“Another one, gramps.”
I tap the empty shot glass in front of me as I sip on a bottle of some micro-brewed water. Somebody, somewhere, killed someone to get the word beer included on the label, I am sure of it.
Terry grins and pulls the bottle of Jameson from amidst the other liquors. It isn’t the best booze in the world but I forgot to celebrate Saint Patrick’s Day this year. Much like every other year.
“Something wrong, love?” the bartender winks at me. Tonight he is wearing a buttoned-up dress shirt, dusty rose, with the sleeves rolled up halfway to his elbows. It looks like the edge of a tattoo is visible, peeking out from under the right sleeve, but it could have been a scar. I don’t ask, but he sees me looking at it.
“Have you ever seen a tiyanak?” I pour a shot from the bottle, watching the whiskey slosh in the tiny glass with some enjoyment. Terry shakes his head as the shot glass turns from clear to amber. “Fucker from the Philippines that looks like a child so it can lure you in and eat you. Somehow one snuck out the Underworld on this side of the world and started leaving corpses all over the city. I took care of it; another contract done for the little man downstairs.”
I flick my head back and down the whisky. I don’t know how many I’ve had but it’s starting to make me feel better.
“You know it isn’t a real child, right?” Terry pours another for me. “Just a creature that managed to drag itself up from some pit.”
“It damn well looked like a real kid.” I know what Terry is saying makes sense, but I still can’t get the image of my sickle coming down on what looked like someone young enough to be swooning over sparkling vampires.
Terry’s hand is suddenly on my forearm. His touch is warm, almost unnaturally so. But it feels good. I look up and lock eyes with him. Damn he’s hot. There is a sudden, yet subtle, spark in his eye. For a fraction of a second, Terry is staring at me but looking past me at the same time.
“Boss wants to see you,” Terry smiles as he turns away. The warmth in my arm disappears, replaced by the almost numbing cold that I’m used to. The bartender turns back and places a highball glass in front of me. This time the liquor he pours is a brilliant, shimmering blue. Arcanum.
“The other you is cuter anyway,” I mutter before downing the drink. The liquid galaxy touches my lips, burning my insides as I drink it down. The universe itself bends and warps, almost tearing at the seams. I close my eyes to shut the terrible sight out. I swear I hear Terry’s voice asking which one?
Suddenly the air becomes dense and hazy and I know that I have made it to the less-savoury version of the Albion’s bar. I open my eyes and look around, taking in the beautiful sights of the Underworld.
Contractors fill the bar to the brim, some standing in between tables as they drink and yell at each other over the raspy tunings of Proud Mary blaring from the jukebox. People ranging from their twenties to their seventies - at least, that’s how old they appear - sit with one another, both men and women, and others that don’t fall into either category. Every now and then there is a sup, someone with an aura of energy or a third eye on their forehead. Clawed fingers tap impatiently on the bar next to me. Somehow their annoying scratching is louder than anything else.
“Nelson,” I say without looking at the owner of the claws.
“Claire,” the voice is deep and rumbling, like thunder.
“Ruined anyone’s crops lately?” I flag down Underworld Terry who brings over the bottle of Jameson without me having to say a word. This one is in a scorched bottle, the liquid more of a crimson than the one the other Terry was serving. I know it tastes better. “Or did you get your fill of virgin sacrifices?”
Nelson’s fingers clench into a fist. The contractor is a Son of the Storm, supposedly a descendant of Thor. His skin is a greyish blue, like the sky before it rains. Every now and then the blood in his veins flashes like lightning. His long, unkempt hair is always shifting, charged with energy. And his name isn’t Nelson.
“You know very well that a Son has not accepted a sacrifice in centuries,” the man shifts so he faces me. “I just don’t like it when freaks like you show up.”
“Take a look in the mirror, Nelson.”
“I might be a supernatural as well, but at least we know what I am. What exactly are you, Lafleur?”
“Well, to start,” I throw enough money on the bar to cover the Underworld drink and my tab with the other Terry and toss a wink to this one for good measure, “I’m a goddamn badass. But you wouldn’t know anything about that, would you?”
I hear the Son groan as I stand up. Everyone’s a critic, even descendants of deities. I can hear a handful of greetings and cheers as I make my way through the bar. The air is thick with smoke exhaled from weary lungs. Every now and then my step slows, the beer and other crap on the floor doing its best to cling to my boots. Those who do not hail me as I walk past do their best to avoid my gaze. Nelson is right, we don’t know who I am, or what I am. I borrow the next full shot glass I see and return it empty.
It is much quieter in Rocco’s office.
“Alright Bugsy, let’s make this quick,” I close the door behind me. It’s not uncommon for the two of us to raise our voices at each other.
“You know, Claire, a little respect would go a long way for you.” Rocco is sitting in a battered leather chair behind his desk, his feet propped up. The spectre looks too comfortable beneath that picture of dogs playing poker. That damned picture.
“Let me know when you’ve earned it. And I’ve told you not to call me Claire down here.”
“Funny, I don’t recall you being the boss. If you had spoken to me or my crew like that when I was alive, you would have wished you were capable of dying.”
“Did I come here to listen to you ramble about your golden years, or do you have something for me?”
I don’t know what I ever did to piss Rocco off, and I don’t know what he did to piss me off, but this is generally how our conversations worked. Mutually pissed off and blessedly short.
“Straight to business,” he sat up, taking his glowing, ethereal feet off his desk. “At least you have one redeeming quality.”
He leans forward and hits a button on the keyboard of his computer. Before I could blink, my phone buzzes in my pocket.
“And it isn’t even my birthday,” I pull the device out and thumb it until the contract shows up.
“This one is different than the usual.” Crap, he is using his serious voice.
I quickly skim over the notes until my eyes settle on one line.
“You know I don’t do this shit,” I go to reject the contract. Give me a monster any day, I enjoy ending those evil sons of bitches. But people? I don’t kill other people. “Give it to one of the sups out there.”
“Lafleur, you are a sup.”
“You know what I mean.”
“Listen, Claire - Nightshade - I cannot trust them with this. These humans have formed a coven and they are sacrificing their own kind. Kids. They are less human than you or I.”
My thumb is hovering over the digital fuck you button on my phone. The image of that kid, or rather the tiyanak that looked like a kid, flashes in my head. It had been hard for me to bring my sickle down on that beast, even when I knew that it was a killer. Now these pricks are doing it for fun.
Rocco gets a message on his monitor confirming that I will take the contract. He nods at me and I leave without another word.
Some Rat Pack song is playing on the jukebox as I walk back towards the bar. It sounds completely out of place in this crowd, since most of their preferred rockstars only started singing twenty or thirty years after this song was popular. Underworld Terry would need to be spoken to about this sin, but I am not in the mood right now. Killing humans never sits right with me, even if they are assholes.
“What’s the matter, Lafleur? Boss fire you?” the words rumble like thunder.
“I’m really not in the mood, Nelson.”
“My heart aches for you.” His words are slurring. Apparently our last conversation didn’t sit well with him.
I lock eyes with Terry, who nods and grabs a bottle of glowing blue arcanum.
“I wonder when he will give me a contract for you, freak.” Nelson laughs to himself, a wet, indistinct noise.
Terry pauses mid-stride. He shakes his head twice, once at what the Son of the Storm just said, and once at me, pleading for me to not ruin his bar. Sorry, handsome.
I grab an empty bottle from the guy on the other side of me. It is some Underworld version of Sleeman. Supporting the local economy, good for you. Nelson learns a second later that local beer bottles hurt just as much as any other kind when I smash it over his head. Yes, it was a dirty hit. But I am really, really not in a clean-fight frame of mind right now.
Sons are strong though. Being descendants of whatever Thor actually was will do that to you. If anything, the hit just sobers Nelson up. He reaches out a bluish-grey hand, aiming for my throat. His veins light up with brilliant flashes of white light. But he just grabs at air.
Before he was even moving, my body was already exploding into tendrils of shadow, deconstructing in front of him and reconstructing behind him. We have played this game before, so it won’t take him long to figure out what has happened. He doesn’t have that long, though, before I put my hands around his head and smash his nose against the bartop. The filthy wooden surface splinters under the force of the blow.
The rest of the bar falls silent and stares at me. The only noise in the entire place is that same Rat Pack song. Some look worried, but I know Nelson has been through worse. Funny, that actually made me feel a little better.
There is the sound of glass clinking as Terry puts two drinks in front of me; one is two fingers of whiskey, the other arcanum. I originally go for the whiskey, but stop, switching to the mystic liquid instead.
“Give the whiskey to Nelson,” I say before sending myself hurtling through whatever realm gets me back upstairs. “And charge Rocco for the bar.”
* * *
As if trying to pull a sick joke, the contract directs me to a church. No, not just a church, the church. Our Lady Immaculate, a massive display of Catholic power placed right in the middle of the city. It is on the highest hill in town, made that way so you can see it from anywhere. There were two churches built on that spot before, and it has seen more than its fair share of darkness. Still, a church? It’s like these people were going out of their way to be cliché.
The moon is covered by clouds tonight, shrouding the entire downtown in darkness. It is a Tuesday and almost 3am, nobody should be out right now. I casually stroll towards the church, walking in the middle of the streets. The contract does not say when the coven meets, but there is no harm in checking. I’m not getting any sleep tonight, not with the image of that tiyanak seared to the back of my eyelids.
Our Lady is only a few minutes away, which is a shame because the cool night air is doing wonders for my attitude. A set of stone stairs lead up a hill towards the imposing cathedral. I entertain the thought of using a shadow step to just appear at the top of the stairs - even to a sup, stairs are a bitch - but decide against it. Using my step in the real world still does a number on my stomach and head.
I don’t have much of a choice when I get to the church doors, though. They are locked, obviously, and there are no windows for me to crawl through. Bracing myself, I let my body tear apart and slip under the door, reappearing on the other side. The world spins, but I manage to stay on my feet.
Though what I see in there almost floors me anyway. The room is filled with candles that are floating in the air, their flames a dark violet colour but illuminating nonetheless. I can hear chanting, but it’s drowned out by the painful cries of someone screaming. At first I think it is in pain, but then I realize the voice - a woman - is begging somebody to spare someone’s life.
Whoever is hosting this Hannibal-style dinner party has some serious talent. Not every witch or magic-wielding supernatural can make the outside of a church this large look and sound like it is empty. The candles? Just another cliché to make my night more pleasant.
It takes me a moment to take it all in, but it is a moment that I quickly realize I don’t have. Up ahead there are three figures dressed in black robes standing in front of the church altar. In front of them is a kid, not even old enough to have hair on his chin, on his knees. Across from the coven and their victim are four other people, tied up in chairs and forced to watch.
The nausea from the shadow step still hasn’t cleared, but my vision focuses in time for me to see one of the robed figures draw its blade along the neck of the teenager, opening his throat from ear to ear.
“No. No, Victor. No, no, no,” one of the other prisoners, a woman, shrieks and cries at the same time. “My baby. You bastards.”
Shit. I should have been moving faster, I should have run from the bar, just in the off chance that this sort of thing was happening. Now a kid is dead because I was sulking. A real kid.
My first thought is to conjure my sickle and charge at them, consequences be damned. But instead I find myself quietly shuffling behind one of the pillars, slowly making my way towards the altar. I knew I could have just ended it, but two things are stopping me. First, at least one of those robed pricks is a half-decent spellslinger. Odds are they won’t be able to find a way to kill me, but magic is more unpredictable than claws and teeth.
The second reason is a little more concrete. The one who slit the kid’s throat is chanting now, some language that I have never heard, and the kid’s blood is glowing. All of a sudden arms extend from the floor and wrap around his corpse. To call the arms dark is an understatement; it is more like there is nothing, no matter at all, where the arms should be. That isn’t magic, though, those arms look like they belong to something. Something I have never seen before.
Then, just like that, the kid’s body is gone. Not even blood stains remain. The floor looks as if the cleaners just came through. The only remnants of the event is a faint odour - a mixture of iron from his blood and something burnt. I recognize the second part immediately as the stench of the Underworld.
A while ago I told you that arcanum was the easiest way to move between the two worlds, but it is not the only. An event of incredible power can also punch a brief hole in the wall that separates the here and there. The human soul is a catalyst; it contains almost enough energy if you expend it all. But this was different. The sacrifice helped, but something had been pushing from the other side.
My hand instinctively reaches for one of the vials of arcanum that lines my jacket, but I don’t pull it out. Whatever the hell that thing was, it can wait. If I don’t act fast, these people will be murdered, one by one. Instead of the arcanum, I pull out another vial. This one contains a liquid that is silver in colour, almost shimmering even in this meagre light.
I am already running towards the altar by the time I have lobbed the vial. It lands right where the kid had just been sacrificed, shattering into a thousand pieces. A silent explosion sets off, filling the room with a blinding white light. I am the only one who knows to cover their eyes, so the sudden eruption of light doesn’t scorch my retinas. There are cries of surprise, but I don’t really register them.
A dozen strides gets me within reach of the first robed asshole. I conjure my sickle and take its head off in a single swipe. The head, a female human, tumbles away. If I had any reservations about killing these witches, they disappeared when I saw them offer a kid to whatever the fuck that thing is.
The second asshole is more prepared than the first. He still can’t see, but he knows that something is going on. He chants something and moves his hands in my direction. His blind aim is off, though, as he unleashes a burst of red energy. I try and twist, but it catches my right arm and continues past. There is a scream from behind me. I glance over and see a pair of legs with no torso sitting in the path of that red energy, right where Victor's mom used to be. It is only then that I notice my right arm is missing.
So now two innocent people have died and I’m missing my arm. The pain is blinding, even more than the light I had just created, but the rage I feel becomes audible. I am screaming, though it isn’t because my arm is gone - that has happened a few times before. It’s because these monster-worshipping assholes just murdered two people and I couldn’t stop them.
If anyone tells you that revenge doesn’t feel good, punch them in their lying mouth.
I shadow step over to the cultist, my right arm reappearing with me. Adrenaline and fury push aside any thoughts of pain or nausea. One thing that I really want to impress into you about my sickle, my baby, is that it is sharp. Not kitchen knife sharp, not Japanese katana sharp. It cuts through things like a hot tank shell through warm butter. So when I go to cut this prick up, the blade goes through him like he isn’t even there. His cloaked body falls away in multiple pieces. It doesn’t make me feel better, but it’s a start.
Purple blades explode out of my chest and skewer me like a psychotic ex-girlfriend’s voodoo doll. Blood sprays over the pews from the wounds and out of my mouth. I think I can see the individual flecks spell I-D-I-O-T when they hit the wooden floor. I can distinctly feel that all seven blades have pierced major organs. And my spine. I drop to the ground, my lungs deflated and my heart torn to shreds. I don’t know if my body’s healing capability will push these blades out, and I don’t want my flesh to regrow around them. I can shadow step, but odds are I would just end up doubled over and puking my guts out, wide open for another attack.
Fun fact about me: my body can recover from any sort of wound - that I have encountered so far - but it really struggles with trying to reform organs when there is a crystalline blade in the way. I am on my knees, blades holding my frame aloft from the ground, not quite dead but getting there.
I can’t turn my head, but out of the corner of my blurred vision I see that none of the hostages have even tried to run. They are still trembling, crying, pleading with their captive, despite the clear distraction I made. My eyes take in the one person who is nothing more than a pair of legs now. If my heart hadn’t been torn apart, it would have sunk in my chest. What a crappy night.
The last witch comes into view. Her arms are radiating with a visible aura of power, a deep amethyst glow that is the same colour as the blades that have made me a human - well, sort of - kebab. She is chanting something now, her words inaudible over the slowing pulse of blood in my ears. The witch moves her hand as if she were pulling on a rope, or some kind of leash, and one of the hostages stumbles forward. I don’t see many other options at this point.
The crystal blades clatter and break as they tumble to the ground. Shadows stretch and braid together to form my body, letting me take a single step before I collapse. My insides are barely put back together and I’ve shadow stepped too many times. There is no vomit this time around. Whatever was in my stomach was drained out by the bitch who is only now cluing into the fact that I’m not dead. Instead, I cough up a thick ball of blood.
I look up just in time to see the witch grinning as she draws a shining athame across the throat of this new victim - a girl barely in her twenties. The arms that seem to reject light appear again, more quickly this time. They wrap themselves around the girl and start to drag her body down to another realm. I force myself to my feet and conjure my sickle. It’s sloppy, but I slash at the massive, shadowy limb and hope for the best.
The arm hesitates as my blade passes through it. I can see light shine through the attack, clearly dividing the limb into two separate pieces. Almost immediately, the wound seals itself and finishes what it started, dragging the lifeless body of the girl away before I can take another swing at it. I suppress my rage at not being able to save yet another human, save it for the witch that is just two steps away from me now. I can see her moving her hands in the air and whispering something, doubtless to bombard me with some new kind of acupuncture.
My hand drops to my silver dagger, drawing it and flicking it before the bitch can finish her incantation. I don’t aim to kill her, that would be too easy. This monster has some answers that I want. The silver blade pierces her side, doubtless knicking something important. I can get her back to the Doctor before she bleeds out, though. Before she can fall down, I have already caught her. Our eyes meet and I swear that she still looks happy.
She opens her mouth one last time, but the voice that comes out is not human, nor does it belong to any sup I have ever encountered. My body tingles as a noise that sounds like thunder inside an inferno echoes in the massive church. It paralyzes me, shakes me to my very core. I can’t even react as another black arm emerges from the floor, just one this time. It is reaching up, not towards me but grasping at the witch. It’s dark, beastial hand touches the back of the witch’s head and goes through it, as if there is nothing there. The witch is still smiling as blood begins to stream from her eyes. I can feel the life drain from her body as she goes slack in my arms. As suddenly as it appeared, the black arm vanishes into a wisp of smoke.
The two humans left in the church collapse onto their fronts as the witch dies. Whatever it was that was holding them in place died along with her. A boy, still in his teens, scrambles away from the pair of legs that could have been his mom, too. It sounds like he is going to have a panic attack in between sobs and gulps for air. The other is a girl, around the same age, who is trying to comfort him, but barely holding back her own terror. I take a step towards them, but they both recoil in fear.
I've never been good with people, especially kids. Comforting folks is a job for Santa or parents. No matter how you look at it, I was made for fighting, not talking. I used to think that I was made for protecting. Looking at the scene around me, I can’t say that tonight. I take my phone out and dial Rocco’s number. He knows that this isn’t some pissing contest, or some smartass remark by the tone in my voice.
“I need your help."