The Shanghai Songbird Part 5

A volley of shots rang out. A fiery hammer slammed into Lee’s abdomen. He coughed, going straight down. His vision blurred, his chest burned, wet heat squirted out of the wound. He saw the Songbird turn and run. He raised the Nambu and fired.

Missed.

She pointed her weapon over her shoulder and squeezed off a couple of rounds. A bullet slapped the sidewalk next to Lee’s face. Flinching, Lee pointed at her and pressed the trigger.

Nothing.

No more ammo.

The woman tottered over to her car. Swearing, Lee released the empty gun and tried to get up. But his torso ignited in firestorm of pain and forced him down.

“Hey…”

Lee looked to his right. Wong was on his back, trying to plug a hole in his throat with his left hand. With his right, he held out his Colt.

“Take…” Wong whispered.

Lee reached out. Grabbed the weapon. Propped himself up.

Ouyang was rounding the bonnet of her car, going for the driver’s seat. In the dim glow of the streetlight he could just about see her face framed in the car window.

He aimed. Almost shouted a warning. Then he remembered that he wasn’t a cop anymore, and this was Shanghai.

He fired. Again and again and again, the muzzle flash stealing his sight and the sharp flat report robbing his hearing. He fired and fired and fired until the Colt went dry.

He squinted, trying see past the purple spots in his sight. The window glass had been shattered. No sign of the Songbird. Grunting, he pushed himself up, pushing past the pain in his torso, and shuffled to the car.

She lay spread-eagle on the road, a dark pool blooming from her head. She was beautiful, once, before glass shrapnel shredded her face. She was still breathing, barely, and in the darkness he couldn’t see her wound. If any. He kicked the pistol out of her hand. A wet gurgle escaped her mouth, overcome by a torrent of blood. She looked at him, parted her lips, exhaled, and died.

The last of Lee’s strength bled dry. The Colt slipped from his hand and bounced off the road. He dropped to his ass, dimly aware of his hands and feet rapidly going cold. Every breath filled him with pain. He held his hand to his wound, trying and failing to hold back the surge of blood.

In the distance, police whistles blew. The police was finally, finally, coming, certain now that they wouldn’t be wandering into the middle of a gangland gunfight. In his blurring vision, he thought he saw a squad of uniformed policemen running down the road.

Who were they? Japanese? Chinese? Or—

“Shanghai Municipal Police!” a cop yelled.

In English.

Lee smiled.

****
The next few hours passed in a blurry haze. He remembered the searing pain as the British policemen hauled him to safety, the ambulance ride at breakneck speeds, the muttering of nurses and doctors as they prepared him for surgery.

When Lee was capable of conscious thought, it was daylight. He squinted against the morning sun streaming in through the window. He was lying on a stiff mattress, covered in a plain white sheet. His abs ached, but not as much as when he’d been shot.

He hazarded a look around. He was in a twelve-man ward. A quarter of the beds were empty. The other bed was filled with hard men with harder eyes. Tattoos of dragons, gods and Buddhas covered their arms and necks and faces. Some of them chatted with each other amicably, while the others studiously ignored everyone else.

A nurse looked up from her desk. Smiling, she strode over to Lee.

“You’re awake,” she said.

Lee nodded. “Where am I?”

“Shanghai General Hospital.” She consulted her clipboard. “You were admitted about six hours ago, and underwent emergency surgery for a gunshot wound to the abdomen. You seem to be doing well. The doctor will give you a more detailed diagnosis when he makes his rounds.”

As the nurse examined him, Lee spotted a quintet of men strolling into the room. Four men protecting a fifth. The other patients straightened and called out greetings to the last man, or pointedly looked away and said nothing. The nurse glanced at him and continued working in silence, taking a couple of minutes longer than necessary.

Finally, the nurse retreated to her desk. The newcomers approached Lee’s bed.

“Mr Lee,” Tang said. “Not dead yet, I see.”

“Mr Tang,” Lee said. “I’d shake your hand, but I’ve been advised to remain lying on my back.”

Tang smiled mirthlessly. “I heard what happened last night. It wasn’t an ideal outcome, but the situation was resolved. Thank you for your hard work.”

“Don’t mention it. Have you seen Sergeant Wong?”

“I heard he’s three doors down. With the rest of his police friends.”

Shanghai was a dangerous place for police. Hospitals were supposed to be neutral ground, but there was too much blood spilt on too many streets for the police to rely on the honour of thieves.

“I appreciate you coming to visit me,” Lee said.

Tang shrugged. “I had business here.”

“Ah. So, what happens next?”

“Mr Lee, you did us a great service. You need not worry about your medical fees. And, we will double the fee Ms Ouyang promised you.”

“It is generous of you.”

“It is nothing. Incidentally, my group is always looking for good men…”

Lee laughed. Once. Then the pain in his belly forced him to stop.

Tang chuckled. “You’re not a policeman any more, Mr Lee. If the Japanese dogs learn what you did, you’ll need protection.”

“I’ll consider your offer.”

“I’m sure you will.”

The gangsters left as suddenly as they had come. Lee shifted around on his bed, making himself comfortable.

The Dragon Head was right. Someday there might be a reckoning with the Japanese. Someday the police or the triads might turn on him. Someday, he might find that there was no room in Shanghai for a mixed-blood man mixed up in crime and espionage.

But for now, he could rest.

The End


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Previous parts: 1234

Thanks for reading The Shanghai Songbird. If you’d like more long form fiction, look out for my Dragon Award nominated novel No Gods, Only Daimons.

The Shanghai Songbird Part 3

Picking Tang out was easy. He was the only customer in the teahouse with a contingent of heavily-muscled goons. They strolled in with the self-assurance of tigers, and the other customers either greeted them or looked down into their cups.

Tang and three men entered the sole private room in the teahouse. The remaining four gangsters stood watch outside.
Lee took a final sip of tea. He’d been sitting here since the teahouse opened this morning. It had only been two days after the shooting, but if the gangsters had wanted him dead they’d have done something about him. That meant they weren’t opposed to talking.

Probably.

Slowly, he stood up and approached Tang’s room. Five steps later the four bodyguards barred his way.

“I wish to see your Dragon Head,” Lee said.

The gangster sneered, exposing a mouthful of rotted teeth. “He’s busy. Get lost.”

“I have business with him.”

“I don’t recognize you, and you’re disturbing us. Get out. Now.” The four gangsters crowded around Lee, placing hands on hips or hidden weapons.

“Tell him I’m—”

“I want to see him,” Tang interrupted.

The gangster looked into the room. “Boss? I—”

“I want to see him.” Tang’s tone was cold and flat.

The gangsters parted as quickly as they came. Tang, stroking his long thick beard, gestured at an empty chair on his left.

“Detective Lee,” Tang said. “It’s been too long. Come, sit. Would you like some tea?”

Lee obeyed. They must have been expecting him. The three other senior triad members around the table fixed burning gazes on him.

“Thank you for seeing me. I’m not a detective any more, and I won’t take up much of your time,” Lee said.

Tang poured Lee a glass of steaming amber tea. “You never came to me without good reason. Why are you here?”

Lee accepted the tea. “I want to apologize. What happened to your man, to Lin Da Hai, was an accident. I’m sorry for killing him.”

A sigh poured from Tang’s heart. “Ah, Lin Da Hai. He was always…brash. Overly eager.”

“I understand his funeral will be held soon.”

“Yes. Next Tuesday, in fact.”

“I have prepared baijin for him. It’s in my left pants pocket.”

Baijin was a cash contribution meant to help the family of the bereaved. Lee had filled his envelope with more than enough money to communicate his real intent.

“I will pass it to his family,” Tang said.

“You are truly a generous man,” Lee replied.

Lee slowly and carefully reached into his pants pocket, removing a white envelope, letting the triad men know he wasn’t pulling a weapon. He handed the envelope to Tang with two hands, who in turn handed it to another gangster. The blood money disappeared under a jacket.

“Mr. Tang, I have a question for you,” Lee said.

“Speak.”

“Was Mr. Lin working for you at the time of his death?”

Tang laughed, and the other gangsters joined in. Lee said nothing.

Finally, the Dragon Head said, “I heard the Shanghai Songbird hired you.”

“I was hired to find the truth.”

“Mr. Lee, this is Shanghai. Everybody lies.”

“Yes. And what you don’t know will kill you.”

Tang nodded slowly. He stared into space for a moment, as though in deep contemplation. Eventually, he said, “A man like you would have heard the rumors about Ms. Ouyang.”

“I heard she’s working for the Japanese.”

“That’s correct.”

“How do you know?”

Tang laughed.

“Never mind,” Lee said.

“My friend, let me ask you something. Why do the foreigners want to hold on to the Shanghai International Settlement?”

“Money. National prestige. Because the Chinese can’t take it back.”

“Exactly. But are they willing to go to war over it?”

“Only with the Chinese.”

A waitress arrived, setting plates of dim sum around the table. Tang deftly snatched up a small xiaolongbao with his chopsticks, brought it to his mouth and bit it in half. Tilting his head back, he gulped down the broth within the bun, and took his time masticating the rest of the bao.

Finally, Tang looked back at Lee and spoke.

“Everybody knows that China is the sick man of Asia, and recognizes Japan as an equal of the European powers. Everybody wants to bully China, but nobody dares to provoke the Japanese.”

Lee sipped his tea. He knew how the old man’s mind worked. He’d get to the point. Eventually.

“The Japanese dogs conquered Manchuria, and after the January 28 Incident, they forced our Army out of Shanghai. They want to be the lord of all China, and the Westerners don’t want to fight a war with an equal power. But some of them are wary of Japanese ambitions. Including Special Branch.”

Lee set his tea down. “Special Branch approached you for assistance?”

“Special Branch is busy chasing communist spies. Communists are an easy target; only the Russians complain when their spies are arrested. But Japanese? The British don’t want to make noise, not yet, and it’s becoming dangerous for Westerners to wander outside the International Settlement. But if a high-profile nightclub singer were shot by an obsessed fan…”

“Everybody knows Shanghai is the whore of the Orient. People expect the police to close both eyes when the triads are involved.”

“You said it. Not me.”

“I need proof that she’s working for the Japanese.”

“Mr Lee, we can resolve the matter ourselves.”

“Mr. Tang, when I quit the Municipal Police, I only gave up my badge.”

Both men exchanged a long moment of silence.

Finally, Tang said, “Go to the Night Orchard at four a.m. See who shows up.”

Finishing his tea, Lee bowed and stood. “Thank you.”

“You’re welcome. If you find yourself in a situation to handle this incident…we will be thankful.”

There it was, the payment the triads demanded for this information.

“I’ll keep that in mind,” Lee said.


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For more long form fiction by yours truly, check out my Dragon Award nominated novel No Gods, Only Daimons.

The Shanghai Songbird Part 2

There was just enough light inside the nightclub to see the stage and nowhere enough to peer into the hearts of men. Lee placed a tiny mirror on the table, no larger than a compact makeup case, trying to make the best of the dim candlelight behind him.

Wong didn’t mind. But in their corner booth, the policeman had a good view of the door. Lee was facing the wrong way, by choice. Shanghai might be an international city but mixed bloods always drew attention. Better if people didn’t see his face.

At exactly nine in the evening Ouyang Li Yan took to the stage. Her sheer golden cheongsam glittered under the spotlights, its long slits showing off longer legs. She held her head high, regally poised on delicate high heels. Her eyes swept the crowd and landed on Lee’s. She smiled, a blazing sun just for him, and caressed her microphone with a gloved hand.

On an unseen signal, the band played. Matching her voice with the deep saxophone, she sang in English.

I knew a boy who loved to play hero / Of his flaws I knew exactly zero / But there’s one thing about him I know / To a beautiful face he’d never say no

Wong nudged Lee’s foot under the table. “I think I see the stalker.”

Lee looked at the mirror. “Who?”

“At the door. Huge Chinese guy in the cheap brown suit and tattoo on his neck.”

Lee adjusted his mirror just so, tracking the suspect. The guy was alone, staring on the singer. He loomed tall over the other patrons, taller than even the Westerners. His eyebrows were a thick dark line of hair. There was a black splotch covering his neck—it was too dark to make out what it was. He plopped down in a corner and ordered a bottle of baijiu, potent grain liquor.

Just before Ouyang had left his office, she had told him what the stalker looked like. This man seemed to fit the bill. Lee kept an eye on the mirror and an ear on the singer. She switched to Japanese for her next song, then Shanghainese. The suspect poured a cup of baijiu and carefully sipped at it. That or he was just pretending to drink it.

Ouyang worked the stage, fluidly switching languages and pitches. The man stayed rock-still, drinking mechanically. Lee cast his eye over the audience every now and then, but he didn’t see anyone else who matched the description she gave him.

When Ouyang finished her last song and went backstage, the man in the cheap suit sprang to life. He downed what was left in his cup and paid the bill. He tapped his foot repeatedly.

Ouyang reappeared, dressed in a green shawl and matching cheongsam. Audience members surged forward to greet her. The man in the suit got up, digging his hands into his pockets. Lee got up and followed.

“He’s trying something,” Lee said. “Let’s go.”

The man in the suit made his way through the crowd, shoving people out of the way. Lee worked a different tack, slipping through holes that formed in front of him, firmly pushing only when he had to, while keeping an eye on the back of the man’s head. The man jostled his way to the front, ignoring Lee as he slid in just behind him, stopping right in front of Ouyang.

The man whispered something. A woman shouted at Lee, drowning out what he said.

Ouyang’s face paled, her mouth opening ever so slightly.

The man’s right hand rose from his pocket, revealing a handgun.

Lee slipped in, seized the weapon in both hands, and wrested it up. The man pulled the trigger, and the pistol discharged harmlessly into the ceiling.

Lee startled. The crowd dissolved into shrieks and screams. The man resisted, trying to force his arm back down. Lee wrestled with him, keeping the gun pointed high, and the stalker fired once more. Out the corner of his eye, Lee saw the civilians ducking and running. Lee lashed out with his knee, connecting with the man’s thigh. The gunman’s stance crumbled. Grabbing the shooter’s wrist with his right hand, Lee twisted into him, taking him off balance—

BANG

—the body slammed to the ground. Lee pried the pistol out of unresisting hands and pointed it at the man’s chest.

Blood oozed out of the entry wound. Claret mixed with gray and white matter on the floor. The man’s eyes bulged out of his head. The world smelled of death and gunpowder and fresh soap. The body twitched and jerked erratically. Lee scanned the crowd and saw them retreat before him.

Wong caught up, badge in one hand and handgun in the other.

“He’s dead,” Lee pronounced.

The detective leaned over and felt for a pulse.

“He’s dead,” Wong confirmed.

Ouyang tottered over to Lee, clinging to his left arm.

“Oh my God,” she said. “He was…I was…are you…”

“I’m okay. Are you hurt?”

“No, no.” She sniffled. “I’m okay. I’m…I thought, I thought you were…”

Lowering the pistol, Lee held her close. “I’m fine.”

“Thank you. I’m so… thankful.”

She sobbed softly into his neck. Her breath warmed his neck, his ear, his cheek.

“Ahem,” Wong said.

Lee let her go.

Wong held out his hand. “I need the weapon.”

Lee inspected the gun. A Colt Model 1903 Pocket Hammerless. Pointing it to at the ground, he ejected the magazine with and racked the slide. A shiny bullet spun out of the ejection port, bouncing off against the floor. Lee reversed his grip and handed the pistol to the cop butt-first.

“I’m going to call for backup,” Wong said. “Do you need a doctor?”

Ouyang shook her head. “I’m fine. We’re fine.”

“Lee, I’m going to need your statement.”

Lee sighed. “Let’s wait until we get to the station.”

Wong nodded. “You two stay here and don’t touch anything.”

“Understood,” Lee said.

She held him again. They stayed that way until uniformed patrolmen flooded the club.

***
“Good news is, we’re ruling it self-defence,” Wong said. “Clearly a tragic accident by someone who had it coming. You’re free to go.”

Lee rapped his fingers against the heavy wooden table. In the interview room, it was just him and Wong and four silent walls.

“That means there’s bad news.”

“The dead man is Lin Da Hai. Triad. Hatchet man for Tang Zhong Sheng. You remember him, he’s the Dragon Head who owns a fifth of the city.”

Lee remembered. During his time in the Reserve Unit he’d clashed with Tang’s triad more than a few times.

“Did Tang send Lin after the girl?”

Another, more pronounced shrug.

“You don’t know, or you don’t want to know?”

“It doesn’t matter. Your work is done. The stalker is dead. Case closed.”

“Really? Work with me here. That guy looked like a crazy fan to you? What kind of obsessed idiot follows a woman around, does his damnedest to avoid being noticed, doesn’t even try to contact her, just tries to shoot her?” He leaned forward. “That’s not a stalker. That’s a killer.”

Wong’s face hardened to stone. “Leave this alone. This is police business now.”

“I never thought you’d leave a case alone.”

“You were a great detective, Lee. One of the best. But you’re out now. And we’re dealing with triads. Tang may hesitate to send a hatchet man after me. But you don’t have a badge or uniform anymore. It’s done. Get on with your life.”

The man exchanged icy glares over a rocky abyss. A lifetime later, Lee slapped his palms on the table and stood.

“I’m leaving,” Lee said.

“An excellent decision,” Wong replied.

Wong escorted Lee out. The detective saw the civilian all the way to the evidence room, lingering long enough for Lee to gather his things, and disappeared, leaving Lee to head out by his lonesome.

She was waiting in the lobby, a hat pulled low over her head. Looking up, she smiled at his arrival.

“Hey,” she said. “Are you okay?”

“Been better. You were waiting for me?”

“I didn’t have anywhere else to go.”

They left the polite fiction at that. Walking her to the door, the wet heat of a Shanghai summer slammed into his face.
“What are you going to do now?” she asked.

He exhaled sharply, briefly forgetting he wasn’t expelling a lungful of hot smoke. And abruptly grinned at her. “Where should I send the invoice to?”

She laughed. “You’ve prepared one?”

“It’s at my office.”

She brushed her arm lightly against his side. “Let’s go. You can hand it to me there.”

Neither of them owned a car. They settled for walking to the nearest tram station. With the hat she wore, no makeup, flat shoes, she was no longer the Shanghai Songbird, just another pretty face in the crowd. People paid more attention to Lee, if only to decide where he fit on the East-West spectrum. He kept his head down, watching for passers-by and stray garbage, until a thought hammered his brain.

“What did he say?” Lee asked.

“Who?” Ouyang answered.

“The shooter. He said something to you. What was it?”

“I…the police didn’t tell you?”

“They said it was none of my business. What did he say to you?”

“He said…he said, ‘Mr. Tang sends his regards.’”

“You know this Tang guy?”

She bit her lip. “Tang Zhong Sheng.”

“The triad Dragon Head.”

“Yes. The Commissioner was…very interested in going after him.”

“And now Tang is very interested in going after you.”

“Yes.” She shuddered. “I don’t…I don’t think this is over. I don’t feel safe. The Commissioner doesn’t want to protect me, but Tang…”

“Do you know where I can find him?”

It was meant to be a rhetorical question, but Lee caught Ouyang’s eyes narrow ever so slightly.

“What are you going to do?”

“Talk to him.”

“Talk to him? Really, Mr. Lee? That’s all you’re going to do?”

He laughed. “I don’t know what you’ve been told, but many problems can be solved simply by talking to the right people the right way.”

She looked skeptically at him. “Well, the Commissioner used to talk a lot about Tang. He told me once Tang liked to have breakfast at the teahouse on Fangbang Road.”

“Thanks.” He chuckled. “Guess I have to hold on to that invoice.”

She pouted. “Going to charge me extra, huh?”

“Just seeing this case through to the end.”

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For more long-form fiction by yours truly, check out my Dragon Award nominated novel No Gods, Only Daimons.

Front Sight

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There are three of them. Brown cardboard targets, man size. There’s a fourth figure, slightly shorter, in front of and between the second and the third targets.

His mind tells him a different story. The targets are Thugs One, Two and Three, black-masked and leather jacketed, screaming obscenities and waving guns. The last one is Jane. Sweet Jane with straight dark hair and heartbreak blue eyes.

“Stand by, stand by!”

His heart jacks up, pumping adrenaline through his veins. He’s done this before. He can do it again. When the buzzer sounds he’s springs into a run.

He’s got the art of the draw down pat. Left hand clears his shirt. Right hand grasps the pistol butt. He draws the weapon and brings both hands together, thumbs high and tight against the slide, just as he arrives at the barricade. The first target.

He leans out left and punches out the pistol. His vision narrows down into the crisp green circle that is his front sight, superimposed over center mass. He presses the trigger, feels it break. The Glock bucks in his hand and he releases the trigger, just enough to feel it reset. He fires again. Raises the weapon, sees Thug One screaming, charging at him and he puts a bullet through the yawning mouth.

He runs to the other side of the wooden wall. Brings his gun up again. His eyes find the front sight, and he sends two 115-grainers into the target’s chest. But handguns are anemic killers and Thug Two is still standing. He drives the gun up and hallelujah the front sight is right between his eyes and he presses the trigger.

He confronts Thug Three. Jane, too innocent for her own good, is right in front of Thug Three. No center mass shot. But he’s in pure predator mode and like the big cats of the savannah of his distant ancestors he goes for the throat and fires a double tap. Just in case, he aims a little finer and puts another nine mil into the brain housing group.

He lowers the smoking gun, scanning for more threats. It’s strictly pro forma. They are all dead. And Jane, she’s still standing and the bullets haven’t touched her.

Thank God.

The buzzer sounds. His partner calls the time. But it’s too slow.

He runs the drill again. Again. Again. Shaves off a quarter of a second here, a tenth there, once he takes off a whole second. But it’s still too slow.

Later that night he dreams again. Thugs One, Two and Three are bleeding out on the floor. But Jane, oh God Jane, she’s cradled in his arms, baptizing him in her blood, her liver weeping from the bullet Thug Two put in her back, her neck gushing from the one he’d fired, whispering, It’s okay Daddy, it’s okay.

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For more long form fiction by yours truly, check out my Dragon nominated novel No Gods, Only Daimons.

Redemption Road Part 5

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“What do you mean, he’s gone?”

The innkeeper flipped his record book around, showing it to Freeman. “Mr Johnson and his party checked out late last night. Right after the incident at the hospital. See?”

Freeman checked the log. Jude Johnson and his drivers had checked out at 0345, about an hour after Freeman and his team returned to bed.

“Did he say why he left?” Knight asked.

“He said it was too dangerous to stay here. Something about too many demons.”

“Yet he left his guards without telling them anything,” Bates said.

“When I asked, he said you’d completed your contract with him, and he and his crew can look after themselves.”
“That makes no sense,” Freeman said.

The innkeeper shrugged. “Did he pay you?”

“Just our signing fee,” Freeman said.

“Oh boy. Looks like you need to file a case against him.”

“Did he say where he went?” Knight asked.

“Nah. He didn’t tell me nothing. He screwed you good, huh?”

“Yeah,” Freeman said. “Got a job board around here?”

~

There were no motors in the caravan. Just wagons pulled by teams of oxen. No suspensions, no frills. Everybody left their belongings inside their assigned wagons and walked the broken road.

On the morning of the third day of the journey they arrived at Bernalow. It was a bustling town, but not so rich they could afford dedicated DNA testers and high walls. Once released from their caravan, Freeman, Knight and Bates dumped their rucks in their rooms and scoured the city in their assault packs and exos.

They visited the market and asked the merchants about Jude Johnson. They queried innkeepers about the man, and they asked the sheriff too. The response was always the same.

“You just missed him,” the sheriff said. “He was right here, talking business, looking to see where he could sell his stuff. I’ll get my boys to keep an eye out for him.”

Johnson was everywhere and nowhere in the town. Sometimes he sold goods, sometimes he just spoke to the people he met. But he was always one step ahead.

As dusk fell, the three men headed to the town square. Centred on a water fountain, there was Town Hall, people dining in the open air, merchants yelling out closing-time discounts, and most importantly, a church.

“Think they’ll let us in this time?” Bates asked.

“We have to try,” Freeman replied.

Inside, candles filled the stone building with light. The priest walked along the walls, extinguishing the candles one by one.

“Good evening, Father,” Freeman called.

The priest turned to them. “Good evening. What brings you here?”

“We’re travellers. New to town. Is it a good time for confession?”

The priest smiled. “There’s always time for confession. Who’s first?”

Freeman glanced at his companions. Bates raised his hand. “I’ll go.”

“Excellent. Come, right this way.”

The priest led Bates around the back where the confessional booth stood. Knight and Freeman planted themselves in the pews.

“How long has it been since confession?” Knight asked.

“Two years, eight months and twelve days.”

“You keep track?”

“You don’t?”

Knight snorted. “After everything we’ve done along the way, it’s hard to remember everything we’ve got to confess.”
“We do our best to remember. God will take care of the rest.”

“Like with all things, huh?”

“I—”

Gunshots ripped through the air.

Freeman’s rifle flew to his shoulder.

Another burst of fire.

Bates staggered out of the confessional, smoking pistol in hand.

“The priest! He’s a demon!”

A creature burst out of the booth. It had the face of the priest, but it had a thin proboscis for a mouth. Black blood dripped down its chest.

“Down down DOWN!” Freeman yelled.

Bates threw himself to the floor. Knight and Freeman cut loose. The demon sprawled face-first in a welter of gore, twitching.

The ground shook.

“What the—”

Tendrils sprouted from between the cracks in the floorboards. The wood blackened and softened, transforming into Bloom. Grey crystals condensed on the ceiling, long spidery lines cracking through the rock.

“We need to get out of here.”

Bates stood, swaying.

“Josh, what’s wrong?” Freeman asked.

“I…”

Blood gushed from his mouth and nose and ears. There was a thin ragged hole in his throat, surrounded with purplish flesh. A murky black substance plastered over the wound. Bates scratched frantically at his neck, drawing blood.

“Josh,” Freeman said calmly. “You’ve been infested.”

Bates opened his mouth, gasped. Black pustules burst from under his skin, hardening into carapace.

Freeman’s breath caught in his throat. It was Arkham all over again. It was a boy clawing his eyes out as the Bloom took him, a woman screaming as an infester mounted her, Father Abrams administering the last rites with Bible in one hand and pistol in the other.

“Do it,” Bates said. “You have to do it.”

Freeman aimed. The weapon remained silent.

“I can’t kill myself! DO IT!”

The trigger was stiff under Freeman’s finger. Nothing happened.

Bates’ voice dissolved into a growl. His flesh blackened. Bloom punched into his feet, engorging his torso, growing a hump on his back.

The trigger broke. Freeman howled, firing as fast as he could pull the trigger. The newborn demon dissolved under a hail of flechettes.

“I’m… I’m sorry,” Freeman whispered.

“You can apologise later.” Knight fished an incendiary grenade from a pouch, pulled the pin, and tossed the bomb on the body. “We gotta go.”

Freeman ran. Behind him, something, someone, screamed.

Bloom erupted all around the town square. People fled. Tentacles smashed through buildings, reaching for the sky. Roots erupted from the Earth and shattered the fountain. Water gushed forth for a moment, then a thick black patch smothered the spring. An arch, thick and sturdy, grew from it.

Jude Johnson and his four drivers strode from a side street and stood before the newly constructed Hellgate.

Freeman loaded his grenade launcher. Along the surface of every patch of Bloom, eyes and mouths opened. Dripping fangs and tentacles protruded from the openings. The eyes—dozens, hundreds of them, big and small—pinned the Crusaders with their wide, unblinking gazes.

“Freeman! Knight! So good that you came!”

Johnson’s voice echoed in the square, his back still turned to Freeman. But Johnson had lost the accent, and now he knew where he had heard his voice from.

The creature from beyond the Hellgate.

“You!”

A deafening cackle spread throughout the square.

“Turn and face me!”

Johnson laughed again. Flesh and clothes melted and regrew. He was turning himself around, rearranging his body so he now faced Freeman. The drivers mimicked Johnson, turning themselves inside-out, becoming perfect copies of the former human.

“Here we are, men of the cross,” the five Johnsons said.

“You used us,” Knight said.

It was obvious in hindsight. During the attack on Metro City, no one had screened the refugees streaming into the city. No one had stopped Johnson dispensing his medicines to the wounded. No one had stopped them from being evacuated to the hospital.

The demon laughed. “Of course I did! You were so—“

“Pete.”

Stepping up, Knight cut down the Johnsons with a long burst. The bodies went down, and the Bloom absorbed them all.
Johnson’s voice issued from every mouth in the Bloom.

“That’s rude.”

“How the hell?” Freeman muttered.

“We are one. We are all. We are coming. Behold, our true form!”

An unearthly sound issued from the arch. It was a thunderclap, a howl, a tear, and a rip all rolled into one. A force of nature that forced the men down. Red light blasted from the opening, and for a moment Freeman saw the benighted lands of Hell.

A black mountain of carapace-covered flesh crawled through the opening, blocking out the light. Eyestalks and tentacles sprouted from its body, dancing in the air. It had no legs, oozing across the ground like a slug, sucking up the Bloom as it rolled over the substance. The ground shuddered and cracked.

And it was still coming.

Footsteps echoed behind Freeman. Turning, he saw the sheriff and his men. They were outfitted in a variety of antique firearms. Against a monster like that, he didn’t think there was anything they could do.

“Crusaders! I heard about the…” The sheriff’s face paled. “What in the name of God…?”

“Boss, if you have any ideas, now’s a good time,” Knight said.

Freeman checked his grenade launcher. A fresh HEDP shell waited within.

“Pete, on me. Sheriff, take your men, get the civilians out, and distract the demon. I’m gonna blow down the Hellgate.”

The sheriff nodded. “Godspeed.”

Donning their masks, Freeman and Knight ran clockwise around the creature. The sheriff and his men went in the opposite direction. Rifles popped and shotguns boomed, but the Elder Demon didn’t seem to notice. It squirmed and writhed, forcing its bulk through the Hellgate.

Limbs whipped through the air. Looking up, Freeman saw a massive appendage falling towards him.

“Get clear!” Knight yelled.

The men jumped aside as the tentacle slammed into the ground. The shockwave threw them off their feet. Groaning, Freeman picked himself back up.

The tentacle was gigantic. Clad in thick armor and twice as tall as he was, it lay across the plaza, resting in the ruins of a three-storey building. Bloom sprouted from its tip. There was no way around it. Freeman scanned its surface, looking for handholds, but it was completely smooth.

It rose, twisting towards him, and fell again.

Cursing, Freeman leapt.

BOOOOM!

He landed on his belly, his mask pressed against a pile of rubble. Getting up, he looked around.

Knight wasn’t with him.

“Pete! You okay?!”

A voice called out from the other side of the appendage.

“I’m good!” Knight shouted. “Finish the job!”

A desperate cacophony of gunshots filled the world. Explosions and tremors answered them. Freeman ran, placing himself directly behind the Hellgate. From this angle, the Hellgate’s mouth opened into an infinity of darkness.

He lased the arch of the Hellgate. His HUD told him how high to elevate his weapon. Taking careful aim, he fired.

The grenade smashed into the edifice. The Hellgate shuddered and crumbled. The portal winked out, leaving behind the monster’s remaining mass in Hell.

And opening an enormous wound.

The demon cried. Again the earpro saved Freeman’s hearing, but he felt its voice shaking his bones. A flood of black blood gushed from the wound, covering the square and filling the drains and gutters.

The demon was still in the fight. Fresh tentacles sprouted from its body and sucked up the Bloom. The gaping wound began to close. As Freeman reached for a fresh grenade, motion caught his eye.

A fresh tentacle, small but lithe, reached for the ground, winding around and snapping up a man. Peter Knight.
“Boss! Need some help here!” Knight called.

The tentacle was wrapped around Knight’s lower body, leaving his arms free. Knight pointed his weapon and ripped off a long burst. Freeman aimed carefully and fired too. Their flechettes simply bounced off its armour.

Swearing, Freeman advanced on it, trying to get a better angle. Another enormous tentacle came crashing down. He dodged it, but now he was cut off.

Knight’s weapon ran dry. He drew a knife and stabbed at the tentacle, but the blade did not penetrate. The monster’s body reformed. A pair of jaws opened in its flesh. Knight screamed, freeing one hand, then the other. He dug into a pocket, producing a small round object.

The tentacle flung him into its mouth.

DEUS VULT!” Knight screamed.

The monster swallowed him.

A moment later, an explosion rippled through its flesh, blowing out a large chunk of alien matter. The monster screamed, its voice filling the world.

ENOUGH. THIS ENDS NOW.

Eyes emerged all over its flesh. Its wound had become a massive mouth, lined with strange suckers and razor teeth. Crimson eyes turned on Freeman. Strange geometries danced at the edge of his vision.

He couldn’t look away. He couldn’t move.

COME TO ME.

Unbidden, he walked to the mouth. He willed his muscles to stop. They didn’t obey. Unearthly laughter filled his ears. One step, another, a third.

The maw yawned wide.

Under his shirt, Freeman’s crucifix crackled against his skin.

Breath filled his lungs. His lips and tongue moved.

DEUS VULT!

Freeman’s vision cleared. The voices fled his mind. He was himself again. He snapped up his M891 and fired.

The 40mm grenade hurtled into the darkness. A muffled blast followed. The monster roared in pain, its appendages flailing and trashing. Switching to full-auto, Freeman fired long streams of ultra-high-velocity metal into the mouth, tearing up its insides.

The creature squirmed, its eyes blinking shut. When his weapon went dry he primed an incendiary grenade and flung it into the hole. A glimmer of white flame shone in the dark. It grew larger and larger, consuming the Eater from the inside out.

The monster screamed, thrashing and wailing and gnashing and crying. One last spasm, and it went limp.

The demon was dead.

~

Clearing out the remaining Bloom took another day. The caravan he had joined left without him. Freeman stayed for another week, helping to rebuild. When it was over the townsfolk buried the dead in their cemetery. The priests offered prayers for everyone ‒ believers and seculars, excommunicated and faithful, they didn’t discriminate.

Freeman stood in front of the graves of Knight and Bates. Their headstones were marked with their names and simple stone crosses.

“And now it’s just me,” he said. “I’m sorry.”

The dead offered no solace or remonstration.

“I’m going to finish what we started. Kyrie eleison. Christe eleison.

Crossing himself, he walked away.

~~

Freeman signed on with another caravan to New Rome. During the Fall, a regiment of Old World soldiers had retreated here and set up shop. They worked with the Church to restore order and preserve knowledge. Between the two, in the centuries since the demons came, New Rome had never fallen. If anything, it had grown.

They still had his biometrics on file. After a cursory inspection the gate guards let him through. Inside the city, after collecting his pay, he took a long, luxurious shower and fell into bed. When he woke, he discovered he had slept for nearly a full day.

He spent three days asking around, looking for directions, restocking his supplies. In the morning of the fourth day, the Sabbath day, he dressed himself in his freshest clothes and walked.

The church was tiny but well-kept. The kind of church given to new priests to gain experience, old priests as a final post, or priests who had fallen out of favour but could not be expelled.

In the courtyard, a balding man in a black cassock, his back straight, his eyes clear, swept the lawn. He looked up as Freeman approached.

“Good morning, Father Kelly,” Freeman said.

“Morning. Beautiful day, isn’t it?”

“It is.”

“You look like a man looking for something.”

“Yes, Father. I am William Freeman, formerly of the Order of Saint George. I am here with my brothers in spirit. We have walked the redemption road, and have come for confession.”

Kelly smiled. Stepping back, he opened the door to the church.

“Come in. We’ve been expecting you.”

~~

PSX_20170918_044151

Previous parts: 1, 2, 3, 4

Thanks for seeing this story to the end. If you’d like to support my other fiction, check out my Dragon Award nominated novel NO GODS, ONLY DAIMONS.

Redemption Road Part 4

Underground.jpeg

 

The stairs led to what was once an underground train station. Now it was a transition zone for people wishing to enter and exit Metro City. People packed the train platform, anxious and crying and commiserating. When the Metro City troopers descended, the people loosed a hearty cheer.

Bates, Knight and Freeman didn’t join in. They carefully carried Sharpe’s body to a corner and laid him down with the rest of the human dead.

“And now we are three,” Freeman said.

“We should police the body before looters get at it,” Knight said.

Wordlessly the men went through Sharpe’s pockets, taking everything useful.

“Who’s going to take his five-two-five?” Knight asked.

Sharpe’s M525 grenade launcher was still attached to the rifle. It was a critical weapon, one that shouldn’t be sold so long as they still had ammo for it.

“I will,” Freeman said.

Freeman slung Sharpe’s rifle around his shoulder, then methodically unfastened Sharpe’s grenade pouches and laced them on his armour carrier. He retrieved Sharpe’s bandoleer and wrapped it around his body too.

Behind them, a heated argument broke out, and the three men walked over. Johnson was arguing with a Metro City trooper.

“No! No drugs!” the soldier yelled.

“Your friend is dying!” Johnson insisted. “I can help!”

On the floor, a wounded man groaned as a medic wrapped his right leg with bandages. A large shard jutted from the wound, slowly dissolving into his flesh.

“What’s going on?” Freeman asked.

Johnson gestured at the wounded trooper. “He’s been shot. There’s Bloom in his bloodstream. He needs treatment now.”

“And as I was saying,” the other trooper said, stepping forward, “we’re not cleared to use non-issue drugs.”
“What kind of drugs?”

Johnson held up a syrette to the light. “This.”

The markings on the tube read ‘Gardia Biotech’. Its logo, the company’s initials stylised to resemble a caduceus, was on the reverse. Freeman had seen many just like it. Hell, he carried a bunch of similar syrettes himself. It was the real deal. Probably.

“It’s a stimshot,” Johnson continued. “It’ll break down the Bloom and promote healing. If you take him to your hospital, the doctors are goin’ to give it him anyway.”

The wounded man moaned. Black fibres crawled out from under the bandage, spiralling up his leg. The medic backed away, unwilling to touch the alien matter.

“The Bloom is spreading,” Knight said. “He needs it.”

The trooper hesitated.

“When we served in the Church, we used stimshots just like this one,” Freeman said. “If you don’t use it now, he’ll die before he gets to a doctor. Or worse.”

The soldier swore. “Do what you want.”

Johnson uncapped the syrette and punched it into the wounded man’s thigh. The soldier groaned. The Bloom shrank away, drying up and flaking off.

“That’ll hold him until you get him to hospital,” Johnson said.

“He’d better,” the soldier said. “If he doesn’t, it’s on you.”

The rest of Johnson’s crew treated the remaining wounded with stimshots before handing them off to stretcher parties. Johnson supervised them.

“These stimshots… they’re your trade goods, right?” Freeman asked.

“Right.”

“You’re giving them out for free?”

“Times like this, money don’t mean nothin’.” Johnson grinned. “‘sides, it’s free advertising.”

Freeman chuckled.

~

When the chaos subsided, more people arrived to take charge of the situation and assist. The priests refused to say prayers for Sharpe. The soldiers accepted the body anyway, allowing him to be buried alongside their own dead. As they wrapped him in a simple white shroud, Freeman and his team stood over the body and recited their prayer.

Kyrie eleison. Christe eleison,” Freeman said.

Kyrie eleison. Christe eleison.

~

The far side of the train station led to down to Metro City itself. Everywhere Freeman looked there were people walking, haggling, eating, working. There was barely room to breathe. The background roar of a thousand voices tripped his earpro, dialling down the sound. Despite that, the moment people saw the weapons they gave Freeman and his team a wide berth.

After Johnson and his crew checked in at an inn, Freeman and his team were dismissed from their duties. Freeman moved the M525 grenade launcher to his rifle, then helped his team split up Sharpe’s belongings. They spent the rest of the day selling off non-essential gear or exchanging them for essentials: ammo, food, clean water, other supplies. They refilled their empty pouches and magazines, and retired to the inn in time for dinner.

A round of beers. A toast, a prayer and a simple meal. They said grace and tucked in, dining on stewed vegetables and meat best left unidentified.

As they ate, Johnson approached their table. “Am I disturbin’ you?”

“Got any work for us?” Freeman asked.

“Just checkin’ in. Must be tough, losing a man. My condolences.”

“We’re good,” Knight said icily. “I thought you were with your drivers.”

“They’re busy runnin’ errands.” Johnson glanced about the room. “Listen, I haven’t had anythin’ since breakfast today and I’m starved. Mind if I sit with ya?”

Freeman had half a mind to turn Johnson away. The other half insisted that he should be gracious to his employer.

The former Crusaders made room. Johnson pulled up a chair and ordered another bowl of stew.

“You guys doin’ okay?” Johnson asked.

“We’ll be fine,” Knight said testily.

“Just askin’ is all. I know you guys were tight.”

Freeman grunted. How could he begin to explain what it to kill and bleed and die side by side with a brother in arms? There was no need to explain to a fellow warrior, and no use describing it to a civilian.

“He is with God now,” Bates said. “He’s earned his reward.”

“That’s something, at least.” Johnson shifted uneasily. “Y’know, somethin’s been buggin’ me.”

“Yeah?” Knight prodded.

“Y’all told me you were pilgrims. But I heard the troopers callin’ you Crusaders.”

Freeman mulled that answer for a moment. “Before our pilgrimage, we served as Crusaders. That’s how we met.”

“Ah. But I also saw the priests denyin’ Neil a Christian burial. Why’s that?”

Bates frowned. Knight glared. Freeman had to remind himself to breathe.

“Did I do somethin’ wrong?” Johnson asked.

“It’s between us and the Church,” Freeman said. “Nothing you need to worry about.”

“I’m plannin’ to stop over at some religious communities. If it could cause a problem, I need to know.”

“It won’t be a problem.”

“Really? I heard you were excommunicated. That could cause issues.”

“How did you find out?” Knight demanded.

“Heard the priests talkin’. Now, I understand it’s unpleasant business, but I need to know if it could affect our business.”

“It won’t,” Freeman said.

Johnson met Freeman’s gaze. “I’ll be the judge of that.”

“We didn’t do anything wrong,” Bates said. “It was just…politics.”

“Politics? That really could cause problems. Now I have to hear about it.”

Knight shot Bates a dirty look. Freeman just sighed. The cat was out of the bag. Might as well get it over and done with.

“Heard of a city called Arkham?” Freeman asked.

“Can’t rightly say I have.”

Freeman sighed again. “Three years ago, we received reports of demons emerging in Arkham. The Order of Saint George was dispatched to investigate. By the time we got there…”

Freeman stared into his beer. Knight took over.

“The city was crawling with demons. Every time we burned out a nest, they popped up somewhere else. It was brutal. Street to street, house to house, hand to hand. They destroyed half the city before we realized they had set up a network of Hellgates in the sewers. By the time we were done…there was nothing left of Arkham.”

Johnson nodded sadly. “It sounds terrible.”

Fury crept across Bates’ face. “It got worse. We took seventy percent casualties. Seventy percent. The ones still alive were court-martialled. They charged us with negligence of duty, mass murder, wilful destruction of civilian and Church property… The head of our Order defended us against most of those charges. But there was one thing he couldn’t help us with.”

“We were excommunicated,” Freeman said.

“That doesn’t sound fair,” Johnson remarked.

“It’s not,” Bates said. “It’s politics. The Church needed a scapegoat. Better to disband an order than for the masses to lose their faith. And the other Crusader Orders had their eyes on our gear for the longest time. The moment we were excommunicated they divided everything we had amongst themselves.” Bates sighed. “Politics.”

“Bad business all around,” Johnson said. “How are you handling it?”

The men exchanged glances. Freeman raised an eyebrow. Knight nodded. So did Bates.

“Among our Order, we have a tradition,” Freeman said. “Whenever one of us commits a mortal sin, we travel to New Rome on foot. Along the way, we help everybody we can and slay whatever demons we find. It’s our way of doing penance. And when we arrive at New Rome, we ask for forgiveness. We call it walking the redemption road.”

“Will the Church let you back in?”

“Excommunication is a medicinal penalty, not a punishment,” Bates said. “After completing penance, the Church will absolve us. It’s part of the sacraments. They have to take us back.”

“They must,” Freeman whispered.

~

After the evening meal they retired to their rooms. Freeman spent the rest of the night attending to his kit and praying. When he was done, he lay on the hard bed and stared at the ceiling until his eyelids drooped.

Gunfire.

He leapt out of bed.

Long hammers of autofire, mixed with howls and screams. He peered out the window. By the dim light he saw people fleeing down the street, lit by the underground streetlamps.

The door burst open.

“Boss!” Knight yelled.

“Yeah,” Freeman said. “Kit up. We’re headed out.”

Freeman’s hands flew. He slipped on his boots over bare feet, snapped on his armour carrier over his thin sleepwear, slung his rifle and fastened his helmet into place. In the hallway outside his room, he ran into his men.

“What’s the call?” Bates asked.

“We help, however we can,” Freeman said.

Outside, they encountered a demon. A roiling jumble of flesh and limbs and organs dragging itself down a tiny street with its oversized paws. A hump extruded from its back, mounting an extended barrel. The demon stomped on a body, fired up a shop, and turned towards Freeman.

The men opened fire. Freeman pressed the trigger as fast as he could, his vision narrowing into a black-and-white tube as it came closer, closer—

“Cease fire!” Knight yelled. “It’s dead already!”

“What fresh horror is this?” Bates whispered.

Freeman hadn’t seen anything like it before. The fleshy thing was immobile, bleeding from dozens of yawning wounds, its turret frozen. It wasn’t a threat for now, but he didn’t want to come close to it. Not until it was burnt to ash.

Sirens wailed, reverberating in the close confines of the underground city. Gunshots followed. The men ran, chasing the sound of gunfire.

A squad of Metro City troopers charged past them. Freeman sprinted alongside the squad leader.

“Hey!” Freeman called. “Can we help?”

The soldier glanced at him. “You the guys who defended the gate, right?”

“Right.”

“We could use more guns in the fight. Follow me!”

When they arrived at the hospital, Freeman saw writhing tentacles oozing wetly out of broken windows. Broken bodies littered the ground. Monstrosities rolled out of the entrance, one after another, each bearing different configurations of claws, guns, arms and legs.

No cover. Nowhere to run.

But Crusaders never ran from the fight.

“Light ‘em up!” Freeman ordered.

He flicked to full auto and hosed down the nearest monster. The flechettes cut through their carapaces as though they were paper. Something whined past Freeman’s ear. A heartbeat later, he released the trigger and scan.

The monsters on the loose were all down. But more emerged from the entrance of the hospital.

“Pete,” Freeman said calmly. “Lock it down.”

Knight poured streams of full auto fire through the door as a fresh wave of monsters burst through. Kneeling, Bates and Freeman fired short bursts at the ones that tried to escape. The Metro City troops joined in, throwing a wall of steel downrange. Bodies stacked up outside and around the door—but they were still coming.

“Make a hole!” a man cried.

A squad of Metro City troopers came charging down a crammed street. Dressed in heavy yellow chemsuits, they carried a mix of M891s and bulky flamethrowers. The Crusaders stepped aside.

“Hot shot!” the leader called.

As the men laid down suppressive fire, a pair of flamethrower operators stepped up. Scarlet tongues of burning fuel leapt from their weapons’ throats, engulfing the hospital, the demons and the Bloom in cleansing flame.

It was over.

Freeman gagged at the sickeningly sweet stench of roast pork. Leaning against a wall, he paused to catch his breath. Down the street, he saw a man standing at the entrance to an alley, smirking at the sight.

Jude Johnson.

Freeman blinked.

And Johnson was gone.

~~

PSX_20170918_043442

Previous parts: 1, 2, 3

For more long-form fiction by yours truly, check out my Dragon Award nominated novel NO GODS, ONLY DAIMONS.

Redemption Road Part 1

House 2

 

Something

Something stirred in the dark.

Dropping to a knee, William Freeman powered up his helmet-mounted fusion vision goggles. The machine combined night vision and thermal imaging into a single image, delivering it to the heads-up display over his left eye.

He saw it. The Bloom.

It was a thing that defied classification. It was a living crystal, a voracious weed, a semi-sentient animal. Before him a dense mat of warm viscous matter covered the Earth. Here and there, hard nodules of crystallised Bloom poked above the mass. It had swamped what was once a field of maize, absorbing and transforming the crops into more of itself. As he watched, a fresh tendril burst through the ground and waggled in the air, discharging clouds of tiny spores.

The demons were here.

Touching the push-to-talk switch mounted on his chest, he whispered to his men, “Bloom sighted. Stay sharp.”

Oliver Knowles replied, “No point looking for survivors. We should burn everything down.”

Past the blighted fields, at the edge of his vision, was a three-storey house. Heat spilled out of the windows. It was the Anderson family abode. Where the Bloom appeared, demons followed. Everybody knew what they did to humans.

But they still had a job to do.

“We have to get eyes on survivors or remains first,” Freeman said. “Form a wedge.”

The five men arranged themselves in the dark. Freeman was at the tip of the spear, two men on either side. He wished for more men: a full squad, a platoon, everyone from the Order. But things were different now. They had to make do.

He dropped to his belly and crawled across the dry earth. His men followed. He led them around the house, keeping his bearings with the virtual compass projected at the top of his display. If there were demons about, going through the front door was suicide. He hunted for a side or back entrance.

It was slow, tedious work. Between his weapons, armour and gear stuffed into his assault pack and plate carrier, he was hauling one-third his body weight. Thank God the team’s exosuits were still operational.

He crawled on and on and on, brushing aside the odd fern, twig and stone. Now and then he looked up, orienting himself. They were getting closer, about six hundred meters out. He kept going, one inch at a—

“CONTACT!”

Gunfire ripped through the air.

“Who fired?” Freeman demanded. “What’s the situation?”

High-pitched roars answered, like angry giants tearing massive strips of canvas. Freeman’s earpieces dialled down the noise, saving his hearing.

“Contact!” Peter Knight called. “Demons at the rear door!”

Freeman zoomed in. Hot orange blobs flashed past the windows, brighter than the background heat. Incoming rounds screeched above his head. There were no muzzle flashes, no target indications he could call out.

Two could play this game.

“Flush fire!” Freeman ordered.

Taking up his M891 rifle, he set its optics to infrared and fired at the nearest window. Fired to its left, fired to its right. Picked another window, fired again. The shot pattern would keep heads down, maybe scare some demons out of cover. Or negate cover altogether; there were few things on Earth that could stop a ten-grain two-millimetre flechette screaming in at one and a half klicks per second.

The rest of his men followed, hammering out one round a second. Knight laid down the hate, his light machine gun ripping off three round bursts in rapid succession. Every weapon wore a suppressor, even the LMG. All the enemy would know was that someone was firing at them from somewhere; there was no muzzle flash, no cone of sound to pin down his team.

The incoming fire died down.

“Grenadier up!” Freeman called. “HEDP! Breach the wall!”

“Roger!” Neil Sharpe answered.

THOONK!

The 40mm High Explosive Dual Purpose grenade struck. Fire and thunder followed. His goggles cut out for a moment. When they were back online, Freeman saw a smoking hole carved into the wall.

“Push forward!” he ordered.

The team advanced, one man moving, four men firing. When it was his turn, Freeman got up and shrugged off his pack and sprinted. Counting to three, he hit the dirt and continued firing and firing—

CLICK!

“RED!” he yelled.

All around him, the men laid down a storm of covering fire. He ejected the magazine. Dropped it into his dump pouch. Slapped in a fresh hundred-round box. Hit the bolt catch.

“GREEN!”

The incoming fire died down. As they neared, they reduced the rate of fire. No sense wasting ammo on an enemy who wasn’t there anymore.

Twenty meters out, Knowles radioed. “We’ve got incendiaries. We should burn the place down. Only way to be sure.”
Close quarters battle with demons was for fools and the desperate, and the Order suffered no fools. But they weren’t here to slay demons. They were here to save lives. As he framed that thought, a long wail cut through the night.

A human wail.

A girl.

“We might still have innocents inside,” Freeman said. “Enter and clear.”

“Boss, it’s a trap,” Knight said.

“Of course it is. But we are not going to risk burning down a human.”

“Just sayin’.” Knight sighed. “We’ve got your back.”

“Thanks.”

They stacked on the breach. Joshua Bates up front, Freeman right behind him. When he felt Sharpe pat his shoulder from behind, Freeman squeezed Bates’ own.

“Let’s go,” Freeman whispered.

“I see Bloom. PPE up,” Bates replied.

“PPE up,” Freeman echoed.

One by one, the men paused to don their gas masks. When he felt a pat on his shoulder, Freeman doffed his helmet, dug out his gas mask and fitted it to his face, taking extra care to check the seal and filter. The mask would simply keep the Bloom spores out of his lungs; when this mission was over they’d have to wash themselves down and replace the filter.
He snapped his helmet back on and patted Bates’ shoulder. Ten seconds later, Bates had his mask on. Bates stepped through the breach. Freeman turned on his weapon light and followed.

Bloom coated the floor and far wall. Parts of it had been charred by the blast. The men edged their way around the biomass, careful not to step on it. They flicked their tactical lights on, examining the room.

“Blood on the floor,” Sharpe whispered.

The blood trail led to a staircase feeding up. Knight and Knowles stayed put to guard the stairs. Freeman followed Bates and Sharpe down a narrow corridor.

They found a closet. Empty.

They found a kitchen. Filled with Bloom.

They found a pantry. Flooded with Bloom.

Just past the back door, they saw a humanoid body, motionless in the dark. It was the demon Knight had seen. Maybe dead, maybe living. The men blasted its head apart. Now it was dead.

The girl shrieked again.

Back to the stairs. Freeman pointed up. The men formed up, Knowles in the lead, Freeman behind, and headed up.
At the top of the stairs, a girl stood.

“Contact,” Knowles reported.

Knowles trained his light on her. She was short, about chest height, dressed in a simple white nightgown. Long dark hair obscured her eyes.

“Hey there,” Knowles said. “What’s your name?”

She didn’t respond.

Knowles stepped up.

“Can you hear me?”

She tilted her head, tracking him.

Another step. “Are you okay? Where’s your family?”

Her hair retreated. Her skin turned black. Her fingers and toes transformed into short stubby tubes. She opened her eyes and howled.

“DEMON!”

It extended its hands at the men. Freeman raised his weapon—

A volley of blasts split the air. Shards slammed into Freeman’s chest plate and shattered into dust. Blood splashed across his face. A body fell against him. Freeman shoved it aside, wiped himself down. His men fired. He looked up, saw a shredded mess where the demon once was.

He glanced down.

Knowles was gone, his head obliterated.

Unearthly voices filled the air.

“DEUS VULT!” Freeman yelled.

He grabbed a stun grenade from his belt, pulled the pin and tossed it upstairs. Blinding light and thunderous sound followed. Freeman charged up, wafting through the smoke.

Another demon. It covered its blinded eyes with one arm, the other morphing into a gun barrel. Freeman doubled-tapped it in the chest and it went down. Another shot to the face and he moved on.

There were four rooms here, two on either side. Freeman found the nearest. The door was open. Knight was right behind him. Together, they entered. Nothing but Bloom here, creeping across the floor and eating the furniture.

“Clear!” Freeman called.

“Clear!” Knight replied.

“Coming out!” Freeman shouted.

“Come out!” Bates acknowledged.

Next room. Bloom, but otherwise empty.

Heavy footsteps sounded from above.

At the end of the room, a trapdoor burst open. A ladder dropped. A black ball followed.

“GRENADE!”

Freeman dropped. Closed his eyes. Opened his mouth. A flash, a thunderous boom. His hearing cut out. Unbearable light flashed through his eyelids.

Something heavy thudded on the floor.

Freeman pointed his weapon, flicked to full-auto and held down the trigger and swept from left to right. Pause. Right to left.

Sanity returned. A pair of demons lay broken and bleeding. Freeman rose to a knee, shot them again, then reloaded.

“Pete! Flush ‘em! Neil! Bang and clear!”

Knight reloaded with a fresh three-hundred round drum. Aiming at the ceiling, he placed bursts through the thick wood. As sawdust rained down, Sharpe dashed to the trapdoor and tossed a stun grenade through.

“Pete, lift fire!”

The grenade went off, Sharpe climbed, Knight ceased firing, and Freeman followed.

A dead demon lay just past the entrance. Bloom matted the walls and floor. A half-dozen bodies lay covered in the stuff, dissolving into their constituent elements. In the middle of the room an arch of metallic Bloom rose from the floor.
Deep red light leaked through it.

It was a gateway.

Past the opening, he saw barren rock, clouds of yellow dust, Bloom as far as the eye could see.

Hell.

A massive eye appeared in the opening.

It stared at him.

He froze.

It was a field of fire with a central slit of infinite darkness. Incomprehensibly complex diagrams danced at the edge of his view. Freeman tried to move. He could not.

A voice, deep and terrible, filled his mind.

I SEE YOU.

He tried to speak. His brain shut down.

COME.

Unbidden, he stepped toward the gate.

Another step.

A third.

Under his shirt, his crucifix warmed against his skin.

He drew a breath and the spell broke.

“DEUS VULT!” he yelled.

“DEUS VULT!” the men echoed.

They fired at the eye.

A sound, so massive and terrible the earpieces shut off, shook the house. A flood of black blood gushed forth. The eye retreated, leaving behind the wastelands of Hell.

“We’re done,” Freeman said. “Burn the place down.”

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For more works by yours truly, check out my Dragon Award nominated novel NO GODS, ONLY DAIMONS.

Appendix N Profile: Robert E Howard

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In the 1930s, the glory days of the pulp age, Robert E Howard cast a formidable shadow. The creator of Conan and Solomon Kane, a legendarily prolific writer with hundreds of stories and dozens of poems to his name, he molded the genres of weird fiction and sword and sorcery, leaving his mark forever. In his mythical Appendix N, Gary Gygax cited Howard’s Conan series as one of his many inspirations in creating Dungeons & Dungeons. Having heard much of Howard’s prowess, yet having never read any of his stories (the closest being the Conan animated series), I grabbed tomes of his stories and devoured everything I could find.

What I found was breathtakingly magnificent.

Every story was like diving into a bottomless well and returning with armfuls of glittering gold and glimmering gems. Here were hard-hitting tales of passion and zest delivered in muscular prose. Here were restless men of action, pushing ever onwards to the next great adventure and conquest; and beautiful women who recognized and reveled in their femininity, dangerous and clever and charming and tough. Here were stories of mortal and moral peril, of blackest evil and foul monsters, of savage men who found glory and triumph in the dark corners of the world.

These were the stories I’d waited my entire life to discover.

To understand Howard’s enduring popularity, we need to understand the elements that made his stories great. I’ll begin with the characters whose stories I’ve read: Conan, Solomon Kane and Breckenridge Elkins.

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Conan is Howard’s legacy. A powerfully-built barbarian from Cimmeria, he walks the world of the Hyperborean Age in an endless quest for adventure and treasure. He is a pirate, a mercenary, a raider, a soldier, a king. Unaccustomed to the norms of civilisation, he meets his foes head-on with sword in hand. With the raw strength that comes from a hard life in the wilds, he fights like an enraged wolf, less a man and more like a force of nature. Conan is the archetype of every barbarian and fighting-man that ever graced a role playing game.

Despite his shady background, Conan is the epitome of the noble savage and a paragon of pagan virtue. He goes through women faster than he goes through weapons, but he never coerces them, instead winning their hearts through derring-do. He is never shown knowingly harming an innocent on the page, saving his wrath for evildoers. Though well-versed in the ways of corsairs and mercenaries, he does not himself prey on the weak or break an oath. A leader of men, he freely aids those who help him, and quickly rises to leadership positions. He becomes a mercenary leader, a pirate chief, a kozak hetman, and finally a king. Apparently uncivilized, he is nonetheless talented in tactics and warcraft, easily deduces schemes of more civilized characters, and has a gift for learning languages. While not overtly religious, he nevertheless slays unnameable horrors and monsters, acting as a force for good. And through it all, he embraces life to the fullest.

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Where Conan is joyful and passionate, Solomon Kane is grim and brooding. Named for a wise king and the first murderer, Kane is a late 16th century / early 17th century Puritan whose sole passion in life is destroying evil wherever he finds it. With rapier and pistols by his side, Kane hunts for monsters, human and otherwise, in the dark corners of the earth.

Where Conan is the embodiment of nature, red in tooth and claw, Kane is far colder, but no less driven or ruthless. While Conan fights like a wolf, Kane’s rapier play is described as ‘cold, calculating, scintillant’. Instead of driving into the fray like Conan does, Kane plans his moves and takes advantages of openings as they arise. While Kane wasn’t as popular as Conan, and appears in far fewer stories, he is nonetheless the archetype of a crusading demon hunter.

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Breckenridge Elkins veers away from fantasy and into Westerns. Specifically, comedic Westerns. Delivered in the first person through Breckenridge’s dialect (some daresay accent), they follow the misadventures of Breckenridge as he travels the American West and (attempts to) find a wife along the way.

Breckenridge is an idiot. He is barely lettered and completely incapable of detecting the schemes and lies unfolding all around him. He takes too many people at their word and jumps to wrong conclusions all the time. This character device sets the reader laughing at Breckenridge’s foolishness, then laughing again as he attempts to untangle himself from his latest mess (usually with fists, Bowie and gun). Even his prodigious size and strength are used for comedy: he complains about how clothes and beds for people six feet tall are too small, describes enormous meals as mere snacks, and downplays knockout blows as light taps. Despite that, Breckenridge respects the law, helps his friends and family, repays his debts, protects the innocent, never shies from hard work, and always sees his jobs through to the end. A lesser writer would merely portray him as a bumbling oath; in Howard’s hands Breckenridge is a good-hearted if uncivilized cowboy and mountain man who suffers for his ignorance of human nature, but nevertheless fights his way out of trouble and brings plenty of laughs to the reader.

The trio are virile men of action and virtue. They don’t waste time brooding on slights, concocting overly elaborate plans or manipulating innocent people; they confront their enemies directly in honourable combat, using skill and wit and brute strength to win the day. They are larger than life, standing out from friend and foe alike, leaving their mark on the readers’ soul. They uphold moral codes and enforce them with blades and bullets, helping the helpless and dispensing justice to villains and their minions.

With his mastery of the craft and language, Howard paints vivid settings for every story. With a handful of words, Howard transports the reader to wintry mountain peaks and searing deserts, sweltering jungle islands and forbidding ruins, haunted swamps and lost cities. The Breckenridge stories speak of tiny wooden towns waiting to be busted up and the untamed wilds of the West. The Kane stories ease the reader from the mundane to the terrifying, beginning in some relatively innocent setting and ending in a place home to great evils and eldritch horrors. Conan wanders across many vividly-described lands, lands where glory, treasure, powerful magic and terrible monsters await behind every corner, where nations rest upon the bones of older, forgotten civilisations, and those nations too will soon be dust by the days of Kane and Breckenridge.

Howard’s economy of words is likewise remarkable. Many of these stories are short, far shorter than contemporary counterparts. Yet every single Howard tale is packed with memorable characters, intense action, and dramatic plots. These are simple stories, well told, enabling Howard’s prodigious output. There is more life, more fire, more soul in any Howard story than contemporary novels double or triple its length.

Robert E Howard is a grandmaster of the art. His incredible output and versatility exemplify the finest traditions of the pulp era, his command of the language and the craft is superb, and there is hardly a false note in his stories. Through Conan and Sword & Sorcery, Howard’s stories will endure the test of time.

If you’d like to support my own pulp-influenced stories, check out my Dragon Award nominated novel No Gods, Only Daimons.

Night Demons Part 3 of 6

 

When going to war, first build an invincible defence. And I am strongest at my home.

 

Home is a studio apartment a few minutes away from the Farrer Park MRT station. Unlike most single Singaporeans my age, I live alone, well away from my parents. It’s for their safety. They’re normies, and given my lifestyle, the last thing I need is for demons to show up at the doorstep of my family home.

 

It’s happened more than once.

 

To the naked eye, it’s an open concept one-room flat. In my mind’s eye, I see multiple reinforced layers of shields, shimmering white and blue and gold, ready to repel intruders. Crystals stationed near the door and windows anchor the shields in place. The wards are intact, and there are no signs of forced entry.

 

Setting my backpack down, I don a pair of Flare Audio titanium earplugs and pick up the crystal singing bowl in the corner. It’s less a bowl and more like a cylinder, half the size of my torso. I cradle it to my hip and strike the rim with a wooden dowel.

 

A pure note fills the room with white sound. Rubbing the dowel against the outer rim, I circle my home, carrying the sound to every corner. The walls are thick enough that I don’t disturb the neighbours. The high-pitched tone sweeps through me, clearing any stray negativity I might have picked up.

 

I put the bowl aside and sit on the floor. Draw my Benchmade Griptilian from my waistband and pop it open. Closing my eyes, I open my mind’s eye and hunt for negative attachments.

 

There. A cluster of black cords extending from my crown. I swipe my knife through them, severing the connections.

 

Vanessa would have left those attachments, of course. She couldn’t help it; where intention goes, energy flows. She desires intimacy and seeks it in mere flesh. I can’t help her with her issues. Not today. All I can do is help myself.

 

Passing the knife over my body, I clear all other unhealthy attachments in my aura. It’s a staple practice in Western occult practices, but it’s not something I do for people who aren’t read into them. Singapore doesn’t have a knife culture, and the first time I brought out the knife the client freaked out there and then. Since then, I resorted to sage.

 

I didn’t make this world. I just have to live in it.

 

When I’m done, I hit the shower. Cold running water with plenty of sea salt. Can’t ever be too careful. I change into a green shirt and comfortable pants, and dump the laundry just in time to hear the doorbell.

 

I check the peephole. See a woman. Open the door.

 

Eleanor Wang stands at the doorstep. Dressed in a bright yellow dress, she carries a sling bag over her left shoulder, another bag on her right, and a smaller carrier in her left hand.

 

“Hello!” she sings.

 

“Hi,” I reply. “Just in time.”

 

I let her in. Dumping her bags next to the door, she plops herself on the sofa and hugs a cushion to her chest. Her spirit guide, a small tabby cat named Blazer, shows himself, sprawling all over her crown.

 

“So coooooooooold,” she says.

 

“Monsoon season’s starting.”

 

“Mm. Is it cold here?”

 

“I’m good.”

 

Blazer climbs down. Lupin and Leonhard reveal themselves, and the trio hold a conference in a corner of the room. As I sit next to her, she says, “How was your client today?”

 

For the next ten minutes, I recount the events at Bedok. Eleanor listens intently, chiming in with questions where appropriate.

 

“It sounds like a powerful neg,” she says.

 

“We’ve dealt with worse before,” I reply.

 

There are a handful of people in the world who know who I am and what I do. Eleanor is one of them. The first among them. We met in secondary school, and she was the only friend I retained from those days. When I stumbled upon the hidden world of gods and demons, she was the first person I confided in, and the first person who followed me down the rabbit hole. It helped that she had no small amount of talent herself.

 

“It feels like a spirit of lust,” she says. “It is attracted to carnal desires, but it feeds directly on life energy. But it’s also powerful and dangerous enough to protect itself.”

 

“Michael says he’s gunning for me now.”

 

She sigh, shaking her head. “As expected.”

 

“It’s what I do.”

 

Another sigh.

 

“I need to prepare for round two,” I say. “Can you help?”

 

“Okaaaaaaaaaaaaaaay…”

 

We reinforce my home. More shields, more wards, more blessings, concluding with a prayer for help.

 

“Archangel Michael, General of the Armies of Light, watch over and protect us from the forces of evil. Safeguard this place and ensure it remains a sanctuary from darkness. Thank you.”

 

Short and simple, as the best workings usually were. Eleanor favoured other divinities, but it’s usually best to concentrate your energies on a single celestial being than to spread them out over multiple ones. More so if they don’t get along.

 

A quarter of an hour later, we’re done. Eleanor chugs down a glass of water and declares, “Time for dinner!”

 

We have dinner twice or thrice a week. Sometimes she visits me, sometimes I go to her workplace in Toa Payoh, other times we meet somewhere in between. Her way of keeping track of me, I suppose.

 

I’d left two packets of salmon fillets and another of potatoes out to thaw. I don’t normally prepare those, but with Eleanor around I made the exception. We rummage around the fridge and produce a bunch of French beans, cherry tomatoes and peas. Together, we prepare dinner. There was so little room in the tiny kitchen we had to work hip-to-hip.

 

The kitchenette has a tiny cooking hob. Just about adequate for what the real estate agent had called ‘light cooking’. Today, that meant pan-seared salmon with helpings of assorted vegetables.

 

Laying out the food on the dining table, we lower our heads, clasp our hands and bless the meal. I draw down divine energy into the real world, into this tiny spot in space-time, and infuse it into the food, willing the energy to bring health, wealth, and good fortune. In my second sight, the edibles glow softly.

 

We make small talk over dinner. She does most of the talking, complaining about the latest round of office politicking, venting about the people she had to deal with, commiserating about the stresses of the job. Her voice, a sweet, melodious mix of green and yellow and indigo, makes listening to the litany barely tolerable.

 

In the grand tradition of countless Singaporeans before her, she’d joined the civil service after graduating from university. It paid much better than what I did, as she liked to remind me, but I wasn’t sure if the job was worth my soul.

 

I suppose we who are called to serve the Divine have different priorities.

 

“How are you doing these days?” she asks. “Can you still cope?”

 

“Sure. I’m making enough to get by.”

 

“How much do you save a month?”

 

I shrug. “Five, six hundred.”

 

“Only?”

 

“Still a lot more than you.”

 

She chuckles. Much of her income went to servicing her education loans. Most of mine went to paying the bills. We all have our crosses to bear.

 

“Is your magic business working out?” she asks.

 

I nod. “I can cover the utilities.”

 

I offer a multitude services. Tarot, palm reading and graphology are my most successful offerings, and those I’m obliged to charge for. I have to, to keep myself afloat. Healing, only if the client can afford it. Exorcism is a donations-only endeavour. It’s not a money-making business; in a good month I can cover my expenses, in a bad month there’s nothing to do but dip into my savings. But this job isn’t about the money – and if I needed cash, there were other ways.

 

“And cryptocurrency leh?

 

Now I grin.

 

“I made fifteen hundred dollars off trading Bitcoin, Ethereum, Dash and Litecoin this month.”

 

She smiles too. “That’s awesome.”

 

Okay, I exaggerate. A little. Most of those were paper gains. I’d jumped on the Bitcoin bandwagon early in the game, early enough that when I finally remembered I had a Bitcoin wallet I realized I was sitting on a small fortune.

 

I wasn’t a millionaire. Not by a long shot. But I could afford to stay here for ten years, if I made my trades carefully and if the crypto market continued to remain favourable.

 

Of course, the main problem was ensuring my bank account had real money in it. Singapore still ran on fiat, and most of my savings were locked up in crypto. I supplement my income with freelancing and other mundane work—but talking about that would bore the both of us.

 

We keep conversation light over the rest of dinner. It’d been a long day and I didn’t have much energy for anything else. We put away the dishes and she stays a little longer, sitting next to me on my sofabed. We’re so close our shoulders touch. She is soft and warm and it only took me a full year—the entirety of my last year in secondary school—to acclimatize myself to this much contact.

 

A pleasant hour passes in conversation, tarot reading, and meditation. At least, she tries to meditate.

 

“I can’t really meditate as long as you do,” she complains.

 

“Why not?”

 

“Can’t sit still lah.

 

I nudge her side. Lightly. The sensory recoil sends shockwaves through my body.

 

“Maybe I should tie you up.”

 

WHAT?!

 

“I read somewhere that people do that to keep their minds and bodies still…”

 

“No! Pervert!”

 

But she giggles. And she keeps her tone light.

 

“Well, if you’re ever interested—”

 

“Go away! I don’t know you!”

 

And again she laughs, lightly shoving me away.

 

We turn to less sensitive topics for a few more minutes. Then she breaks out a tube of cream and squirts out a small amount on her palm, as large as a twenty-cent coin. Rubbing her hands together, she runs them down her face, her neck, her arms, her legs.

 

Her skin is a battered wasteland of dry flakes and dull red patches. Full-body eczema, co-morbid with lichen amyloidosis. With a careful diet and rigorous skincare regime, she’s kept it under control for the past decade and a half. Despite my best efforts I haven’t found a way to help her. But I’m not giving up.

 

As she speaks, she gushes about her latest skin care products and skin-friendly makeup. Most of it flies over my head—all I comprehend is a daily infusion of aloe vera—but I smile and nod anyway. It’s the best I can do for her. At least, for now.

 

She stays for another half hour, and then it’s time to go. Donning my knife and flashlight, I escort her to the MRT station. She’d long ago given up any hope of persuading me to disarm myself, but she lives in a different world. Cold iron and white light are the most effective tools against spirits, second only to blessed and enchanted holy objects.

 

I have also been reliably informed that knives and flashlights tend to useful against human threats. Not that I plan to use mine on humans, of course. After all, as every law-abiding citizen can tell you, weapons are illegal in Singapore, and self-defence is no excuse to carry one.

 

I return home and stifle a yawn. All the socialising had sapped my energy reserves. No point doing any more work tonight. I wash the dishes and brush my teeth. Fire up my laptop, check my Exodus wallet and my accounts on various cryptocurrency exchanges, record my income, and spend the next half hour relaxing with videos and some light reading.

 

When I can’t keep my eyes open any longer, I unfold my sofa into a bed, stash my flashlight and knife under my pillow, turn off the lights and dive under the covers.

 

It is warm and soft and clean and comfortable and soothing. After so many hours of sensory contact with other humans it was just the thing to recover. It’s a weekend too; I could sleep in if I wanted to, not that it was going to happen, I had work to do and work never ended. I close my eyes and turn on my side and sink into the mattress.

 

There is a new pressure next to me. Soft and warm and human. I sit up and Eleanor is lying next to me, smiling an invitation, peeling off the blanket to reveal an expanse of smooth fresh skin and in her right hand is a coil of rope and the rope unfurls into a hangman’s noose and she is smiling like a tigress and she crawls over with noose in hand and that is not Eleanor’s skin that is not Eleanor wake up wake up WAKE UP!

 

My physical body is frozen. My soul is not. I visualize a pentragram. Five blazing white lines burn into existence, forming a barrier between me and not-her. She hisses and her face warps into an malformed spotted thing.

 

“I banish you! By the most holy names of God—Yahweh, Agla, Adonai, Ehyeh Asher Ahyeh—I banish you and command you never to return!”

 

The pentagram burns white, drowning out the world.

 

I shoot up into a standing position. Hot electricity crackles through every fiber of my being. To my right, just past the bed, I see a large brown blob the shape and size of a man. It scowls at me, growing massive fangs and a pair of clawed arms.

 

Reaching under my pillow, I grab the first thing I can find. Heavy, plastic, textured. Knife. I snap the knife open and pounce on the entity.

 

“MICHAEL!” I scream.

 

Angel lights flash into existence. The knife punches clean through astral matter. A demonic howl fills my head. The lights frame and illuminate the neg, holding it in place, burning off the darkness. I slash and thrust and cut and stab and the spirit is gone.

 

I turn on the lights.

 

All clear.

 

My heart pounds in my chest. Sweat spills down my skin. My steel is steady in my hand. And there are no more threats.

 

It is just after three in the morning. There are great, gaping holes over the windows and door. I’d have to repair them later. I put my Benchmade away. Wipe the sweat from my face. Sit. Breathe.

 

Lupin and Leonhard materialize before me. Their bodies are covered in scratches. The angel lights flit over them, concentrating at their wounds.

 

‘Are you okay?’ Leonhard asks.

 

I nod. ‘I should ask you that.’

 

Lupin growls. ‘Reshazak brought many friends. They tore down your shields and created an opening for him. Sorry we couldn’t hold them off.’

 

‘We won. That’s all that matters. Michael?’

 

‘Here I am,’ the archangel says, his voice emanating from the lights. As he speaks, the guides’ wounds close over.

 

‘Thanks for the assist.’

 

I’d rather not fight at all, but winning was second-best.

 

‘You’re most welcome. Reshazak read your mind and exploited your weaknesses. You did well to detect his presence and drive him off, but he will come back. His pride demands it. And if he can’t reach you, he’ll target Eleanor.’

 

I exhale sharply. I’d expect nothing less of a demon. There’s only one thing we could do.

 

‘We’ll hunt him first,’ I declare.

 

 

Previous parts: 1 and 2.

 

For more long-form fiction by yours truly, check out NO GODS, ONLY DAIMONS on Amazon.

Night Demons Part 2 of 6

 

I glance around the room. The miasma redoubles in strength. The Lums’ spirit guides are fleeing to different realms for cover. But there is no overt sign of the evil spirit.

 

I’d have to flush it out.

 

“Vanessa, please let me see your hand,” I say.

 

She holds out her arm. Examining the streaks, I peer beyond the material realm. Every black line is a deep cut in her aura, filled with dark festering energy, consuming her life energy.

 

“Do the marks feel odd? Are they warm, cold, numb…?”

 

“A bit cold, actually.”

 

The curse was devouring her life force to fuel itself.

 

“Have you washed the marks?”

 

“Yes. With soap and water. I keep scrubbing them, but no matter what, they don’t go away.”

 

The boy snorts. I ignore him, listening instead to Leonhard and Lupin. The spirit guides whisper into my mind’s ear, and I repeat them.

 

“This is a powerful curse,” I say. “It is eating away at your life energy and your luck. I think there is a negative spirit possessing the man you described, and you were unfortunate enough to run into it. But don’t worry: I can handle this.”

 

“What do you need to do?”

 

“Are you ready to be healed?” I ask formally.

 

No healing, magic or other working can be performed without a patient’s consent. It was an ironclad rule in this business, one to be broken at your peril.

 

“Yes.”

 

“Excellent. Please wait here a moment. I’m going to cleanse your home.”

 

“‘Cleanse’?” the boy asks.

 

“Yes,” I reply. “I will cleanse the home of negative energies and create a sacred space. It is the first step of the working.”

 

The black ball of negativity whirls round and round his head. “It’s really going to work meh?”

 

This is how negs work their will in the real world, through pawns and useful idiots. John’s trying to provoke me into an outburst, or to convince the family to throw me out. The greatest trick the devil ever pulled was to convince the world he doesn’t exist.

 

“I won’t guarantee results,” I say slowly, “only that I will do my best.”

 

“So you can’t do anything lah!

 

“John!” the mother snaps. “Don’t talk to Mr Chang like that!”

 

Aiyah, what can he do?” he says. “He’s not a doctor, he’s not some sort of priest or what, he’s just a quack lah. Why you even listen to him?”

 

Leonhard chuckles and whispers a single sentence into my mind.

 

“How is your ankle?” I ask.

 

“My what?”

 

I point. “Your left ankle. It’s an old injury. Does it still hurt?”

 

There is a throbbing brown ball in his ankle. Electric streaks of red pain radiate through his foot and leg. He’s leaning against the wall because his injured foot can’t take his weight. The neg orbiting his head is probably interfering with the healing process too.

 

He blinks. “How did you… Someone must have told you, right? Who?”

 

“I never told him anything about you,” Vanessa insisted.

 

“Then? How did you know?” John demanded.

 

I smile.

 

“John, as I said, I will do my best. You may observe, but do not interrupt.”

 

Lupin growls at the neg dancing about John’s face. It shrinks away and melts into the miasma.

 

“Can you help him?” Vanessa asks.

 

I turn to John. “Do you want to be healed?”

 

He crosses his arms. “We’ll see how first.”

 

I unzip my bag and lay it flat on the floor, revealing several smaller ziploc bags. I retrieve the one containing a bundle of white sage smudge sticks and grab a lighter.

 

Igniting a smudge stick, I hold it high and let the purifying smoke rise into the ceiling.

 

“The smell is pretty powerful,” I say. “If you have breathing difficulties, please stay clear.”

 

With even, measured steps, I walk throughout the house, filling it with smoke. The scent is thick and herbal, like burning tobacco but brighter and cleaner. The miasma retreats before it, pouring out of the doors and windows.

 

Smudging is a Native American practice, but most Singaporeans are familiar with burning incense or other offerings. They are conceptually similar enough that people don’t ask me questions about it. I swirl the smoke in the corners of every room, letting it clear out the miasma.

 

There is a tiny altar mounted in the kitchen near the ceiling. It is the only overt sign of religiosity in the household. John’s bedroom is humming with tense, conflicted energies. The energies of a teenager undergoing puberty. The parents’ room is flat and empty, mostly devoid of life.

 

Vanessa’s room swam with a toxic brew. Most of the energy here was hers, but there was much stagnant foreign energy too, no doubt the traces of strange men. The miasma was thickest here, and I spent extra time clearing it out.

 

The Lums weren’t particularly religious, much less spiritual. They would have been easy targets for a malevolent entity.

 

Returning to the kitchen, I extinguish the stick and settle in my chair. Half-closing my eyes, I take a series of deep, full breaths. On the inhale, I direct a glittering golden stream of life energy into my second chakra, two fingers below the navel. On the exhale, I discharge a cloud of waste energy into the universe to be renewed.

 

Opening my eyes, I see.

 

A swarm of beings crawl all over her. Some are as tiny as gnats, others are the size of my fist. Some are parasites, others are lost souls swept up in their wake. Underneath the mass of creatures, I see something larger swimming through her aura, like a shark among a school of lesser fish.

 

The chief of the negs.

 

“Archangel Michael, please come to us in our hour of need. Bless this space and open a gate to the Light.”

 

Above our heads, an astral gate opens. White light, pure and holy, floods the dining room, burning off the last of the miasma. The world brightens immediately. Framed in the portal, I see a man in sky-blue armour with a blazing sword in his right hand, spreading brilliant white wings from his back. My namesake.

 

Swooping down, he lands next to me. My spirit guides bow to him, and he bows also. I nod, and continue the ritual.

 

“We are now in the presence of the Light. Beings who wish to pass on, you are free to leave. Michael, please watch over them.”

 

A rainbow stream of souls unwind from her, ascending into the Light. As they depart, they flash through human forms—an elderly man, a little girl, a young woman—and vanish from sight.

 

“Do you see sparkling?” Mr Lum asks.

 

“Where?” John asks.

 

I ignore them.

 

“Beings who wish to harm Vanessa, know that your time here is done. You are free to pass into the Light. You are also free to leave. But you cannot stay.”

 

A gentle warmth radiates from the burning blade. Smaller entities leap off her and join the souls heading up. The horde thins out immediately, and in that gap something dark and ugly surfaces in her aura. It glares at me. I stare back.

 

‘This one is tough,’ Lupin says. ‘You gotta burn out its attachments.’

 

“Here we go,” I say.

 

I take her arm. It is smooth and cool and springy. A strange feeling passes through my kin, like the sensation of rubbing milk with your fingers crossed with clutching a lightning bolt. Cream white flashes across my eyes.

 

Breathing through the sensory intrusion, I touch the fingers of my right hand to the black thumb-sized streak and channel energy from the Universe. A river of hot, clean energy surges through me, down my crown, through my arm and fingers, and into her wound.

 

“Tell me if you feel anything,” I say.

 

The cosmic energy floods into the auric wound, transmuting into White Light, burning away the festering energy, leaving a gap behind. The energy turns into a golden liquid, filling up the hole and sealing it off. The being growls.

 

“It’s getting hot,” she whispers.

 

“It’s working,” I say.

 

More energy. More power. More heat. I step out of the way and allow the Universe work through me. First comes a stream of Light, burning away the last of the curse. Then a stream of life energy, filling out and sewing up the wound.

 

The creature shrieks.

 

“I think… I hear a voice,” Vanessa says.

 

The neg is now perched over her face, resembling an overlay of an ugly old man scowling at me.

 

“I want you to take a deep breath.”

 

She does.

 

“That is the being who cursed you,” I say.

 

“What? Really? I—”

 

“Shh. Breathe.”

 

She does. The deep breaths keep her from panicking.

 

“Can you hear what the being is saying?” I ask.

 

“Yes.”

 

“I’m going to talk to him now, but I want you to tell me what he says. Can you do that?”

 

By listening and speaking, she will regain control of her sovereign body.

 

“I… I don’t know…”

 

Smiling, Michael steps behind her and lays his hand on her shoulder. Her expression relaxes immediately.

 

“There is nothing to be afraid of,” I say reassuringly. “We are in the presence of the divine. It cannot hurt you.”

 

She nods. “I’ll try.”

 

“Okay. What is your name?”

 

“I don’t have a name.”

 

I shake my head. “All sentient beings have a name. What is yours?”

 

“I won’t tell you.”

 

“I ask you for your name, that I may address you with respect.”

 

“I’m not going to tell you.”

 

Michael looks at me. ‘His name is Reshazak.’

 

The archangel’s voice is a deep, commanding blue, rounded off with a melodic gentleness.

 

‘Thanks,’ I reply. Out loud, I say, “I hear your name is Reshazak. It shall be so. Reshazak, your time here is done. You are free to go—”

 

“No! The girl is mine!” Vanessa blinks and shivers. “I didn’t mean to—”

 

“It’s okay,” I say, feeding her more energy. “We know who said it. We’ll carry on. Reshazak, you may leave with our respect and gratitude.”

 

“No! She will always be a part of me!”

 

Michael rests his sword on her crowd. An agonised shriek fills my mind.

 

“Reshazak, it hurts, doesn’t it?” I say.

 

“Huh?”

 

“You are in the presence of Michael the archangel. You stand now exposed to the Light. You are suffering, aren’t you?”

 

“So?”

 

“Reshazak, if you stay and continue to harm Vanessa, you will suffer even more. But you can end it. All you have to do is leave.”

 

Her voice grows harsh. “You leave! You are a fake! You cannot do this—”

 

“No. I am staying. So is Archangel Michael. Your time in Vanessa’s body is done. If you continue to stay, you will suffer even more and receive even greater punishment.”

 

“Fuck off you piece of shit!”

 

The Lums recoil. Vanessa quickly shakes her head. “No, I didn’t mean to—”

 

“It’s fine. You’re just the messenger,” I say soothingly.

 

Ethereal flame leaps off the sword, pouring through her aura.

 

“He’s screaming,” she says. “He’s screaming and telling you to… well, you know.”

 

I nod. “Reshazak, you can stop the pain. All you have to do is leave.”

 

Vanessa tilts her head back and opens her mouth. An unearthly sigh fills the world. A male sigh.

 

And Reshazak is gone.

 

She slumps over. Releasing Vanessa, I take a deep breath and recharge myself. The portal closes. The miasma is gone. Michael steps aside, grins, and gives me a thumbs-up.

 

“Did you hear that?” John asks.

 

“That was the being departing,” I reply. “It won’t harm anyone again.”

 

Vanessa looks up at me. Her aura is free of negs. “Thank you.”

 

I dispense my usual post-exorcism advice. For the next seven days, shower with salt, preferably sea salt. Scatter more salt on the corners and at the windows and door. If the being comes back, if something else happens, let me know.

 

Vanessa shakes my hand. “Thank you so much.”

 

Her touch lingers longer than expected, her warmth burning and corrosive. Her eyes widen, a pair of black holes threatening to swallow me whole. It was the same behaviour that got her into this mess.

 

I slide my hand away as politely as I can. “You’re welcome.”

 

Her aura is still a mess, still polluted with the remains of who knew how many men. I honestly don’t know if I can clear them out, but I’m not going to compound the problem.

 

‘You did what you could,’ Leonhard says.

 

‘Now she must save herself,’ Michael adds.

 

You can’t win them all, I suppose.

 

Mrs Lum presents me with a red packet. I don’t charge a fee for higher-end magical services, but I do request a donation. I slide it into my breast pocket and pick up my backpack.

 

“Um, can you help me with my injury?” John asks.

 

“I could, but I have a policy of treating one client at a time,” I say. “Drop me an email and we can arrange for another appointment.”

 

“Okay,” he says.

 

At my feet, Lupin and the rabbit converse earnestly, no doubt plotting how to nudge John to contact me later.

 

I leave the flat. At the lift, I open the red packet and find two fifty-dollar notes. Not too bad for an hour’s work. I’d been paid much more before, but I’ve also received much less. Looking up, I see the archangel staring intensely at me.

 

‘Michael, this job isn’t over,’ he says.

 

‘What do you mean?’ I ask.

 

‘You’ve only dealt with a small portion of Reshazak. It was not taken into the Light; it fled to reintegrate itself with the whole. He knows now what you are capable of. He is a being of immense malevolence, and beings like that are not the forgiving type. You are his next target.’

 

Stand against the dwellers of the dark long enough and they will start hunting you. It’s the nature of the game.

 

Still, I grin.

 

‘I’ll be his last.’

Part 1 can be found here.

For more fiction by yours truly, check out the Dragon Award nominated novel No Gods, Only Daimons.