Substitution

[23:47] <J0hnDo3> ”We're all nothing but the sum of our own lies.”
[23:47] <J0hnDo3> That was the last thing she said to me before she died. 
[23:47] <J0hnDo3> I don't know what she meant, but none of that matters anymore. 
[23:47] <J0hnDo3> Nothing does.

Her electric eyes in the dark. Four feet dangling from the familiar bridge.
Two bottles glittering in the synthetic lights of the city below.
”I can’t do this anymore.”

[23:48] <J0hnDo3> This room is dark and silent. The darkness is not something new, but the silence is. 
[23:48] <J0hnDo3> She was the talker, the player of music and games. 
[23:48] <J0hnDo3> Now there's just me, and I was always the quiet one. The thinker, the brooder. 
[23:48] <J0hnDo3> And nothing of that has changed, although everything else has.
[23:48] <J0hnDo3> I'm not sure if I'm drinking to honor her memory or to forget.

Give me your hand.”
A knife suddenly, without a smile, without a joke.
Something real, something since long weighing heavy
on solitary shoulders.
My confused hand in hers.
”Remember how we mixed blood as children?”

[23:49] <J0hnDo3> My computer is my only window to the outside world now, the only thing that grants importance to my days. 
[23:49] <J0hnDo3> She was always the outgoing one, the force that sometimes made me leave the virtual world for the physical. 
[23:49] <J0hnDo3> That force is gone now, and I have none of my own. Even less so now than before, actually.

Pain. The neon reflections in the blade, in the crimson liquid emerging from the paleness of my hand.
”See, your blood’s still red.”
Another scar, another wound. Glittering darkness like velvet quicksilver.
Little stars twinkling from the midnight oil in her cupped hand.
”Mine is not anymore.”

[23:51] <J0hnDo3> She always told me that we were going to change the world, one circuit at a time. We were going to salvage what was worth saving and tear down that which was not. 
[23:51] <J0hnDo3> Then we were going to stand by the crater and watch it all burn. 
[23:51] <J0hnDo3> She was on a crusade to steal it all back from the world's rightless powers and to uncover all their lies. 
[23:51] <J0hnDo3> I always followed, because as far as crusades go, she was mine.

I found something, Jonathan, and I went too deep. Now it is changing me.”
Eyes usually brave, defiant, now filled with fear – and something else not readily apparent without looking dangerously closely;
twinkling, twinkling little stars draped in mercury midnight oil.

[23:53] <J0hnDo3> I don't know where she got the gun, or why I still have it. It is a sick thing to have, right, and an even sicker thing to keep. 
[23:53] <J0hnDo3> I made a half-hearted attempt to clean it, but it still has specks of her burnt, dark blood all around the muzzle. It just won't come off. 
[23:53] <J0hnDo3> Well, it doesn't matter to me. It will do it's job again just as well anyway.

I can’t explain it. I’ve tried to understand what is happening, but I can’t.
I think I’m going mad.”
Three deep breaths, barely held back tears and panic.
”I can’t feel things like I used to, and I know things I shouldn’t know.
Like it’s someone else’s knowledge that I don’t know how I have.
And I have stopped sleeping, Jonathan.
I just lie there in the darkness, like in standby mode.
And the itching… I think there is something under my skin.
Something… not organic.”

[23:54] <J0hnDo3> When she met me on the bridge that night it was the first I saw of her in several days. 
[23:54] <J0hnDo3> I want to remember her as she was, not for the fear and panic and absence of her last three weeks. 
[23:54] <J0hnDo3> After she found that shit on the Tor dark web, that is. 
[23:54] <J0hnDo3> She never told me what it was, if it was tools or drugs or information. Perhaps all three of them. 
[23:54] <J0hnDo3> But whatever it was, it drove her mad and killed her. 
[23:54] <J0hnDo3> And one could say that indirectly it's now killing me too.

The knife is gone, and now there’s a gun.
Chrome surface reflecting the cityscape just as well as
eyes and bottles and blood ever did.
Panic in my mind suddenly.
”What are you doing with that? Put it away!”
I grab her hand tightly, feel pulsing red and black blood
intermingling between our palms.

[23:56] <J0hnDo3> I cannot stand this silence and darkness anymore. I cannot stand being on a crusade that means nothing to me now that she is gone. 
[23:56] <J0hnDo3> The world is so empty and pointless without her, not even worth burning or tearing down. 
[23:57] <J0hnDo3> I've realized that even if I didn't understand it at the time, this is why I kept the gun. Why I picked it up and hid it when the sirens approached. Why I lied about it when the police came by. 
[23:57] <J0hnDo3> Why I'm typing this with its chrome surface reflecting the blinking prompt on my screen.

I’m sorry, Jonathan. I can’t do this anymore. There’s a voice in my head, and it’s telling me things I don’t understand.
Things about me, about the world, about… About everything.
It’s never quiet, Johanthan – it’s never quiet!”
Words from my mouth, gestures of my hands, but they do not reach her.
I do not reach her.
Panic. Pleading. Tears. All mine now.
”Amanda, don’t do this. Please.”

She looks at me, stars twinkling clearly now in mercury midnight oil.
Some kind of calm suddenly.
”It’s all a lie, Jonathan. We’re all nothing but the sum of our own lies.”

And then the world explodes.

[23:58] <J0hnDo3> I don't know what she wanted to tell me, and I don't know why those last words plagued my dreams every night after that until I stopped sleeping and feeling altogether. 
[23:58] <J0hnDo3> My hand hasn't healed well either – did she infect me with something? I keep hearing her voice inside my head and I think I'm going mad as well. 
[23:59] <J0hnDo3> But none of that matters anymore. Nothing does. I feel like a mangled hard drive that's slowly being written over, and I actually don't care.
[00:00] <J0hnDo3> I'm not even sure why I'm writing this. I guess I just wanted to leave a piece of me somewhere out there, before there are pieces of me everywhere so to speak. Perhaps someone will hear the shot and find me before things get too nasty. Or perhaps not. 
[00:00] <J0hnDo3> And perhaps nobody will ever even enter this old channel and read this crap anyway. 
[00:00] <J0hnDo3> But if you do, well, consider this my letter of resignation. To the crusade, to life, to everything. 
[00:00] <J0hnDo3> Goodbye, World.
[00:00] <Am&_A> Don't.
[00:00] <J0hnDo3> ???
[00:01] <J0hnDo3> Wtf who is this? This is not funny.
[00:02] <Am&_A> Just don't, Jonathan. You'll regret it. I know.
[00:02] <J0hnDo3> Amanda? Is that really you?
[00:02] <J0hnDo3> How? You died. I saw you die.
[00:02] <J0hnDo3> Amanda??
[00:04] <Am&_A> There's still so much that you don't understand, and it will get worse. I'm sorry.
[00:04] <J0hnDo3> What? For what? Amanda, where are you??
[00:05] <J0hnDo3> ????
[00:06] <Am&_A> Here. Or, I don't know. I'm not sure. Everywhere.
[00:06] <J0hnDo3> What the hell's that supposed to mean???
[00:07] <J0hnDo3> ???
[00:09] <Am&_A> I hear it has started for you too. It's my fault. I didn't know.
[00:09] <J0hnDo3> KNOW WHAT?? Amanda, please!
[00:10] <Am&_A> There's a place downtown called Cellar Door. 
[00:10] <Am&_A> It's a bar. Don't ask me how I know this. 
[00:10] <Am&_A> Go there. Ask for Vincent. 
[00:10] <Am&_A> He will explain everything.
[00:10] <J0hnDo3> What is this, the fucking Matrix??
[00:10] <J0hnDo3> Hello?
[00:11] <J0hnDo3> Amanda??
[00:13] <J0hnDo3> Amanda, please don't leave me again.
[00:14] <J0hnDo3> Please
[00:21] <J0hnDo3> Amanda?
[00:33] <J0hnDo3> Ok then. Fine. Fuck it. I'll go there.

[04:47] == J0hnDo3 has quit [Ping timeout: 264 seconds]

We’re all nothing but the sum of our own lies.

That was the last thing she said to me before she was gone.
Gone, not dead. Because that’s not how the world works anymore.
Perhaps it never really worked that way, but I was too blind to see it.
Well, I don’t want to be blind anymore.

And if we’re all the sum of our own lies,
I want to know what those lies are.
Because my blood’s not red anymore either, and the voices…
the voices are never quiet.

Twinkle, twinkle, more and more
let’s go down that Cellar Door.

Chris Smedbakken, 2018-02-16

This story was written in response to a title writing prompt, 

It is also highly inspired by a dark urban folklore/RPG setting created by my good friend Stellawainwright. Check out his site, will yah?

I have, by the way, previously written two other short stories set in the same universe. If you want to read them as well, they are called The Sound of Silence and The Forest.


 

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The Forest

”Have you ever been to the Forest before?”

She struggled through the underbrush as she tried to fight off the dizziness and the haze that prevented her from seeing anything but dark, blurry shapes in the murk around her.

”Which one?” She didn’t know who she was talking to, or even where she was.

The voice in front of her – something not quite human – laughed quietly. ”Oh, but there only ever was one”, it said.

”What? No, I’ve been to several–”

”They are all connected, child”, the voice interrupted her. ”All the forests of the world, connected. There’s only one Forest, and you’re in it now.”

”How did… I don’t remember getting here. Who are you? Did you bring me here?”

”You don’t even have the sense to be afraid, do you?” That soft, purring laughter again. ”Well, good. Then you might be ready for what I’m going to tell you.”

She tried to walk faster, to catch up with whoever was walking before her, but her whole body felt strange and slow.

”Something’s wrong with me”, she said. ”It hurts.”

”Yes, I know it hurts”, the voice said. ”That’s part of the beauty of it.”

”The beauty of wha–”

”Don’t speak now, just listen. What you think you know about the world, yourself and reality is a lie. A carefully constructed lie, composed long ago by creatures far wittier than you and I, but a lie nonetheless. It is a lie that tells little children what they need to hear in order to remain sane and alive. A lie that holds human society together, and a lie that protects that which needs to dwell in darkness from the merciless light of day. It is a lie that I myself dread see exposed. But tonight I shall still dare whisper secret truths to you, truths that you shall then help me protect.”

”Me? Help you? I’m sorry, but should I know you?” The trees around her glowed silver and the air smelled of darkness and glass.

”No, but you will. In fact, let me begin by telling you my story”, the voice said – and begun.

”There was a time when I, too, believed in the lie that had been fed to me. This was a long time ago, however, and I have learned my lessons well since then. I was always alone, but I preferred it that way. I never understood other humans, and they did not understand me. I would have been happy to leave it at that, but they were not. For reasons that are more relevant to my own sentimental memory than to this story, they turned on me and I was broken.”

”They… attacked you?” She felt a sudden anger rising up, seemingly from nowhere. The surprising surge of emotion scared her.

”Yes. But as I said, that was long ago and none of them are alive anymore. I have seen to that.”

”You’re not saying–”

”Yes I am. But be quiet now and listen. I was broken and hurting and they left me in the forest for the animals to do their part. But as I lay there, half adream and half awake, I could feel something changing. Slowly, slowly, my mind and body melded with something dark that might have been part of me all along – and suddenly I was not broken anymore. I was not hurting.”

”And what did you–”

”No, this is my story. No more questions. But yes, I killed them. All of them. Grown ups and children just the same. Oh, it was glorious.”

There was such mirth in the voice at this that she didn’t dare inquire further.

”Silence, good”, the voice chuckled. ”But as I said, that’s not part of the story I’m trying to tell you. What is, however, is that I have been living in the Forest ever since, observing, protecting and sometimes hunting. ‘Hunting what?’, I sense you want to ask. Well, sometimes I hunt animals and sometimes I hunt other things. There are other things out here, and the deeper you get into the Forest, the darker and sharper grows the prey. But enough about that.”

The creature cleared its throat with a deep, growling sound, but never slowed down the pace.

”A big part of the lie that humans tell themselves is that the world is simple and logical. There is logic to it, sure, but the logic is not theirs. They limit themselves to seeing only part of reality; build themselves into a confining box, if you will. That box is what the Night Children call Zenith –the world under the sun.”

”Night Children? Zenith? Wait, I don’t–”

The creature growled, and she silenced. ”You have to stop doing that. Asking… Questions. I don’t like it. Zenith is what you perceive as the real world, but it’s not. Reality consists of many worlds, and Zenith is just one of them. But humans cannot handle the thought of this, and they cannot handle the thought of there being truths and creatures and realities outside their own limited perception. And that’s why most often they refuse to see them – and us. Especially those of us who do not blend in well with their narrow scope of the world. We simply become invisible to them.”

”And who are ‘we’?”

”Oh, that’s a good question finally. Maybe the only one that truly matters. We, my dear cub, are the Night Children I mentioned. Those who once were, or at least thought we were, humans – but who fate has proven wrong. We are cursed to live outside the lie and to protect it, thereby protecting ourselves. There are many types of curses that can befall those unlucky enough, but they all end us up outside the box. And outside the box, outside Zenith, is only the darkness of Midnight where few dare tread.

Or that’s not entirely true. Between the two realms is the crossroads twilight of Dusk, and that’s where we are now. It’s the shadow of reality’s hidden nooks and crannies, including forgotten parts of cities and the true parts of the Forest. These places tie all the sunlit woods, towns and corners together. There are doorways here, and pathways and thresholds, that tie secret parts of Zenith together with Midnight. From here you can go anywhere in the sunlit world, but you can also end up terribly, irrevocably lost.”

”And… Am I lost?” There was some kind of fear inside her, but not one that she could easily place and recognize as her own.

The creature laughed again. ”No, dear, you are not lost. I would not have that. It was I who brought you here, and I know these parts inside and out.”

”But… Why? Why did you bring me here? Why are you telling me all of this? I know your story, sure, but I don’t know you.”

”No, that is true. But I, on the other hand, know you rather well. I have been watching you for many moons now, sensed the change in you as soon as it started. You have felt it too, have you not?”

”No, I don’t know what you’re talking about.” She knew this was a lie, but could not clearly remember why.

”You sure? So the increased growing of your nails and teeth, the sudden surges of emotion and the inescapable hunger for raw meat did not strike you as anything outside of the ordinary?”

She remembered something like that, but it felt like it had happened to somebody else, sometime very long ago. ”Well, I guess it did, but I just thought…”

”That you were going mad? Don’t worry, we’ve all been there. But you don’t have to hide the change anymore now, it is done. Finished. You are what you are now, and your little stunt there couldn’t stop it.”

”Stunt?” The memories were starting to come back, but very, very slowly.

”You tried to do something really stupid to yourself, but I stopped you. I told you I have been watching you, didn’t I? Well, I was waiting for something conclusive to happen to you, like it once did to me. And then I stepped in. Lifted you out of that bathtub and carried you here.”

She stopped walking. ”Wait, what? You were in my apartment? You… lifted me out of the bathtub? No. No, this is too much. Sorry, but I have to go. I’ll just, I have to go home now.”

She started turning around, but stopped and jumped as the voice spoke up again – right beside her this time.

”You could do that”, it said. ”But I would not recommend it.”

”Why not?”

”Because we are here now.”

And just in that instant the moon far above them left its nest in the clouds and cast its cold, merciless light down upon the forest. Suddenly she could see the world around herself clearly – including the still surface of the lake right in front of her feet. The water was so dark and quiet that it flawlessly mirrored the forest, the moonlit sky – and the two creatures standing by the water’s edge.

Creatures, not people, because their skin was clad in grizzly fur, their eyes glowing and their pupils little more than horizontal slits. Their hands and feet were adorned with big, monstrous claws and gleaming fangs protruded from their too-wide mouths.

She just stared, too shocked to scream or run or even say anything. The creature to her right, the one who had been walking in front of her this whole time, calmly met her eyes through the reflection in the water.

”You could go back”, it said in a low voice. ”But it would not be the same. I do not know why you have been blessed or cursed with Night, but life as you knew it is over, gone.”

She looked at her own reflection, at the face that she did not recognize but which still reminded her of something she might deep down have known for a long, long time. She shook her head. ”So this is what I am now? A… a monster?”

”Not a monster, dear. You have been blessed with the Wilder heart, cursed with the beast’s mark. This is your true form, yes, but you can still blend in, regain your past form for a while.”

Relief surged through her strange body. ”I can?”

”For a limited time, yes. But it comes with a sacrifice.”

”How?” She turned to face the creature for the first time, grabbed its ragged shoulders and stared into its terrible eyes. ”Just tell me, I’ll do anything!”

The creature met her gaze in silence for several heartbeats. ”The price is beyond ‘anything’ to many whose humanity is still intact”, it said. ”And that is also part of the curse’s irony. To retain the appearance of humanity, you have to commit monstrous acts and ingest what we call vitalem – human flesh and blood.”

She started to say something, but stopped as the meaning of the words suddenly sank in.

The creature nodded solemnly. ”Yes, that is the sacrifice. To give up your inner humanity in order to keep up the semblance of your outer such.”

”But you, you…”

”Yes, I stooped to it initially. I killed those who had wronged and hurt me, and that act kept me human – for a time. But then the realization of what I had done drove me back into the Forest, and for shame and guilt I have seldom left it since. I have been so very alone, but now I am not alone anymore.”

She let go of the creature’s shoulders and backed away a few steps. ”What, so you mean that this is it now? That I am to stay here with you, looking like this, feeling like this, for the rest of my life? Until I die?”

”You will not die. Not in the sense that you appreciate the word, anyhow.”

She let out a frustrated scream that resounded off the surface of the lake and far beyond the slowly dancing treetops. ”No”, she then said as she continued backing away. ”No, I can’t do this. I’m sorry, but I can’t. I can’t be like this, I can’t live here and I definitely can’t stay here with you.”

”You’re not thinking clearly”, the creature said. ”You haven’t thought this through. I told you about the alternative, and I’m sure–”

She laughed manically and shook her head, still slowly walking backwards. ”You don’t know me”, she said. ”You don’t know what I’m capable of. This isn’t fair, this shouldn’t be happening to me. None of it. I’ll have my life back, even if it means drinking blood or whatever. I–”

”You don’t know what you’re saying”, the creature growled. ”I have suffered through the consequences of that road, and I can tell you that it changes you. It makes you into something that–”

”So let it!”, she screamed with a wide gesture of her arms. ”Let it change me. As long as it also changes me back. This isn’t me! Fuck this thing, fuck Dusk and fuck you. I’m going home and you can’t stop me.” She backed a few more steps, then turned around and disappeared between the trees.

The creature remained by the water’s edge, a melancholy glint in its glowing eyes. As the sound of running steps abated and finally silenced altogether, a black bird landed on its right shoulder.

”You’re not very good at this, are you now, Ira? You’ve just lost us another one”, it croaked.

”Virdis, please don’t”, the creature said lowly. ”I did what I could, but she just wouldn’t listen.”

”Well”, the bird called Virdis cawed mockingly, ”Let’s just hope that she’ll at least calm down and listen to her own reason before she kills anyone in Zenith, or worse.”

”Hopefully the Organization will get to her before that. But they will not be happy about it”, Ira sighed, staring into the woods where the other had disappeared.

”I’m sure they won’t mind”, Virdis mused, but the bird’s sly eyes said otherwise. ”Well, I’d better be off then. Gotta let Vincent know that there’s another one coming. Can’t wait to see his reaction. Seeyah.”

And with that the black bird left Ira’s shoulder with a strong beat of its huge wings. It quickly soared into the air and was soon gone into the night, off to whatever strange places crows and ravens use to cross between worlds.

Ira remained alone by the lake, staring at the reflection in the water and wishing, not for the first time, that the world were indeed as simple as the lies from a far away childhood had once made it out to be.

Chris Smedbakken, 2018-02-15

This story was written in response to a title writing prompt, 

It is also highly inspired by a dark urban folklore/RPG setting created by my good friend Stellawainwright. Check out his site, will yah?

I have, by the way, previously written another short story set in the same universe. It is called The Sound of Silence, and you can find it here.

Tomorrow

I dreamed about a star ship
that blotted out the sky
The ship was called Tomorrow,
defiance made it fly.

And on the prow its captain
pure dare in human frame
Dark hair and eyes like lightning
Adventure was her name.

She steered her ship by storm craft
caught hurricane in sail
Asinging olden verses
to conjure up the gale.

And I woke with a yearning
for stars and far away
So now I chase Tomorrow
and dream away today.


This poem was first published as a Twitter thread here.

Cats, Curiosity and an Interrupted Stakeout

This story is part of my ongoing dark urban fantasy series about the character Vanessa Riley. You can find the previous installments here: IIIIIIIVV, VI,VII, IIX and IX. It is also part of my #NaNoWriMo-project for this November.


“Hi! This is Boris Granger, CEO of the ‘Cats and Curiosity Group’. I can’t come to the phone right now, but leave a message after the tone and I will be sure to get back to you as soon as I can.” Beeep.

Vahri hangs up the phone. Yes, she actually, literally hangs it up. She’s standing inside a phone booth by the side of the road, surrounded by a barren sandscape and not another car as far as her eyes can see. Cats and Curiosity Group. Huh. She has never heard the name before, but it’s beginning to seem like this B.G character is a higher animal than what she had first anticipated.

She’s been on the road for several hours, almost ever since she was sure that Chino is safe and that he has gotten the help he needed from Seth Pascal. She drove past his apartment the last thing she did, putting up a magical ward around his building just to be sure. Even if the ritualists can’t scry him magically anymore, that’s still no guarantee that they won’t make a physical hit against him at any time. Neither Vahri nor Chino can afford to be careless right now, and since the djinn-boy doesn’t seem to be the careful type, Vahri will have to compensate doubly.

Because she will not be able to look after Chino personally for a couple of days. The reason for this is that she is on her way to Las Vegas in her red, stolen car. And the reason, in turn, for that is that this is where a certain man called Boris Granger keeps his quarters. Vahri has traced the phone number she found in Mikes hotel room, and knows exactly where to find him.

She leaves the secluded phone booth and steps out into the breaking dawn, yawning and stretching her arms up in the air to get the circulation going. She has been driving the entire night, and is now tired as hell. Her stopping by the road to use the old pay phone was due to equal amounts curiosity and a desperate need to find an excuse for taking a break. She didn’t expect him to pick up – did not want him to, in fact. She just needed to hear what he sounded like on his answering machine in order to get an edge on him magically when once she arrives at her destination.

Every sensory detail you have about a person makes it easier to cast magic on them from a distance. Now she knows what Boris Granger sounds like, in case she’ll be forced to make a move against him later on. The need for using a pay phone instead of her own cell should be self-explanatory – she wants to minimize the amount of information they have on her. Including, but not limited to, her phone number.

She gets back in the car just as the first rays of the sleepy sun make themselves known at the horizon to the east. Hopefully she’ll be able to get a few hours of sleep when she gets to her destination. Otherwise, the huge stash of energy drinks packed on the floor of the car’s small back seat will probably do the trick almost as well. The engine purrs to a start and she pulls back onto the empty desert road again.

***

Chino wakes up and immediately wishes that he hadn’t. His head is hurting, his stomach lurches and the entire world is spinning like mad. He’s lying on the couch, an empty Jäger bottle cramped in his right hand and another lying cramped between his neck and the armrest of the couch. He’s still only wearing the towel he wrapped himself in after the long, hot shower that still has his hair in a wet disarray.

The apartment is dark, and it is only after several minutes of lying painfully and passively awake that Chino realizes that this is because all the curtains in the apartment are drawn. The clock on his cell phone tells him that it’s well past noon and that he has been sleeping for more than five hours since Seth Pascal left.

While looking at the screen of his phone he also realizes another thing: that he has not woken by his own accord. The phone is buzzing and vibrating, and on its screen flashes his foster father’s name. Chino hastily runs through all the mental notes in his head, trying to remember if he is supposed to be doing something important today, or if there is something else he should remember when talking to his dad. He cannot think of anything in his hungover daze, and thus he answers the phone.

“Yeah”, he says and tries his best to sound like a sober person who´s already been up for ours, doing mature stuff and earning his existence.

“Caesar, it’s me”, Ernesto says, as if they were still living in an age when technology didn’t give the caller’s identity away well before the recipient chose to pick up the phone.

“I know”, Chino says and wishes like so many times before that his father would stop calling him by his silly given name. But he doesn’t really wish it, for by now obvious reasons. “How are you?”, he adds and almost-wishes that this could be a polite, rhetorical question like it used to be before. But it isn’t, and the slight pause before his father answers is enough to tell Chino that whatever reply is to come, it is going to be a lie.

“I’m fine, Caesar. I’m feeling really good today, actually.”

Chino wants to break something, to throw something at the wall and yell at Ernesto that he’s not fine, that he is just lying to protect his son and that he really shouldn’t because it is Ernesto who needs help and protection, and not Chino. But he doesn’t do any of this. “That’s… good”, he says instead, like so many times before. Because he, too, is trapped within this charade, in this make believe that everything is going to be alright. That Ernesto isn’t going to die because his family can’t afford a transplant. Because his one son is a useless good-for-nothing failure that can’t even keep his own shit together – much less be of any use to anyone else.

He could wish Ernesto’s condition away, and knowing this is almost the worst part of it. He could do that, but the consequences would probably be terrible. Ivers – in one of his rare fits of actual usefulness – explained this part to him as one of the first lessons Chino received after becoming a djinn. He had explained that there has to be balance, and that every granted wish causes misfortune for someone else.

Chino knows that if he uses his magic to save his father’s life, someone else is going to die. And this someone might turn out to be someone he cares about as well. It’s a terrible choice, and also one he doesn’t think he has the stomach to make. He is still too human to take a life. At least he wants to think so. But the situation is growing more and more desperate, and he’s not sure that this will be his standpoint the day that Ernesto is really at his deathbed. I won’t let it come to that, Chino’s thinking as a lump of panic grows within. I have to get that money.

“And how about you, Caesar? What are you up to today?” That strained cheerful tone again. Almost unbearable.

“Nothing much. I… have been working a night shift, so right now I’m just at home, eh… cooking.” Lies. So many lies.

“Oh, I hope I’m not interrupting in the middle of something then. There’s just this one thing I´ve wanted to bring up with you. About… You remember that I told you about your brother?”

How could I forget? “Yeah, I remember something about that, yes.”

“Yes, right. Of course. Well, I was thinking that maybe… Maybe you should go visit him? I know that he might seem… I mean, I know that you might not feel like it, but at least he is family and I think that it would do you good to at least know who he is.”

Chino sighs heavily. He knows what this is. This is Ernesto making preparations for his own death. He wants Chino to latch onto someone, for example an older, wiser brother, before Ernesto himself leaves him. Chino isn’t sure if this makes him angry or unbelievably sad. Either way, he feels the tears coming and is glad this conversation is not taking place in person. “Do you even know him?”, he says.

Ernesto laughs nervously. “Well, no. I only just met him once, and that was when… When I went to take you home. He was only a boy back then, maybe seven or eight, I don’t know. He should be almost thirty by now. But I googled his name, and it seems like he has a company and that things are going pretty well for him. So I thought…”

Chino doesn’t want to hear anymore. He doesn’t want to listen to his foster father, the only father he has ever known, belittling himself and his resources in comparison to this brother-person that Chino doesn’t remember ever seeing or knowing. He just can’t take it. “Okay, I’ll go see him”, he blurts out just to interrupt Ernesto in the melancholy self-bashing that he knows is to come next. “Just give me an address and I’ll go there as soon as I’ve got the time.”

Ernesto pauses and remains silent for a moment. When he speaks again, Chino can hear the genuine and relieved smile in his voice. “That’s wonderful, Caesar! I’ll text you his address. His name is Ian Salimi. Thank you, Caesar. You cannot know how much this means to me.”

But Chino has reached the limit for how much coping he’s equipped to do right now. He loves his father, but he can’t handle the current, tragic situation for more than a few minutes at a time. “Yeah. Great, dad. Hey, say hello to mum for me, okay? I must go now. The… water is boiling over.”

And this is not even a complete lie, at least not in a metaphorical sense. Before Ernesto has time to say much more, Chino hurriedly ends the call.

So he is going to go see his estranged brother. Wonderful, just what he needs right now. But first, in order to prepare himself to do so, he needs something else entirely.

He wishes so badly for there to be more Jägermeister in the freezer – actually wishes it, this time. He then stumbles to his feet to go and get it, while somewhere in the vicinity an old lady trips on her little dog and drops her wallet down a drain.

***

The day is waning, the sky turning a warmer shade of blue that bodes hours of darkness soon to come. Lights are successively going on inside the many apartment windows on the street, and soon the lamps behind these particular curtains are turned on as well.

Mike Preston remains in his car, engine and lights turned off. He’s been sitting here almost the entire day, ever since he noticed – to his great frustration – that his seals on the djinn and his apartment have been broken somehow. That he can no longer neither see nor track the target from afar. He reckons that it must have been a quite skilled ritualist indeed who has broken them, because up until now he has never had this problem before. Ever.

And it is not the wizard girl, he is sure about that. She has put up some kind of magical ward since the seals were broken, but that’s another thing entirely and he’s seen that kind of work before. It’s the fact that another ritualist has outsmarted him that is the news here. The sudden change makes him both provoked and intrigued. He will have to track this mystery adversary down later.

Right now, however, he has other prey in sight – literally. Because suddenly the door to the apartment building he’s watching opens and a person emerges, immediately to start walking down the street in the increasing twilight. Mike doesn’t have to acknowledge the worn skateboard under his arm to know that this is the djinn – he can see it on his aura even without the broken seals.

He waits for his clueless prey to get a little further down the street before turning the ignition and slowly starting to follow at a safe distance. The silencing runes drawn in charcoal across the entire dashboard of the nondescript car should certainly help his pursuit to remain unnoticed.

At first it seems like the djinn is heading down town, but then he takes a turn and starts walking uphill, toward areas where Mike would not have put him, judging by his style of dress and seeming income. He cruises behind the djinn at a distance while outside the car the buildings and parked vehicles little by little grow more expensive and well cared for. This is a fancy part of the city, and Mike cannot imagine what kind of business the djinn can possibly have here.

Yet the target suddenly stops in front of the entrance to a tall, classy building with huge reflecting windows mirroring the rest of the equally classy street. At first Mike thinks that it must be some kind of company that the djinn is visiting, but then he realizes that this building houses apartments. He quickly finds an empty parking lot and then watches closely as his mark opens the door and disappears into the stairwell.

He shuts down the engine and leans back. He is going to wait here, and when the djinn re-emerges he is going to take him out. Drag him into the car and drive him somewhere for questioning about this Walter Isher. And this time he won’t make any stupid mistakes. If the wizard girl shows up again he shall gladly take her on as well. He owes her that after her break-in into his hotel room the other night – and for the items that she has stolen from him. When he gets his hands on her, returning his gun and his computer will be the least of her worries. And Mr. Granger will certainly not protest getting two bonus wares instead of one, apart from this mysterious Walter.

And just as Mike thinks about his employer, his phone rings. The letters B.G flash across the screen. Shit. He’s not really in the mood for talking to Boris right now, and he really does not have the time for it, either. But Boris has a great gig going, and Mike would hate to endanger his own part in it. So he answers the phone while simultaneously staring intently at the entrance to the building so as not to miss out on his opportunity.

“Yeah?”, he says and tries to keep the worst of the impatience out of his voice.

“Mike, we seem to have a situation”, Boris Granger says and it’s evident from the background noise that he is in the middle of traffic.

“Is that so? And what kind of situation is that?” He’s tired of ‘situations’. Why can’t people ever get to the point without encasing it in polished bull-crap first?

“The customer’s man called. It seems like one of their own agents have picked up on something that might interfere with our services for them. He said that we should probably look into it, before it looks into us.”

Mike cannot help but let out a reflexive laugh. “Whoa, are they threatening us now, or what is that supposed to mean?”

Boris Granger sighs. “I don’t know, Mike. I honestly don’t. Look, he said that their agent is prepared to meet with us and tell us what it’s all about. Tonight. In L.A.”

Now it’s Mike’s time to sigh. “So I’m guessing us means me this time as well?”

“Yes, I’m afraid so. I’m still in Vegas, so it will have to be you.”

“Right. And when?”

“Right away. I’ll text you the location.”

“Boris, you realize, I hope, that I’m not sitting idly here? I’m this close to catching the mini djinn right now. Why don’t you send Pete instead?” But he already knows the answer.

“Because Pete is useless, Mike. He’s just an ordinary man with guns and muscles. You, on the other hand – you know things. You can do things, see things. Start driving down town now, and let Pete take care of the djinn catching. I’m sure he’s way more fit for that task than for meeting with agents of the Club.”

“Sure”, Mike mutters and pulls out from the curb. “As you wish, Mr. Granger.”

He then ends the call and quickly sends Pete the mark’s coordinates, together with the message: “Watch the building. Grab him as he exits. For fuck sake don’t screw this up now”.

Just as he has sent the text his phone beeps. It’s the location for the meeting. The street lights go on one by one in his wake as he leaves the classy street behind, thinking that he’ll kill Pete – and Boris – with his bare hands if it turns out that he has been sitting in this car all day for nothing.

Chris Smedbakken, 2017-11-10


	

Unexpectedly Getting Naked With a Freelance Priest

This story is part of my ongoing dark urban fantasy series about the character Vanessa Riley. You can find the previous installments here: IIIIIIIVV, VI and VII. It is also part of my #NaNoWriMo-project for this November.


It’s late. He should be sleeping, but he isn’t. Instead he is doing his best to clean up the chaos left behind in his apartment when he was abducted by crazy cultists the other night.

How did things come to this? Chino remembers a time, not so long ago actually, when things had been simple. Or rather, compared to this mess they had certainly been. Back then he would probably have laughed right in the face of anyone who dared to suggest he was leading an easy life.

Always short on money, a deathly sick foster-father and a crashed relationship with the woman he had been so sure he would spend the rest of his life with, but who turned out to have been cheating on him and consequently broke his heart. Then recently he also found out that he has a brother. A real, biological brother who even lives in the same city, but who has never felt inclined to make himself known to Chino. So much for blood ties.

All those things had been hard to cope with, but then everything had suddenly taken a turn for the worse. Much worse.

He picks up a fallen chair and tries to put it back on its legs – only to discover that one of the legs has been broken. He sighs and adds it to the pile of other broken items that is already growing by the wall.

Things had started to go downhill when he messed up at work a couple of weeks ago. He had been introduced to a new guy at the delivery service where he was working. A guy called Kamran, who was to accompany Chino on one of his delivery runs to learn the drill. But the night had ended with a package missing, and the new guy was never heard from again. Presumably it was he who had stolen the missing box, but the deficit was still cut from Chino’s own, already substandard, salary.

Thinking about what happened next, Chino has to open the window and light a cigarette in order to collect himself. He sucks his lungs full of polluted smoke and stares into the night as he remembers. Already the day after the botched delivery there had been a knock on his door. When he had opened it he had been surprised to stand eye to eye with his reclusive and slightly intimidating  next door neighbour – the old man Chino and his friends jokingly referred to as “The Hitman”, but on whose door was written the name W. Isher.

“Hello Caesar”, Mr. Isher had said.

“Ehm, hi?”, had been Chino’s perplexed response.

“I’m sorry to bother you, I know we have not spoken before”, the neighbour said and continued: “But there is a favour I need to ask of you. I know you’re the right person for the task, since I can tell you are a responsible young man. And of course I will pay you for your troubles.”

And with that Mr. Isher had produced from his pocket a bulging envelope. “This here contains two thousand dollars. I’m sure you can find some use for them.”

And Chino could, of course he could. His foster-father was suffering from kidney failure and he desperately needed the money for his surgery. That he had been robbed of his salary the night before had not helped the situation, and then and there Mr. Isher’s envelope had been almost impossible to resist. Well, at closer thought: cut the “almost”.

“What is it you need me to do?”, Chino had said.

And at that Mr. W. Isher had smiled a little too widely and said: “I need you to watch my cat for me.”

Turned out Mr. Isher was planning to go away for a couple of days, and needed someone to feed his cat Ivers and “take care of his other household chores” while he was gone. When Chino had asked what those “chores” consisted of, the neighbour had waved the question off with a vague innuendo that it was all about watering plants and sorting through his mail. A typical case of house watching, as it were.

Of course Chino had accepted the offer. What’s not to like about getting paid two thousand dollars to feed a cat for a few days, after all? When Mr. Isher had been very particular about them shaking hands on the deal, and on Chino word for word repeating the promise of the undertaking back to him as they did so, Chino had only thought of it as a final piece of evidence that the neighbour was senile or insane. Now he knows better.

The next day the irises of his eyes had turned red. Yes, an actual sharp, scarlet red. He had also discovered, to his great horror of course, that his left foot was now a right foot. Apart from this being a highly compromising factor when skateboarding, it was of course also utterly and entirely fucked up and frightening. Suffice to say, Chino had panicked.

He had gone over to the next door apartment, more in shock and irrational trance than anything else. And there he had met Ivers, the cat that would turn out not to be a cat at all. As soon as Chino had entered the apartment, the fluffy, sour looking thing had spoken to him.

“Oh, I see that Walter has fooled you as well. Wonderful. Just don’t forget to clean out my litter box. It’s bad enough I have to do it in sand, I don’t need it to be filthy as well. It’s below me.” And with that the cat had walked into the living room and curled up on top the couch backrest.
Chino had walked after it. Him. Whatever. “Wait a moment. You’re a cat, and you… speak?”

“How perceptive of you. Makes me wonder why you haven’t noticed yet how stupid that haircut makes you look. But no, and yes. I’m not a cat, but I do talk. How does that make you feel?”

And Chino had only stood there in the door to the living room and wondered if he was, in fact, finally going crazy from all the stress heaped upon him over the last few days. The cat must have seen the look on his face, because his sarcastic voice spoke up again.

“Oh, come now. Don’t cry. I guess there are a few things I should explain to you.”

And that is just what he had done.

That afternoon Chino was let in on so many messed up secrets about a reality he had grown pretty accustomed to thinking he probably knew the most about, that when dusk fell outside he was both dizzy and terrified.

The neighbour called W. Isher was no hitman at all, neither a senile pensioner. He was a djinn in hiding, who had been living in this apartment for countless years in order to melt in with the humans of the city. The cat Ivers was a djinn as well, but one who had been tricked by Walter into taking feline form and then never managed to break the spell. From his story Chino suspected that the catformation had had something to do with Ivers not respecting the rules and laws of the djinn society – even though Ivers himself passionately denied this.

Now, anyways, Mr. Isher – or Walter Isher, which was the name he went by – had gotten tired of the djinn-life and had decided to take a vacation. Where he had gone away to even Ivers didn’t know, but what he did know was that Walter had needed someone to take care of his djinnly duties while he was away. The choice had fallen upon Chino, who had subsequently been tricked into accepting the role as a substitute djinn – taking care of the “household chores”, so to speak.

Even now, as he stands in the window smoking his do-it-yourself cigarette, Chino can feel the frustration, anger and fear that had gripped him when he had realized that he had walked into some kind of perverted fairy tale trap. And the frightened confusion he is still feeling about all the new powers – powers to grant the wishes of both others and himself – that have been bestowed upon him after making the deal with Walter.

Chino can hear other people’s inner wishes now, if only he listens carefully enough. And he can choose to make those wishes come true with some kind of magic. The problem is, every time he does something equally bad happens to somebody else. “There has to be balance”, Ivers had said. A good thing cannot happen to one person without something bad happening to another.

To make matters even worse, Ivers had tricked him as well. He had fooled Chino into helping him escape his feline form and re-emerge as an insolently good-looking man with an obnoxious attitude and an aptitude for causing trouble. And this guy had been the only person Chino could possibly talk to about his new… anatomical abnormalities. It’s easy to see how this new turn of events had not helped Chino’s already strained life situation in the least.

And then – Chino doesn’t even want to think about it – the hunters had come after him. He had awoken two nights ago with a gun against his face and a stranger broken into his apartment. They had fought – hence the chaotic mess in the apartment – but in the end the invader had forced Chino out the door at gunpoint. The armed man and his friend had demanded Chino tell them where Walter is, but he doesn’t know anything about that. He suspects they would probably have killed him if Vahri – the wizard girl he had spoken to only briefly at the club that same night – had not somehow showed up and saved him at the last-minute. Turns out she’d had some kind of vision of what had happened to him, and rushed to the rescue. How convenient.

He knows that she told him to leave the apartment for a while, to only pack the most necessary things and lie low somewhere else until things have blown over. And he actually did that – for a night. He slept in a hotel the night after the abduction, all curtains drawn and a heavy chair in front of the door. But hotel rooms are expensive and Chino needs to save what money he can for his father’s surgery, so after that first night he had decided to go back home and hold the fort as far as possible. He knows the thought is probably stupid and dangerous, but he really can’t afford to live anywhere else when he can barely afford to pay his rent.

Thus he’s now cleaning his apartment in the middle of the night, trying to remove all the traces of the break in and the traumatic events that have since followed. He’s convinced Vahri will not be happy about it, but what can he do?

And just as the thought of Vahri crosses his mind, his phone rings. It’s her.

Shit. “Eh, hello?”

“Chino, listen.” She’s obviously calling from the car, judging by the sounds of engine and traffic in the background. There’s a stressed tone in her voice, but also something else. Fear?

“Vahri, there’s a thing that–”

“Not now. I’ve just found out that the ritualists are tracking you, and –”

“But didn’t we know that already?” She’s really confusing him.

“Well, yeah. But not that they’re really tracking you. Like, have put some kind of ritualistic bullshit on you so they can follow every step you take at a distance, and see you in mirrors and shit. That we didn’t know.”

“Wait, what, you’re saying that they can see me in mirrors?”

She sighs impatiently. “Mirrors, silver plates, chromed bumpers, does it matter? Thing is, they probably know where you are right now and can follow everything you do. They’ve probably put some shit on your apartment as well. I’m sending someone there right now to cleanse it, and then they’ll come and do the same to you. I need to know where you are. Now.”

He swallows, realizes how big a mistake he’s actually made by coming home again. “I’m… home”, he says and closes his eyes in preparation for the scolding that’s probably to come. But it doesn´t.

Instead he hears her draw a long breath. “Okay”, she says at last. “I’ve already sent the exorcist to your place, should be there any moment now. I guess we can kill two birds with one rock. Don’t go anywhere and do exactly as the exorcist instructs you. I’ll be in touch.” And with that she hangs up the phone.

Chino just stands there, silent phone in hand, and tries his best to process what he has just been told.  “They can follow every step you take at a distance, and see you in mirrors…” When the thought finally sinks in he quickly slams the window shut and backs away from it. For the first time in years he wishes that he actually had real curtains to draw. Not that it would help, probably – but it would certainly make him feel a lot better.

He is standing in the middle of his living room, irresolutely staring this way and that for somewhere to get away from all the blank surfaces lining the room. Picture frames, table tops, cupboard doors – all share one trait and that is being more or less reflective. A dozens versions of Chino’s own face stare back at him from those surfaces, and he realizes that if the ritualists are able to watch him through those, he’s literally screwed. Vahri has called an exorcist, whatever that means, but–

And then the doorbell rings.

Chino freezes and stares at the door. When the signal doesn’t come again he slowly edges closer, hoping against hope that whoever is on the other side of the door will go away if he doesn’t answer it. The little hall in front of the entrance lies in darkness, and Chino hopes that he’ll get away with looking out through the peephole without his shadow revealing that he is there. He hesitates for a second, but then the not knowing becomes unbearable. He leans closer to the door and chances it.

There’s a person standing out there, and Chino flinches. It’s no one he has ever seen before. He’s sure of that, because he knows he would not be able to forget it if he had. The stranger outside the door is dressed in an assortment of clothes in layers upon layers, with a hood pulled up and several amulets in long chains and leather bands dangling from around their neck. Their, because Chino can’t for the life of him tell if this person is a man or a woman.

Then the stranger raises their head and looks straight into Chino’s eyes, right through the obscuring lens of the peephole and all. Their eyes lock for a heartbeat and Chino suddenly feels like he’s been hit in the brain with an eternity. She was singing when they found her… He doesn’t know where the words come from, but what he does know is that this is no man or woman. It might not even be a person.

“Open the door”, the stranger says. And out of sheer shock and confusion, and completely against all logic and reason, that’s just what Chino does.

As he edges the door open, the stranger tilts their head to one side and watches him closely.

“I’ve never met a djinn before”, they say matter-of-factly and then step past him into the apartment.

“Uh, okay. Or, I mean, who are you? Did Vahri send you? And how did you know that I–”

“Your eyes”, the stranger says tonelessly while soberly taking a self-invited tour of Chino’s living room and kitchen space.

The words confuse Chino for a moment, before he realizes that he’s taken off his sunglasses. Of course, my eyes are red. Fuck. “Eh, right”, he replies while cursing his own carelessness in opening the door without the concealing glasses on – especially with murderous ritualists on his trail.

He slowly and warily follow the stranger into the living room. “But you didn’t answer my other questions”, he says, trying to get the stranger’s attention. “Who are you?”

Chino’s unknown visitor has just taken a photo frame down from the wall and has started studying its backside, but now finally looks at Chino again. The eyes are all pitch dark and make him think briefly of the untamed and unnamed spaces between and beyond stars. “I’m Seth”, the stranger says. “Seth Pascal. I was sent by Vahri, yes. And you’re Chino. Nice to meet you.” And with that, they continue taking photos and posters down from the walls, studying them and then putting them down on the floor.

“Yeah, well, I guess… But hey, what are you doing?”

Seth Pascal now seems to be finished with the wall decorations and has moved on to examining the underside of Chino´s furniture. “I’m looking for signs”, they say in a muffled voice from under the low couch table.

“Ah, right… Signs of what?”

Seth sits up straight and looks strangely at him. “No, not signs of something. Just signs. Runes. Symbols. Don’t you djinns know anything?”

Chino indignantly scratches his chin. “Other djinns might, but I don’t. And I’m actually not really a djinn, either. I’m… just a substitute.”

“Okay, whatever”, Seth says. They get to their feet and brushes off some dust from their loose pants. “Vahri tells me you need some help in getting rid of all the ritualistic surveillance enchantments cast upon your home and your person. Is that correct?”

“Oh, so you are the exorcist?”

“No, I’m a freelancing priest. I can do exorcisms, yes. Both Christian, Hindu, Islamic, Jewish, Buddhist and Taoist. But that’s not what you’re in need of here. Not mainly, at least. I’ll perform a cleansing of your apartment, and then of you. This place will be protected from all except those who you choose to invite in, and you’ll no longer be a glowing beacon to the one who put the magick on you. If that’s what you want, of course.”

“I definitely want that”, Chino says without hesitating even for a moment.

“Good”, Seth says. “I’ll need a bowl of boiling water, three drops of your blood and the strongest alcoholic substance you have at home.”

And as Chino still stands there processing the unusual request, Seth gets to work carefully placing and lighting small, coloured and scented candles all over his apartment.

***

“So… where are you from?” Chino is standing behind Seth as the latter is sitting crouched on the floor, carefully drawing strange patterns on the floorboards with a scarlet crayon. Just a minute ago Chino had watched as the freelance priest walked around the apartment with a cup of burning incense, spreading a heavy, sweet smoke in its every nook and cranny while chanting words in a strange language.

The requested water is heating up on the stove and he has retrieved a fresh bottle of Jägermeister from the freezer. It now stands on the kitchen sink, awaiting whatever arcane practices the freelancing priest is going to put it to use in.

“New Orleans”, Seth says without looking up.

“That sounds… nice”, Chino says, quickly adding: “I’ve never been there, but I’d love to someday. I mean, as a vacation. Or something.” Shit, I really suck at making small talk, he thinks to himself.

“You shouldn’t”, Seth replies, still working on the symbols on the floor. “It wouldn’t be good for you.

Chino frowns in indignant surprise. “What, why?”

“Because I can see it wouldn’t. You’d be hurt somehow.”

“Why, is this some kind of fortune telling you’re doing here?” Chino laughs nervously, hoping Seth will laugh as well.

But Seth doesn’t laugh. “I guess you could call it that. I won’t charge extra for it, though. I just don’t want you to do something you’ll regret later, that’s all.”

Chino contemplates this for a moment, not certain that asking any more questions would get him anywhere. Instead he sighs. “I don’t know if staying here would do me any more good either, though”, he says and sits down on the floor with his back against the side of the couch.

“And why is that?” Seth’s voice is absent and preoccupied.

Chino suddenly feels like that obnoxious apartment owner who just won’t leave the contracted plumber alone to do their work on his bathroom. “You know what, never mind”, he says.

“You do as you wish, but I’m actually interested in hearing your story. As I said, it’s the first time I meet a djinn… or a substitute djinn, if that makes you feel better.” Seth still doesn’t look up from their work and the voice is still as toneless as it was before.

Yet something still tells Chino that there is genuine interest and not sarcasm behind those words. And, surprising himself even, he starts talking. He tells Seth Pascal about his unfortunate deal with Walter and the discovery that he wasn’t really human anymore. About the wishes and voices he hears in his head every time he looks at a person for too long, and about the irritating cat-turned-man, Ivers, who seems to be doing his best to turn Chino’s life into a living circus. When he gets to the part where he is abducted by the ritualists he hastily skips over the parts that are hardest to tell; those that still make him nauseous even to think about.

Seth hears him without comment, and even though they fail to even try following the conversational contract of nods and micro responses, Chino somehow still feels that he is being listened to. So much so, in fact, that he finds himself telling this stranger about his foster father’s life threatening illness, his own broken heart and the thing that happened the other night when one of the boxes was stolen from his nightly delivery round.

When he is finally done telling the short version of his life’s story, Seth Pascal has stopped drawing symbols on the floor. They are looking deeply, intently at Chino with those void dark eyes.

“Thank you”, they say. There is real sincerity in the voice this time. “Thank you for telling me your thoughts and hardships. It honours me.”

Chino starts feeling a bit embarrassed in the line of those intense eyes, but before he can stammer something in reply Seth continues speaking.

“People often tell me things, but not more than what I need to know in order to help them with their plights. You have told me much more than so, and you have given me trust. I appreciate that.”

“Eh”, Chino begins, fumbling after words. “Nothing to worry about. I guess. I’m just glad you wanted to listen. Maybe I just needed to talk to someone about these things, I don’t know.”

Seth nods slowly, as if Chino had just said something really wise and profound. Had he? Chino doesn’t really know anymore. There’s something about talking to this Seth Pascal that makes him think about whispering secrets to the stars outside his window as a child. And he had done that often, he remembers now.

“I know what it’s like to be more and less than what people see”, Seth says, waking Chino from his musings. He is feeling drunk, but not in a drunken way – if that makes any sense at all. He guesses it doesn’t. Seth continues: “And I know what it’s like to see more and less than what people do. I can feel you, Caesar Lino Salinas. I really do.”

“How did you–”

“Because I can see it, just like I told you. Just like so many other things.”

Seth then rises, startling Chino out of his dreamy state. “It’s finished”, they say.

“What… what’s finished?” Chino unsteadily climbs to his feet.

“The cleansing of the apartment. I’ve drawn the counter signs and said the proper words. You’ll be safe here now, as long as you don’t invite your enemies inside.”

“So… they can’t see me anymore? Or find me?”

For the first time, Seth now shows something that resembles a normal, human reaction or emotion. Embarrassment. “Well, no. Or, there is one more thing that needs to be done first.”

“Okay… And what is that?”

Seth looks at everything except him now. “Uhm, we’ll have to get you cleansed as well.”

Chino frowns. “Alright then. And… what’s the problem with that?”

Seth sighs. “Not a problem maybe, but…”

“But?”

“You’ll have to get naked for that.”

“…really?”

“Yup.” Seth hastily walks past him and into the kitchen alcove, taking the boiling water off the stove and putting it on top of the sink next to the frosty bottle of whiskey. Chino is handed a small, simple knife. “Here, I’m going to need your blood in here”, Seth says and gestures toward the steaming kettle.

Chino doesn’t like where this is going, but has a hard time concentrating on any thought right now except for the memory of those words. You’ll have to get naked. Before he knows it, he has cut a thin line across his palm and started dropping blood into the hot water.
“That’s enough”, Seth says and takes the knife back. Before Chino’s eyes it vanishes quickly into one of the many folds in Seth’s layered clothing. In its stead Seth just as quickly produces a small bottle from a pocket and skilfully unseals it. They then proceed to slowly pour the bottle’s content into the steaming water-and-blood mix, all the while stirring the liquid with a spoon found in the dish rack.

Chino stares in fascination as the water in the kettle turns first pink, then red, then a deep, blood coloured nuance. Then it starts to thicken, and finally transforms into something that resembles a distasteful, lumpy jelly more than anything else. He really hopes he will not be forced to eat that.

“It’s done”, Seth says, picks up the kettle and starts walking towards the bathroom.

“But… wait. Why the bathroom? And what about the whiskey?”

“We’d better do it in here because it can get messy. And the whiskey is for me. Bring it.”

***

“Please raise your arm.”

This is by far the most humiliating and awkward moment in Chino’s life so far. He’s standing stark naked in his own bathroom together with a really strange stranger who is inch by inch covering his body in a transparent, reddish goo while muttering weird incantations and now and then taking a sip from the bottle of Jäger.

Chino is staring straight ahead and raises his left arm. Seth smears his armpit with the decoction. Chino almost wishes he could sink through the floor, but catches himself at the last moment. Making figurative wishes as a djinn could turn into a dangerous affair. Chino had learned this the hard way.

Seth’s chanting grows more intense, and Chino is beginning to feel the substance on his skin getting warmer. He almost panics as it starts to burn in places as the air in the room begins to vibrate with something other than the ever-present humming of the fluorescent lamp in the ceiling. And suddenly he feels them – as if whatever Seth Pascal is doing is uncloaking them and revealing them to him. Hundreds and hundreds of eyes upon him, watching, studying, knowing.

How did I not feel or see this before?

And he knows without a doubt now that Vahri and Seth were right – someone is watching him. And those eyes are everywhere now, unblinking gazes fixed upon him, mercilessly piercing his soul and integrity. Eyes upon eyes upon eyes, until Chino can’t see anything else around him. Wild panic finally grips him, and he screams.

***

When he comes to, he is lying on the bathroom floor, wrapped in a towel and hurting all over.

“I’m sorry for that”, Seth says. “I should have warned you that you might see them.”

Chino is trembling as he sits up. “What… what the hell was that?”

Seth sighs and dries their hands on another, smaller towel. “It was the eyes the ritualist had bound to you. But they’re gone now.”

Then Seth actually blushes, and looks away from him. “You might want to get a shower.”

And Chino’s relief at being rid of the ritual eyes is suddenly interrupted when he realizes that he is still naked under the towel, and that he is still covered in the red goo – even the parts of him that he’d rather keep very, very private. “Eh, yeah”, he stammers and feels himself blushing as well. “I guess I… should.”

“I’ll show myself out”, says Seth and starts leaving the room.

“Wait”, Chino says and arduously climbs to his feet. Seth pauses on the threshold and turns around. Chino’s head hurts and he realizes that he must have fainted and fallen to the floor earlier. He steadies himself against the wash basin and makes sure to hold the towel firmly around his waist. He tries his best to collect himself and gather his thoughts.

Chino clears his throat. “Well, so… Where are you going now? What are you going to do?”

Seth hesitates. “I’ll go back to New Orleans”, they say finally. “There’s a plane that leaves in an hour. I’ll probably be able to catch it.”

Chino nods, not sure of what to say next. What do you say to someone who has just smeared you all over with bloody jelly and then watched you faint on the floor?

“Thank you”, he simply says finally. “I don’t really know what you did, but I felt it working. I saw those eyes, but I think they’re gone now.”

Seth nods. “They are. And you’re welcome, Caesar Lino Salinas.”

And with that Seth Pascal leaves him standing there in the bathroom, surrounded by a sticky mess and with very strange mixed feelings inside.

Chino looks at his own red-eyed reflection in the mirror, shakes his head and takes a deep draught from the now half empty whiskey bottle left behind on the wash basin.

And then his morning alarm sounds. It’s morning.

How the fuck did his life come to this?

Chris Smedbakken 2017-11-03


You can find the next part here.

Secrets, Blood Pacts and a House Full of Dead People  

This story is part of my ongoing dark urban fantasy series about the character Vanessa Riley. You can find the previous installments here: I, II, III, IV, V.


“The Enjoyment Club. What do you know about them?”

“Is that what this is about? Some glorified ghost story?”

“Don’t you go there, Devin Murdock. You know just as well as I do that there’s more to them than that. Or have I overestimated you?”

“Chill, Nessa, I just–”

“Vahri.”

“Well, okay, Vahri. I was just hoping you’d be here to see me, not to ask about some stupid deathtrap knowledge I’d rather not have in the first place.”

“Well, sorry to disappoint you then.”

“Jeez, you’re different. What happen to us, Ness… Vahri?”

“You being a fucking idiot, that’s what happened. I didn’t even fucking know what sacromancy was when they came to interrogate me about you. But I’ve understood a couple of things since then, and I’ve gotta give it to you straight: you’re not sane. Can’t be. Nobody in their right mind would want anything to do with that sick stuff. I wouldn’t even be here right now if you weren’t the only one I’m able to think of that’d know anything useful about the Club. And that’s not a compliment.”

“Wow, that was quite the telling off. But okay Vahri, or whatever you call yourself nowadays. What makes you think I’d be willing to tell you anything about that shit? It’s not like we’re close anymore, and last I checked I don’t owe you anything.”

“Sure, that’s true. But you know what’s true as well? I’ll tell you. You don’t want people to know you’re here. I apparently know you’re here, and I have a mouth. Do the equation.”

“Oh, you wouldn’t.”

“Try me.”

“I could kill you, you know. Or do something about this mouth problem of yours. It wouldn’t be difficult.”

“I guess it wouldn’t. But I also guess you’d not be very keen on tasting the wrath of my pet djinn afterwards. I’m under the impression you’ve got quite enough on your hands already, what with the coven inquisition having put a price on your head and all that. Am I wrong?”

A moment of silence. “Okay, you win. I guess it can’t hurt. Well, not me, at least. If you want to know about the Club, I’ll tell you about the Club. But don’t come running back to me when you get your fingers burned, okay?”

“Drop the drama and just tell me already.”

“Sure, I will. But on one condition.”

“And what is that?”

“You have to do something for me in return.”

“Dev, if this is some kind of–”

“Hell, nothing like that. Shit, Vahri, is that what you think of me? No, I want you to help me with two things. They’re kind of related but not in an obvious way. First, I want you to do something about a ghost problem I have…”

 

Vahri sighs as she ascends the creaking stairs leading up to the second floor. Is this what things have come to? Her doing ghost busting favors for her psycho ex-boyfriend in return for information about stupid ghost stories turned reality overnight?

She has already tried asking Neferthali about The Club, but her vampire godmother either doesn’t know or doesn’t want to tell. “It’s just stories and myths, child. Terrible stories, but stories nevertheless. Stay clear of them and they can’t hurt you. If someone is after that djinn boy, just make sure not to get involved”, was all she had to say before trying to convince Vahri to lock herself inside a secret panic flat together with her. Just stories my ass.

Suffice to say, Vahri did not accept the bunker invitation. Instead here she is, on the second floor of the haunted villa where Devin has decided to hole up for some reason. He hasn’t told her yet what the other service required of her is going to be, but this first task in itself already feels like a handful.

She wipes dust from an old standing mirror with her hand. “Anybody here? Ghosts?” She speaks right at her own reflection, hoping for some kind of reaction. When nothing happens and she still only sees herself in the old pane of silvered glass she turns away and continues down the hall.

Grains of dust hover in the air, glittering in the shafts of sunlight falling through the cracks in the boarded up windows. The floorboards creak under her weight and everything carries a faint smell of dried up mold.

She opens a door to her right and stops dead on the threshold. She’s found one of the bedrooms. A four-poster bed occupies the center of the room, and on top of the covers lies a dead woman. She must have been dead for a long time, judging by the putrid smell that makes breathing almost unbearable in here.

“Devin, have you killed someone up here?”, Vahri yells down the stairs. But before she’s gotten an answer from below, the corpse on the bed starts rising up into a sitting position. Vahri watches the old woman slowly, slowly straightening up, until the worn pink night-gown slides off her bony shoulders to reveal more wrinkled skin than Vahri is prepared to take in.

“Fuck this”, she says and slams the door shut. She then hurries down the stairs, almost knocking Devin over on her way down.

“What’s going on?”, he says as he grabs her by the shoulders.

She frees herself, not wanting him to see how shaken she is. “There’s a dead woman upstairs”, she says. “At first I thought she was one of your unfortunate acquaintances, but then she moved so I figure she’s rather one of your unfortunate ghosts.

He stares at her and swallows hard. “There’s a… dead woman upstairs?”

“No, it’s a paper duck. Didn’t I just tell you? This house has big problems, I can feel it just by breathing the air in here. Do you really want to stay here?”

“I don’t have much of a choice, as I see it.”

“Well, then I recommend you get an exorcist.”

“I tried that already, but he wouldn’t come.”

“Who wouldn’t come?”

“Carlos Batista. He got me this house and–”

“Carlos is a wussy nowadays, ever since he met Cornelia. I can see why he wouldn’t wanna get involved with someone like you. I’m surprised he even helped you with the house. No, I mean a real exorcist. Or a priest. I know one we could call.”

“And who might that be?”, he says. She can tell he’s starting to crank up; he’s doing that thing with his eyebrows that he always does when something is irritating him.

“Relax, Dev. Let’s go into the kitchen again. The spirits seemed to be quieter in there.” She walks before him through the doorway as she continues talking. “There’s this freelance priest from New Orleans called Seth Pasco or something like that. Found her on Craig’s List a couple of years ago when I needed to get rid of a curse some stupid bitch cast on me for sleeping with her ex. I think I still have her number.”

“The ex?”

“No, the exorcist of course. Please tell me you’re just faking stupidity now.”

She sits down at the table and starts looking through her contacts. He remains standing, hovering in the doorway like yet another restless ghost. “And why is it I have never heard of this miracle priest?”

“Honey, please. Just accept that you don’t know everything. Besides, she’s pretty young. Ah, here she is!”, Vahri says triumphantly as she finds the right number in her loaded contact list. “It’s Seth Pascal, actually.

“Pascal? Like the philosopher?”

“Stop trying to collect intellectual points, Devin. I’m calling her, and then you’re telling me what you know about the Club, okay?”

“But there’s this other thing I need your help with too, remember?”

She sighs. “I help you get in contact with Seth, and then you tell me what I need to know. Then I’ll come back and help you with your mystery quest, I promise.”

“A promise is not good enough.”

“What do you want then?”

“An oath. A real one, with blood.”

“Dev, don’t be child–”

“It’s either that, or the whole deal is off. You choose.”

Another sigh, deeper this time. “Okay, sure, fine. We’ll do it your way. Let’s not waste any more time.” She retrieves a small knife from her pocket and draws a sharp, red line across the palm of her right hand. Small drops of blood begin to emerge as soon as her body starts realizing it has been cut.

He stares at her in disbelief for several heartbeats, before catching himself and stepping up to the table where she’s sitting. “That was… I mean, I didn’t necessarily mean we had to–”

“It’s dripping on your floor, Devin. Get to it already.” She hands him the knife while catching stray drops of blood with her free hand.

Devin grabs the knife and repeats her gesture. His movements are trained, as if he’s done this a million times before. She definitely does not doubt this is actually the case. He extends his injured hand towards her, and she takes it in hers.

“Now swear”, he says in such a cold and matter-of-fact way as to make her almost shiver. Was he always this… dark?

She looks into his deep, black eyes and suddenly wonders for the first time what she is really getting herself into. A blood pact with someone like him could very well warrant harsh punishment if somebody found out. Very harsh punishment indeed. He’s a sacromancer, which means he meddles with black magic. That’s what he was exiled for all those years ago, and back when it happened it was only her own youth, ignorance and innocence that saved her from being suspected of the same crime. But that was a long time ago, and she is neither ignorant nor innocent anymore. Especially not after this.

His grip is firm and she can feel warm blood pulsing between their palms. The morbid intimacy of the moment is strengthened by the intense hold of his dark gaze. She could not break neither eye contact nor grip even if she had wanted to. But she is determined to go through with this, if that is what it takes.

“I, Vahri, swear –“

“True names here”, he says sternly.

She catches herself, a little embarrassed for not knowing this already. Hastily she corrects herself. “Ehm. I, Vanessa Heike Riley, swear to uphold my part of the bargain and thus to the best of my ability assist Devin Murdock in his mystery quest, after he tells me all he knows about the Enjoyment Club.”

Devin nods solemnly, still not breaking eye contact. “And I, Devin Benjamin Murdock, in return swear to tell Vanessa Heike Riley all I know about the Enjoyment Club. And to take her out on a date once all this is done and over with.”

He flashes her a crooked smile, and before she has time to protest or react she can feel him sealing the blood pact. The air starts shimmering with static and the restless creaking and moaning from the house’s old residents grows entirely silent for a moment. Vahri feels the blood between their palms burning like acid. It is burning its way back through the wound in her hand and straight up through her veins. For a heartbeat her entire cardiovascular system is burning with arcane fire, and still she cannot break eye contact with him. She stares helplessly into his dark eyes as the pact etches itself into her very being, her very soul.

It is all over in the blink of an eye, but when the intense, searing pain is suddenly gone she still finds herself sitting there, gasping for air, grasping his hand and staring into his eyes. He smiles, and she hastily catches herself. She lets go of his hand and wipes the blood off her hand and onto her black jeans.

’Nothing like this’ my ass”, she snarls and pushes past him, out into the hallway.

He takes up position in the doorway behind her again, leaning against the door frame in a casual way that she deems has to have been rehearsed beforehand. “Come on, Nessa. Don’t be like that. I’m just having some fun. You should try that too, some time.”

“I didn’t swear to go with you on any fucking date”, she snaps. “I’m here for information, nothing else.”

He sighs. “Alright, then. I’m sorry for that. If you won’t go out with me later I guess the penalty of breaking the pact is on me. No harm done to you, right?”

“Right”, she says, arms crossed. “So before you pull any more of your immature pranks, I guess I’d better call this Pascal girl and get things moving. And then comes the part where you tell me what you know.” She turns her back on him and walks into the living room, already dialing Seth Pascal’s number.

As she listens to the dialing tones she can hear Devin teasingly mutter behind her.

“You might still change your mind before this is over, though”, he says. But she chooses to ignore him.

***

He is sitting on the porch, smoking a tellingly asymmetrical cigarette, when she joins him again. He seems to be trying hard not to question her about the phone call right away. He waits until she is seated on the stairs next to him before eagerly turning to her.

“So?”, he says.

She takes the cigarette from his hand without being offered, and draws a deep breath from its sweet fumes. “She’ll come”, she says without looking at him. Instead she lets her eyes sweep the garden in front of the house. It must have once been beautiful, but tear and neglect has rather turned it into something that could have been commissioned for October 31:th.

“She will?”, he says when she does not elaborate. “When? And how will this be done?”

Vahri flicks away the cigarette and rises from the cold step. “She said she would catch the first plane here from New Orleans. And I gave her your number, so you two can work out the details. Now it’s your turn. Come.”

She walks down the remaining steps and onto the crusty grass. She doesn’t wait for him, but starts walking through the garden. Old dried leaves rustle beneath her feet as she passes in between overgrown bushes and apple trees gone wild. She can hear quick steps from behind as he hurries to catch up with her.

“Wait, how do you even have my number?”, he says.

“The dead girl in the living room told me”, she says. “Anyways, this is where you tell me what you know. So shoot.”

There’s a large fountain hidden amidst the tall cypress trees in the garden and it smells of decades of mold. It is filled with brown rain water and old rotten leaves. She sits down on the rock frame encircling it and pats on the mossy stone next to her. “Sit.”

He does as he is told and throws a fascinated glance around the place where they have ended up. She gets the feeling that he has not been in this part of the garden before. Maybe he hasn’t even left the house at all since coming here.

“Well”, he says hesitantly. “I don’t know how much you know already, but–”

“Pretend I know nothing”, she interrupts and tries to seem like this is not uncomfortably close to the truth.

“Okay then”, he says after a moment of silence. “The Club is nasty business and I actually wish I never heard about them. But a promise it a promise, so here goes.”

***

And he starts talking. Starts telling her about an organization so old and so ruthless that it has slowly rotted from the inside. He tells her about mad men and women with endless resources and one goal in life and one goal only: to attain pleasure at the expense of others, and often at the expense of people like her and him; creatures above and beyond the ordinary. Supernatural creatures.

He tells her about mages, vampires, werewolves and changelings falling victim to these madmen’s singular tastes, to their novel sexual urges and their sadistic needs for knowledge and domination. He gives her horrific accounts of wolf-bloods being cooked and eaten alive, of vampire kindred being locked up and used as toys, of magicians being tortured and mutilated for fun and later murdered, cremated and turned into powder subsequently used as expensive cocktail components.

***

The day is warm but Vahri can’t help shivering as she sits there, listening to Dev’s morbid horror story that alas is not a story at all but a report of true and terrible events. By the time he is finished she feels sick, and the putrid stench from the murky water behind her suddenly summons entirely different images to her mind than it did before he began talking.

She takes a deep breath and lets it out. “Fuck”, she says quietly and he only nods. They sit there in silence for a while, Devin seeming almost as pale and nauseous as she is feeling, even though he has been the one telling the story.

He clears his throat. “So… What’s your business with the Club?”

She suddenly has a desperate urge to say ‘nothing’ and actually mean it. She wants nothing to do with this lot, Neferthali was right. But she can’t say that, because it is not true. She has business with these people. She has provoked them through their lackeys, and they have seen her. They know what she is, which makes her a target just as much as that djinn guy, Chino, is. She has to act before they do. Has to find out more and learn how she can avoid them, hide from them or fight them off.

“That’s none of your business”, she says instead. This, at least, is entirely true. She starts to rise to walk away from him.

“Well”, he say, and now that sly tone is back in his voice like it was never gone in the first place. “It is my business insofar as your keeping of that pact of ours is. I’m starting to get used to having dead people around, but I don’t think you’ll be of much help to me if you are dead. Or a trophy on someone’s parlor wall.”

She stops and turns around to face him. She had almost forgotten about that part of the deal. Suddenly she doesn’t feel especially confident about their pact at all anymore. He is a sacromancer after all. What will he have me do? She swallows hard and tries to keep the insecurity out of her voice. “And what is that shit really about then, Dev?”

He smiles, must have seen the nervous look on her face after all. “I have recently lost someone dear to me”, he says. “Someone really important. I’m in town to find and claim his… well, his heritage. Books, alchemical potions, enchanted artifacts, you know the drill. And I have to do it before my, well, let’s call him my brother, does.”

“And you need my help with this estate distribution because…?”

“Well, this dearly departed person lived a rather reclusive life. Hidden away, if you will. And I don’t exactly know where the estate to be distributed has been… ensconced quite yet.”

“So you need me to help you find it, is that it? It’s a geocaching quest?” She is not in the least excited by the prospect of going with Devin Murdock on a treasure hunt that could potentially take several days. But she also knows the potential consequences of breaking a blood pact. She has read about them, and they are not pretty.

“Yep”, he says.

She shakes her head and starts walking away again, but immediately turns back to face him. “And who is this important person who has passed away, really?”

He gives her a tantalizing flash of teeth. “Do you remember Teneo?”, he says and waits for her reaction.

She blinks. Once. Twice. She knows who Teneo is – or was. And suddenly she also understands who this brother of Devin’s must be. The one who now seems to be their rival to the loot. Fuck.

“I fucking hate you”, she says, turns and walks away through the garden.

***

Devin Murdock remains seated at the fountain, laughing silently to himself as he watches her go. He had forgotten how much he used to enjoy her company back then, their constant battles and their passionate fights that more often than not ended in passionate other things. And now she is back in his life. It is not something he has planned for, but now that she has found him he is going to make the most of it. And it is going to be fun, oh yes.

Maybe being back in Los Angeles isn’t going to be just struggle and drab after all, he thinks.

And then his phone rings. Unknown number.

Usually he would never answer such a call, but today is not an ordinary day.

He hopes for a priest and answers.

 Chris Smedbakken, 2017-10-22 


You can find the next part here.

 

 

 

They Are Always Watching

This story has taken me several months to write. I’m going through a pretty heavy dip right now and inspiration is a scarce commodity. Therefore I am doubly happy with at long last being able to produce something creative. Feel free to comment, I’d love to hear your feedback.


She was singing when they found her. The forest was dark and the swamp was hungry. The small shape on the log almost blended with the humid and murky night crawling forth from beneath rocks and amongst drooping branches. But only almost, because murky nights do not sing pentatonic songs in seven disparate languages under perfectly aligned stars – and neither do they commonly come in the shape of a five year old child.

Later, the Pascal women always told her about the knowing darkness in her eyes as she watched them approach. Later they told her that the first words she uttered after she ceased singing and they stopped one man’s length away from her and asked for her name was a warning in perfect French.

“Fear”, she said as she turned to face them. “All of them are watching.”

Then she slumped from the log and into the water as if invisible strings had been suddenly cut from her naked body. When next she awoke in a warm bed and with seven silent and wondering women standing over her she did not speak a word of the languages they had heard her use in the midnight forest. She did not speak a word of any language at all.

They taught her French and magics and the ways of men and she was a quick learner. With the ease and efficiency of someone taking in knowledge for the second time she picked up on everything they told and showed her until she could barely be told apart from any other child her age in New Orleans – save for the magic of course.

But if her saviours had been hoping to learn the mystery behind this child when at long last she was able to speak, they were soon to be dreadfully disappointed. For at the very same rate as she was learning new words and names and customs, her memories of what had passed before drifted from her memory. In the end even she could barely tell herself apart from the other children – save, of course, for the magic and the fact that most other children knew at least one of their parents.

Her seven mothers slowly learned to be content with not knowing, with silently fearing whatever it was the child had warned them about but would apparently never be able to explain further. With time they almost learned to forget that she was more and less than other children, and that they had initially doubted whether or not she was really human at all.

Her seven mothers endowed her with many names, one at a time, but none of them stuck. They all glanced off of her like mercury poured on ice. They were all girls’ names and she didn’t listen to them because she was not a girl, and in the end her seven mothers gave up and let her decide. The name she chose for herself was Seth, and before long none of the seven Pascal women could even understand how they had ever thought of any other name for this child.

They wanted her to let her hair grow long, just like theirs, but she always kept it as short as the blade of a sharpened knife would allow. They wanted her to wear flowing skirts and ornate jewelry just like them, but she chose to dress simply and practically and never wore any symbols or signs that rigorous and concentrated study had not made her choose to really believe the meaning of. Some of the superstitious symbols worn by her seven mothers she made the choice never to don at all. She made her own choices and her own way and her only regret was her inability ever to remember what she had been before she was a dark eyed human with olive coloured skin.

That starlit night was long ago, but the dark eyed child was me.

I repeatedly catch myself thinking about stars as I make my way down the rain soaked pavement below oh so many blankly staring windows reflecting the cloudy night sky. I decided long ago that I am not a star, that I might once have been many things but never that. However, the stars have always fascinated me. If I were only able to hear their music and musings, I am positive that I would like it.

I see a glowing point rising on the sky before me like a shooting star in reverse, and from beyond the heavy clouds I hear the thunder of a roaring engine. My bag is not heavy but still I am weary of carrying it. I hurry to the waiting cab fighting off the warm rain with frantically dancing screen wipers. The airport behind me never sleeps, but I long to crash into bed and not wake for days.

The backseat of the taxi is warm and smells like too much subtle perfume. I need no psychic powers to tell that we are being followed. If I knew that I had something to gain from it, I would bet my left eye on the pursuer being the same man I have spotted several times on my journey here from Los Angeles. I don’t like his vibe, nor his suit, and would rather just return home, hoping for my intuition to be nothing more than paranoia this time. But I know better, and I’m not so stupid as to lead a fox straight into a rabbit hole. So I tell the driver to turn left and left again.

The forest is dense and the darkness is scraping against the sides of the car like soft, slender fingers clad in heavy velvet. Looking out through the rear window I can see the headlights of the other car illuminating the trees from behind a bend in the broken road. Not so smart, this one. That, or entirely confident in his own ability to take down his prey even without being in the least discrete. Possibly – probably – both.

I almost feel sorry for the driver, I know he didn’t sign up for this. But such is life, that you seldom or never get exactly what you bargain for or deserve. I calmly ask him to stop the car, pay him what he is due and then step out into the night. I leave my bag in the trunk and when the driver tries to remind me of it I give him one of those glances and he is off along the road again. I shouldn’t do that to people, I think. I really shouldn’t.

The light from the cab isn’t even entirely gone behind the trees before the road is again lit up, by a colder type of light this time. It is almost as if the headlight of the pursuing car reflect the aura of the man behind the wheel. I don’t know enough to estimate his abilities, but still I wait by the tree line a few more seconds to make sure that he spots me. Just before the anonymous car comes to a halt on the rocky forest road I start making my way into the woods.

There is no path here but I can hear the trees and the moss and the breath of the rocks on the ground. I need no light in this place, I don’t know why but I suspect it has something to do with me once having been born under these crowns and amidst these trunks. I am in no hurry, I can hear him too as he stumbles forward through the vegetation. He is probably armed but shouldn’t be able to get a good shot just yet. Maybe I should be afraid, but I’m not. Because somehow I feel I know something that he doesn’t.

He doesn’t gain on me and I keep on going. I wonder who he is, why he wants to hurt me. Because I can feel clearly that he wants to do just that. If he wanted to kill me he could have done so much more easily many times on our journey here. He wants something else, but it isn’t something good. Not for me at least. Then I wonder suddenly if he, too, can hear the song of the stars, or if it’s just me.

And then I step into the clearing and the darkness gives in to the soft illumination of the moon and the glowing clouds and the singing stars. I don’t know where I lost my shoes but now my naked feet tread softly upon the moist moss and the shiny rocks in the dark puddles. When I get to the middle of the clearing I can feel his eyes and his gun on me. I brace myself and turn around.

“Did you really think that you could run from me?” His voice is as neutral as his ashen suit and nondescript features. The only thing alive about him is the light reflecting off the worn silencer fastened to his weapon.

“No”, I say. I really didn’t think so. I watch him choose a better stance upon the porous ground without taking his eyes off me for even a second.

“Good”, he says. “Do you know who I work for?”

I shake my head. I don’t know. I want to tell him that neither do I care, but maybe that would be pushing it too much.

He seems to be looking at me, but in reality I know that he is looking down on me. He knows that I cannot run, he knows that he can afford to slightly prolong this finale of his victorious hunt.

“You’re not going to kill me, are you?” I feel strangely calm and this is not really a question.

He laughs softly, falsely, imperiously and almost invisibly shakes his head. “No, I’m not. I am going to subdue you and put you in the trunk of my car. If you force me to I will hurt you, but I’d rather not. That would probably take away from the sum I can get for you. But make no mistake, damaged goods is much preferable to no goods at all.” And I can hear that this is hubris talking, in this place of all places.

“Goods? What is this, some kind of trafficking?”

He nods and smiles viciously. Takes one step forward on the swampy ground. “In a way, yes, you could say that. The people I deliver to pay well for exotic specimens like yourself – not entirely human but not entirely not, either. Or your friend in L.A. I’m sure you’ll want to tell me all about him in a couple of hours.”

I feel cold suddenly. Not frightened, just cold. “The Enjoyment Club”, I say.

He stops two men’s length away from me, a surprised smile spreading across his face and his gun still trained on my forehead. “So you have done your homework. Good girl”, he says.

“I’m not a girl”, I say softly.

“What?” But he doesn’t care for me to repeat myself. Instead he starts walking again, talking to me in a calm voice all the while. Like a mendacious predator striving to lure its prey into a false sense of safeness before going in for the kill. “The Club love their little treats of vampires or werewolves or maybe even the odd djinn every once in a while. The rarer the better – and the more expensive. You’re going to make me rich, little witch.”

“I’m not a witch either”, I say and start backing away from him.

“No?” He laughs softly and follows. “Not a girl and not a witch. What are you then?” He is so close now that I can see straight into his eyes and detect all the truths hidden in them about what he plans to do with me. The Enjoyment Club consists of ruthless humans with way too much money, time and arrogance on their hands. They feast on paranormal creatures in every thinkable and unthinkable way before disposing of them in ways that are probably just as unspeakable. This man works for them, and he is planning to make a fortune by selling me to those human monsters. I can hear the stars singing clearly now as the clouds are dispersing.

“I am Seth Pascal, a freelancing priest”, I say and stop. We are in the middle of the clearing now and both ankle deep in murky water. I can feel the cold mud and soil and moss beneath my naked feet.

He reaches me in one big step and puts his gun to my forehead. The metal is cold and resonates with anger and excitement. The look on his face is one of victory, he know that he has me now.

“Witch, priest, potato potato”, he smirks. “You have nowhere to run now, little girl. But don’t you worry, I’m sure they won’t eat you or make you into a rug. With those dark eyes and slim body you’re probably gonna be put to much livelier work.”

I meet his gaze along the barrel of his gun and see him flinch involuntarily. Underneath my cold feet the ground is stirring restlessly, boiling and throbbing deep down in the nameless darkness. He hasn’t felt it yet.

“Aren’t you afraid?” He tries on one of those patronizing smiles but it doesn’t quite go with the glint of sudden fear in his eyes.

I shake my head slowly, the barrel of his gun moving together with my forehead. I am cold, but not afraid. Because the ground is pulsating beneath my feet and a memory has come to me suddenly. I smile, broadly.

“What?”, he says and darts a glance around the clearing. “What’s so funny? Remember what I said, I will hurt you if you try to pull something.”

I form the long unused words with my mouth, trying them, tasting them. I realize that I like the taste and smile even wider. He knows so little about the world, this little man with the gun.

“What? What?” He is yelling now, his finger trembling on the trigger. “What did you say?”

I look up at the congregation of stars gathered above the clearing, listen to the last stanza of their thundering crescendo and then lock my eyes with his once more.

“Fear”, I say calmly. “Because all of them are watching.”

He opens his mouth to say something, but before he can form the words the heart blood of the clearing, of the world, boils over and gushes up to engulf him. He screams as smoldering mud and soil and water explodes all around him, melting his skin and crushing his bones. He fights for his life against the earth that crashes into his eyes and his ears and his mouth. It fills his lungs and smothers him. He whimpers, he cries and sobs as he is pulled down into the mossy water, before the pressure from inside his soil packed lungs becomes too much and they explode in a cascade of blood and mud spurting forth from his mouth and his nose. He struggles pathetically in the shallow water for half a heartbeat before finally he becomes still and the hungry clearing devours him entirely. The surface in front of me calms instantly and all that remains of him is a speck of oil and dark blood floating silently on top of the murky water, and the worn silenced pistol lying uselessly where he dropped it in the dark moss.

I pick up the gun and turn it in my hands. He was never going to kill me, but there are things worse than death and that was the fate he had in store for me. I wonder how many people and unpeople he has wounded or murdered with this gun. I put it in my deep pocket, not wanting to desecrate this place by leaving it here.

The clearing is silent, but I know that it is not empty. They are all watching. The memory that felt so lucid and clear just moments ago is slipping. I try to hold onto it, but I know that the struggle is useless. I remembered briefly because I was told to, by the stars or by the forest or the darkness, I don’t know. And I realize that the loss of this memory is perhaps what makes me human, what allows me to carry on this sort of existence. The thought strikes me that maybe my oblivion is a gift, and that without it I would become again the something that was once found here, in this very clearing, and was made human only through the care and love and teachings of seven mortal women. Perhaps forgetting was a choice I once made by my own volition, in order to become what they wished me to be. Perhaps I made that very same choice again just moments ago. I wouldn’t know, because I cannot remember anymore. I stare into the darkness between the trees and wait for an answer, but there is none.

With the gun weighing down my right pocket I then turn around and make my way back across the clearing. I don’t need to watch my footing, the ground tells me where to tread. I watch the stars, listen to them, but they are silent now. I enter the woods and feel roots and thorns caressing the soles of my feet. When I reach the road I seat myself behind the wheel of the dead man’s car and narrowly turn it around. The headlights cut like knives through the old darkness and I turn them off. I don’t need them right now. I floor the pedal and make my way back to the airport from whence I came. The man who got eaten by the world spoke about my friend in Los Angeles, and I know that I have to warn him.

My name is Seth Pascal. I am a freelance priest who wears no symbols that rigorous and concentrated study has not made me choose to believe the meaning of. Other than that I wear the mark of every plausible god and deity just to be sure, and I know the incantations and rites of every religion commonly known to man. I never curse, because you can never be sure who is listening, and I am up for hire by anyone who needs my services – whatever faith they might follow.

Apart from that there is much that I don’t know about myself, about who I am and what I was before I was human. But the thought doesn’t scare me as much as it used to and I don’t feel as lonely anymore. Because at least I know one thing, and what I know is this: They are always watching.

Chris Smedbakken 2017-02-06