“So what’s your name, tiger?” asked the blue-skinned girl. She had bronze hair, and lean, seductive red eyes with a sharp little smile. Her body was humanoid, invitingly feminine, leaning on the counter in a way that was obviously meant to catch a man’s eye. Marion, for his part, smiled back not without a bit of interest.
“You can call me Marion, darlin’. But I’m sorry to say, I’m taken, so if you’re looking for a bit of this and that, you’re going to have to look for someone else.”
The girl let out a hearty laugh. “Oh don’t worry about that. I’m just chatting. You do realise you’re the most interesting person in the room, right?” She gestured, with a flit of her eye, the room that surrounded them. Stools on the bar, assorted tables and chairs in all sorts of manner, scattered around almost haphazardly. The lighting was dim—balls of fires and sparks here and there, a chandelier that carried bottles with light fairies dancing in each of them.
The inhabitants of the room varied from dwarves and winged imps, shapeless masses and almost-people with fangs and horns and furs, a crab-like and a spider creature huddled on a table playing dice. Marion knew exactly what the blue-skinned girl had meant, but he’d gotten used to being the only human in the old tavern, he never really thought of it as interesting anymore.
“Well, don’t pull yourself short, beautiful,” Marion said. “I’d say you’re pretty interesting yourself.”
The girl giggled with a sound like rippling crystal. Marion wasn’t sure if it sounded nice, but he inevitably liked it.
“What’s your name, girl?”
She clicked her tongue to some language he didn’t catch. “But I like to be called Ashley. You should call me that.”
“All right, then. Ashley.” He smiled at the taste of the name in his tongue. “What brought you to this place?”
“Oh, what brought anyone? Music, company, drinks.” She raised her glass to show him. It was half-full with a strange, bubbling green liquid. “What about you? I thoughts Hunters work all night long. Or is our kind behaving ourselves tonight?”
There was something derisive in the emphasis in her words, but Marion let it slide. “As a matter of fact. I’m waiting for my girlfriend,” Marion said. He absent-mindedly reached for the phone in his pocket, just making sure that it was there. “She works late. I work later than late. We don’t get to meet often, so I’m making use of my night off.”
“Oh, isn’t that nice. She human?” There was an edge to her voice, although it wasn’t unpleasant.
Marion gave her an apologetic nod. “So sorry to disappoint you.”
“Ah, pity.” Her sigh was seductive. “I’m sure it’s hard for you. Them a daylight creature, and you, a person entirely of the night now.”
“We meet when we can,” Marion said, giving her a smile that could be read in so many interesting ways.
The blue-skinned girl took a long drink out of her glass, then pulled out a card out of the sleeves of her shorts and gave it to him. It made a hissing sound as Marion took it. “If you ever find yourself in need of, mmm, more interesting company,” Ashley said, “We can get in touch.”
“Of course.” He smiled at her as she stood up, leaving the empty glass behind. “Have a good night, Ashley.”
The girl blew him a kiss as she walked away.
Marion didn’t get even five seconds into his own thoughts before his ghost came talking. “Did you just flirted with an Crystallian?”
“Hey, Jarvis.” Marion took sips from his glass of clear water. “Where’ve you been?”
“Cheryl will kill you if she knows,” said the ghost, his voice coming from nowhere in particular. Marion knew from instinct, or perhaps just because it was what he had been told for years, that his ghost was always right on his shoulder, though he can never see him. Mirrors had never shown anything that matters. Jarvis could just be a voice in his head, but either way, he never minded.
“No, she won’t,” Marion sighed. “She’s a rock star now, she probably had gotten a dozen different men already.”
“So that was you trying to get back to her?”
“Nah. I don’t mind.” He took another sip from his cup. The water zero chance of intoxicating him, but he found it comforting. “Didn’t think she’d mind either.”
“Then what’s that hint of, oh, I don’t know, dejection in your voice? I can tell, you know.”
Marion sneered good-humouredly. “Piss off.”
Next to him, Ashley’s empty glass floated on the air and was flew to the sink. Above it, the bartender’s thick spectacles stared at the running water with what might be concentration, if his eyes were visible. A deep voice came from where his mouth would be. “Speaking to your partner, Sir?” asked the invisible man.
“Yes. Say, Ray, do you know to punch a ghost you can’t see in the face?”
“Oh, come on, Marion.”
The spectacles made a funny movement. A moment passed, and they they looked down as if in embarrassment. “Sorry. That was supposed to be a shrug. I, ah, I’ve forgotten that I’m not wearing my suit.”
“What happened to your suit, Ray?
“Still at the laundry, Sir. It’s running a bit late, after yesterday’s event.”
“Oh yes. That’s because of the goblins I was fighting then. I’m sorry about that.”
“Don’t be. You were just doing your job.”
“I’m sorry, really. I didn’t know that they’d ruin you suit.”
“Oh, no, Sir. The goblins ruined the laundry. The suit was because of the Lilliputian the night before.”
“Ah. Yes. I, uhh, didn’t anticipate that they could breath fire. My mistake.”
“That’s fine, Sir. Part of your job.”
“Right, well then.” A pause. Marion stirred his glass awkwardly. “So, uhh, are you naked right n-“
Jarvis nudged at his shoulder. “Sorry to interrupt. There’s something I-“
And precisely at that moment, Marion’s phone rang. He grinned. “Sorry, I have to take this.”
The invisible man nodded. “Of course. Have a good night, Mr. Marion.”
As he went away to serve the other customers, Marion pulled out his phone and fumbled with the touch screen. He put it close to his ears. “Hello?”
“Hey, lion,” Cheryl’s voice flowed out of the receiver. “I’m done with the gig. Are we still on?”
He couldn’t help smiling at her voice. “‘Course. Pick you up?”
“Ha! With what? The bus? No, it’s ok. I’ll see you there.”
“Marion?” Jarvis whispered. “There’s something I have to tell-“
“Of course. See you.” He closed the connection, put the phone down. The night seemed to be so much wider now.
“Marion?” Jarvis started.
“Don’t tease me, man. I have to go.” He pulled out a shiny coin from inside his coat and threw it to the bar. The invisible man’s hand seemed to caught it in midair. “Thanks for the drink, Ray.”
Marion made a beeline to the door at the other side of the room, past tables of roving devils and chattering rat-people. He turned the big dial next to the door to a symbol he had memorised, and stepped out.
The alleyway outside was dark, decorated with trash cans and used cardboards. Clothesline hung from the windows above, some still with rags left hanging. The door disappeared behind him, which didn’t bother Marion a lick. He could always find his way back (or Ashley could, he thought, guiltily. He still had her numbers in his pocket).
“Cheryl’s meeting you at the Twelve of Spades, right?” his ghost said. Marion whistled in affirmation. It was a silly name for a pub, he’d told her, and she’d agreed. Her friends had set it up–a meeting place where people like her could exchange raucous music, or a game of cards, late into the night. He didn’t know her friends, but knew she respected them.
“Listen,” Jarvis started again. “You really should know this. I got a notice earlier. There’s a rogue monster on the loose tonight.”
“Tonight? What do you mean tonight? I thought I have the night off?” Marion was already walking out of the alley, making her way to the bus stop across the street. There was one just about to go, and he flagged it down with a wave.
“Well, it’s an emergency. The rogue is a Ripper. Do you know that one?”
Marion climbed up the bus and nodded apologetically at the driver, who had a tired scowl on his face. He smiled to the old man who was sitting on the front, and made his way to a quiet place at the back, where neither of them could hear him speaking to himself. There was no one else on the bus, or on the road as they left.
“Okay, that sound bad. Ripper, huh?” he replied in a quiet voice, after plopping himself down. “But I have no idea what that is.”
“They usually live in the shadows,” his ghost said, “but I got report that one was spotted in the club you’re going to, within sight and reach of humans.”
“In a way, if you’re not looking for it. It’s one of them massless type. They can look like anything if you’re not expecting them.”
“Right.” Marion took a glance outside. The sidewalk was empty, all the doors closed. Lights flickered from streetlights and upstair windows. People should be asleep by now, daytime creatures. “So if it can blend in, what’s the problem? We can just leave them.”
“They’re not peaceful. The last time a Ripper went rogue, he started a serial killing case.”
“Ah.” Out of instinct, Marion reached for the bag on his belt and started fiddling with the magic spheres inside. “That sounds like a problem.”
“I honestly thought I’m going to have the night off.”
It wasn’t a very big city, wasn’t very crowded with people even during the day. None of its buildings were skyscrapers, and a majority of its commercial buildings had a residential upper floor. Family businesses prospered there, and somehow so did the ghosts and monsters and fantastic creatures living in its shadows, populating its nights.
It didn’t take long for the bus to reach the Twelve of Spades, a narrow building with foggy glass window and a large ornate door on its front. Marion stepped out still clutching to a magic charm from his belt, just about ready to shoot. It was as empty there as it was when he got into the bus.
“It’s quiet. What’s the time?” he asked.
Jarvis replied, “Eleven. Be careful, anyway.”
A rat and a shadow of something bigger than a rat skittered on the pavement, a two headed hawk made its way in the sky. Marion could hear the muffled sound of music streaming from inside the clubhouse. He pushed the spade-decorated door and was greeted with a puff of smoke, calm lights, a hint of coffee in the air and post-rock music in the background. The tables were small and scattered around the room, circling a bar by the wall on the other side. It would have looked like tavern he just came from, if the place was packed, if the deco was more meant for a multitude of species instead of a specific brand of human.
Cheryl’s playful smile caught Marion as he made his way to the centre of the room. She got up and greeted him with her fierce blue eyes. “Hey, lion. How are you?”
Marion grinned and took a seat opposite to her on the small table. “Just fine, darling. How was your gig?”
“Not bad. A rowdy crowd, just the way I like it.” She raised her eyebrows, gave Marion a look that was a magnifying glass and a piercing eagle both. “You got things on your mind,” she said, not asked.
“Yup. Saw your eyes darting.”
Marion looked down in embarrassment. Yes, his eyes were darting. It was his night off, but his instinct was still kicking as hard as it could. On his shoulder, her could feel Jarvis’s grip tightening.
“So what are you worried about?”
“Nah, it’s-” He paused. “Work. I’m just thinking of work again.”
“Thought you have the night off.”
“I do. But, oh, dear, you know I can’t talk about it.”
She narrowed her eyes, but must have decided not to pursue it. She relaxed her eyes and said, “Okay then. Ask me how my band is doing instead.”
Marion made a smile. “Did Daniel break the soundboard again?”
“Oh! you have no idea,” she said, and continued it with a tale of their latest misadventure. Cheryl’s band consisted of four musicians and a sound engineer whom she picked up somewhere on the streets. They played—with her being the only girl—their own brand of neo-punk electro rock and were working on their first solo album while playing small gigs around town. Theirs were a wild ride of music and late night work on refining sound, lyrics, and drinks. Cheryl was particularly good at riling a crowd during their live shows.
She liked to talk of her work, her pride and joy, and Marion has always tried his best to enjoy this insights into a world that was far removed from his own, but that night he found himself rather distracted. There were three other tables in the room with people on them and two ladies on the bar, one of them blonde with long hair, another a wavy brunette. The table on his left had a couple of men with steaming cups of what could be coffee. One table at a corner to his right only had one inhabitant, a man smoking alone.
“There you go again,” Cheryl said, waking Marion from his absent-minded observation. “A lot of big things on your mind, huh?” she said.
“Ah, well.” He turned his eyes to the side, only to caught the eye of the lone smoker. The man nodded at him, not unkindly, and blew a smoke that looked almost like a shape. Marion turned back to his girl. “It’s not that big a thing, really. Maybe I just need a vacation.”
“Hmm. Maybe working the zombie shift everyday is getting to you.” She glanced at the empty table between them. “Would you like something to drink? Coffee? Marion, you seem to need it.”
“Yes, actually. Coffee will be great. Thank you, dear.”
Cheryl radiated a fierce warmth with his smile and got up, making her way to the bar. Marion watched her as she made her leave, her short black hair riffling on her head. He felt Jarvis tapping his shoulder.
“I really want to tell you to stop worrying and enjoy your time together, but, uhh-“
“You jackass,” Marion whispered back. He glanced around the room, front and back. Three tables: the group of men chatting to his left, the lone smoker to his right, and a table behind him, a threesome with cards, pencils and a game board. They were all humans. Some he ever recognized as the club’s regulars.
“Nothing out of place here,” Marion whispered.
“Maybe you just ought to-” He paused, then tapped on his shoulder again. “Marion.”
There was a firmness in Jarvis’s voice and a strong smell of tobacco from the edge of Marion’s eye. He turned and saw the lone smoker standing next to him. He was taller than he had looked from afar, and more menacing, with the scar running under his eye and through his closed lips. The man narrowed his eyes, but not at Marion, at his shoulder.
He took a drag out of his cigarette and blew it out right above them. Marion blinked, couldn’t quite catch at first sight, but then realised that the smoke made a shape. It looked vaguely like a man, with a blob on something with eyes on his shoulder.
“You… you can see him?” Marion said, quietly. He stole glances at Cheryl, but she was still busy on the bar, talking to the barista.
The man nodded. He blew out a smoke again and this time it made a word in the air.
“I…” Marion looked for his words. “Yes. He’s a ghost, from what I’ve heard.” Jarvis was quiet on his shulder.
The man waved his hand and instead of dissipating, the smoke rearranged itself.
He pointed at Marion.
“Yes, I’m a Hunter. My name’s Marion. Who are you?”
The man shook his head. He pointed to his two eyes, then gestured to the entired room. He took another drag and blew out a smoke. This time it made the shape, vaguely but also clear as day, of a razer claw clipping through paper.
It didn’t take longer for Marion to catch on. “A ripper?” he said, keeping his voice low. “You’re looking for one too?”
He nodded, his eyes grave. He put his arm across his chest, a sign that Marion could only guess as an agreement of solidarity, and took his leave just as Cheryl came back with her tray.
“Friend of yours?” she chided, setting the two steaming cups down.
“Yes, I suppose.” Marion couldn’t help looking at the strange man. He was back on his seat, his great eyes searching the room. “I’ve never seen him before, but I think we have the same line of work.”
“I see,” Cheryl said, settling down. “Then tell me if I get this right. Your line of work involves zombie shift, a lot of secrecy, and colleagues so far apart you don’t usually get to know them.”
Marion had to think about it. He wasn’t sure how much he could tell, how much would screw them over if he tell. Cheryl would believe him even if he said that dragons and fairies and mythic monsters roam the earth today; her trust wasn’t the problem. There’s the Barrier Clause to think about.
“So far,” Marion started, forcing a little smile, “that sounds right. But the rest will surprise you.”
“Aww, and there’s no chance of surprising me, then?” Cheryl looked at him, straight to his eyes. Hers were fierce and a bright, sky blue, the sort that knew exactly what they wanted, and just how to break things to get it. Beautiful, also thank God he was with her because he did not want to be the enemies of those eyes. If only he could tell her everything; he wanted her and those fiery eyes to be by his side forever.
She relented her gaze, smiled at him. “Well, if you think so. I guess I’ll just wait and see.”
“Yes,” he said, feeling bubbly all of a sudden. “Thanks for not pushing it.”
They took a sip out of their cup each, started to talk of nothing in particular, but it wasn’t even five minutes until Jarvis tapped on his ward’s shoulder. “Marion. Look, that man.”
Reluctantly, Marion tore his sight away to the lone man in the corner. He was watching him, and the smoke on his head made a shape that could be a hand pointing to the side of the room. Marion looked that way and saw the doors to the bathroom.
Jarvis said, “I think he wants to meet you there.”
“-Andrew got me the armband. I’m still not sure what to think of him,” Cheryl was saying. Then she looked at Marion’s eyes and understood. “You’ve got things on your mind, again.”
“I’m sorry, darling.” He stood up and kissed Cheryl’s cheek. “I- ah, got business to do. In the loo.” He made his way to the bathroom door, hearing Cheryl’s delightful laugh as he left.
The man was already inside the room, when he came in, and he was staring at the painting. Was in a staring contest with the painting. The painting had always unnerved Marion, propped up there on the wall by the stalls and the washbasins. It showed a saxophonist, sitting on a titled chair, with eyes that always seemed to follow him wherever he went.
It was the first time that the eyes weren’t staring at him when he came into the room. They were fixed at the bigger man’s.
A moment passed, and then against all laws of still lifes, the painting’s eyes blinked. They turned to Marion with a look that could almost almost be embarrassment before Marion blinked and it reverted itself to simply looking like an unnerving painting.
The big man’s expression, when he turned around, was one of the extreme satisfaction. He was smiling, undeterred by the scar on his lip.
“Hey,” Marion said. “There’s something you want to tell me?”
He nodded, his face becoming serious in a second. He pushed a door open just a bit, just enough for the two of them to take a peek outside. Marion stole glances at Cheryl; couldn’t help it. She was still on the table, having her coffee. Her fingers tapped on the table rhythmically, a song in her head. Everyone else in the room was not much different than last he checked.
“Did you find anything?” Marion whispered.
Jarvis started, “I admit-“
The man tapped on his shoulder and pointed at the table with the four men chattering with themselves. They had pulled out a stack of cards and distributed them, playing some kind of game.
The man lowered his head until he was on level with Marion, and pointed again at the same set of men. Marion narrowed his eyes and looked, harder this time.
Four men, but only three piles of cards on the table. Three of them were holding their cards, and the fourth man-
Marion’s eyes opened wide.
He was wearing a black hood, his face hard to see in the light. His eyes, if they were there, were gazing at the rest of the room. Cheryl’s direction.
“Jarvis,” Marion said.
“Yeah. I think that’s it.”
In a blink of a movement, the hooded figure’s eyes turned to them. Marion saw a pair of yellow dots and a deep, unmistakeable sense of dread before his new friend pushed the door closed, gently.
“A Ripper, was that?” Marion asked.
The man nodded gravely. He blew out smoke from his mouth, and it made shapes over his head. A knife, and next to it something that could be a net.
The smoke rearranged itself, forming letters.
“I- Capturing it. Yes. That’s my job. But-”
Marion took a peek out the door, trying to get another look at the masquerading monster. The three card players were still on their table, laughing with each other. The fourth man was gone.
“Calm down, look!”
He scanned the room, but found nothing, no hooded figure or monster. Cheryl was still on her table, staring absent-mindedly at her coffee… No, his coffee. She was waiting, but she didn’t look upset, still some sort of smile on her face. Marion had to wonder what she was thinking about.
Another tap on his shoulder woke him up. The man’s bulky finger pointed at the space behind Cheryl’s back. Marion looked, and felt his heart tightening in his chest.
It wasn’t doing anything. It just stood there, hovering ominously behind her. It had stopped bothering to look like a hooded man, and now only looked like a vaguely humanoid shadow. She didn’t seem to notice, still in her own thoughts. Marion wanted to burst out of there and yell.
The man held him back, put his finger on his mouth. Quiet.
“What’s it gonna do?” Marion whispered, feeling panic in his voice. “Cheryl-“
And then it moved, its black mass shifting. Tendrils grew out of it and started to crawl around her head. At the sight of it, Marion burst out of the door and ran.
“Cheryl!” he called, which seemed to startle the creature.
“Marion? Took you long enough.” She gestured at his coffee, oblivious. “Still awake enough to talk?”
“Ah yes, about that.” He tried to keep himself calm, tried to not look at the Ripper behind her, which was easy, too easy to do. He smiled, grinned, anything to make it look like he knew what he was doing. “I… think we have to go.”
“Go?” Cheryl said, his eyes concerned, but stubborn. “Go where? Why?”
“Just. Anywhere. I think we should get some fresh air.”
She raised her eyebrows. “Does this have anything to do with that man earlier?”
Marion gave her a desperate, telling smile. “We really ought to just go“
He was taking her hand and she was just about to stand up when it happened. The Ripper’s dark mass shot out and wrapped itself around her, pulling her into its mass. She didn’t have time to scream, and Marion barely had enough time to notice and swerve out of the way as the creature shot out another part of its body, a giant sharp axe that crashed the table in front of them.
She was barely visible behind the Ripper’s growing black mass. The axe rose and reshaped itself. Marion jumped out of the way as it strike, breaking the floor. There were screams now, and people panicking on their way out as the creature’s black mass grew and grew into a mess of sharp spikes and tendrils.
“Dammit,” Marion cursed. He ran out of the way and pulled out a charm out of his belt bag. “Jarvis!”
“I called the control team. You got the green light. Go!”
Marion held out his hand and blew out a burst of chilling wind, hurling parts of the Ripper’s misshaped blade away as it tried to attack him. The restroom’s door slammed open and Marion’s bulky new friend emerged. He opened his mouth and the room seemed to vibrate, the air expanded, throwing the monster across the room. It shifted and hissed, reshaping itself back to position.
The man readied himself for another attack, a big one, and Marion ran and tackled him down. “No! There’s- Cheryl’s in there!”
The room was a chaos of broken tables and men running out of the door, with the Ripper’s black mass oozing through the air. It collected into clouds and rained daggers on the room, which Marion quickly tried to blow or block away with his wind.
The man opened his eyes and let out a barely audible screech, but it shook the room and caused the creature’s separated black ooze to burst like bubble, breaking apart the black clouds overhead. Its main body was still intact, however, constantly reshaping itself.
“Please,” Marion said. “My friend’s in that thing. I have to- Have to get her back first.”
The man frowned, but nodded. He made another smaller screech, which broke off the Ripper’s next volley of attacks. The people had dispersed, the music had been shut down, and there were only the three of them in the room. The creature’s black expanse grew, trying to surround the room.
“Jarvis, any idea?”
“A bit. Lemme see.”
It shot out a huge ball of black mass, and the two of them ran out of the way as it crashed, breaking the wall to the bathroom right open. The saxophonist eyes glared angrily at the creature, but Marion didn’t have time to be unnerved. He pulled out another charm out of his pocket. Electricity crackled through his fingers.
“We’ve got to hurt it. But I can’t risk hurting her.”
Jarvis mumbled. “Yeah, okay. See that-“
Another axe shot out of the creature, barely missing Marion’s ear. He reached out and pulled at its handle, concentrating the electricity on his hand at it. The weapon broke off with a snap like a radio exploding, and the creature let out an audible cry.
At that moment, something seemed to reach out of the black mass. Cheryl’s hand, clawing a way out, and then the darkness pulled it back.
Jarvis called out, “See! She’s still at the edge of the thing. I think this creature has its brain somewhere in its centre, see the part where his mass was concentrated?”
Marion saw. For all its reach and attacks, the blackness seemed to amass at one point. And then it attacked with another mass of knives, and Marion had to blow it out with another gust of wind.
“Hit the centre mass, and we can knock it out without hurting her,” he said.
“Yes. Try that.”
He pulled out another charms, but before he could ready it, the creature attacked again with its far-reaching tendrils. Marion shot back with a burst of fire, burning it out, but not quite enough to reach the creature’s centre. He readied it again, only to be attacked again and again. Dodging could only work so well until he was exhausted.
He found a safer corner at the edge of the room, behind an overturned table, and watched. On the other side, the man with the sound attacks were dealing on his own, breaking parts by parts of the creature’s attack, but having only as much luck as Marion had. It was getting bigger, and was looking like it was getting less and less bothered by their fight.
“Distract it,” Jarvis said.
“Huh?” A rake loomed above him, and Marion jumped out as it crashed down on the table that was no longer his shield. He swerved out of the way.
“Did you notice? When it was busy attacking him, it got kind of slack on us, and when it was on us, he was a bit slack on him. If you could-“
Another attack, another dodge and a gash on the wall. But Marion noticed. When it attacked him, his friend had enough time to ready another spell.
“If he can distract it long enough, you can get a precision attack ready.”
“Alright, but how are we-“
Marion blew a burst of fire at the creature’s attack. And then, in an act that he thought was one of brilliance, he used his other hand to reshape the smoke that resulted, creating something that only vaguely looked like words in the air.
“Nice,” Jarvis said, then seeing the smile in Marion’s face, “Don’t get too cocky.”
“Think he got it?”
He couldn’t see the man clearly from where he was, but as he dodged the creature’s next attacks, he could tell that they weren’t as hard as before. He pulled out a charm, readied his attack as he sidestepped the daggers and tendrils and small axes. Energy rushed through his arm, an electric smell emanated from his fingers. Within seconds, lightning streaked through the remaining light bulbs on the ceiling. They congregated right above the Ripper’s central mass and crash down on it with a loud bang.
It screamed an unearthly screech. The man blew out a wind the strength of a small hurricane, and, weakened, the creature’s black mass started to recede. Marion could see Cheryl’s hand reaching out. He ran close before the creature could regain itself and pulled her hand. The first thing he saw was Cheryl’s fierce, crazed eyes as she emerged from the darkness, and then they stumbled out together, hitting the broken floor as they fell.
Marion stared, not believing how happy he was to see her in one piece. She was above him, her eyes bloodshot and furious with something that could be a dagger in her hand.
“Marion!” she rasped out, her voice not at all as relieved and more like she was ready to stab him.
“Cheryl! Are you okay?”
A spike flew and stamped itself at the floor a few inch next to them, reminding them that they were in a warzone. Marion rushed up and put himself between her and the creature. It was weakened, but still alive enough to attack. He pulled out another thing out of his pocket and threw it down on the floor, where it exploded into a wall of fire. It should be enough to keep it out, he figured. He turned to his lover. “You need to get out of here.”
“Like hell I am,” Cheryl shot back. She brandished the dagger thing on her hand, a broken piece off the Ripper’s mass. “That thing is going to pay for what it did.”
“No, Cheryl, please.” Marion took a step forward. To his utter surprise, Cheryl swung her dagger at him. There was a wild look in her eyes.
And then she noticed the newly-made gash in Marion’s arm, and her expression shattered. She stared wide-eyed at the thing in her hand, at the room around them, the Ripper’s other broken pieces lodged into walls and melting into the shadows. She chuckled. “Would you look at that. You did surprise me after all.”
She turned back to him, the wall of fire behind him and the creature wriggling behind it. “So this is what your zombie shifts are? Risking your live, fighting monsters?”
He nodded sadly. “Cheryl, please. You have to go.”
The fire barrier was weakening, and Cheryl saw at the corner of her eyes, one of the Ripper’s tendril reaching in. Something snapped again in her mind, and she dashed in a way that she didn’t expect and cut the thing down, just as it was reaching for Marion’s neck. It broke off easily, but leaving a horrific sound in her ears, a memory she didn’t want to receive again.
Her eyes were dark for a second, and she swung her dagger at the direction of the voice. She would have cut her lover’s head off if it wasn’t for a soundless wave in the air that knocked her across the room.
Marion stared in disbelief as Cheryl hit the wall and fell down unconscious. “What-“
Jarvis shouted, “Look out!”
Marion blew out a burst of fire above him, incinerating another of the Ripper’s axe. He did the same to the next attack, and the next, creating a bigger and bigger fire each time. The other man restrung the air, and the smoke and the fire curled themselves around the creature’s central receding mass. It howled then, a sound that was something of fury and desperation, but could also be with a hint of triumph. Marion didn’t want to think about it. He let out another stream of fire from his hand, creating a bigger inferno. The creature screamed as its centre caught on fire.
“Marion.” Jarvis said, his voice firm. “Stop it. That’s enough.”
Marion readied another volley in his hand, but then he noticed his new friend’s eyes looking at him, shaking his head. He stopped, stared at the flame and the dwindling black mass trapped inside of it, and sighed. He pulled out a small crystal ball out of his pocket and threw it into the flame.
It expanded into a bubble that engulfed the creature, or what was left of it. They floated in the air, a bubble of trembling black mass, and then popped, as if out of existence. Only the blazing fire was left, and the two man trying to catch their breath in the burning room.
“Good job,” Jarvis said.
Marion turned to find Cheryl, but she was no longer there. They were the only people in the entire room. For a second he panicked, and the fire behind him seemed to burst bigger.
“Marion. Calm down. She’s probably already outside.”
The room was burning and it was getting harder to breath. Two big hands came to his shoulder, and the big man half pushed, half carried him out of the scorching room. There was nothing but fire and smoke inside now. The cold night air blasted to their face as they came outside.
Marion fell on the pavement, only then noticing how horribly exhausted he was. His arm ached. The gash that Cheryl gave him was bleeding, and it felt worse than any wound he’d ever had.
A lean blue hand touched his arm. A familiar voice spoke, and within seconds, the wound closed itself, the pain receded. Marion looked up and saw someone she least expected to see there that night. Her bronze hair blew in the wind.
“Ashley,” he managed to speak.
“Quite a mess you made here, huh?”
On the pavement around them the worker imps were right at work, dousing the flame with their water spells, keeping the street lights on and the blinkers on windows down. The five-and-four-legged brainwashers worked on treating the humans who were there, cleaning up their memories, replacing the bits that weren’t supposed to be there. The big man, the other Hunter whose name he’d never caught, had a great blanket draped on his shoulder. He looked at Marion and smiled.
Ashley hummed, a warm, not unsubtle tune, and the ache on Marion’s leg disappeared. She helped him up. “Congratulations, tiger,” she said. “Another rogue vanquished.”
“Ah, yes. Thanks.” He scanned the crowd. The three men, the two girls from the bar, a couple more people who were all in the club when it happened. The brainwashers were working on them, the worker imps and elves talking soothingly to each of them. But none of them had Cheryl’s jet black hair or her fierce blue eyes (he paused, thinking of her eyes, and how dangerous they had looked when he pulled her out of the Ripper’s black mass).
“Where’s Cheryl?” Marion asked, panic rising in his voice. “Where’s- she can’t still be in there!”
The room roared as water was doused on it, its flame dissipating and leaving charred walls and black windowsills. Marion wanted to run in there and see, but Ashley held his hand. “Don’t. They’re still cleaning it up.”
“It’s all right. We did a scan. There’s no one in the building.”
“No one alive or just-“
Jarvis whispered in his ears. “Marion.”
“You, shut up. Ashley, please.”
“Marion. There’s a back door,” Jarvis said, intently. “Cheryl told you about it. She might left through there instead.”
“Tiger?” Ashley held on, her voice soothing.
Marion listened as Jarvis told him the directions, then turned to Ashley, “It’s okay. I’m not going anywhere. Just, wait here.”
He ran all around to the back where she found an alley between buildings. It was dark inside, and he heard her before he could see. Her breathing was quick and uneasy. Exhausted, but not tempered.
It took a while for Marion to get used to the dark, and then he saw her, crouching down in a corner, next to a door that led to the smouldering building. She looked up at him as he came by, her eyes still wild but not as dangerous as it had been. She was still clutching the dagger from earlier. Somehow it hadn’t disappeared along with its old master.
“Marion,” she said first. She looked at his arm and was visibly surprised to see it unwounded. “What just happened?”
“I… It’s…” Marion looked down at the concrete, couldn’t find the courage to see her eyes. “You have to come with me. There’ll be people that can help.”
“Help? Help me how? I don’t want to forget everything.”
Marion didn’t know how to answer to that.
“I know what happened wasn’t- It was real, Marion. You can’t tell me otherwise.” Her voice quivered. She looked at the dagger in her hand. “I want to know everything. What you do, how dangerous it is, just how bad this world really is.”
She turned the dagger around in her hand, then sighed. She wrapped it with a handkerchief from her pocket—it hissed, not unpleasantly, as she did so—and stood up, unsteadily. Marion tried to help her up but she pushed him away.
“Cheryl-” he started, then saw the look in her eyes. They had the same fierce determination she always had when she knew exactly what she wanted. Whatever it was, she was going to get it. But he also the scar and God knows what else the Ripper had left inside of them, and he suddenly felt very scared.
“I’m sorry,” he said. “Love, you need help.”
“Marion?” Ashley’s voice called from the end of the alley. “Are you there?”
Before Marion could think, Cheryl pulled him close and kissed him. It was short and heartfelt and sweet, like the shy kiss he had given her on their first night out. It lasted only a second, but he wished it lasted forever.
She let go first. “If you love me,” she begun, no longer quivering but firm and sure of what she was going to do, “don’t tell them about me.”
“Cheryl, I-” He sighed. “You know I love you.”
She smiled, sincerely. It was beautiful even under the strange fierce light in her eyes. “I love you too, lion. Stay alive for me.”
And then she was gone, running soundlessly in the other direction, through the nook and crannies of the city’s walkways, unhindered by the crooks and shadows inhabited by the non-human, the monsters, his people.
Ashley came up behind him and held his hand. “Marion, what is it?” she asked, gently. “Who were you looking for?”
Marion shook his head. “It’s nothing. Forget about it. Please.”
She gazed at his face with her red bright eyes, questions forming in her tongue, but then relented. “Hmm. Okay, then. You should get back. Get some rest. They’ll want to ask you some questions, tomorrow.”
“Yeah.” He let her led him back to the streets, the lights. They’d be almost done with the clean up now. The day papers tomorrow would just had another report of a fire in the local pub, caused by an accident.
Jarvis came up on his shoulder. “Are you all right, Marion?”
“Yeah, I’m fine, Jarvis,” he said, not minding that Ashley could hear him. She’d know, she wouldn’t think that he was talking to himself.
“Will Cheryl be fine? Are you sure you did right?”
“I’m sure. She’s strong, she’ll be fine.” He looked down to the ground, then up at the night sky. It was dark and starless, with clouds rolling in from the south. It might rain soon, covering up the tracks from the event that night. No one else would notice something out of the ordinary.
Marion muttered, “What a night.”
From his shoulder, Jarvis sounded just as tired. “Sure was, Marion.”
“An unusual night, was it?” Ashley asked, her voice comforting, her hand still holding on to his.
“Yes. It was.”