The Archfiend Artifact

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26

SANTOVA ESTATE, THE PALISADES, MABON CITY
THURSDAY, OCTOBER 23

3:03 PM


The woman before me must have been in her late seventies or early eighties. When this event occurred, she had been clad in a pale blue sundress and white sandals with a low heel. She had a file open in her arthritis-stricken hands, and she paced as she fretted at the contents within.

Without warning, she slapped the folder shut and started for the door. I followed on her heels. She moved fast for her age, and navigated the mansion with such ease I had trouble keeping up. Only at the stairs did she finally slow down, and she kept a firm grasp on the handrail as she descended. I beat her to the bottom by thirty seconds.

She pressed the hidden lever to reveal the safe concealed within the stairs. I caught a glimpse of the paper in her folder as she glanced warily around. Satisfied she wouldn’t be observed, she punched in the access code, which I recited aloud. She stuffed the folder into the safe and resealed it before I could get a glimpse of what lay within.

I watched in amazement as the vision melted like wax figures in a burning house. The sudden daylight blinded me, and I blinked several times until my eyes adjusted. At last, I could see Quinn as he stood before the exposed safe. He pressed the numbers in the order I had recited, and the door clicked open.

That’s when the gunshots erupted outside.

Quinn’s hand blurred and his gun was suddenly out of the shoulder rig and held at the ready. I felt a little foolish bringing my water gun to bear as I followed him through the busted doors. I struggled to breathe normally as I raised my water gun to mirror him. My hands were shaking and I clutched the gun so tightly that my knuckles had gone white.

“Okay, kiddo, do me a favor.” He kept his voice low and steady. One, to soothe me; two, to hopefully go unheard by anything but me. “Take a good, long look at every dark spot out there. If you see anything—no matter how small or trivial it may seem—point it out. Can you do that for me?”

I nodded and fought down the panic that had begun to overwhelm me. I couldn’t afford to lose my cool right now. Quinn needed me to focus. He needed my help, and I needed his. But how could I be of any help without my ability to sense life energies?

So I studied every shadow like a criminal investigator studies a piece of thread found at a crime scene.

Something out of the corner of my eye moved, and I locked onto it like a heat-seeking missile. I focused everything I had on the shadow cast by one of the weeping willows that edged the estate. A breeze tickled the limbs to life. The curtain of leaves swayed, and I saw it: blood red eyes gleaming in the darkness.

The Shadow.

“There!”

Quinn fired, but the demon vanished before the round ever got off. My ears were still ringing from the gunshot when a sound like a bomb going off came from inside the house. Quinn whipped around, took off like a bullet. I realized too late that I didn’t have a prayer of catching up to him. And just as I reached the threshold, the doors slammed shut in my face. Neither of them budged an inch when I ran straight into them. Shoving as hard as I could and even bashing my shoulder against them did nothing (but it did cause pain to knife through the wounds on my back). Since Morgan had destroyed the locks and much of the surrounding wood when she kicked the doors in, it should have been impossible for them to stay sealed.

“Okay, Cye, just stay calm. Think.” I took a few deep breaths, but it did nothing to slow the hammering of my heartbeat. I may not have been able to feel it, but I knew the doors had been magickally sealed. That meant someone—or something—observed me from close by, and now that I had been cut off from Quinn and Morgan, they were free to corner me and… do whatever they had come to do.

I didn’t want to think about the tortures a demon would put on me. Agilisi’s beatings probably paled in comparison.

“Just find another way inside,” I calmly told myself. There had to be a back door. Heck, I could use a window if I had to. I just knew that I had to get to Quinn or Morgan. My life depended on it.

I gripped the tactical super soaker tightly as I retreated from the entrance. My hands and knees were shaking, so I took it one step at a time. First, I merely had to get to the bottom of the stairs. Simple. From there, I’d turn right. A window would be about thirty feet away. I can walk thirty feet.

I stepped off the patio, feeling pretty good. Three strides into my trek to the right, and the stench of rotten eggs on a hot day came out of nowhere to assault me. I loathed the stink, and what it meant—the Shadow had reappeared. I’m not sure how, but I clutched the super soaker even tighter and hoped against hope that it didn’t break. I wanted to bolt for it, but something told me not to. Could it have been fear? Curiosity? Or maybe I had just grown tired of running.

A soft growl came from behind me. I took a deep breath, looked sidelong over my shoulder. Nothing. I turned to completely face the mansion’s main entrance. I spotted the Shadow in the shade cast by the column. It just stood there, watching, its unblinking eyes glowing like crimson embers. What was it waiting for?

“What do you want?” I shouted loud enough so that Quinn and Morgan could hear me from inside.

The demon on the patio remained silent and unmoving.

This time I roared all my pent-up fear and fury at it, “Answer me, dammit!”

The Shadow snarled.

“Answer!” I pointed the super soaker at it. “Answer me or I swear I’ll shoot you!”

In a voice like gravel, the demon finally spoke. “You are a traitor.”

“And just how am I the traitor here?”

“You became one of them.” It jerked its head towards the mansion. “Now you hunt your own kind.”

Something slammed against the doors from inside the mansion. The Shadow didn’t even flinch, much less look at the barrier. Could it have something to do with their sealing? Duncan never mentioned Shadows having abilities like that. I doubted he was even aware of it. But if that banging had been a sign of Quinn or Morgan trying to break out, then I would have to keep the Shadow busy for a while. I had to buy them time to find another way.

“My own kind goes around hunting and killing innocent people,” I said as I lowered the gun slightly. “People like the woman who lived here.”

The Shadow laughed in a way that gave me shivers. “That wretch deserved to die for what she has done.”

Another bang shook the door. The demon paid it no mind.

“What the heck did she ever do to you to deserve to have her soul ripped from her body and trapped forever in that mirror you stole?”

“T’was not I who wanted the Huntress destroyed,” it rasped.

I narrowed my eyes. If this wretched thing hadn’t been the one to kill Cynthia, then who did?

“These… AEONs,” it laced the word with boiling venom, “make a living out of hunting us. They slaughter us like cattle and claim they are doing good because we don’t belong to this world. We are only here to escape, but we are forced to fight for our very existence.”

I couldn’t believe what I was hearing. Duncan had told me that AEON served as a police force, keeping order among the parathropes in the world. Those that opposed that order were radicals that wanted to kill or enslave humans. But the Shadow before me called it a slaughter, and it had escaped something by coming here.

The doors were struck again and stayed as unmoving as ever.

Truthfully, at the moment, I had grown more concerned about what the demon had said. “What are you trying to escape from?”

It extended a hand, a dark mass with talons like daggers. “Come with me, little one. I will show you.”

“How about you start by telling me?”

The Shadow curled its fingers one by one, let its hand fall to its side. “You cannot begin to fathom the horrors we face. Showing you would be the wiser course. Come with me, little one, and I will even teach you how to use your full demon power.”

That last part piqued my interest and disgusted me at the same time. This twisted creature really could teach me everything I needed to know about my demon side. But I refused to let that side of me take the reigns and rule over my life. I just wanted to be a normal teenage girl, living in a loving home with everything else other kids had; toys, friends, an allowance, clean clothes. I don’t think I could live with myself if I let my demon out, much less follow this twisted, evil thing before me.

I looked at the super soaker in my hand. It felt heavier for some reason, or, perhaps, it was just the weight of my decision settling upon me. I knew what I had to do, and I would have to live with it for the rest of my life—however long that would be. I took a deep breath, exhaled slowly. I took one step towards the Shadow. Then another. It reached out to me again, and I slowly closed the distance between us.

Five feet from the demon, I trained the super soaker on it. Before it could react, I squeezed the trigger. The gun jerked with the release of pressure. A bullet of speeding water slammed against the Shadow. It screeched in pain and fury as steam billowed from the strike. I fired again, this time ready for the kick, and held the trigger down. It couldn’t escape the rush of water and flailed around helplessly.

Just as the last of the holy water drained from the reservoir, Quinn suddenly burst through the doors. Three shots erupted from his handgun. The Shadow exploded into black smoke and was gone.

I breathed a sigh of relief.

“Cybil!” Quinn came rushing to me. “Are you alright?”

I punched him in the arm. “What the hell took you so long?”

He rubbed the sore spot, muttering, “Yeah, you’re fine.”

“Where’s Morgan?” I asked, remembering why he had rushed inside to begin with. “Is she okay? What caused that explosion?”

He seemed surprised by my question. “She’s fine.” He pointed to something behind me. “See for yourself.”

I looked over my shoulder in time to see a small sun come rushing towards us. I yelped and ducked behind Quinn.

The werewolf chuckled. “Kill the light, Paladin. The Shadow’s gone.”

I peeked around Quinn as the light faded away. The woman who approached looked completely different than the Morgan I knew. She had long hair of purest white held out of her golden eyes with a delicate barrette. She wore a silver breastplate etched with scrolling filigree and some sort of white, gossamer fabric that formed a skirt. Royal purple ribbons bearing bizarre symbols hung from the skirt. Silver bracers and heeled greaves completed her armor. And from her back sprouted a pair of pearly, white wings.

I looked up to Quinn for an explanation.

“Don’t worry, kiddo,” he lightly chuckled. “That is just Morgan’s angel form.”

“Holy!”

Morgan briefly smirked as she joined us. “What happened?”

“That’s what I wanted to know,” I admitted and finally dared to come out from behind Quinn. “One second, the Shadow appeared in the yard, the next, we hear an explosion from inside. Are you okay?”

She seemed as surprised by the question as Quinn had been. “I am fine. The Shadow must have Jumped, and tried to take me out since I was alone. But what happened out here?”

“Quinn and I ran to help you, but the doors slammed shut right in front of me. I couldn’t get them to open, so I was going to try a back door or the window when the Shadow appeared. I kept it talking to try to buy you guys some time to find a way out.”

“She gave it a nice shower, and I was finally able to break through the doors.” He glanced down at his gun before holstering it. “I think I hit it a couple times, but there’s no way we killed it.”

“Then we take the safe and leave,” Morgan said as she started for the entryway.

“There’s no need to be ripping the house apart any more than it already is.”

She paused, cast a look towards Quinn as he stepped past her.

“Cybil already gave me the code to open it.”

I took a half step back when her golden gaze settled on me. Without a word, she turned to follow Quinn into the house. I entered a moment after the angel, paused to study the doors and verified my suspicions: they were too far damaged to have been locked shut. Did the Shadow have the ability to magickally seal them?

A venomous curse diverted my attention, and Quinn slammed the safe door shut. “Somebody cleared it out while we were distracted. They even deleted the security footage.”

I felt my lips pull into a frown. ‘T’was not I who wanted the huntress destroyed’ the Shadow had said. I looked down at the twisted metal that had been the doors’ hardware. “It has a partner.”

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