2010, Queens, New York
The first time I searched an abandoned house, I was excited. Now, it was a hell of a boring routine, doomed to be pointless. Rogue witches never hid in abandoned houses.
I gave the bedroom an extra glance, fuelling my eyes with aether. The world’s colors inverted. Aether was the foundation of all magic and even when not using magic directly, mages and witches spilled aether like paint of a mad artist.
As if the dust wasn’t enough of a clue, the room was devoid of any magical traces. No witch walked through this room in the past twelve hours.
Since searching this place was a waste of effort, I remained by the window. No person or car moved outside. An abandoned house, wooden like this one, loomed across the street, dark in the moonless night. The other houses in the street were well kept, which was typical for Queens. Drizzle fell from the heavens and garden trees rustled in a light wind.
I glanced at my phone, heading to my sister’s Facebook page. By the lack of new posts, no miracle happened today. My sister was dying, and our family didn’t have enough money for the treatment. But I couldn’t get a raise if we kept finding nothing.
“Found something?” Katherine shouted from the other room in her thick, Irish accent.
She was something like my boss when I worked for the Church. Or well, the part of the Church that didn’t officially exist and was, instead, one of the Secret Societies, the organizations that governed everything supernatural. “This place’s empty,” I shouted back.
Wood creaked under her boots as she made her way to me. She entered the room with her arms crossed over her chest. Her ginger hair fell in waves onto her shoulders, and her jade eyes shone with an unnatural, inner light. “My visions are never wrong, Lucas.”
Except for the last twelve times. But since Katherine’s contracts made over ninety percent of my income, I swallowed that remark. “What exactly did you see?”
“That Evelyn entered this abandoned house.”
Which was extremely unlikely, given we haven’t seen the rogue witch in over three months. Even if Katherine actually had a prophetic vision rather than a beer-induced hallucination, divination magic wasn’t the most reliable investigation method. Yet we had little more to go with. Every day, killer nightmares infected more people, and we had no better clue than the rogue witch.
I offered her a smile. “There’s nothing in here. Are you sure we aren’t in the wrong house?”
“Visions aren’t particularly concrete.” She kicked the wall. “But this is the only abandoned house in this street.”
I frowned and pointed out through the window. “What about that one?”
Katherine stepped to my side, stinking of beer. With her, I never knew if she was drunk or only had her clothes stained with beer. Her silver cross necklace glinted in the streetlamp’s light. She shook her head. “That’s a facade. There’s a club hidden underneath…” her voice trailed off.
“Which is a detail your vision could’ve omitted… and I haven’t seen anyone walk out of there since we arrived.”
Her jaw clenched. “Let’s go.” She whirled and stormed toward the door.
Given it was past midnight, we should have seen an occasional person leaving the club. Yes, there was a chance we weren’t looking at the correct time, but neither of us believed in such coincidences.
We descended the stairs, waltzed out of the front door and headed straight across the street. I lowered my cowboy hat into my face to shield my eyes from the falling drizzle. While the hat made me look a touch ridiculous here in New York, I was too used to the damn thing. And it matched with my leather coat. Plus, I could always take it off and blend in thanks to my blue shirt and black tie.
Katherine cared not for the mud and stomped through the house’s garden. She stopped at the broken door with me at her flank. “Find the entrance.”
While turning my sight to the magical one, I tied my hat’s strap under my jaw, moved aside my leather duster and dabbed the grips of the two Colt Anaconda holstered on my thighs. A rainbow colored trail appeared, heading into the house.
I followed the tracks.
In a small room hidden beneath the stairs, I found a shining, blue rectangle. The aether formed a square pattern on the floor. An ethereal string connected it to a similar, palm-size spot on the wall.
New York mages didn’t leave Manhattan unless threatened with violence. By the rainbow trail, this club was apparently the place where their children partied while hiding from their parents’ pesky spying spells. The defenses were unlikely to be top-tier, and even if they were, concealment magic always struggled with brute force.
I slammed my heel into the rectangle’s edge. The wooded floor bent in slightly, which was enough to break the spell’s pattern, canceling the illusion. A trapdoor appeared. I opened the latch and swung the door open. A ladder led into the darkness below. “There are likely to be more protections down there.”
“We will see.” Katherine’s grass-green aether poured out of her heart and filled her body, forming a hexagonal pattern. She leapt down.
Why bother with caution, right?
I caught the ladder and slid down, swallowing the lump in my throat. One day, working for Katherine would get me killed.
A dim, red light flickered in the antechamber into which I arrived. The walls were freshly painted, dark red, and clean tiles made the floor. A closed door stood in front of us. Gray mist oozed from beneath.
What the hell happened here?
With a frown, Katherine pulled a small gas-mask from her left pocket and covered the bottom half of her face. She stepped to the door and pushed one wing open. Within the silvery mist, a young woman sprawled over the floor. She wore a sleek dress, high heels, and full-face makeup. Katherine ducked and touched her neck. After rising, she drew her phone and pressed the icon to call backup and an ambulance. With my magical sight, I could see the woman’s yellow aether was faint, but stable, not leaking from her body. She was alive.
A blood-chilling scream echoed from ahead. Goosebumps covered my back. Katherine stretched out her hand and whispered. “Gladio.”
Green flame poured out of her hand, forming a bright longsword. She walked inside. With a tight chest, shallow breath, and guns ready, I followed.
This better earn me a raise.
I didn’t have a gas-mask but doubted I would need one. Poisons and venoms never had much effect on me, much less now that I used aether daily.
The moment I crossed the doorframe, loud music deafened my ears. Thud, thud, thud… techno. Great. This club was successful enough to have a magical barrier enacted to block the music from leaving its grounds. Katherine stepped into the hallway. The music made talking impossible. The inability to hear made my eyes dart around in a frenzy. I could often hear the problem before seeing it. I suddenly liked the long, dark shadows a lot less.
More people lay on the ground, mostly students wearing the latest fashion. Or so I guessed, given their clothes covered less than what they revealed. They had no visible injuries, so the silvery mist was likely a remnant of whatever poison knocked them out. The perpetrator must have used the ventilation to spread the gas, meaning this was a prepared strike. The unconscious people also weren’t piled onto each other, suggesting there was no panic.
I realized my heart drummed out a too fast rhythm while my hands shook. A set of controlled breaths slowed down my heartbeat and steadied my hands.
Katherine prodded forward, careful not to step on anyone. The club was a labyrinth of narrow hallways. Posters covered the walls, one naughtier than the other. We entered a vast room.
A hundred colors of the disco ball attached to the ceiling shone through the air, painting lines through the mist, and speakers trembled by the walls. At the hall’s other end, a demon was dragging four people. The creature was a horror made of flesh and metal, a nightmare with four arms, two legs, a lizard-like head, and a tail. Its muscles pulsed among its silver metal parts. With each hand, it held an unconscious person by the legs.
I clenched my thigh, pulled the Colt Anaconda, and shot from the hip. One, two, three, four, five, six. All bullets hit the demon within a second, digging holes into its body, releasing six explosions of black blood. The demon let go of the people, contorted in a piercing shriek and whirled.
In a move practiced for a thousand times, I swung out the colt’s cylinder, rammed out the shells using an ejection rod, drew a full moon clip from my pocket and reloaded. Meanwhile, the demon charged us, arms spread wide.
Before I could shoot again, Katherine bolted forward. She clashed with the demon, swinging the green-flame longsword.
A movement to my side caught my attention. Straight beneath the ceiling, a spider-like demon crawled. This one was smaller, with a round body and eight legs. I pivoted, raised my hand, and shot. One, two, three, four, five, six. In a burst of blood and broken metal, the spider demon shrieked and fell to the ground. The scent of gunpowder filled my nostrils. Oh, how I loved that.
I reloaded and checked on Katherine. She stood above the larger demon’s burning corpse. The tar-like blood stank of sulfur when boiling in flames. Katherine wasn’t the most dependable person in the world, but she never missed an opportunity to incinerate something.
Without looking around, she motioned me to follow her and strolled forward.
How had she survived past her teens? Sure, she was now around thirty, a high-ranked paladin of the Church, and supposedly the strongest witch on the East Coast, but I couldn’t imagine her being more careful when she was younger.
I walked in her tracks, my eyes searching every prolonged shadow. I couldn’t bring myself to move quickly enough to keep up. After seeing the spider demon, my brain decided to serve me vivid imagery of all the other spider demons that could have been hiding among the bodies and within the hallway’s dark shadows. My mind never missed an opportunity to be an ass.
We left the hall and entered the corridor into which the lizard demon wanted to drag the bodies. The hallway split into two. Katherine already walked through the left passage.
As I arrived at the intersection, a soul-tearing shriek sounded from the right. “Wait!” I shouted.
Katherine had already disappeared behind the corner, and my words couldn’t reach her over the damned music.
My chest tightened, and I headed toward the origin of the sound I heard. I stalked by the wall, slowly stepping forward while examining every corner and shadow before proceeding. I reached an open door and peeked in.
At the end of a long hall filled with bodies shone a violet, circular disc that floated mid-air, a portal. In front of it, a crimson-haired girl grabbed two bodies from the ground and moved them to the portal’s front. She flicked her wrist, and wisps of white energy flew out of the now-wailing people lying in front of the portal. The wisps joined the violet light, the disc enlarged by an inch in diameter, and the people returned to being unconscious.
Katherine’s vision was right. Three months ago, I met Evelyn powering up a portal in Texas. Back then, she escaped me. This time, she wouldn’t. Evelyn was in her late teens, sharp-featured with a mane of unnaturally crimson hair. On her face shone bright, orange eyes, which added to her unnaturalness. She wore a black biker suit and her whole body swayed to the music. Save for the hair and eyes, she could pass for a regular high-schooler.
The safe approach was to shoot her. But we needed her alive for questioning since she could know something about the nightmare plague. Also, I didn’t kill. I stepped into the room with my colt in front of me. The music’s volume decreased the moment I entered this room. “Put your hands behind your head.”
She arched an eyebrow in my direction, stretched out her hand and the air between us swirled, imploding on itself as if her spell she tore at the very fabric of reality. Midnight black aether poured out of her in a flood of darkness.
I shot at her knee. One. The contorted space swallowed my bullet. A flash of blackness blinded my eyes. I blinked, a large demon appeared, and the reality returned to normal. The lizard demon stretched its four arms, flexing the muscles embedded with metal, red eyes measuring me.
I fired. One, two, three, four, five, click. The bullets dug five holes into its body. They weren’t enough to kill. The demon roared and bolted forward. I slid beneath its swing and reloaded. The demon slashed at me with its tail. I rolled to the side, leapt to my feet, and shot. One, two, three, four, five, six, all in the head. The skull shattered, and the demon collapsed.
Pain burst from my leg. A black snake was biting me in the calf. I clenched my left thigh, drew the second colt, and shot. One. The bullet tore the snake in half, shattering the head, and threw it off me.
My world whirled, and my knees wobbled. My vision returned to normal. I collapsed to the ground. My resistance may have been excellent, but this venom knocked me down in an instant. It must have been a potent neurotoxin. Thanks to my aether, the bite wouldn’t kill me, most likely, but I couldn’t overcome the venom instantaneously. I tried to shoot Evelyn, who was now smirking at me. My arm only flailed around. My fingers lost their strength, and the gun flew out of my hand.
I should have gone with Katherine instead of playing a hero.
Evelyn stretched out her hand. An orb of darkness formed in her palm and a snake coiled out. Despite being created from blackness, the snake felt very material when it bit me in the calf, sending sharp pain up my body. The snake started retracting back into Evelyn’s palm, dragging me toward the portal.
I shouted and flailed, panic flooding my veins. The venom robbed my moves of precision, and the loud music drowned my shouts. The snake dropped me in front of the portal.
With a smirk, Evelyn flicked her wrist, saying “Desicco.”
The feeling of a thousand stabbing needles exploded through my chest. I screamed in pain, vision blurring. White wisps of energy flew out of me and into the portal.
Within the portal, the violet light stopped swirling and stabilized into a perfect, unmoving oval. Evelyn walked into the portal without looking back, her hips swaying to the beat. The light absorbed her without a ripple.
I lay on the ground, unable to move. Every second felt like an hour. I pushed my aether around my body, forming a hexagonal pattern, the same Katherine always used. That would speed up my recovery, and I could only pray it would be quick enough. I needed to move if Evelyn came back.
Barely thirty seconds later, Evelyn stepped out of the portal. Purple aether oozed out of her pocket. She waved her hand, and the portal disappeared into a puff of smoke.
I held my breath and fixed my eyes on the ceiling. Perhaps Evelyn would let me be if she thought I was dead. She ducked above me, drawing a curved dagger from behind her belt. My possum didn’t work. I clenched my teeth and struggled with all my strength.
Evelyn laughed at my flailing, grabbed me by my tie, pulled up my head, and put the dagger to my throat. I froze. She leaned down to my ear. “Now, what should I do with you?”
She smelled of cinnamon, her skin youthful and fresh. I tried to speak, but only mumbles left my mouth.
“In my infinite grace, I’ve got an offer for you,” she said. “I will let you live, in spite of you trying to shoot me, and one day, you will do something great for me in exchange. Sound like a deal? Blink once for yes, twice for no.” Her orange eyes bore into mine as if peering straight into my soul. No hesitation showed in her gaze. She would kill me as if it was nothing and then forget I ever existed in the next ten minutes.
I controlled myself the best I could and blinked once. My death would serve nothing, especially not my ill sister.
Evelyn leaned down to whisper into my ear and pressed her finger against my forehead. “Ius iurandum.” She smirked after the words left her mouth. “If you break this promise, you will die. I will let you know when the time to return the favor comes. Till then, take care of yourself. It would be a shame if you died before you could repay my kindness, wouldn’t it?” She let go of me and straightened.
I dropped to the ground and exhaled with exhaustion, my entire body throbbing. With a satisfied smile, Evelyn spread her arms, made three steps, and crouched. A dozen snakes weaved out from among the unconscious people. They slid up her arms and legs, slipping beneath her biker suit. Once the snakes all coiled around her, she withdrew a small, plastic bottle filled with gray liquid. She drank the contents and turned into a cloud of orange mist that floated up into the ventilation.
Seconds later, the music stopped playing, and soon afterward, Katherine towered above me. “Are you all right?”
I sat up on a stretcher within a white tent the NYPD set up in the house’s garden. The medics we called were treating people here in the makeshift tents because hospitals were all full. The NYPD closed the entire area and declared this a gas poisoning.
Katherine first cleaned the demons from the club, scorching them to ashes, before letting the police enter. The Veil separating the supernatural and the mundane would live on.
Katherine sat on a field chair next to my stretcher. Despite the half-empty bottle of beer in her hand, her jade eyes were full of worry. “You scared me there, y’know?”
My head pounded as if a train ran over it. Everything else hurt as well, but not sharply. They gave me antivenin, broad-spectrum antibiotics and put a bandage over the wound on my calf. I pulled my coat tight. I had already told Katherine what happened. And now, I asked, “Did you find anything related to the nightmares?”
She shrugged. “Yes, and no. The nightmare plague is most likely being caused by her opening portals, but we would need to catch her to learn for sure.”
“What’s the current death-count?”
“Three hundred, but thousands have swarmed the hospitals, saying they caught the killer-nightmares too.” She finished the beer. “Things got really complicated since the Mayor died six days ago.”
Yeah, a public figure dying after having strange nightmares for eight straight nights brought attention. Many people realized they were having nightmares as well and got terrified. No wonder, since no treatment existed. Eight days after the first nightmare, the person died.
Right now, though, I also had another problem. I needed a raise. “Yeah… sorry.”
“Want to go grab a pint now?”
I swallowed my sigh. So much for taking this slower. Katherine refused to talk about work when drinking, so it was now or never. “Look, Katherine, I need a lot bigger pay for this case. I know you’ve already done a lot for me, and I appreciate it, I really do. But my sister’s examination results came in today. She has late-stage lymphatic cancer and has to start the treatment within a month. Otherwise, the disease will spread and become incurable. The treatment is too expensive, and my mother already works two jobs. We cannot afford the treatment, and so I need a raise to pay for it.”
Katherine’s eyes turned toward the ground. She didn’t have to say anything. “I know, Lucas, and I’m sorry. But you have yet to work with us for a year, and you are only an associate investigator on top of that. So… yeah. I’m sorry, but I can’t even bring that up.” She sighed. “We can still go grab a pint, though.”
My energy faded. I was tired, hurting, and cold. And my little sister was about to die a slow, painful death. “Perhaps another time.”
Katherine gingerly placed her palms onto my shoulders, giving me the kindest look I’ve ever seen from her. “I’m sure the Lord will spare your sister. While things may not look like that right now, everything will work out.”
A smile failed to form on my face. All of this sounded so sweet… but I couldn’t tell that my sister, my mother, or myself. There had to be more I could do. Katherine arranged for a police car to take me home. Or well, whatever the one-room apartment I was renting in the Lower Manhattan was.
I spent the trip to 47 Bleecker St. looking out of the window. All the pretty lights of the city passed as I stared into the distance. My legs almost gave out when I exited the car.
I stumbled up the stairs, instinctively studying each prolonged shadow. I turned on the lights, closed the door behind me, and crashed onto my chair. My room was a mess with an unkempt bed, one table featuring an old laptop, one chair, and a thirty-years-old kitchen.
Clothes and bullets lay everywhere. I took out my colts, staring at the only real memento of my father. He left us when I was seven, and my sister four. One day, he wasn’t there, and that was it. All he left behind, aside from us, were the colts. At least he taught me the basics of shooting before he left.
After his departure, I practiced by myself until we stopped having enough money for bullets. In a strange twist of fate, the skill with guns combined with my ability to see aether landed me this almost-a-job in New York, a thousand miles away from my home in Van Horn. But it wasn’t enough to help my little sister.
I dropped the guns onto the floor by the bed. They needed cleaning, but I had no strength left. I could clean them tomorrow. I loosed my tie and threw it on the colts.
The laptop booted slowly, making me stare at loading screens as I unbuttoned my shirt’s collar. My sister’s Facebook page featured no new updates other than pictures from our family house and comments on serials. That was all she could do lately – lie on the couch and watch TV. She didn’t have the strength to fully function anymore. Since no miracle happened on that front, I went for the websites listing jobs for private investigators. Sometimes, they contained cases where I could earn an extra dollar. Not more than a few hundred bucks each, but that was better than nothing.
My gaze ran over the new postings. ‘Aliens kidnapped my cat,’ ‘My son’s farts smell weird,’ ‘Lost ring’… I kept skimming through the page. A new email notification popped up on my screen.
I clicked on it by instinct. When I came to New York, three months ago, I put up an offer of my private investigator services. Since I lacked any credentials, nobody ever replied to the posting, until now. The email read:
‘I’m searching for a private investigator to find a missing person in NYC. Reward: $200 000.
Please call the number below and state your motivation and qualifications.’ I stared at the text. How much? Who the hell sent me this?
From: firstname.lastname@example.org. That told me little. I searched for the company on Google, finding Lucielle Legal Inc. was a law company with headquarters in Rome. I saw no hint of anything supernatural. Back in the email, I looked at the apparently foreign number.
To hell with this all. I drew my phone, swiped away all notifications and called the number. Three beeps later, someone picked up. No sound. What was I doing?
I was wasting time on an obvious scam. I braced my head against my left fist but did not put down the phone. How did Katherine say it? Maybe everything will work out. Like hell it would. “I’m Lucas. I can see aether and can hit a thrown quarter while shooting from my hip. Oh, and I’ve got a family member who will literally die from cancer if I don’t earn at least a hundred grand in the next two weeks.”
Saying it aloud made everything worse. As my eyes watered and nothing but silence answered me, I hung the phone and collapsed onto the laptop.
When the emptiness of despair subsided, I went to comb through the job postings. Minutes passed, and the cat kidnapped by aliens suddenly looked promising.
A flash of lightning blinded me for a split second. The laptop and the lights blacked out. I stared at the dark screen. What the hell? Thunder roared, and lightning split the sky. In a flash, I glimpsed a person’s frame standing at the other end of the room.
My heart leapt to my throat. I pushed aether into my eyes, fell from the chair, and grabbed my guns. With my back braced against the bed’s frame, I aimed where I saw the shape. The color-inverted world contained nothing.
I was alone in my room.
But that didn’t stop my heart from beating like mad. With my aether, there was nothing I couldn’t see. I looked around, but everything was in place. In the kitchen, under the table, beneath the bed, in the wardrobe, everything was as it should have.
Yet my laptop had a full battery and thus had no excuse to blackout. Pressing the laptop’s power button achieved nothing. I hit it a few more times, to no avail. I glanced at my phone, but the screen was dark and wouldn’t turn on.
Slowly, pointing the gun in front of me, I traipsed toward the main door. The latch held firmly in place.
With silent, shaky steps, I approached the bathroom door. I kicked it open and aimed inside. Nothing. The bathroom was empty save for the dozens different bleaches and detergents I bought when I searched for the one that best removed blood. The bathroom was windowless, old, and featured a toilet and a shower. One day, I would get an apartment with enough space for a bath.
I tried the lights, but they wouldn’t turn on. A glance outside confirmed the street was empty, dark with streetlights off. I was getting crazy. The lighting probably hit a transistor, which knocked out the power and short-circuited my laptop. And I haven’t charged my phone in a while, so it most likely died after the phone call and I just didn’t notice.
But there were two flashes, the first one that killed the electricity and the second one that came from the lightning I saw. Ah well, there were probably two lightning in quick succession.
All the time I spent moving around the Secret Societies made me paranoid. I walked to the shower but took the guns with me, just in case. Paranoid or not, I wasn’t comfortable when my guns weren’t within my immediate reach.
The cold water calmed down my heartbeat. The skin on my fingers shriveled like prunes long before I gave up on the calming cold. I grabbed the colts. This made them wet, meaning I had to clean and oil them. I tried to turn on the light, but nothing happened after I hit the switch. With a shrug, I returned to my room.
My laptop’s screen shone into the dark room.
I filled my eyes with aether but saw an empty room. The water lingering on my skin turned a notch colder, covering me in goosebumps. The laptop must have started later from me pressing the power button.
I retracted my aether and approached the laptop. Hypnotized, I stared at the screen. The browser was opened with my email, Facebook, Twitter, and the history of all messengers I have ever used. My heart stopped beating. I didn’t imagine anything. Someone was here. Everything on the screen kept moving by itself, and I noticed a small USB stick inserted into the side, straight next to a power bank.
I grabbed the power bank’s cable and pulled it out. The screen turned off, sinking the room into darkness.
A woman caught me into a hug from behind, trapping my arms next to my body. I leapt in my skin. Heat filled my every inch. I tried to struggle. My muscles didn’t listen. Despite the surge of panic overwhelming my senses, my body relaxed, and the colts fell from my hands. The feeling of heat was apparently her aether filling my body, through which she was now subduing me. I tried to put up a fight, to raise my defenses, but to no avail. Next to her, I was like a little bunny facing a tiger.
The woman’s soft lips brushed against my neck as she placed me down into the chair. She was blazing hot as if she just walked out of a sauna. Her straight, midnight black hair fell over me, and her silky dress pressed against my skin. She drove her lips up toward my ear and whispered, “I need to ask you a few questions.” Her voice was a soothing requiem. She smelled of roses, like a blossoming garden after the rain. But her arms held me like a statue of steel, and her touch burned as if she was made of lava.
Lightning crossed the sky and illuminated the room for a second. From the corner of my eye, I could see her holding me. But in the reflection of my laptop’s dead screen, I saw only myself.
The moment passed, and I sat in the absolute darkness, realizing there was nothing left for me to try. If she wanted to kill me, she could. I gave up on fighting her and spoke. My voice was supposed to come out steady, but I stuttered. “What can I… do for you?”
“I am Vivian. You said your family member has cancer. Could you be more specific about the person?”
I unclenched my muscles and relaxed into her arms as the heat overwhelmed me. Her hug felt like being locked in an oven. Yet her question bore a hidden promise. If she liked my answer, maybe, just maybe, she would let me live. “My little sister.”
“How sad. What would you do to save her?”
“Are you sure about that?” Her hot breath blowing on my neck made my blood sizzle, and her low voice soothed my heart. “Would you die for her?”
“I don’t know… not really?”
“And would you murder for her?” No threat lay hidden in her words, no intention to harm. Vivian’s touch brought me comfort, which was probably a spell too.
I wished I had the answer she wanted to hear. But I had principles. “No,” I uttered, turning my gaze toward the ground.
She slowly let go of me, careful not to drop me on the ground. “You need to dress up. You have an interview with Lady Lucielle.”
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