We live in an age of science and reason, of the theory of evolution and string theory. We believe we understand this planet to a greater extent, it's creatures and it's laws. No longer to we fear the night, cringe away from the unknown, nor do we place much stock in the old stories of monsters and faeries and other strange and eldritch denizens of the world.
We're fools in that regard.
For in the dark corners of the world, those beings of myth and nightmare still lurk, still hunt and kill. Yet now they've spread; we share our cities with monsters and terrors and yet are never the wiser. Even when the truth stares us in the face we refuse to accept it; the body found drained of blood, two small wounds on it's neck. The building completely obliterated without any explosive residue being found at the site. We explain it away, rationalise it.
Though there are some of us who look past these rationalisations and explanations...
...and come face-to-face with the truth of this world.
My name is Tom Keyes. I'm a former police detective turning PI working out of Chicago. I'm also a necromancer and alongside my partner, Adam Talbot, I'm one of this city's leading occult investigators. When shit gets weird, people come and find us.
[size=+1]Miriam's Bar is one of the more quiet establishments in the downtown region. By which I mean you can actually hear yourself think whilst you're inside its doors. Somewhat off the metaphorical beaten path, it offers a reasonably-priced drink and a relatively safe place to relax or conduct a few deals.
It's also run by one of the most respected shamans in Chicago.
The titular Miriam is not a lady who takes shit from anyone; whilst you're in her bar you play by her rules, and woe befall anyone foolish enough to defy her. As such, the bar has come to be considered a neutral ground by much of Chicago's occult underground; you can drink here and meet with your fellow mages, occultists and even some supernatural beings without much fear of having your throat torn out.
I mean, hey, there's always a 'maybe' in these sort of situations, but Miriam's Bar was a relatively safe spot in an otherwise unsafe city.
Which is probably why our client requested we meet him here.
My partner and I sit at one of the many tables spread across the main room of the bar, our eyes flicking from the bar to the door periodically. The client is due to meet us at quarter past and I'm hoping he's going to be on time; I'm not liking some of the looks I've been getting from some of the other patrons tonight. Less “hey sugar”, more “I'm going to pull your fucking heart out through your throat”.
Glancing from the door to my watch, I sigh and lean back in my chair before looking to Adam. “He should be here within a couple minutes, apparently,” I inform him, my eyes now back on the door, “Then we can see what sort of work he has for us. Dunno what's with all the smoke and mirrors on this one already. It's making me nervous.” The client hadn't told us their name, or even what the job entailed; just requested we meet them here at Miriam's, recognising them by the T-shirt they'd be wearing (purple, with Che Guevera on the front).
He was at ease, drinking black coffee with no sugar or milk, just as bitter as he was. In-front of him was a large spell tome, going into something about protection magic, which he read through carefully, half ignoring his partner. Talbot was not an easy man to get along with, and even a less easy man to work with. He absorbed in his book, only lifting his head slightly at his partners' words. Talbot looked tired, dark rings around his eyes, face heavily unshaven, dark hair as untidy as a Medusa's. He looked nearly supernatural himself - something that was trying to mimic a human shape but was beginning to wear it out. Talbot looked at his partner in that way that he did - somehow his dark eyes seemed brittle and harsh, even in the calmest circumstances.
"I suspect he'll show his face eventually." He took a small sip of coffee, a tiny smile playing at the corners of his neutral expression. That was about as cheery as Talbot got. At least in the presence of others. He turned a page of his magic book - going to a page with a large dark summoning circle drawn upon it. He hastily turned the page again, slightly disturbed by the circle, "If not, we can always call him to us," He muttered darkly, hinting that his intentions were not exactly honourable.
He glanced around the bar briefly. There was nothing here with that purple shirt, though there were plenty of other strange things - humans with the same look in their eyes as Keyes and him, a few creatures who were pretending to be human but were something else entirely, and of course, those who didn't bother with hiding their humanity. Talbot liked the latter the best - as much as he liked anybody. He liked to know what he was dealing up front. Creatures that didn't disguise themselves left their credentials on their sleeves, and Talbot didn't have to spend the energy to figure it out. But then there were people like Tom Keyes - who initially seemed to be simple, but then raised the dead on their days out of the office.
[size=+1]I raise an eyebrow at Talbot's final comment. "I'm... sure we won't need to resort to that. If the client doesn't show, it's obviously a dead job; we can just move on and--" I stop as the doors swing open once again and a figure strides into the bar. I recognise the purple top instantly, having been keeping an eye out for it, but there's something else. Maybe it's the way he moves, exuding a confidence so rare in people. Maybe it's his skin, so pale it's almost white. I'm not sure what it is exactly. Instinct, perhaps. But I can already tell there's something odd about our new client.
And when he sits down at the table with us and flashes us both a grin, I can tell my instincts are correct on this one.
He's not a local, that's for sure. I've never seen him before, nor heard anyone matching his description. Recently reawoken? From out of town? Likely the latter; he's dressed to blend in as much as he can, though he still cuts quite an impressive figure; already we're getting looks from all across the bar. Those in the know are raising their eyebrows somewhat; fangs tend not to just wander into places like this.
There's a certain... predatory glint to his smile as well, I have to admit. It makes me more than a little nervous, but I keep it from showing on my face. You don't want to appear cowardly in front of a vampire. That could lead to... complications. "Mr Keyes and Mr Talbot, oui?" the vampire says, his accent French with a hint of New Orleans about it, "My sincerest apologies for having to meet you in such a.. roundabout manner. I would much prefer to conduct this business far more openly..." suddenly the smile that makes me uncomfortable is back again, "...but then if I could conduct my business openly I would probably not be contacting you both. Are you willing to listen to my job offer?"
I look over to my partner and give him my 'what do you think?' look. Talbot's had more experience with fangs than I have; I'd be happier following his lead on this one.[/size]
Talbot looked over the vampire with cold dark eyes. Fangs, he thought to himself, never as subtle as they think they are. He hunched over his coffee, stirring it with a spoon, looking at his face as it was reflected in it. He knew plenty about vampires, they were perhaps the common thing in the underworld, save for the ever-present human mages who tried to use magic without truly understanding it. Talbot was not such a human, and fought of himself as less a magic user, and more of a researcher. Talbot was thankful for it here. The supernatural did not take kindly to petty magic users, and hangs always seemed to be able to tell... He looked up from his coffee, staring back at the vampire without fear or anixety.
"We will listen, vampire. We didn't come all the way here to listen to nothing," He flicks his spoon in the coffee, "Kindly keep your honeyed tongue behind your pointed teeth and get right to business." His brown eyes narrow as he frowns sharply, the stubble on his face enhancing how deep the frown is, and how dissatisfied that Talbot was. He quickly snapped his book of magic shut away from prying eyes. He doubted that the vampire could read it anyway - it was written in a language that Callers and Demons spoke, but only in the hushed tones and bargains that seemed to die on their lips and teeth.
Talbot drummed his fingers against the table, looking at Keyes. Keyes was not a coward, he knew but still so uncertain and human. He hoped that Keyes got some insights on how to deal with this vampire, because currently Talbot was talking. Talbot spoke to Demons and Witches, he didn't speak to Vampires. Their desire for class and sophistication clashed with Talbot's flatness, and need for clarity. Talbot despised humans, other than himself and perhaps Keyes, but vampires were in a class of hatred beyond that of human. It was because they still tried to be human. They still clang to their humanity, rather than ripping it off. Talbot preferred the ones that showed their inhumanity on their face. It was comforting. He abruptly stopped drumming his fingers. "I should mention the method of payment."
"For you - you have to pay the blood price. Some money, to be determined at a later date, and enough blood to feed you for a week."
[size=+1]I give Adam a sideways glance upon his mention of 'blood price'. I haven't heard him mention that... particular method of payment in a while. The vampire doesn't seem fazed by it, however; hell, he smiles again. “I was told you two knew what you were talking about. Glad to see your reputation is well-founded. Very well, I accept your price... if that is indeed what you are asking?” He's looking at me now, a heavy stare that would make men flinch. He's testing me. Seeing if I'll fold under the pressure.
I don't. I've dealt with fangs before.
“The payment's as my partner described it,” I confirm, staring right back at our newest client, “Take it or leave it.” “I will take it, then.” The vampire leans back in his chair and looks away for a moment before beginning to explain what he wishes to hire us for. “I arrived in Chicago just a few weeks ago. Originally I made my home in New Orleans, but... well, let's just say circumstances meant I could no longer stay there. My fellow kindred in this city want little to do with an outsider, and so largely I am on my own here.
“Which why the fact that I am being followed concerns me so much.
“I first noticed them a few days after I arrived. They don't seem terribly... unusual by our standards, but they know what I am and wherever I go, they're watching me. I don't know who they are or what they want, but recently they are appearing more and more... and it's beginning to concern me. I want you both to find out who they are and what their motives are as well. If possible, I would like your assistance in getting across to them that the idea of stalking me is a pastime that will have negative effects upon their health.
“Assist me with this and I will pay what you ask. Money is not an issue. Nor is your 'blood price'.” The smile appears upon his face again.
I look over to my partner and raise my eyebrow again. Strange mortals stalking a vampire? A case where we discover just who they are and what they want? It sounds well within our remit... though something tells me the vampire may be holding something back. Could be paranoia, but in this business a bit of paranoia is quite a healthy thing.[/size]
Talbot ran a hand over the cover of his book. It was a movement for comfort. He didn't like this vampire's case. It reminded him of something, something deep within the back of his mind - the notion that a supernatural being like a vampire was... being stalked reminded him of his own disturbing tendency to trail after the supernatural, trying to learn something... It sounded almost as if the followers were trying to find something out about the man, either what he truly was or how to become something like them. Talbot shook his head at that thought. That concerned him. He didn't want more magicians. Two competent ones were enough; Keyes and Talbot. A necromancer and a caller. There should not be more magicians because not everybody should take that power. Not everybody should use magic.
He looked at the vampire with cold brown eyes. "I'm going to ask you some questions, and I expect straightforward answers." He pulled out a red, small, notepad from his pocket, as well as a black pen, preparing to take notes, "You'll need to describe the routine of your day to me." He writes down something in his scrunched, scratchy handwriting before abruptly stopping, "You're certain that they know what you are? And are you certain that you know what they are?" His brown eyes narrow, "And now many of them are there, exactly?"
He would solve this case, with Keyes assistance. He was aware that Keyes was the better investigator. But Talbot was the researcher. He knew the facts, and got the information. And if there was another magician... Keyes' power seemed to be fairly stationary. He was a relatively gifted necromancer. But Talbot was flexible. He could summon anything from mice to monsters, but it all depended on one key factor; Price. He had sold his sanity away, signed and stamped for, and he knew it wouldn't be too long til he ran out. And so, he had the blood price. Blood sold. Demons loved blood. Talbot had shed too much of his own for his power, and needed every drop he could get. Every, single, drop.
[size=+1]Leaning back in my chair, I withdraw a notebook from my jacket as Talbot gets to work questioning our new client. This is where the job begins, really; hopefully between the pair of us we can get the vampire to tell us more than he probably wants to. Adam rattles off a few quick initial questions and I begin to write notes. I'm hoping that he'll focus on my partner more and think I'm staying out the conversation; that way when I jump in I'll catch him off guard.
It's dangerous playing games with a fang, but I'm hoping it will pay off.
The vampire does indeed begin to focus upon Talbot. “My routine?” he says with a grin, “It varies. You'll be unsurprised to learn that I limit myself to nightly excursions. Sunlight is rather bad for my skin.” He chuckles for a moment before continuing. “I tend to visit the various nightclubs this city has to offer. Chicago really does have quite the club-scene. You can always find some 'company' there.” The emphesis he places on the word shows exactly what he's implying.
“As for whether they're certain what I am I cannot give you any concrete proof, but when you've been alive as long as I have you come to rely upon your instincts. And my instincts tell me that they know. As for what they are, they certainly smell human and it's hard to fool my senses. They're always in twos and threes as well. Never making any effort to hide the fact that they're watching me, either. It's... unnerving.” “Any distinguishing characteristics?” I ask suddenly, looking up from my notebook. The vampire's eyes snap over to mine, and I can tell I've caught him out. “Well... there was one group I got close to, before I started actively avoiding them. They each had tattoos of eyes on their hands. Aside from that though, they can look like anyone. They just look like ordinary people... except wherever I go, they're watching me. They want something, and I get the impression that I'm not going to like it.”
I look down at my notes for a moment, writing what he's just said. “Does the eye symbol mean anything to you?” I ask. “I was rather hoping,” the vampire says with a smirk, “that you would be able to answer that question. Now, do you have any other queries, or may I leave you both to your work?”
Talbot tapped his hand against the cover of his book. An eye tattoo. That sounded like a cult to him. Either a cult, or an organization where the eye symbol is significant. He thought for a few moments. He immediately associated eyes with Lovecraftian Old God worshipers, but he had no idea why they would be after a fang, and knew that he was just being paranoid. If they know, and if they're following, it might be ghouls - or those sad idolizes of vampires, who wanted to become immortal themselves. Talbot was staring at the vampire with cold brown eyes as his head was processing all of this information. He came to the conclusion that he wouldn't know jack about that tattoo unless he had seen it for himself. Perhaps he would recognize some of the followers. Lots of people came to him for information. He was, after all, a powerful summoner and very well read.
"Do they show up after any particular club visit?" He cocks a brow, "If they show up at one place, we can tail them from the bar." He shrugs, "Or at least get a decent look at that tattoo." He grimaces, before looking at his partner, Keyes. He hears the note in the vampire's voice. He sees the smirk. He knows that he's hiding something. He doesn't appreciate that. Not at all.
Talbot looks back at the vampire, "If you know anything else about that symbol, now's your chance. Reveal that information, and you save me time and effort - enough time and effort for me actually to do something about your little problem." He folds his arms across his chest, "I have books to look at at home. Words to pile through. But I don't know where to start and you've given us two things" He holds up two fingers, "Jack. and Shit."
[size=+1]“I rarely saw them in the same club or bar,” the vampire sighs and leans back in his chair, “Whoever they are, they're not stupid. There was one occasion, though, where I caught one following me in a club I'd seen them in before. The Red Rooms, further up the street parallel to this one? In there.” He looks back over at us both, and the smile's back. “As for what the symbol looks like, if you get me a piece of paper or something I will draw it for you.”
His drawl certainly sounds like it's from New Orleans, but there's an... older quality to it. As if the accent is something he's learned to put on. Entirely possible. Who knows how old this fang is, after all? I nod and pull a scrap of paper from my notebook and hand it to him with my pen; the vampire sets to sketching something immediately.
Talbot then sets about putting the pressure on our newest client, hoping to make him give us a bit more information. All he gets in response, however, is a chuckle as the fang slides the piece of paper back across the table to me. “I've told you what I know, Mr Talbot. My... sincerest apologies if it does not meet your no doubt high standards. However, given the rates I am paying you both at I remain confident in your ability to get to the bottom of the matter.
“Now...” he's suddenly on his feet, quicker than I'd have thought possible, “...I fear my must be going. Places to go, people to meet and all that.” He lays a card down upon the table. “Should you need to contact me, please call this number and leave a message. I will get it. Happy hunting, boys.” I rise to my feet as well, hoping to stop him from leaving. “Hang on a goddamn second--” I begin, but the vampire's already half-way across the room towards the door. Bastard clearly doesn't want to wait about too long. Probably nervous about being followed. I reach down and pass the scrap of paper the eye's drawn upon to Talbot before retrieving the card. It's hand-written, with nothing but a number on it and what I guess is our client's name.
“Goddamn fangs...” I mutter under my breath, sitting back down again and glancing over at the design drawn. It's an intricate design of an eye, lots of swirls and dotting. Looks pretty cult-like, in my opinion, but that's Talbot's area of expertise. I may be the sociable one, but cults tend not to like being socialised with. “Well, we've got two leads at least. The club and this design. Hopefully enough to get us started.”
'Hopefully'? Since when was I this optimistic?[/size]
Talbot grits his teeth. He hated vampires to begin with, but this one stuck a chord with him. He was going to charge extra for the fang's despicable attitude, for his violent features, for everything about him. He needed blood. He knew he was going to shed plenty down this road. He stood up, his hand stroking hte cover of his spellbook tenderly. It was suspected that the only thing Talbot had ever loved were his books. This was in fact, not true. Talbot was rather fond of coffee as well. And stability. But Talbot's gesture towards the book was tender. He opened it, searching through the pages to show a picture.
It was the image of a man with beautiful features, and a king-like crown riding upon a horned camel. The picture was surrounded with sigils and symbols, as well as instructions written in a tongue long forgotten by most. It was the language of the angels, and the demons, the language of those who had passed and those that were to be. The instructions read; Face the West, Where He Makes his Home, Address him with your Best, and He will fill your Tome. Talbot smirked down at the words, "The poetry is rubbish to be certain, but like all rubbish poetry it has a grain of truth." His hand traced across a sigil, fingers lingering on the name around it. Paimon.
He rubs his hand over his stubbled chin. He looked at Keyes with bitter dark eyes, "We're going to the club. But not without information." A smile twisted up his face. It did not suit Talbot. it was a look of a mad man, a crazed man, a man with psychosis. "We're going to summon my informant." His informant. A demon. The demon, perhaps. He came whenever Talbot called for him with his blood and his sanity. The demon's name was Paimon, the first demon that Talbot had ever conjured, and the only one. He narrows his dark eyes, "Tom, you're going to have to help me. The King of the Goetic cannot be summoned alone."
[size=+1]“Rubbish poetry often only has a grain of truth in it because it's so vague it can be applied to anything,” I respond with a quick smile, placing the card in my notebook and sliding it back into my jacket pocket, “But hey, you're the bookworm here.”
And then Talbot grins.
I know that grin, know exactly what he's going to say next.
Sure enough, he's on about 'the informant' again. Happily prepared to trade away his life and his sanity in the pursuit of knowledge. And what's more, he wants my help in doing so this time. I frown, expressing my distaste. “You know how I feel about demons, Adam,” I mutter, “particularly that demon.” It's true I've never exactly warmed to some of the darker aspects of magic that Talbot practices, but I find the creature he dredged up from the depths particularly loathsome and hateful.
Still, some facts might not hurt on this one. We're clutching at straws at the moment.
Sighing, I pull myself to my feet. “Alright, fine. We'll try this your way. But you're not using any of my blood. I won't have that... thing possessing anything that belongs to me, nevermind the stuff that keeps me alive. There's an abandoned building not far from the club Etienne told us about. We'll perform the summoning there, and then head to the place after.”
Assuming we survive.
I leave that observation unvoiced. Some things are best kept to yourself.
* * *
It's cold out in the streets tonight. I keep my hands in my pockets as Adam and I make our way through downtown Chicago, trying to preserve what warmth my body has and kicking myself for not bringing a scarf. Around us the city is alive and vibrant. Club-goers, people young and old, police officers on patrol. From all walks of life they come, for the clubs, the bars, the social life.
Yet even on this walk I cannot help but notice aspects of my new life.
An old homeless man we walk past clutches an ancient talisman that wards off evil and gives us a knowing nod as we go by. Just as well he's got such an item, too; in the alleys I can see things lurking, predators and lurkers ready to leap upon the unwary. My fingers clench into fists, but I resist the urge to go for them; we've got a job to do, after all.
The ordinary people of this city just walk on by such sights, unknowing, unseeing, blissfully ignorant of the things they share their city with.
Sometimes I think they've got the right idea.
* * *
The walk takes a good twenty minutes; I'm freezing by the time we turn into the alley and walk up to the abandoned building I told Adam of. It's an old block of flats, long since condemned by the city council and left to rot and crumble. A sinister reputation hangs around the place like a thick miasma, ensuring that none of the local homeless dare to use it as a place to squat.
Adam and I, on the other hand, shouldn't have too many problems.
“Here we go,” I say with a nod towards the door, striding forwards. Sure enough it's locked, but that's not a problem; two solid kicks to the lock and it cracks open. Instinctively I reach for my shoulder holster and pull out my handgun. More than likely this place is empty, but it never hurts to be on the safe side.
“There's an apartment on the second floor,” I tell my partner, “It'll have plenty of space for the ritual, I think. Shall we?”
Talbot walks, dwelling on the ritual at hand. How long had it been since he had called Paimon to him? Too long. Too Soon. He couldn't recall, nor did he particularly wish to. The demon had been his only friend for a long time, even if he knew that friendship wasn't real. Paimon was a demon with the same goals as him. Or so he liked to believe. Paimon believed in mankind and mankind's thirst for knowledge. He answered all questions with the truth, and expected the same courtesy extended to himself. Talbot shifted uncomfortable, tome under his arm. He grimaced, and thought about what the demon meant to him. Paimon. Commander of two hundred legions. Loyal to Lucifier - may Heaven black his name. He knew how Keyes felt about demons. And he was right to think so.
Demons were tricky. They were clever. They didn't care about mortals. They believed in man's ability, simply because it was more valuable to them to put faith in man over God. There was no point in putting faith in God anymore. God no longer mattered to them. And it didn't matter to the Conjurer. Talbot no longer cared about the big picture. He cared about what was there, what was tangible, and what he knew was the right thing to do. He was going to figure out who these people were - cultists, marauders, monsters, and he was going to destroy them. But not without a little metaphysical help. Even from the demon Paimon.
Talbot looked up at the abandoned building, his nose wrinkling slightly, and his hands tightening around the spine of the brown book. He looked up at the stained cement, the broken windows. The grimace on his face became enhanced, sharper somehow. His head was still racing. He wasn't sure where he was getting the blood from. He supposed it would have to be from himself. His partner wasn't willing, after all, and a demon loved willing sacrifices more than any other. Without another word, he walked into the building. He passed through the peeling wallpaper, and the cracked wooden steps. For him, it was like they didn't exist. That none of it existed. It was far away for Talbot, who seemed to have an aura of transcendence around him. He didn't see any of it with those cold brown eyes.
For him, there were only demons and blood rites, and the death of sanity.
His freehand went into his pocket. It was filled with salt and iron fillings, as was typical. They kept evil at bay, along with most other things. It was already singing his fingertips. He would use that to bind the creature. Then there was the knife in his pocket. The modern witches of the world had a fancy knife for it. Athame or something. But in truth, it was a thin, silver knife that had been Talbot's since his boring suburban life. It had a black handle. All ritual blades did. Talbot didn't know why, in his grand assortment of books and occult knowledge, it simply was. To summon the Devil, God hope you have a blade with a black handle.
When they got to the apartment on the second floor, Talbot almost felt like he was going to live to see thirty.
[size=+1]I could easily be convinced that someone has died in this dive of an apartment.
The wallpaper is peeling, revealing the wooden panelling behind it. The insulation has long since been stolen away by the rats. The roof is cracked and leaking in some places, and has vast holes bursting through it in others like puncture wounds.
If this apartment was a corpse, it would have been dead a long time ago.
Still, there's space for Talbot to do his ritual, to summon his demon. The thought of what we're about to do doesn't exactly thrill me, to put it mildly, but what else can we do? My partner is right; we need information. I just wish he didn't have to pay the price he does in order to acquire it. Demons don't do freebies; they always want something from you. Something you need. Something you really, really need, and the more you need it the more they like taking it. It's why I stick to dabbling with the deceased. Demons are just bad news however you look at it.
When doing this sort of thing, pre-cautions are not just a good idea, they're a necessity; if this ritual goes wrong we have to ensure the demon is contained or else who knows what sort of havoc it might unleash? Adam will no doubt think I'm being paranoid, but I don't like taking chances when it comes to demons; that's what gets you killed... or worse.
I spread rock salt along the window ledges and across the thresholds of the room as my partner prepares for the ritual; now even if it does get free of the circle it'll be trapped in here. With us, yeah, but at least then it won't get completely free.
And with that, we're ready.
“All set?” I ask Adam, “What do you need me to do?”