I eyed the trapdoor with narrowed eyes, my palms sweating. The old, desolate house around me kept creaking in the wind.
“It’s just a trapdoor, Lucas, nothing special,” Katherine said with a thick, Irish accent. She wore a dark green trench coat, matching boots, and a polished, silver cross on her neck. In her hand glistened a longsword, casting reflections of moonlight on her ginger hair. She also stank of beer.
I fuelled my gaze with aether. The energy that was the foundation of all magic flooded out of my heart and filled my eyes. The world’s colors inverted, black turning to white, and colors that hadn’t been there appeared. When magic was used, aether got spilled like paint of a mad artist, and there was a wild mixture of marks on the trapdoor. Someone used a lot of magic in here.
I tied the leather strap of my cowboy hat under my jaw, moved aside my leather duster and lightly touched the grips of the two Colt Anacondas holstered on my thighs. “There’s too much aether on the door to tell anything.”
“Then we can just go in and see now.” Katherine’s grass-green aether poured out of her heart and filled her body, forming a hexagonal pattern. She opened the trapdoor, revealing a ladder disappearing in the darkness below.
I tensed and grabbed the grips of my colts. Thunder roared from above, and I shivered. I wasn’t great at close quarters combat and cellars offered nothing else. Katherine shrugged and leapt down.
Why bother with caution she you can jump down? I caught the ladder and slid down, swallowing the lump in my throat. She was going to get me killed one day.
A dim, red light flickered in the antechamber we entered. The walls were freshly painted, dark red, and clean tiles made the floor. In front of us stood a door, closed. Mist oozed from beneath it.
What the hell happened here?
With a frown, Katherine pulled out a small gas-mask from her left pocket and put it on, covering the bottom half of her face. She stepped to the door, her longsword ready, and pushed the wings open. Within silvery mist, a body of a young woman lay on the ground. She wore a sleek dress, high heels, and full-face makeup. Katherine ducked and touched the neck. After rising, she pulled out her phone and pressed the icon to call for backup and an ambulance.
A blood-chilling scream echoed from ahead. Goosebumps covered my back. Katherine stepped in. With a tight chest, quick breath, and guns ready, I followed. Someone needed help, and while we weren’t precisely police, we wouldn’t let it be. And not just because we were working for the Church.
I didn’t have a gas-mask but doubted I’d need one. My body had always been highly resistant to venoms and poisons, and that resistance only grew with me using aether. The magical energy was an incredibly adaptable force and worked wonders when teamed up with the natural adaptability of the human body.
And since I grew up in Van Horn, Texas, I had a history of thirteen rattlesnake bites. Snakes had a thing for me, though I wished they would stop.
The second I crossed the doorframe, loud music deafened my ears. Thud, thud, thud… techno. Great. This was an illegal club successful enough to have a magical barrier enacted to block the music from leaving the club. How I wished we found it as such, flashed badges, arrested the owner and scared away weed-smoking kids.
Katherine stepped into the hallway. The music made talking impossible. The inability to hear made my eyes dart around in a frenzy. One could often hear the problem before seeing it. I suddenly liked the long, dark shadows a lot less.
More bodies lay on the ground, mostly teenagers and university students wearing whatever the latest fashion was. 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 gas 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 and flight.
I realized my heart was drumming out a too fast rhythm while my hands were shaking. A set of controlled, slow breaths slowed down my heartbeat and steadied my hands.
Katherine prodded forward, careful not to step onto 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, and the loud-speakers trembled by the walls.
At its other end, a demon was dragging four bodies. 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 flesh pulsed among its silver metal parts. In each arm, it held a person by its legs.
I clenched my thigh, pulled the colt anaconda, cocked it with the palm of my other hand, and shot from the hip. One, two, three, four, five, six. All bullets hit the demon, digging holes into its body, releasing six explosions of black blood. The demon let go of the bodies, contorted in a painful shriek and whirled.
In a move practiced for a thousand times, I opened my colt’s barrel, let the shells fall out, drew a full moon clip from my pocket and reloaded. The demon charged us, the clawed arms spread wide, its steps faster than any human.
Before I could shoot, Katherine bolted forward. Grass-green flame wreathed her longsword, and she clashed with the demon.
A movement to my side caught my attention. Straight beneath the ceiling, another demon crawled. 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 cut-up corpse of the larger demon. She slashed its tar-like, sulfur-stinking blood from her blade. Katherine wasn’t the most dependable person in the world, but not when it came to fighting. She was a paladin of the Order of St. Patrick and by far the strongest aether-wielder I had ever met.
Without looking around, she motioned me to follow her and strolled forward.
How had she survived past her teens? Sure, she was now in her early twenties and already the highest ranked paladin in New York, but I couldn’t imagine her being more careful when younger.
I reloaded the colt anaconda and walked in her tracks, my eyes searching every prolonged shadow for a demon. I couldn’t bring myself to move quickly enough to keep up. After I had seen the spider demon, my brain decided to serve me vivid imagery of all the spider demons that could have been hiding among the bodies and within the dark shadows of the hallways. My mind never missed an opportunity to be an ass.
We left the hall and entered the corridor where the demon tried to drag the bodies. The hallway split into two. Katherine had already walked through the left passage.
As I arrived at the crossing, a soul-tearing shriek of despair sounded from the right. I shouted at Katherine to wait, but she had already disappeared by a corner, and my words couldn’t reach her over the damned music.
My chest tightened, and I headed to where I heard the sound. 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 with soul-tearing shrieks, wisps of white energy flew out of the people lying in front of the portal and joined the violet light. The disc enlarged by an inch in diameter and the people returned to being unconscious.
Three months ago, I met this girl powering up a portal in Texas. Back then, Evelyn escaped me. This time, she wouldn’t. Evelyn was in her late teens, so about my age, sharp-featured with a mane of unnaturally crimson hair. In on her face shone bright, orange eyes, which made her look inhuman. 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 would be 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 in, my colt in front of me, and shouted, “Put your hands behind your head.”
She arched an eyebrow in my direction, stretched out her hand and the air between us swirled, imploding upon itself as if whatever spell she used tore at the very fabric of reality. I pushed aether into my eyes and shot at her knee. One. The bent space swallowed my bullet.
Crap. I had never seen aether as dark as hers. Midnight black, pouring out of her in a flood of darkness. A flash of blackness blinded my eyes. I blinked and saw a large demon appear as the reality returned to normal. It stretched its four arms, flexing its muscles embedded with metal, its red eyes fixed on me.
I shot. One, two, three, four, five, click. The five holes the bullets dug into its body weren’t enough to kill it. The creature 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. Its skull shattered, and the creature collapsed.
Pain burst from my leg. A black-gray snake with an orange head and tail was biting me in the calf. I clenched my left thigh, drew the second colt, aimed at the snake and shot. One. The bullet tore the snake in half and threw it off.
My world whirled, and my knees wobbled. My vision returned to normal. I collapsed to the ground. My venom resistance may have been great, but that was a coral snake. The bite wouldn’t kill me, most likely, but I would need at least an hour to overcome the venom no matter how much aether I used. I tried to shoot Evelyn. 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. It bit me in the calf and started retracting back into her 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. Emptiness swallowed my insides. The snake dropped me in front of the portal.
With a smirk, Evelyn flicked her wrist, saying “Desicco.”
The feeling of a thousand stabbing of needles exploded through my chest. I screamed in pain. White wisps of energy flew out of me and into the portal. My vision became blurry.
Within the portal, the violet light stopped swirling and stabilized into a perfect, unmoving oval. Evelyn walked into the light without looking back, her hips swaying to the beat. The portal absorbed her without moving.
I lay on the ground, unable to do anything. Every second felt like an hour. I pushed my aether around my body, forming a hexagonal pattern like I had seen Katherine do. That would speed up my recovery, and I could only pray it would be quick enough. I needed to move if she came back.
Barely thirty seconds later, Evelyn came out. Purple aether oozed out of her pocket. She waved her hand, and the portal disappeared.
I held my breath and fixed my eyes on the ceiling. Perhaps, if she thought I was dead, she would let me be. She ducked above me, curved dagger in hand. My possum didn’t work. I clenched my teeth and struggled with all my strength.
Evelyn laughed at my flailing, grabbed me by the hair, 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 look. 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. “Good boy. 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, she spread her arms, made three steps and crouched. A dozen snakes weaved out from among the bodies. They slid up her arms and legs, slipping beneath her biker suit. Once the snakes all coiled around her, she walked away and left the room, half-dancing as she did. I didn’t know for how long I lay there, but at some point, the music stopped playing and Katherine towered above me. “Are you all right?”
I sat up on the stretcher within the white tent the Order of St. Patrick set up in the house’s garden. They were treating the people here in the field tents because hospitals were all full already. The NYPD closed the area and declared it a gas poisoning. The Church would first clean the demons from the club before letting police close and 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 too, but not sharply. They gave me antivenin, broad-spectrum antibiotics and put a bandage over the wound on my calf. I hugged my coat and pulled it tight. I had told Katherine what happened, and now 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 death-count at now?”
“Three hundred, but thousands of people 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. A lot of 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 had a different problem. I needed a raise. “Yeah… sorry.”
“Want to go grab a pint now?”
I swallowed my sigh. So much for taking this slower. She 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. The treatment is too expensive, and my mother already works two jobs. We cannot afford it, and so I need a raise to pay for her treatment.”
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 it now, everything will work out.”
I didn’t manage to smile. All of this sounded so sweetly… but it wasn’t something to tell 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 Katherine helped me rent in the Lower Manhattan was.
I spent the trip to 47 Bleeker St. looking out of the window. All the pretty lights of the city passed as I stared at nothing. 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 of 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 save my little sister.
I dropped the guns onto the floor by the bed. They needed cleaning, but I had no strength left. I could do it tomorrow.
The laptop booted slowly, making me stare at loading screens. My sister’s Facebook page featured no new updates other than pictures from our house and comments on serials. That was all she could do lately – lie on a 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 the postings. One caught my eye:
‘Investigator wanted to find a person in NYC, $200k reward.’ I stared at it. How much? Who the hell posted that? Aside from the header, it contained a foreign number to call and instructions to say the motivation, and qualification for why I should be hired.
To hell with it all. I drew my phone, swiped away all notifications and called the number. Three beeps later, someone picked up. I heard nothing. What was I doing?
I was wasting time on an obvious scam, that’s what. 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 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 few weeks.”
Saying it aloud made everything worse. As tears crawled into my eyes and nothing but silence answered me, I hung the phone and collapsed onto the laptop.
When the emptiness of despair subsided, I returned to the page to comb through the postings. Minutes passed, and the cat kidnapped by aliens started looking promising.
A flash of lightning blinded me for a split second. The laptop and the lights blacked out. I stared at the black screen. What the hell? Thunder roared, and lightning split the sky. In a flash, I glimpsed a frame of a person standing at the other end of the room.
My heart leapt to my throat, and my insides froze. I pushed aether into my eyes, fell from the chair and grabbed my guns. I braced against the frame of the bed and aimed at 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 no excuse to blackout. I tried to turn it on. Pressing the power button achieved nothing. I hit it a few more times, to no avail. I glanced at my phone, but it was also dead.
Slowly, pointing the gun in front of me, I traipsed toward the main door. It was locked, and the latch held firmly in place.
In 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 had as I kept searching for the one that best removed blood. The bathroom was windowless, old, and featured a toilet and a shower. I wish I had enough space for a bath.
I tried the lights, but they wouldn’t turn on. A glance outside confirmed the street was empty and dark with street lights off. I was getting crazy. The lighting probably hit a transistor which knocked out the power and short-circuited my laptop. And I hadn’t charged my phone in a while, so it most likely died after the phone call and I just didn’t notice.
All the time moving around the Secret Societies made me paranoid. I walked to the shower but took the guns with me, just in case.
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 the light, but it didn’t respond.
With a shrug, I returned to my room. The laptop’s screen shone into the dark room. I filled my eyes with aether but saw nothing but an empty room. The water lingering on my skin turned a notch colder, covering me in goosebumps. It must have started later from me pressing the power button. I’d become paranoid.
I retracted my aether and approached the laptop. Hypnotized, I stared at the screen. The browser was opened and on it my email, Facebook, Twitter, and the history of all messengers I ever used. My heart stopped beating. I didn’t imagine it. Someone was here. Everything moved 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 in darkness.
The flash of lightning lit the room. In the reflection of the screen, I saw myself, and a woman towering straight behind me.
Before I could move, her arms caught me into a hug, pressing my arms against my body. 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, which she was now using to subdue 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 leaned down. 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 low, calm, 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.
I stood in the absolute darkness and realized 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 who that is?”
I unclenched my muscles and relaxed into her arms as the heat overwhelmed me. Her hug felt like being closed 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 that 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. Lady Lucielle will meet you for an interview.”