I woke up with a monster of a headache. I tried to move, but a rope tied my ankles and wrists together behind my back. Everything hurt while a cloth gag bit into my cheeks. The cougar bite in my left arm seared with agony as the position stretched the wound. I squirmed in the cold mud pointlessly, seeing I was on the ground of a tent. Near me was the deputy, bound up in the same way.
His eyes were red from tears and gaze desperate. I gulped, and ice filled my veins.
The tent opened, and the camp’s leader entered. Her hair was long, wavy, and crimson, flowing freely around her young, pretty face. She wore a biker suit and carried no visible weapons.
She spared Derek, the deputy, a glance and ducked above me. With a gentle touch, she cleared my hair from my face. “Brave one, aren’t you?”
I grunted as the gag stopped me from speaking.
She offered me a charming smile. “Hope he will be enough. You would be such a waste for this.”
“It’s ready, Evelyn,” Sheriff Alvarez shouted from the outside.
Evelyn nodded. “Ah well, let’s see.” She rose and flicked her wrist. Snakes of pure darkness formed around her arms, caught us by the ropes, and lifted us both into the air. We floated next to Evelyn as she walked outside.
I struggled and groaned. The bindings didn’t yield. Beneath the grinning moon, the generator by the portal hummed. Yet the doorframe remained empty. In front of it stood Sheriff Alvarez and around him, the last eight of the Amunite drones clicked as they moved the bodies, each holding an assault rifle. No sign of Katherine.
Evelyn put me on the grass so I faced the portal. She moved Derek to it and dropped him in front of the portal. He tried to straighten, but she kicked him behind the knee to make him fall and kneel. She motioned two Amunite drones to come and hold Derek down.
Evelyn walked back to me, ducking by my side. “If I were you, I would pray this works.”
Sheriff Alvarez brought a metal box from a tent and put it down behind Derek. He opened the box and took out a small Amunite. The twisted bug made of flesh and steel squirmed in the sheriff’s hands, clicking its mandibles. The sheriff stepped forward and placed the Amunite to the back of Derek’s head. The steel legs dug into his skull while tendrils shot out of its sides, slid by the deputy’s skull and entered his ears. Derek released a soul-tearing scream of pain, and his body trembled in a spasm.
A red light flashed in the doorframe. In the form of crimson droplets, light flew out of the wailing Derek and into the portal. The light inside the frame swirled, bulged, but did not fill it. The flow of droplets stopped. Derek’s screams died.
Evelyn clicked her tongue. “Not enough.” She motioned with her hand, and the Amunite drone that was once Derek walked away to stand with the others. The father of two was gone, and all that was left was a corpse controlled by an Amunite.
Sheriff Alvarez sighed, a tear sliding down his face, and turned toward a tent.
“Tough luck.” Evelyn moved her finger, her aether snake raised me into the air once more and started carrying me to the portal.
My heart beat like a drum, and my breath raced. I struggled and shouted, in vain. Evelyn placed me down in front of the portal and motioned two drones to hold me down. They did, grabbing my shoulders with their cold hands to keep me in the kneeling position.
Evelyn stepped aside, and Sheriff Alvarez returned with another box. He laid it down behind me and opened the lid.
My heart nearly stopped when I saw the Amunite squirming inside. The sheriff grabbed the demon insect and raised it. Red eyes burned in its head, mandibles clicked and steel, pointy legs squirmed. Steel-flesh tendrils coiled by its side, preparing to enter my ears, to make me a drone. To kill me.
I struggled with all my strength. To no avail. With my heart frozen, all I could do was watch the sheriff bring the insect to my head.
A bright flash blinded my vision, and an explosion deafened me. I blinked, ears ringing. The drones holding me collapsed to the ground while Sheriff Alvarez flew over my head. In his place stood Katherine, eyes shining with an inner light, long sword burning with grass green flames her hand. The sheriff crashed into the portal. He released an ungodly shriek. His body imploded and the crimson shimmer sucked it in.
Katherine slashed apart my ropes, grabbed me by the coat, whirled, and threw me into a tent. The drones opened fire while Evelyn formed the cobra made of darkness.
Adrenaline flooded my veins. I bolted to my feet. Next to a pile of supplies lay my gun belt. Through the tent’s opening, I saw Katherine dove into the drones, slashing wide while defending against Evelyn’s snakes of darkness.
I grabbed my belt and buckled it around my waist. The swirling light inside the portal stabilized, filling the frame in a violet wall. Evelyn’s snake bit Katherine in the side, forcing her to leap away with a grunt of pain. Evelyn stepped to the portal and sunk her arm into the shimmering light.
I clenched my thigh, drew the anaconda, and shot at the generator. Click. Bullets! I reached into my pocket to reload. Evelyn withdrew her arm, holding a pulsating, black-red gemstone. With her sword, Katherine smashed the generator into pieces, and the light inside the frame disappeared.
With a smirk, Evelyn pocketed the gemstone and bolted away. The drones opened fire at Katherine. The bullets bounced off her as aether shielded her, but she didn’t move, pinned down. I finished reloading, aimed and shot. One, two, three, four, five, six. One drone remained. My right arm twisted in a spasm, refusing to obey. I shouted out with pain and dropped the colt. Katherine slid forward and severed the last drone with a blazing slash.
I rushed outside. Evelyn rode out on a motorcycle from the furthest tent. I stopped, took my posture and focused. I wouldn’t shoot at a human, but I could aim for her bike. I clenched my left thigh, drew the anaconda, and shot. One—
Pain exploded from my arm. I missed, screamed out with agony and dropped the gun. The adrenaline made me forget about the wound from the cougar. I stared at the guns on the ground, wishing at least one of my arms wasn’t useless.
Evelyn drove away, disappearing into the night.
Tiredness hit me so strongly I wobbled. Katherine caught me and placed me down. I gazed at the surrounding chaos. All the drones lay dead, Derek among them. The realization descended onto me. My eyes started to sting while Katherine draped her arm around my shoulders.
An hour later, I recovered enough to walk. In the meantime, Katherine called in for a clean-up, found bandages to put on our wounds, and fished a bottle of brandy out of the supply tent. I had a few new scratches while Katherine earned herself a nasty wound on her side. The scratches burned when Katherine poured the brandy over them, which made me wonder how painful it was when she did the same to her gash.
We walked out of the valley and sat on a rock. The fresh mountain air, free of the sulfurous stench, soothed my senses. My eyes still stung and insides felt hollow, but at least it was over.
Katherine helped herself to a generous dose of the brandy and offered me a kind smile. “You did well today.”
No, I did not. I couldn’t help Derek or stop Evelyn. I shot some drones, yes, but did not do much else. But I had no desire for arguing. “Thanks.”
“Are you sure you want to do things like this again?”
I turned my gaze toward the ground. Oh, I did. The rush of adrenaline and the intoxication of aether were the greatest drugs I had ever had. Nothing compared. And, at the end of the day, I was about to earn the money Amber needed for an examination and a treatment. “Yeah, I’m sure.”
Katherine nodded. “I will get you a small flat in downtown New York, so you can move there and work as an independent investigator of my Order.”
That sounded great. I never thought I would spend the rest of my life in a small town like Van Horn. The chance to move to New York was too good to refuse. Sure, it might get me killed, but that bothered me perhaps less than it should had. “When can I start?”
Katherine shrugged. “When would it suit you?”
“Well…” I rubbed my chin. “My last year of high school ends in three weeks, so the day after that?”
Katherine narrowed her eyes. “What university are you going to?”
I snorted. “None. We don’t have enough money for food, much less for a college application or tuition.”
“I see.” Katherine’s eyes turned toward the horizon. “I will have everything ready in a month then.” She rose. “Come, I’ll drive you home.”
I glanced at the empty bottle of brandy Katherine tossed aside. Katherine’s organization wasn’t exactly legal, was it?
My room featured a creaking bed, a table with a broken leg, an old chair, a laptop that wasn’t supposed to be running and a half-empty wardrobe. I had long lost hope Katherine would live up to her word. Why would she?
And yet now, I was sitting my chair and stared at the brown box in front of me. It had the sending address of New York City. I tore the box open. Inside lay a steel casket and five envelopes. Two envelopes were unmarked, the third one bore the symbol of the Order of St. Patrick, the fourth one of the University of New York, and the fifth one of American Airlines. I stared at the envelopes, my breath shallow.
The unmarked one contained a handwritten letter:
‘Hi. The apartment I got you is at 47 Bleecker St., the closest I could get to Basilica of St. Patrick’s Cathedral, where I live. The keys are in the box, and its code is 7777. We meet on Friday, 2100, at Gato. Bring your guns. Katherine’
She sure kept her word. The second unmarked envelope hid five hundred bucks with ‘for bullets and traveling expenses’ written inside. The others held an acceptance letter from the New York University, obviously fake as I didn’t even apply, an award of scholarship from the Order of St. Patrick to cover the tuition, also apparently fake, and an authentic, one-way plane ticket to New York.
I used the code to open the combination lock on the steel casket. The insides were empty save for a note and a pair of keys on a ring. The note read ‘This is to get the guns through metal detectors. The keys are from the flat.’ I gulped. This was an extremely dangerous item, and the carefreeness with which Katherine mailed it to me sent a chill down my spine.
I bit my inner cheek to verify I didn’t imagine this. Apparently not. The box contained everything I needed to move to New York, including the excuse to convince my mother to let me go. As far as I knew, nobody in Van Horn ever got accepted to a college. They would believe the fake acceptance letter, and the stipend would dispel all arguments.
Plus, working even part-time in New York would allow me to send home more money than working at a gas station in Van Horn ever could. With the money for Amber’s examination already spent and no conclusive results, much less a start of treatment, my little sister needed every nickel I could earn.
I hid everything other than the acceptance letter, the stipend, and the plane ticket. The truth had to take a vacation today. I put on the best surprised-but-happy face I could and prepared how I would lie my way through this. In the end, that I was going to a college with a stipend may have been untrue, but sounded much better than that I was going to become an illegal monster hunter for a secret organization.
Thank you for reading the story!
In case you would like to read more from me, I also write historical fantasy stuff (in the grimdark niche). From that, here’s a free novelette: Crimson Cobra
And also my main series, from which the first book is: Lastborn of Forsaken Roses