As anyone who takes violent blows to the face in a professional capacity can tell you, the sensation is absolutely maddening.
I’m a reasonable man, make no mistake. Although it’s common to say that a person in a temper sees red, I beg to differ. I’ve been getting hit long enough to know, and I’ve never once basked in crimson or lost myself in a scarlet mist. I just take a deep breath, then destroy everything that comes in my way.
The Prophet Club is small, crammed into the basement level of one of the narrow brick buildings in the warehouse district. It smells like groundwater and rot, with a splash of bleach on top, and a few sharp, sour notes where spilled alcohol has soaked into the floor. It belongs to Gremory the Wise and as I belong to him, the door is my responsibility.
On a Tuesday, I wouldn’t have let them in—too easy to go berserk in a half-empty club with a bad jukebox and me, just one minor demon, to see that everyone behaves. But it’s Saturday, and the bar is full, and I see what they are but don’t think much about it. Three fiends with wicked teeth and cold, ash-gray skin. They’d have to be mad to reveal their devilry for all and sundry.
But optimism, as they say, is the sin of babes and fools. It doesn’t occur to me that they might be hunting until it’s already much too late.
The girl is a wispy little thing, with brown hair and cheekbones to write songs about. She’s wearing a flannel jacket and cracked motorcycle boots. Sitting all the way down at the end of the bar like she’s waiting for someone, or else, working hard at disappearing.
The tallest fiend moves toward her and I leave my post and follow. What they do in the expanse of the city is their own business, but at Prophet, no one eats unless Gremory says so. When I take the fiend by his sleeve, he turns with an impatient sigh.
“What cause has a negligible creature like you to get mixed up in all this?” he says, looking down at me with pale eyes. “Not meaning any offense, of course.” His gaze is traveling over the indisputable evidence of my tattoos. Servant tattoos, and he knows it.
“None taken,” I say. “It’s a job.”
I say it with the modest inflection of a hireling, knowing they won’t understand. In those words, they’ll hear surrender, a drawing-back. They hear retreat, when nothing could be farther from the truth. I’m loyal to the club the way a junkyard dog doesn’t want the iron and the scrap-metal for itself. Nothing in the sagging derelict building is mine, but I’ll be flayed by my own hand if anyone else will take anything out of the Prophet without permission.
He’s already back to eyeing the broken little thing—slavering after her blood. He raises a hand and the other two obey, shoving me against the wall, as he goes straight for the girl. He comes up behind her so fast his reflection is just a pale whisper in the long mirror. He grabs her one-handed, fist tangling in her hair. When he drags her off the barstool, her heels strike the floor with an echo like twin gunshots.
The others are standing too close, reeking with the fetid stink of blood-drinkers. “Your grooming leaves something to be desired,” I say to the nearest one, and hope my smile is rude enough.
He hits me just below the eye, sending tiny points of light dancing through my head and I can’t stop smiling. The rage is on me like a coat of armor. I drop him with my elbow and commence to kicking him with a pleasure bordering on obscene. This is fury, pure and undiluted. This is what I live for.
The second grabs for me—a grievous mistake—and then I’m on top of him, knees digging into his shoulders. In the dim light, his blood is so dark, so red it’s almost purple. I swing until he stops moving. In the ebb and swell of my own mouthwatering wrath, I look up.
The third fiend still stands by the bar, girl dangling from his clenched hand. He’s smiling. This was his game from the start. He doesn’t care for petty allegiance, for his friends. More flesh for him, if they can’t get back up. The girl is dead. Oh sure, she’s thrashing around with a heartbeat and a cascade of screams, but she’s five seconds away from cold-on-a-slab if I don’t reach him and I’ve got no space, no time to do it. His claws are out. She’s too shaken to run and too weak to overpower him.
Then, like a magic trick, there’s something sharp and shiny in her hand and I see that she’s produced a third option. She’s holding a little caping knife, the kind you’d use for skinning meat. She doesn’t stick him in the calf, which would yield pain all right, but do nothing to slow him down. Instead, she brings her hand around the back of his ankle, slashing at the tendon. The strike isn’t practiced or graceful. But it’s smart.
He howls and drops her, and before he can collect himself, I catch him by the back of his coat and spin him around. He’s not smiling anymore. I’m not the little minor demon with the third-rate job and the dark blue servant tattoos. I’m rampageous and vicious. I want to drink him like black flower nectar, break him in pieces all over the floor. And I do.
The aftermath is strangely colorless. The girl sits with her back to the gouged front of the bar, staring out at the carnage. The bodies of the three fiends seem to float on surface of dark, spreading pools. People are screaming from a million miles off—senseless, pointless. I stand over her, breathing in heavy gasps, blood all over my hands. Her eyes are two glowing embers and I want to retreat there. I want to burn down buildings in her name.
She’s still holding the caping knife, but not as though she knows it’s in her hand.
I feel myself get small again and wait for her to run. Her mouth is open in a kind of dull wonder, looking up at me.
She doesn’t move.