Rick used to make a living selling medicine to plague doctors. He once watched a patron stuff his beak with camphor, rose petals, and laudanum using gloved hands, while explaining that the aromas would spare him from miasmatic air. The doctor had spoken with confident authority, and Rick believed him. It seemed to be as good an explanation for the plague as anything else.
The doctor slid the mask over his face, donned his fedora, and departed to treat the dying.
A few weeks later, Rick passed a pyre of bodies and saw his former customer at the top of the pile. The doctor’s neck below the mask was riddled with buboes. His robes curled with flame. The mask’s long beak was cracked.
It was about then that Rick realized that humans were deeply stupid creatures.
He avoided Earth for a few hundred years after that. The market for human trinkets was good in Hell at the time, considering that there was no reliable way to travel between the dimensions, and he eked out a decent living.
The next time he set foot in a mortal city on the planes of Earth, those deeply stupid animals had somehow created heavy machines that could drive at unimaginable speeds, and they allowed anyone to do it. It was lunacy. Or idiocy. Or very possibly both.
He wanted nothing to do with them.
But his passport had expired, so it was too late for Rick to go back to Hell. He picked a town, bought a shop, and hadn’t left it since—not once.
Rick watched through the window as his newest assistant accepted a shipment, gnawing on his claws with jagged teeth. Jerica was taking her sweet time signing for those crates. She was a nightmare too, though much younger than Rick, newly substantiated and still marveling at the wonders of her corporeal form. She seemed to enjoy using it to flirt with the delivery driver.
What if that blasted truck rolled over and killed her? It had been hard enough finding one assistant. He didn’t want to find a replacement, too.
The shopkeeper kept an eye on the empty street as Jerica continued to talk with the driver, who didn’t seem concerned about the possibility of being killed on the sidewalk, either. She pointed at the boxes, then tipped her head back and laughed. Laughed!
Rick couldn’t watch. He just couldn’t. It was too much for his constitution to handle.
He returned to the counter of his drugstore and took a shot of cactus juice to settle his cramping gut. It tasted like ass, and Rick knew ass. They considered human anuses to be a gourmet treat in Hell. The cactus was definitely worse. But it did good things for his stomach.
Moving away from the window didn’t keep him from worrying over his assistant. He could watch Jerica on the blurry monitor hanging over the locked case of condoms. And watch her he did. Rick worried about that girl.
Eventually, after what felt like hours, the bell over the door chimed. His nightmare assistant backed into the shop carrying one of the crates on her shoulder.
“What is this? It’s heavy.” Jerica crouched to set it on the cracked linoleum.
He wrung his hands. “Do you think you took long enough?”
“What, are you having a rush of business in here?” She popped a bubble of gum and sucked it into her mouth again. “Relax. Being nice never hurt anyone.”
“You would be surprised,” Rick said darkly, thinking of plague doctors and blackened extremities. Jerica moved to open the crate, but he slammed a hand on the wood to stop her. “What do you think you’re doing?”
“Checking the shipment. Don’t you want to make sure we’ve got everything?”
“Not up here, where we can be seen through the windows,” he hissed. “Downstairs!”
Rick took the first crate to the basement while Jerica retrieved the other two.
The space beneath his shop was dim, narrow, and had a low ceiling. He still occasionally smacked his forehead on the beams, even after seventy-five years. His desk and reclining chair occupied one corner; the rest of the floor was filled with boxes of inventory.
He kicked a space clear for the crates and directed her to stack all three on top of each other. Then, and only then, did he lift the lid on one to examine the contents. It was filled with egg cartons, each of which protected twelve small, glowing cubes.
“Lethe?” Jerica asked, sounding wholly unimpressed.
“Mind yourself. This is a special order.”
She jutted a hip. With her asymmetrical haircut, scalloped tunic, and cocky stance, she looked more like an abstract geometric painting than a teenage girl. “Rick, man, you know I love you…”
He smashed the lid onto the crate again. “Ha.”
“…but anyone making special orders of lethe is not someone you should be dealing with. I mean, drugs? Demon drugs? You know what this stuff does to people?”
“It does nothing to people,” he said, unfazed by her attempt at showing concern for him. “Only demons. I don’t question the orders, and neither should you.”
A quick scan showed that every cube was in its proper place, and in good condition. Rick still had an intake bracelet somewhere, probably at the bottom of his laundry pile. Maybe the client would want to drop a couple together. He hadn’t been on a trip in a long time—literally or figuratively.
His assistant watched him replace the lids with disapproval. “Rick…”
“Get on out,” he said, shooing her upstairs. He locked the basement door behind them. “Go on. Get.”
She sighed. “Maybe I should stay and help you with this.”
“Your shift ends in fifteen. I’m not paying overtime. I told you, get on out.”
“You don’t have to pay me.”
But he pushed her toward the door, and she could hardly fight against him. Especially when he exerted the strength of millennia against her dozen or so years. “Careful on your way home. Stay out of the streets. And watch for those cars!”
Her lips stretched so wide from ear to ear that he could see the wad of gum pressed between two yellowed molars. “Nobody’s going to run me over on the way. But if you’re really worried, you could walk me home.”
“You’re funny. Just so fuckin’ funny.”
He shut the door in her face, but considering it was a glass door, it didn’t do much good. He saw her mouth moving on the other side: Be careful. Okay?
Then Jerica faded into the shadows, slipping across the street without touching the pavement, and reappeared under a streetlight. She waved at him before dancing into darkness once more.
Rick sat on his stool behind the counter and found his paperback under a folder of ledgers. Since he didn’t sleep, all he had was free time, and Rick read a lot. Despite being dumb animals, humans were good with stories. He was in the middle of “The Billionaire’s Busty Bride.” The pages curled under his long fingers.
Soon, he was so absorbed that he didn’t look up when the bell over the door jingled. Footsteps shuffled in.
“Leave your bag outside,” he said, licking his thumb to turn the page. “No backpacks.”
The silence that followed his order had weight to it. Rick glanced up. The customer was a tall guy in a leather jacket with a spiked iron band wrapped around his forehead. He was ugly, even by a nightmare’s standards: smashed nose, sausage lips, lined face. Flecks of dried blood were peeling off his leathery skin like he hadn’t washed his face since his last meal of manflesh.
Zohak slammed his fists on the counter. “Where is it?” He had been on Earth for months, but his accent was miserable. Everything was still pronounced in the back of his throat, like he was about to spill out a tirade of Hell’s native tongue.
Rick folded the corner of his page, closed the book, and stuck it under the cash register. “All right, all right.” He shuttered the windows to block out the night. “This way.” Zohak lumbered down the stairs to the basement. His weight made the whole building creak. “No company this time?”
The demon-king glared over his shoulder. “I trust no one.”
“That wasn’t the story last time I saw you.”
“My fiends hadn’t been slaughtered last time.” Bitterness dripped from his growls.
Rick knew a subject he shouldn’t touch when he heard one. It didn’t matter if Zohak had his legion anyway. Only if he had money.
They opened the top crate. A silvery-blue glow splashed over their faces, highlighting the furrows on Zohak’s face. The demon-king’s eyes raked over the inventory.
“Is this all you have?”
“It’s all you ordered. Three stacks of lethe.”
Zohak towered over the nightmare, clenching his hands and baring his teeth. “I ordered five!”
Rick wasn’t impressed, but he was prepared. He whipped the ledger out of his back pocket and held it up. “Three stacks.”
The demon king deflated a little. Actually, he deflated a lot. He quivered, and his broad shoulders sagged. For an instant, an oily sheen obscured his red irises.
He moved to put the lid back on the crate, but Rick stopped him. “Payment?”
The king blinked, and the oily veil vanished from his eyes. “This one is on…” Zohak searched for the word. “Credit.”
Rick flapped the ledger. “No. It’s not.”
“I must sell this before I can afford to buy it.”
“What about the last batch you flipped?”
Zohak seemed to struggle with the words, but not because of the language barrier. “I… lost it.”
And with that, the overhead light bulb flickered.
A strange energy rolled through the basement, and Rick closed his eyes to focus on it. Weight pressed between the space where his shoulder blades should have been. It tasted like ancient papyrus, like the clouds in the sky, and he tried to swipe it from his tongue.
“Wait here,” he said, leaving Zohak with the inventory to head upstairs.
The intensity of the energy grew as he ascended. The air buzzed as though a low electrical current were vibrating through it.
Rick lifted the blinds. One by one, the streetlights dimmed and turned off, marching in a line from the end of the block toward his shop.
His security system beeped, drawing his attention to the monitor. The camera mounted outside his shop flickered, snowed, and cut out. Then the “Open” sign in the window turned off, followed immediately by the lights inside.
A power outage? The clouds were heavy with the promise of snow, but a single flake had yet to fall, and the air was completely still.
Tendrils of dread began creeping over him. “What in the seven hells?”
He willed his corporeal form away, focused on the window, and reappeared beside the warped glass with a thought. He peered into the night.
There was someone moving on the street. A woman.
Rick locked the door and stepped back. “Zohak! Incoming!”
The demon-king already stood at the top of the stairs, and his eyes blazed with red fire. Rick didn’t recognize the woman approaching on the street, but apparently he did.
It only took a moment for her to reach the entrance. Her hair was in a thick braid over one shoulder. There were straps at her shoulders, as though she wore a backpack. A college student?
The back door creaked, slammed, and Zohak was gone.
Rick phased to the counter. Grabbed his crowbar.
The woman rattled the door—locked. She raised her booted foot and slammed it into the glass. Shards rained onto the linoleum.
Rick shook his crowbar. “I’ll call the police!”
The woman reached behind her, and he realized belatedly that she wasn’t wearing a backpack at all. She had a spine scabbard with two swords. The one she drew had a short blade, barely longer than her forearm, and occult symbols etched into the metal.
Rick had heard of that blade, and the woman who wielded it. They called her the Godslayer.
No wonder Zohak had run.
She used it to beat away the remaining glass and ducked through.
“Didn’t you hear me?” Rick said, with somewhat less steam than before. She wouldn’t be impressed by the police. Rumor had it that they had tried to arrest her once, but she killed half the force, bewitched the others, and escaped without a mark on her permanent record.
The Godslayer straightened and shook glass out of her hair. So she wasn’t ten feet tall after all. Her eyes weren’t filled with angelfire, either. She looked… human.
He sent out a tendril of energy to sniff at her mind, but there was no hint of normal, brittle human emotions. It was like trying to penetrate a brick wall with a toothpick.
Rick wavered. Surviving in Hell for millennia had left him without a hint of pride. And Zohak hadn’t paid for his goods anyway.
He dropped the crowbar. “Out the back door. Just leave me be!” Then he threw himself behind the counter and covered his head.
That should have been it. The Godslayer didn’t want puny Rick—merely a nightmare, a petty hellborn immigrant of no great consequence—but she rounded the counter and seized him by the arm regardless. Her gloved fingers dug into the place a human would have had a bicep.
“You’re coming with me.”
She strode to the back door, kicked it open, and Rick realized what she was about to do an instant before he crossed the threshold. “No!” he cried, struggling in her grip. “I can’t—stop!”
His feet hit pavement, and he could barely breathe. Electrical lines ran through the air over his head. Dear Lord, what were those animals thinking? And there was a car parked in the alley, so who knew when it might start to roll—
The Godslayer, of course, was unimpressed by this human madness. And she wasn’t slowed by dragging a nightmare, either. She lifted his featherweight body from the ground and strode after Zohak.
She dropped Rick at the mouth of the alley. He tried to scramble back toward his shop, but she kicked him to the ground. Her boot sank into his spongy gut and left an imprint of the sole.
His back hit the car’s tire. It didn’t hurt, but he gave a strangled yell. “Please, please, I can’t be outside!”
“Where does Zohak den? Point me.”
Rick lifted a quavering finger, silently praying that she would leave him to return to his shop if he told her where Zohak lived.
But she seized an ankle and pulled him along with her.
She forced him to give directions all the way to the empty tattoo parlor Zohak inhabited. She even took him across thestreet—black pavement, orange lines, traffic lights, cars! He almost passed out.
They reached the back of the parlor shortly after the demon-king. Zohak scrambled over the chain link fence, and the Godslayer finally dropped Rick to follow.
She scaled it in two short motions, vaulted the top, and landed on top of Zohak. He grunted as they both fell to the pavement.
Rick searched wildly for another exit from the alley. Anything to get him home without crossing another street. But he was trapped, so he pressed against the wall, drew his knees to his ears, and prayed to long-dead gods for help.
He watched as the Godslayer and Zohak exchanged blows on the other side of the fence. Her strikes were fast and brutal. She went for the soft spots on his face, and when he exclaimed with pain, she ripped the crown from his head and flung it into the wall.
Fury blackened his visage. He threw her into the back door of the tattoo parlor and grabbed his crown.
For an instant, Rick could see nothing around the back of the demon-king, and then he heard a wet crunch, a feminine cry, and a guttural laugh.
Blood splattered on the asphalt inches from Rick. Mortal blood.
So she was human.
“Stupid,” Zohak said, hand clenched around her throat. “You should have known by now not to face me alone.”
Her voice was strained when she replied. “I’m not alone.”
The streetlights flickered. Turned off.
A massive shape hurtled out of the night sky and slammed into the pavement.
The shockwave rushed through the alley, expanding the air inside the dumpsters and making their lids bang open against the walls. Grates rattled. The smell of rotting produce filled the air.
Rick gagged, but not from the smell. He gagged on the energy. His throat closed as that crushing pressure weighed on him, his vision darkened at the edges, and he realized that at least some of the rumors about the Godslayer were true.
She had an angel bodyguard.
He was tall, willowy, and ageless, with coppery hair to his shoulders. Luminous blue eyes turned on Zohak as the angel straightened. Downy feathers drifted to the asphalt.
“Took you long enough,” the angel said with a delicate snort. He addressed the Godslayer. “Are you okay? You’re bleeding.”
“Don’t worry about it, Nukha’il.”
He inclined his head. “How can I help you?”
“Hold Zohak down.”
The demon-king’s eyes went wild. He darted for the fence, but the angel grabbed the back of his shirt and threw him into the Godslayer’s waiting arms.
She pinned him against the wall with a hand to his throat and her sword digging into his stomach. Nukha’il didn’t have to do anything. His presence was threat enough.
“How many times did I tell you to leave my city?” the woman asked.
“Bistak,” Zohak replied.
She shoved him to the ground and used her weight to pin him. Her bicep bled where he had injured her. Barely a scratch. “Tell me where your fiends are, and I’ll have Nukha’il escort you out of the city—out of the country.”
“They are dead. You killed them.”
She punched him with the hilt of her sword, and his head slammed against the pavement. One of his horns chipped. “Where are your fiends?”
“He’s telling the truth,” Nukha’il said. “He believes you killed them.”
Her sword wavered. “How did they die?” she asked Zohak, and her voice wasn’t quite as angry as it had been earlier.
“Deep beneath the city. There’s something down there.” He whimpered. “Something… black.”
“It came from the earth, from the rocks. A shadow with inertia.” His voice changed, deepened, as though he were speaking through an echoing cavern. “It came upon us. One by one, it devoured them, and then…” His face twisted. “And then it took me.”
Rick had heard the rumors. Creeping shadows, a hungry darkness, a change in the Warrens. Everyone said it was the Godslayer. They said she had unimaginable power.
But she exchanged glances with the angel, and her expression was genuinely confused. She didn’t know anything. That information would be worth money—if Rick could get home without dying.
She shook his jacket. “You’re lying, Zohak. You have to be. Where are your fiends?”
Zohak responded with a groaning cry. The inky shadow devoured his eyes again. His body shuddered, and his hands reached up to close around the Godslayer’s wrists.
The demon-king jerked her hands down and plunged the blade into his heart with a sickening crack.
She struggled to free herself, but it was too late. A black fog spilled from his chest, creeping up her blade.
With a shout, she dropped the sword and leaped to her feet.
The ichor spread over the sword and fountained over Zohak as he twisted on the ground. His eyes were wide open, and his mouth yawned in a silent cry. He sat up, hands gripping his chest, and tried to get to his feet as the shadow devoured the last of his flesh. A croak tore from his throat.
Rick’s heart beat a panicked tattoo. Forget the humans. Forget their technology. Forget their goddamn cars.
The nightmare leaped to his feet and ran.