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 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 from her palms, 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 demon drones clicked as they moved the bodies, each holding an assault rifle. No sign of Katherine.
Evelyn put me on the grass so I would face 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 demon. The twisted bug made of flesh and steel squirmed in the sheriff’s hands, clicking its mandibles. The sheriff stepped forward and placed the demon 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 wail, 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 but did not fill the whole frame. The flow of droplets stopped. Derek’s screams died.
Evelyn clicked her tongue. “Not enough.” She motioned with her hand, and the demon 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 a demon.
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 demon squirming inside. The sheriff raised the insect. 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, green 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, green flame-formed longsword in her hands. The sheriff crashed into the portal. He released an ungodly shriek. His body imploded and the crimson shimmer sucked him 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 her darkness snakes.
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 diving into the drones, slashing wide while defending against Evelyn’s darkness snakes.
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. Using 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 a shield shimmering around her, but Katherine couldn’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 colt, 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 from a 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.
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 hopefully, 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 the Church.”
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 could get me killed, but that bothered me less than it should have. “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?
Three months later, I sat on a bench by the outer wall of Corpus Christi Monastery in New York. The sun had long since set, and the avenue in front of me has calmed down from the daily rush. New York wasn’t like Van Horn. Every day, I met more people than how many lived in my hometown. And it rained all the time. But I also had a work here now, working as a private investigator mostly for the Church. The pay wasn’t great, but hey, I was still starting.
An hour ago, Katherine wrote to me to meet her at a monastery. I wasn’t allowed to enter the monastery grounds, so sitting outside was the best I could do. Her car, a dark green Mazda, parked by the pavement, so I wasn’t late. And I hoped she had something good, something profitable.
I took out my phone as if reading the report for another could change what was inside. I opened the file my sister sent me earlier today. They finally finished with her examination, arriving at a decisive diagnosis. She had stage two lymphatic cancer. And me reading the report for the hundredth time didn’t change that, unsurprisingly.
The treatment for this disease ran north of a hundred thousand dollars, and the best I could do were five hundred bucks. And so waited for Katherine, hoping the heavens would smile at and she would have some money-earning opportunity.
And it wasn’t that there would be nothing going on in New York. From a few days ago, nightmares that killed people started spreading through the city. First were a few random victims, but then the Mayor died, and the panic started. Now, hospitals were overrun, CDC was all over the city and we, just like everyone else, were on the case.
Boots sounded from my side, and Katherine walked out from behind the corner. She stank of beer but stepped with surety.
I rose, tipping with my cowboy hat. “Howdy.”
“Awesome.” She grinned. “Remember Evelyn?”
How she killed Derek and then almost me was rather difficult to forget. “Yeah.”
“I had a vision and saw Evelyn would enter an abandoned house in Queens. And I remember that street.”
Katherine and her visions… sure, she was a witch, so she was supposed to be able to have prophetic visions. Except Katherine’s visions were usually neither prophetic nor visions, but rather alcohol-induced hallucinations. I arched an eyebrow. “Do you think she’s got something to do with the nightmares?”
“We’ve got magical nightmares killing people and, at the same time, a demon-using rogue witch is running around the town. What’re the odds of that being a coincidence?”
I smiled and rose. “None.” Catching Evelyn could just get me the money I needed.
And so we got into Katherine’s car and headed to Queens.
Thank you for reading the story!