Archive for the ‘ Chapter 11 – Opener ’ Category

(243) Just Zis Demon, Y’Kna?

“You know,” it occurred to me belatedly, “I’m an idiot.”

Nen valiantly did not snicker.

“Um?” Janet asked.

“What was the name of your ex?” I asked.

“Basil.  Basil Grey.  He made this awful joke about Earl Grey tea, but that’s lavender based, not basil.  Why?”

“Seriously, Alucard?” I shook my head.  Vasil Greyn.

“I…” that was the verbal equivalent of an, “I don’t know shrug,” which I could hear over the phone.

“I’m just railing at the universe that coincidence isn’t really a thing. Every time I think it might be, the universe comes up and gooses me metaphorically with a little tee-hee.” I gave Nen what I hoped was a meaningful Look.  “Tell me about this guy you saw at the mall.”

“At first I thought, `Okay, this is creepy, but it’s just…’ you know.  Like you said.  Coincidence.  A cloud I hadn’t seen in the sky.  A cat that disturbed the birds. Something.  But he focused on me.  I could feel the, I don’t know, it sounds all literary: the weight of his gaze. But that’s really a thing.”

“Yeah, it is,” I confirmed.

“He kept coming towards me. I had the spooks, so I skedaddled. I kind of half-ran down the block and got on the next bus. Then he did, so I got out just as the doors were closing, but he called my name, like he knew me. I didn’t know him.” She took a breath.

“I don’t doubt you,” I said. I know I could have asked something like, “Are you sure it wasn’t someone from, like, high school who grew up?” but that kind of speculation just said I found her an unreliable narrator. I was first learning her truth.

“Oh, good.” She sounded very relieved. Did women really get doubted that often? I didn’t, um, doubt it.  “So I went straight to Rohana’s as soon as I got my car.”

“Probably a smart idea. And you thought to call me?” I asked. I didn’t want it to sound like, “You’re smart, why get me involved?” and I sort of wanted it to sound like, “I’d love to solve your problems,” but I’m kind of vaguely aware that that whole White Knight thing isn’t a turn-on to modern women.

“You helped me before,” she said, kind of quietly.

“I don’t want you to feel weird about this,” I said, “but did it feel kind of like the sigil you drew?”

“Exactly,” she said, and it sounded like she was relieved, like I had found the correct key for a certain lock. Not to say that I got an achievement pop up on my personal scoreboard or anything, but I found myself on better footing for certain.

I nodded, and remembered she couldn’t see it. “Yes, great, um. Okay.” I took a breath. “But this wasn’t Basil?”

“No, but,” she stopped. “You know how in dreams you recognize someone but they’re not who they are in waking? That’s how it felt.”

I hmmm’d quietly. “Evil,” I said.

“Yeah,” she breathed.  “Evil.”  She laughed sharply. “A little melodramatic? Maybe he was just a stalker-y fan.”

“I don’t think so.  If it’s the person I’m thinking of, yes, he’s stalking. You, from what I understand.” I shook my head. I hadn’t realised I’d started pacing, but I was making a circuit back and forth from the computer chair to the now much more open living room.  Nen was perched on the back of the couch, watching me. Rayya was in the kitchen, making some lunch. I could smell curry and vegetables, so she was cooking, but so quietly I knew she was also listening.

“You sound pretty sure, but he knew my name, so I guess that makes a kind of sense.  I mean, right now I feel really stupid, really, because if I try and look at it objectively, I was chased from the mall by a weird guy who just guessed my name. Heck, any Rocky Horror fan could have been making a joke and guessing it.”

I hadn’t made the connection, but I grinned when I got it. “I suppose, and Basil and Brad both sound like terribly boring people.”

“Whereas I am just terribly mysterious,” she said, and I could hear her smile.

“Terribly mysterious.  Even without guacamole.” I grinned. “Can you cut guns in half with your mind?”

“Never tried,” Janet replied. “Maybe I can!”

“Let’s not experiment under pressure,” I mock-cautioned.  Well, I mean, it was a real caution, but we weren’t talking seriously. “Objectively, you said.  I’m pretty sure we’ve past rationality.  We were supposed to take the left turn at Albuquerque if we wanted to go that way.”

“Straight to the Goblin King’s castle?” she asked. She laughed, and I joined her.

“Well, hopefully not.  He moved the stars for no one, but that sounded like maybe he could.”

“Changing your stars?” She tsked.

“Hey, it’s possible. Maybe we’re just taking the scenic route to rationality. Seeing the sights.”

“The biggest ball of twine in Minnesota?”

“Well, it’s my first demon.”

“Demon?” she yelped.

“Yeah, I don’t actually really believe in them myself, but I am starting to be convinced.”

“Demon?” she repeated, this time in a squeak.

“I’m afraid so. Bouncing baby boy demon.” I sighed, but I was listening carefully.

“You mean, like, fallen angel?” she said, so quietly I had to think a few times if that was actually what she said.

“Well, I don’t know if the mythos is correct. As I understand it, vampires and shapeslippers are types of demons, if you go with the dimensional traveler thing and why are you crying?”

“I just…” she sniffed, “I am just really freaked out.  I think I need to get off the phone.”

“You’re safe at Rohana’s?”

“Rivendell, remember?”  Smiling through the tears.

“Okay.  My phone’s on me, so if you need anything, or if you hear anything, or you see him, let me know.”

“Yeah. Uh, thanks.  I mean it.  For just listening to me.”

“It’s not a problem. Well, at least, it’s a problem that I can solve, which means it’s awesome.  Go get some rest. And hydration. And vitamin B complex.”

“Thanks Doc.”  She hung up.

(245) Which Mon? De Mon!

“We’ve got one!” I said before my sister could even start her greeting.

“You know, there were films besides Ghostbusters, Aliens, and Mystery Men,” she said, discouragingly.

“Perish the thought. I also quote from GalaxyQuest and occasionally modern shows. You have your squeeze?”

She sighed. “If you mean Roberto, yes, he’s here. We have demon-sign?”

“Now who’s doing it? If you stack a bunch of demons you could have a demon-striation, right?” I mused.

“Possibly. What does… oh.  Yeah, I don’t think the pun quite hit it.”

“I was hoping it rocked.” I waited for the mental bah-dump-dump-ching sound, and continued. “Seriously, though, yeah. Sixteenth street mall, Denver, maybe an hour ago.”

“In this traffic?” she asked. “That might as well have been last Tuesday.”

“Last Tuesday we hadn’t gotten confirmation that it was my ex-‘s friend’s ex-boyfriend.”

“That’s a tenuous connection, I’d say. Like you know a dude who knows a dude.” She punched the open channel key, also known as speakerphone.

“Yes, but can’t we use that?” I asked. I got a half-shrug from Nen. “Isn’t it a wart on the first law?”

“Thou shalt not rile up a woman because she’ll go have sex with djinn and angels and you’ll be like uncle to a billion deadly sins?  Or Newton, an object at rest rarely gets motivated to do anything else but slouch around? ”

“Is that the first law?  I was thinking similarity.  Contagion.  That sort of thing.”

“Oh, THAT first law.” I heard Roberto say something, but they must have been outside, because traffic overwhelmed whatever he had to say.  “Fine,” my sister responded. “There are lots of first laws. It’s like primo uno in spades. Or something like that.  Let’s not number the laws, okay?  Or rules.  I think Gibbs had two number ones, too.  And don’t go there. Toilet humour is so 3rd grade it’s poopy.”

I tried to restrain a snort.

“The first law is of that of naming,” Rayya said, late to the conversation.  Or maybe she was just trying to be helpful and remind me.

“I’m more surprised no one argued my wart comment, and explained that it was a polyp or a strange cyst-like growth. That isn’t an invitation, by the way.  Magda had a way of tracking people, and it’s a staple of magical fiction. Can you do that, only tracking the tracker?”

“I think you meant a corollary, and got caught up in the net of capillary instead. Um. Isn’t the law of similarity an artistic conceit of gestalt psychology?”

I rolled my eyes. Sometimes I forgot my sister was, well, my sister. “Point taken. Can you do it?”

“I don’t think so. It’s too tenuous. That’s wizard territory, really. If it were my own bloodline, then it’s a real maybe.”  She sounded disappointed.

I tried cheering her up. “So I should never try and hide from you?”

She laughed. “You never could. Remember trick or treating that year you were dressed in a thrift store tux?”

I groaned. “Oh please, don’t remind me.”

She chortled and then sighed. “I will remind you whenever I need to threaten you.  What’s plan B?”

“An option when Plan A fails,” I fired off, trying to give myself a second to formulate one. “Find something that can sniff out a demon and run the hounds on it?”

“That’s kind of just Plan A with three little letter ‘I’s after it.  Know a pious skinshifter?” she asked, off-handedly.

“Not to my knowledge, but then again, why would I?”  I meant it both ways.  Why would I know one, and why would I know they were one.

“You have weird friends,” was all she said.

I couldn’t deny that. “A wizard, you say?” Was I in debt to one, did one owe me a favour? I tried to add up the balance sheet real quick, but found myself probably even with the Questor’s wife. Misko. I finally had a use name for her, and I should use it.

“You know one?” she asked, suddenly interested.

“A weird friend,” I said, vaguely.

“Oh,” she said.

I couldn’t interpret that one, so I left it. “I don’t know if she’d be willing to get involved, or what I would have to pay her, though. She’s the kind who might get involved if she were interested, but I have a feeling this is maybe a bit more dangerous now that I am thinking about it and she has kids.”  I was half-thinking aloud, so I wasn’t going to worry about my sister’s grammatical sensitivities.  “The feeling I’ve had around the guy is like he’s a maw of infinite space.”

“Bound by a nutshell of bad dreams?” she asked.

“Should I be hoping it’s a hard nut to crack?” Back to banter. It was safer than thinking about that feeling. It made me want to shudder and sweat. It didn’t get better on repeat, but worse.

“You ever think you’re the bad guy, E?” she asked.

The question seemed like a huge non-sequitur from our conversation, and it completely derailed my thinking. “Um, only when it comes to people calling me a dragon slayer, or, well,” I thought of a few times I’d done bad things. Maybe I didn’t have a huge catalog of them, but there were always enough. It was the lazy path to humility, the stumble that led to a great Fall.  “Why?”

“Just thinking aloud,” she said, brushing me off. “So, great dragon slayer, you going to call your weird wizard friend, or are we going downtown? I could do with some nosh.”

“Since when do you use ‘nosh’ as a term?” I demanded.

“Since I was chatting with mom earlier. She was making a sweet kugel. If you make a kegel joke I will hit you.”

“Never even crossed my mind.” Truth, for once.

“So, dinner and maybe demons downtown?”

“Definitely a date.”

“Ew.”

“Ew! You’re my sister. I was just alliterating.”

“Well, pick up your a-litter, trash boy.”

“That… doesn’t even make sense.”

“Neither do you.  See you at the deli near the Historical Society?”

“Probably bringing the sibs.”

“I thought I heard sins, and I was going to tell you to pray for them, but you might pray for those weird friends of yours, too.  I’m probably,” she dripped sarcasm into the word, “bringing this guy, although he has no appreciation for good food.”

“He probably thinks a knish is a low-class empanada.  If he can’t appreciate a really good pastrami, dump him.”

“I heard that,” I heard, and then with a chuckle, the call ended.

 

 

(246) Delicatessens and Demons

“What is so delicate about a sandwich place?” Rayya asked me as we entered the deli.

“Is this a riddle or the set-up for a joke?” I asked.

“Neither.  The word delicatessen has delicates in it, and the ‘sen’ would indicate ‘son of,’ meaning there is some discernment in the subject. Perhaps they were places frequented by assassins or courtesans or spies?”

“I’m betting it actually comes from ‘delicacies,’ or something of the sort. I know, I’ve got the internet in my pocket and could look it up, but hey, there’s my sister!” I waved an arm in response to her waving hers from where she and Roberto sat, sharing a large pastrami sandwich.  Okay, I would give him the pastrami appreciation point.

Rayya and Nen had both elected to join me. There was some kind of conversation I wasn’t privy to prior to the decision, but apparently my protection detail was still a consideration.  Spriggan Secret Service.  If they got tired of the building of a library dimension (shades of Wizard Pratchett there) maybe they could source out as bodyguards. Diminutive Detail.  Significant Sibling Security. Fey FBI.  Fey-BI?

“You’re thinking instead of walking again,” Nen noted, passing me. He slid into the booth across from Eve and her squeeze.  “I’d like a pastrami, on rye, toasted, swiss cheese, no lettuce, no tomato, mayonnaise and vinegar.  Side of chips.”

“Sounds delicious,” I said, catching up.

After we got our sandwiches piled with meat and fixings, and some of the delightful (another potential source of the term ‘deli’) bites had been chewed, swallowed, and well on their way to providing necessary sustenance, I looked around. For a busy place, we’d come somewhere between lunch and early dinner. It was still fairly light out, although starting to turn that golden orange that suggested the cool blue shadow of the mountains would soon extinguish the afternoon.

“The plan is?” Eve asked.

I finished my bite and shrugged. “Go to where he was, try to find out where he went.  Unless you have a better one.”

“Because finding one human in a city of 750,000 or so is so easy you could have done it at any time,” she suggested, her sarcasm as thick as the steak fries.

“I feel like I would know if I were around him.  If I’m wrong, we’re no worse for it. In fact, we’re better because we had a great meal.”

Eve considered the crumbs Roberto was currently eyeing with an indulgent smile. “I guess there’s that.  You took the bus?”

“Still haven’t bought a new car,” I admitted.

“Yeah. You and the kids can ride in back. Where are we going?”

Rayya frowned at being called one of “the kids,” but didn’t argue it.  Nen just grinned.  I guess if they were used to me, they were fine with my sister.

“Find somewhere around the mall to park, and we’ll take the shuttle.”

I couldn’t remember offhand where Janet had said she was besides “the mall.”  And Rivendell, which I would always think of Imladris first, and never Karningul. But despite Rohana having Rohan in her name, I never thought of horses with her. I never actually really thought of horses.  I wasn’t a horse girl, after all. Or a brony.

I knew it as we got near, and not just because of the way Rayya and Nen reacted. It was like a cramp in my stomach. It was like smelling something incredibly foul that had been left in the sun, and then hearing someone pounding on piano keys randomly and while scraping the bench across a metal stage.  I reeled, grabbing onto a railing while the bus came to a stop. “Here,” I managed to breathe.  I caught a nod between Eve and Roberto that mirrored one between the Spriggan Sibs before I stumbled off the shuttle and over a trash can, holding on to the delicious delicacy of the delicatessen through manly gulps of air and a reminder that it was magic, not reality.

Well, when magic is your reality, well, it didn’t matter. One’s brain worked the details, with probably lots of input from visual and chemical cues.  There was some amount of disagreement with my gut and my conscious, but I maintained the equilibrium.  My party of adventurers spread out, looking for clues.

“I don’t see anything,” Eve complained.

“This would not be something you see with your eyes, but with the heart.  It is like you explaining how we used to find planets, with the flickering of shadow between the candle flame of a star. You are feeling the cold chill of lack of light, the absence of a loving God, and the presence of evil. It fills your breath with the miasma of abandonment, the disappointment of a child to an absent parent,” Roberto spoke poetically and with a soft religious fervor. Or so I heard it, but I had to admit I felt the capital letter in the invocation of deity, so I might have considered it a little more zealous than he expected.

“Or like a wind through an open door,” Nen said.

I felt Rayya’s hand on my back. “Come, let us follow the wind, then, secret caller.”

“Huh. You haven’t called me that in a while,” I said, swallowing for a moment.  The wind actually picked up for a moment, bringing a cool breeze that refreshed slightly. “It’s ahead of us,” I said. “If it’s this strong when he’s far away, how will I handle it when he’s close?”

“You won’t,” Eve said. “We will.”

“That sounds so final,” I said. “It’s my quest. I’m not the kind of person who steps back and does all the strategy stuff. I generally play tanks.”

Eve rolled her eyes. “Don’t give yourself airs. You’re a support.  Roberto will tank. I’ll do DPS, and your weird friends will do whatever your weird friends do.”

“Protec,” Nen said. “And also Attac.”

“Oh goodness, that’s an old meme,” Eve chuckled. “But I guess it comes back around.”

Roberto and I shared a Look that basically agreed that maybe ignorance would be bliss.

(247) The Devil is in the Details

I stumbled from square to square on the sidewalk, trying to think of what they were called. Pavers, maybe? Flagstones? The smell of rotten milk, the pushing through oily air, the occasional breeze that brought despair, loneliness, like being the sole soul anywhere, desperate for human contact, these things drew me closer as much as a smart man, heck, a reasonable, rational man would turn away.

It was, of all of them, Rayya, who centered me. Who kept me from drifting with the occasional touch on my back, guiding me and anchoring me to what was real. The spriggan sibs didn’t touch me, didn’t touch anyone that often. They had talked about it, once, but we were (or at least I was) drunk on blue wine at the time. I didn’t remember much about it, other than that were some kind of repercussions to it.  It sounded lonely to me, but they weren’t human. I had to remember that. They weren’t human.

Streets passed by, alleyways filled with fluttering plastic bags, dancing circles of leaves and the detritus of what we call civilization. Heavy summer scents of proto-sewage, spoiled foods that had no life left in them, cracked concrete and asphalt made more of pieces than whole, and the sun dipped degrees behind the mountains, a twilight with a distant glow, like fire on the horizon. I love where I live, and the sunsets on the eastern plains are incredible, but this night it was a nuclear glow, a warning, a doom on the threshold of night.

I staggered, drunkenly, nauseated between occasional brief contact with Rayya. Sometimes when she extended a hand I felt a cold, icy breeze. It was kind of refreshing before it stole your breath. Rayya, the icicle. Sprigginsicle. I’d workshop it. I thought ironically warm thoughts about her for a moment, before my brain scrambled to remember she wasn’t human. She was here for her own reasons. All of them were here for their own reasons.

He stood at the corner, leaning against a free newspaper stand.  I could not have placed him as remarkable in any fashion. He looked like a guy, just another average white guy. Average height, average weight, bit of scruff, clothing matched just about anything anyone else was wearing.  His hair was a little grown out, and that was one of the first things that started to make me see him.  There was a little more. A little more length in his fingers, a little more length in his teeth. His eyes were closed as we came up to him, but when he opened them, I didn’t need to ask. I knew. Eyes do tell you a lot. I don’t know if anyone can actually see a soul in them, but this time, I could see the lack of one.

Don’t ask me what colour they were. It wasn’t television — they weren’t black through and through, they weren’t unnatural, they weren’t even just empty… they were hungry. They were wrong. What looked back at me had something that didn’t fit here. It was bigger and angrier than the shell of skin around it. It was horrible.

It was terrible. It was lonely. It missed its brothers. It had no conscience, and while it had been content to seduce and entice it was becoming impatient to find something, anyone that could open a door.  So what if a door opened both ways? It wanted to go home.

For a moment, I felt pity.  Sympathy for the Devil is a trope, isn’t it?

“And yet, the Númenórean would have it that the greatest triumph of the great Deceiver was making mankind think he did not exist. Sorry, Numancian, was it? Numantine.” It chuckled. It was a sound that could curdle milk, and caused pain in my stomach, turning it inside out, a twisting pain in my gut.  I held onto my pastrami, darn it. That was a good sandwich and I had already sacrificed my Dairy Queen to a dragon.

“And what are you?  Ah yes, it’s the dragon slayer, is it?” I hadn’t said anything, but I looked back at its eyes. Now there was something. Peredur’s eyes showed the slow burning of his internal (I would have said infernal, but it no longer seemed appropriate) engine. This creature, its eyes were a pit, and inside the nothing was hunger, and despair, and a craving so sharp I could almost feel the sides of my mouth bleed as if its needs were a knife.

I lurched, and realised I was alone. My friends had abandoned me. Not my friends, my… what did I really have that bound us together? Shared circumstance was no friendship.  Even Ed just put up with me because we’d known each other so long. What was it called? Sunk cost fallacy? Ed was just being nice. He and Zack were just pitying me. His mom fed me out of obligation. And Eve? She would have been happy being an only child. Who was I, even?

I keyed in to what he said. Dragon slayer.

“I didn’t kill her,” I said. “Hurt, yeah. She ate my… she ate someone I was fond of.” Doloise. I didn’t want the name in his mouth. “I closed off some of her power. In time, she’ll grow it again, and open things up, and be the nasty scourge of the Western world she might want to be.  I didn’t kill her. I am not a dragon slayer.  Whoever says that is wrong. You’ve got bad information, Vasil, probably from enemies who want to make me a player on the stage. I might occasionally help move a prop, but most of the time I’m happy being in the audience.”  I was rambling, but that made me feel a little better.

“Oh, but do you know what Peredur did after you left? The Great Peredur, Dragon amongst Dragons, but you’ve felt the weight of his will. Do you think leaving a crippled Dragon on the field meant no one took the bait?  You practically fed her to him, a present to increase his power.  No wonder they’re fond of you.  The witch that left you – what was her name? You were becoming immune to her power. That’s when they leave you, you know. As soon as you get strong. As soon as you pretend to have a spine.”

Was it true? I didn’t care about the witches. I mean, I cared for the witches just fine, since it seemed like every woman I was interested was one, but I wasn’t going to let some… demon, yes, that’s what he was… not human. Inhuman.  Inhumane.  I wasn’t going to let it try to diagnose my relationships.  But the thing about Peredur and Naul? Could I have done that? Who took on the moral toll of death in that case?  Just bad luck? Nature?  Was I just justifying the situation?

“And the one time you did have a spine, the one time you took what you needed, you assaulted someone. Sexual assault, you know. Akin to rape. Is that how you think of yourself? Is that what you are? Is it what you really want?  Do you even remember who it was? Someone’s little sister.”

I knew. I didn’t want to, and I felt horrible about it. Both pieces — that I tried to push it from my mind, and that I had done it.  I had.  I knew it was wrong. Did Misko know? Did she judge me? Was she slowly plotting my demise, the way wizards were slow and terrible to anger?  Wizards summoned demons. It was a thing in fiction, so why not in reality? Maybe this was some kind of set-up.

“Oh, yes, little sisters.”  I was on my knees, and I hadn’t realised I had fallen. “You do know the hakawati, the so-called Spriggan, the younger one is in love with you. You ignore her, and are cruel to her, because you have that one silly rule, one that denies that love is a decent bridge between peoples.  Really, leaving dragons to be eaten, girls to be abused… I ask again.  What are you?  And,” he stared down, directly into my eyes.  “What gives you the right to judge me?”