The worst part about not being able to die is that everything still really, really hurts.
No matter how many times you get shot, cut, stabbed, dismembered, burned, torn apart, crushed, or any other goddamn way that a person’s life is normally taken, you don’t get used to the pain. Trust me, I’ve been there.
Thus, I am acutely aware of the burning sensation that the ghoul’s venom-coated claw makes as it cuts through my gut. The elasticity of my flesh is apparent as each side of the gash pulls back, revealing dark red blood spilling out. Dark lines scorch my insides as they crawl in every direction from the wound. Ghoul venom has no cure, once you are cut, you die.
But when you can’t die, it just makes you wish you could.
“Fuck!” It’s the only word that can fully describe how I’m feeling right now.
The ghoul takes a few steps back from me as I double over in pain. It thinks that its victory is assured. Not it, he. I can see the ugly, bluish thing dangling between his legs as my vision blurs. His skin is almost translucent, a mixture of a midnight sky and a leaf of cabbage. The flesh covering his bones is stretched yet veiny, characteristic of ghouls. But the worst part is his face; it is unnaturally flat, like he had run into a wall. Spider-like black eyes peer out above curved fangs that are too long and too sharp for any mouth.
“I don’t find it so funny, asshole.”
The ghoul is at least two feet taller than me, standing halfway between seven and eight feet. Understandably, I can hear it laughing at my words; a disgusting, wet noise that is barely distinguishable from the rain that is pouring down around us.
“You humans,” his voice is as mottled as his laughter. “Always so defiant. My venom has touched you, little girl, you are finished.”
The ghoul doesn’t laugh when I right myself, dark wisps of shadows pouring out of my wound like rolling fog. The poison is dripping out too, its black, wet beads only distinguishable as they hiss against the rain and the muddy ground. Within seconds, my wound seals itself, just like it always seals itself.
A roar of thunder drowns out the ghoul as I’m sure he mutters “impossible”.
The air around my right hand darkens, shadows that swirl and twist until they manifest as a sickle. When I close my fingers around its grip, the blade is very much real steel.
“What are you?” the ghoul’s eyes widen in terror. We both know that he’s doomed.
I take one step forward and feel my body come apart at the seams. I have always wondered what it looks like when I move like this. I always imagine that I explode into tendrils of shadow; one minute my body is there and the next it isn’t, only lines of darkness that stretch and bend from where I am to where I want to be. That would be cool.
“I’m Nightshade,” I whisper as I reform behind him. Before he can react, I take his head with my sickle. “Bitch.”
* * *
Before we go on, you need to understand something. The world is not what it appears. The way that normal people see it only scratches at the surface. Underneath that thin veneer is a bustling, vibrant realm of the impossible. Sometimes the entities from this world push through and try to break through the curtain. People will claim to see ghosts, shadows that exist only at the corner of their eyes, monsters that are always pixelated in pictures and videos. Only some of us are aware of this world beneath our own.
I’ve seen this second world my entire life, a few years shy of a few decades. Abandoned by parents I never knew, I bounced from one foster home to another for as long as they could tolerate me. It’s not like I’m a bad person, but I always seemed to attract the attention of this second world. When they know that you can see them, they can’t help themselves.
As soon as I was old enough, I set out on my own. I always thought that it was a good idea to keep the nightmares away from people that only saw them as that. They don’t belong in our world. Or, rather, your world. I’m not sure which world is mine anymore.
I jumped around a lot before settling here in Guelph. It barely constitutes a city, but I’ve seen more supernatural phenomena here than anywhere else I’ve been.
And I love it.
I push open the door to the Albion, the cool night air that follows a storm entering the building with me. I smile at Grace, the cover girl who takes money from the university kids and then stamps their hand in return, directing them to the popular bar upstairs. Even with my hair soaked and matted against my face she recognizes me, nodding me through.
I walk past her and through the small restaurant on the main floor of the building. A few empty tables are spread across the floor, their chairs just as barren. This time of night, all of the business will be upstairs. Saturday night means some kind of theme in the bar, and the beat of catchy 80s and 90s tunes shakes the ceiling. The only other person – if you could call either of us that – in the restaurant was Terry.
Terry looks like he should be in his mid-twenties, but anyone who truly knows him knows that he is much older than that. I don’t know his exact age, but I once heard him bragging of how he knew Shakespeare himself. Still, most people my age, men and women both, would give anything for a chance with the old man.
“Evening gramps,” I say to him, sitting in the stool that looked the loneliest. He smirks at me; he knows it’s a term of endearment.
“You look like you ran into a… what? A cynid?” Terry smiles at me, a quick flash that is more charming than it ought to be. The bartender has long, black hair tied back into a short ponytail, framing his sharp features with a perfectly trimmed beard. He is wearing a black vest over a white dress shirt, the sleeves rolled up to his elbow. Teasingly, the top three buttons of his shirt were undone. When he moves, the collar flares a little, revealing, just briefly, intricate scars or burns of some sort.
“Ghoul tonight,” I say, reaching over the bar and grabbing a glass. I tap it and then nod to the Jack Daniels on the shelf. Terry brings the bottle over and sets it in front of me, letting me pour it myself. “Prick managed to scratch me. Have you ever been scratched by a ghoul? It’s not something I care to relive.”
Terry shakes his head. “We aren’t all lucky enough to be immortal, Claire,” the bartender’s eyes find the slit in my shirt, the black cotton stained even darker by the blood and shadows that had spilled out. “If I had ever been poisoned by a ghoul, you probably wouldn’t be seeing me anymore.”
“But you are immortal, aren’t you?”
“No, ma’am. I just age better than most.”
I smile at him as I down the shot of whiskey I poured. No matter how many times I’ve asked him, Terry refuses to tell me exactly what he is. Of all the supernaturals I’ve met – affectionately dubbed ‘sups’ by those who can see both worlds – I have never met one like Terry. Or one like myself. Maybe that is why we get along so well.
“Is the boss in?” I ask after I pour another drink. I know the answer already, I just want to make small talk while I can, to feel any semblance of normalcy. You have to savour those moments when they come around.
“Isn’t he always?” Terry smirks that damned smirk again. “You want to see him?”
I pour a double, just for luck, and then toss a twenty on the bar. Terry pockets the bill then reaches under the counter. Soon the whiskey bottle is replaced by a crystal carafe, a vibrant, blue liquid sloshing inside of it. It looks as if stars themselves are trapped in the drink, twinkling like little Christmas lights. This time, Terry pours it for me.
“See you on the other side,” I say, raising the glass in a mock toast. Despite its enticing colour, it tastes like crap. Worse than crap, it kind of tastes like cheap vodka.
I close my eyes because I don’t like what the drink does. When I open them again, I am still sitting in the same spot, but everything around me has changed. The lights have dimmed and there is a low-hanging smog hovering in the room. The bass of bar has been replaced by the loud banter of a room full of people and other sups chatting, arguing and laughing. Over it all I hear Def Leppard blaring from an old jukebox.
To my left is a man that looks like a mixture of a young Brad Pitt and a real-life cowboy. His teeth are a bit crooked and he wears a plaid shirt just like every other guy in this city, but he is pretty good looking. To my right is a goblin, as short, ugly, and green as you imagine them. But, contrary to Tolkien and Dungeons & Dragons, goblins are some of the friendliest sups you will ever meet.
Behind me the tables are now surrounded and the rest of the floor is packed. Nymphs, elves, humans, spectres, and a few sups I don’t recognize mingle with each other, drinking and interacting as if they were all the same species.
This is the world beneath your own, the one that most people will never see.
On the other side of the bar Terry is busy making drinks for the many customers. He is the only being I know that can exist in both worlds at the same time, with each Terry acting autonomous from the other, but still being the same person. For everyone else, we can only exist in one world at a time. There are different ways of traveling from one to the other, but the easiest was a shot of arcanum, the cosmic blue drink. Even after all this time I don’t know all of the rules. What I do know is that no person should be capable of existing in both worlds at once.
“In his office,” Terry tilts his head towards a closed door next to the bar. I turn to my right and immediately feel fingers latch onto my ass.
“Where are you going, little lady?” Cowboy Brad Pitt smiles at me when I turn around. “Why don’t you set that pretty thing on my lap and I’ll buy you a drink?”
I’m really not in the mood for this. “Not too thirsty, I’m afraid.”
By this point I have fully turned towards Brad, my face completely visible to him. And I will be the first to admit that I am not the best looking girl in the world, but I do have my own particular set of charms. But there are some ways you should just never speak to a lady – especially one who just had her stomach ripped open by a ghoul.
“Maybe let me have a few drinks, so that face of yours looks a little prettier.” That gets a laugh from the two next to him. The others surrounding us, those who know me, don’t share the same reaction. Pity, if he had been a bit sweeter, I might have taken him up on his offer.
I dig into my pockets and pull out another crumpled twenty. It’s an old bill, still a paper note, so it is drenched from the rain. Still, money is money. Terry shakes his head and chuckles, moving away to make more drinks.
“I thought you said you weren’t thirsty,” Brad’s voice, like his face, is filled with confusion.
“The money,” I say to him, brushing one of his hands that he had resting on the bar with my own, “is for the Doctor.”
Faster than the drunken cowboy can comprehend, I reach down to my hip and pull out a silver dagger. In a flash I bury it into the back of his hand, pinning him to the bar itself. Cowboy Brad Pitt just stares at it for a second, as if the act has not completely registered in his intoxicated mind. Then he howls.
Those surrounding us erupt in laughter, save for Brad’s two friends. They really don’t know how to react. I take his drink from in front of him and pour it on the wound, pulling out my knife as I go. It is partly to clean it, but mostly to make him whimper like I know he will. I wipe the blade on a towel that Terry hands me as he moves to take my money; Doc will make him good as new in no time, most of us here know that. Sups get their kicks in weird ways sometimes.
I shimmy and shove my way through the throng of humans and beasts as I make my way towards the boss’ door. Along the way a handful of sups call out to me or pat me on the back. Others look at me with clear disdain. I’m sure tomorrow or the next night, Cowboy Brad Pitt will join the latter. Not my problem.
I twist the handle to the boss’ door, which gleams in the dim bar light. Unlike everything else in this world’s version of the Albion, the handle is never sticky. I can feel the soles of my feet resist my pull with each step and most nights I am afraid to rest my arms on a table. Sups knew how to have a good time, but they were far from the cleanest of creatures. Except goblins. Poor goblins have such a bad rap.
“Claire Lafleur,” the boss’ voice sort of sounds like Morgan Freeman’s. It almost makes talking to him bearable. “Always a pleasure.”
“Shove it, Rocco.” We have never seen eye to eye, the boss and I. He is a spectre, a physical spirit of someone who had died. He bragged that he had been Al Capone’s right hand man, some big shot when mafias were still relevant. He hates me because he doesn’t know what I am and I tend to play by my own rules. I hate him because he’s a smug asshole.
“That is no way for a contractor to speak to their boss,” his grin is apparent, even behind the massive cigar that sat in his mouth. He wears a pinstripe suit that has not been in fashion since he was alive, completing the look with a Thompson submachine gun, fleshed out with a drum magazine, leaning against his desk. Disgustingly, he has a picture of dogs playing poker hanging behind him. I swear he does it just to piss me off.
“Well your contractor just finished another job, so pay up, oh pale one.” I show him a picture of the dead ghoul on my phone.
Contractors are essentially guns-for-hire. There is a certain balance that has to be maintained between the two worlds. Those that can blend into the human world, those that aren’t too troublesome or deranged, can move freely between the two. The dangerous creatures – ghouls, naga, vengeful spirits, banshees, the undead (which are different than vengeful spirits, keep in mind) – are not allowed in the human world. If they risk breaking the barrier or manage to travel from one realm to the other, a contractor is given their ticket. I would be lying if I said I didn’t enjoy my job. I would be a filthy liar if I said I wasn’t the best in town at it.
“Your contract was to take care of the ghoul problem,” Rocco waved the phone out of his pale face. “You killed one of them, the one that lured you away from their nest. I would not have thought you would be tricked so easily, Lafleur.”
“Claire doesn’t exist in this world,” I remind him. Everything that makes my life normal, everything that keeps me grounded, exists in Claire. While I love this job, I never want to drag her through the despair that exists in this life. This world belongs to Nightshade.
Rocco raises an eyebrow at me. The agitation is evident in my voice, though it’s not all directed at him. It was an amateur mistake to be lured away from a nest. And if a nest was breaking through the barrier, it would need to be dealt with quickly.
“I knew it was too good to be true,” I mumble to myself as I leave the spectre’s office. The night was still young, though.
I walk back over to Terry at the bar, gesturing upwards with my thumb. For some reason sups long ago decided that this world was both philosophically and literally beneath the other, some type of Underworld. So, when I’m in a mood, I can just gesture up to Terry and he knows where I need to go. He pours me another shot of the arcanum and leaves it in front of me with a smile. I glance up at Brad Pitt at the other end of the bar, who is half-glaring, half-cowering from me. His hand is bandaged crudely, blood threatening to soak through.
I lift my glass in a sarcastic salute, and flip him off as I drink it.
* * *
I’m still pissed at myself for falling for that ghoul’s trick. Only novice contractors would be duped so easily and I have been at this for over a decade. Maybe I need a vacation.
I wander out of the Albion the way I came in, stepping past more university kids who are pushing their luck trying to get into the bar this late. The rain has stopped – a rare thing in this city – and the kids who have been there since the earlier parts of the night start heading home. Downtown is just as busy in the Underworld as it is in this one. The bustling of bodies tended to attract some predators, but the numbers also provided a sort of safety. So if I were a group of nesting ghouls, I would want to settle just on the outskirts of the downtown core. Drunken sups stumbling off would be easy prey for the beasts.
I spotted the ghoul at the train station before taking off after it, so I point myself in that direction. I get cat-called by a group of guys that are barely sober enough to stand, and stared down by a cluster of girls who are barely wearing enough clothes to cover their daddy issues. I ignore them all as I walk, trying to find a shadow dark enough to hide in.
Eventually I find it, edging along the fence that keeps people out of the train yard. In the other world the fence was torn down by some drunken sup who was too strong for their own good. Safely hidden from few, I reach into one of the pockets that line my leather jacket. I always keep a few goodies with me, just in case, and the half-dozen vials of arcanum are invaluable. The cork comes out with a satisfying pop, and the liquid still tastes worse than crap.
When I open my eyes the world is still dark, but it is tinged red instead of black. Nights in the underworld are a lot creepier than humans are used to, with the colour of the sky being the least of their worries. The fence in front of me is flattened, its bars lying away from me. Without hesitating I step over it and head for the station. The thumping of music and the voices of boisterous sups and people echo from downtown.
Ghouls nest underground, but they are not the smartest creatures. Their venom makes them incredibly lethal, so they can afford to be less cautious. Luckily, it makes them much easier to find. Ahead of me is the door to an underpass, a tunnel that runs from one side of the tracks to another. I head towards it, feeling the tracks trembling as I step over them. The train is barely visible by the time I get to the door.
I enter the underpass as quietly as I can, but the rusted hinges have other plans for me. I might as well have shouted “Luuuuucy, I’m hoooome!”. Immediately the tunnel echoes with scratches and feral growls. So much for stealth.
I do my shadow step down to the bottom of the stairs, disappearing and reappearing in an instant. With a thought my sickle materializes in my right hand, and not a moment too soon. One of the ghouls pounces at me, speaking in some sickly, wet language that I don’t recognize. A flick of my wrist takes both of its arms at the elbows, as well as half of its head. Dark blood pours out of the very dead creature.
Without stopping to admire my handiwork, I turn my attention to the other dozen ghouls running my way. Like I said, I don’t speak whatever language is native to ghouls, but I am getting the general idea that they aren’t happy to see me. I calmly walk towards the creatures who are all but foaming at the mouth as they lope at me.
The next one makes the same mistake as the first, jumping and diving at me in hopes of a quick, overbearing kill. This time I teleport, reappearing past the ghoul just in time to bring my sickle down and through its spine. The ghoul continues to sail past me, but in two separate pieces. I pivot with my left foot and spin around, bringing the sickle to bear at a ghoul that tries to flank me. The blade pierces the monster under its armpit, puncturing lung and heart alike, but not before it manages to scratch my face.
I’m not sure if I swear or make some guttural, animalistic grunt to combat the pain, but it causes my head to spin and my vision to blur. Luckily, the other ghouls think that their fallen comrade has secured victory for them and stand back to watch me die. By the time they realize their mistake, the wound has already healed itself and I have shadow stepped behind a pair of them. Ghouls grow to a relatively uniform size, all of them, so it is easy to cut the heads off two of them with one swing.
Not giving me another chance, one of the ghouls swipes at me before the previous two even hit the ground. I roll away and lash out with my sickle, cutting through the beast’s forearm. I catch the hand at the wrist as it falls and continue to spin, using my momentum to open up the ghoul’s throat with its own claws.
By now the remaining seven ghouls have formed a circle around me. They growl their wet, disgusting noises that issue from their flat faces. One of them takes a tentative step forward. From the sagging flesh on its chest and the lack of a third leg, I assume it’s a female.
“Why are we forbidden from moving between worlds?” she snarls at me in a language I can understand. “What makes you so much better than us?”
“Well, for starters,” I speak to her but do my best not to let any single ghoul out of my sight for too long, “I don’t eat people.”
“We do what we were born to do. Just like how humans consume cattle.”
“The moment the cows start forming organized protests, I’ll go vegan, I swear.”
“You aren’t even one of them.” That gets to me. Never insult my face. Never call me inhuman. Everything else is fair game.
My response is substantially less verbal this time. Instead, I choose to throw my sickle at her face. I miss my mark, but the curved blade finds a new home through her throat. The other ghouls react instantly, rushing at me in pairs. I draw my silver dagger, but it is only to delay them as my sickle dissipates and reforms in my hand. My body explodes into tendrils of shadow and then reforms behind one of the ghouls. The dagger in my left hand slips between its vertebrae with minimal effort. I erupt into shadows again and emerge spinning. The force behind my sickle nearly cuts the second ghoul in two.
I repeat the process again and again, never staying solid longer than it takes to deliver a killing blow. Rage is replaced by fear in the spider-like eyes of the last two ghouls. One of them even turns and runs towards the stairs, to its only chance at survival.
It barely makes it three steps, though its head rolls almost the entire way. The last one doesn’t last much longer.
With the ghouls dead and pictures taken as evidence, I take some extra time to extract the longest teeth from each corpse’s mouth. Both the venom and the teeth themselves go for a decent price if you find the right alchemist. With this many, I could probably double the money I get from the contract alone.
If that doesn’t call for a celebration, I don’t know what does.
If I’m lucky, Terry will serve me drinks until the sun comes up. I laugh at my own thoughts. The chuckle echoes in the underpass, but none of the corpses share in my humour. Who am I kidding? I’m never lucky.
But Terry is always there, so I guess that will do for now.
Cover courtesy of BriannasBooks