Stand Against the Darkness
My name is Daniel Blake.
I’m a warlock.
And before you ask, no, you’re not going to find me in the phone book under ‘W’.
In fact, I’m not in the phone book at all. The only people who know how to get in contact with me are those who’ve dealt with me before. And those are the people who typically deal with the WTF portion of the unexplainable that takes place in the world.
For example, there are individuals who simply go missing. They become flyers stapled to telephone poles and billboards in Wal-Marts across the greater United States and files in the local police departments. There’s no trace, no trail, no nothing. They don’t use their credit cards or access their bank accounts. Everything they left behind is eventually disposed of, making it so like these people never existed. The family still questions, still hunts, but they never get a satisfactory answer. They’re left believing the person is either using a new identity or they’re lying dead in a ditch somewhere, turning to bone while waiting to be discovered by some random passers by. But that’s not really happens to those people. They get eaten, typically. I know, because I’m one of the people enlisted to find them. And by ‘enlisted’, I mean guilt-tripped.
I’m not one of those ‘yer-a-wizard-now-Harry’ goody-two-shoes spell-slingers. My powers are for me and my own personal enjoyment. However, I also like having friends, and having friends who can get me out of some pretty tight jams come in handy. I tended to get myself into plenty of troublesome situations, particularly at the behest of my self-proclaimed partner.
I adjusted my grip on the little girl’s waist and made sure she was pressed tight against me as I fumbled with the stairwell door, trying to get it unstuck. I was finding myself in one of those troublesome situations right now. And then the little brat hauled off and slammed her heels into my shin.
“Ow! What the f-!” I cut myself off, struggling to remind myself she was only seven, and I was a stranger to her. “God, would you keep still for all of five minutes! I told you before, I’m here to save you!”
“Let go of me! Creep! Freak!” She kept struggling, but I had a firm grip around her waist and I wasn’t about to let her go. It had taken me an hour to catch her the first time, and then, as Murphy’s Law is wont to do, she escaped me when I thought I’d gotten her promise to stay close as I tried to retrace my steps through the abandoned office building I’d found her in. We’d played a sick game of find-me-catch-me in which I’d gotten all turned around and very lost. I’d managed to catch her by cornering her in a dead-end hall and I wasn’t about to let go of her now.
“Would you shut up! Do you want them to hear us?” I heard her take a deep breath and knew exactly what she was going to do. So I said, “Scream, and I’ll leave you here. Then you’ll never see your mommy again.”
The scream died in her throat. I felt a little dirty using the mommy card against a seven-year-old girl, but at this age, all they wanted was their mommy. She stared at me with wide watery eyes. I ignored her and managed to force the door open. I slid through the small opening with her still tightly pinned to my chest and headed down the shadowy stairwell. My footsteps seemed unnaturally loud in the silence, but I kept going down, straining my ears for any unfamiliar sound above my steps and the girl’s sniffling.
I was going to kill him, I decided. When I got out of here, I was going to hunt down Samuel and make him eat his own sword. He knew I had a weak spot for lost kids - I’d been one myself, before I got picked up by Gregory, my mentor - and I had first hand, intimate knowledge of what happens to lost kids in the dark streets. The first things that pop into your head are probably pedophiles and pimps taking these lost little poppets home, but you’d be wrong. Kids are tasty morsels for trolls, wights, and other monsters that lived in the darkness. You wouldn’t typically see them because they’re very, very good at misdirection. You would only see what you expect to see in a dark alley at 2 a.m. in the morning - lots of trash, maybe a little mist. You definitely wouldn’t see a 300-pound troll the size of a minivan happily snacking on the runaway that just happened to choose that alley to sleep in.
Samuel had come to me earlier that day with a folder tucked under one arm. I thought he’d come to see me just because, you know, his superiors wanted him to keep tabs on me and make sure I was playing nice little warlock, but I was wrong. He wanted my help.
“Her name is Angelica Ross.” Samuel had said, handing me a picture of a seven-year-old girl with curly blonde hair and bright blue eyes. She was wearing a Catholic school uniform. Her smile looked forced. “As of right now, she’s been missing for ten hours. Her parents say she ran away.”
“And what does this have to do with me?” I’d looked him up and down for his sword, but he wasn’t wearing it this time. That, or he’d hidden it from my sight.
“They came to Father McLeod begging for our help. And since you were able to find that boy Thomas last month...”
“Are you going to threaten me with pain of hellish death like Father McLeod did if I don’t agree to find this kid?”
Sam’s eyes went kind of wide then. It was no secret Sam’s order of Templar Knights hated people like me. That is, warlocks, witches, all things deemed ‘evil’. Samuel had been tasked with killing me himself, at least until he realized I wasn’t so much evil as so much out for myself. There had to be a very, very good reason for me to leave my place of business to traipse into the arms of darkness to save lives. Because, mostly, I don’t care. Then his eyes narrowed, and he reassessed me as he always did during our conversations. Samuel the man might trust me as far as he could throw me, but Samuel the Templar Knight would cut my head off if I so much as twitched funny.
“I’m not at liberty to say what would happen to you if you refuse.”
“Which is a fancy way of saying I’m going to die by the sword.”
“Would you just go find the kid?” Sam ran a hand through his thick dark hair. “You know what happens to kids missing for more than twenty-four hours.”
“I know what happens to kids who go missing for twenty-four hours in the real world.” I’d pointed out. “How do you know she’s not already troll food?”
“Because her candle hasn’t been extinguished.”
I’d stared at him until I just couldn’t ignore the way he was pointedly looking at Angelica’s picture rather than me. Reluctantly, I’d agreed, and I’d gotten his word he wouldn’t behead me for using magic to divine the girl’s location. Samuel had a tendency to chop heads off first and ask questions later when magic was involved. It was a knee-jerk reaction for a Knight when they felt magic used in their presence; cut the head off the warlock and he won’t be able to cast the spell that just might kill the Knight.
My tracking spell had led us to this abandoned building, and I’d convinced Sam to stay outside. Nothing that wanted to stay on this side of the living would mess with a Knight, so I knew he, at least, was relatively safe. Right now, though, I was really wishing I’d reconsidered and had him come with me. By design, I didn’t own a cell phone, and even after getting myself into situations where one would be extremely useful, for some reason I still refused to give in to The Man and get one. Having him with me at this moment would’ve made me a lot happier; Angelica was being a pain in the ass and I was becoming more and more tempted to chuck her back where I’d found her. Samuel could’ve tucked her under one arm and still had the other free to fight.
I hit the landing with her and I froze. Angelica froze, too. Good, I thought, she at least has the proper instincts of prey.
Of course, so did I.
I also had a very, very healthy survival instinct.
“Look, kid, I’m going to set you down. You need to promise me you won’t leave my side. I don’t have the time to chase you.”
She gave me a cursory inspection. I felt her skepticism that I could protect her in that almost-haughty gaze. I was on the wrong side of five foot six, with short brown hair and green eyes. I wasn’t beanpole thin, but I wasn’t MMA-fighter muscular either. I could run a mile without getting out of breath, at least, and I could hold my own against a variety of things from the Neverwhere. I also was on the higher tier of warlocks, meaning I didn’t need contracts with demons for my powers to work. Between my birth element and my own pure stubbornness, I could talk the talk as well as I could walk the walk. But humans were as susceptible to what I could dish out as monsters were, and I really didn’t want to explain to Samuel why I was handing him the burnt corpse of a seven-year-old girl.
“If you get me out of here, are you really going to take me to my mommy?” Angelica asked.
I held up my pinkie finger at her. “I promise. I will get you out of here and back to your mommy. But you have to do exactly as I tell you, when I tell you, and how I tell you.”
Angelica stared at me again, but this time there was nothing but tentative hope in her gaze. She lifted her hand and curled her finger around mine, as good as a pinkie promise could get. “Got it. What are you, anyway, wierdo?”
I set her down and blew out a sigh. “My name is Daniel. My friends call me Danny. I’m a warlock.”
“Warlock. Think of it like a wizard, only much more unscrupulous in the use of his powers.”
“Never mind.” Note to self, big words and seven-year-olds don’t mix. “Just keep close. And for the love of God, whatever you do, don’t grab my hands.”
So she grabbed the back of my hoodie and held on tight. Good enough. I pulled up my sleeves, getting down to business.
On my right wrist, my dominant hand, was a metalwork bracelet of cold iron. About fifty tiny round-shields, also made of cold iron, dangled from it. Also hanging from it, in the center, and close to the flesh of my wrist, was a pentagram. The shields represented protection and were filled renewable kinetic energy that would utilize itself to protect me from physical attacks, like bullets and swords - normal swords, I mean, not the enchanted blades those cheating Templar Knights use. The pentagram was a focus for that energy, drawing it in from the pulse in my wrist. My left wrist sported a similar bracelet, only this one was made of common steel wire. It was attached to a ring on my index finger, making one cohesive unit. This one I’d designed to absorb a little bit of kinetic energy as I moved, and it was more offensive. Around my throat, tucked under my hoodie and shirt, was a pure silver chain that had a pentagram dangling from it. In the center of the pentagram was a round piece of volcanic obsidian. This piece of jewelry had the same purpose as my two bracelets, only it was purely for magical protection. It would shield me from magical attacks on my person by directing the energy to the obsidian. The silver was also ideal as a deterrence to werewolves and other were-creatures, of which I had a few frenemies. By that I mean they’d sooner eat me than ask for my help, but if I was the only one who could help them, they’d basically ask me to aid them in exchange for not being eaten. It was a deal I could get behind.
The necklace also had a more personal connection than I usually told people. It had once belonged to my mother, and it still had her psychic touch infused into the silver. It was about the strongest protection I could get without actually working my ass off for it.
Using my right hand, I reached into my hoodie’s pocket and pulled out a rod about twelve inches long. It was made of dark mahogany, lacquered with the blood of a ninth circle demon, willingly given, and dipped in the tears of Seraph, the ruler of Fire. Archaic runes were carved into the wood, runes of defense, offense, chaos, peace, nature, arcane, and at the very tip of the rod was a rune with my birth element. I had been born under the sign of Aries. This meant that my dominant element, my birth element, was Fire. Many of the spells I utilized had a basis in fire. The rod, or wand, if you prefer, was technically my elemental weapon. It enhanced my fire-based spells. Those kind of spells weren’t all I had in my repertoire, but they were my favorite. Besides that, they were easier for me to use than the water-based spells I knew. It was from here that I focused my power, from here that I cast my spells. I didn’t really need the rod to cast spells, but it gave my spells more of a punch if I had it. It also told the world what I was, and it was a warning as much as it was a reminder. Mess with me, it said, and you’re already dead.
I was about as ready as I ever was going to be, especially when I had no preparation time to figure out what exactly I’d be going up against.
“Ready?” I asked, more out of courtesy than actual caring. Angelica’s response was to tighten her grip on my jacket. “Right. Let’s do this.”
Once more I started down the stairs with Angelica right on my heels. We moved slowly and carefully, almost one stair at a time. Then Angelica froze with a squeak and I felt her huddle against my backside.
It’s been my experience that little kids have a higher ability to sense wrongness in the world than adults. It’s also been my experience that adults look at kids’ fears and outbursts as irrational and silly and part of growing up. Their conclusion is to teach the kids not to fear the monster under the bed or in the closet, to teach the kids faeries aren’t real, and that there’s no such person as Santa Clause. They desensitize their kids to the otherworldly dangers, making them more vulnerable to becoming a vampire’s midnight snack. Thusly, if I’m rescuing a child ten years or younger, I react to their instincts rather than my own.
“Accendere,” I whispered, raising my rod above my head. Light gathered at the tip, slowly growing brighter until a space about five feet around lit up. It took a moment for my eyes to adjust, and when they did, I simply said, “Shit.”
A wight stood in front of us, partially bent at the shoulders with its arms hanging down. Its skin was wrinkled and dry, like a raisin. Its mouth hung open in a giant dark ‘O’, and its empty eye sockets were focused on us. Its long fingers twitched, and I could see spindly nails at the ends of each finger. Angelica was pressed as tight against me as she could and I could feel her shaking. I was pretty sure she was crying, and I had to commend her for doing it quietly.
Another wight rose up behind the first, this one in an even worse state. I could see pale bone where the raisin-like skin had been worn away, and this one was missing its right arm from elbow down. The darkness behind them shivered and shifted, and two more wights appeared. Four wights altogether. Four was a very bad thing. Four constituted a pack. A pack meant higher intelligence between all of them.
I grimaced and silently urged Angelica backwards, slowly stepping up the stairs after her. The wights watched us move and I didn’t dare take my eyes off them. By themselves, wights were lesser demons with subpar intelligence. They moved slowly, and often left more mobile prey alone. They were old corpses animated by decayed souls of people who had died violently and never found peace, plus they harbored a severe hatred for the living. If they got their hands on you, they’d drain your life until you died. The unlucky victims joined them in their wandering of dark abandoned buildings. Don’t confuse them with zombies; they don’t eat the flesh, just the soul and life energy. The problem was the more there were, the more the collective intelligence ramped up. The faster they moved. The hungrier and angrier they got.
“Angie,” I whispered, “when I tell you to, you run to the next landing. Get that door open. Understand?”
“Uh-huh.” She sniffled and her voice was thick with fear and tears.
The lead wight leaned forward too far for my comfort, and I shouted, “Now!”
As Angelica bolted back the way we’d come, the pack of four wights lunged at me. I swept down my rod and pointed it at them. “Incendiare!” I shouted. A great gout of fire leaped from my rod toward the wights, enhanced by my natural infinity and my emotion of fear. Emotional magic users were a dangerous kind, not only to others, but themselves as well. Magic had basis in elements, but it drew strength from emotions. The wilder the emotion, the more wild the magic. It was very easy for young magic users to die by their own hand (and take others with them) by getting angry or sad and losing control of their abilities. I’d almost met that fate myself.
The wights howled as my fire swept over them, and their dry flesh went up like kindling. I turned around and bolted up the stairs, two at a time. The darkened stairwell lit up behind me as the wights launched up the stairs after me. I reached the landing and found Angelica standing with the door braced open, her little arms straining to keep the door from shutting. I grabbed her around the waist and spun through the open door, raising my rod again. “Il vento!”
A blast of wind shot out from my wand and raced down the stairwell toward the burning wights. The fire and wind mixed and became a torrent of fire that filled the entire hall and raced back up toward us. I slammed the door shut behind us and booked it down the hallway with Angelica clinging to me and wailing. The stairwell door exploded off its hinges from the power of the torrent, and the hall filled with the roar and heat of the fire. I ducked around a corner and shielded Angelica with my own body, holding my shield bracelet up to deflect the worst of the fire and wind. It was over in a matter of seconds, and we were once more immersed in darkness.
“Guess we’re not taking the stairs.” I said, my tone joking. Angelica burst into tears. Shit. I knelt down in front of her and gripped her shoulders. “Angie. Angelica. Shh, honey, it’s okay. I’m not going to let anything happen to you.”
“What are those things?!” she wailed. “Who are you?! I want my mommy! I want my mommy! I wanna go home!” Tears rolled thickly down her cheeks and her voice turned reedy as it echoed up and down the hallway.
I did the only thing I knew how to do. I grabbed that little girl and pulled her tight and close, muffling her voice against my shoulder. My cheek pressed against those curls of hers, and my arms closed securely around her, able to feel her shaking as she cried. I said nothing. Fear was a very, very powerful emotion. One couldn’t just say simple nothings and hope someone got over it. For a little kid, being in a situation where you’re chased by monsters and witness some stranger flinging magic around, fear becomes the only thing you know is real.
Eventually, Angelica stopped crying. I let her draw back and pretended not to see how she used the sleeve of her uniform to wipe her nose. Then I caught her chin and forced her to look at me. “Angie, there’s nothing I can say that will prepare you for what we’re going to have to do to get out of here.” I said. “You’re going to see scary things. Scarring things. It might affect you for the rest of your life or you might forget about it. You need to trust me, just like you’ve been doing. I made you a pinkie promise, remember? I’m going to get you out of here.”
She sniffled and nodded. “Was that really magic?”
I smiled. “Yeah, that really was magic.”
“So why are you a warlock and not a wizard like Harry Potter?”
Because Harry Potter is a dimwit, and I like Voldemort better anyway. And they’re not real. I wanted to answer. Instead I said, “Wizards and warlocks aren’t all that different, really. Wizards practice good magic and stay away from self-serving causes. Warlocks typically don’t give a crap and will use their powers in whatever way they feel like it.”
Her watery eyes narrowed slightly and her lips pursed. “Unscrupulous?” The way she said it was more like un-screw-pew-lus, and I was certain she didn’t understand the definition.
I nodded. “It means without morals. I’m completely self-serving. To tell you the truth, kiddo, I got guilt-tripped into coming to find you.”
“So you wouldn’t have come found me?”
“You’re not my problem.”
Her mouth dropped open in shock. I couldn’t blame her. I was brutally honest, more so than I needed to be at times, and more than what was good for me. But her eyes cleared up and the frightened little lamb was quickly replaced with the brave little lion I’d figured her to be. “But you’re here.” she said, her voice confident. “You made me your problem.”
“Yeah, I did. I’m here to rescue you on pain of death. But I’m not completely without morals. I keep the promises I make.” I offered her my hand and rose. “So you wanna tell me why you ran away?”
Her hand slipped into mine but her lips became firmly shut. I shrugged; it didn’t matter to me why she ended up here, or how. I only had to get her out, hand her off to Sam, and he’d take her home. Father McLeod would grudgingly overlook my existence and I could continue living. I started walking with Angelica beside me, and she actually managed to keep up with my longer strides. I had to find another way out, and I was now leery of the stairwells. It didn’t mean that there weren’t other creepies that were hanging around in the darkness, but the lesser critters stayed out of the small halo of light I’d created with my rod. I also couldn’t hear anything out of the ordinary, and I was taking pains to keep our sounds from being too loud. I’m paranoid. I’ve seen the movies. You’re laughing at me right now because that’s Hollywood and none of it can possibly be real, and it isn’t because it’s all movie magic, but the research for those scenes came from somewhere. I’ve seen a were-jaguar ruthlessly herd a teenage girl through an abandoned school building using nothing of its own abilities, but the girl’s frantic footfalls and erratic breathing. The hunt had been for the were-jaguar’s own amusement - just before it would’ve killed and eaten her. The girl had deserved the hunt, in my opinion, but I never said that openly.
Samuel would’ve killed me right there right along with the were-jaguar.
Abandoned buildings like this were havens for monsters and creatures who were disenfranchised, clanless, packless, rogue. The wights were only the tip of the iceberg when it came to what could be haunting this place. I didn’t want to run into something that was beyond my ability to fight while I played bodyguard. The longer we were in here, the more likely it was something bigger and stronger than lesser undead would take an interest in us. And I was starting to wonder why such a little girl would enter a building like this, considering there was more than just monsters and demons that could kill her here. I formed a working hypothesis, but I couldn’t develop it until Angelica stopped being Fort Knox and told me her secret.
“Danny, why can’t we take the elevator?” Angelica asked when I placed her beside the two silver doors so I could check nearby abandoned offices in hopes there was a working phone.
“You’re too young to have seen Resident Evil, but suffice to say, small enclosed spaces, magic, and monsters do not mix well.”
“Meaning there’s no way in hell I’m getting in an elevator if you want to survive.” Claustrophobia didn’t even begin to cover it, but I wasn’t about to tell her that. Thankfully, she looked more thoughtful than irritated. She promised she would stay where I put her and she would scream if something came at her.
I searched one office after another, my rod held low to keep the light near my feet. Dustballs scattered as my light neared them, hurrying to the darker corners. They watched me with bubble-like eyes, but decided I wasn’t interesting when I didn’t chase them. I continued my hunt for a working phone; I found several, but got nothing. No dial tone. I tapped a few buttons, but that changed nothing. I chewed my lower lip for a while, then cursed when I tasted blood. I’d bitten right through the soft flesh of my lip in my nervous tick, but other than the initial shock of pain, it wasn’t serious. I licked at the wound until the blood stopped welling, and swallowed the coppery liquid. I didn’t want to leave any of my blood behind; if the wrong party found it, I would be in for a world of pain. Possibly slavery. Neither aspect excited me much. Blood was the living river; it held power. In the wrong hands, it could be used as a weapon. Hair and skin were easier to use to achieve similar results, but it would be far removed from what one could do with an individual’s blood.
I threaded my way back to the hall to check on Angelica. She was still where I had left her, still standing (smart girl), and she gave me a small wave. I waved back, then headed into the next office. There were no phones on the desks closest to me, so I headed deeper into the room. I finally found a phone on the wall but got the same dead silence. I punched the wall in frustration, then took a deep breath. “Calm down, man,” I told myself. “You’re a frickin’ warlock. Figure something out.”
I bolted out of the office toward the hall, sliding into the hallway just as the darkness undulated toward Angelica. She had fallen on her butt in her fear, and her eyes were wide at the sight of what was coming toward her. I growled, “Fucking Christ,” and raised my rod. “Il vento!”
As the gale swept away from me and toward the undulating darkness, Angelica scrambled to her feet and ran toward me. I grabbed her with my left hand and pushed her behind me, slowly backing up as the darkness peeled back from the force of my wind. The creature shrieked like a banshee as the blast hit it and flipped it onto its back. Nine spindly legs clawed the air as it rocked back and forth on a rounded carapace. Seven beady black eyes set in a round, mushroom-like head rolled to look toward me. Pincers as long and as thick as my entire arm snapped, spraying drool everywhere.
My heart skipped a beat as I let out a helpless little laugh.
“What is it?” Angelica asked, yelping as the creature rocked itself from side to side more and more violently until it had flipped itself back over. It focused on us, pincers snapping.
“That,” I said, “is a grave beetle.”
“A grave beetle. I hate grave beetles.” I edged backwards, urging Angelica to step with me. “They only show up when someone with ill intent promises an innocent sacrifice to a death god.” Suddenly my hypothesis became a theory. I stepped to the left, away from Angelica. The beetle’s eyes rolled away from me and focused on the girl. They only focused on me again when I stepped back in front of her. “Honey, you’re going to have to tell me why you ran away and why you ended up here, because that thing is here to kill you.”
Angelica whimpered and the little lion gave way to the lamb again. “I ran away because my mommy’s boyfriend is weird. Weirder than you. He has this room that I’m never, ever supposed to go into, but I went into it anyway and it’s all painted black with red shapes like that charm on your bracelet but its bigger and upside down. There was blood everywhere and black stinky candles that wouldn’t go out no matter how many times I tried to blow them out and then he caught me and he tried to hurt me like he hurts mommy. Mommy caught him and she got so mad and kicked him out and told him she never wanted to see him again. But he came to my school and tried to convince the abbess he had permission to take me out of school. So I ran away.”
Sweet black zombie Jesus. “Angie, did your mom know what her boyfriend did in that room?”
“Are you lying to me?”
“No! Mom didn’t know!”
Small miracles, Danny. Small miracles. Angelica’s mom’s now ex-boyfriend was a practicing Blackhand! A freakin’ demon worshipper! And Angelica had discovered his shrine to the demon he worshipped, and probably had caught him in the act of sacrificing some poor living creature to said demon. More commonly called Satanists by people who didn’t know the difference, Blackhands ironically didn’t worship Lucifer. She was too busy to answer them anyway. Instead, they worshiped a specific demon lord of a specific circle of Hell, typically an Eight or Ninth circle demon lord. They made sacrifices of innocents - people, animals, even plants - in order to receive powers on par with the demon itself, powers that could kill archangels. Powers that could kill warlocks. Templar Knights. The drawback to this was that the powers always had a time limit and always had a terrible cost. The more innocent and pure the sacrifice, the longer the duration and stronger the powers. If Angelica’s mom had known, even participated willingly, then there was no way I could return the girl to her mother. It would be the proverbial out of the pot into the fire. But since her mom was innocent - even if she’d been abused for her ex-boyfriend’s rituals - I could give Angelica back and Sam and the other Knights would protect them.
But I could only fulfill my promise if I got her out of here, and that hinged on us surviving the grave beetle. Which wouldn’t stop until it was either destroyed or it killed what it had come after.
“Danny,” Angelica whimpered, clutching at my hoodie, “I’m scared.”
“I know.” Me too. I raised my rod and held it level at the grave beetle. For every step we took back, it took one forward, making the floor rumble under our feet. Turning your back on a grave beetle was never an option, but I wanted to run like hell.
“Can’t you kill it with magic?”
“I wish I could.”
I grimaced at the high-pitched whine in her tone. “Grave beetles are pretty much impervious to anything I can dish out. We need holy spells or a holy weapon, and I’m fresh out of that.”
“What do we do?”
“We do the one thing we’re never supposed to do.” I edged back enough to see the opening of another hall and a stairwell at the end of it. Grave beetle and certain death or wights and possible death? “We run!”
I grabbed her around the waist and hauled her up against me as I booked it down the hall. The grave beetle gave chase, a high-pitched squeal coming from its maw. Its legs pounded down a staccato rhythm as it chased after us, flinging pieces of linoleum into the air. Angelica screamed since she had a wonderful view of its giant pincers coming for her, and I hit the door running. I tossed her as far back as I could without actually throwing her down the stairs, then raised my dominant hand toward the grave beetle. I couldn’t hurt it, but I sure as hell could slow it down and piss it the hell off. “Muro di fuoco!”
The grave beetle shrieked as a literal wall of fire shot up between me and it in the hallway. I slammed the door on it, sealing us in the stairwell, and for added measure - mostly because I was feeling pissy - I slapped a locking spell on the door, along with a spell that would make the door explode and adhere to those stupid rolling eyeballs of the beetle when it broke through.
“Go!” I yelled at Angelica, pointing down the stairs. “Keep moving!”
She was bawling her eyes out, but she moved. She pounded down the stairs to the next landing and I was right on her heels. We kept going down, and above us came the shrieking of metal and masonry as the grave beetle shoved its way past my barrier. My spells activated, igniting the entire stairwell above us. The beetle shrieked with the fury of a thousand banshees, drowning out Angelica’s scream and deafening me. I grabbed Angelica and pulled her tight against me as I raised my shield bracelet. My necklace began to burn the skin on my chest as my shield bracelet began to brighten and burn the skin on my wrist. I kept cursing frantically, not caring if the girl heard me. If I was extremely lucky, she’d chalk all this up to a terrible nightmare, go through a few years of therapy, and live a normal life. The fire washed down over us, melting the metal of the railings, but leaving us untouched.
I was moving before my spells fizzled out, once again carrying Angelica. The grave beetle was shrieking still, thrashing above us and sending chunks of masonry raining down on us. The stairwell was no longer safe for us to keep going down, so I blasted out the next door we came to and hurried into the next hallway. I ran blindly, half seeing darkened offices and things moving in them, but at the roar of the grave beetle, the things froze. They didn’t want to get between the beetle and its prey, and I could totally commiserate.
I turned a corner and slipped.
I curled my body to protect Angelica from the worst of the fall and tried to make the graceless move less painful for myself. I lost my grip on my focusing rod and nearly lost my grip on the girl. Something in my shoulder gave and fire shot down to my hand. I grit my teeth, but the cry of pain escaped me anyway and I grunted when I finally stopped sliding. I lay half on top of Angelica panting.
“You okay?” I asked her.
She nodded. “I... I’m fine. Are you okay?”
“Yeah, I’m - fuck!” I shouted when I tried to put my weight on my left hand. Pain radiated from my hand up to my shoulder, which became a focus of furious pain. I instantly pulled my hand to my stomach and doubled over, cursing in all the languages I knew just because it made me feel better. Angelica’s eyes were wide; I didn’t care. When the pain subsided to a dull ache, I used my right hand to push myself into a sitting position. More pain lanced up my right leg from my ankle, and I cursed again.
“D-Danny?” Angelica whimpered. From the hall came the loud, staccato clacking of the grave beetle’s claws on linoleum. “Danny!”
“Shh.” I panted. “Shh. Where’s my rod. Do you see it?”
I bit back the urge to snap at her. “Yeah, my wand. Can you get it?”
“Y-yeah.” Angelica rose to her feet and scrambled back down the hallway about ten feet. She fumbled for the rod but managed to find it. She jerked as her fingers closed around it, but she managed not to drop it again. That was good. It sucked making it the first time, under Gregory’s watchful eye. I really didn’t want to make a replacement, especially by myself. “Here.”
I took it from her and maneuvered myself back against the wall, leaning my head against it and closing my eyes. I took slow, steady breathes through my nose, trying to force the pain down and into the gibbering prey part of my mind. I didn’t have time to just sit here and wallow in the ‘why me?’ aspect of today. I had to save this little girl. I had to. When I felt calmer, I opened my eyes and adjusted my grip on my rod. I placed the edge against my shoulder, biting down the scream that bubbled up my throat just from the light pressure of the wood. “Guarire.”
Cool, soothing magic swam through my shoulder, knitting the torn muscles and healing the bruises until the pain was just a dull ache. I used the same spell on my ankle. I didn’t use all of my energy, wanting to save it more for offensive and defensive purposes than healing. I wasn’t that good at healing, anyway. Then I looked at Angelica - dirty, sweaty, scared Angelica - and touched my rod to her forehead. I didn’t invoke a spell, but she didn’t need to know that. She touched her forehead when I removed my rod and wrinkled her nose. The beetle let out another screech.
I got to my feet. “Come on.” I took her hand and we started running again.
I estimated we had to be on the third or fourth floor. I’d gone up to the seventh to find her, but I hadn’t kept track of how far we’d come down. I had more important things on my mind. Behind us, the wall exploded as the beetle forced its way through, blindly chasing us by scent alone. It would follow Angelica anywhere, even if it couldn’t see her. Her soul had been promised to its master, and it knew nothing else than to deliver. Kind of like me, in a way.
“Do you see any windows?” I asked as we ran down another hallway that had a set of elevators. I’d found fire escape stairs, but ignored them. Stairwells were no longer safe, and the small, confined areas would only cause me more trouble than it was worth.
“No, I don’t!” Angelica’s breath was coming in gasps, and she was growing weaker. I was more pulling her than anything else. My ankle and shoulder were aching, but I kept putting weight on them and using them, deciding that if I survived this, I’d make Sam tap into his holy powers and heal me. It’d make him squirm, and it’d fill me with wicked glee.
“Keep looking.” I spun around as the grave beetle crashed through the hallway behind us. I raised my rod and snapped, “Il vento!” The gale of wind surged down the hall toward the grave beetle, hitting it right in its snapping pincers. Empowered by my pain and rage, the wind actually snapped its head back violently enough to twist its body almost off its feet. As it was, one of its pincers was snapped off, sending it into throes of pain as it thrashed around. Its blood spattered on the walls, melting the stone and glass and wood. I kept moving, sending blast after blast toward the beetle. The small bursts were slowly draining my energy, but it was all I could do to keep it at bay.
Angelica tugged on my hoodie and pointed excitedly. “There! Danny! A window!”
I looked toward where she was pointing. The window was grimy and muck-covered but it still let sunlight through into the office that housed it. I herded her into the office and decided that it must’ve been meant for an executive because the window was taller than me and most certainly wider. The beetle was still thrashing from my constant barrage, so it wasn’t interested in coming after us just yet. I grabbed Angelica by her shoulders and stuck her in the corner furthest from the window.
“Stay right there. Cover your face.” I ordered her as I turned back to the window. I didn’t bother to wait and see if she did what I told her to do; I raised my rod toward the window and shouted, “Frantumare!”
The glass bowed outward from the force of my command. Then it exploded, sending shards back toward me and out into the street below. Sunlight streamed in, almost blinding me. I heard the grave beetle shriek and reached back for Angelica.
“This is the one time you can grab my hand!” I shouted at her. Her small hand was immediately in mine and clutching tight.
I pulled her with me as I ran toward the window. I was taking a huge risk, threatening not just my life, but Angelica’s as well. I prayed we were on the third floor; my shield bracelet had enough juice left to make sure we didn’t break any bones if we jumped from three stories up. We’d hurt like hell tomorrow, but at least we’d be alive.
“Hold on tight and don’t scream! I don’t want you to bite your tongue off!”
“What are you- aaaaaauauuughhh!”
I took a flying leap out the window just as the grave beetle burst through the office wall behind us. Angelica was plastered to my side, her face buried in my neck, her mouth firmly shut so she didn’t bite her tongue off. The beetle shrieked as it leaned out of the window, its lone pincer waving at us like an angry old lady shook her cane at those crazy kids tp-ing her house. One spindly leg snapped out and slammed home in the outside brick; it was coming after us.
I didn’t bother to attack it. I focused all my energy into my shield bracelet until I could see the glimmer of light reflecting off the shield, which was now about three feet out in front of me. We hit the street harder than I thought we would, but my shield held against the impact. Angie yelped when we hit, and I smelled blood, and then we bounced up and down and on the third impact - which hurt considerably less now that our momentum had slowed - my shield shattered, dropping us to the pavement.
My head snapped up at the deep voice. I saw Samuel running toward us, naked sword in hand and glowing with holy light. I grinned. “Sam! God, I could kiss you right now!” I ignored his glower and pointed above us. “Grave beetle!”
His head snapped upward. The Knight continued to run toward us, but his stride was stronger, more purposeful. I kept my hand on Angelica and struggled to my feet, hauling her up as well. Samuel reached us just as the beetle hauled its carapace out of the rest of the window and leaped down to the street.
“You really know how to show a guy a good time,” Samuel growled at me, his longsword held in both hands as he fell into a practiced stance that boasted defense over offense. I knew, though, that he could switch to offense in a heartbeat in that stance.
“I only aim to please.” I made sure Angelica was strategically placed behind us. My being near Sam was a display of bravado; I was running on reserves at this point, and I could barely cast another spell without falling on my ass in a daze. I quickly told Sam what Angie had told me, and what I’d figured out on my own.
His eyes immediately narrowed and his stance changed to a more offensive one. “I see you’ve managed to piss it off.”
“It’s what I do.”
“Take care of the girl.”
It was Samuel’s subtle way of saying ‘stay out of my way’. I was all to happy to oblige. I didn’t bother to blind Angelica to the sight that was Samuel in full on Templar Knight mode. Templar Knights were trained from the cradle on up to kill monsters and humans like me. They were all that stood between the darkness and the unknowing human populace. They stood against the darkness like sentinels, never seen and never heard, but always there when needed.
Sam’s first strike was a blur. His sword howled through the air, reflecting the sunlight into the beetle’s blinded eyes. It reared back, and his sword sliced through the grave beetle’s remaining pincer. Samuel spun, his followthrough slicing through one of the beetle’s legs. As the monster lurched to one side, Sam continued his assault, slicing the creature into ribbons. The holy power imbued in Samuel’s sword was not only the anathema to the grave beetle, it severely weakened it. I glanced down at Angelica’s face and saw her mouth was open in a big ‘O’ and her eyes were wide. There was just the faintest tint of pink in her cheeks. I rolled my eyes but said nothing. One does not simply tell a seven-year-old girl the hunk she’s drooling over is already claimed. And at twenty-seven, I wasn’t going to get into a fight with a kid over my boyfriend.
Sam finally stopped hacking at the grave beetle when it was in bits and pieces. It was smoking from the holy power, and the street around it was smoking from its blood. He turned to look at me and gestured. “We need to severe the contract.”
“Yeah, yeah, I know.” I looked down at Angie. “Alright, cupcake. Before we take you home, you and I have one last thing to do. We’re gonna smash that bug so it never bothers you or your mommy again.”
Her eyes focused on me. “Wh-what are we gonna do?”
I reached to wipe some blood off her bitten lip, held it up so Sam could see it, and smiled at her. “We’re going to cast a little spell with Sam’s help.”
I led her over to the twitching beetle, which went spastic at her close proximity. I raised my arm out straight and palm up, so the blood was bright in the sunlight. Samuel lifted his sword and rested the flat of the blade against the blood, smearing it across the silver. Then he moved to Angelica as I stepped backwards. I didn’t want to be close when he started making with the holy magic. Samuel put an arm around Angelica’s shoulder and instructed her to take hold of the sword’s hilt. I watched as he gently led her through lifting the blade up to the sky and led her through speaking a prayer to God before they plunged the blade into the grave beetle’s head. The beetle screeched in true, unadulterated pain as the blade slid through its carapace. Then it began to belch a great plume of black smoke as it slowly bubbled into viscous goo. In the sunlight, the goo sparkled like a gemstone. In a few hours, that hardened goo would dissipate and vanish as if it never had existed.
Samuel cleaned his blade of Angelica’s blood and slid it away. He placed a hand on the girl’s shoulder as he turned to face me. “I can take it from here, Danny.”
“Great!” I grinned. “You mind giving me a ride?”
Sam’s lips twitched in an aborted smile. He twitched his shoulder and steered Angelica toward his car that waited on the other side of a chainlink construction fence that had a big DANGER sign on it. We went through the fence, then piled into the car. I sank gratefully into the front seat as Samuel made sure Angelica had her seat belt on. Not one of us talked on the drive back to the Templar home base, but the three of us had to give a report to Father McLeod and he had to make sure Angelica had no left-over taint or curse remnant either from me or the grave beetle.
I wasn’t there for Angelica’s tearful reunion with her mom, but I could imagine the tears and the promises and the ‘I love you’s being traded back and forth. They’d disappear into the Templar Knight’s Witness Protection Program, and I’d never see hide nor hair of them again, which is what Angelica would need to heal.
I also wasn’t there when Samuel and two other Templar Knights hunted down the ex-boyfriend and slaughtered him. I learned all about it when Sam came to visit me the night after, and we’d spent an hour sitting on the back porch of my modest little house, our sodas slowly warming as they sat untouched. I watched the sky turn from twilight to true night, my arms crossed over my chest. Sam sat quietly beside me, studying the woodwork of my porch. Then his arm draped around my shoulder and something in me relaxed.
“You want to know what Angelica said to her mom just after Father McLeod said she was still innocent?” Samuel asked.
I shrugged. “Sure, whatever.”
“She wants to be a warlock.”
I sputtered. Sam laughed, a deep rolling sound. “I bet McLeod almost had a cow.” I said once I could breathe again.
Samuel nodded and grinned at that imagery. “Her mother was shocked too. But Angelica is only seven. By the time she’s old enough to really decide what she wants to be, she’ll be another who could stand against the darkness.”
“Is that what we do? Stand against the darkness?”
Samuel met my eyes, smiled. “You know the answer to that.”
I snorted and turned my gaze back to the night sky. Then I settled my head against his shoulder, and he hugged me closer.