This story originally appeared in the Superhero Monster Hunter Anthology
Today I would kill the demon, or he would kill me; but one of us would be drifting away from this coil and onto the next. Either way, maybe I could finally get some rest.
I followed the trace spell, pushed my way into some shop that sold steeped beverage. The occupants looked up, wrinkling their noses before turning back to whatever black mirror gadgets possessed their attention. I’d been getting lazy. These last four worlds had been similar enough that they all blurred together. Maybe a world and a half ago I’d stopped caring: about my appearance, about learning the nuances of polite society; about everything that wasn’t the hunt.
The demon sat in the corner, flirting with a serving girl. None of the innocents here could see it as it really was: the eyes like holes to nowhere. The teeth like burning ice. The whole ecosystem of etheric parasites that writhed from their holds all over its body. All they saw was the shell it road, an ordinary ‘man’ exuding the mundane power of this place: apparent wealth, fame, confidence. A successful celebrity enjoying everything this world could offer.
Two men in crisp black clothing stood nearby. Thickset bodyguards, armed and ready. Could I do this without killing them? Maybe a distraction… maybe a moment where the demon was dealing with a biological function?
The monster turned its attention away from the girl, stood, and waved over to me.
“Oh, hello! Here, come have a seat and a coffee. My treat.”
“Uhhh, I think you’re mistaken. I don’t know you.” I stammered, unready to make my move. I backed away towards the exit.
“Nonsense! Please, join me.”
No obvious traps, besides the two armed men. Wary, I moved forward and pulled up a chair; if nothing else it would be easier for me to take a shot. Although the thought didn’t comfort me since I had no idea what the demon was planning. The girl walked away as I approached. I mumbled in a low voice, weaving strands of protection around myself. The guards grabbed me, forced one of my arms up and groped around my side.
“Hey, hey!” I exclaimed, readying myself to tuck and roll backwards.
The demon stood, put a hand on one of the guard’s shoulders. “Chris, Jerry. It’s ok. Me and Mr. Hunter here go way back. It’s fine.”
The men backed off, resumed their positions of vigilance. I reset my coat; ensuring all my protective wards had been spun into completion, felt the comforting weight of the pistola on my chest.
I sat and willed myself to meet his gaze.
“I half expected you to kill them both and throw down right here. Impress all the locals with the firework show.” The demon said, smiling like the whole situation was funny.
“Youda enjoyed that, I’m sure. All these innocents standing around.”
The monster shrugged.
“I can’t deny that a bit of bloodshed wouldn’t have had its own charm. But I’m after bigger game. As are you. Which is why I wanted to talk.”
My enemy smiled at me, baring its teeth.
“Here’s the thing… errr, Hunter? Wait, no, that’s awkward. What’s your name?” It asked, all false smiles and unearned ease.
The sound of a machine steaming was the only response.
“Well alright then; I’ll call you Bob. Bob, here’s the thing. This world is pretty much where we need it to be. I’ve got half a dozen of my kin stationed in the appropriate positions and you know the script: we’ll agitate for a war, set off a few dozen industrial accidents, and seize power in the chaos that follows. Then, the blood sacrifices will begin in earnest and when this place is safe one of us will claim this world as Archon–probably Tiani, that lucky baastard–and the rest of us will be on to new opportunities, new franchises, like they say here, with you and yours hot on our heels as ever. You and I might even meet again, a dozen worlds from now.”
He toasted with his foamy drink, bringing it to his lips and taking a large slurp.
“So let’s bottomline this. You’re the only one left, we already killed the others Hunters not long after we sealed this place from any more interference from the Wardens. And I’m just gonna be honest with you here buddy, you’re not at the top of your game. I can’t remember the last time one of you was so… so obvious. And, judging from your smell alone, you gave up on subtly years ago.”
I was suddenly aware of how long it’d been since I’d bathed. I shifted in my seat.
“Now, I could have ordered my men to draw down; still could. Maybe they’ll get you, maybe you’ll get me, maybe I’ll rip out your throat with my teeth and slaughter everyone here. All scenarios with their own appeal, true. But I have a better idea: why don’t you just relax and let us do our thing.”
“Take a chill pill, get some downtime in, have a little vay-cay. By the blood, I adore how they talk on this world.”
“The hells does that mean?”
“It means, for as long as you care to stop hunting us; we’ll take care of you. We’ll claim this world, you can die of natural causes -or not- and then the Wardens can shoot you through the void to whatever’s next on their ol’ etheric todo list. In the meantime, in exchange for your noninterference we’ll set you up with a cozy little home, a six figure monthly stipend and, well, a bath for starters. Probably half a dozen baths.”
The server returned, notepad in hand.
“And did you want to order something for your errmmm friend?”
“Yes, Bob here will have a… wait remind me. What do you drink Bob?”
I’d never taken time to learn the basic variations here so I tried a safe answer.
“Do you have any Chanka Root?”
“Oh, uhhh; I don’t think we have any of that.”
What had it said before, have a cup of…
“Coffee?” I chanced.
“Sure, what kind? We have decaf, blonde, winter blend, dark roast…”
“Coffee, unadorned, very hot.” I muttered, feeling the cold that seemed to never leave my toes. I folded my hands underneath my armpits.
“Thanks hon.” The demon said, winking. Then, as the serving girl walked away, it slapped her on the ass. Instead of a reprimand she blushed, smiling a little as she moved to fetch my order. Second sightless, like everyone here, she hadn’t seen the etheric worm it had planted; the rancid little tendril that was chewing through her aura till it could wriggle someplace deep inside her.
“Oh come on, don’t look at me like that.” The demon said. “She’ll just be more likely to scream at her kids, or hit-and-run a parked car, or something. Nothing she wouldn’t have done anyway… probably.”
I stared at the monster.
“Anyway,” It continued, “We were talking about you.”
“Yeah, we were. So with all you know about my kind, and all I know about your kind, why in the voids would I accept your offer?”
“Because, despite all the years of bloody, desperate, fighting throughout the worlds, we have more in common than you care to admit.”
“I’ve heard this speech before demon.”
“Oh, don’t misunderstand. I’m not saying you’re a demon or anything: you made the choice to sit and wait out your sentence while me and mine followed Roderic and made a break for it, you’re pure and I’m vile and blahblahblah. What I meant is that we’re both grunts. Nothing more.” It took out its black mirror device, chuckled and then looked back to me. “Since we’re locked into this dance for the foreseeable future we might as well be cordial to one another. Might as well make it easier on one another when we’ve already lost a round. Because there will be another round tomorrow, and another, and another. All the more reason to just relax this time, start fresh for the next one.”
The serving girl came back with a steaming mug of something black. The worm had disappeared, already dug its way deep inside her. She put my order down, hustled away; probably worried that I might touch her.
I looked around at all the people in the room, most of them distracted by the blinking lights of their pocket devices, each and every one of them making a point of ignoring me. I voiced my thoughts.
“This is the world then: where people would gladly embrace the demons but all would avoid me. I’ve been at this too long, my soul is fatigued; worlds weary.”
“I know you’re speaking true that the other Hunters are already dead, already drifted off to whatever awaits us next. The only hope I have, really, is doing better on the next world.”
I raised my coffee.
“A toast then…”
“Indeed, a toast to the start of a new understanding. A toast to cordiality, even amongst enemies. Splendid.”
I shook my head.
“No, I toast hopelessness. My oldest and dearest friend.”
I tossed the scalding liquid into in its eyes.
I kicked back in my chair, falling and bracing my head so it wouldn’t smack against the stone tile floor. The guards reacted but they were too slow; my weapon was already out. I shot them down, their hands still drawing their firearms.
Everyone rose and ran; panicked and screaming. The demon cried out in pain and fury, singing spells to change its form. I hopped up, roared, and shoved the table hard into the monster’s chest to pin it against the wall. Foul squirming creatures, etheric parasites and sub-demons, peeled off their host to dissolve back into the void. Rats fleeing a sinking galleon.
Raging, the demon called together abyssal elements. I shot it, and shot it, and shot it again until I saw its spirit slip away, banished from the world. I hoped the Wardens would catch and seal this one to keep it from reconstituting somewhere else, on some other world.
The room almost deserted, I stalked behind the counter covered in unintelligible machines. The serving girl cowered there. I lifted her, brought her lips close to mine even as she sobbed and begged. I inhaled, drawing the worm out from her and catching it between my teeth. I forced it into the material plane where it could do no harm. She let out a small squeak of a scream when she saw the hundred eyed thing thrashing in my mouth. I spat it to the floor, ground it out beneath my thickly calloused heel.
“Run.” I said simply.
I heard no gendarmes approaching so I took my moment, returned to the demon’s body.
I reached in its pocket, grabbed its pocket device and a small rectangle of thick paper. The scrap of parchment read ‘Dustin Honeycutt, Actor’ followed by a string of meaningless digits. I flipped it around and in the language of home I wrote “Til the worlds end | Til the Sentence is Served | No retreat | No surrender.”
I flicked the note onto the still corpse. Let the others find it and know fear. I wasn’t about to be bought or coddled, not with what they did to the worlds they ‘won’ for the archons.
Later, I found a vacant dwelling and used a simple enchantment to slip past the locks. In the washroom, I stripped, bathed, and shaved; the first time in months. It felt nice to let the dirt, and grime, and sticking hairs wash off my body. I said my prayers to the thousand gods, and nestled myself beneath luxuriant too-fine covers of the large bed. Fumbling with the demon’s pocket device, I read about coffee varieties until I fell asleep.
I knew that this world was only one of dozens more that I would fight for, knew that my chances of success here were small, and that I could be forced on at any moment. But disengagement wasn’t the answer. I had to connect with this world if I was to fight for it.
And next time, I’d know what to order.