You really have to wonder why anyone would even bother.
Bitter rain sizzled down onto sidewalks and rooftops still aching and creaking from the day’s heat. Humidity that had smothered the city throughout the day slouched around the corners like a resentful neighbour, so that even as the rain hewed lines in the sky, the heat went nowhere. That mild discomfort was ten times worse when you couldn’t dress for it.
Ash tugged the front of her grey long-sleeved shirt ($12.99 at Target, caught on special), trying to make it sit right underneath her chest harness ($90.00, and damn if she didn’t wish she could afford the full brown one with the chest guard, but that was like, $515.00, which was more than she had in a month), and covered just the tops of her dyed-grey thick-worn fatigue pants ($78.00, with the reinforcing stolen from a pair of hiking pants she’d found in a dumpster). Her thick belt, technically a rappel belt ($200.00), with its huge buckling arrangement and compressed rope, bulged at the front of her shirt slightly, but she still had stuffed into the back of it, just underneath her shirt, the sheathe ($24.00) for her knife ($325.00), upon which were script over four hundred acid etched squares (free, thank Instructables), carefully patterned to match the printed sheet from openforce dot org for light and heat (solar totemic, impact). There was no way to look normal wearing the harness and rappel, but there were only so many ways she could get around the city.
Not too tall. Not too physically intimidating. Not too anything, really. Ever since she started this job, she couldn’t even claim to be all that pretty.
Up the street, she saw a streetlight flicker out, just for an instant. Ahah. What some might consider a normal failure of basic infrastructure – pretty common in these parts – Ash knew could be more. Picking up her pace, she jogged towards the light, sweeping her eyes around for any of the other lights on the street; the streetlamps, the moonbeams, and even the small projector lights on the front of the sandstone town hall beside her, illuminating the undersides of centuries-old windows. Another light going out was a signal she could use to find it.
Ash looked up at the window sills of the sandstone building. Just low enough she could reach them, and a good high angle on the street. Setting her phone to record, she lifted herself with one hand, propping the phone up. Its tiny little digitised eye stared down at the intersection of the streets.
Crossroads were always useful.
With the phone in place, Ash rolled her shoulders, feeling her harness sit against her shirt, and her flesh just around the neckline. Opening and closing her hands, she flexed her shoulders, feeling the air and spatter of warm water brushing against her skin and reminding her of the edges of her own body – which had been hard-fought for, and amplified with just a touch of magic. That was the great unfairness – all the runes they’d found only could make things better. Wasn’t magic meant to be a way around hard work?
The wind blew cold, and just as Ash stepped into the circle of another street light. Nostrils flaring, listening so intensely as to feel her vision dimming, her nerves on edge – everything about her was a bundle of coiled steel. Waiting for-
The light flickered out.
Ash didn’t even think. Her hand was stuffed up under the back of her shirt, grabbing the hilt of her blade, and with a swinging motion, she arced it around in front of her. She expected the blade’s magic to burst free with arcs of light when it was wielded in a violent fashion – but it didn’t, only the dullest of golden outlines in a suffusing blackness. Even in the darkness, though, the blade bit something – and Ash felt the hot spatter of blood on her face as she spun and stepped forwards, trying to push an advantage, ignoring the bellow from whatever it was she’d struck.
It leapt back, and the lamplight returned in a bright flash, momentarily blinding Ash. Raising one arm to the top of her head, blinking as the light rushed back, she squinted and swept the blade before her, tentatively, even though the light meant of course the creature wasn’t in reach any more.
“Get back here,” Ash spat, angrily wondering why she couldn’t meet sexy, stylish demons who could be convinced to be good guys once in a while.
“You know, it used to be that you humans would be organised about things like this,” it said in a voice like wet gravel. With a voice to fixate on, Ash at least had a direction – and she backed up carefully as she watched for flickers. Out of the light, into the dark, but now with light between her and it – them? It was hard to say, with demons.
“We’re out of practice.”
“Yes, I know. A million of you talking at once about retelling Conan Doyle’s stories with more gay subtext.” And there, there, somewhere at the edge, Ash made out the shape of a figure that raised a shoulder and lowered it again.
“Yeah,” Ash felt the rain streaking the blood down her shoulders, trying to formulate some plan of attack and keep the buzzing of a thousand locusts out of her brain. Blood like that was so often toxic, not to the body, but to the mind. “We don’t have knights these days but I’m cool with wearing pants.”
“Ugh, no appreciation for tradition.” The demon spat. The swirling mess of shadow ached the eye to look at. When you saw them, you stared, trying to find an edge, a shape, or maybe see something behind them – something that could be defined. Yet even though there was no shape to be recognised, there were still forms in that darkness, some impression. Perhaps it was the voice.
The light between her and it flicked out. Light didn’t even want to touch these things.
“I’ve never been that big on tradition anyway. Web two point oh, y’know.”
“I have no idea what that means.” Words landed like wet meat, thrown to craggy stones.
Ash couldn’t help but imagine that voice belonging to some thing walking forwards with its hands in its pockets, cockily, swaying a long crocodilian tail behind it and grinning teeth that looked like saw blades. It did move like it stepped, a brief pause in its forward motion, a sway left, a sway right. It was confident. It was bold.
It was trying to hide that it was bleeding.
Ash stepped backwards, off the pedestrian crossing, into the centre of the road. Whether demons moved to the centre of crosses as a magical compulsion, a biological need or some other psychological reason, she wasn’t sure. Didn’t matter, though – when you had a tool, you used it.
” I-” she began, and stopped herself as fast as she could blink, because then it was moving. The light behind it winked out faster than she’d have expected, and she hopped back with an extra urgency, reversing her grip on the blade. Dart to the side, hope you got it right – and as the shrieking form of claws and talons and ridges of spiny hair slammed past her, she thanked her lucky stars even as she swung that same blade downwards, her other hand on the hilt to drive that blade into whatever part of them she was lucky enough to hit.
Too, too much of this was luck, right now.
The blade glanced at a plate, it sheared at something, and another gout of blood, with its whispering chant of didn’t love you didn’t love you didn’t love you arced through the air past Ash’s face. The creature screamed at that, definitely not prepared for the power she brought to bear, tumbling and rolling – and then the lights winked out in sequence, blink-blink-blink as it ran away.
Ash didn’t follow. Not after spilling the blood of a demon on a crossroads. It was going to come back. Instead, she ran to the sill of the old sandstone building, reaching up and fumbling for her phone, grabbing it and holding it in her free hand, while the other sheathed her knife. Pressing her back to the wall, she tried to gather her wits, tried to relax in the moment she had. Too tense, make mistakes. Too relaxed, get surprised. They were hurt. They were injured, and now they were staying away from her and from light sources that could be used to track them. It wouldn’t just leave.
While they were licking their wounds, though, that meant Ash had a moment to herself. A moment to gather her wits, and maybe pull a useful snatch of magic from her phone’s flashlight. Thank Cath for that app.
Reaching up above her head, Ash picked up the phone from its vantage point, hoping it had some decent footage of her fighting a hole of blackness that, no doubt, looked like a cheap special effect. Ash rested her thumb on the screen, rubbing it to try and wake it up, to catch the unlock –
Then the phone bleated and vibrated and Ash damn near leapt out of her skin. The incoming call prompt flashed at her, a happy green phone receiver, a device that Ash literally could never remember using, raising and lowering, with the word MOM emblazoned atop it.
Ash thumbed the phone to cancel the call. Last thing she needed right now was to talk to her mother. Last time she’d visited her at home she’d needed a shower to wipe blood off her feet and legs, and on the way out, mom had seen the tattoos on her shoulders. Tattoos that were in the strictest sense, part of her work; ingrained magic, just like the magic on her blade. They had been expensive, because they needed to be incredibly precise. They had to work even when her skin was damaged, even when her shoulders were tensed or relaxed. Magic was scribed on her flesh, now, she hunted demons for the internet, and all she could think to say when her mother asked about them was ‘It’s a spiritual thing.’ It beat the alternative – They let me deadlift ten times my weight and punch through steel, mom.
Figured mom would call, though. She’d probably had a conversation with one of her friends, and just before bed, thought she’d call Ash up and ‘see how she was going.’ The inevitable question would follow – ‘What are you doing for work, these days?’
“Well, you see, mom, I’m- I-“ How honest could she even be?
Mom, I use an internet service where people give me money for the stories I tell them.
That just made it sound like phone sex work. Or worse, cam-whoring. Given the way her nose looked since it’d been broken, Ash was not comfortable with even implying that to her mother.
Mom, I fight the demons that have been summoned into the mortal realm by the accidental runic shape of the internet, and since it’s a thankless job I have to beg strangers on the internet to cover my medical expenses and tools I need for the job, while pretending that my entire life is just a really excellently put together web series while I and a thousand other geeks all over the world try to reverse-engineer the magic we’ve been able to find. A thing called Crowdfunding is involved. Also, I think my Amazon purchase history has put me on a watch list.
That wouldn’t work either.
How to explain open-source witchcraft to a woman to whom a web was still something she accidentally walked through when she went to retrieve the newspaper of a morning? Hell, mom still thought of her two high school girlfriends as ‘a phase that passed.’
Finally loading the application of squares and lines and improbably accurate circles, Ash held her arm out, down to point up at her chest, the smooth shape there a perfectly good canvas for the magical rune. A momentary fumble, then she thumbed the button that told the phone to blast light out as bright as it could.
It didn’t light up.
Ash arched her neck upwards sharply, turning the phone on the purest instinct, and leapt sideways. The black shadowy claw – definitely a claw shape – arced down in the space where she’d been a moment before, leaving deep score on the sandstone. The impact defied, the beast tumbled down and landed before Ash, with a wet splash where its clawed feet hit.
Clearly, that injury had been a meaningful one.
Ash rolled backwards, putting down her phone as she did, pointing upwards at the lamp, without nearly as much art intended as the eventual shot would indicate. It stared up at the sky, and all it saw was the light flicking on, off, on, off. It could not see her grabbing the creature’s wrist. It could barely hear the clash of bodies. It certainly couldn’t show the moment when Ash dragged the body of the demon back into the pool of light, magic runes glowing on her shoulders.
Just the lamp. On, off. On, off.
Then the rain returned.
The thunder boomed out of the sky with eerie dramatic timing. Ash had no moment to reflect on what the phone saw; she was too busy kneeling astraddle of what she hoped was the beast’s throat, knife in her hand, stabbing it into a surface that yielded with an unpleasantly organic crunch, and a burst of wetness flowed around her arm. Not blood – no, blood would be… blood might be too familiar.
With the weapon sunk deep into the creature’s form, it finally seemed to be freed from the suffusing shroud about the beast. Surrounded by viscera and unknown inhuman organs, the blade flared – and in one brief instant, Ash could see the thing, outlined as the light of a sun burst out from under its skin. Dark, glossy flesh, barbed and hard wirelike hair, a maw that split into two parts, and too, too human eyes looking out on either side of the blade that now gouged into its head… all outlined in a moment of sharp illuminating whiteness.
The sun dulled.
The demon died.
Ash took just one faint moment, her gut churning, to breathe, and try to forget what she’d just seen. The eyes, always the eyes. The reminder that for all these things were inhuman, that they hunted people, that they killed and ate and worse people, there was some genesis to them, some human thing underneath it all.
Ash slid the blade out; rainwater washed down her hand, down the blade, diluting and dulling the thick black fluid. Slowly she pulled herself up to stand, her hand on the road, while she looked around for her poor abused phone. As she drew near, it gave a loud chirrup – a reminder alert.
“Check Crowdfunding.” her own words flashed at her on the screen. God – that. If she could afford more tattoos, more gear, she could do this sort of thing more safely. She could save more people…
Urgently, Ash slid through the emails in her inbox, ignoring the corpse she’d have to hide until morning and the aching pain in her arms from the effort of beating something she could barely see, or the hissing moan of the bloodstains on her skin. The pale blue-green light from her phone shone off her rain-slick forehead, showing Ash her own glum expression more than it showed her the web page. Just those letters, lit up bright on her skin, ICK.
The green bar wasn’t moving. You couldn’t stare at it, you’d know it wasn’t moving. The people who cared had chipped in what they cared enough to. That just made the churn of her stomach worse. To most of the people, her work was entertainment. Tune in, watch, enjoy, turn off. The plot wasn’t under her control, it had amateurish acting and poor special effects, the shaky cam was an unwelcome addition, and so on. To a few patrons, a few readers, a few viewers, a few coins in the change jar, though, her work meant something.
Hunkering forwards in the rain and trying to still her stomach, she slid the knife up her back, setting it back in its sheathe. Blood ran down her forearm, black in the moonlight, with long lines mixing with the rainwater spiralled down off her elbow. Holding up her phone, trying to keep the corpse out of the shot, for fear it might still interfere with the device, she cleared her throat, and tried to look less horrified and haunted than she knew she did.
“Hey everybody,” Ash began, wiping the blood off her hand, then her more-clean hand up through her hair to push a stray lock out of her eyes. “We got a hell of a story today…”