The stench was unbelievable. Good thing Miriam was too proud to let herself puke.
She’d expected the basement of an abandoned industrial building to smell of mold and rusty metal, but descending a set of wooden steps into the black heart of the factory, Miriam found herself slapped in the face with the reek of rotting corpses and boiling blood, mingled with the putrid aroma of stagnant, muddy earth. She paused, closing her eyes and forcing shallow breaths through her teeth. The compulsion to turn around and run the other way was strong. But Miriam was nothing if not stubborn. She would not go crawling back to her brothers a failure. This was her mess and she would be the one to clean it up. She would find Alice and her brother (whose name she couldn’t quite remember at the moment) and when she did, the Vetala would finally get the violent end he deserved. Nothing could be allowed to stand in her way, not even her own sense of smell.
Miriam continued her decent. She would save Alice, but first, she needed a little help in locating her new friend. And there was no one better at finding people than Wiley.
The stairs ended at an unlit hallway. Darkness seemed to crawl around Miriam‘s legs, tickling her ankles and brushing nervousness into her steps. Miriam had heard of this place before, but she never been here. She knew Wiley only by reputation. If someone needed to be found, and your intentions were not good, and you’d reached a point of absolute desperation, you drove to a certain part of town, entered a certain building, and cross your fingers that you would walk back out again with all of your limbs intact. Wiley was not the kind of man you went to see unless you had no other option. And the idea of working with him was particularly loathsome to Miriam considering the source of his abilities. Wiley was not only a gifted tracker, a lifelong criminal, and a despicable human being, he was also a Servant of Dark: a sworn enemy of Miriam and her family, along with all the other Families of Light.
Miriam knew damn well she shouldn’t be here. She didn’t even want to think about what Jacob and Aaron would say if they could see her right now. But if she could get a location on Alice and her brother, what difference did it make where the information came from? All that mattered was finding her new friends before they were slaughtered. And if she could manage to destroy the Vetala in the process, accomplishing something her family had been working towards for years, then she would’ve proved herself to her brothers and they wouldn’t see her as a liability anymore.
Miriam set her jaw and renewed the determination in her steps. She made her way down the empty hall, passing through the doorway at the end and stepping into a large open space draped in shadow.
Nearly the entire lower level of the abandoned factory had been hollowed out into a single massive room, studded at regular intervals by rusted support beams. It felt like stepping into the lair of some comic book villain, a truly evil atmosphere but somehow too dramatic to seem real.
She crossed into the open space as quietly as she could, searching for some sign that the building might be occupied by anything other than empty air and darkness.
A faint chuckle reached her ears from a far corner of the gloomy space. It scuttled across the floor, rattling like dry paper against the concrete, then forming itself into words in a thin voice, smug and dipped in sarcasm.
“Well isn’t this my lucky day,” the voice said. “Miriam Acheson, greatest of all the Holders of Light, champion against the dark things of the world. What could possibly bring such an honored guest to this filthy hole of mine?”
Miriam took her time moving across the space, tossing a careful eye from one side to the other, wary of any unexpected danger. As her vision began to adjust to the dark, dim shapes formed along the walls of the room. Some of the shapes resolved into tables piled with strange objects; others appeared to be cages of some kind with things she couldn’t identify moving inside them, shifting restlessly in the shadows. Miriam had never met Wiley before, but she’d heard the stories. She knew of his strange affinity for experimentation with animals, breeding different types of creatures and mixing their blood with others to create new and terrible things. Whatever was in the cages, Miriam was pretty sure she didn’t want to see.
A far corner of the dank space was sectioned off with dirty drop cloths, hung so they created a separate room. It was from behind those drop cloths that Wiley’s voice leaked out into the air.
“Maybe I’m here to destroy you, worm.” Miriam allowed her disgust for the place to color her voice in shades of violence.
The thin chuckle returned, louder and in a higher in pitch. Wiley must have found the idea of his potential demise extremely amusing.
“Careful, little chicky.” The voice moved closer as the drop cloths rustled like old parchment. “Try to leap from the nest too quickly and you may fall and snap that lovely twig of a neck.”
The drop cloths parted revealing a low light from the improvised room. A figure stepped into the gap, tall and gangly with long limbs and a hairless head.
Miriam suddenly regretted her decision to come here.
Waves of malevolence rolled off of Wiley’s gaunt frame like the approaching thunder clouds of a particularly violent storm. His Cheshire grin cut through the darkness, a cracked bone peeking through the skin, and his skeleton fingers beckoned her forward with all the inviting hospitality of an early grave.
“You may as well join me.” The grin somehow widened. “You’ve come this far already.”
Miriam dragged her feet forward, forcing herself to move against her fear and hesitation. Wiley held the curtain aside for her and she walked through it, feeling the tingle of vulnerability on her back as she stepped past him.
Wiley’s sanctuary was not what she’d expected. It was just as dingy and sinister as she would have guessed, but the contents of the space surprised her: books. Stacks and stacks of books lined every available surface, rising in towers as high as she was tall, spilling over into piles, and surrounding a scarred wooden table in the center. The improvised room served as a kind of makeshift library, lit by a small kerosene lamp in the center of the table. She made a slow turn, taking in the surprising sight. Most of the books looked old and worn, and the few titles she could make out appeared to be scientific in nature. Momentarily off her guard, Miriam couldn’t help but think that her brother Aaron would love this.
“Do you like my little collection?” The low sound of Wiley’s voice brought her back to the present, and she turned to find the repulsive man eyeing her with an ugly smirk. “I suppose you were expecting a bubbling cauldron and heaping piles of entrails?”
Miriam opened her mouth, but Wiley cut her off before she could respond.
“Well, I’m sorry to disappoint, but no ritualistic sacrifices here. Just a deep and respectable love of learning. All of this —” Wiley gestured to include the space outside the drop cloths, with all its jars and cages and creeping things — “is purely academic, you see.”
The villain grinned at his lie and Miriam frowned, the spell of Wiley’s book collection fading as the horror of her surroundings reclaimed her attention.
“But I can see you don’t believe me.” Wiley hissed, menace edging into his voice until it slid from his throat like a blade through a body. “So, you may as well stop wasting my time and come straight to the purpose of your visit, Holder of Light.”
Miriam moved away from Wiley, as hate and violence radiated from the gaunt man. The temperature in the room seemed to climb and her fear rose with it, both pulling beads of sweat from her forehead. She circled to the opposite side of the table, keeping both eyes on her host, the fresh influx of fear reminding her that, as pathetic as Wiley seemed, he was still a Servant of Dark and a dangerous man.
“Relax little dove,” Wiley said, turning away to begin a slow circuit of the room, examining his haphazard library with pride. “I know exactly why you’re here.”
“You do?” Miriam moved to the side, pacing Wiley and keeping the table between them.
“Of course,” he said. “Why else would a champion of sunshine and rainbows such as yourself be down here in the muck with the monsters?”
He paused, turning to face her with a knowing smile.
“You need something found, and you have no other way of finding it. Or perhaps someone?”
Miriam tried not to let her embarrassment show on her face. She was pretty sure that she failed miserably.
“OK, fine.” She said “So you know why I’m here. I need someone found.”
Miriam reached into the pocket of her leather jacket and tossed its contents onto the batter wooden table: a scrap of fabric stained with Alice’s brother’s blood.
“Can you do that for me or not? Because I don’t have any time for your bullshit, so if you’re not going to help me…”
Miriam let the end of the sentence hanging in the air between them, and spat on the ground to one side. She gave Wiley her best icy stare, hoping that her expression would not betray the twisting tension inside her.
A broken graveyard of a grin spread across Wiley’s features, leaving no doubt in Miriam’s mind that he could read her like a billboard.
“No need to get bent out of shape, little sparrow,” Wiley said. “I’m sure we can come to some arrangement.”
He left the ugly smile on his face and winked at her, slithering a skeletal hand across the table to retrieve the scrap of fabric.
Miriam had known that coming here was a bad idea, but as she watched the creature in front of her examine the blood sample she’d provided (sniffing and caressing it, and for God’s sake, tasting it) the true implications of what she was about to do began to settle onto her shoulders, adding their crushing weight to her bones. Sooner or later everyone has to learn, she supposed, that nothing in life comes for free.
“What do you want?” She kept her voice even, concealing her terror at the possibilities her question opened up.
“What I want is very simple to attain, and very easy to give,” Wiley said. “In fact, it will cost you nothing. All I ask for is a single drop of blood.”
“My blood,” Mariam said.
It wasn’t a question. She knew exactly what he was asking for, and why. Or at least she suspected she did. There was a lot that a creature like Wiley could do with a drop of her blood, and none of it was good. But what choice did she have? Every second she spent here in this Godforsaken shit-hole brought Alice and her brother closer to a gruesome death at the hands of the Vetala. If Miriam wanted to save her friends from one monster, she would have to place herself in the hands of another.
But at least Wiley was a known commodity. He may be creepy and disgusting, but he wasn’t prone to random acts of homicide. He mostly kept to himself, skulking around in the dark and performing his demented experiments. The Vetala, on the other hand, was a killer. A beast. It would never stop taking lives until Miriam or some other Holder of Light destroyed it.
The Vetala had to be stopped no matter the cost.
Miriam looked Wiley dead in his hangman’s eyes and held out her open hand.
“Let’s get on with it.”