatively acquire objects.”

It took a second for my brain to catch up, and I did a long blink trying to process the information. She was hiring me for a job. Interesting, and not at all what I was expecting. I generally kept my services on the legal side of the tracks. There were times–when I was broke–that I’d take a little walk on the proverbial dark side.

“Last I heard Thor was spending his time running around with a biker gang in Montana, having a grand ole time. While I don’t mind traveling, that’s a bit outside my range. Is the jacket here in Jacksonville?” I asked, and took a sip of my cold water. The condensation left a thick ring of liquid on the table, and I ran my fingers through it, thinking.

Deities, also known as gods and goddesses, existed in this world. They weren’t as powerful as what ruled above us, but most of them were still fairly spunky for beings that hadn’t been worshiped in a while.

She nodded at my question, tossed me an address written on a piece of paper, and continued to explain.

“When a deity wears a certain article of clothing for a long time, it creates a connection with them. If a person puts on the clothing, they are able to use some of the powers of the deity.”

“So your buyer has a death wish then? I can’t imagine Thor will be happy to know someone has his favorite jacket,” I said, musing aloud.

She only shrugged and glanced away, inspecting her manicure. Demons with manicures. The state of the world really was going down the toilet.

“I don’t care what happens to the client after I get my money and hand off the jacket. That’s their problem. I will, however, take advantage of acquiring it from a less resistant target than Thor himself. Are you going to get it or not?”

“Sure, I’ve got nothing else on my plate right now.” Not to mention, as I said, I was curious and broke. A deadly combination, if any.

“Good, I need it by tonight. Think you can handle that?”

“I’ll try my best, but unless the address is where the jacket currently is I make no promises,” I said, and shrugged.

“That was the last place I heard it was at. If you can’t get it, my buyer walks, and this is an item I’d prefer to sell with discretion. I’ll make it worth your while if you manage to get it.”

We spent a few minutes, haggling on the price. I had a few numbers in mind that included potential hazards to life and limb for the job, as well as the difficulty level. She had a few numbers in mind as well, and of course they were well below my numbers. Once we reached an agreeable amount, in cash, we rose from the table and shook on it.

“Ciao,” she said, tossing her hair back and walking away. I looked down at the address, and wiped the condensation off on my jeans.

Well, this is going to be interesting.

~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~
Hell Bent for Leather, Part II

Evil is as Evil Does, Part Two

Part II

I sat in front of the demon and crossed my legs, just outside of kicking range. At least the child’s legs weren’t long. Dash took up his post near me, but not close enough to invade my personal space. He kept an eye on the townfolk around us. There were times people would attack us, or the possessed person. Or we’d even have an onlooker become possessed because of their own weaknesses. Once I began purifying, I’d be almost defenseless. That’s why Shadows doubled as bodyguards. Purifiers left defenseless didn’t last long.

I set the used black candle down to my right, and dug a box of matches out from my bag. I kept them in a waterproof leather pouch, because it was important to keep them dry. There were times when we roamed between settlements, and all that stood between us and the dark was our fire. Not just the dark of night, but the dark of spirit and evil. Fire was one of the most purifying forces in our world, bringing both life and death. It was a force to be respected and feared; not only by humans, but by forces both good and evil.

I pulled out a match, struck it, and lit the candle. Black wasn’t always an evil color. It represented one of the strongest colors for protection. I opened my book, and stuck it underneath my knee to keep it that way. I never wrote out complete prayers, because each situation is unique in some way.

“As fire burns, so burns the purity of this child’s spirit, and you shall not darken that flame with your evil essence, demon. I call upon the power of the Phoenix, and as the fiery bird burns away in this life, so do you burn, demon. As it is reborn from the ashes, so, too, will this child rise from this unharmed and renewed.”

A hot wind rushed against my back, like a bird beating its wings. The candlelight whipped and flared brighter for a moment. This time the demon didn’t howl, but screamed in pain.

The group around us flinched. “Steady on,” Dash said in barely more than a whisper.

Next came the knife. Despite its age, the honed blade was sharper than my uncivilized tongue. I’d inherited it from my mother, another Purifier, who’d died when she’d placed her trust in the wrong Shadow. It was also how I’d gotten the scar.

With the light pressure of the blade, I cut a paper-thin line across my palm. It would scar and join the others there. I rarely resorted to this type of cleansing, because it was dangerous for the Purifier. I had a bad feeling about the town. This girl didn’t deserve to die because of whatever stupid shit the adults around her were doing.

I turned over my journal, and scooted unceremoniously over to her side. I leaned away from her; it wouldn’t do to have her bite me. I mimicked the cut on the palm of the girl, and the murmurs rose again. Dash shifted behind me, his movement making the floorboards creak. The voices died down. He sure was nifty to have around.

When I placed the cuts together, and grasped her hand tight in mine so she couldn’t wiggle free. The noise that rose from her made the previous sounds mere whispers in comparison. My words didn’t need to reach anyone’s ears but the demon’s. No matter how much noise it made it could not block out the words of a Purifier.

“Let blood call to blood. Though you are not blood of my blood, you are blood as I am blood—human. Let the divinity in my blood as a Purifier, proclaimed by a Wanderer, wash this young girl free of the demon’s essence.”

Now the demon cried. Great, pitiful sobs that came out broken through the girl’s damaged chords.

“I shall not repent, and you shall not have her, Purifier. I will take her, screaming into the abyss!” The demon turned toward me and spat.

I didn’t flinch. Instead, I released the child’s hand after a final squeeze. I wiped my cheek against my shirt. The spittle had begun to burn my skin, but not with an intensity it would have before I began the purification. We were getting somewhere.

Whether I could get them apart remained to be seen.

Next came the bone, passed down through generations in my family. Hundreds of years ago, all manner of beings, both evil and divine, of all the varying religions, came down onto the earth. Some good deities identified people they believed to be worthy. The divine good guys, known as Wanderers, equipped the human good guys with certain artifacts. One of which was rumored to be this rib bone—supposedly taken out of the body of an angel, by an angel. Etched into it were markings no one could identify for me. I was sure they were some language even our ancestors may not recognize, because they were not of this earth.

The markings glowed faintly in the presence of the demon. Flickering, as though illuminated by a silver fire.

“Bone of a Wanderer. Ancient as time itself. Let its divine aura repulse the creature of evil present here, and resonate with the child’s soul,” I said, and placed the bone on the child’s lap. No matter how the demon moved or wiggled, the bone stayed in place. Drawn to the demonic aura like a magnet.

Next came the pouch of rock salt, given to me by a devout witch. As were the two leather pouches it came in. One was large, to carry the bulk of the salt. The smaller one I used during purifying. It was tooled with enchantments to fuse the salt with power. To trap the essence of the demon once it was drawn into the pouch.

I opened the drawstring of the top of the bag wide, and cupped the pouch in both hands beneath the nose of the demon.

“Draw the demon’s essence from her, as drawing poison from a wound. Let it come to rest in this salt, one of the greatest purifying agents found in this dimension, and all those betwixt and between. Let it be your prison, until you are released for a final death, demon,” I growled, my long-ago damaged chords making it painful to speak.

It let out a single throaty chuckle, and looked me in the eye before dissipating.

“My kind are not the only ones capable of evil roaming these lands, Purifier. Remember your history. Know the evil of humans has long persisted without the aid of my kind…” it whispered out, and the salt turned black in the pouch. I drew the strings tight so fast that they hummed, like the plucked string of a cello.

The girl’s head lolled forward, exhausted, and quiet sounds of pain began to escape from her lips. I lifted her head, and bade her to drink some of my holy water. She grimaced, but didn’t scream, which meant I hadn’t drawn the demon out completely. I sighed and looked to Dash, who gave a grim nod in return.

The adults around us broke the circle, and continued their murmuring, growing more uneasy. That didn’t sit well with me, and when the mayor came in the girl tensed behind me. I hadn’t known she’d looked up, but she had.

She tried to speak, but it came out as nothing more than a cough. I gave her more water, this time the regular kind, and leaned in close to hear her speak. It was a scant few words, but they chilled me down to my soul. I looked up to Dash.

“We aren’t finished.” He looked from the girl, to me, and nodded.

I ‘deputized’ the majority of the townsfolk, which wasn’t difficult once they heard what happened. Any of the offenders who tried to escape were quickly run down. We rounded up the elders, all of whom had stayed behind to form the circle. They were trying to avoid this exact situation. Also on the list were the child’s mother, father, and the leader of the town. I locked them in the meeting house, deaf to their screams, and pleas for mercy.

The actions of a Purifier in the face of evil were above reproach. What these people had done was evil. Human, or not.

The mother and father took the girl outside of the wards, where the elders and leader were waiting. They allowed the girl to be possessed. To see if they could use the demon for free, strong labor in exchange for keeping the girl.

I set the meeting house on fire. We remained until there was nothing but ash, stone, and the occasional bone smoldering in the ruin.

The girl was sitting in front of Dash, who was on his horse. She would be coming with us, now an outcast as all Shadows were outcasts. Leaving behind everything she knew would be difficult, but it was better this way.

We turned the horses to head north, back toward the place we called home. I thought back on the demon’s words; “My kind are not the only ones capable of evil…”

Indeed not. Bless it all, we should be better than the demons! The monsters in the dark. Even though it was our right as humans to choose our own path. Free of the influence of the evil, or divine, who now roamed the land.

I rolled my shoulder and grinned tiredly back at Dash, who returned the smile, just as worn down. I’d just have to stick around to make sure we could continue to make that choice, too old for this or not.

 

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Evil is as Evil Does, Part One

Part I

They used to say the greatest trick the Devil ever pulled was getting people to not believe in him. As I hold the gaze of the girl with black eyes in front of me, I wondered how the people from years gone-by could have ever been so ignorant.

The demon-possessed child alternated between the expected, extreme states of behavior. Gnashing her little, razor sharp teeth. Howling like an enraged beast. Growling like the rumble of rocks grinding together in a landslide. Or falling so silent at times, it raised the hairs on the back of my neck. Noises like that should never come from a human, let alone a four year-old who weighed just shy of three stone.

She spent much of her time straining and railing against the chains engraved with religious markings. As a result, her torn skin was bleeding and covered in ugly bruises. When the real girl’s mother begged me to loosen the restraints I’d sent her from the room. It took three grown men to haul her out, but they got it done.

Sometimes the demon let the real girl come forward, or acted like it had. It was then she begged us to stop hurting her, and how she wanted her mommy and daddy. When it happened the first time, I had to send the father from the room. It never paid to have the parents present. They always insisted, and I almost always had to remove them.

My mouth was set in a grim line as the girl went from a quiet period back to the yowling. Her transformed teeth continued to rip her small, cupid-bow lips to shreds. These tantrums weren’t unusual for her brand of demon, a type of berserker class known as the Enraged. They were just one kind out of thousands, but common for possessions. They didn’t usually take children, though. Even though their powers amplified their host’s body, there was still only so much it could do with such a form. Leverage and musculature in such a tiny body had its limitations compared to an adult’s. They usually only possessed children as a last resort. When they were cast from one body and were too weakened to return to the Abyss. Or when they were trying to use the child to get to a stronger host.

They were also more along the line of foot soldiers. They followed the orders of higher ranking demons, or sometimes a different nasty altogether, and rated rather low on the intelligence scale.

“Do you think you’ll be able to get it out of her?” a strangled voice asked behind me.

I was squatting not far from where the girl rattled the chains connected to a post inside the common hall. I pivoted on the balls of my feet to face the village leader. A squat and sweaty man, his hands were nervous as he clutched at a wide-brimmed hat. His anxiety trembled in his voice, and came out at a higher than normal pitch. I leveled a hard look at the man. If my demeanor were any colder, there’d be ice crystals on the floor. What they’d done was unforgivable.

“It has its claws in her deep. I can feel her soul and its essence resonating close together. It’s going to take a lot to get them untangled. Even then I won’t guarantee her survival. It’s been in her more than three days, and I have no idea how it took ya’ll that long to notice. Or why you hadn’t gone for help,” I said with a heavy rasp, reprimanding him and those around us.

The thick scar from where my right collarbone and shoulder connected, all the way up and across to behind my left ear, was a reminder of my own stupidity. The knife-wielding demon cut through my vocal chords, among other things. Only the best healer left to the midlands–once known as the central United States–was able to keep me alive.

Even then he’d been limited in what he could do about my voice. On bad days I couldn’t get out a couple of sentences before it was too painful to speak. The muscles seizing up like the world’s worst cramp. Today was a good day, but bless it all that I had to spend it talking about what was in front of me, and I didn’t mean the demon.

Three days was the limit to how long a soul could stay completely separate from a demon’s essence. After that they started to merge, making it more dangerous and deadly to remove the demon as time went on.

What I wanted to know was how the demon had been able to bypass all the wardings and alarms, as well as how the people around her remained oblivious to the signs. There were a few obvious ones common to all demons, and they were evident in the girl.

What used to be curly, flame red hair, was now greasy, limp, and falling out in clumps. Not to mention her eyebrows were completely gone. The strong energy given off by nasty creatures inhabiting a human body tended to cause full-body balding. Other signs were teeth sharpening and lengthening. Nails thickening and hardening into claws. Radical behavior changes. Last but not least: the eyes. Depending on what type of demon it was, would depend on what color their eyes were. All of which would have happened within hours of the girl’s possession. Demons tended to work quick and dirty, and their presence was usually spotted fast. Thank God for that small favor.

I had double-checked the alarms and wards on the edges of town, making sure they went all the way ‘round. They were solid. Which meant the girl was infected outside of town limits, and she never should have been beyond those boundaries.

Children, while not always the best hosts, were like flames to evil’s moth. Even a blessed symbol of some sort, or any manner of religious protection, was not a guarantee of protection for them. They needed to be behind solid protective forces, guarded by the wardings anchored into the ground and buildings around them. Adults hoarded children behind such shields, like dragons from stories hoarding precious gold and jewels.

Something wasn’t right here. The whole town stunk of fear beyond what the current situation warranted. They knew something, but my status as a Purifier had sealed their lips. No matter how much concern they showed for the girl, I knew they wouldn’t talk. Well, at least not without any incentive.

“Is it that bad, Vala?” A deep voice to my left rumbled. I turned again to face my companion of a decade. His worried, cinnamon brown eyes were so unlike my icy blue ones, which I supposed was a physical representation of how different our personalities were. They were set in a face with a strong jaw and somewhat crooked nose. The nose came from getting in the way of too many oncoming fists–some of which I’ll admit were due to my smart mouth.

“It doesn’t look good, Dash.” I sighed, turning away from his comforting presence to face the malevolent eyes of our enemy. “Their resonance level is high. Even if I can cast him out, I risk tearing her soul to shreds. Or worse, leaving some of his essence behind,” I said, sliding a sympathetic glance his way. Understanding and sadness filled his eyes.

Dash, whose large, strong frame was in opposition with his name until you saw him move, was a Shadow. A Shadow was someone who had demonic essence mixed in with their souls, but the majority of whatever made up the demonic entity was gone. There were a few ways this could happen. A person could be born of a demon-possessed human male, and a non-possessed human female. They could volunteer to have demon essence implanted in their soul by a holy person. Or, they come from a Purifier not being able to completely extract the demon, which is what might happen with the girl.

Dash came from the first, and rarest, kind. His mother was forcibly taken by her demon-possessed husband, and she’d been able to carry to term. Most women miscarried such pregnancies, or both of them died in birth. Dash was rare in more ways than one: his mother was still alive, he was a born Shadow, and he wasn’t corrupted. Most people in Dash’s position weren’t good guys, and as a result Dash was a pariah among pariahs. No one likes Shadows of any kind, because any kind of demonic taint means you’re evil to most. For Purifiers like me they are beyond useful, because they can sense and track demons.

That was how we found this town and this girl. Demons and Shadows can sense each other, because their essence and power exist on similar wavelengths.

Dash had gotten what equated to a demonic signal fire, and off we went. The more essence in a soul, the stronger the Shadow, and the greater the distance they can sense. Dash, being a born Shadow, has a radius of roughly a hundred to two hundred miles. There were plenty of variables that effected distance, but the main one was the power level of the demon. However, I’ve never met a Shadow who can sense as far, or as accurately, as Dash.

“You are a traitor!” the demon growled to Dash, who paid him no mind. Demons will say anything to prolong their time here, usually by drawing you into an argument, or sparking your interest in what they have to say.

I made a shooing motion to Dash. He nodded and backed up. Then he slid my work bag over to me, and the rough canvas hissed across the wooden floor.

I sat back on my heels, my knees grinding into the floor, and opened the bag. I pulled out my supplies. A weather-worn, leather-bound book. A small, age-tarnished knife with a black, wooden handle. A yellowed rib bone from a priest. Salt in a leather pouch. A used black candle, and a glass holy water bottle with the visage of Archangel Michael. I set them down near, but not too close, to the demon.

I made a bun with my long braid and pinned it at the nape of my neck, to keep it out of the demon’s reach. I stood and stretched out, my knees creaking from kneeling and squatting too long. Or maybe it was age. Though I’d never admit it out loud, I was getting too old for this.

I was only twenty-eight, but that was getting to the end of a Purifier’s usual lifespan. For a variety of obvious reasons, we tended not to be around too long. They weren’t kidding when they said to beware an old man in a profession where men tend to die young.

“Everyone who has a weak stomach, weak will, or weak faith in whatever your religion is, get out of here. Anyone leftover form a loose circle around us, and stay out of my way. Things are going to get ugly, and if you mess me up this girl will die for sure. Get the healer, or whoever, on standby. Now,” I said. My raspy voice caused everyone to go silent enough that even those in the back of the building heard me.

About three-quarters of the people filed out, including the leader. Someone wasn’t going to get re-elected next time it came up. A short woman with greying hair and the white robes of a healer, stayed at the edge of my vision.

Those remaining formed the circle. After the door closed, and everything went silent, I rolled up the sleeves of my dark, blue-dyed cotton shirt.

“Let’s get this show on the road, then.”

Though they weren’t the sharpest demons in the shed, the Enraged demons weren’t completely stupid, either. They just lacked the finesse of some of their brethren. They tended to follow the mantra of brawn over brain. They did know some rudimentary psychological tactics to get what they wanted. Such as when the demon would have the girl cry for her mother and father.

Every demon knew, though, what was to come when a Purifier showed up. It started growling at me, and trying to get its feet under it for some leverage. The townsfolk had chained it to the post so that its arms were taut, so the best it could manage was to cross its legs. The chains were common in such settlements, though most places this size only kept one pair. If more than one person became possessed at a time, there was usually no hope for them. They were too small to have a full-time Purifier on hand, and needed ot travel to closest ‘big’ town.

The first thing I grabbed was my book. The demon’s eyes darted over to it, and fear set into every line of the body it was possessing. It snarled at me, but I paid it no mind. Fear was one of the fastest ways for demons to get into your mind.

I held the worn leather in a tight grip for a moment. The familiar cracks and smooth portions as recognizable to my touch as my skin. It was the book where I wrote my prayers. Every prayer a Purifier used had to be new, and once used it was no longer effective.

At first, years ago, the majority of the world didn’t notice when the prayers stopped working. There were but a handful who did; those who battled what could be considered demons and evil forces of those times. Spirit versions of the monsters we now experienced in the flesh. It was those few who noticed their blessings stopped working, that they couldn’t drive away evil or help spirits pass over. It wasn’t long before the fragile dam keeping all the nasty things at bay, broke.

“Your kind has fallen, Purifier. You are merely kept around to amuse us, and breed further amusements.” It cackled, a phlegmy sound in the back of its throat. Just as I told Dash to do, I ignored it. Giving them a reply was a way for them to try and get in. I had physical precautions on my person against such things, but they were only as strong as a person’s will and faith. If you started having conversations with demons, they tended to make you believe up is down. Black is white. Or how great it would be for you to let them in.

“Those of you who stayed, say prayers to whatever god your settlement has laid into the foundations of your wards,” I rasped into the silence. A well-used prayer wasn’t strong enough to fend off a nasty, or cast it out of a possessed person. However, a well-used prayer amplifies off the wards, the sense of community, and the number of people saying the prayer. Its utility and strength lay with giving a power boost to a Purifer. Even though the power of this community would be weak, something was always better than nothing.

“You can sit down, stand, and do what you need to do, but don’t break the form of the circle.” Nods from everyone there, acknowledging my words. It didn’t mean they’d listen, but I’d do my dandiest to make sure they didn’t mess this up.

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Evil is as Evil Does, Part II