Black with rot and set in a slavering maw that stank of rotting flesh, the demon’s teeth gleamed dully in the faint glow of the watery moon as it gave a long, deep snarl. Its body was like that of a man, but hunched and misshapen with greenish grey scales visible amidst tufts of coarse black hair where skin should have been. Arms that ended in vicious reptilian talons reached out as a predatory shriek erupted from its inhuman throat, hunger and malevolence rolled into a single sound.
Raven responded it was a smooth sidestep, letting the creature sail harmlessly past. Catching itself against the half-completed brick wall, it turned on her with another snarl that turned into a wet, muffled yelp as her boot cracked into the side of its head. It fell, tumbling to the side, but scrambled away as her sword came down to slice the wet ground where its malformed head had been a moment earlier. Mud splattered, and the few flecks that landed on Raven’s cheek went ignored as she pulled her sword out of the ground and pressed her attack.
The demon hissed, finding its footing just quick enough to avoid what would have been another decapitating swing, but Raven recovered too swiftly and the return stroke came whistling back towards the creature’s neck. It brought up its claw in a desperate, instinctive defense, but the keen edge of the silver-coated blade took its arm off at the wrist and buried itself deep in the monster’s shoulder.
The horror screamed in pain, mouth going wide as its mutilated arm sagged limply against its side. Raven didn’t hesitate, withdrawing the weapon in a welter of gore and then luging forward, blade leading. The tip pierced the creature’s gaping maw, bursting out the back of its hunched neck with a wet snapping sound as it severed the spine.
As the scream faded into a wet gurgle and then into silence, Raven pulled the sword free and let the dying creatures fall to the mud. She let out a long breath, feeling the tension seep out of her body and wariness settle in. The creature itself had not been that formidable by her standards in comparison to the beast she had fought before, but tracking it had been her sole focus for nearly three weeks and that had been a far more taxing process and even her supernatural endurance had its limits.
The killing had started a month ago, and at first it had appeared to be no more than a particular insane breed of serial killer Raven had paid it little mind. After the third death, however, it had become apparent that the perpetrator had not only sliced his victims apart but also devoured their organs and that had piqued her interest. She’d begun her hunt then, and it had led her to this North Bay Village construction site in a light Miami shower that pattered down on the mud and the silent mechanical hulks that loomed in the moonlight.
Wiping her sword clean, Raven returned it to the simple scabbard at her waist and took a moment to sag against a half-finished wall, enjoying the rain against her upturned face as she brushed her black hair out of her eyes. The hunt was finished, but it had left her unsatisfied.
The kill count had been abnormally high for this manner of demon, and it had not been the first murderous anomaly she’d come across in recent times. The last several years had seen a dramatic increase in the amount of lives lost to the dark hunger of the unholy creatures that stalked the streets. It had been getting worse, year by year, and in nigh-on four hundred years of hunting Raven had never seen anything like the increased brutality of the last decade.
Some of the experts she consulted reflected that it was simply a sign of the times. Man drifted further and further from the realm of mysticism and into the realm of reason, more and blinder to the concept of that which was unreasonable. It was only natural that they were more vulnerable, but it didn’t sit right with her. The rate of death had been consistent with the expanding border of humanity’s domain for so long. Increasing to be sure, but at rate that could easily be explained. In this decade, something had changed. Something that had made the demons more aggressive, hungrier and generally more malevolent.
A soft buzzing sound drew her from her thoughts, and Raven slipped her hand into her long coat and pulled her cell phone free. It wasn’t an unexpected call, and as she read the caller ID she let a soft sigh escape her before answering.
“Raven? Raven, I’ve been trying to reach you all night!” Hugo Dedrago’s deep voice rumbled across the line.
“It’s done, Hugo.” She answered. “It’s dead.”
“Oh.” There was a long moment of silence. “You alright?”
“No problem.” She said. “I’ll need cleaners here through.”
“Yeah, I’ve already sent them. North Bay Village, right?”
“Are you tracking my phone again, Hugo?”
“Do you know you’re extremely sexy with that British accent of yours?”
“You’re avoiding the question.” She pressed. “Are you tracking my phone again?”
“No.” He replied. “I followed the evidence just like you did.”
“And I tracked your car.”
“Hugo.” Raven’s tone was flat, low, a clear warning.
“Okay! Okay! It’s off, alright?” There was a faint sound that Raven recognized over the phone as furious typing. “I switched it off, alright?”
“We’ve talked about this.”
“Look, I just like to know where you are, alright?” He said. “In case you need backup.”
“And when have I ever needed that?” She retorted, pushing off the wall. “I work just fine alone.”
“And you’ve the record to prove it, but that doesn’t mean I don’t worry.” He said. “Look, the cleaners are on their way. Did you still want to come around tonight? A new shipment came in this afternoon and I’d like to know that you want dibs on before I put the rest to market.”
“Not tonight.” Raven sighed. “Tomorrow morning.”
“Alright then. Nine?”
“Nine-thirty.” She said, already considering that it would be well past one in the morning before she was home.
“Okay then, get some re—“Raven hung up before he could finish.
She had never really understood why Hugo treated her the way he did, halfway between a mentor she didn’t need and a father she didn’t have with just a dose of flirt for whenever he wanted to change a subject. He was older than any human, certainly but his nearly-two centuries didn’t compare to her four, hardly grounds to act as a fatherly figure.
For all his odd behavior, or perhaps because of it, Raven did like Hugo. He was a reassuring, reliable sort even if it was only in his presence and not his actions. For the past sixty years or so he had been her chief supplier of weaponry and they had formed a strong working relationship; he respected his talents. There were few better warlocks on the east coast, at least when it came to working with metal.
Casters—a catch-all phrase that included witches, warlocks, seers and various other magic users tended have a specialization, a discipline in which they excelled to the detriment of their other abilities. Hugo’s particular talent lay in manipulating metals, and his years of experience with weapon crafting had put him decidedly ahead of most of his peers in that field. A weapon forged by Hugo was unnaturally durable; blades were sharper, guns jammed less and fired more steadily. He could coat blades with silver without weakening the weapon, fuse runes into the core of blades so that they became, quite literally, magical. Swords that hummed with caged lighting, knives that homed in on their target, guided by the wielder’s thoughts.
Besides these more practical benefits, there was something more ephemeral about the weapons Hugo forged. They seemed to fit more comfortably in one’s hand, somehow more natural, like they belonged there and had been there all along. Raven had worked with warlock smiths like Hugo before, but none of them had ever produced work as fine or as a natural feeling as he did.
The City screams like a thing alive, shaking to its core as the fire devours, ravenous, unendingly hunger. The scream, like the City, is a thing alive. The sound speaks to everyone who hears it, to the baser part of even the most advance mind and taught it fear in some antediluvian period of its evolution.
Raven Finn hears it, and it is a fear built on respect and memory that tugs at the underpinnings of her mind. Fire is an enemy she cannot fight with blade or fist, with strength or cunning, but nor is fire some malevolence horror for her to do battle with. It does not hunt her, it does not hunt anyone or anything. The fire hungers, but it does so without appetite, without lust or desire or malice, and as she hears the City scream she knows the fire does not—cannot—care for the damage it may wreak upon the metropolis.
The City burns, writhing in agony like a pig speared, poorly, by some primitive hunter. The fire is the blunt, hungry tip of the weapons, digging deeper and deeper into the decrepit pig of a city, warming its way into the guts and searching hungrily for the heart. For no matter how poor a spear throw it was, reaching the heart will mean death.
Raven looks down at the City as it burns, and the revelation of what role she has played begins to dawn on her, slowly, like the gradual rising of the tide of horror and primitive, ancestral horror, clawing at the corners of her mind and threating to drown the fire of her sanity.
The waves rises, looming over the screeching, wailing City. It reaches the black, soot-stained ceiling of the heavens, staring down at her and the fire with equal, ancient contempt, and something stirs in Raven.
This is different.
The fire doesn’t care. The fire only hunger and feeds to live as all living things, but the wave crests with something very like human destructiveness. There is a hunger, but it is a personal, sadistic hunger that she can understand only in the very highest peaks of her mind. Its shadow blots out the smoke, and the City wails in terror now.
The fire doesn’t—cannot-see or react. It goes on, devouring the city as the wave descends with a sound like the laughter of blasphemous trumpets.
And she watches it come, knowing that like the fire, this is something she cannot fight.
Raven came awake. It wasn’t a momentous, sudden jerk of awareness, but the images of the dream faded into the vague sense of awareness that typically led to full consciousness. First came the sense of faint light, next the soft hum of her air conditioner and the feel or her sheets against her body, and then the unpleasant discomfort of realizing she was soaked with sweat.
Raven opened her eyes and sat up in bed, pulling the covers off her wet skin with a grimace. Curling her lip in disgust as she noted the darkened patches of sweat on her mattress, visible even in the minute light straining around the edges of her heavy curtains. She brought a hand up to her face, rubbing her forehead as she tried to cling to the memories of her dream, already feeling them escape from her.
Something about the city fire and rising waters, perhaps the tide. She’d had enough experience with both to consider that maybe this was an ordinary dream, but this was not the first time this particular set of themes had come to her in her sleep in recent nights. They had been infrequent at first, starting around five years ago, but now they were hitting her at least two or three times a week. It was concerning, she had long since begun to suspect that perhaps this was no ordinary dream concocted from memory and thought.
From time to time dreams of Raven’s kind could be prophetic, in a manner, but it was rarely easy for her to tell the difference between a prophecy and just another dream like any other a human might have. The recurring themes, however, seemed to point towards prophecy in this case, but it was too difficult to remember the details to make any sense of what it might mean.
Shaking her head with a long sigh, Raven got out of bed and made her way across her small, Spartan apartment to the bathroom, discarding her clothing haphazardly on her way. Of all the perks of the modern age, the availability of reliable running water in the form of a shower was the one she loved most and the rest of her thirtieth floor apartment reflected her lack of interest in finery, modern or otherwise.
There was a worktable of sturdy wood, a small, unobtrusive kitchen with a prosaically stocked fridge and pantry. A small writing desk on which a laptop that Hugo had bought for rested and several bookshelves, each one filled neatly with row upon row of books ranging from archaic tomes seemingly held together by dust and tenacity all the way through to modern treatises on the supernatural.
As she waited for the water to grow warm enough to soothe, Raven took a moment to inspect herself in the mirror. Though the centuries had beaten the vanity out of her, part of her task was to ensure that she didn’t stand out too much in a crowd. She was pretty, maybe even beautiful, but no more so than the would-be socialites that pranced around in Miami’s by night. Hair, curling ever so slightly, ran down to the rise of her moderate breasts and framed her gracefully long face. Her features would have been sharp, but the ever so slight olive tint to her skin and full lips seemed to soften the edges, giving it a strong rather harsh cast to her visage. A long legged, body, considerably more lithe and well-toned than the women she often blended in with on her hunts was nearly six feet tall, and she’d had more than a few allies tell her it was enough to offset any attempts at hiding she made.