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Paper Tigers

By crayonboxromance All Rights Reserved ©

Adventure / Fantasy

Chapter One: At the Halfway

A woman walks down a dark alley at night. This is not unusual. The woman has dark purple hair and bright red lips. This is not unusual. She nods at a menacing man outside a dirty building and gets admitted inside. This is unusual.

The dirty building is The Halfway, a pub down a side street in the centre of London but it's nigh on impossible to get in. As such everyone wants to get in. Those who do manage it range from the forgettably average to the overwhelmingly beautiful but all with one thing in common. The problem is that no one knows what that is.

Another thing no one truly knows is why anyone would want to get in. The Halfway is not an impressive thing to gaze at, it's old, shabby exterior being at odds with the surrounding area. The windows are too grubby to even see through and the midnight blue door, the only splash of colour on the building, has definitely seen cleaner times. Only an overhanging sign gives any indication that it's a pub. The name of the pub is hand-painted on to an old piece of wood with a scratched symbol at the bottom that seems to get smaller the more you squint at it.

The woman strolls down a long, panelled corridor to a cloak room. A wrinkled hand reaches out to take the leather jacket the woman is wearing, “how you holding up today Betty? You alright?” The woman grins at the old lady behind the desk who pats down her jacket.

“I'm alright Scout, and yourself?” Betty hands over a shoulder sheath for the knives that had been concealed within the jacket. Scout shrugs it on with a twist of her mouth.

“Same old. Got no red alerts on the Wire. Bit boring really.”

Betty chuckles, takes a drag from the lipstick stained cigarette hanging eternally from her coral lips, and slips the final dagger into the holster for the other woman, “don't you go spending your life waiting for the red, child. When I was in the business we had to rely on word of mouth you know.” Scout rolls her eyes fondly, grins and walks away with a good natured wink.

Inside the Halfway is as unremarkable as it is on the outside. There's little to set it apart from other pubs other than a noticeable lack of drunks. There’s a walnut bar with symbols carved deep into the wood all along the back wall. It's punctuated by bar stools that may have been new fifteen years ago and it is from one of these that Scout surveys the area.

There are the usual people in their usual places. The McTavishes are sitting around one of the old fireplaces. A few of the Bevans’ gather by the tapestry depicting the fall of Atlantis, sprawling all over some of the comfortable chairs. Finally the portion of Jacksons that live in London have their heads bent at the pool tables by the windows. Scout frowns when she sees Rhea patting one of their backs with a puckered face.

“What’s going on?” Scout turns to her other best friend Kee Somerset, the bartender who is useless at his job. As if mind reading her mental point Kee instantly abandons the Samson he’d been making a cocktail for and turns towards her. He leans on folded arms and pokes his head out, around the wall, to see what she means.

“You’ll find out in a minute.” His voice is grave. Scout turns her head from studying the long scratch mark scar carved deep into Kee’s neck to where Rhea is now walking towards them. Scout has always wanted to ask about the scar, assuming it to be the mark that Turned him. However Kee is still sensitive about his werewolf nature since it's something for which he’d never asked. It had just been a freak accident during a rave in the woods one night. Before Scout can open her mouth to broach the subject Rhea arrives at her side muttering words in Xhosa under her breath. Both Scout and Kee wince. Rhea only resorts to her grandparents' native tongue when she's truly angry about something. The bartender moves suddenly and reappears a minute later with a fine whiskey which is almost exclusively ice. Rhea picks up a cube, places it on the tip of her tongue and bites down. Scout’s eyebrows twitch, angry and stressed, the news must be severe. When Rhea speaks again she’s returned to English but it sounds more like a growl.

“A Jackson’s been put down.” Scout jolts upright. “Aye. Got trigger happy hunting revenants and started taking on the Yemeni ghouls.”Scout's eyebrows shoot upand Rhea frowns into her whiskey some more.She always takes it hard when a hunter goes rogue for reasons neither Scout nor Kee can discern. Whenever they ask they just get brushed off and they’ve long accepted it as one of the many mysteries that make up Rhea Kinston. It’s one of the things they love about her.

“They went in to the Damari family territory? What the hell were they thinking?”

“A rogue never thinks,” Kee snarls. His dark curls bounce as if made sentient by fury. As a werewolf he’s pretty placid since his kind have to be in control of their emotions at all times but occasionally something will get his back up and this time round it's rogues. They’re always a pretty touchy subject, “which Jackson?”

“Max Jackson Sr. Rumour is he let it free inside.” Rhea tips her head back and chucks the rest of the whiskey down before crunching on more ice. Scout wrinkles her nose.

“A revenant?” Kee asks.

“No man, the knowledge. Just because you use it doesn’t mean it’s not going to turn inwards in the end.” It’s the true danger of living life as a hunter. It’s a toss of the coin as to whether you die in the field or even become hunted by those you hunt. It’s just death in the end, which is something they'd all experience one day. However there might come a time when someone sees too much of everything that it just drives them out of their minds. People have to be put down if they do that. Governments can’t risk the hunter world becoming exposed, last time that happened there was a riot of witch hunting. Almost every single actual witch got away and the ones that were guessed correctly were sheer coincidence. It sounds barbaric, ‘putting down’ people as if they were a sick animal, but it’s just not possible to let them live. These are people with the power to kill others in a grotesque myriad of ways and no way of discerning who’s guilty or innocent.

The trio are silent. There is no official salute or farewell gesture when a hunter passes other than a ceremony to stop a ghostly return but many like to have a minute of silence to mourn the loss. When they glance back up, Rhea taking another ice cube, a beautiful woman is sitting next to Scout with wide dark eyes.

“You heard then.” Her voice has this lilt that Scout regrets not knowing more about. Everyone knows the O’Sullivan lot are an exclusively Irish family but they range from all over Ireland and it’s hard for Scout to separate the accents. Dorinda O’Sullivan of the earnest soulful eyes enjoys lording over her the fact that she can pinpoint exactly where Scout is from. Dorinda blinks those eyes up at Kee who smiles blandly and goes to fetch her usual drink. They all remain in their mournful silence until the gin and tonic appears. Kee extends his long fingers, palm upwards, towards Dorinda who pouts prettily especially when he tells her the price, “you’re so mean to me. Scout and Rhea never have to pay.” Luckily there’s a teasing note in her voice otherwise Kee’s curls would have started bouncing again. Instead he gives her a genuine smile this time.

“You know the drill Dorrie.”

“Yeah, yeah, Protector and Protected perk. I wish I had a P + P who gave me free drinks. Whatever, I just came over to see if you’re attending the funeral tomorrow. It’s just before our ferry to Rosslare so we’ll only be able to make the morning ceremony.”

“Red aside we’ll be there for all of it.” Rhea confirms. Dorinda nods, picks up her drink and swings her hips back towards her group. Scout is jealous. The last time she'd even attempted to walk like that her friends had thought she’d been drinking.

Her gaze returns to where the bartender in question is pouting about not being allowed to a hunter funeral. In the beginning he’d thought it was some kind of racism until he’d met a pixie hunter and found that it was just a hunter thing. The entire culture is secretive by nature. Every time the supernatural is revealed the masses decide that it’s evil because they don’t understand it. What the masses don’t know is that the supernatural already co-exist with them in relative peace with only the occasional malevolent force, which is when the hunters step in. The supernatural make up around a third of the population and the hunters maybe one percent but that’s all that’s needed.

“Oh, hey. How come you don’t look like that?” Scout and Rhea raise identical eyebrows at their best friend as if daring him to continue such a thought. Kee swallows but soldiers on, “I mean why don’t you wear make-up like hers all the time? Aside from the lipstick of course,” he adds when the pair blow him kisses to point out their signature colours. Scout lives life in a spectrum of reds whilst Rhea sticks to purples.

“The O’Sullivans are wailer hunters,” Rhea shrugs as if that explains anything. Technically they’re strictly banshee hunters with the occasional foray but that occasional foray resented being called banshees so the official name was changed.

“You don’t fight wailers, you deafen them. Not saying they can’t fight them but why bother you know? Tracking them is the trickiest part anyway. I mean you got to have some real smarts to hunt wailers,” Scout adds as she dips her hand in to the crisps Rhea has just given her.

“All of this is thrilling but it doesn’t answer my question.” At this Kee receives more eyebrows that simultaneously tell him the answer is obvious and also judge him for not knowing it. He gives an elaborate shrug at them, ignores a McTavish down the other end of the bar and waits for this obvious answer. It’s Scout who finally gives in and says,

“When we fight we sweat and no make-up on earth can withstand a decent fight. I’m always too tired to fix it afterwards and we never know when we’re going a-hunting so why put any on?”

“So the lipstick?”

“Never underestimate the power of a good lipstick Kee.” Rhea’s mouth twitches in her first smile of the evening and her fingertips touch her lips without thinking as if checking her plum colour is still there.

“It’s how we call to war. All of our lipsticks are bewitched by Bella, that government sorceress we always like to use. It helps to attract the prey since we can't do it ourselves.” Kee nods in understanding, knowing full well the type of supernatural the pair hunt. They are the only two in the entire hunter community who can hunt sex demons although reasons for this vary according to gossip. It would be a break of social etiquette to enquire about it so the real reason remains a mystery. People learn pretty fast never to ask about why people hunt certain types as the answer is usually too personal in nature. All people know is that when you come into the business you either get recruited into a certain family or you choose the family yourself.

The general hubbub of the pub swells over them as the corridor door swings open and some more regulars spill in. Another bartender takes up the orders as she starts her shift after shooting Kee an exasperatedly fond look. It’s well known that he becomes useless when the Kinstons are in and the Kinstons are too well known for anyone to try and come between them. Hunters from out of town, like the Jackson over from America, will sometimes try to order a drink from Kee when he's talking to the pair only to be at the receiving end of three equally unimpressed stares until the hunter backs away.

Conversation continues as normal after that, discussing the new television show they love or new anecdotes from Rhea's biological family. She comes from a large one with an extreme amount of cousins whom she visits regularly and who are all convinced that she acquires artefacts for museums for a living. It's an excellent cover story for all of her travelling and a perfect excuse for the cuts and bruises she might pick up during a scuffle.

A loud shout cuts off whatever tale about his pack member Kee had been about to impart to them. Everyone turns their heads towards the scuffle that's just beginning to break out. A fight isn’t rare by any stretch of the imagination as spirits usually run high in the Halfway but they're still a great form of entertainment. Scout and Rhea look on with cool disinterest but Kee understands from experience that the fact they even look on means they're interested. Although the look of haughty judgement on Rhea’s face probably means she's looking on for a reason different from Scout.

There rises rambunctious noises for every limb that connects and a huge cheer when the first blood is drawn. Everyone will later claim that they saw the moment the hunter switched from pub brawl to actual battle mode but at the time no one went to intervene. The hunter draws a blade on instinct and the entire Halfway falls silent. Not a single body moves. One chair creaks. The hunter stares at his hand in horror. The clang of the dagger resounds around the room. For a few moments people wait but as time draws on they start turning their heads, whispering.

An ominous creak interrupts the hushed conversations. The Halfway is silent once more. From some unseen corner of the bar a new door, created for this singular purpose in time, slams back shut and the crowds part. The Warden has arrived. He pads down the parting with his hands clasped behind his back and a serene expression. He stops in front of where Scout and Rhea are now standing, having gotten off their stools once they realised who the door signified. They incline their heads towards him. He nods slowly back before reaching out and tapping their thighs. If people are surprised by his choice of enforcers no one shows it, choosing instead to press further in to the walls to widen the parting for them. An explanation of what was happening can be heard being told to the out-of-town hunter.

The Halfway used to demand that every person leave their weapons and other such equipment at the door. However around a hundred years ago there had been an invasion of the pub due to its neutral nature during the First World War and it had been a total massacre. Everyone had been slaughtered when they couldn’t reach their weapons. Ever since then all inhabitants are allowed to keep weapons and other such items so long as they remain sheathed unless under attack. If someone is to draw then their weapons are taken away from them by the Warden and they are banned from sanctuaries all over the world for two months. The Warden picks two enforcers from the crowd present at the time and they're allowed to use weapons just in case the offender doesn’t go quietly. It rarely reaches that stage.

Even so Rhea hitches her burgundy knitted cardigan behind her waistband holster whilst Scout slides a steel blade from her thigh sheath and holds it safely by her side. The Warden continues walking in front, flanked by the two women. The trio finally reach the small circular clearing where the offending hunter stands. There are two wet tracks from his eyes to his chin. The Warden smiles sadly at him and motions for him to bend so that he might reach him. For a brief moment it looks as if the man might resist. Rhea’s hand moves to rest on her rune inscribed gun. The hunter's shoulders sag. He kneels on the floor so that the Warden can place a ward on his neck. As soon as it is over the hunter lets out a sharp cry. It is the nature of the ward. If he were to enter a similarly warded sanctuary he will feel an intense burning sensation on his neck. He walks out with as much dignity as he can at the speed at which he leaves.

Everyone looks at the Warden for a second in unease but his placid face remains so conversation kicks up again, “walk me to the door Miss Kinston and Miss Kinston.” He always addresses everyone individually which is a nice touch but a bit taxing whenever there are big groups. Scout and Rhea exchange looks over his head but follow him silently. No one disobeys a Warden or even passes comment on their orders. People barely manage to contain their curiosity as the small group pass them on their way to the door, a pine number carved with the same symbols that are all over the bar and on the sign outside.

“How can we help you Warden Lockheed?” Rhea asks gravely finally tucking her gun back under her cardigan. Scout takes her lead and slips her knife back into its sheath and adjusts the ones in her shoulder holster. Lockheed raises an eyebrow at the the sheer amount of weaponry on the both of them, eyes zeroing in on the rune covered knuckle dusters looped through their belts. Both shrug a little sheepishly.

“Will you come with me to Nowhere?” The little man demands but is nice enough to disguise it as a question. He cocks his head, frowns and adds, “never mind. Come after.” Then he goes through the door leaving them both nonplussed. They look at each other and glance back at the door half-expecting him to come back through and ask why they weren't following him but the door has gone, leaving a blank space in its place.

Drama over, everyone in the pub stops pretending that they weren't eavesdropping and returns to actual conversation, their eyes occasionally straying to the door and to the place where the fight had taken place. Scout and Rhea return to their spot at the end of the bar wondering exactly when they were meant to go see Warden Twitch Lockheed. After what? Kee asks that very question and gets two identical shrugs in return.

“Did you get the update?” Mary Samson, Scout’s favourite Samson, calls over from the opposite side of the bar and hurries over. She must have come in with the rush from before.

Mary used to be a solo hunter, going by her real surname of Smyth, but her specialty is weres. Usually solo hunters get themselves killed early on, choose to have a Wipe from a government sorcerer or are asked to join a family. The Samsons, the family in charge of rogue weres of all persuasions, reeled in Mary, who went happily. She’s one of their best fighters, which is quite the claim considering that about a quarter of the hunter populace is the Samson family. Weres are the most common supernatural threat because their animal side has a habit of taking over completely, especially without a pack to keep them tethered to humanity. For the Kinstons though the best bit about Mary is her unwavering interest in sex demons. Her sexuality prohibits her from becoming a Kinston as asexuality is required to hunt demons who feed on lust, otherwise she'd have switched specialty an age ago, but she likes to know what’s going on. Often she’ll know about any succubi or incubi attacks before they do.

Scout pulls out her phone and checks the Wire. It’s a very simple list posted on a secure website of sightings. Usually updated once a day or as a situation progresses, it's also public so everybody knows if a situation is dire and requires help outside of the families. There’s green for a sighting, always be a member of the supernatural community, amber for a suspected danger and red for an attack. Rhea and Scout always check out the amber straight away but this particular incubus hadn’t even moved from the green yet. There had been too many sightings for them to feel comfortable about it so they’d tracked it with interest but had decided to put off hunting it down just yet. The Warden's enigmatic 'after' made more sense now.

“Thanks Mary! Rhea, he's skipped straight to red! We’re on the next flight out. Oh and Kee-” Scout slaps her hand on the counter ensuring that the symbol there flares underneath her fingertips, letting the Halfway know that it's the choice of sanctuary for their bodies should their fight end up fatal.

“Yeah, yeah. Get something for Mary and put it on the tab. I got this. Come back to me.” Kee drops a kiss to both of their cheeks over the bar.

“We always do.”

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