Dorje "George" Saga, the mortal world's preeminent wizard/thespian, returns to trouble the darkness. This story is the sequel to Fair Vote.
That's the good news. The bad news is that the story isn't written yet. Unlike with Fair Vote, you're going to be getting the chapters in real time, as they are written. Given my real life schedule, that means you are going to have to wait a good long time to see the last chapter. But I still think that in the end it will be pretty good.
The story takes place about two months after Cold Days, or one and a half years after Fair Vote.
I'm not at all creeped out by the whirling red glyphs that appear when I look at people. Okay, so what if they are written in a forbidden language, an Outsider tongue? They're helpful. I know all about everyone now when I observe them. It's kind of like a Google Glass that's buried deep in my brain where I can't turn off. Kind of like the way the Terminator gets to see things. I see if people are fey, or wizards, or weak.
It's not an infection. Not that bad of an infection.
Besides, it's not like I have sigils written all over me, or anything, as long as I smear on a little stage makeup. And my uncle's been giving me strenuous lessons on keeping it down most of the time. So who's going to notice, except an Outsider, or maybe one of its minions? I'm not going to meet one of them, again. Right?
Hey, wait a minute. Have I asked this kind of question before?
Devolution is a South Beach club where the important go to be displayed and good taste goes to die. It features two separate sound systems—the first for the lucky elite who are allowed entry within its unhallowed walls, while the second is set up outside for the benefit of the impatient horde outside its gates, a mass of flesh that nightly rolls its way forward like the storm surge of a hurricane, held back only by the unforgiving bodies of the doormen.
It was the first time I had made it inside without resorting to lying, pleading, or bribing. The downside was that tonight I was on the clock. My theatrical agent, Iverna, had coerced me into doing a paid favor for her and escorting a rising singer from Panama on a night out on the town. It was one of those favors that had probably passed through several hands before landing in my lap. But that's the way it works here in Miami, and I don't fight against it. When you're at the murky bottom of the entertainment food chain, you take what comes your way. In fact, I'm not even really a professional—I do community theater in the Grove. My agent thinks I'm her charity case.
I did learn, though, that all I need to do is to whisper Iverna's name to the doormen and they'll magically pull the rope away and let you in. I would never have guessed that she had that kind of pull with this crowd, even with the job title she holds. I've met her family, and they're just so friggin' normal.
My date and I sat at a large rectangular public table set up on a long dais at the midpoint of the main room, where she could be best viewed by the milling crowd of narcissists. The table itself was made of transparent plastic, with shell casings and bullet fragments entombed within its core. The fragment of a .32 right in front of me was annotated with a tiny plaque that claimed that it had killed a four-year-old bystander in a local shootout, courtesy of the Miami-Dade police evidence locker. The theme repeated itself within all of the tables and, recently, along some of the shadow-pocked walls.
I put my rum and coke on top of the plaque to cover it.
My date, Romina or Rafaella or something, had stopped talking to me long ago, about as soon as she realized that I was a nobody in the entertainment world. Instead she had latched on to the hulking German who had seated himself on the other side of her, and now they were comically attempting to communicate with a mixture of Spanish, English, German, and body language. The girl that the German guy had come in with stared at him darkly to no effect before giving up and sliding over to sit across from me.
Valkyrie, the glyphs said.
Huh, I thought.
I had never met a valkyrie before, but then again I was young enough that I hadn't met pretty much most of the creatures of the various pantheons. My uncle Senge had warned me that I would eventually start to run across them—especially the Buddhist ones, given my family history. Like attracts like, or so I'm told.
And there was another reason that I was starting to see a lot more of the supernatural prowling around in public—some wacko wizard killed off all the Red Court vampires with a crazy-massive magical stunt, leaving a huge power vacuum locally. Now every dime-store creature thinks it's king. I thought I had to lie low before—now I have to creep around my own town and pretend I'm not a threat. Thankfully, it's not a stretch for me to look convincing.
The girl in front of me had long, thin, blonde hair that was stuffed beneath a grimy, red handkerchief. She was dressed like a biker, with a dust-coated Harley jacket and a grungy t-shirt beneath. But it was her unworldly glacier-blue eyes that held me. They seemed to whirl with a storm behind them, and I could have sworn that I could sometimes see them flicker with lightning behind her pupils when I dared to almost gaze directly into them. She looked young enough to still be in college, though. Maybe that's how Odin likes his crew.
"So what's a valkyrie doing in Miami?" I shouted to her over the music.
She furrowed her blonde brows at me crossly. "How do you know what I am?" she shouted back. "Mortals are not supposed to recognize us when we disguise our form." The dichotomy between her waif-like features and her husky sing-song voice disconcerted me a bit. For the briefest of moments, I worried that she might really be a dude under there. That kind of thing can happen to you in this club.
"I sometimes have dealings with the fey, and the like," I said cautiously.
"Ah, you are one of those practitioners that they told us about," she nodded. "Yes, I understand your aura lines, now. I am not a full valkyrie, yet. I am still completing my training."
"But Miami?" I asked her. "Everyone knows there's no heroes here."
She slid her eyes over to the German meaningfully.
"He is my final exam," she said. "The Fates have decreed that he is doomed to die a hero, and I have been charged with escorting his spirit back to Odin."
"Really?" I said, giving him a fresh look. "How long has he got?"
"The Fates say that he will die sometime in the next few minutes," she shrugged.
"Huh," I said, appraising him in a new light. "Sucky for him."
"Oh? Why?" she leaned forward. "Have you seen Valhalla? It makes this place look like a mausoleum. Gunther would be right at home. He's been trying to make a hero out of himself for the last few years. It seems fair to me that he's going to fulfill his dream."
"So to do your job you set yourself up as his girlfriend, or something? I thought you people just showed up at the last minute."
"It's my final exam. I didn't want to arrive late and let Fólkvangr claim him. Besides, even though we have a lot of Rules that we have to follow, it's okay for us to, I don't know, give our selections a little moral encouragement."
When the foeman bares his steel, Tarantara! I thought wryly. I didn't think Gunther over there needed any encouragement. He had Hero written all over him. I didn't even need the red glyphs to tell me that. No wonder Regina or whoever was magnetized to him.
I reached my open hand out to the girl across the table. "Dorje Saga," I said to her. "Call me George."
She shook my hand, and despite her undersized frame, it felt like shaking the hand of a linebacker. "Teresia," she said.
"No last name?" I asked.
"I gave it up with my old afterlife when I applied to become a valkyrie."
"You were mortal?"
"Just last year, yes. But don't get me wrong. All of us are still half-mortal. We just reincarnate when our time comes. Perhaps that makes us a little like the fey knights."
A bit of a silence fell between us.
"Does he know?" I bounced my eyes in Gunther's direction.
"No. But, really, does anyone?" she leaned back. "Even I don't know how it will happen, or who he will fight. I guess he'll be slain by the Winter Court," she tossed her head over to a throng several tables down.
On the top of the distant table, a woman painted head to toe in glittery silver danced for the pleasure of the guests. When she noticed me and Teresia watching her, she paused for a moment to look back at us, and then, with incredible grace, she flipped herself off of her perch and summersaulted from table to table until she landed without the slightest sound upon her bare silver feet, right between the two of us.
"Wizard. Valkyrie," she purred.
Faint tendrils of steam peeled away from her perfect silver skin, writhing like Medusa's hair. It was as if she had been made of dry ice, and was slowly evaporating away like an ice sculpture.
"Winter courtier," I replied. "A rare sight in the mortal world."
She smiled, but her expression could not warm me, in spite of her naturism. Maybe Miamians aren't cut out to appreciate winter.
"Are you here to slay my date?" Teresia put to her.
"Do you desire it?" the dancer did not even blink at the question.
"Yes," Teresia bluntly replied. I suppressed a sudden cough.
"It will cost you," the dancer arched her foot and traced her big toe across the top of the table.
Teresia shook her head. "It is against the Rules to pay assassins," she sighed.
"Then I cannot serve you," the dancer answered.
Teresia suddenly stood up and shouted something in German at Gunther, pointing animatedly at the silver courtier. I didn't know what she said, but it made Gunther frown at the dancer. The valkyrie said something else to him more urgently, but he turned back to my date again, studiously ignoring all three of us.
She sat back down again in a discouraged huff, and the dancer laughed at her bit cruelly.
"What did you say?" I asked.
"I tried to tell him that the courtier of winter insulted his manhood. But he wouldn't take the bait. I don't think he likes to fight with women," she sighed.
"It was a good maneuver," the dancer told her. "But you should save your energy for the Onikuma."
"The what?" Teresia said.
Leaning closer to Teresia, the dancer projected her voice over the rising volume of the music. "We first noticed a minor demon prowling around the Calder horse racing course a few weeks ago. But lately, this Onikuma has been hunting people here in South Beach, waiting for them to become drunk before pouncing. We think it is looking for something or someone, but cannot say what. As this hall is owned by Winter Court financial interests, I and my sister made arrangements to be summoned to this world by mortals so that we might redirect this creature to other hunting grounds, if it draws near."
"I've heard of Onikumas, but I've never seen one," I muttered. "Normally they are rural, I thought."
"This one is like an urban black bear," the dancer said. "With many successful hunts in its belly, it has turned bolder and bolder. It has become difficult for the nightclubs to keep its presence quiet."
"Onikuma," Teresia said to herself thoughtfully, her eyes on Gunther. "And you were sent here to fight it?"
"That, and to trade with the Paranetters," the courtier turned her head towards a table on the far side of the room. A forlorn looking group of people my age huddled together there. I recognized them as some members of the Greater Miami Paranet, a loosely banded group of amateur occultists and hedge practitioners with chapters all over the world. We knew of each other, casually. For the most part we stayed out of each other's business. But it was impossible to keep from hearing the swirling rumors about their vain struggle to prevent the Fomor from kidnapping their members from their own safe houses. I had told myself that it really wasn't my business. That it was up to the White Council to protect them. But that wasn't really true. The White Council only protects wizards, and the Paranet doesn't count.
Fearful Bison, my glyphs opined. Well, I hadn't asked for an editorial.
"What are you trading with them?" I asked.
"That is privileged information," the dancer said firmly. "My sister shall treat with them."
"When the Onikuma comes, my date will fight him," Teresia said.
"You speak for him?" the dancer asked.
"No. But I know he will do it."
The dancer reached over to the wall and pulled something long and shiny out of it. It glittered with the flashing lights of the room. She stepped in front of Gunther and jabbed the pointy end down into his seat, right between his legs.
Gunther looked up at her angrily, then focused on the frozen sword. Its vibrations made a humming sound that carried over the thumping music as if the music wasn't even there. He grabbed the hilt and the sound stopped.
The dancer leapt off the table into the darkness.
"She's on the list to die," I heard Teresia say to me over the beat of the music. "Her and her sister."
I blinked into the rays of strobe lights that pierced through cigarette smoke. "Wait a minute," I said back to her. "If the German is going to die, and the sisters are going to die—who fights off the creature?"
She ignored me, watching the dancer flow towards the head of the hall.
"Who fights off the creature?" I pressed her.
"Freyja is moving," was her answer. "The Fates converge. At last. At last."
I snapped my fingers in front of her face, but she slowly revolved her head and looked right through them at Gunther, who himself was staring intently at the dancer.
Near the front of the hall, where both fey were heading, I thought I could hear a ripping sound, the sound of the fabric of the universe being manhandled. It's a sound that is sometimes made when something from Nevernever intrudes upon our existence. I could see the tear growing vertically now—two feet, four feet, eight feet, more.
And then the tear bulged out from the middle, like a cat's eye. Through it stepped a creature that looked like a cross between a dancing black bear and a case of road rage. It stood upon its hind legs, displaying a body that was larger than a polar bear's. Its eyes were bloodshot with fury, and slobber cascaded from its furry snout.
"An Onikuma, all right," I said. "Not good. Not the worst, but not good."
The creature made noises as if it were trying to speak, but it was impossible to make out its words over the heavy beat of the music. All I could hear was a lot of roaring. Around me, heads were beginning to turn towards the front of the room.
In a frustrated rage, the Onikuma sought out the source of the music. It found one of the room's massive speakers that were bolted ten feet up the wall, pulled it down, and ripped it to shreds with its elongated claws. The DJ, who was set up at a table along the other wall, finally noticed the ten-foot-tall monster and killed the music. The room seemed to pound with the absence of noise.
"Silence!" the bear demon roared in Japanese. I wasn't very good at the language, but I had learned some as a part of my early education in Buddhism, back before I decided that I wasn't called by any religion. But I hadn't needed the language in years. "I claim this land as my feeding territory!" the bear snarled at the humans that numbly surrounded it. "None may hunt here except by my leave. You! You all, you riding monkeys, shall bend knee to me, and bring your horses out of hiding to feed to me!"
I think the fey understood him, though. The two silvery sisters were pushing through the crowd to zero right in on him.
In a fury at a lack of response from the crowd, the Onikuma grabbed the nearest person, a teen-aged girl, and tore her head right off of her shoulders with a single sickening pull. The bear gyrated her head at the onlookers, its massive paw somehow gripping her long hair, while her gruesomely tattered neck sprayed the crowd with her spent life.
"Bend your knees in worship or feel the heat of my anger!" the demon bellowed.
That's when about half the crowd, both men and women, drew out handguns and fired a long volley of spinning lead at the beast, some simultaneously vomiting at the sight of the girl while they pulled their triggers.
There are stories about Onikumas. They really aren't the most powerful of demon spirits. They are born from especially long-lived bears. The tales speak of villagers banding together and defeating these demons with simple spears. But either the stories were very, very wrong, or this wasn't a standard Onikuma.
Because all those bullets didn't do jack to it, except make it angrier, and its eyes glowier.
As one, the crowd woke up to the danger and in a unanimous panic fled back to the main entrance, leaving the fey dancers alone with the bear and its bullet-ridden trophy head. Even the DJ was gone. The patrons at our table stumbled away drunkenly with the other evacuees. My date grabbed Gunther by the arm and said something to him, but in answer he simply yanked the ice sword up out of the seat and shook his head at her. Swearing angrily, she turned towards me, her B-team. "Help me get out of here!" she shouted at me in Spanish. "The crowd will crush me!"
I glanced at her, and at the dancers. And then, like Gunther, I simply shook my head. "I think I might be needed here," I said.
Her face turned to an incredible shade of red. "You have a job! Do it like a man!" she shook my arm. But when I didn't answer her, she let go of me and crawled over the top of the table to the other side, pushing her way angrily through the thickening crowd. I wasn't watching her, though. I was watching the winter courtiers.
Long, silvery spears shimmered into existence within the dancers' hands. They separated and slowly began to circle around the black-furred beast, their steaming bodies crouched low.
Their plan was clear—to use the tactics of wolves to antagonize the creature into a misstep—by switching off with each other by alternately attacking and retreating. The plan might have had a chance, if the thing they were fighting was weaker, or dumber, or slower.
The dancer who had spoken with us stood squarely within the demon's field of vision, waving the tip of her spear in front of its face, trying to distract it from her sister. The ploy worked, and it didn't. The beast did ignore the other dancer. But it didn't charge the tip of the spear the way a bull would charge a cape. Instead, with unbelievable speed, it pushed its two thousand pound body past her spear tip and seized her right arm with its fangy snout. It shook its head like a dog shaking its prey, and in less than a second had sawed her arm completely off with its teeth. The dancer screamed horribly, kneeling in pain and shock.
"For Mab!" her sister cried, piercing the demon in the ribcage with horrific strength. Tendrils of ice began to form around the wound, spreading quickly.
The demon spat out the silvery arm and turned its attention to the other dancer, who grabbed a new spear for herself out of thin air. The bear stood back up upon its hind legs, regarding her.
"So," it said to her in Japanese. "What claim does your queen have over this land?"
"These are our hunting grounds," the silvery woman responded in the same tongue.
"I am now the greatest of my kind," it said to her. "Your queen must kneel before me."
The dancer sputtered in disbelief. "You're a bear spirit! A nothing! Even now, my queen's ice destroys you from within!"
"Once, such things would have killed me. But I have lived long, and in recent moons I have been changed. Your ice magic does not kill me now. Look at the wound and despair, winter spirit."
I followed as the dancer's eyes slid down the beast's body to see the wound she had caused. I couldn't see the wound myself because it was turned away from me, but I could see her blanch. She staggered back a step, but was simply not quick enough to evade the bear's teeth, which wrapped themselves around her head and neatly tore it off.
I heard an appreciative grunt, and out of the corner of my eye, I saw the shadow of movement. When I looked, I saw that it was Gunther, leaping over the table, ice sword in hand, down to the main floor. It was the first time I had seen him standing. He wasn't as big as the bear. Nothing at all like the bear. And yet he seem to exude a sense of largeness, a largeness that transcended his physical body. He stalked forward, sword at the ready, unafraid. He grabbed a bar stool with his left hand, pointing its feet ahead of him, reminding me of a lion tamer.
Meanwhile, the Onikuma turned its attention to the wounded dancer. A lustrous white gem appeared in her left hand, which quivered weakly as she tried to hold it up in the air. But whatever it was she had meant to do, none of us ever found out. Almost casually, the bear reached out with its right paw and raked her down the chest with its wicked claws, pulling pieces of her sternum away when his paw receded. It then raked her again across the face, and I heard a snapping sound in her neck just before her mangled body folded backwards to the floor.
Gunther let loose with a short, piercing shout and charged the bear. Snarling, the bear instinctively fell heavily to all four paws to meet its challenger, putting the full weight of its body into its attack. At the last instant, as the bear exploded forward, Gunther gracefully leapt up above the bear's overextended jaws, piercing the creature's back with the sword near the spine before tumbling onward past the demon's rear legs. He tucked himself into a quick roll and regained his footing with his back against the far wall, bar stool and sword still somehow sorted out in his hands. The creature bellowed out angrily and so quickly did it turn itself around to face the German that I thought it had simply folded itself in half.
The demon raged forward, trying to pin Gunther against the wall, but he held the stool firmly in his left hand, holding the body of the bear just far enough away to avoid its teeth. With his sword hand, he first tried to hack at the bear with heavy strokes, but when the bear's coat failed to yield, he stabbed fiercely at the bear's shoulder until viscous globs of ichor began to drip down to the floor.
The demon backed away from the German, pacing in a semi-circle around him, gauging him.
Beside me, Teresia began to rock back and forth. "At last," she kept repeating. "At last."
I stood up and looked around the room. Everyone else had evacuated, except for a handful of the Paranetters, who had turned over a table and huddled behind it to watch the fight. There was no one else up at bat. If Gunther lost the melee, the Onikuma would be free to leave the building, to attack regular people. I couldn't have that. Maybe I couldn't help someone fated to die. But I could help the bystanders. I moved forward, chanting from the Āṭānāṭiya Sutta to center my mind and enable protection from a demon's corrupting influence.
As I stepped off of the dais and onto the dance floor, the bear lunged forward and snapped its teeth upon the bottom brace of the German's bar stool. It used its massive neck muscles to try to pull the stool out of Gunther's grip, but for the first two yanks Gunther was able to hold his ground. The third yank was so violent that the bar stool flipped over the bear's back, with Gunther still holding onto it. He spilled onto the floor badly and had to let go of the stool to roll back onto his feet.
The Onikuma only needed two steps to charge. Gunther raised the ice sword's point directly at the bear, daring it to impale itself. But the demon leapt upwards, its paws extended forward, and instead of impaling itself it landed its paws upon the top of the sword and pushed it down into the floor, stoically enduring a pair of self-inflicted deep cuts into each of its forelimbs.
For the briefest of moments, the sword's blade bore the full weight of the demon. But then a resounding crack filled the room as the blade broke neatly in half. The demon roared giantly in triumph.
If it were me standing there like that, broken sword in hand, I would have simply given up. But Gunther would not be denied. He leapt straight at the bear, wrapped his muscular arms around the bear's neck, and actually flipped it backwards without losing his grip.
I almost stopped my chant.
The Onikuma curled up its body and raked Gunther across the abdomen with its hind claws. I could see droplets of blood fly through the air. The German cried out in pain and loosed his grip around the bear's neck. The bear wriggled out and swatted at the German with its huge right paw. Gunther arced backwards from the blow, and as his body spiraled through the air, I could see what a bloody mess his abdomen was. When he fell to the ground, he simply laid there like a rag doll.
The demon roared again, more excitedly than the last time. It lifted its enormous body upon its hand feet, looking down upon the German. "Thus do I do to mortals!" it barked. It stepped forward to finish off the German, as it had the others.
Without thinking, I reached my hands out and did something that I had never tried before. I made a Zen shield around Gunther. Until that moment, I had only tried to put a shield around myself. But what really took me by surprise was how quickly the shield erected itself around the German. No matter how long I'd trained at it, I had always had trouble getting Oriental-style shields up to full strength in less than half a minute.
You see, I was primarily trained by my parents using the Oriental system of magic. It wasn't until I was in my late teens that I began to study Occidental magic as well, and I simply wasn't as good at the Western system. Western shields work like force fields. An Eastern shield bends space around someone so that objects that hit it flip around to the far side without passing through the protected area, almost like going through a gateway. It isn't perfect. Too much mass passing through it can cause it to buckle and reverb back on the caster. But the biggest problem with the Oriental shields is that they are normally invoked with a lot of obsessive chanting, and that always takes time.
And yet, there it was. I was so shocked with my sudden success that I stopped moving for a moment. Maybe the Āṭānāṭiya Sutta had helped me, although it's the wrong chant for shields. Maybe I had never needed the chanting in the first place.
There's one other thing to point out about the Oriental shield. Because it bends space around you, light passes right around it and keeps going. That means that whatever is inside is not just physically protected, but is invisible to anyone outside if the shield is at full strength. According to Western science, that should mean that it ought to be pitch black inside its boundary. But hey, it's Oriental and it's magic, so I guess the laws of physics don't apply. Because you can see just fine inside of one.
The gist is that Gunther disappeared.
When the bear pounced downward, its claws simply hit the empty floor as if Gunther weren't there. I grunted with the force of the blow passing through the invisible bubble, but kept moving forward, still chanting. A deep and unpleasant musky odor wafted towards me from the creature.
This time, when the demon roared, it was in surprise and frustration. "Cheated!" it shouted angrily, shaking its body like a dog shaking off water.
Well, I was angry, too.
"Nyima," I growled, outstretching my hand towards the beast. A jet of fire burst from my hand and burned into the demon's furry coat, briefly setting it on fire.
The demon turned away from its lost prize and roared at me, but something held it from attacking me outright. It turned its head from left to right as if it had trouble looking directly at me.
"Onikuma, you are far from your home," I said to it in my halting Japanese.
The bear narrowed its eyes. "So, the mortal monkeys here can speak, after all," it said. It began to circle around me, sniffing the air. "You have been chanting the Āṭānāṭiya Sutta," it growled. "It won't protect you, little priest. I have grown."
"There is a difference between being powerful and being fat," I taunted it.
"You will see!" it snapped back at me.
"If you are so powerful, then why were you forced to leave your home, eh?" I pressed it.
The demon snorted. "I was forced to do nothing! I made my home in Ōkuma for many mortal lifetimes. But in recent lives the clever monkeys found a way to hide their horses from me and rode upon metal beasts instead. And then when the ground shook and the steam rose high into the air, all the monkeys left in fear, and I had nothing to eat at all. But in my hunger, the steam found me, and changed me into something stronger. Now I am the biggest of all Onikumas! I fear no spears!"
I stopped in my tracks, suddenly understanding. "The Japanese tsunami," I whispered to myself. "The Fukushima Daiichi nuclear plant that blew up. Great Buddha, Godzilla is a bear demon," I grunted.
"And yet," I said to the creature, "you could have stayed in Japan. So, what drove you to come all the way over to the other side of the planet?"
"You would not understand," the demon said to me. "You cannot know the hunger that drives me, now."
"I'm sure it would make a story worthy of many songs," I said soothingly.
The bear huffed again, still circling around me as we spoke with each other. "In my search for a new hunting ground, I disguised myself as one of you mortals so that I might go where mortals congregate to talk and thus learn where you have hidden your horses. When I went to those places where mortals drink rancid water and speak loudly, I saw that mortals possessed magic boxes that showed all manner of things. And it was on those boxes that I saw the thing that changed me—horses larger than houses, pulling wagons as big as barns! I bit many mortals until they confessed that the horses lived in a land called Busch. I have been seeking that place to claim as my new hunting ground."
I blinked. "Wait—Clydesdales? Busch—beer? You're looking for that?"
"Clydesdales," the bear rolled around in its mouth. "So that is their name. Bigger than houses."
My jaw worked itself of its own accord. "You just killed a mortal girl over a—a jingly commercial?"
"Spoiled young priest! What do you know of endless starvation? Yes! And again, I say, yes! As the gods hear my voice, I vow to all that witness me that I'll never be hungry again!" the bear reared up and shook its forepaws. "Step out of my way and let me pass so that I may finish my hunt, little priest, or I shall drag your lifeless head behind me." It dropped back to all four feet and slunk towards me, its head low and menacing.
"If you swear to go back to Japan, I will let you go," I said, taking an involuntary step back.
"Burn me with fire if you can," it said, moving yet closer to me. "But I will hunt where I will."
I raised my hand again. "Nyima," I intoned. But before the syllable escaped my lips, the glyphs within my head unlocked and began to spin of their own volition. And instead of fire issuing from my fingertips, a whirling black tentacle with a violet-black glow shot out of my hand.
"No!" I shouted at myself. "Not now! No, stop!"
I moved my hand to the side to prevent my sudden burst of Outsider magic from hitting the demon. The tentacle wrapped itself around the corpse of the fey dancer, dissolving her flesh into ectoplasm, and then leapt of its own accord at the bear's left paw. It wrapped around it and within a second had withered it to a bony husk.
The demon screamed, in anger and in terror. "False priest! False priest!" it screamed. "How dare you invoke the holy Āṭānāṭiya! Void-cursed invader!"
I dropped to my knees in self-recrimination. I had just released what I had sworn to my uncle that I would not, not ever. All my grueling training with him over the last year and a half had come to nothing. The magic that Nawang had burned into my head was finally learning how to master me.
In moments, the demon's paw restored itself to a semblance of health, but its coat seemed to lose some of its unearthly sheen. "Invader from the unnamable beyond, now I must destroy you, or lose all honor!" the demon yelled.
Beyond shame, I gritted my teeth and raised my hand again, spending all of my will upon the dark magic that crawled unchecked through my innards, forcing it back down. "Jalus," I rasped weakly, invoking a pitiful prismatic spray. It hit the bear demon in the eyes, stunning it only briefly. It shook its head and huffed, and I involuntarily began scooching my way backwards upon my gelatinous knees.
It pushed forward in spite of its mental fog until it loomed over me, gathering its strength to strike. I tried to will myself to move further, but I didn't have enough to hold back the Outsider magic and fight a demon at the same time. I had to decide between the two, and the thing is, it was more important to try to keep my promise to my Uncle Senge. Even at the cost of my own life. Because if I didn't, my uncle would surely kill me, anyway.
And that's because if I let the Outsider magic have its way with me, in time I would become a monster, a servant of the Outside. A killing machine, or worse, with knowledge of the occult thrown in. I couldn't let that happen, no matter what it meant to me personally.
I should have let Nawang cut it out of me when I had the chance.
The demon reared, readying its forepaws to crush me. But when it reached full height, an inky envelope of Outsider magic spread around the beast. It was definitely Outsider magic, but not of my making. My red glyphs whirled excitedly around the effect, pointing out technical aspects of the growing field. The crawling globule darkly blossomed into a pocket dimension that completely surrounded the Onikuma, swallowing it whole.
And just as quickly, the pocket closed in upon itself, leaving nothing but the demon's barnyard stench behind.
Just like that, the demon was gone.
I slowly turned my head back over my shoulder, looking behind me.
Standing in the middle of the dance floor, I could make out the form of a young man, pointing a waxy rod in my direction. I recognized him as one of the Paranetters. Flashing rays of light from the floor lights played over his face.
"Sergio Echeverría," I whispered.
He lowered the rod a bit and walked towards me. As he neared me, my glyphs fell in love with the candlestick-like rod, swarming it affectionately the way that moths swarm a light bulb.
"Tell me you aren't one of them," I said to him. "Not you, too."
"One of who?" he asked.
"Do you know what you are holding in your hand?" I asked him.
"Just a copy of an artifact," he said casually. "We've been collecting them lately."
"Collecting them? Artifacts? How?"
"It's all about defending ourselves against the Fomor, isn't it? Did anyone rescue us? Any one of your wizard friends that you can think of? Or even you? Did you lift a finger when our people were kidnapped by the Fomor? One after the other?" he said scathingly.
"But you don't know what that thing is," I said to him. "It's a very, very bad thing. It's going to turn on you."
"So what else is new?" he asked.
I looked away. Ashamed of him. Ashamed of myself. Because what's the difference? We were both tainted. And how could I blame him or his crew for being desperate? They weren't true practitioners. They knew what magic was, but had no real access to it. No traditional defenses but the mundane ones, and the Fomor know about those.
It was a struggle for me to prioritize what I knew I needed to do for him against what I knew I needed to do for myself. I personally posed a direct danger to everyone around me, and only I could responsibly deal with that. But if the Paranetters possessed Outsider artifacts, they posed a danger that they were not prepared to sort out themselves. They needed guidance, the guidance of someone who was aware of their danger, and they weren't going to get it if I killed myself.
"Okay," I said. "If you promise not to use that thing anymore, I'll help you guys."
He looked at me for a moment, there upon my knees. The guy who had to be rescued by the Paranetter instead of the other way around. Still, we had a bit of history with each other. I had never lied to him. I just hadn't helped him. He lowered the rod to the ground. "All right," he said. "No promises if things get too rough to handle, though."
"I know," I answered.
I raised my hand and unwrapped the field that hid Gunther's body. He was a mess, but I saw him taking a sickly breath.
Teresia raced up to him, looking at him in disbelief. No. Looking at me in disbelief.
"You saved his life," she said accusingly. "You son of a bitch."
"I wasn't planning on it," I shot back. "Things got out of control. You know, most people thank me for the life-saving thing."
"Thank you? For defying the Fates? It's all wrong, now, don't you understand? You've derailed the course of destiny! The whole weave is going to skew. Who knows what will happen! What you did shouldn't even be possible! Only a god, and even then—"
"Um, sorry, I guess," I said lamely.
She pulled a serpentine dagger from a pocket inside her leather jacket and tossed it at my knees. "Do it," she said.
"Do it to him. He has to die. It's already written. The place has already been set for him at Valhalla's table."
"You do it!" I shot back hotly, standing up and tossing the dagger back at her. She neatly caught it by the hilt in her right hand.
"I can't," she said. "It's against the Rules. Otherwise, our kind would just kill the heroes we want ourselves and save the trouble of waiting. But it isn't against the Rules for you to do it."
"Look, I'm a lot of things, but I'm not a murderer. Okay?"
"That's not what your aura says. You're going to commit murder. It's already been decided. So just get it over with!"
"Ghaa!" was the only answer I could give her.
She offered the knife in turn to Sergio, who shook his head frantically. Instead, he stepped up to Gunther, considering him. "You know, we might be able to revive him," he said to me. "We have a machine we got from the goblins—"
"Sounds good," I said.
A long, ugly scream vented from Teresia's throat as she planted her face in her petite hands. A long silence in the flashing light followed. "Very well," she finally choked. "If you must, take us to your healer."
"You're acceding?" I asked.
"I must. The Rules are strict. He must die a Hero's death upon the field of battle. A lingering death does not count. If only you had picked up the dagger—" she looked at me hopefully across the corners of her stormy eyes.
I shook my head.
Muttering to herself, she fatalistically pulled Gunther's blood-soaked body off the floor and slung him over her shoulder, fireman style. Gunther was so much larger than her that the toes of his brown leather boots dragged on the ground behind her. He groaned weakly. She straightened her back and sighed with a slow exhale.
Sergio looked at me quizzically. "Who is she, anyway?" he asked.
"What? Her?" I asked innocently.
"Right," I heard her say to herself. "He'll just have to die tomorrow." Her soft features seemed to brighten with renewed hope.
"Is everything okay with her?" Sergio whispered.
"Just don't get her angry at you," I whispered back. "Never. And don't be a hero near her if you know what's good for you."
"Yeah," Sergio muttered. "Good plan."
Outside, the club boiled with a bait-ball of frightened civilians. Panic had set in, and everyone seemed to be barreling into each other randomly. Some still gripped guns in their hands. The doormen either had bugged out, or had been swept away.
I stepped forward, right into a hand that slapped me squarely in the face. My left cheek burned hotly from her fingers.
It was my date, Raquel, or somebody.
"You excrement," she snarled in Spanish. "My life is in danger, and you do nothing—nothing!"
"What are you talking about? I went and fought the damned thing! Look at Gunther!"
"That wasn't your job! I was alone and helpless! I could have been crushed by the mob! And you left me there!"
"Wait—" I protested.
"I'll see to it that you never get a job here again! I swear it!"
A youngish Latino guy standing behind her put his exquisitely manicured hand upon her shoulder. He was dressed in a tailored white satin dress shirt and white slacks, with a heavy gold chain draped across his exposed hairy chest. He moved in close and breathed into her ear. "Hey, he's just a nobody. He's not worth it."
"You see?" she said to me savagely. "A real man like him would have come to my rescue."
They turned away from me, and the guy opened the back door of an alabaster Jag and followed her into the car. Moments before it sped off, my glyphs whirled around the car excitedly.
I raised my hand to stop them, but it was too late. I had been too slow, too tired, too distracted. And Iverna was going to kill me.
The thing is, in a way, my date had been right. I'm no manly man, and definitely no Hero like Gunther. You see, a real man would have warned her in time that the driver of the car was a White Court Vampire.
That's the problem with Miami. It's not just a place for demon bears from Japan. It's a hunting ground for everybody.