The breeze whipped around outside, causing the carriage to shake. The growing winds ripped at the leaves, tearing them from the trees and scattering them all around. A tree branch snapped, falling to the ground in front of the shack I had been watching for the last three hours. I can’t believe someone actually considers this their home. The rain had started an hour ago and was coming down in sheets, making visibility unpleasant. I had spent the better part of the evening following this miscreant around. That led me back here. Normally I didn’t travel in my carriage. It was big and flashy. In this neighborhood, I was sure to stick out, but I wanted to. I was sending them a message.
I waited for the tall mortal to enter the hovel before I exited the carriage. As I walked across the street to the house made of wood, I was soaked in a matter of seconds. No brick and mortar here. I could tear it down from the rafters with one swift pull, ending all their lives in a snap. But where would be the fun in that? No, I liked to watch them grovel and plead for their lives.
I kicked in the front door, not bothering with formalities. The mortals inside tried to flee, but my shadows stopped them, locking them in. By the frightened looks on their faces, I’d have to say my entrance took them by surprise. Maybe they weren’t as smart as I had given them credit for.
They huddled in the corner, something I was all too familiar with. The women were crying, holding the children tight. A short, heavyset man struggled to open a locked box as his hand shook. I waved my hand, and the box flew from the man’s grip. His head jerked up, his eyes tiny slits staring back at me. He lunged forward, anger in his gaze.
A quick step to the side let me dodge the stubby hands that reached out to strangle me.
“You have forgotten who you are dealing with.” I smirked.
Looking around the small living area, I searched for the tall man who had entered last, but didn’t see him. A fire was lit in the hearth as a pot bubbled over. The air was thick and heavy. I could feel all the horrible things that had gone on there. The darkness that lived in that house coated the walls. A wave of my hand sent a black cloud across the room, bringing the angry man down across the tabletop in front of me. It was like holding a squirming mouse in a trap as he attempted to escape. I snarled at him in warning. Any more movement out of him, and I would snap his neck. He may not have been the mortal I was searching for, but he knew what was going on. He didn’t stop the evil. He was just as guilty as the tall man.
“Where is he?” I asked in a guttural voice.
The wife whimpered, pointing a long crooked finger to a hallway in the back. I pinned the man’s hand down, laying it flat against the table before I took out a short blade. I stabbed through the center of his hand, using enough force to lock him to the table. The man wailed as his wife let out a shriek.
No one dared move while I slowly walked to the back of the house. Candles lit the hallway. The rancid, putrid scent of death lingered intensely back there. I followed the smell to a lone room where the tall man sat on the edge of the bed. He held a child in his arms. Its body limp and grey. How long had this boy been dead? How long had this family survived there? The man didn’t move, but he knew I was there for him. He mumbled something under his breath. It sounded vaguely familiar, possibly an ancient prayer to the gods.
I snorted. “No god will help you now. You do not deserve mercy or justice.”
I moved swiftly, removing the dead boy from his grasp, laying the body gently on the bed behind the tall man. To my surprise, the man made an effort to leave. My shadows were quick, slamming the door shut in his face. The room grew cold and dark, my shadows penetrating the walls so I could know their secrets. Each disgusting deed that took place, every foul deal made, and every death bled from the walls. The darkness filled my soul.
Sometimes, when I took the lives of mortals, I could feel the anguish they’d endured in their troubled lives. The pain they tried covering up with the wrong decisions they’d made in their lives. Some were empathetic, lost, and sad. Some were just as tortured as the souls they took. But not this man. He was twisted and malevolent. Something dark lived inside of him and wanted to crawl its way out.
I leaned forward, whispering into his ear, “You’re not going anywhere. No, I think you and I need to have a little talk.”
I wasn’t speaking to the mortal, but to the demon that lived inside of him. Grabbing the strength to go where I needed to go, I looked back to the lifeless body that lay on the bed. I am doing this for the life that was taken. It is a reminder for myself, why I do the things I do, and why I am who I am.
The man’s stare would have sent shivers down any other’s spine, but not mine, not a god’s. He didn’t scare me. The man sneered, and the demon inside of him spoke. “You think you can stop us?”
My shadows came forward, wrapping tightly around the man’s neck, giving it a light squeeze, reminding him who was boss.
The demon chuckled. “I will just move on to the next human. Go ahead, kill him. Put him out of his misery.”
At that moment, it was like the veil lifted and pure panic set in behind the mortal’s eyes. The demon no longer inhabited this vessel. I knew it couldn’t have traveled far, perhaps to the next room. The scared shell of a man looked over my shoulder, gasping at the lifeless body that lay on the bed. His face crumbled as I released my shadows. It was too late for him. I held his hands, looking him in the eye.
“The child is gone, and you must pay for what you have done.”
“I─I don’t remember…”
But he did. They always remembered what they’d done. I took a step backward, allowing space between us before quickly snapping his neck. It was for the best. He would have faced a jury of his peers and been sentenced to death. I just sped the process along. Besides, I was on a mission to find the demon. Quickly, I opened the door, leaving the two bodies behind. My feet carried me back to the small living space. The heavyset man was hunched over in pain, sweat dripping from his forehead. His eyes were still filled with despair and fear. I looked over to the woman, still weeping for her injured husband. Not her. She held onto the child tight, burying the girl into her chest. I could smell the demon from where I stood. Digging my heels in, I stormed across the small floor, tearing the child from its mother.
I cringed as I saw the child’s cold grin looking back.
“I told you I would find another.”
Grabbing the little girl by the wrist, my shadows circled her, winding around her, making it near impossible for the demon to move on. I knew in the depths of my soul that the child did not deserve death. The demon chose her because it knew my fear of having to end an innocent’s life. It relished the chaos and torture. I needed to get the demon to vacate the child before it did any internal harm. I pushed her towards the open fire, where the pot’s contents were still bubbling over. Kicking the pot over, I held the child’s arm under the dark brown liquid that poured out. It was the only way I could know for sure if the child had a chance. A blood-curdling scream released from her, telling me she was still in there. She hadn’t gone to the dark side yet. I looked into the cold, vacant eyes of the girl as her mother clawed at my backside, begging me to release her child.
“Hold on. I want you to listen to my voice and hold on.”
The only thing I could do was to take her somewhere no demon could survive. It wouldn’t be long. Anything was better than letting the demon take control of the young mind. The torture the demon could inflict would be far worse than anything that would happen in my care.
I grabbed onto the child’s hand, entwining our fingers together. My shadows bound our wrists together, making myself the anchor. Taking a mortal there was risky business, but it would only be for a few seconds, and she would be safe under my wing.
The child was buried deep under the control of the demon, and I repeated one more time, “Hold on, and listen to my voice.”
The demon cackled back. “You’re too late.”
A threat, it was only a threat. It couldn’t be too late.
I looked down at my finger, twisting the ring, all the while speaking. “I’m right here. You are safe.” The child disappeared from my hold, out of the mortal realm, and into the black hole. “Listen to my voice. You will come back in three, two, one…”
Turning my ring quickly, the child reappeared in front of me. Her eyes were a clear blue, tears running down her face. The demon had been decimated as it traveled into the black hole and left there to never return. The girl fell into my arms. She cried inconsolably. I let the mother free to take the child from me.
Turning around, I faced the coward stuck to the table. I flicked my finger, and the dagger wedged into his hand. He let out a scream.
“Give me one reason why I shouldn’t kill you this second.”
The large set man started blubbering, soiling his pants. “I didn’t know.” He pleaded ignorance.
I gave the dagger another flick of my finger. The motion was more than just a tap. Each movement caused the knife to twist into his skin.
“I don’t believe that.”
I didn’t know what the connection was between the two dead mortals and the family in front of me. The shadows had shown something nefarious was carrying on there. But for one man not to stop the other from inflicting such inexcusable crimes against a family member made me sick. I knew the mother knew, but because that wasn’t the way, she was in no position to speak up. But this piece of shit, he could have stopped it. In fact, the memory of him charging me when I walked in spoke to that.
“No, you knew.” My hand pushed down on the dagger. The man retched all over the table. “Why did you try to stop me? Answer carefully. It could mean your life.”
The man wiped at his mouth with his sleeve. “He threatened my wife and daughter.”
“And the boy?”
The man began to sob. “My nephew.” Spit dribbled out of the corner of his mouth. “He was our ward. His parents passed away last winter.”
“And let me guess, he became too much to handle, so you thought you would pawn him off?”
The heavyset man shook his head in disagreement. “No, it wasn’t like that.”
My brow arched. “How was it then?”
“He worked odd jobs to bring home money. We needed the money. The extra mouth to feed, clothes, it was a lot for us.”
“So, who was the tall man?”
The wife let out a cry. “Harold, please.”
I looked at her, begging her husband to come out with it. “Yes, Harold, please.” I smirked.
Harold stammered, fumbling over his words as he tried to put together a thought. But he couldn’t bring himself to say the words I already knew. As I said, my shadows knew every dark secret behind these walls. I wanted to see if Harold would own up to it, to his part in this dark scheme. I rocked my hand that covered the dagger back and forth, wiggling the blade free. Dark red blood spilled from Harold’s hand. He pulled his fist close to his chest, blood dripping everywhere.
“You know what I don’t like about mortals, Harold?” I paused, waiting to see if he would answer, but he held back. “You think you can outsmart a god.”
“No, I don’t.” He stood up straight.
“Ah, ah, ah. Now, Harold, I saw what happened. There’s no point trying to cover it up. Tell me why I shouldn’t end your life.”
Harold’s wife cried, begging for the life of her husband. I pulled out a flask of poppy oil and threw it at her. “Drink.” She did as she was told but continued to cry as she clutched onto her daughter.
“I didn’t do anything.”
“Oh, but you did. You allowed that man to come here. You knew something was off about him, yet you still invited him into your home. You put yourself in danger as well as your family.”
“It’s a rough time.”
I was flabbergasted. This mortal refused to own up and take responsibility for his part. That didn’t sit well with me. “I’ve got to tell you, Harold, you’re not doing a good job of convincing me.” I took a step closer. I could hear Harold’s heart pumping blood at an alarming rate.
“I’m dying. We needed the money.” And there it was, the ugly truth. “The man made us a deal.” I circled the table, carefully sidestepping the boiled brown mess that I had spilled all over the floor.
“Thank you.” I gave a half-smile. I could see Harold physically relax. “I will give you a second and last chance. Do right by your wife and daughter. No more making backroom deals.”
Harold nodded his head. “Yes, yes, but of course.”
“The next time, you won’t be so lucky.” I turned around, grabbing Harold’s free hand. In one clean swoop, I cut his other hand off. “Next time you gamble with your family’s lives, I will gamble with your body parts.” I smacked him in the face, using his own hand. Harold’s knees buckled from underneath him as his wife screamed.
“Don’t forget, Harold,” I said.
I closed the file on the computer, sitting back in my chair, sighing at the memory. It had been decades since I chased demons out of mortals. Nowadays, the world is overrun with them. To hunt down every individual one, I would need an international team. It was easier to give up. Melisseus had sent me on wild goose chases for years. No more. I unfolded a slip of paper and read the note that had been delivered to the house in the middle of the night. It had been signed with a monogram I had come to know as Melisseus’s signature. He was taunting me, trying to lure me out. Not this time. I had learned over the years that demons had many faces. Mine was Melisseus.