I had nowhere else to go.
I sat at the corner of the bar, steeped in shadow. No one bothered me. I was invisible. Really. I’m pretty sure nobody can actually see me.
Seems weird, right? A packed-out bar on a rainy night, not a seat empty. There was a group of guys – officemates, according to the snippets of conversation I caught here and there – not a handspan from me. But around me and my stool was this unspoken zone where no one ventured.
It’d been that way for a few hours now. Not even the waitress came to this side of the bar, choosing instead to push her way opposite, crowded by some sports fans clustered near the television monitor. She shouted drink orders to the bartender.
I said I was sure I was invisible, right? I say that because, aside from some strange glances in my direction, nobody acknowledged the fact that I was sitting here, staring out into the crowd. I even made eye contact with several patrons, but the most reaction I got was a sud- den screwing up of their face and a quick turn of their head.
But they weren’t looking at me.
They couldn’t be.
How do I know? Because I’m dead.
Yeah, record-scratch moment right there.
I remember dying. Really. I got hit by a car while crossing the street one night; I think it was a few days ago? Drunk driver, from what I heard the cops say on the scene. I watched every- thing happen after the accident.
I watched them zip up my body in a bag and take it away in the coroner’s van.
It was weird, really. One minute, I was rushing to my home two blocks away, crossing against the light – yeah, yeah, I know, but it was 2 a.m. in the morning! – and then BAM! This idiot in a Fiat whips around the corner like he’s racing in Le Mans and hits me.
A moment of tingling and blackness and then I’m trying to grasp why I’m seeing my
mangled body below me, lying on a slab in the morgue.
Thing about being dead is, well, time suddenly doesn’t matter. Or anything else, really. Being a ghost isn’t at all what those horror movies make it out to be. Except, well, yeah, you’re kind of stuck with ghost clothes that match what you were wearing when you kicked the bucket.
I did hate that, because I really didn’t like the shirt I was wearing when I died. I’d worn it to dinner with my dad because, well, he’d bought it for me as a peace offering. I didn’t even like football. But here I was, cursed to wander this ghostly realm sporting a Bears t-shirt.
Oh, right. See, there’s no ‘staked to the spot of death’ or floating through walls. (I tried. Walls HURT.) It’s like a strange quasi-existence where matter exists, but you’re invisible to life on this planet. I mean, people and animals can sense you near them – some better than others, apparently. Like, a cold shiver or sweats or a strange, fleeting smell.
So I’ve figured out, anyway. Since I quickly acclimated to my new circumstance, I had plenty of opportunity to experiment.
But one thing really keeps bugging me – if I’m dead and a ghost…then why is it I can’t see other dead people? You’d think this plane of existence would be overrun with centuries of dead souls wandering around like me.
Anyway, I’ve been ‘haunting’ this bar for most of my post-life existence. Bailey’s wasn’t the greatest watering hole in the neighborhood, but it was a frequent stop in my pre-death bachelor days. I knew easily half of the clientele I could see from my corner seat, if just by sight from constant visits over the last ten years.
Yeah, lonely life before. I wasn’t exactly a social butterfly, but this place was the closest I could come to calling someplace a second home. Even if most of the people here knew me only as the ‘quiet guy in the corner.’
Thing is, I don’t remember when they remodeled the place. I mean, most of it was as I remembered, but there were some tables over where the stage used to be, and the ceiling beams seemed a bit higher. But then again, I couldn’t quite remember when I’d been here last.
So there I sat, settling in to an unknown future of sulking in a second-rate bar, wondering if I’d ever have the chance to interact with anyone – anything – for the rest of my existence.
Oh, and apparently, they hired new help, too. I only recognized Jack, the bartender, and Alyssa, one of the waitresses. Which I was glad about, because I’d always had a crush on her but never followed through. The reality that I couldn’t flirt with her again hit me with a hammer blow of sadness.
“Being a ghost really, really sucks,” I muttered.
“Yeah, it does,” came a response. “But then again, you’re no ghost, either.”
I fell off the barstool, hitting the wall. One of the framed pictures of some long-ago sports celebrity – one I didn’t recognize – fell to the floor.
The officemates looked my way and slowly stepped back. “Hey Jules, your ghost is acting up again,” mumbled the least drunk of the group. The bartender – wasn’t his name Jack? – waved them off.
I picked myself up and wildly looked around. Pretty sure my mind was screwing with me. I mean, at this point, nothing is unusual anymore.
“Nice reflexes there, rookie.”
I glanced behind me. A woman stood there, leaning against the wall near the hallway leading to the restrooms. She was dressed in leather, like she stepped out of the latest Mad Max movie. Her brown hair, streaked with gray, hung in unruly tendrils around her face, but I could see her eyes.
Her gray eyes were staring right at me. I about fell to the ground again.
“You…you can see me?” I croaked. A multitude of emotions rolled through me – fear, joy, anxiety, curiosity – but I was thankful that being dead at least meant I didn’t feel nauseous.
“Get a grip, rookie. Of course I can see you.”
“Um, okay, yeah, so I have so many questions…” I moved closer to her but respected her unspoken personal space. I had no idea if ghost proximity meant anything. I mean, maybe that’s why I hadn’t seen any others? Fear of crossing the streams or something?
“Not the time nor the place,” she replied. Her voice was a husky whisper, but not the sexy kind. It was the kind of soft voice that promised violence.
Pure, unadulterated violence.
Her eyes unlocked from mine and looked past me.
Being a ghost doesn’t mean you don’t feel fear. It just means your guts don’t turn to ice and you don’t start sweating all over. Which, okay, I can handle that. But then, I felt a chill crawl over my body like a physical force.
“I’m really not underst—” I choked off the rest of my question when she broke from her languishing pose into one of a living weapon primed for destruction. It’s hard to explain – one moment, she’s the epitome of a cool post-apocalyptic warrior straight out of a video game. The next, she’s in a fighting stance, fists primed at her waist, shoulders back, and…
No, really, I swear. Not like batwings or hokey feathery angel wings from dime store fantasy novels or cheesy heaven-and-hell television shows. These were smokey, transparent forms that – floated? – behind her in a facsimile of sweeping scaly feathers, coiling around her legs. They were almost like glitching, in a way. A static-y form that seemed like they were snapping back and forth between planes of existence.
It was badass, scary, and awe-inspiring all wrapped up in one.
Just as my mind processed this turn of events, I heard a snarl. A guttural sound that resonated in every fiber of my not-feeling ghostly body. It was a visceral noise that drove fear straight through me.
And I wasn’t the only one to feel it. I noticed the crowd around me recoil, looking scared, stressed, confused. Like an ill wind suddenly blew through the place.
I turned around, facing the direction my fellow ghost was poised.
Entering the bar – not through the door, but through the door – were two of the gnarliest, nastiest people-things? – I’d ever seen. And calling them people is about the best point of reference I had, because they bore only a superficial resemblance to actual humans.
Tall and thin, easily pro basketball level of height, with long, lanky arms and heads that looked like they were smashed vertically into ovals. Long, pointed fangs, grimy, greasy hair that writhed…writhed? What the hell…
Oh, and they were naked. As in, not-clothes. Not that it mattered; they were covered in tough, scaly-looking skin with random protrusions sticking out. Not like a naked human body. These things had horns, maybe? And their eyes… Black as night, roiling with a seething violence that promised an end worse than death.
I knew, instinctively, that although I was dead, if those things killed me, I’d be dead-dead. All over dead. Finished dead.
Oddly, it seemed that though they were standing right there and that while the people in the bar seemed to have sensed the entrance of these things, nobody really saw them.
Except me and my winged lady warrior companion.
One of the horny beasts reached out and brushed a long-fingered claw along the back of a man’s neck. The man’s face contorted and he dropped his glass, angrily shouting at his companion. Suddenly, fists were flying as the two erupted into a violent brawl. One of the men flew back through the thing, which confirmed that these things were like me – not of the Earth, but somewhere past it.
Chaos ignited. And above it – or below it, depending on your frame of reference – an earthy, grating growl of laughter.
The two uglies were laughing.
“Hunters.” My fellow ghost spat the word. Clearly she knew who – or what – these things were. “Get down.”
I listened, ducking down below a table as the bar began to empty. Most were pushing back towards us, clamoring towards the emergency exit past the restrooms. Several moved through me and my companion and I watched them recoil from the passage. I felt one person stumble through me – not a pleasant feeling, believe me.
More people were fighting at the front of the bar. The two hunters were strategically igniting more fights through simple caresses. When someone passed through them, the effect was obvious; more often than not, they collapsed to their knees and retched or stumbled dizzily into the fist or knee of another drunken patron.
“AKULEH.” Her voice echoed through me, a clarion call that evoked command and violence wrapped into a promise. She took several steps forward, her wings writhing around. I realized they were subtly guiding the people around her, keeping them from impacting her form.
The two hunters halted, turned towards her. They weren’t surprised; I suspect they knew she – and probably I – were here all along.
Were they some kind of ghost-eater? Was that why I had found no other ghosts?
And who in the world was she, then?
I peeked around the table as the crowd thinned out, leaving only those still retching or unconscious on the floor. The hunters stepped apart, attempting to flank her.
She just laughed. Her wings billowed out.
“So, rookie, listen up,” she said, turning her head slightly to talk back at me. “This is what we call a hunter, or akuleh. Agents of chaos.” I watched her as she gestured at the two interlopers. Was she lecturing me while they continued to move into position?
“Um, okay,” I responded. “Not quite getting why the lecture here. But don’t let me distract you.”
She snorted. I could see a smirk twist across her lips. “I can multitask.” And faster than I could comprehend, she snapped her right arm up and out, fingers splayed, pointing in the direc- tion of one of the akuleh.
I caught sight of the blade only as it plunged through the neck of the thing, a silver flash that glowed red as it tore through its – flesh? – and embedded into the wall, bisecting a bygone college hero’s photo.
The akuleh shrieked, talons grasping at its neck. A black ichor pulsed between its three fingers. It dropped to its knees.
Its companion roared and charged her.
Before I could even mouth “look out,” my companion had already turned, a flashing sword coalesced in her hand, and slashed. The sword scraped along one of the hunter’s forearms, the sound of metal striking bone as it blocked her decapitating stroke.
I was so enthralled with her deadly grace that I barely registered the low guttural growl be- hind me. I was already rolling across the floor before my brain caught up with my reflexes. A taloned hand blew apart the table I’d been crouching behind as a new hunter moved from the shadows of the back hallway.
A woman nearby, stumbling for the exit, screamed as the akuleh raked its talons through her. She collapsed, shuddering.
“Gaaaah!” Not exactly a glamorous exclamation, to be sure. As I scrambled backwards, I felt my body quicken, a strength pour into me like liquid fire. “What the –“
“Well, at least you’re quick on the draw,” she said behind me. I spared a glance over my shoulder; she was locked in a battle dance between her sword and the hunter’s forearms, now having sprouted obscene spurs that effectively blocked her strikes.
The same spurs the akuleh in front of me was growing. I copied the stance my companion had taken earlier and the hunter paused. That gave me a good look at its ugliness, from the oval of fangs at the bottom of its smushed oval face to its writhing hair that…oh, wow. Not hair.
“This just gets better and better,” I mumbled.
“Oh, yeah, stay away from its hair. A bite from that will probably incapacitate you.”
I just shook my head. Then it dawned on me – she was apparently my trainer in whatever weird afterlife I’d stumbled into. Probably why the whole “rookie” nickname.
It was a passing thought in the sidecar portion of my mind, the part that sat commenting on everything even as the hunter in front of me snarled, arms up and swinging.
I crossed my forearms, reflexes from years of martial arts. Hey, just because I was a loner bachelor didn’t mean I hadn’t tried various activities. I wasn’t a total nerdy loser.
The talons struck, hard, and I cried out as rivers of fire slashed along my forearms. Despite the force of the blows, however, my arms didn’t fall off. I snapped them down and out as the talons raked, shunting them away from my core.
Something inside me screamed, twisting into words that funneled through me, exiting my mouth in a whisper. “Banshonee!”
Not sure what exactly I’d said but suddenly this gleaming black sword was in my hand, an oddly shaped blade that some part of my brain recognized and drew comfort from even as I ducked and danced away from another taloned strike.
I raised the blade and cut horizontally, intercepting the tips of the hunter’s claws; black tal- ons dropped to the floor. The thing howled, its narrow lips stretching back. Fangs extended and its jaws snapped. The thing reminded me suddenly of those xenomorphs in that classic Alien movie series.
Really hated those movies.
I heard another howl behind me, then a scream and a pop that silenced it. “C’mon rookie, finish the damned thing,” she called behind me. I grunted, slashing the black blade down and to the side in a facsimile of a rapier’s salute.
The akuleh shrieked and lunged, leading with its ugly head and mouth of knives. A black mist began to form around it just as I swung up in a backhanded strike. It was a wild, out of control strike that would leave me fully open to a counter strike, but it’s not like I’m some expert swordsman here. This was pure fearful instinct.
Fight or flight, my therapist used to say.
The blade slid through the xeno’s face, severing it from its gnarly neck. Snaky hair snapped and hissed at me as the body fell to the floor.
I stood there, blade lowered, still trying to make sense of everything.
She pushed past me; I could feel her body shoulder me out of the way. Her sword trans- formed into an elongated pike and she thrust down, spearing the akuleh in the back and driving the point into the floor.
Then she twisted it. With a loud crack, the thing ceased moving.
She paused, seemingly using the shaft as support. Exhaling slowly, she stood and turned, the pike dissolving into the air.
I gave up trying to figure anything out as my own blade faded. I could feel the hilt dissipate from my hand. I glanced around.
The bar was a wreck. Several people lay on the floor or draped over tables and chairs. I could tell they were alive; there was a soft silvery sheen about them. I hadn’t noticed it before; when I concentrated on someone to determine if they were breathing, the haze seemed to sharpen. It softened to nothing when my attention moved from them.
Yeah, I was really confused at this point.
“So…” I trailed off, still trying to grasp just what the hell had happened.
The warrior lady – angel? – stepped around me and approached the other two akuleh, kicking their bodies. Neither moved. “Have to make sure. These things are notoriously dense and don’t die like they’re supposed to.”
“Uh-huh.” I approached one of the men sprawled across a booth. One arm was bent at an unnatural angle beneath him.
“Don’t.” She was at my side, her hand grasping my forearm.
I stopped and turned towards her. “Care to tell me just what the hell is going on? Is this what ghosts do, because honestly, I’m kind of weirded out that I’m not floating around scaring the bejeebers out of a family somewhere.”
She snorted. “Yeah, human movies are so misinformed.” Her eyes roamed around past me, apparently making sure nothing was sneaking up behind me.
Those gray eyes centered back on me. “Look, you’re not a ghost. Far from it, actually.” She thrust her chin behind me and then moved. I followed her down the back passage and out into the alley. A couple of people were here, unconscious. I assumed either from the drunken fighting or trampled by the mass exodus.
“Not a ghost? Yeah, I sort of figured that out when I somehow pulled a sword out of thin air.” She was fast, though I noticed she moved in a straight line, phasing through small pieces of trash. She left no footprints nor splashes in the puddles of whatever liquid gathered around some of the garbage cans lining the outside wall.
And she cast no shadow from the weak lights that dotted the doorways along the alley. I glanced behind me. No shadow from me, either.
She paused at the alley entrance, a quiet street beyond. Turning back to me, she said, “Look, I’ll explain everything you need to know later. Right now, we need to move. Those hunters mean he’s nearby, and I really don’t want to face off with him while carting around a rookie.”
“Shush.” Her wings spread out around her, the glitchy feathers adding an aura of deadly purpose to her next words. “Just do as I say for now. Without question.”
I opened my mouth but her palm covered it. “I said, no questions.”
Her gaze locked with mine, held me in place. Those gray eyes ticked back and forth, like she was analyzing possible ways to kill me. Her hand fell away and she nodded, one sharp motion with her chin.
“Right. Wings. Clear your mind and think of something that reminds you of a breeze. A memory works best. Give yourself to it, don’t think about it. Just remember being in that moment.”
I opened my mouth to ask what the hell she meant, then snapped it shut. I closed my eyes and tried to relax, thinking about one day in the past with a former girlfriend. We’d gone walking in Stoney Glen Park, stopping at a breathtaking view, the breeze cooling us as we gazed out…
I felt something gently tug across my shoulders and opened my eyes, startled. “Good job, rookie. You’re quick. Maybe you’re not a lost cause after all.”
I felt more than saw my own set of wings, a soft purplish, feathery haze that drifted and swirled around my body like an oversized cape.
“To control it, just imagine flying like a bird. It’s crazy, but trust me. We can fine tune your skills later; right now I’m just going to drag you along like a glider.”
“Well, a barely-in-control glider,” she said. Clearly she noticed the confusion on my face.
“Ugh. Basically I need some lift from you so I can get us the hell out of here.”
The hard shake of her head reminded me to shush, so I thought about a hawk I’d seen fly over the beach once. It was magnificent. I pretended I was in its place…
…and suddenly, I was. Flying, I mean. Well, more like hovering. My wings had spread out behind me; I could barely see them in my peripheral vision.
“Crap, time to go. Flight lesson over. Grab my pike.” The pike from before manifested in her hand, the butt end towards me. I grabbed it, feeling the solidity of the silver shaft in my hands. Without warning, we were moving up and away, then diving headlong into an alley across the street.
It felt like I was hanging on to an angry kite attached to a roller coaster with no brakes. With so much visual input, I closed my eyes and tried not to feel sick.
When I finally was able to open my eyes, a good few minutes after my feet set onto solid ground, I had no idea where we were. Then again, I didn’t know this part of the city all that well; most of my life was spent commuting into the downtown office using the Underground. My forays outside of the apartment consisted primarily of the bar we’d just departed and the local grocer at the corner.
What can I say? I had no life.
So it was somewhat of a surprise to be on a rooftop overlooking the neighborhood. My warrior companion was perched like Batman (Batwoman?) on a nearby aircon unit, one hand raised with two fingers up. Like she was testing the wind or something. Her eyes were closed and she was clearly concentrating.
I opted to leave her alone and get my bearings.
The building we were atop of was some kind of highrise in the middle of several others. In the distance, I could see the skyline of downtown, but it looked odd. Like something was missing.
Before I could puzzle it out, she leaped down from her perch and faced me.
“Okay, we’ve a moment to breathe, so listen up. I don’t do well repeating,” she said. Her fin- gers flexed and relaxed in some rhythmic beat; I supposed it was a nervous tic.
“I am Phae. Ah-ah,” she shook her head. “No talking. Let me finish first, we’ve got a lot to cover and not much time.”
I nodded, closing my mouth.
“I’m technically what’s called an El-ohimi, but that’s just a stupid mouthful for pretty much everyone,” she said, her gaze bouncing from one point to another. She seemed to vibrate as she talked, clearly anxious about something. “For your kind, ‘angel’ will do. That’s what you’ve been calling us for eons, so no sense fighting that trend.”
I gaped. She noticed and smiled. “Yeah, typical reaction. Look, I don’t want to know your name. Suffice to say, names mean attachments and around here, attachments get you killed. I’ve lost enough rookies these last decades, I don’t need the bother.”
“No offense, but you’re just cannon fodder in this war,” she said, ”unless you listen, do what I say, focus, and prove yourself worthy of the calling that pulled you here.”
I couldn’t let that slide. War? “What do you mean, war? Did America get attacked while I was dead? And why am I the only ghost around here, anyway? I can’t be the only one; too many people die every day!”
She grabbed my mouth with her hand and twisted a little. That hurt. “Owwh,” I mumbled between mushed lips.
“I said no talking.” She stepped back, her hand snapping my head to the side before releasing. “I don’t have time to give you a massive infodump of crap from chapter eleven- ty-billion-and-five.” Her arms folded over her chest, her wings snapping up and around in agitation. I wasn’t sure, but I thought they briefly rippled with color before settling back to a dirty, opaque white.
“And for your information, you’re not a ghost.”
I couldn’t help but stare as that statement sank in. “You’re –” Phae stiffened. “Damn, he’s coming.”
“WHO?” I demanded, to no avail. She’d already spun away and was half-sprinting, half-gliding towards the rooftop exit. Her glance back told me I needed to follow.
I didn’t waste any time looking around; if she was retreating that fast, then whatever – whomever – she was fleeing from had to be epically bigger and badder than those akuleh we’d faced down earlier.
I slipped through the closing door behind Phae and skidded to a stop against the wall. She was standing on the landing, looking down.
“Too late,” she whispered. I looked at the angel’s face; she didn’t seem scared but rather… excited? A small smile quirked one end of her mouth.
Phae looked at me. “Look, there’s a lot I still have to teach you about all that. I’ll boil it down to this: think of what you need and trust in it. If you get the hang of that, you’ll survive. Beyond that? Stay out of my way. I doubt I’ll need your help, but pay attention anyway.”
I nodded. “Okay, bosslady.”
She smirked even as her sword manifested in her hand. The angel’s grin faded from view as an ivory helm formed around her head, the crest mimicking that of Roman tassels I’d seen in a museum once.
“Follow me, rookie,” Phae shouted, leaping over the rail. Her wings billowed out and she fell at a rapid, controlled pace down the gap between the stairs. Within moments, the angel was but a light gray blur below me.
“So think it and it’ll come,” I whispered. Giggling, I couldn’t help but think of that line in Field of Dreams. (My dad loved that movie.) Trying to get serious, I closed my eyes and thought of that black sword I’d had somehow manifested earlier. I remembered the word I’d used, figured it couldn’t hurt. “Banshonee.” The weight in my hand told me I’d nailed it. Confident, I leaped over the rail, mimicking Phae’s actions, ready to face whatever horror lay below.
I plummeted. At velocity.
I crashed against several bannisters on the way down, my suave attempt at a diving attack turned into an out-of-control shrieking rocket of feathers. Twisting as I could, I managed to get the landing at the bottom into view just as I slammed down on another insipid akuleh.
I crushed it like a bug. Swinging my sword downward, I cut off its head in a flourish, then looked up to see if Phae was impressed.
Instead, I took note of four other akuleh around me, low guttural snarls as they worked their ovoid jaws.
They really did remind of those xenos in Aliens. And I really, really hated those movies.
I didn’t see the angel anywhere as I spun from the attack coming from my right. I thrust forward, slashing across and down against the reaching talons of another hunter. Within seconds, I became a whirling dervish – at least, that’s what my sidecar mind told me – and cut, slashed, and shoved hunters in that small landing. I felt a few strikes rip along my body, streaks of bloody fire down my back and sides, as I pushed forward.
Breaking free after severing the head of one of my attackers, I ran out of the stairwell, crashing through the door , turning and slamming it shut. I caught one of the hunter’s talons in the frame. I opened the door and slammed it again, this time hearing the latch click. No idea if these akuleh could undo locks or bust down doors, so I did the prudent thing. I turned and ran toward the lobby.
It was hard to tell what exactly had happened here; there were human bodies mixed with akuleh of differing sizes. I felt a twinge of sadness for those humans who’d gotten caught in whatever attack had exploded into the room; they never would’ve seen it coming. None of these bodies gave off that warm glow of life I’d seen back at the bar.
Sidecar mind wondered if, in this new perspective of reality, these deaths would be determined as natural causes such as heart attacks, seizures, or…
Oh. Bullet holes riddled one wall and several people. I guess gang attack would also work? Clearly, these enemies could manipulate people through some kind of possession or suggestion.
I did note that the akuleh died from slashes.
Enough ruminating. Voices were speaking outside. I crept through the lobby to the shattered window, keeping to the deepening shadows. Twilight wasn’t far off, based on a look out the broken front windows. I thought, then felt, my wings wrap around me, wondering if their state of blur would camouflage me further.
Outside was as demolished as inside, but on a larger scale. At least two cars lay on their side, smoldering. I didn’t recognize the makes or models. Sidecar mind became curious. When did these sleek models hit the streets? Were they Teslas?
How long was I really out after dying?
There were a few bodies on the sidewalk, in grotesque poses of instant death. More inno- cents caught in this weird, invisible war.
I hesitated at the front door. Well, where it used to be. The revolving door lay half in the street, mangled and shattered.
Three akuleh were hunkered down nearby, watching something in the street. That’s where the voices were coming from.
Dominating the center of the street was the obvious cause of the sudden violence visited to the area. What could easily stand in for an iron statue was a well-defined man-beast, bat- like wings outstretched. Its head reminded me of a feral dog; two enormous fangs upthrust from its lower jaw, a shock of white hair cascaded down its head and neck like the mane of a horse. Its prehensile tail slowly undulated in the air.
It had nasty talons like a hunter; one gripped a massive poleax. The weapon rested easily in a massive claw, its double-headed blade casually pointing at its opponent.
“Oh, crap,” I muttered.
The man-jackal-thing was easily twice her height and double her size. And from what I could only assume was angel blood weeping from a nasty cut on her shoulder, she appeared wounded, too.
She looked dazed. Her leather jacket and leggings were torn in a couple of places. Whether from akuleh talons or Mr. Ugly’s claws, I couldn’t tell.
Sidecar mind was being distracting.
The man-bat thing was laughing. I think. It had that gloating look.
“Give it up, sister. You’ve earned your rest. Why continue to suffer?”
Phae coughed, struggling to rise even as the beast’s poleax pushed against her torso. “Does it matter, Anui-i? I mean, really, brother. You’ve never cared before.”
Brother? What the hell? Did I just get afterlifed into some sibling rivalry? Way to go, religion.
Got that one wrong. I forced sidecar mind to shut up so I could focus.
“Not particularly.” Anui-i’s wings stretched and flexed, launching him into the air. His clawed feet left no mark on the asphalt.
I’ll give man-jackal credit; he looked pretty graceful up in the air. Almost hypnotic. His wings spread and he curved in the air above Phae. Reminded me of one of those mako sharks I’d seen at the aquarium last year.
I glanced back at Phae, who had lifted her head to watch Anui-i cavort above her.
She shook her head and shrugged her shoulder. “Come on, you coward. Let’s get this over with already.”
“Sister, you’ve no idea the universe of pain you and your rebels cause me. Just let this world die and move on.”
“You know we can’t do that,” snapped Phae.
I had the sinking suspicion Anui-i was distracting her a split second before he dove, poleax flashing. Phae’s sword came up in a wild slash, blocking a strike that would’ve taken off her head.
Anui-i landed on top of her, clawed feet driving her torso into the ground. That definitely made an impact; I could see the asphalt crack around her.
The man-jackal’s back was to me; I realized at that moment Phae had maneuvered herself for the strike. She knew it was coming and had prepared.
Which meant she knew I was nearby.
They were speaking again, but with their voices low and facing away from me, I heard only his low rumble and Phae laughing.
More distraction. Which meant I had to act.
I remembered something my sensei had taught us in class: “If you want to strike someone’s weak spot, get into their rear and hit them hard. It may not bring them down, but it will most likely level the fight.”
Even as sidecar mind delivered this nugget of wisdom, I was already in motion.
I fixed my wings in my mind and burst from the shadows, keeping low to the ground. I felt my wings spread alongside me and thrust down, giving me a burst of speed.
And my feet snagged the edge of a trash can, tipping it with a clatter as I sped past. The jackal-beast snarled and began to rise, turning towards me.
I managed to adjust enough to overshoot his leg and turn inwards, but my suave swooping move ended as I bonked into his tail. I hit the ground flat on my back and immediately rolled, wishing I’d mind-crafted a flamethrower or giant cannon instead. “Curisi,” I spat, wondering what the hell I was saying.
Sidecar me marveled at how innate this all seemed. I jumped to my feet – propelled upwards by a strong thrust of my wings – and slashed, hard.
Both swords bit into the soft skin of Anui-i’s rear thigh. Wait, both swords?
I stared at my hands; two black swords, caught deep in the monster’s thigh. Purplish blood spurting from the wound. I yanked, hard.
Next thing I knew, I was flying through the air, backwards, plowing into one of the smoldering cars. Well, I’d wanted an up-close look at one…
Dazed, I noted my swords were not in my hands but still sticking out of Anui-i’s thigh. He was completing a rather beautiful spin, tail and wings a complex motion of artistry, keeping him on his clawed feet. He settled back into a defensive stance, his poleax lying on the ground out of arm’s reach.
Anui-i reared back and laughed, an evil, soul-vibrating sound that made me want to claw out my non-corporeal ears.
“Who is this whelp, Sister? ”
Phae, holding her arm with one hand, struggled to her knees, head bowed. “He’s a rookie under my care.”
I could see the akuleh beginning to move in behind her.
More laughter from the beast. “Another of your endless parade of victims, you mean.” Anui-i looked over at me, his smile full of jagged, pointy teeth. “She’s going to get you killed like all the others, runt. It’s her specialty.”
I groaned. I know I wasn’t on fire, but it sure in hell felt like it. I could barely move. “Seems like that’s a no, there, jackhole. I’m still alive.”
I stared through slitted eyes as Anui-i shifted, turning his attention towards me. “Not for long,” he growled, taking a step forward.
“Now Anui-i, because of your untimely interruption, I’ve not been able to train this rookie properly,” Phae replied. She was standing, though she cradled one arm as if it was broken. She was covered in bluish blood. “See, he’s not fully aware of what capabilities have been bequeathed to him.”
The angel raised her free hand, clenching it in a fist. “Like this one.” I swear I could feel the air vibrate, moving in waves towards Phae. Anui-i paused, his eyes opened wide in alarm. “Retr—”
A powerful, bright pulse of light erupted from Phae’s fist and speared Anui-i in the shoulder. He screamed as his skin and mane caught fire. Clapping at the violet flames, Anui-i moved backwards in a panic, tumbling over another car. Screeching, he spread his dark wings and burst upwards into the fading light.
My swords clattered to the ground, then faded into nothing.
The akuleh disappeared into the twilight shadows in the blink of an eye.
Phae watched Anui-i disappear. “Damn,” she whispered, “I was aiming for his head.” She sagged to her knees.
I held up my hands; multiple scratches covered my wrists and forearms. No doubt the rest of me as well.
Then I noticed my blood. It was blue, like Phae’s.
My mind ached to the point of distraction. Too much in such little time, an overload to my entire being.
My vision blurred and the world grayed out.
I must have passed out; Phae was standing in front of me, arm extended, her fingers snap- ping. “One hell of a training day. What’s your name, rookie?”
I reached up and grasped her proffered hand. “I thought you –” My words failed as I felt a warmth spread through me.
She yanked me to my feet. “You survived Anui-i first time out. You’re not a rookie anymore. You’re a soldier, baptized by fire.” Phae turned, regarding the destruction. In the distance, a siren keened. “Need to know your name since you’ve been promoted to comrade in my book.”
“Jas.” I looked at her as I caught what she’d said. “Wait, soldier? What do you mean? And what the hell was all that? WHO was that?”
Phae laughed, bending at the waist as the laugh turned into a cough. She straightened, tucking her injured arm into the front of her jacket.
“Oh, didn’t I tell you? You’re not on Earth, Jas.” She spun, her good arm around my shoul- der. We walked down the street away from the approaching sirens. “Well, not the Earth you remember.”
Phae paused as if to say something, then shook her head. We limped down the street, straight into the lengthening shadows of twilight.
“Welcome to the Fracture War.”