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The rain poured furiously from the black night sky, pelting my face and making it all the more difficult to keep my grip on my knife. The rain-slick roof was nearly impossible to keep a footing on, and for a moment I wondered how much harder it would have been if the roof had been slanted. But I put those thoughts out of my mind. The rain was annoying, but the lowest on my list of problems.
I had a bigger problem of two guard demons that were currently facing me down. Standard summoning, from the looks of it. Giant dog-like demons, with razor sharp teeth and horns big enough to run me through three times. I'd seen such creatures toss VW Bugs over their heads with their horns, and I wasn't looking forward to taking them on with nothing more than the pigsticker I currently held. My gun would have been better, but with my hand smashed there was no hope of that. The pain was throbbing, and I had to work to put it out of my mind. But my hand and the demons combined still weren't my biggest problem.
The biggest problem was across the roof from me, in the form of the wizard who was about to kill his virgin sister in order to summon a demon lord in order to garner power of some sort or another. I was fuzzy on the details, but I knew the summoning would destroy half the city. That was my biggest problem.
I never should have taken this damn job.
* * *
I had been in my office, using up the last of my ritual candles. Not because I was casting any spells, but because I hadn't had the dough to pay off my electricity fairy. The candles emitted just enough light to see by, which was nice. Let me look around my desk and see if I had anything I could pawn for money. Other than a few penny-charms, I had nothing. With a sigh, I reached into my desk drawer to root out my last fifth of whiskey. Maybe if I passed out drunk, I wouldn't worry about how dark it was.
Unfortunately, a knock on the door interrupted my well thought out plan. I scowled, as I wasn't at all prepared to have a visitor, let alone a client. Downside of sleeping in your office, I suppose, is that you sometimes forget you could have a client come by when you're lounging in your underwear. I stood from my desk, calling out.
“Just a minute, I'll be right with you!”
The silhouette on the other side of the door didn't respond, but didn't go away. Quickly, I stepped to my dresser and grabbed out a skirt and a blouse. I pondered putting on a bra, but didn't feel like making a potential client wait. Within seconds, I had myself a good deal more covered, and was running my hands through my mass of curly hair in an attempt to make it look presentable.
“Come in!” I called out as I sat back behind my desk. The door opened, and in walked he prettiest hunk of muscle I'd seen in a long time. His sandy blond hair was eye catching, his blue eyes looked deep even in the dim light of the candles, and his square shoulders were so sturdy looking that, even underneath the suit he was wearing, I wanted to wrap my arms around them and see if I could pull him down to the bed. His chiseled jaw had just the right amount of stubble, and his overall bearing had the effect of making me wish I'd opted for that bra.
“Umm...you're...I'm sorry, are you conducting a ritual right now...?” He looked at my candles with a touch of worry, as though he'd interrupted something and felt quite bad about it. I shook my head, waving a hand to wave away his fears.
“No, I just prefer to think by candlelight sometimes.” The lie came quickly. The last thing you want a client thinking is that you're hurting for cash. That's a quick ticket to being ripped off. He nodded, apparently accepting my words as truth.
“Right. You're Samantha Berg, right? The...um...” he seemed nervous, and I had to suppress a smile. This was going to be easy.
“The ritualist detective. Right. What do you need?” I spoke casually, not wanting to scare him off any. “Old friend tracked down? Location of some lost childhood item?”
He shook his head. I took note that he hadn't moved to sit down, and considered whether or not to suggest he do so. I opted not to. When he was standing, he squared his shoulders, and the view was much nicer. I had no promise he'd do the same if he sat down.
“No ma'am. It's a little bit bigger than that. I'm...well, I'm not really sure how to explain...” he did seem nervous, and I felt a bit of sympathy for him. Most average, every day people don't have much interaction with magic. They might pick up a penny-charm or two to stop some random wizard from stealing their credit card numbers, or to help them feel safer if they have to make their way through a bad part of town, but little more. I, on the other hand, made my way through the seedy underbelly of the city, dealing with ancient gypsies and family curses as a way to make my living. I was a ritualist, invoking ancient threads of magic to find the lost and help shepherd fortune to those who deserved it.
Or I would be, if I could convince more people to pay me for it.
“No one ever is.” I spoke calmly, trying to make sure I didn't seem desperate as I reached for my cigarette case. I popped it open, trying to look coy as I reached for a cigarette, and felt my heart drop lightly as I realized the case was empty. Damn. I closed my case, and continued speaking. “Try starting with who you are, and what you want me to do. After that, I can ask for details if I need them.”
He nodded, finally sitting down in the chair he'd been standing near since he stepped into my office. I sighed inwardly as his shoulders dropped, and took to amusing myself by considering what he might look like without the shirt.
“My name is Franklin Johnson. I'm the eldest son of the Johnson family...you know who they are, right?” I thought he looked familiar. I'd just been too busy imagining unsavory things to pay attention. The Johnsons practically owned this town. They had their finger in every pie, stock in every business, and it wouldn't surprise me if half the crime families in this town paid taxes to the Johnsons. But why he was coming to a back alley ritualist was beyond me. I was good, but Johnson money could pay for a good deal better.
“Anyway,” he continued before I could answer his question, “My sister, Janice...she got mixed in with a bad crowd, I think. She had a couple of friends that were all into gypsy stuff. I thought it was just cards and crystal balls at first, but I started seeing scars on her arm...”
“And it couldn't have been drugs or the whole emo wrist cutting thing?” I asked carefully, because I didn't want him to get defensive. However, there were a number of reasons why someone might cut their arm, and only one of them involved magic. Franklin shook his head quickly, however.
“No...there were designs. I remember seeing stars, and there was also some kind of weird...it was a bunch of lines. Like a rune, I guess?” He seemed unsure of himself, but when I nodded, he continued. “Anyway, I didn't think too much of it at first. Teenager experiments with magic is kind of a cliché by now. Most of it doesn't do anything, anyway. But about a week ago, she disappeared suddenly. I didn't think anything of it for a day or two, thinking she was just out partying or something. But I checked her room, and there was the lingering stench of...” he swallowed, the worry etched pointedly on his face, “sulfur. There was sulfur.”
Shit. I sat up in my seat, running a hand through my mane of hair. Sulfur meant demons, and demons meant trouble. On the other hand, trouble meant more money. I weighed the possibilities in my mind, licking my lips lightly and trying to keep dollar signs out of my eyes. After a minute, I spoke.
“Let me guess. Mom and dad don't want the cops involved, and are waiting for a ransom so they can pay it and be done. But you're worried because after three or four days, there hasn't been any word of a ransom. Since mom and dad don't want the cops involved, you've come to me in order to find your sister and keep it all under the table. Am I in the right ballpark?” I leaned forward in my chair, leaning against the desk lightly. In the right light, it might have given the man a view of my cleavage. If it did in the candlelight, Franklin didn't show any sign of it.
He nodded, running a hand through his short hair. “That about sums it up. I guess you've done this sort of thing before?”
I shrugged casually. “Often enough. Alright, so let's talk prices. I'll need the cost of supplies up front. Standard search ritual will run you three hundred dollars, but since there's a pretty good chance I'll have to deal with wards and demons, I'll need some extra material. So, five hundred up front. You want me to find her, or you want her location?” I was charging a little more than I should, but I needed it more than he did.
“If you could actually find her...I mean, I wouldn't know how to talk to anyone or track them down...” Yeah, he was probably right. A pretty boy like him would get his face cut. Even I only barely made it through certain parts of town, and I knew how to keep my head down.
“I can do that. Price varies on where she is and what I've got to go through to get her. If a demon grabbed her, she's likely being held as some potential sacrifice. The fact that we haven't heard about a huge demon summoning on the news, however, suggests that she's still alive. Best case is that some two-bit spellboy just wanted another prostitute for his whorehouse.”
I saw Franklin wince, and wondered if I should have used softer language. The poor kid was worried about his sister, he didn't need my horror stories to make it worse. But it got the point across. He reached into his pocket, pulling out a wallet that probably cost more than my monthly rent. He pulled out five bills, and handed them out to me.
“Anyway, you have a picture of her? That'll help me a lot. Also, something of hers. The older and more used, the better it'll be.” I spoke in a business like tone. This was my business, after all, and there was no reason not to let him know it. He nodded, pulling both a picture and an old, worn pendant from his jacket pocket. I took them gently, inspecting them both. She was a pretty girl, as girls went. Straight blond hair, the same blue eyes as her brother. I set them both down on my desk.
“You'll let me know as soon as you find something, right?” His voice held an odd tone. There was concern in there, of course, but it sounded almost...anxious. Still, I had five hundred dollars being handed to me, in cash. That took up more of my attention. I reached out and took the money, trying not to smile.
“Of course. Don't worry, sir. I'll keep it as quiet as possible.”
* * *
Two hours time found me naked, sitting cross-legged in the middle of a pentagram. The heat of the candles prickled my skin lightly, but it was a feeling I'd gotten used to when I was a kid. My mother didn't raise a sissy, after all.
I chanted the appropriate words to allow my body to be a conduit to the threads of magic that sat around, invisible to the naked eye. All magic involved those threads, and how one did their work determined what one could do. There were wizards, who used the threads connected between two people or things to affect the things and people. Spellboys who ripped threads apart to gain control over people or things. And ritualists, like me, who made themselves conduits to threads in order to transfer threads from one place to another, giving things and people new mystical properties. A byproduct of being a conduit to the threads of magic was being able to follow them and find missing people and lost objects.
I felt the warm, fuzzy feeling of threads beginning to connect inside of me. Only a small part of being a ritualist was learning the ritual. The larger part was learning how to concentrate when being a conduit for magic, and the rest was learning how to find the thread you needed in order to work with it. By now, the concentration was second nature to me. It took me only a few minutes to find the thread that was linked from the old necklace Franklin had given me. It was a little curious that he knew enough to bring something his sister had owned for a while, but maybe he was one of those people who did their homework before hiring a ritualist.
The jewelry's thread was easy enough to find, and once I had it gripped firmly in my hand, I began to follow it. My consciousness left my body and shot along the thread at the speed of thought. It took me only a few minutes to find the thread's end, and once I did, I felt my heart sink into my gut like a car dumped in the east river. Janice was in the south side.
“Shit,” the word left my lips almost of its own accord as my consciousness snapped back into my body. The south side was more than just the city's ghetto. It was where underhanded artifact dealing happened on a daily basis, and the whorehouse hookers were such damaged goods that even the lust demons didn't want them anymore. A person didn't go to the south side unless they were packing a gun with enchanted bullets, or they'd end up some Spellboy's play toy.
I stood from my ritual circle, leaving the candles lit in order to actually see what I was doing, and proceeded to dress myself. I had six enchanted bullets left, enough to put down a minor-demon if I was a good shot. But if I had to deal with a minor demon, Janice might as well rot.
I pulled on my shoulder holster, holstering my revolver and leaving the latch loose. I pondered whether or not to pull on a jacket, since anyone who cared enough to know if I was packing would be able to tell, but decided to do so anyway. It went with the blouse. Almost on a whim, I grabbed my enchanted dagger, and hooked its sheath to the back of my skirt, inside the waistband. The last thing I wanted to do was have to fight with a dagger, but then, the last thing I wanted to do was go to the south side to look for a girl that had likely been grabbed by demons.
Money makes you do crazy things.
* * *
I followed my nose into the south side, telling the cabbie to pull over when I hit the area that felt right. Details were already hazy, so I had to work quickly. The mind could only hold magical information for so long, and the knowledge of a thread's end was pure magic. I would have written it down, but if she moved the written down information would have been worthless. Better to go quick and follow the thread before I lost the connection. Hopefully this whole situation was nothing more than a spoiled rich girl trying to slum it. Either way, I had to come all the way to the south side, so I was charging extra.
That knowledge made me feel generous enough to toss a bit of a tip in for the driver, who didn't stick around long enough to thank me. I didn't blame him. Unless you knew enough to protect yourself with a few wards (which I'd made sure to do before I'd hailed the cab), the south side could be dangerous. Every two-bit mugger had a silence charm, and you didn't want to imagine what the four-bit muggers were packing.
I pulled my hat down to cover my face, and began making my way down the sidewalk. I kept my head down as I walked, trying to look inconspicuous. It wouldn't happen, of course, because no matter what I would look out of place. My clothes were clean, and my hair wasn't matted and stringy. Still, a girl does what she can.
The smells of the south side assaulted my nose as I continued following gut instinct. Sewer smells wafted up from the grates on the side of the road, mingling with the stale aroma of beer and vomit from nearby bars. Hell, I could even smell the faint stench of stale sex from one of the more conspicuous whorehouses on the block, which was impressive in its own way. I ignored it, along with the occasional cat call thrown at me by street punks who wouldn't know what to do with themselves if I'd said yes.
Eventually, my gut brought me to a small gypsy's shop. It was worn down, so much so that it was noticeable even amongst the standard worn down feel of the area. The shop couldn't have been more than two or three rooms, and a packed house was probably when they had five customers. The thread I was following seemed to frizzle out here, however, which meant that the last place she'd been conscious was here. It also meant she was currently unconscious, which could mean that she was sleeping, or could mean some kind of drugs. There could also have been a ward, but I hadn't felt one when I'd been a conduit.
I pushed aside the tattered purple curtain, and stepped inside the room. It was dark, I presumed to give the place a certain ambiance. But really, I had no idea. Maybe the gypsy had a hard time paying her electric bill, too. The front room had a dirty feel to it, and I don't just mean the place was dirty. It so happened it was also dirty, but the feel was...have you ever gone a week without showering after working outside during the summer? It was like that. I wouldn't be surprised if a demon had been summoned in the place at some point, though the magic feel was very old. A quick inspection told me that the only fresh magic in the place was coming from the penny-charms in the case on the counter. They weren't even very creative penny-charms. The standard love, luck, and fortune charms that you could buy for a dime a dozen from street peddlers.
There were a few fliers hanging up for local events that had occurred months ago, a sign listing out the herbs and candles the gypsy had for sale, and a counter with a register sitting on it. No people, though there was a door to a back room. I wasn't sure what it said that whoever owned the shop had no issue leaving their register alone and unguarded. However, before I had time to ponder their choice, a man stepped out of the back room.
Scrawny was the first thought that came to mind. When one's traveled the south side a bit, as I had, one begins immediately sizing people up upon meeting them. And I was fairly sure I could knock this guy on his ass. I could see him sizing me up as well, but I didn't say anything about it. It was only fair. The second thing I noticed was that he looked twitchy. I could tell, this was a man who had something to hide. Which meant I was a woman with something to find.
“Can I help you?” He spoke with tone that suggested he wanted to help me like he wanted another hole in the head. That was fine, I didn't expect him to be particularly friendly. I batted thoughts on how to approach this about in my head, before finally settling on the direct approach. I might have chosen a different track if he didn't strike me as someone I could either bribe or threaten, but he did, so I didn't.
I pulled Janice's picture from my jacket pocket, taking care not to move my jacket so much that my gun showed. It was a nice gun, small enough to stay hidden but still big enough that I needed two hands to fire it, but that didn't mean I wanted to flash it around until I had to. With only six bullets, it was better as a last resort.
“I'm looking for this girl. I've got reason to believe she might be here?” I leaned against the counter lightly, letting him see just a hint of cleavage. It was amazing the slip-ups men made when you flashed a little skin in their direction. Didn't seem to take with this kid, though. He looked me right in the eyes and didn't so much as glance further down. He didn't glance at the picture, either, which was more what I took note of.
“She's not here. Anything else?” His words came way too quickly to be true, and I failed to suppress a scowl.
“You sure? I had some very reliable intelligence.” I tried not to sound pushy, but I got the very distinct feeling that I was being lied to. I didn't like being lied to.
“I'm sure. Sorry, your intelligence was wrong. Anything else?” He remained looking me in the eyes, and I adjusted my hat as an excuse to look away and inspect the place again. He was gripping the counter so tightly his knuckles were white, and it was obvious he was tense. I could tell trying to push on him was going to end like pushing on the one cracked support pillar holding up a Greek ruin. So I pulled back, nodding lightly before putting the picture back in my pocket.
“Well, thank you for your time. Sorry to trouble you, sir.” I took two steps back before turning to walk out the door, wanting to present my back for as short a period as possible. I quickly pushed through the threadbare purple curtain, back out onto the stench filled street, and walked three steps to the right in order to be out of sight. I gave it a ten count, before stepping into the alleyway and moving towards the back of the building.
I moved quickly, pressing my back against the wall while pulling out my revolver. With luck I wouldn't need it, but I'd been in the business long enough to know better than to rely on luck. It was on my side for the moment, though, because not only was there an easily accessible back door, but it was slightly ajar.
I inched towards the door, being as careful as I could to not make any noise as I moved. Sneaking around had never been my strong suit. Nerves always threatened to give me away, and made me sweat so much my hair stuck to my face. Not for the first time, I thought of shaving my head, but people saw the thick mane of brown curls and immediately took me for a dumb bimbo. The hair was too useful to shave.
With as much caution as a tiny mouse staring down a pissed off rhino, I peeked into the crack of the open door. The kid was the first thing that caught my attention. He was pacing frantically, a worried look on his face. I knew that look. That was the look of a dumb kid who knew he was busted. The worried eyes, the hunched over stance, the frantic pacing...I had him dead to rights. And just to put the period on the end of the sentence, there was Janice, lying on a beat up old cot. She was out cold, her breathing steady, so my presumption was drugs. Kid was probably hoping her being out would fool anyone searching for her magically. It probably would have, too, if I'd been a wizard or a spellboy. Lady luck was smiling on me this time, it would seem. A kicked in door, a bit of yelling, and I could be back home in time to watch the last of my soap operas. Well, I would have been, if my electricity had been turned on.
In a fluid motion, I pushed my way through the door and aimed my gun at the kid's head. Just like I suspected, he looked at me with deer caught in a pair of headlight style eyes. His hand began moving for his pants pocket, but I wasn't stupid enough to let that happen. I cocked back the hammer on my revolver for emphasis, figuring his motion meant my point wasn't obvious.
“Keep your hands where I can see 'em, and maybe we can get out of this without anyone getting shot. Wouldn't you like that? I know I'd like that. Enchanted bullets are expensive.” My hands didn't shake, and my stance didn't waver. I'd spent enough time at the range to know how to handle my gun. A girl in my line of work has to, or she winds up dead.
“You...you don't understand!” His voice was almost pleading.
“What I understand is that that little girl you've got drugged there is worth a lot of money, and my electricity fairy died a few days ago. So why don't you go sit down in the corner there,” I motioned with my gun, making sure to keep it as trained on him as possible, “and don't make any sudden moves? That way, I leave with my meal ticket, you get to stay alive, and everyone's happy.”
“Her brother's going to kill her!” He practically shouted it at me. That was enough to get me to pause. I didn't drop my gun, of course, because that would have been stupid. But I did lose the 'I could kill you three times before you hit the ground' look I was giving him.
“Go on...” I kept a clear, even tone. I didn't want the kid to think he'd shocked me into dropping my guard, but I did want to get his side of the story now. The kid knew about the brother, but that wasn't saying much. It just proved the kid knew who he had drugged on the cot.
“Her brother's a wizard, planning on using her purity and life force to summon some demon lord. I...I don't know the details, but...” Something about that didn't click right.
“Wait, wait. The girl's a virgin?” Purity, in a demon summoning sense, only happened with virgin women. Bunch of misogynistic fucks on the ethereal planes, let me tell you. But before the kid could answer, I heard an all too familiar voice speak from behind me.
“ And let me tell you, it was not easy to keep her that way. Have you seen some of the things that happen when rich teenagers party? Well...no, I suppose you haven't.”
I turned quickly, keeping my gun at ready. I knew this job sounded too good to be true. And confirming my fears, there was Franklin, still impeccably dressed, standing in the doorway of the small room. Flanking either side of him was an imp, a nasty little demon that was a favorite of wizards who liked having grunt workers around. Stronger and faster than humans, one had to rely on a mix of intellect and luck if they wanted to survive a direct confrontation. They were short, and not very creative when it came to following orders.
“Johnson, what the hell?!” I was pissed, and it showed in my voice. I don't know if I was more pissed at the double-cross, the fact that I fell for it so hard, or the fact that it meant I wouldn't be getting paid. Franklin shrugged casually, stepping into the room. He showed no fear of my gun, which meant he had powerful protective wards, or, perhaps more likely, thought I really was just some two bit ritualist who wouldn't know what to do now. That could work to my advantage.
“Good job on finding her, Berg. Her would-be boyfriend was smart, drugging her that way. I might not have been able to track her down in time if you hadn't led me right to her.” His hands were in his pockets, which made me want to keep an eye on them. The imps followed him in, but I knew they wouldn't do anything without an order.
“You can't summon that kind of demon! It'll destroy half of south side! That's not something you can keep under the radar!” The kid yelled at Franklin, and for a moment I thought he might be stupid enough to actually attack the man. But it didn't happen, for which I thanked every ethereal being I could think of in a three second span.
Franklin gave a casual, smug smirk that I might have found attractive if the stench of sulfur wasn't busy being annoying. He stayed where he was, in the middle of the room, though his hands being in his pockets unnerved me more and more. I almost wished he'd go ahead and do whatever it was he was planning, just so I could shoot him.
“Once Melsofelese is summoned, I won't have to worry about keeping it under the radar.” He gave one wry chuckle, before shaking his head. “I could go into my whole, long spiel. But really? That'd just be wasting time.” He looked to the imps. “Grab the woman. Kill the boy.”
The woman? He didn't mean...shit.
The imps began moving the second they heard the order, and I began moving a half-second after they did. With no wasted motion, I aimed my gun and pulled the trigger. A soft blue energy poured out of the barrel, before a bright blue and gold ball of energy rocketed forward, jamming itself into one imp's forehead. I thanked another round of ethereal beings that my aim had been on target, because anything less than a direct hit wouldn't have done me any good. The imp's skull exploded, sending shards of bone and splats of gore all around the room. Franklin's eyes went wide, and the other imp hesitated, as if waiting for a confirmation of orders now that his partner was laying in a smoking pile on the floor.
“You should have been too poor to afford supplies for enchanted bullets!” Franklin's disbelief was apparent, and brought a smirk to my face.
“A girl likes to save up for a rainy day sometimes.” I moved to shoot the second imp while Franklin was yelling an order. The imp moved to the side, only getting grazed by my shot. I had just enough time to watch the wound heal up before the imp slammed it's body into mine. Did I mention they heal incredibly fast? They heal incredibly fast.
I left my feet, feeling my hat fly off my head before I hit the ground with a painful thud, managing just barely to keep my gun in my hand. I lifted my head in time to see the imp charge at the kid, and my gut churned as I was too late to even shout a warning as the kid's guts became imp claw grease. I raised my gun, and pulled the trigger as soon as I was relatively sure of my shot.
I was less sure than I thought. The shot hit the imp in the shoulder, leaving a gaping hole that sealed up seconds after it appeared. But by that time, the imp had launched itself across the room and slammed itself on top of me. I flailed in an attempt to throw it off, but it grabbed my hand and I saw a red haze while the sound of bone crunching echoed in my ears.
I knew better than to let the pain stop me, though. Without giving the imp a chance to go for my other hand, I shoved the barrel of my gun into the its face and pulled the trigger. Pain shot through my wrist, and the kickback would have thrown off my shot if I hadn't been at such close range, but it had the desired effect. Skull and brain matter flew everywhere, and the imp dropped to the ground. Already, it's body began to smolder as its life energy melted back into the ethereal plane.
Going on pure adrenaline, I sat up and brought my gun up in case another attack was coming. But other than the dead kid and the smoldering imp bodies, the room was empty. Franklin must have taken his sister and gotten the hell out of dodge. Shit.
The adrenaline was beginning to wear off, which meant my now shattered hand was hurting more than just about anything I'd ever felt. I inspected it as carefully as I could, and determined that it was going to be completely useless. Even if I attached a few healing threads to it, my hand wasn't going to be useful for at least a few weeks. To add insult to injury, my non-shattered hand was beginning to swell at the wrist. I didn't know if it was sprained, or just annoyed because of the gun kickback.
I got to my feet carefully, feeling the throbbing of my hand with every motion. My own guts threatened to fall out through my mouth as I inched closer to the kid, but I held it together. This wasn't my first rodeo, after all, and I'd seen and smelt worse after a demon attack.
The kid was dead, just like I figured. Damn, there went my only source of information. Not for the first time, I found myself wishing I'd paid more attention in my demonology lessons. I didn't recognize the name Melsofelese , but I knew enough to know that if a demon had a name, it was at the least a minor lord. What had the kid said, though? The summoning would destroy half of south side?
Lord. Possibly an overlord, but if it was an overlord, Franklin was an idiot for thinking he could control it. Still, wouldn't be the first dumbass wizard who thought he could control demons more powerful than he could.
Now there was just the question of what I was going to do about it. My throbbing hand told me I should call the cops and be done with it, but by the time the cops even got their asses moving, it would be too late. The chief of police didn't scratch his ass without the Johnson family go-ahead. Plus, I was still pissed at Franklin for crossing me like that. No, my only option was to track the man down myself and take care of this. And I had to move quickly, too. I didn't know how long the girl had been laying on the cot, which meant her thread could disconnect from it at any second. And I didn't have the time to head back to my office to do another search ritual. Just doing a search here would probably take me longer than I had.
I holstered my gun, and made my way into the front room. I just hoped the shop had the candles I needed.
* * *
Half an hour later I was moving through the back alleys of south side as quickly as I could. I'd turned my jacket into a sling for my arm, so as not to make my shattered hand bounce any more than it had to. It made my gun more visible, as well as my dagger, but at this point I didn't care. The imp blood had ruined my jacket and my blouse, and I didn't have the time to be concerned about someone trying to pick a fight because I had a visible slug thrower.
Even with the two healing threads I'd tied to my hand, it throbbed and pained with every step. It would have been better if I'd walked instead of running, but not running wasn't an option. The thread I'd found from the cot was weak and thin, and it could snuff out at any moment. I still wished I could just leave this to the cops, but I knew that if that asshole summoned his demon, things would get very bad, very quickly.
I followed the thread through the alleyways and side-streets of the south side, ignoring the street peddlers and the hookers that all tried to get my attention. I could make my own damn penny charms, and if I needed a quick fuck, I had a vibrator at home. Didn't stop them from trying.
The thread finally led me to an apartment building that had been scheduled for demolition three years ago. I knew because the sticker on the broken door said so. The place was three stories high, and had probably been a pretty building back when it had first been built. Now it was a squatter's pad.
The thread fizzled as I pushed the broken remains of the door aside. And as if that wasn't enough, the sky broke open and it started raining. I was just one ancient nemesis away from a bad action flick. I reached behind me and pulled out my dagger, comforted somewhat by the heavy weight of the blade. It wouldn't do a whole lot of good against anything but the weakest grunt demon, but at least I knew I'd get one good stab in. There was no way I could aim my gun with only one hand.
I thought back to what I remembered about demon summoning, trying to figure out where Franklin would have hidden himself and the girl. He'd need somewhere wide open, so the walls didn't come down on him too badly should things get destroyed. That left one spot on the whole building.
Without wasting another second, I ran for the stairwell. The door had long since been broken by squatters, and opened easily when I pushed on it. Which brought up another thought. I hadn't seen any squatters. They must have been scared off by imps. Or worse. But thinking about worse wasn't going to help me any.
I ran up the stairs, taking them two at a time. The distance closed quickly, and in less than a minute I was kicking open the roof access door. The sight that met me was sickening.
The stench of blood and viscera hit me like a sledgehammer on a railroad spike. Bodies were strewn around the roof, torn and rent as if by wild animals. No...not wild animals. Guard demons. I saw them devouring flesh like a dog with a meaty bone. And then there was the center-piece.
An alter of bones would be noticeable on its own. It's not the kind of thing you pick up at the corner store, after all. Chain to it one naked virgin, sprinkled liberally with the blood of the slain, and you've all the supplies you need to summon a minor lord. But add to it a ritual dagger, aged about five hundred years and thus only affordable to someone with more money than they know what to do with, and a wizard with more balls than brains, and you have what you need to summon a demon that would destroy half of south side just by coming through the barrier.
And there he was. Standing over his sister, knife in hand. His suit was getting soaked, but then, so was my blouse. And the asshole didn't even look down. He just met my eyes, smirking that smug smirk of his. The guard demons stopped their feast, raising up from the ground on powerful legs to prepare for following their master's order.
“Franklin, it doesn't have to happen this way!” I don't know why I said it. I was probably hoping to stall him long enough that he'd miss whatever mystical time period he had to sacrifice the girl. His response was to laugh.
“Really? Could you maybe have thought of a better opener? That one's rather overplayed.” I'd have been mad, but the bastard was right.
“You realize I have ways of stopping you, right? I'm not some penny-ante street ritualist, I do this shit professionally!” That's right, Sam. Threaten the wizard who has enough power to summon guard demons. That's a great idea.
“You might have ways...if you weren't going to be part of the ritual.” I blinked at him, and the confusion must have been obvious on my face. “I didn't hire you for your curly brown hair, Berg. Janice's purity will be enough to let Melsofelese break through the barrier...but he'll need blood saturated with magic for the strength to remain.”
Holy hell. That was the textbook definition of ritualist blood. He was going to....
But before I could finish the thought, Franklin barked out an order to the guard demons. They charged at me, and I had less than a second to react. I threw myself to the ground, diving out of the way as quickly as I could. My world became a red haze of pain as I hit my hand on the ground as I landed, but I didn't have a four hundred pound demon-dog on top of me, so I considered it a net victory.
I rolled to my feet in time to see one of the demons scrabbling at the edge of the roof. It must have slipped on the rain. I heard the sound of metal crunching, and a howl of pain, and felt a small wave of relief at my luck. I readied my knife to try to meet the second one, and it charged at me.
Have you ever tried to take down a rampaging elephant with a pocket knife? This was a lot like that, and had the exact results you'd expect. Before I could say 'this was a stupid idea', I was thrown halfway across the roof, feeling a fiery pain in my ribs. I had some comfort in the knowledge that the guard demon wasn't going to kill me. It couldn't. If Franklin wanted to feed me to some demon lord, I'd need to be alive for it.
Still, you'd be surprised what you can live through. Before I could try mounting an offense, I felt a heavy paw press down on my chest. My world was pain, and it took me a moment to recognize the scream as my own. It died down after a few more moments, but I wasn't going anywhere. On the plus side, as I opened my eyes I realized I had a great view of Franklin's summoning.
He raised his hands over his head, chanting the words to weaken the barrier and summon a named demon. They were long and fancy sounding, and I wondered absently about the culture that had created the language. The things that go through your head when you're about to die. I saw a dark, black energy begin swirling around next to Franklin, and I knew it would be a short, hellish few minutes before the girl was dead and I was demon food.
I wasn't going to let that happen, and I had one chance to stop it. I gritted my teeth, trying to ignore the pain, and reached my arm around quickly to my holstered gun. In a motion made fluid only by the amount of adrenaline shooting through my veins, I pulled the gun loose, shoved it into the demon's face, and pulled the trigger as many times as I could before the kickback sent it flying out of my grip. The shots were just enough to send the inside of the demon's head flying to the outside, and the big dog creature fell to the side.
I struggled to my feet, looking about for my knife. I knew it wasn't going to work, but I had to do something. I could see the outline of the demon in the energy, and my mind bent in painful ways as I looked upon shapes and figures woman was not meant to see. And as if that wasn't enough, Franklin had to be an ass about it and gloat.
“Valiant, Berg, but it's not going to work! I give this blood to Malstolese!”And with that shout of triumph, he jammed the knife into his sister's chest. Her body, drugged though it was, shuddered at the violation, and blood gushed from the wound.
I covered my ears at the unearthly howl that came from the swirl of energy, and silently prayed to several ethereal beings to think kindly on me. But the death I was expecting didn't come. Instead, the energy began to move towards Franklin. Franklin didn't seem to notice, he was too wrapped up in laughing maniacally.
He noticed when it wrapped around him, though. The look of shock on his face was precious, and I might have enjoyed it more if my body hadn't been half-broken. He tried to pull away, frantic questions and panicked screams erupting from his throat as the energy grabbed him and yanked him into itself. He had just enough time to let out one long, pained scream before he and the energy disappeared.
I stood there, staring at the bone alter and the spot where Franklin used to be. The hell had happened? And then it hit me. The virgin's blood was to keep the barrier energy stable. Without the energy from purity, the barrier would devour the person trying to break it.
She hadn't been a virgin. She must have fucked someone when she'd run away. Which meant she'd probably saved the world.
I slumped down to the roof, my rain-soaked blouse sticking to my chest and making my ribs hurt all that much more. The whole case had been little more than someone else's adventure, and I'd just been running through it haphazardly. Still, the demon hadn't been summoned, and I hadn't died. And I'd been paid five hundred bucks.
Nothing left now but the clean up. But I'd let the cops deal with that. I wasn't getting paid enough to deal with that shit.
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I agree with the above comment about telegraphing your punches in the opening scene. But a satisfying story!
Well done James.... Is this the beginning of a beautiful friendship?
Raymond Coulombe, Michael Gallant, Timothy O. Goyette
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