Veil was dying.
At this point, she was on a first-name basis with the sensation of her body shutting down. All her organs were struggling valiantly to soldier on, even though things were entirely out of place and had gone very much awry. A golf-ball-sized hole had been punched straight through her chest. But her body only had one job, keeping her alive, and it was trying so very hard to do just that.
She was lying on the floor. A bullet had been what put her there. A particularly large caliber one, judging by the pain. The gun the man had used packed a damn good punch.
It was also likely enchanted and holy.
She figured it went with the territory.
Now she found herself examining the ceiling tiles of a charming little coffee shop. It was trying to make the vintage thing work at all costs, even if it meant putting up fake stamped copper tiles. I bet they’re plastic from Home Depot or something.
It’s amazing what came to mind when the brain was struggling for oxygen and blood. The thoughts were always the most random, trivial things. Never anything salient or prophetic. Never anything interesting.
The bullet might have nicked her heart. It had definitely punctured her lung. She knew this, because when she went to breathe, it felt as though she had liquid in her chest. It gurgled like trying to suck air through a snorkel with too much seawater in it. The sensation was just as unpleasant.
It’d be over soon enough, she knew. It wasn’t the first time this’d happened. It wouldn’t be the last. While every kind of death carried its own unique form of pain, she likened it to flavors of ice cream. Sure, it all tasted different, but down at the core it was the same thing. How she got there might be new and interesting, might be double-fudge or salted caramel, but it all got her to the same place.
Man, I could seriously go for some ice cream right about now.
Lifting her hand, she touched it to the wound in her ribcage. It was sticky and wet. And big. She picked her hand up to look at the blood dripping off her fingers. More out of morbid curiosity than anything else. It was painful to breathe, so she opted not to. It would just get it over with easier that way. The darkness that was creeping at the edges of her vision would come faster. The quicker that happened, the quicker she could get on with her day.
Death obeyed, and she felt the darkness at the edges of her vision rush in closer. The bullet had punched its way easily through bone, flesh, and sinew. The man was also an excellent shot, she’d give him that.
Y’know, Yul Brenner made a weird villain in West World. Again, with the random-ass thoughts. It almost made her laugh. She would have, if she had the air and the lungs to do it. Just another weird thought popping up out of nowhere as her brain struggled to survive.
Veil knew the telltale signs that the end was coming soon. She shut her eyes as her lungs burned and willed her body to just give up the ghost and let it end. When a hand grasped hers and clutched it, she blinked in confusion and looked up at the man kneeling over her.
He had long, chestnut hair in a ponytail and sharp hazel eyes. He wore all black, save for a white clerical collar that only made him look tan by comparison. He held her hand gently, and with his other one with two fingers aloft, gestured in the shape of a cross in the air in front of him. Earnestly, he began to pray in Latin.
It almost made her laugh again.
“Don’t bother,” a familiar voice said from the table nearby.
“What?” the priest kneeling over her looked up, appalled and offended.
“Give her a minute.”
Two days prior.
Once, not very long ago, the city had been Veil’s home. Well, it was the only place she had spent enough time in to qualify for the title, anyway. And for exactly those reasons, she avoided it as best she could.
Every street seemed to dredge up bad memories and feelings she didn’t want to experience again. She hadn’t been back in…oh, fifteen years, give or take, and another twenty before that. Once and a while she had to pass through, but never long enough to really let the cloud settle over her.
But her work had called her here. There were only a few things that could drag her back here, nearly kicking and screaming. Death on a large scale was one of them.
Death in the city of Boston was something she was familiar with.
This was where she had been raised. This was where she had spent time in the only semblance of a family she had ever known.
And this is where she had killed them all. This is where she had abandoned him to rot.
Veil shuddered. It had nothing to do with the overly-dry, overly-chill hotel room air. It had everything to do with the image that flashed into her mind. The glint of candlelight off a silver blade that was poised to drive into her chest and into her heart.
That had been the first time she had died and the exact moment everything had gone wrong. The moment she had learned everything had been a lie. She shoved the miserable memory to the back of her mind for the millionth time. It came back to her enough without having to dwell on it.
One foot in front of the other. Always. Immortality was going to drag her down the pavement anyway, she might as well stand up and walk. Besides, there was work to do. There were probably demons to hunt, and more importantly, the humans who brought them here.
She was standing by the window, looking down at the street and busy intersection below. They were staying at the Omni-Parker House Hotel. It was supposed to be one of the nicest hotels in the city. It was the oldest, anyway. It showed, if she were honest. It wasn’t a bad hotel, but it wasn’t her favorite. Namely, she wished she could open the window. She’d much prefer the heavy air of the city and the constant honking, shouting, and shrill whistle of the valet driver below, over the rush of the fan and the stifling feeling of the over-recycled air.
But, there was no use trying to get the windows open. They were screwed shut. Any jumpers might mess up traffic more than usual, and the city might not survive that. It was School Street down below her, and it was bumper-to-bumper in the evening rush hour traffic. That one-lane example an utter failure in city planning was already a majestic cluster-fuck on a good day without somebody turning themselves into street pizza adding to the mess.
Boston was a place built not on top of the old, but around it like a bad jigsaw puzzle. It was trying to do its best to cling to the old streets and old buildings that defined it. Unlike New York or Chicago, that hadn’t minded blasting down a few streets to fix problems, Boston was proud to let it linger.
New York and Chicago also had taken advantage of having mostly burned down at some point or another and used that opportunity to build streets in such novel concepts as “straight lines” and “grids.”
Not in Boston.
Major city improvements also never did quite go as planned. The Big Dig was testament to that. It made the populace a little less eager to take on new ones.
This intersection was a perfect example of Boston’s problem. Three lanes of road meeting two lanes meeting one. A seventeenth-century church, a nineteenth-century hotel, and two large glass structures of two very different styles all met at the same point.
School Street, meets Tremont, meets Beacon. Really, School Street should have been bulldozed a long time ago, if it weren’t for the string of historic buildings. Although, one of them seemed to have been turned into a Chipotle somewhere along the way, so there was that.
Old and new, woven around each other to try and make a cohesive whole.
She resembled the city. Maybe a little too much for comfort. Maybe that’s another reason she hated it so much.
Her thoughts strayed and tried to lock onto her opinions of the city below. Anything to keep them from the matter at hand. Anything to keep away from dwelling on what brought her to her former home.
But like a bad yo-yo, her thoughts spun out, ran dry, and let her dangling on the end of the string without anywhere to go. She had to wind it all back up and face the facts. The TV behind her was buzzing away, the local news personalities yammering pointless observations and speculations about one very undeniable thing—this was a city gripped in fear.
People were afraid to go out. They were afraid to leave their houses and apartments after dark. They had a perfectly good reason, by her estimation.
There had been murders.
One person getting beheaded in an alleyway was awful, but not international news. Two people being dismembered, blood streaking the walls like it had been caused by a piece of rogue farm equipment, and people began to take notice.
But it didn’t stop. Every night, people went entirely missing…or were found in pieces. The sickest part was that the more apt description would be “pieces were found.” The dismembered bodies were never whole. Bits were being taken, but not just any bits. The important ones you’d notice, like the head or the whole torso. They only ever left the limbs behind, if anything other than just the blood.
Nobody had caught sight of what was causing the mayhem. At first, Veil had ignored the news, chocking it up to human, non-magic using crazies, until the blood left behind by one was scrawled onto the wall in a symbol. It was a circle, with angled triangles and pentagons inside of it. It bore all the hallmarks of a kind of ceremonial magic that she was all too familiar with.
It was dribbly, dripping down the cement surface, put there by hand by whoever—or whatever—had murdered the man left crumpled in a heap of torn up parts nearby. The writing was sloppy, the Enochian was mangled, but it had been clear enough.
After that, no matter her hatred for the city and her desire to never come back to Boston, she had to do something to stop whatever was transpiring. She couldn’t look the other way.
Neither could her friend, who was currently tapping away at his laptop like a madman. They were a team. He found her the jobs, she went out and did them. They had the same goal—to make sure as few people in this world suffered the same fate that they both had.
Not like she carried a card, or anything. She called it a job, but it wasn’t like you go off to get certified in it. She had enough background in the topic to be an “expert.” Both in the creatures that stalked the shadows, and the kind of crazies who worshipped them.
Demons were real. Angels could be worse. Even worse than them, were the humans who dedicated themselves in service to them, who prayed and knelt in devotion to one or more of the ancient creatures.
The ones who had their silly little altars and lit their candles and drew their symbols in chalk on the floors weren’t so bad. They were harmless, and she let them slide by. It was the ones who then etched those symbols in human flesh that were the bigger problem.
She hunted them down, one by one, and did what she needed to do to make sure they wouldn’t hurt anyone again. That was her bad excuse for “work.” It didn’t even come with a paycheck. Not really. Once and a while she’d take a gig here and there that came with a dollar sign attached. Missing persons, mostly. It was lame, but they paid extremely well.
She looked back at her friend. Richard was in his forties now, gray at the temples, glasses having grown thicker over the years, as he peered over them and typed away. She had met him when he was eight years old. He had been huddled in a cage in the corner, his head buried in his hands. He had listened to the screams of his mother and six-year-old sister as they were diced to pieces, dissected alive all in the name of glorious Belphegor.
The joke was on them. Belphegor had retired years ago.
She had “dispatched” the cult in the best way she knew how. She murdered them all. She hated taking lives, but they had given up their right to live when they had started chopping up innocent people. She had taken the boy outside and hugged him and stayed by his side until she had to make her exit as the cops arrived. Veil didn’t do well with the police. Too many very good questions that she had entirely unacceptable answers to, like “how did you get through the locked door?” and “does any of the blood you’re wearing belong to you?”
It usually didn’t. That tended to be the wrong answer. Cops got huffy at that kind of thing, go figure.
She’d kept an eye on Richard as he grew up. His family was gone, his dad having been shot by the cultists when he had tried to protect his family from being taken. The poor kid had been put right into child services. He was adopted at around ten years old by a nice family who cared for him. She had made sure he had everything he’d needed. When he went to college—and went on to get his doctorate—she had quietly paid for his tuition and made it look like a miraculous scholarship award.
She’d done her best to stay out of his life and to stay away from him. She only brought trouble, and any association he had with her was going to end poorly. That worked right up until the invention of the internet. Then, Richard had found her. He tracked her down by finding the occult bastards she was after right before she did.
The first few times he pulled that stunt she walked away from him and told him to go away and leave her alone. She insisted that she was dangerous. But the man was brutally stubborn, and he kept at her for years. Finding her targets before she would, texting her the locations—she still didn’t know how he had gotten her phone number—and meeting her at the scene before she went to work.
Finally, she had given up. He was better at hunting down her quarry than she was, that was for damn sure. And, once she’d given up and let him help, they had become fast friends. It was Richard’s digging and connections that had turned up the classified image of the circle painted in blood on the alley wall in Boston.
If it had been any ol’ ceremonial magic circle, she would have come to stop the sect and it wouldn’t have been anything out of the ordinary. It wouldn’t have bothered her or brought up the memories that were pulling at the back of her mind and ruining her mood.
But it hadn’t been just any circle. Ceremonial circles have rules. They work in certain ways, using lines and the right words to draw power. They tap into energies and pull from them. One wrong line, and it’s as useful as a lead balloon. This one…had invented a whole new set of rules. But, much like looking at the first cubist painting by Picasso, she knew it still worked. Even if it defied everything she knew.
The other problem is whose power it was tapping into. Whose name was scrawled in sloppy but legible Enochian. It was one that made her skin crawl. One that she knew quiet well.
The sun was going down, and that meant that it was almost time to get going. All the recent murders and disappearances all happened at night. Cliché, but not unexpected. She walked away from the window and slumped down at the opposite side of the table from Richard. Their hotel rooms had a little adjoining living room-ish kind of thing with a kitchenette, and while it was tiny, it worked. Hopefully they wouldn’t be in town for long.
The doctor in philosophical history—she thought that’s what it was, she could never get it right—had quickly taken over the table that was supposed to be used for eating, and had covered it in scraps of paper, notebooks, leather bound volumes, manuscripts, and his laptop. Research.
He didn’t acknowledge her she had sat down. He probably hadn’t noticed. Veil began to absently spin a piece of paper on the table in front of her underneath her fingers. “Any leads yet?”
“No,” he replied after a long pause and without looking up from his screen. “No one’s seen anything like the circle they drew on the wall. It’s…based in the lesser key, but it’s a new alteration. I have a few friends working on it, but nothing’s turned up yet. I still think we should contact the Church and see if they know anything. I’ve heard reports they’re already in the city, and—”
“No. Absolutely not. I haven’t hidden from them for this long only to screw it up now.”
“We can solve it ourselves. We can. We always have before.”
He sighed. “Fine. I’ll keep trying. But I can’t make heads or tails of it. It’s entirely new. I can’t figure what they’re after.”
“Well, they need to be stopped. I don’t really care what they’re after.”
“Are they trying to bring him back?” That was the first time Richard looked up over the top of his glasses and screen at her, gray eyes worried.
“They can’t. Not from where I put him. Nobody can. Either they’re too stupid to know that, or they’re after something else.” At least, she was pretty sure of that. She at least sounded confident.
Richard shook his head, and sighed, at a loss. “If you manage not to knock one of their heads off in the process, perhaps we can question them.”
She snickered. “I’ll do my best, but I make no promises.” She stood again and stretched, cracking her back. She walked into her hotel room and grabbed her weapons. Two metal rods, about two feet long each, and otherwise nondescript. They weren’t flashy, but they were more than effective. Flashy got you noticed—flashy drew questions. Two metal rods earned you some squinty-eyed looks from the cops and the locals but could be mistaken for the weirdest new sporting craze, like those people who speed-walk with weights or something.
She slipped them into the holsters she wore on her legs, one on each side, tied her long hair back into a ponytail, grabbed her coat, and headed for the door.
“Be careful, Veil.”
“It’s just some losers collecting hearts because they read somewhere they could cast fireballs with them,” she grinned as she wiggled her fingers at him as if she were casting a cartoonish spell. “Just another day on the job, Richie. I’ll be fine.”
“Yes, yes,” he laughed. “But something feels odd about this one. The public attacks in a major city? And it’s his name they wrote…”
“I know. Trust me, I know.”
“And here, of all places, to have his name appear?”
She gritted her teeth and did her best not to yell at him that she was very much aware of the fact that this wasn’t a coincidence, no matter how you looked at it. “Just idiots in robes Richie. Like it always is.”
Veil walked down the street, humming to herself, slurping happily on her frappa-mocha-something from the coffee shop. She loved coffee. Adored it. And this was a frilly, far-too-sweet concoction loaded with more sugar and whipped cream than any of the actual caffeinated substance.
Fine by her.
It was seven o’clock, and it was already growing dark in mid-October fall. It was gorgeous in Boston that time of year. Even if it didn’t have a whole lot of trees to turn color, it was worth it. Halloween season was a special time in New England. The whole region seemed to just appreciate the holiday more—you could almost feel it tap into the earth. She used to spend a lot of time up on the north shore in Ipswich in her early years, and she remembered how inherently creepy that whole region was. She had loved it at the time and eaten up every volume of Lovecraft any of her so-called family would bring her. That, along with any scrap of anything spooky or morbid she could get her hands on.
The memories made her smile even as they dug a dagger into her heart. It was a painful kind of hate and fondness that mixed together as she took another slurp from the sugary mess she had purchased. It chased away her melancholy. Hard not to, when it even had little chocolate sprinkles on top.
No self-respecting adult had the right to buy something this stupid with a straight face. And she hadn’t, to be fair. She’d been grinning the whole time.
Focus, you moron. Focus. All the murders and disappearances had centered in and around the center of the city. And so, she started there. Worked her way out in slowly-widening circles. Which, really, were probably squiggly lines knowing the stupid street layout.
But she didn’t plan on walking around all night just hoping to trip over a bunch of assholes trying to summon whoever-or-whatever they were intent on calling. She had a plan. She was just trying to find the right place. It’s surprisingly hard to find a dark and deserted alley when you need one. Maybe they all went out of fashion. Not to mention, a dark and deserted alley that felt right.
Magical hoo-ha and all that stupidity. She didn’t understand it. But she felt it like the weather. People didn’t need to understand why it rained to know it was wet.
Finally, after an hour or two—and long after her sugary monstrosity had run out—she found the right spot. Glancing left and right, making sure she was alone, shed pulled a piece of white chalk out of her coat pocket. Humming and half-singing, murmuring the lyrics to “Black Hole Sun” to herself, she drew on the side of the Mexican restaurant the symbols she needed.
It took her three attempts of one line to get it right, and she had to use the melting ice from her coffee cup to wipe it clean. “Damn it,” she grumbled.
“Penmanship, dear. Penmanship is key.” The hand that settled on the back of hers was warm and gentle. Even if the voice was cold and trying to sound stern, it was clear it was for show. His emerald eyes seemed to catch her in them and hold her. They always had, and they always would.
“Start again, this time, try it with straight lines for a change.”
“A novel concept,” she teased back. “And here I was trying to be artistic.” No, really, she was just awful at drawing straight lines. He could do it with perfect and practiced ease, like it wasn’t even difficult. “Nobody appreciates my talent.”
“There is a time and place for all things.” He chuckled at her sarcastic joke. “Try again.”
Veil bit back the memory and swallowed it hard into the back of her throat. That, or the smell of the rotting dumpster nearby, was making her nauseous. Probably both. But finally, the work was done. She took a step back and eyed her work. It was a little crooked. She could almost hear his voice haunting her, pointing out over her shoulder the bits she had screwed up. He had been a perfectionist in all things.
The worst part was that he had never been wrong. It was hard to argue when he was right, but it hadn’t ever stopped her from trying.
Biting back the melancholy again, she sighed. It wasn’t flawless, but it’d work just fine. She tossed her plastic coffee cup into the offensive dumpster and walked back up to the symbol and put her palm flat against the center.
It was like popping a bottle of champagne. She had created the bottle, the cork, and the fizzy substance that wanted nothing more than to explode. If she didn’t pop it right, she’d take the cork to the face, shatter something, and otherwise just make a massive mess of things.
She shut her eyes and let herself focus on the feeling of it beneath her palm. Like a racing river beneath a smooth, frozen surface.
Some people had to chant to do magic. Some people used symbols. Some people gestured. Most did all three. They were all tools. They were guns, knives, swords, or tanks. They all existed for the same purpose—getting the job done. Magic was about will. Sheer, unadulterated force of will over the world around them.
Veil was shit at magic.
Well, no, that wasn’t true. She was better than the cultists she was always hunting. They sucked at magic. She had always just been surrounded by people far better at it than she was. She had always felt like the child playing adults at poker. And for all intents and purposes, she had been.
At least she didn’t have to chant or flail around like a moron. Her weapon of choice was drawing symbols and using those to tap into the world around her. She felt the lines she had drawn and used it like a fork. Just plunked it into the power around her and willed it to do what she wanted.
And right now, she wanted a compass. Something to show her the way to the fuckers that decided to make murder the new fall fashion statement.
She really had to learn to be more specific.
“Command me, Mistress!”
Oh, fucking Hell.
Veil jumped back from the wall and watched in horror as an…imp pushed itself forward from the wall. Oozed out of the concrete as it borrowed molecules and substance from the building itself to create its body.
It flapped its little purple bat wings, and it landed on a trashcan nearby with a loud thunk. It was a chubby little bastard, and it looked like its little leathery wings wouldn’t hold up its girth on a good day. It petted its stomach with a toothy grin, tipped its stumpy, piggish face back and snuffed loudly in the direction of the dumpster. “What smells good?”
She hated imps.
It stood itself up and flapped its wings, and then landed on her shoulder like a fat, leathery cat. “What is our mission, Mistress?”
She tried to keep the disgust off her face. She was pretty sure she failed. Well, this is what she got for not being very specific in what kind of compass she wanted to create. “We’re hunting cultists. Murderers. They’re out somewhere and the city and I need to find them.”
“Oooh! Yes, yes! I can do these things! Yes!” It pointed a stubby, clawed finger out of the alley. “We should go that way!”
“That’s the only way out.”
“I know!” It grinned toothily. “Exactly! Then it is the right choice!”
She really hated imps.
“Just make yourself invisible. The last thing I need is to cause a panic.”
“I…cannot do this thing.” The imp pouted as he shoved a finger inside his ear and wiggled it, as if trying to get out some wax. She wanted to chuck it off her shoulder, but, she had summoned it, and that’d be rude. “Ah! I know! The humans have a beast for this kind of deed!”
It flew from her shoulder to the ground, and as it landed, its body flashed brightly and changed. She had to turn her head away, and when she looked back, the worlds weirdest looking dog was sitting at her feet, tongue hanging out the side of its mouth, panting happily.
Reaching down to pick up the leash it had the presence of mind to summon with its change, she sighed. “All right. Let’s go.”
It bounced up to its feet eagerly and bounded toward the entrance to the alleyway. But not before stopping to lift a leg and take a piss on a few boxes and empty kegs.
She really, really hated imps.