by Noah Zachary
There's a hellhound on my trail, here on the county road. I had a run-in with him down a mile or so, and I got the scars to show for it. Bastard damn near lopped off my arm, this very one here, but I'm no casual dabbler in the occultic arts -- I picked a bit of wolfsbane off the road, got it in a pouch 'round my neck. I reckon that'll last for about an hour. An hour to get this curse off my back.
County road. Georgia. I can't turn the curse on my own, I reckon I don't know that magic. Lucky me -- there's a class of old women who always know these things, learned it from their mothers and their mothers afore them. 'Course, they don't do it for free, no free lunches, but I got the sorta money they take.
One brush with the hellhound nearly killed me. I don't mean for there to be no second -- not while it has the upper hand.
Wasn't too long before I reached a town, dingy place with tin roofs and empty-eyed people. Hungry people. The Depression hit 'em all hard, now all they got is unsown fields and empty factories. They stare at me drifting through, their hollow eyes watching me for the slightest touch of criminality. They won't find my crimes -- not the likes of them -- and I head straight for the less reputable part of an unrepeatable little berg. The quack doctors. The whorehouses. And, bigger than anything, the mystics. Folks who take tea with the devil.
Now, afirst thing you need to know about using mystics is how to pick out a good one. How to sort out the real deal from the hacks and crazies. Well first off, walk on by any moron with a crystal ball, the things don't work. Next off, if they have a big ol' MYSTIC sign, they're fake. Third thing is, don't trust 'em if they do anything else -- no mystic/general stores, no mystic/pharmacies. Exception is antique shops always got something freaky going on. Always.
So, as I drifted past Madam Baoli's Pharmacy of Wonders, I looked for that place. Place with no name, but it's got a quality to it ya can't put your finger on. It's got weird stuff for sale: no obvious theme, but it's all got something in common you can't quite identify.
I found a little shop sandwiched between a brothel and Doctor Wilhelm's Restoratorium ("Best Cures from across the World!"). The sign had worn away on this place, but it got that feeling going on. Lots of red, some Chinese stuff in the windows, tea cups and other things I couldn't name. Can't say I know why, but this was the place I was looking for, so I stepped in.
First thing that hit me was the smell of incense -- layered three feet thick, burning in little metal trays that hung from the walls. Dusty antiques crowded the floor, making it a bit of chore to blaze a trail through to a counter you could barely see for bein' piled with even more crap.
Now, if I told you I was totally broke, I'd only be half-lying to you. Yeah, I didn't have a cent of earthly money to my name, but on the flip side I had enough cash to pay my way through the other world.
I hit the bell at the desk; it rang loud and clear. Afore I had a moment to collect my senses, a young lady of Asia poked her head from under the counter. "Help you?"
She had an accent. She hid it -- badly.
"Yeah. I'm here to get some work done."
Her eyes narrowed on me. "Yes?"
I flicked a coin out of my sleeve, into my palm. Not like any coin you've ever seen: it was color of lavenders, with an arcane design on either side. This is the money of the mage, made of metal, light, and a few errant strands of God's own miracles. The woman's eyes went between me and the coin.
"What you want done?" she spat out. I could read the disdain, she reeked of it. Trusted me as far as she could throw me -- but hell, I couldn't care one mote less.
"Lookin' to break a curse." I leaned on the counter, tapping my boot. Find that makes people more urgent.
"That dangerous. Need more."
"Bargaining? Cute. But I reckon you ain't the girl I need to talk to. Cuz frankly... I'd rather talk rates with the mistress of the house. Yeah?"
"You talk to me."
Now, this here was a contest of wills. Her eyes were like points of coal, mine no different -- like to think so, anyway.
"Enough, Lin." Creaky old voice, from far in the back. An old lady, real old like a hundred years old, climbed out of the dark. "Send him back."
They had a rapid chat in their language before Lin stepped aside -- with a look fit to kill, might I add -- and I headed back with the lady. She didn't have the look of natural age about her. She was a little too unhunched, a little too fast not to have fiddled with the supernatural.
We stepped into her room -- plain enough with a bed and dresser -- if not for the cauldron and open fire set into the middle. Foreign letters ran a ring around the hearth, making a complete circle. Didn't bother to ask; asking a mystic about her ways is a bit like asking a lady her age.
"So. A curse."
Her English was better than the girl's. Seems backwards...
"Yep. Someone sicced a hellhound on me, don't know why. Need to find out who did it and the name of the dog."
"You aren't just a musician."
I leaned over to her. "Would you believe me if I said I was just a debtor?"
She got the code. They always do. I reckon she's met wandering debtors few dozen times before. Those of us stupid enough to cut deals with demons. Nearly the worst of mankind -- just a few feet shy of rock bottom. Close enough to see the worst of the worst.
Well, if she wanted to she could. Can't say it's too pretty -- a pentacle carved into my chest, three of the five points filled in with burn scars, a circle running around the rim.
"Ma'am, with all due respect, it was excruciating."
"I think I know who sent it after you."
I frowned. This old bat crazy or was she for real?
"Wouldn't help you much to know."
"Feh. Can you do that work or not?"
"Yes, yes, don't be so pushy. Give me the ward."
Only thing I had of the hellhound's lay in the pouch around my neck. The dog had been burning away the wolfsbane ward by fractions of an inch -- and that ash from the burnin'? The cosmos counted it as his. Enough to learn who sent him and his real devil-given name, more than enough to do 'im in.
Of course, then I'd have no ward. Not that I wanted one -- once I knew his name I could fight him.
"What will you pay?" Well, it always came down to cash, eh? I drew a mage's coin from my pocket.
"This oughta cover whatever you ask, lady." I flipped it over to her -- along with the pouch of wolfsbane
With a swipe of her arm the coin vanished into her sleeve, the pouch into her clawish hand. "Hmm. Enough for the girl too."
"Can't give you change, so I give you the girl instead."
"I don't want her!"
"Rent on temporary basis, then. If I take more than give, I get in big trouble."
"Look, keep the change --" I didn't have time or patience to drag a sullen Chinese girl around town with a hellhound after us both!
"No. The girl goes with you, or I have to make up the difference in blood."
You can never tell with these mystics. One might rob you blind, another might want a lock of hair or a bit of skin -- or a tooth. Most take mage-coins, but almost none are as "fair" as this lady was.
"Look... just trace the dog, OK?"
The lady tossed the pouch into her cauldron, and afore my very eyes I saw it burst into brilliant green flames. Smoke rose up -- I couldn't see the mystic's face through it -- and I watched strange unknowable shapes gather in the cloud. Couldn't begin to tell you what mighta been in there, but it ain't my job to know.
"He's waiting in the graveyard, 'cross the river's way."
The smoke wafted out the window and the flames died into nothing. Only a bit of ash left where my ward used to be.
"The dog is named Cerberus. He's coming; now go with girl before I have to shed blood to make up the difference."
Yeah, yeah. I figured I could dump her somewhere before I headed to the graveyard and sorted out whoever had the balls to try and take on the likes of me. I found little Lin hanging around outside the door -- with damn near the foulest expression I ever did saw. "I get my things," was all she had to say to me. Gonna be a long night, I thought.
I had small mercies, even though I had a pissed-off girl walking next to me and a hellhound's smell on the air. She knew the yard in question, and even though I'd lost my ward the dog knew I had its name, it wouldn't be able to turn me into a stain on the floor without a fight. I kept catching it out of the corner of my eye, stalking on the tin roofs with blazing eyes and burning claws.
Better yet, we was right on the waterfront, deep and dark and flowing past. Now that the sky had really gotten dark, and the full moon was shining down on us, a new changeling town switched in for the old one. Bright lights from saloons and brothels, dirty doves hanging off of balconies with sultry eyes, drunkards parading in the streets, few street musicians plucking their guitars -- whole new world wakes up at night.
Lin was not pleased in the slightest, but here I was in my element. But first, to set that damned dog runnin'.
Plan's simple enough. Stash Lin somewhere, find a nice secluded patch of shore, and then send him for a drink. As easy as letting it blunder in after a nice long charge. So I found a good spot, lit up, and waited. I put Lin some ways off, watching. I was all smiles, waiting to sort it out and follow it to daddy.
Didn't expect it to fall on me from on high. Leapt right off a building, straight down, all roars and howls. I only had long enough to move myself out of instant death range. The hellhound slammed down, cracking the stone pavement. I scrambled up, cursing the day of my birth, the thing fast on my trail. 'Course, he ain't the only guy with hellfire. Took only a thought to raise my hand and call on the power of my debt.
A jet of flame erupted from my hand. Not the most elegant solution -- woulda been better to call up divine miracles to wipe him clean off the earth -- but when you pit like 'gainst like you need raw firepower. Sometimes, only way to stop a fire is more fire.
My counterpunch knocked it up on its hind legs, roarin' with pain in a howl fit to freeze your soul. But it got back on me, hot on my heels as I hurled more and greater fire at it, jets of flame that carved through the air to strike him 'cross the snout and back. The lights were quite something to behold. The heat blasting. The magical forces involved could crush the average Joe off the street in a second flat.
So, plan B. It's only natural that the destructive forces at work here will wear away everything around us. Say, the concrete we're standing on. And when that's done, well...
There was a crack deep beneath us. The hellhound, stupid creature it is, only now figures out the game. The concrete fails, and the ground vanishes beneath us, melted or shattered. 'Course, as a child o' Hell myself, I'm not such a great fan of water. Don't look at me like that, I had a plan -- I just use a bit of magic called the Cables. Bunch of ropes leap out of my sleeve and grabbed the nearest ledge -- one of the many perks of bein' a debtor.
The hellhound plunged into the drink, turning from a blazing wolf of lava and brimstone into a slug of mud, rock, and water. That little mess of a creature sank like a stone, powerless, as I clung to the edge.
Didn't think it would have enough strength to throw a last, desperate claw at my cables. Cutting them. Sending me in after it.
See, when you're a debtor, you always got something you can't deal with no more. Maybe you can't eat spicy foods. Maybe you can't walk on churchgrounds. Maybe you aren't allowed to drink anything but water or eat anything but bread. Varies in how bad it is, but I got it only medium: can't swim. At all. Sink like a brick. So even as I scrabbled for something, anything, to grab and scramble up to air an' solid land, I panicked.
I won't die here! Not like this!
All in all, I couldn't let go of my life right then, not a single second of it. Cuz, even with all I've been through, I still got a right proper debt to pay. But no one came to rescue me. I sank... and sank... and sank...
I became debtor, oh, fifteen years ago. In the middle of the Great War. Just a rifleman, black folk don't get to be officers, but I did my job and they paid me on time. So happened I was out in the far north, fighting knee-deep in snow. All I had to lose was my life; reckon I don't have any family, certainly none I know, so I did as I pleased.
In this case, out in the woods, surrounded by the damn Krauts on all sides. And it wasn't until I got shot I realized that I ain't wanting to die. Even as I pulled my revolver and shot from where I lay, fighting back as my brothers got cut down around me. So, when all of us was dead, and the Huns wandered the field lookin' for wounded to finish off, my prayer went out -- I don't want to die. I don't want to die. I don't want to die.
But God didn't hear my prayers. A little imp from hell picked 'em up. She showed up in a dress of brilliant red, with eyes the clearest blue and lovingly curled blonde hair. I reckon she shows whatever watchers want to see, and that was what I wanted right then. She sat down next to me, spreading her skirt around her to cover her milky-white thighs.
And she said, "So, young man, if the God of the stars has cast you aside, care to make a deal with us, who linger in the void?"
Terms were simple. I'd owe them a few things -- wouldn't say what, had to figure that out myself -- and 'til I paid my dues I'd find myself at certain disadvantages. Couldn't swim. Couldn't rest. Be hated by all those who worship the God of the stars. Be beholden to the Kings of the Void for whatever bizarre thing they want me to do.
But, looks like they lost their investment.
They'd never see their money back, now that my soul was flying out to wherever souls go. Nowhere nice, I reckon. I imagine I was headed somewhere they can't follow, not even those damn Hadesians. But, hell, they probably accounted for it, saw it coming. They're bankers and rich men out in the dark, they expect certain losses. Suspect my immortal soul's just a number on a chart in the end.
Course, they always has insurance.
I felt a Cable snake around my legs, then my arms too, and faster than you can blink I burst out of the water, hacking and coughing. Cables pulled away, under the coat of one Lin.
When my lungs finally emptied themselves out, I dragged onto my legs. She surprised me -- helped me up to lean against the wall. "You're one too, eh?"
"Yes." She nodded. As I watched, she opened her shirt and showed me her star -- only one point filled. Still smoldering, at that; the marker had just been burned into her. "Made deal to stay alive."
"Did pretty much the same thing myself." I watched as the hellhound, now just a muddy slug, crawled out of the water. "You just paid off a bit."
"Saved you. Must have been part of debt."
"Ha. Seems like your dear old gran gave you the chance to pay it. Lucky lucky."
"You not so stupid as you look."
Yeah, I'm not. Truth is, I reckon that grandma back there is about as human as a feral dog. No, no... more like a demonic insurance man. Wove two threads of fate together, if you'd excuse the poeticness. Hell, damn thing probably has oracular vision at that! This is why I hate precogs...
Well, now that Lin and I were on a level, we appropriated a boat some ways down and crossed the river. The former hellhound wasn't movin' too quick now, just sliding along in the mud, so we had a pleasant moonlit stroll on the nicer side of town. Didn't get too many looks -- there are plenty of old grans who wouldn't like seein' a black man and a yellow lady together, but they musta been asleep hours ago.
What do ya mean I'm off topic? This is important!
Anyways, we followed it all the way to a graveyard of a rather spooky description. Had the works -- old tombstones, so old they couldn't be read; creepy angel statues without arms, big old church with the walls falling down. I reckon there must have been at least six hundred years of despair built in that old place, but not a drop of holiness to be found. The rusty gate opened with a mighty creak as I shoved it for Lin, but I only got a roll of the eyes for my most gentlemanly conduct.
The slug crushed itself down to fit under the double-doors of that dismal church, big oaken things that could crush a man by fallin' over. They ambled open, and that's where I saw him -- I saw myself.
Shoulda seen it coming, I suppose. She told as much, when I cut the deal. "Of course, you know the downside. You will now have two bodies -- one wholly beyond your control and acting entirely against you. It is the nature of hell to split things from their natural opposites, you know. So we created him... and, one day, he will haunt you."
And there he was, receiving the slug into his arms, his face twisted into a mockery of fatherly love. He caressed it gently, accepting into his arms like a child, and it vanished into his sleeve. He glanced up at me, still grinning falsely. Looks like something a demon would make: something that had all the trappings but none of the soul, a clockwork kind of man.
"Hello, me," the fraud said, pleasantly.
"You ain't me."
Lin looked between us, face blank with horror and confusion.
"Oh, but I am!"
"You look like me. Ain't disputin' that."
"I reckon I see your point. This town ain't big enough for the two of us!"
Probably heard that in some hacky picture show and spat it back out, thinkin' it sounded human. They made it that way, always tryin' to fit in with us, but never quite succeedin'.
"Yeah." I say. "Lin, watch my back."
"You gonna fight it? I help."
"Nah, nah, just make sure we ain't disturbed." The Cables emerged from my coat. "This is part of my payment, lord knows why the demons made a fake me so I could destroy it fifteen years down the line, but that's how they think."
Lin scowled, but nodded.
Across the way, the faker called up his own Cables, writhing in the air.
"There can only be one of us. Me," it said, cheerful as a pig in shit.
"Nah. There only is one of us. And you ain't it."
We flew at each other. I refused to perish there -- not and miss my next payment! And as we struck and flung hellfire into the air, destroying every support of that there church, I lost myself to the power of the void coiling through me. Jets of fire snaked through the air, Cables twisted and grabbed. I called up magic I ain't never used on another mortal before, stuff I can't even describe. I summoned gates to cosmic voids to devour him, my own hellhounds and demon-ravens.
Can ya even think about the kinda magic being thrown around in that there church? Can ya even picture what was at work? I reckon you can't. Everythin' you done been taught about magic came straight from the mouth of Father O'Malley and dour University men. Naw, naw... this is real magic. More feeling than thought, more will than oh-so-eloquently stated incantations.
We're talking monsters that haven't known the light o' the sweet stars since the last destruction of the earth, man.
Every second, the only thing that stood between me and a fiery death was the atom-thin power of a shield I spent every moment forcing to stand, one blow o' the horn away from bein' Jericho. We lit up the night like it was day! All while the drunks of the village ooh'd and ahh'd from afar, wondering what blasphemy had slouched outta the Void tonight.
Huh? You wanna know who won?
Hmm... I reckon I did. But then again, why b'lieve me one way or 'nother? I could be the fake one or the fake one could be me! Heh... I reckon you can't know, now can ya?
© 2010 Noah Zachary
Bio: Noah Zachary describes himself as 'a Northern Californian who dreams of writerly glory'. He is a cat person (i.e., a person who is owned by one or more cats), a pianist, and a fan of the band Traffic.
E-mail: Noah Zachary
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