‘The Dawning Basilica has no place for this “cloak and dagger” nonsense’ the bishop huffed, gesticulating wildly as the twisting haze of incense rose behind him. ‘Concealing your presence, slinking through the shadows like some kind of thief, it’s unbecoming of a supposed hunter.’
I held tight to my composure at his jab. It was much easier to let insults slide off my back while embarrassing his scrytech. I shot the poor man a glance. He whipped his hands about, trying to crack the code of my veil. Little did he know, I was actively altering the spell. A glyph hidden under my hair shifted through a thousand orientations. ‘Yes, well, the Haven Republic is far more open to… alternative methods. And my record speaks for itself. Haven sent me here for a reason, Father Caldeus.’
‘This city’s protection lies in the hands of Sol and His followers,’ Caldeus snarled. The church of the sun had endured for millenia, but their banner always seemed to shine over the lands of conquerors. It bred a certain superiority complex in their faithful. It was nauseating. ‘You are here with only our express permission. We are entitled to transparency.’
‘And I am entitled to personal privacy,’ I turned to the young acolyte over my shoulder. He shrank away. ‘Or perhaps you’d like to discuss what Brother Welland was doing in a supply closet with the lights out.’
‘Wh- he- that’s…’ The bishop tripped over his words, then sighed. ‘The more important question is, how did you get in there? This place is protected. Warded.’
‘A testament to my skill! You wanted an in person meeting, and here I am,’ I splayed out my arms, presenting myself. Then, I stood, walking up to the paladin blocking the door. ‘Now please, let me get out there and do my job. Her key hours are coming. I’ll not let you waste my chances.’
Scorn practically dripped off the bishop’s face. ‘If you want your secrets, then all I want to hear about you in this city is that you killed it.’
Caldeus waved his hand, and the paladin stepped aside. I smiled. ‘I’ll report back come morning. Get some sleep in the meantime.’
‘Especially you, brother Welland,’ I called over my shoulder. His face turned beet red as the paladin closed the door behind me.
I trotted down the steps and soaked in the night air. It was going to be a long one. Not that I minded. My best work happened at night. I checked my watch. 21:08.
Plenty of time. I opened my bag and revealed my familiar, Pete. His eyes opened at the sudden presence of light. He leaned out, splayed his leathery wings and yawned a mighty yawn. He leapt from my hip onto my outstretched arm. Hanging from his hind legs, he made a gleeful chirp. I gave him a scratch behind the ear, and held him aloft. ‘Alright, Petey, let’s get to Midtown. I want to do some looking around before getting this started proper.’
He chittered approval, then swung into the air. He swept up across the streetlight above, and I made my next shadow-step. In the flicker of light, I crossed fifty kilometres and two ports. I took stock of my surroundings, and held my bag open. Pete swooped back into his home and I zipped it back up. I left his head free so he could take in the sights as well. I fished my traveller’s eye out from the pocket beside him. Lining up its images with a nearby landmark, I traced a path on the glowing map through several destinations.
I walked from point to point, pondering the records of the case. A fiend formed four years ago, attributed to several brutal deaths in Midtown. It wasn’t surprising;the peninsula was also known as ‘the Fuck Finger’, a den of prostitution, and New Zenith’s biggest draw. Places like this thrived on pain and suffering.
Motive was hazy, but she targeted people that had violent records: Her first victim was a known thug. Investigators originally marked her as an excessive vigilante. Until someone got eyes on her. Lavender skin, spade tail dripping with blood. Paladins hit the streets within the hour.
But she escaped. She was noted as far stronger than any paladin that managed to get their hands on her. Eighty-seven attempts at capture. Nineteen paladins lost. They’d gone to the feds because paladins wouldn’t cut it. I jumped at the possibility.
I had to be the one to take this case. Nothing made sense. Something as powerful as noted would’ve laid waste to this city in that time. And the death count. It was muddied; several unsolved deaths in the region were just tacked onto hers. Those that were her? Negligible beyond the first few months. Every single one in this past year was a hunting paladin. This incarnate was non-aggressive.
In the public eye, she was a folk hero—street justice in an unforgiving city. Midtown was a hotspot for fiend prostitution. A wicked practice. Imps bound by runes worked like puppets. But word had it there was a devil with flawless skin. ‘Seek Sonia Scarlette.’
I rechecked my watch. 21:37. The hour was approaching. I made my way, but Pete caught something along the path. I crossed through an alleyway, and on the next street over, a young woman was herding a group of children carrying groceries. She tensed on eye contact, and huddled the group closer. ‘Come along, we can’t keep mother waiting.’
As she passed, I caught a glimpse of a silver piece. It was a bracelet charm. A dull arrowhead inscribed with messenger runes.
The children were a motley crew; only a pair of them actually looked related. A family of adoptees, a charm like a spaded tail, a foreboding ‘mother.’ Things lined up too perfectly. But I wasn’t about to pester a bunch of kids on a hunch. I sighed.
Just then, the youngest stopped in front of me. He was enamoured with Pete. ‘Jenny!’
The eldest looked back and slumped with a groan. ‘Could you come with us? I’m not gonna drag him kicking and screaming the rest of the way home.’
And like that, my troubles evaporated. ‘Okay. Lead the way.’
I traded Pete for the young boy’s ‘groceries,’ and we plodded along. Lo and behold, the children’s journey brought me to my destination: 177 Grant Street, the apartment building of Ms. Sonia Scarlette.
Pete yelped and I looked down. The boy was climbing the stairs, eyes on me. He hoped to escape with Pete unnoticed. ‘Mikey! Give the lady her bat back!’
Mikey prepared the waterworks. But Jenny wouldn’t budge. ‘No, no. You got a whole walk here with him, now give ’im back.’
He howled in self-made agony. Behind him, the door opened.
And without fanfare, there she was. The devil with flawless skin. She scooped the child into her arms and cooed, ‘Mikey honey, what’s wrong?’
She looked at Pete, then me, then back to Mikey. ‘Sweetie, you can’t take other people’s things. I know you’re sad this bat has to go away. But just think about how sad this lady will be without him.’
I watched Pete, gauging his reaction. He snuggled into the devil woman, confirming my suspicions. Not all fiends were born from negative emotions. I raised my hand. ‘Actually, he could hold onto Pete for a bit.’
Both Sonia and Jenny looked at me, horrified at the implications. I waved them off. ‘I-I mean, I’m your 22.’
The beast’s brow furrowed, then jumped back up. ‘Oh, you’re the all-nighter?’
She looked me up and down, then gave a nod of approval. ‘Jenny, let’s get the kids upstairs, don’t want to keep this lovely lady waiting.’
Inside her apartment, it was like a daycare. Children of all sizes and ages ran about, chatting with one another, the elders among them showing responsibility and keeping their youngers out of trouble. They swarmed Mikey when he presented Pete.
‘Careful,’ Sonia barred the way and demonstrated tenderness. ‘Gentle with him, now. He’s a friend, so remember, let him go where he wants. We don’t want to hurt him.’
I’d hunted fiends for years. I’d long seen gruesome scenes. Instincts scratched at my mind every time her nails glanced across a child’s head. But she stood in defiance of my prejudices. Instead, she pulled them in for kisses and hugs. The children surrounded her, fearless. She finished her lesson, then turned to me. Her smile twisted my heart in knots. How could I kill this woman?
‘Jenny, I’ll be downstairs until the morning. You know how to contact me in emergencies.’ She held Jenny close and peppered her forehead with kisses. ‘Love you, sweetheart.’
‘Love you too, mom,’ Jenny mumbled into her shoulder. Then she glared at me. Clearly, I was intruding on their personal moment.
I blushed and backed out the door. Sonia soon followed, taking up my arm. She shot me a far more sultry smile this time.
Sonia proved to have great stamina. Three hours of creative, magic-fuelled sex, and she rolled back into me. ‘Tell me you’ve got more in you!’
‘Just a quick breather,’ I huffed. I brought my arm up under her and pulled her close, pressing her silken skin tight to mine. She was divine in so many ways. ‘Would you mind having a chat?’
She nuzzled into my shoulder. ‘Keep this up, and we’ll talk about whatever you like.’
‘Alright then. I’d like to talk about how you formed,’ I paused for some signal of approval. Her lack of reaction seemed approval enough. ‘What were your first memories?’
She tilted her head to think. ‘I remember a mother. She’d just had a baby girl, and was whoring to keep a roof above them. Her latest client was… cruel. He was strangling her, said the child was next. The smile on his face as she faded… It was disgusting. And then I was there. Behind him. When he saw me, he fled.’
‘And the daughter?’
‘Jennifer. You’ve met.’
‘Wait, what?’ I rose with a start. ‘Jenny was an infant?’
She looked up at me like I was mad. ‘Don’t you all start as infants?’
‘No- Ye- I-’ I raised my hands. ‘You’re on record as four years active. If Jenny was an infant, then you’ve been around for over a decade.’
‘Well, yes. I was taking care of Jenny in an abandoned building for a while. Then other children showed. I fixed the place up, finally… Mobsters came looking for the orphaned children. Apparently, they were running things around for a place to stay.
‘I tried to pay them,to let me care for the children. But they refused. One of the men took a child by the neck, and…’
I finished the thought. ‘The mobsters didn’t make it out of the building.’
‘They did. When I put them in the harbour.’
‘So your first murders on record were the mob family using these children.’
She nodded. ‘It just tore my heart. “Protect the children.” No matter what.’
And there she was. A fiend born of a parent’s love, pushed to extremes in a callous world. I pulled her into me, offering comfort.
But we both went rigid. The charm on her end table made a piercing whistle. My head filled with shrieks. Pete. The kids!
There was a shadow behind the couch. I whipped the blanket into the air, and stepped. I found the threat standing in the kitchen.
‘Brother Welland,’ I stepped forward cautiously. The acolyte had shorn his robes. Beneath, plate armour glittered. Things fell into place. ‘So you were scrying in secret.’
‘You think so highly of yourself, hunter.’ The meek priest’s body language had completely changed. ‘Though you’re not doing much hunting tonight, are you?’
Welland was too young to be a Paladin. Especially one so capable. His now exposed neck bore a metal ringlet, burned into the flesh. A Cherub. Manic zealots trained in hunting at a young age, a practice publicly condemned by the Solaris High Council. ‘No “Cloak and Dagger.” Something tells me Caldeus doesn’t know there’s a Cherub in his church.’
Before he could reply back, the floor erupted beneath him. He snatched Sonia’s claw from the dust, inches from his face. Light filled his other palm, a rebuke. I leapt through the shadows behind him, holding back his free hand. He shot me a twisted grin over his shoulder before completing his armour. It shone like a desert sun. Light burst off of his gauntlet, sending me into the wall.
Freed up, he finished his strike on Sonia. The mana seared into her flesh, and she shrieked. A detailed runic sun had been carved into her breast. Veins of light crept from the glyph, sending her writhing in agony.
‘Enough!’ I barked. ‘Her only guilt is in protecting these children!’
‘What kind of freak are you?’ He gestured to the weeping form on the ground. ‘It’s a fiend! Its mere existence is sin enough!’
‘Fiends are violent to a fault! Obsessed and singular! But she thinks for herself! She’s proof of life beyond! A demon!’
The word sparked rage in Welland. His armour burned bright. ‘The Leyline is lifeless!’
I shaded myself from the unbearable heat. But Sonia was there at his feet, rolling to shield herself. Her skin browned.
My shadows wouldn’t last long against this. I heard Welland’s heavy boots plodding in my direction. ‘They are nothing but mindless sin! Why do you think they need runes to control?!’
His words fit too perfectly. Only paladins hunted fiends in New Zenith. Who better to know the magicks to bind them? Such broad reach, such authority, and they couldn’t get a handle on the prostitution ring in this city? Of course they were running it. Welland couldn’t be the only snake in this order. My death would be buried. And Sonia. Every path I followed led to her destruction. I couldn’t kill a priest. But a fiend could.
He knocked my arms aside and pinned me to the wall. ‘You have no power here, shadow-bitch!’
I gritted my teeth. ‘There are shadows everywhere, acolyte.’
He coughed, staggering back. The next cough brought blood pouring down his chest. The sizzling bile brought my opening. I put my palm flat on his plate, and forced my fist through the shadow. I yanked his heart from the darkness. His armour dissipated and he crumpled to the ground.
But that wasn’t my focus. I ran to Sonia and rolled her onto her back. She was fading fast. I couldn’t save her. Not without a miracle.
Fairytales took my mind. I bit into my arm until I broke flesh. Then, I did the same to hers. Our blood mixed and I babbled the nonsense of old books. Something, anything to keep her with me.
‘Sol’s socks,’ the detective peeked around his hand at Welland’s open chest. ‘Nasty one, eh?’
I scratched behind Pete’s ears for something to do. ‘Yup.’
‘Shame. He came in worried and ya took it alone.’ He pointed to my bandaged wrist. ‘Not without a scratch, I s’pose.’
I brought my arm around the pale woman beside me, her right arm emblazoned with a bat tattoo. We bathed in the dawn’s rays, exhausted from a long night. ‘Blessed be that no fiend can bear Sol’s light.’
About the Author
Christa Michelle O’Connor is an author and artist, plagued with an ever-shifting tide of ideas. An uncultured American, she’s best described as all around filthy. Her goal is to spread her vile ideas far and wide, until they’re seen as bog standard.