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Rated: 13+ · Short Story · Action/Adventure · #2254226
A medieval hunter searches for his sworn enemy...
Bare feet slapped against filthy cobblestones as a gaggle of street urchins squealed and chattered on their way to the market square. Some carried sticks, beating on doors and window shutters in passing. When the irritated occupants answered with a string of curses, the little devils raced away giggling.

Water flew in all directions as the band of miscreants splashed through soapy puddles. Grimy suds were kicked at comrades in passing, battling to see who was nimble enough to escape a shower. A few dozen droplets splashed an unlucky vagrant sleeping nearby. Beneath a wide-brimmed hat, a weary eye cracked open.

He watched the unruly children pass with mild interest, knowing they were undoubtedly planning some mischief. It was market day, after all. There would be jugglers performing, bards serenading townsfolk, magicians mystifying onlookers, fire eaters spewing orange plumes into the sky, tumblers cartwheeling, side-splitting puppet shows, and games of chance for those looking to lose coin.

But he didn’t care for whimsical diversions.

It was the savory scent of roasting meat that called him, tugging on nostrils and making a cavernous stomach grumble. Reaching into his jerkin, the man rattled his coin purse. It felt terribly light and sounded as if he could ill afford anything but a mug of the cheapest beer and a loaf of stale bread.

The man remained where he was, laying on the rickety bench and letting the sounds and scents of market day wash over him. A warm breeze crept down the alley, carrying a bevy of aromas. He could nearly taste the delicacies on those gentle gusts. Salted pork, fat sausages sizzling, meat pies browning, cinnamon apple tarts cooling, sweet buns glistening… It was driving him mad.

He licked his lips, mouth watering as he imagined the heaping carts of fruit and vegetables. But then a new smell reached him. It was buried beneath the others, mixed with the tantalizing fragrances. An unpleasant stench that was all too familiar.

Both eyes shot open as he sat upright, hands reaching for concealed weapons. He breathed deeply, ensuring that his instincts were correct. It was unmistakable. The cloying odor of brimstone.

“Never a moment’s rest,” The hunter grumbled, unfurling the ragged cloak he’d been sleeping on. There was a time when tracking fresh quarry was a thrilling prospect, but now even the most fearsome of fiends held no mystery. Eyes that once sparkled with curiosity had dulled with cynicism. Gone was the adventurous youth, replaced with a jaded elder whose motivations mostly revolved around acquiring coin and finding a place to sleep.

It was troublesome to locate the source, catching naught but the merest whiffs. Experience whispered that the creature was most likely lurking in the market throngs, searching for a vulnerable soul to lure away and feast upon.

In the distance, the crowd roared at some unseen spectacle. It seemed as though the entire town was whooping and cheering, reveling in the festivities.

The hunter pulled his hat down low and grimaced. The shadows would be growing long before his belly was full and thirst was sated, provided he could find an alchemist willing to buy some fresh infernal essence.

Stringed music drifted down the narrow alley, accompanied by a voice both light and sweet. It was an old tune, a local favorite about kings of old. A time when honor was currency and valor held sway in the hearts of men. Pretty words that bore little meaning.

Pulling up his dog-eared collar, the hunter grunted at a beggar holding a tin cup. “Alms for the down-trodden, good sir?”

“I’ve little to offer and less time to waste.” He growled as the pauper shrank away.

Turning the corner, his senses were assailed by a thunderous wave of sights and sounds. Eye-catching stalls lined the market edge, forming a perimeter of assorted wares and curios. A large wooden stage stood in the center, where a number of performers tossed colorful balls into the air and danced before onlookers. Several musicians stood at each corner, strumming a jaunty tune. Focusing his attention on the townspeople, the hunter narrowed his eyes thoughtfully.

Maidens inspected fine jewelry, linens, and silk dresses, tugging on the sleeves of their male companions. One girl softly stroked an intricate necklace and sighed longingly.

He brushed past her, gimlet eyes scanning the boisterous crowd.

“Rare vintages! Please your lord and lady with the finest wine from the Golden Isles!” A red-faced merchant cupped his hands and bellowed, nearly deafening passerby.

A pickpocket furtively snatched a coin purse from some unsuspecting noble. Two boys chased each other through the crowd, faces sticky with the remnants of sweet cakes. Indifferent guards listened as a corpulent trader complained incessantly that his usual spot was taken by the thrice-damned herbalist. Exotic birds ruffled vibrant feathers and chirped inside hanging cages, farm horses pulled empty carts away, mangy dogs snarled over fallen scraps.

It was overwhelming, nigh impossible to find a trail in this bustling haven of commerce. Unless one was to use a wee bit of magic.

Pulling out a pair of ensorcelled spectacles, the hunter slipped them on and blinked several times as the world unfolded its secrets. Swirling hues took shape before settling over the market. Glowing auras indicated who wore beauty-enhancing charms, spells to prevent dishonesty, amulets of protection...

He ignored these, swiveling his head back and forth. Several hazy imps floated beside a witch selling potions, presumably her lowly familiars. The wailing ghost of a soldier drifted overhead in search of his beloved. Someone was shouting he’d been robbed, gesturing towards the disguised hobgoblin who was busy stuffing valuables into its frog-like mouth.

Another whiff of brimstone. It was prowling nearby, selecting a tasty morsel amid this veritable feast.

“Not today, demon.” The hunter murmured. “One of us will be gorging themselves tonight and I’ll be damned if it’s you.”

Someone tugged on his sleeve. A wiry man with thinning hair gestured to a table filled with gleaming daggers. “Are you in need of some Damascus steel? Buy one and you’ll never have to sharpen it!”

Yanking his arm away, the hunter grinned humorlessly at the peddler. “Lay your hand on me and you’ll never sharpen anything again.”

He didn’t wait to hear any babbling apologies. There was no time. At any moment, the brute could slip back to the cursed domain from whence it came. No, that wouldn’t do. As long as the malignant spirit felt there was no threat, it would remain in this earthly realm. Pushing into the masses, he sought after the nebulous trail.

“Excuse me,” A low voice rasped. Jostled by the horde, he turned his bespectacled head and glimpsed the speaker before she slipped away. That brief instant brought revelation. Oily darkness smothered the young lady, her figure enshrouded by a sinister aura.

At last.

Spurring into action, the hunter rudely shoved townspeople aside. Curses and complaints faded in the distance as he gave pursuit, grimly determined to make this chase a short one. The corrupted vessel was a few feet away, nearly in arms reach…

A blacksmith yelped. “Oi! Watch yer step, clumsy oaf! I’ve half a mind to shove this foot up yer arse.” Rubbing tender toes, the injured man shook a fist at his assailant.

Hearing the commotion, the demon glanced back. Crimson eyes locked with the hunter and widened instantly, unspoken recognition between predator and prey. He clenched his fists. The upper hand had been lost.

Lunging away, the possessed woman bolted with unnatural speed. She ran low, back hunched as though her form was shifting to match the creature within.

Parchment flew as she collided with an unfortunate scribe, yellow papers fluttering overhead. Thrashing wildly, the poor clerk tumbled into a heaping table of powdered incense with a muffled cry. A pungent cloud spilled into the air, causing those nearby to cough and sneeze.

Moving swiftly, the hunter leaped over the table. Boots landed beside the fallen scribe's face, making him flinch. The grizzled man grunted. He ignored the overpowering fragrance stinging his eyes, keeping focus on the woman rapidly increasing the distance between them.

“Aren’t you a lively one,” He grumbled. Loosening straps beneath his cloak, the hunter withdrew a small crossbow from his back with a rough shrug. “We’ll see how fast you are with an enchanted bolt in your backside…”

Hands briefly caressed the instrument of death. Nimble digits ran over it, loading and cocking the weapon in a long-practiced dance. Grey eyes narrowed, eyebrows pressing together in concentration as the hunter tracked the demon’s progress. Although his trigger finger itched, there was no chance he could get a clean hit. Far too many bobbing heads cluttered the shot. He cursed again, teeth gnawing at chapped lips. This wouldn’t do.

A spark fizzled, bubbled, boiled until a scheme was brewing in the murky recesses of his mind. For the first time in weeks, a small smile tugged at the perpetual scowl.

* * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * *

Clutching a squirming bundle of clothing, the runaway figure leaned against a stack of moldy wooden crates and gasped for breath. Sweat beads trickled down quivering limbs as she sank to the cool ground. Lungs heaved, filling with the rancid bouquet of rotting offal. "That old bastard almost had us," She shuddered. "We got lucky."

Ears pricked, the woman listened carefully to an unseen companion. “No, I don’t know who he is,” She snapped, crimson eyes flashing. “Death clings to him. Forgive me for not staying to chat with an executioner.”

Cautiously peering down the side alley, she searched for the cloaked assailant. The only signs of life came from a trio of drunkards staggering down the street, pausing to leer and catcall any maidens who crossed paths with them. A carouser turned his beefy head, glimpsing her hiding spot. He tugged his cap and winked.

She slid lower behind the crates, hugging the ragged bundle. Words reverberated in her mind again.

“I think we have bigger problems. We need to leave this town before others come pouring out of the shadows.” Cocking her head, the demonic woman brushed a strand of brown hair away and listened.

“You don’t think I know what’s best for us?!” She clenched her jaw, countenance darkening. Rustling weakly, the baby in her arms stirred and began to wail. The harried woman rocked it tenderly, cooing softly as scrambling thoughts cobbled together a plan.

Nodding in agreement, she closed her eyes and sighed. “I hate how annoying you are sometimes.” Pulling herself from the chilly cobblestones, the red-eyed woman yanked up a moth-eaten hood and slipped further into the gloomy slums.

Not even the staunchest of guards dared set foot down these twisting streets. And yet, someone was shadowing her steps.

The hooded woman quietly sang to the squirming infant, hushing it with a melody in her native tongue. Faceless figures shifted in the murky edges, drawing closer. She ignored the itchy sensation of many eyes crawling over her, sizing up the walking opportunity. Voices murmured, steel whispered as it slid from hidden sheaths. Footsteps quickened behind her. Still, she paid no heed to anything but the babe nestled in her arms.

A shriek pierced the air. It echoed down the dingy streets, turning into a hideous gurgle.

She didn’t have to turn around to know what occurred. To an outsider, it would appear as though a mass of living shadows descended on a burly man tailing the singing woman. They swarmed their victim, fading away moments before he drew his death rattle. Once the twitching corpse hit the ground, it had already been stripped and looted.

“Many thanks, Saiya,” A cheery voice addressed her.

Turning around revealed an adolescent boy lazily spinning an oversized cap. He plopped it on his shaggy head and casually hopped over a growing pool of blood. “You always bring us lambs. I hope to return your generosity someday.”

Saiya beckoned him closer. “Hello again, Kanan. It seems Fate smiles upon me, for I am in dire need of your services.”

The boy stretched his arms and yawned. “Oh? What use do you have for the Umbral Ravens?”

She gestured at the warm body slumped in the gutter. “That cur only wanted what was between my legs. But there’s another after me - an outsider who wants something… far more precious.” The bundle of rags babbled something, making her smile. “Hush, child. This business doesn’t concern you.”

Scratching his chin, the guild leader stared down the street thoughtfully as he listened to her story. “An outsider? How fascinating… I’ve grown tired of these common thugs and pitiful scoundrels. Maybe we’ll finally have some entertainment.”

Glancing at his ridiculous hat, Saiya agreed there was plenty of amusement to be had. “You know that cap is far too big for you?”

Kanan shrugged. “It’s still warm, at least.” She smiled briefly before putting her hand on his arm, dropping the playful facade. “He’s not what you expect. Be careful.”

He pulled away from her touch. The cheeky expression hardened into a humorless mask, eyes glittering. “This is our domain. We can handle it.“

Saiya watched the boy assassin vanish back into the gloom. Absentmindedly, she rocked the sleeping baby as worry carved lines across her forehead. “I hope so... For all our sakes.”

* * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * *

Mikael was shocked to see an old colleague, even more so to hear what he was in the market for. Although alchemy was growing more prominent by the day, it was looked down on by traditionalists who scoffed at the idea of fusing magic with science. But modern times require modern solutions, as they say.

"I... I thought you were a purist," The alchemist gawked, eyes bulging, mouth hanging open as he tried to wrap his mind around the circumstances. "You said it was a fool's enterprise."

Carefully examining the little shop, the hunter grunted. "If you fail to convince me of its usefulness, I might still be." He lifted a jar of glowing crystals and peered at it with mild interest.

Timidly, the shopkeeper reached over the counter and carefully plucked the container from his grasp. "Ah, that's very delicate... Please read the labels, I'd hate to lose a potential customer." He smiled, mouth twitching nervously. "Are you a customer, Gabriel?"

Tapping one foot restlessly, the hunter crossed his arms. "Let's see what you can do for me first. Then we can discuss payment."

Mikael pursed his lips. "Well, that depends. Are you looking to take down a golem or a wight? I need a starting point." He gestured to the shelves bursting with crushed herbs, powdered minerals, and other mysterious substances. "We'll be here all day, otherwise."

"A demon. In possession of someone, specifically." Gabriel held back an impatient sigh, wondering if he hadn't made a mistake coming here. The only time he did business with alchemists was selling monster parts. And even then that was in a pinch. He disliked the snooty airs and self-importance that came with the profession. Not to mention that damned Philosopher's Stone they swore existed, eagerly latching onto to rumors of creating unlimited power and wealth. If only it was quite so easy.

"Possession? Nasty affair..." Mikael shuddered. "Are you hoping to expel the fiend or is it too late for that?"

Placing his hands on the counter, Gabriel glowered at the alchemist. "If I had a chance of resolving this peacefully, do you think I'd be here?"

The shopkeeper swallowed and gave him a curt nod. "Ah... quite right. One moment while I consult my grimoire."

Mikael vanished below the counter, rummaging about until he reappeared with a thick tome bound in red leather. 'Philtres, Elixirs, and Formulas to Combat Miscreations,' the title read. Gabriel silently watched him rapidly flip through pages, running slim fingers down the colorful text, mumbling under his breath at the while.

"Dopplegangers, too far. Bone Devils, getting closer... Ah! Demons." He looked up, beaming triumphantly. "You're in luck, I have just the things you need."

Squinting at a recipe description, Gabriel raised an eyebrow. "Are you certain it can really do that?"

"You're talking to the best alchemist in Ghent!" Mikael grinned broadly. "Well, second best."

The hunter snorted. "If your work is second-rate you'd better hope the creature finishes me off."

"That won't happen. I would hate to lose you as a return customer, after all..." Mikael said confidently, but there was a tinge of doubt in his voice.

"If this works, I'll come here exclusively." Gabriel placed a giant canine on the table. "How far will a manticore fang get me?"

Snatching the bone up, the shopkeeper examined it with awe. "Ye gods, I never thought I'd see a real one! This will easily cover everything... and then some."

"Excellent," The hunter grinned broadly, revealing teeth like a row of tombstones. "I have a few more things in mind."

* * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * *

Soot flakes slowly spun in the noxious air, blanketing cracked cobblestones like an obsidian snow shower. Breath frosted the chilly air as a hooded figure tottered towards safety. Saiya grit her teeth, forcing a sluggish body onward. Each step became an arduous struggle, wobbly legs threatened to collapse beneath her, sending woman and baby tumbling onto the squalid ground.

Hunger gnawed at her belly. A ravenous need for an innocent spirit, to seize a beautiful soul and unleash the devouring darkness upon it. She ignored the festering impulses that tempted the infernal nature within. Such a lovely child, they whispered. Slake the craving, sample the tender flesh in your arms...

"Shut it," She snarled, baring a mouth of gradually elongating fangs. Sanguine eyes glowed from beneath the hood, embers scorching any who dared face her.

Clutching the baby protectively, Saiya pushed towards a certain ramshackle abode looming at the end of the sooty lane. Smoke billowed from the chimney, melding into the somber rain clouds. A cold wind swept by, whisking ashes in its wake. It wouldn't be long before the heavens opened up and spilled their sooty tears over everything, Saiya reflected.

"I'd like to be sitting beside a fire with a full belly when it happens," She muttered.

The dilapidated hut was close now, so close that voices could be overheard bickering back and forth. "... I don't care! My old bones need warmth. Go get more wood or you can fix your own meals, I've no use for a lazy lout." Aldreda always did have an awful temper. "Fine, have it your way. At this rate, we'll burn half the kingdom before the week's out!" Her husband grumbled behind the door. There was a crash as something struck the wall. "Damned witch! I'm going, I'm going!"

A chubby man burst out of the house, ducking as a well-aimed ladle whizzed by his ear. "... and don't come back empty-handed, you hear?" Aldreda stepped out to watch her spouse waddle down the street, gripping a broom in her wiry hands.

Turning her attention to the woman at her doorstep, Aldreda's glower transformed into a beaming smile. "Jocosa! It's been far too long. If I knew you were coming I would have sent that useless scoundrel to fetch us some wine." Her pleased expression faded as she examined the woman closely. "Are you alright, love? You look ready to collapse."

It took everything Saiya had to hold even a minor illusion, concealing glowing eyes and sharp teeth. "I'm... fine. Please, can you watch my child for a short while? I'm in a spot of trouble."

Clucking her tongue, the elderly woman extended her arms and embraced the sleeping baby. "Of course, darling. You know there's nothing I won't do for a dear friend." She peered at Saiya concernedly. "Are you sleeping? Your eyes look awfully red..."

"No," Saiya lied. "I haven't slept for some time. There's a dangerous man after me and I'm at my wit's end. The Ravens offered to help but I would rather not bring trouble to my doorstep." She leaned against the house and sighed. "I cannot stay long, there's much to do before the day's end."

Aldreda placed a wrinkled hand on Saiya's shoulder, pressing her lips together. "Whatever you've got yourself into, know that you can always come to me. I'll do what I can." The elderly woman smiled. "Hell, Walter might not look it but he can still conjure a few spells."

Saiya rushed forward, wrapping weary arms around her closest friend. "Thank you," She hoarsely whispered. "I don't deserve your kindness."

"Oh shut it. You don't deserve this little bundle of joy but it couldn't ask for a better mother." Aldreda chuckled softly. Her bristly hair smelled of wood smoke and beef stew. It was a homely, cozy scent that made Saiya's chest ache for those simpler times before her world fell apart.

She abruptly released the old woman and turned away, wiping her eyes. "I... I cannot tarry if I'm to return before nightfall." Aldreda frowned. "Will you? Return, that is." Saiya paused, shoulders sagging. "I'm not sure," She replied quietly.

"If you don't, I'll come after you," Aldreda warned. "And then you'll be sorry."

Saiya laughed, feeling a great weight lift from her. "Now I have no choice in the matter."

The old woman patted the baby on the back and watched her friend fade down the sooty avenue. "You never did, once you came into my life," Her voice quavered slightly. "Just make sure you come back to us."

Once out of sight, Saiya sagged against a weathered signpost and dropped the unsteady illusion masking the gnarled horns curling from her sweaty brow. Any hold on the infernal power was slipping, struggling to break free. Exhaustion and hunger raged against sanity, defying reason as powerful impulses threatened to reign unchecked.

"Must reach the church..." She panted, voice deepening into a bestial growl. Legs thickened as the malformed creature staggered towards the destination, ankles bending inward as bones twisted into a hooked shape. Power swelled in those limbs, a raw strength begging to be unleashed. Nothing can stop you, the darkness hissed. Drag your prey onto the roofs and feed where no one will see.

A forked tongue lolled from her drooling mouth, imagining ripping a tender throat open and savoring the warm juices. And the soul... Such a delicacy, a rich dessert to top off a meal of exquisite flesh.

Remember our agreement.
Her sharp voice cut through the haze, bringing Saiya back. "I remember," She hissed and took another unsteady step. Focus on my words, Jocasa entreated. You've done well, just endure this a bit longer.

"It hurts..." Saiya moaned, feeling the savage desires swelling, tugging pulling at the human form she clung to desperately.

I've never complained once, despite what you've been doing to me. Jocasa sternly reprimanded. Pain is all a part of being human.

The crumbling cathedral was visible now, broken spire poking over the rooftops. See? Not much longer, keep moving and stay out of sight.The straining woman groaned, twisting her head around. "Nobody... here." It was increasingly difficult to form words, let alone thoughts. Saiya violently shook a pounding skull, trying to clear the pulsing umbrage clouding the corners of her vision. If they weren't in the long-abandoned old district, the first person to cross her path would have been reduced to a pile of meat. Perhaps not even that.

Horns scraped against the stone wall as she lurched onward. You can do this, Jocasa said encouragingly. But her spectral voice was growing fainter against the carnal influences which became more persuasive by the minute.

Cracked steps swam into sight, green lichen covering the aging masonry. Shattered pieces of stained glass glinted around the entrance, casting multicolored reflections of a setting sun. Silently, the house of worship overshadowed the hulking creature. Come on! A few more paces and this will all be over. Jocasa cheered, seeming more muffled and distant than before.

Another voice whispered, soothing the roiling madness. But is that really what you want? To chain yourself again? Saiya lifted a clawed foot and hesitated. It would be such a relief to finally release, giving in to caged appetites.

Don't do it, Jocasa begged. Think of the promises you made, all those counting on you.

They are not your friends, your family, your kind. Don't be fooled by the memories of another, there will never be a place in this world for you.
It massaged her tortured psyche, preying on long-held doubts. You've honored the contract. Be free.

Throwing her head back, Saiya roared in anguish at the evening sky and tore her hair as the battle raged within.

* * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * *

Gabriel whistled a tune, strolling down a crumbling street as dusk drained color from the overcast sky. The unimaginable had occurred. A concept he considered far beyond the realms of possibility. He was having fun.

When was the last time his pulse quickened at the thought of cornering prey? It must have been months, perhaps even years. Apathy had blinded him. He forgot how drinking away sorrows can also drown the good memories. There must have been something in the air to make him feel so nostalgic, recalling the jittery rush of chases and the satisfaction in outfoxing a crafty opponent. It wasn’t about making coin tonight.

It was about power, about dominance, about control. He needed to stare evil in the eyes and dispel it with naught but wits and mortality. Wasn’t that the crux of Gregor’s teachings? To be the last bastion between the realms of man and monster? He preached the merits of humanity, the indomitable spirit that came forth when all seemed hopeless.

Time must have played a cruel joke on him.

It seemed only yesterday that Gabriel was sitting with the other snot-nosed whelps, ink-stained fingers furiously scribbling the words of his mentor. He could still recall the way Gregor's blue eyes lit up, scarred hands waving to the fledgling apprentices sitting before him. What was it that he was always saying? "When the time comes you will know what path to take, what choice to make when every option is unthinkable."

The hunter snorted. "Fancy way to say pick the decision you can live with." Beside him, a team of horses pulled a creaky carriage. It was adorned with countless black feathers and hand-written signs advertising arrow fletching services.

Gabriel glanced at the rattling wagon and resumed whistling. Another old memory resurfaced, begging him to drink deeply from the waters of recollection. What caused this childhood treasure to rear its head? It was such a strange day that he almost agreed to bask in it. Almost.

He heard a peculiar pitch, a musical note that nearly blended in with his own. It sounded... oddly familiar.

Jerking backward, the hunter felt a burning line score his cheekbone. Sparks flew as the object struck the stone wall and clattered onto the uneven road. A broken arrow lay at his feet. He blinked, blood pounding in his eardrums.

From inside the carriage, a bow creaked as it was drawn back. Then the hunter was frantically running, diving, rolling away from the deadly darts whistling past. Down the street, a charcoal seller was making a stack of logs. Seeing the commotion, he fled into his store.

Taking cover behind the woodpile, Gabriel quickly rummaged through his pockets. “Damned idiot,” He spat. “Nearly got yourself ensnared by a simple memory charm.” Missiles thudded into the logs, but he also heard orders shouted and feet moving, lots of feet. Someone had brought down the fury of a small army.

Fingers closed on a tiny bottle. He yanked it out, tugging the cork with his teeth. The green container was unresponsive. “Come on,” He muttered. “If this works, I’ll never say anything bad about your alchemy again.” Another wave sent shudders through the log barrier. Splinters rained down, stinging his bleeding cheek.

A faint whine emerged from the open stem, causing the bottle to vibrate as it grew louder. Tossing it behind him, Gabriel tensed, waiting for the shatter.

It tinkled faintly. Then a massive plume of emerald smoke erupted, engulfing the street and its occupants. Sprinting from cover, the hunter ducked as the ambushers loosed a few more arrows into the vapor. They might be choking on that distraction, but it wouldn’t last long. He could already hear his attackers giving chase.

Sounds erupted from a bustling tavern as a drunken peasant shoved open a door. Shoving the tipsy man aside, the hunter stumbled into the alehouse and found himself in the middle of a wedding celebration.

The happy couple sashayed in the middle of an adoring crowd. A few friendly faces asked the stranger to stay for a drink, hoisting glasses high as they sang along. Angry cries and the coughing outside grew closer. “Do you have an exit in the back?” He questioned a passing barmaid. She saw the urgency on his face and raised an arm.

Beer sloshed on his jerkin as he wrestled with the sweaty celebrants, someone threw a half-eaten meat pie at Gabriel, narrowly missing a red-faced girl, who tried to pull him into a dance, pouting at the rejection.

Then he was clattering through the stuffy kitchen and out into the twilight beyond.

Brown rats scurried behind a heaping pile of rubbish, beady eyes watching the unwelcome intruder dash over stale bread and slimy chicken legs. His dark cloak billowed, ragged ends waving like a sooty apparition. A raven croaked from the rooftops as the hunter dashed down the side street, darting around two vagabonds sharing a bottle.

Torchlight flickered in the distance, lamplighters banishing the creeping gloom. But no amount of flame could dispel the mysterious darkness pooling at the end of the passageway. Shadows coalesced, forming human shapes.

Witnessing this, the vagrants hurriedly turned tail and fled. The hunter slowed to a halt. Glancing over his shoulder answered the question he feared most. Silhouettes poured from the tavern exit, fanning out into the narrow alleyway. Blades glinted wickedly, begging to be bathed in blood. Gabriel reached down at his sides and unsheathed a pair of short swords. "Been some time since we've been in this situation," He muttered to the trusty weapons. They said nothing, shining faintly in the dim light.

A boy slipped out from the living darkness, shedding shadows as if discarding a robe. He wore an oversized cap that covered a mop of shaggy yellow hair and a roguish smile that didn't quite reach his cold eyes. "You must be the outsider we've heard so much about."

Gabriel gave no reply, carefully observing the restless figures behind the blonde leader.

"Imp got your tongue?" Kanan chuckled. "What a shame, I was hoping you would be up for a little wager." He took out a knife and began trimming the dirt beneath his fingernails.

"I have no quarrel with you or your subordinates," Gabriel calmly stated. "I'm sure we would both prefer a bloodless outcome."

Tilting his head, Kanan pretended to think this over. "Hmmm.... What a novel idea. It would certainly be in your interest, seeing as we have you surrounded and outnumbered." He then began to pick his teeth with the blade. "But," The boy mumbled around the piece of steel. "You should know we don't look favorably on newcomers bursting in and acting like they own the place." Spitting out some gristle, he put the knife away and shrugged. "Salted pork, awfully tasty but never fails to get caught in my teeth."

Gabriel clenched his jaw, but his voice gave no sign of irritation. "My deepest apologies, I meant no offense. If you allow me to finish my work, I will be gone before daybreak."

Kanan grinned, the gloating face of a man holding a winning hand. "I just can't let you do that, you see. It's a personal matter." He pulled out a pair of brown leather gloves and slipped them on.

"It always is," Gabriel snorted. "So what now? You'll let me go if I stand on my head and cluck like a chicken?"

Clapping twice, Kanan waited momentarily as an associate provided a chair. Then he sat, gloved hands folded before a gleeful expression. "While that would amuse me to no end, I would rather see how you fare against three of my best Ravens. I've gone so long without any sort of diversion, so make it a thrilling fight for me. Could you do that, old timer?"

Sheathing one blade, the hunter reached into a pocket and removed a pair of glasses. The assassins tensed and moved forward, ready to strike. Kanan made no motion. Gabriel put a hand up and showed everyone the spectacles. "Easy, now. Have pity on an aging man and his failing eyesight."

Kanan raised a few fingers and the Ravens reluctantly backed down. "I trust you understand the situation? No tricks now, you'll never escape."

Gabriel nodded impatiently. "Yes yes, I'm quite aware. I haven't lived this long by making foolish mistakes." Pulling off his wide-brimmed hat, he tossed it away and grimly faced his opponents.

The boy snapped his fingers. Three figures stepped forward, clutching a variety of deadly armaments. A slim girl swung an iron chain ending in a hooked blade, a stocky lad held a double-headed axe, while the last assassin clutched a repeating crossbow. They looked to Kanan, waiting for a command to begin the slaughter.

"Good luck, outsider. I hope you're ready," He leered before pounding a fist on the chair. "Begin!"

Chains jangled as the girl rapidly spun her weapon and flung it toward Gabriel. He neatly sidestepped it, bringing a sword down as it passed. The impact pulled on the chain, yanking the wielder forward. But before he could follow up on the opening, bolts whizzed by his face. Gabriel twisted, deflecting one with his swords. Roaring, the axe bearer charged forward and swung a heavy blow.

Gabriel retreated, putting the burly attacker between him and the crossbow. The girl whipped the chain. He scarcely dodged the hooked razor, losing a few hairs as it hummed over his scalp. Again, the axe plunged towards him. It struck the cobblestones, sending a shower of sparks flying. Rolling away, Gabriel leaped to his feet as another wave of crossbow bolts whistled through the air.

They were relentless, forcing him to engage in a defensive dance as he circled, parried, and dodged each potentially fatal blow. It was a battle of endurance, testing the extent of his stamina. Sweat beaded his brow, stinging as it trickled into a wounded cheek.

A bolt whined, ricocheting off the ground. He jumped over it and slashed at the muscular assassin, who blocked the sword with his massive cleaver. Chains rattled. Gabriel dropped to the ground as the flying blade severed the air he occupied a split second ago. He rolled away, escaping another powerful axe strike. It clanged against the cobbled ground, sending chips and stone dust flying.

Finally, an opportunity.

Gabriel kicked the strongman in the face, feeling bone crunch against his boot. Snarling like a wounded animal, the Raven raised his weapon. The hunter shrank back and sprang to the side, swords crossed in preparation for a counterattack. But no missiles flew, no hooked blade swang. Where did they go? Gabriel blinked, eyes scanning the area.

"Not bad, old man," The axe wielder gave him a bloody grin, broken nose gushing scarlet fluid. "Looks like we'll have to try something new." After wiping his face, the muscular assassin raised a fist and opened it. Ashes tumbled from his open palm, spiraling in the air as he muttered something under his breath. Then he vanished, melting into the shadows that rose, casting a thick gloom over the alley.

It was only a matter of time before they used magic, Gabriel mused. Most likely it was a type of veiling incantation, some minor illusion stolen from an unfortunate conjurer. He held up the twin blades, waiting for the unseen opponents to strike.

A faint rustle, a quiet exhale. Gabriel lunged forward as the ax slammed down behind him. He whirled, glimpsing a disembodied hand pull the weapon back into the darkness. There was a slight flicker, a thin outline as the beefy warrior moved through the gloom. "Got you," The hunter crowed and stabbed at the imposing figure. A hooked blade lashed out, snagging the sword and ripping it from his grasp.

He flinched, expecting the bolts to come flying. But the third assassin was strangely absent. Gabriel squinted through the glasses, spotting a vaguely girl-shaped blur and the larger one. Then the crossbow wielder faded into view, amorphous hands stuffing bolts into the weapon as he reloaded it.

Rushing towards the girl, he feinted and swung his remaining sword at the axeman. The lumbering assassin dodged away, expecting a second attack. But Gabriel threw the blade, sending it spinning end over end until it plunged into the chest of the unsuspecting archer.

A wet cough, a rasping gasp, and then a soft thud.

Before the others could react, Gabriel somersaulted, rolling towards the fallen sword. Seeing this, the other two raced forward and lashed out. The hooked blade sliced his shoulder, ripping it open. He winced, snatching the chain and dragging himself away from the axe.

Pieces of rubble scattered as it smashed the ground where his head used to be. Off-balance, the girl stumbled forward as Gabriel pulled the chain, bumping into the axeman as he lifted the heavy weapon. Another opening. He sliced the man's leg, carving the tendons. The brawny assassin collapsed on one knee, sending the cleaver in a wide arc. "I'll kill you for that!" He screamed, clutching the maimed limb.

Jumping away, the girl yanked the chain out of Gabriel's grasp and swung it in a circle. He grasped his wounded shoulder and ducked under the whirling blade, hiding behind the hamstrung axman. "How are you able to see us?" She wondered, bringing the dangling razor back.

"Trade secret," Gabriel quipped. He stepped out of reach as muscular arms shot out, trying to catch him. "Not bad, axe man." The crippled assassin snarled and tried to lift the massive weapon. Iron links jangled musically. This time, Gabriel made no move to dodge the hooked blade. Instead, he held his sword like a bat and struck the weapon in midair.

It bounced off, careening towards the axeman. He flinched as the hook swept by. It missed him, wrapping the chain around his neck. The girl yanked it back, realizing her mistake too late.

The blade spun around and neatly sliced a circle around her comrade's neck. She shrieked as his head dropped to the ground with a meaty impact. "Kanan..." Her voice cracked with sobs. "I - I didn't mean to-"

The leader of the Umbral Ravens gestured to the others. They pulled her away, thrashing and crying. "Please! I didn't know it was going to happen, I didn't mean to kill one of our own!" A brief moment later, she fell silent.

Kanan stood, slowly clapping as the hunter retrieved his sword from the archer's chest. "Bravo, sir. I had high hopes, but you have far exceeded them."

Gabriel grunted, holding his oozing shoulder. "You'll honor your side of the wager then?"

Kanan pursed his lips and tapped his chin. "I recall saying something about no tricks, but I should also mention you only managed to dispatch one out of the three." He shrugged. "Better luck next time."

Raising a gore-covered sword, Gabriel shook his head defiantly. "I refuse to accept that. Let's cross blades, you and I."

He laughed, wiping away tears of mirth. "I have a better idea." Lifting one of his gloved hands, Kanan spread his fingers and pulled.

With a faint whoosh, the ensorcelled spectacles flew from Gabriel's nose and landed neatly in the boy's grasp. "Why thank you for the gift!" Kanan exclaimed. He placed them on his face and peered around with mild curiosity. "Ah, I can see how you managed to get the best of them. These are quite marvelous!"

Gabriel scowled, feeling painfully vulnerable without the magical item. "Neat trick... for a coward." His arm throbbed, a burning sensation creeping down from his lacerated shoulder.

Narrowing his eyes, Kanan discarded the fake cheer. "Of course I am. We all are, we fight from the shadows. Tell me brave soul, what kind of things do cowards use? How does your wound feel?"

Glancing at the gash, the hunter realized his arm had gone numb. "Poison," He spat. "I should have known."

Kanan smiled, face contorting into a sneering mask. "Why would I fight a dead man? You only have a few minutes left, if that."

It was Gabriel's turn to gloat now. He reached into his pocket and retrieved a small bottle, letting it dangle by the cork. "How fortunate that I have a potion to cure all toxins. And you thought you were so clever."

The boy curled his lips, eyes dark with fury. His fingers twitched as an invisible hand snatched the container from the hunter's grasp. It spun in the air and arced towards the enchanted gloves. Kanan caught it with ease, waving the bottle tantalizingly. "You were saying?:

Gabriel slowly backed away, holding the cork. "I did say I had a potion to cure my problem, but I never said that was it."

The bottle fizzled. Kanan turned it over, glancing at the label. He froze, eyes widening in realization. 'Mikael's Colossal Combustion,' the small handwritten note proclaimed.

"Well shit," The boy murmured, right before the concoction detonated.

* * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * *

Saiya stirred, groaning in discomfort.

Her whole body ached, sharp twinges and agonizing throbs assaulting every inch of muscle. She rolled over, feeling something digging into her ribs. It was a half-melted candle. Eyes focusing, she blinked as her vision cleared. The remnants of an altar encircled the confused woman, candles marking various points of the abstract ring. There was an esoteric nature to the design. Gradually, the answer dawned on her.

She was inside the ruined cathedral, laying within the binding circle they created years ago. Drafts blew in from shattered windows, threads of rotting linen waved atop dusty statues, broken pews lay scattered and empty. "Jocosa?" Saiya called out hesitantly.

Look who decided to come around.
The voice sounded weak and weary but her spirit was still firmly resolute. "What happened?" Saiya slowly sat up, hissing as limbs painfully protested. What do you think?

"I'm not in the mood for games right now," She complained, cradling a woozy head that threatened to split open at any second. Jocasa didn't reply. "You never shut up when I want you to, and now I can't get you to talk." Saiya grumbled. Hugging her knees felt good, this body couldn't fall apart as long as she squeezed it together. The cold breeze was a revelation, soothing the hot aches and pains.

"Nothing? No snarky reply?" Saiya frowned, feeling uneasy. "What's gotten into you?"

There was a long silence before Jocosa spoke. Do you really feel that way? That there's no place for you here?

Taken aback, the battered woman struggled to find a response. "Sometimes," She admitted. "It's not easy to pretend around people who had a history with you. I always think they'll suspect something and it makes me feel even more isolated. As if being a demon wasn't bad enough."

But you aren't. Not any more. There's more of me inside you than you realize.
Jocosa insisted.

"I realize plenty. Some days I don't even know if I'm behind the face I see in the mirror. Your memories overlap with mine." Rubbing her tender head, Saiya gradually began feeling more herself and less like a horse trampled her.

You've become more human than any beast I've encountered.

"I doubt the aberration hunters will see it that way," Saiya muttered morosely. "I still say we leave while we still have our skins."

We stay. The spirit commanded. I will not hear any more talk of running away.

"Easy for you to say, you're just a voice in my head. I actually have to survive out here." Saiya hissed. Her face flushed, clenching hands into fists. It was always like this. Neither could agree on anything unless the situation demanded it. She held her anger for a moment before releasing it, feeling too drained to feed the flames.

This is our home. Not yours, or mine. Ours. We aren't leaving it for anyone.

"And what if staying is a death sentence?" Saiya pleaded, trying to reason with the obstinant specter.

Then so be it. You agreed to this long ago. What happened to that resolve?

Slumping to the dusty floor, Saiya let out a deep sigh of resignation. "I did, didn't I..." Cobwebs quivered, dangling from the rafters above. She observed them and pondered her options. "But you saw what happened when I used up what little power I had. There was nothing left to control myself."

You have me. Jocosa pointed out. We always knew it would come to that, one day.

"I told you I wasn't going to let it happen," Saiya growled defiantly. "We will find another way."

Jocasa laughed, a bittersweet sound that rang more somber than cheerful. And you insist on calling me a fool. We're out of time.

There was a thunderclap in the distance. A great force shook the cathedral, knocking over several statues and causing the pews to shift. Saiya flinched, expecting the roof to crumble. But the tremors ceased almost as quickly as they started. She gazed around in shock, wondering what could have caused such a disturbance.

"This isn't finished," Saiya said uneasily. "We're going to settle this once we're back home."

You seem awfully confident. Jocasa remarked, a touch of amusement in her voice.

"Must get it from this pig-headed woman I know." She shot back. But Saiya couldn't help but smile, even if it hurt her face to do so.

The crescent moon had nearly reached its zenith when the sore woman limped back to a certain shabby hut. Aldreda was appalled at the mottled bruises that Saiya sported, insisting that Walter should walk her home in case some ruffians tried to accost her again. "Everything is okay, honestly," Saiya clasped the old lady's hands in hers. "I promise to explain everything soon."

While this slightly mollified her, Aldreda was still not content until she forced her husband to cast a protection charm over Saiya. Once this was arranged, she fetched the sleepy baby from her room. "He's been a little angel. You can bring him by whenever you like, sometimes my old heart needs warmth too."

After saying her goodbyes to the elderly couple, Saiya hugged the infant tightly and began the long trek home. The journey had never felt so long. Each painful step was weighed down by the endless fears and doubts plaguing her, filling an overactive mind with uncertainties and unpleasant scenarios. "I hope you're right," She sighed. "No point in running now, anyway."

A few streets away from her humble dwelling, a man stood waiting for her. It was one of the Ravens. He held a hand to his side, where dark fluid seeped through the wool tunic. She approached him warily, not recognizing his face. "Kanan-" The assassin coughed into his arm. "Kanan said to find you if things didn't go as planned."

Saiya frowned, glancing around the quiet neighborhood. "Where is he? Kanan's usually the one to meet with me." The Raven looked at the ground. "I'm... not sure. We had the upper hand and then it just... w-we couldn't stop him." He met her gaze, eyes wide and frightened. "You aren't safe here. If we can't protect you, nobody else has a ghost of a chance."

Her stomach twisted, feeling as if the earth opened up and she was falling into an abyss. "There's a place I can take you, a safe house that only appears if you know the words." The Raven grimaced and put more pressure on his stomach. "It's not far. He said it was the least he could do, if all else failed."

Saiya swallowed hard, trying to maintain her composure. "Very well," She blurted. "Our lives are in your hands."

The Raven coughed again. A confused look crept across his face as he tried to clear his throat. Coughing became gurgling, blood bubbling around the metal bolt that extended from his neck.

He took an unsteady step backward. "R..r...ru-" The word refused to come out, caught in his windpipe. Sinking to the ground, he began to convulse as a cloaked figure in the distance reloaded his crossbow. Saiya saw him approach, a walking annihilation. The living embodiment of death. She witnessed her demise and did the only thing she could do.


* * * * * * * * * * * * * * * *

Gabriel cocked the weapon with his good arm and gazed down the sights. The woman had fled, which was a shame. He missed the first shot, unable to hold the crossbow steady. But it didn't matter. She couldn't go far and he had all night.

The awful rejuvenating potion lingered in his mouth, a bitter elixir that acted slower than he'd like. But at least it numbed the pain and kept him moving. Now only two bottles remained from dear old Mikael. He was much more reliable than Gabriel expected, that explosive alchemy was both majestic and terrifying. If that bottle shattered during the fight...

He didn't want to think about it. All that mattered was removing another demon from the world, collecting his payment, and feasting like a king. The thought of a soft bed and warm bread was all the encouragement he needed. If only that damned brat hadn't stolen his spectacles. At least he got his comeuppance.

Stretching his arms, he cracked his neck and sighed. It was a while since he felt this good. "Must be finally kicking in," Gabriel observed, rubbing his bad shoulder. Perfect. By the time he cornered his prey, this body would be ready for anything.

* * * * * * * * * * *

Stopping to catch her breath, Saiya found herself in front of a bakery. The shop was dark and empty, displaying shelves with plenty of crumbs but no loaves. It was locked. She whirled, expecting to see the hunter bearing down on her. But nobody was behind her, only a stray cat.

She sank to her haunches, fighting to prevent a flood of tears from spilling out. It was hopeless. There was no escaping from someone like him.

Saiya. It's time. Jocasa said gently. She shook her head, not wanting to hear it. "Please, there has to be something else we can do."

Why do you insist on delaying the inevitable? It's exasperating.

"I'm afraid that you're the only thing holding me together." Saiya bit her lip. "My world is crumbling around me. I was never the strong one. You've always been there."

And I always will. You can't let fear hold you back.

"Fear has kept us alive this far," Saiya countered. The cat padded closer, mewing hopefully. She scratched it behind the ears as it purred.

Do you trust me?

"Always," She choked, throat congested with emotion. "But maybe I don't want to go on without you."

And leave them behind? Don't be selfish. We did this for a reason.

"Yeah," Saiya stared at the baby. "I know."

Are you ready?

Wiping her eyes, Saiya nodded wordlessly.

There's not much left, but it should be enough.

Tilting her head back, Saiya let the infernal nature take hold. Sensing this, the cat hissed and raced away. The woman sighed longingly, steam rising from her open mouth. Her eyes clouded, darkening into an obsidian void as she began to feed on the spirit within her.

* * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * *

The hunter was quietly roaming the Merchant's Quarter when a hairy shadow sped over his feet, spitting and hissing like a hellion. The sudden appearance startled Gabriel, nearly sending a bolt after the frightened animal. "Stupid cat," He snapped. "What's got you so riled up?" Then the possibility occurred to him.

Holding the crossbow at the ready, Gabriel slowly rounded the corner and peered at the shops lining the deserted street. A figure was sitting on the steps, head facing the sky. A baby squirmed in her grasp. "Cursed wretch," He muttered. "Thought you were going to have a midnight snack?" Raising the weapon, he held his breath for a moment.

Then fired.

The demon's head snapped in his direction, arm raised defensively. It screeched angrily as the bolt plunged into her hand, passing clean through. Before he could reload, it sprang to the rooftops and vanished. Gone again. And it took the baby too. He swore furiously, wishing the damn beast would have just accepted its fate.

But at least now he had a trail to follow. The crimson drops glistened beneath the silvery moon, paving his way to victory.

* * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * *

Ripping off a piece of her skirt, Saiya wrapped the cloth around her mangled hand. Pigeons cooed from their nests atop the roof, fearful of the stranger. Gritting her teeth, she pulled the knot tight and gasped. The sudden pain made her reel, nearly sending her off the edge.

What happened...
Jocasa whispered feebly.

"He came for us while we were busy." Saiya ground out, trying to ignore the tormenting waves ebbing from her palm.

Should have... been quicker...

"Tell me something I don't know," She grimaced, holding the infant with her wounded arm. "At this rate, I don't know if either of us will survive the night."


"That's the idea. I'd just rather not lead him straight there." Freezing suddenly, she listened carefully before laying flat against the roof. Footsteps clacked against the cobblestones below, a pair of heavy boots moving toward her position. Then they stopped altogether. Holding her breath, Saiya waited to hear a bolt whizzing by or a sword sliding from its sheath. Surely he knew she was hiding up here. Why else was he waiting down below?

A long minute passed. He was climbing, she thought. Climbing to the roof with a dagger in his teeth and murder in his eyes. Her legs grew restless, urging to bolt, make a run for it. Just as she was about to burst from hiding, the footsteps began again, shifting away as the hunter continued down the winding avenue.

It wasn't until the sounds faded that she dared to take a gasping breath of sweet air.

"Come on Jocosa," She wheezed. "Let's get you home." Clinging to what little she had left, Saiya slipped over the rooftops and made her way to the little house that contained their entire world.

Smoke curled lazily from the chimney, wildflowers spilling over the little path, smudged windows glowing a soft yellow. It felt like the journey's end, a happy relief washing over her. But just to be safe, she went around the back. The wooden door creaked open as she undid the latch. Inside the little cottage, a cheery fire crackled. The orange flames illuminated a cluster of sleeping children, each wrapped in a blanket and snoring quietly. All except for an older boy, who sat by the hearth and tended the fire.

Giles lifted his head, seeing Saiya come in. "Thought you wouldn't show. I gave them dinner and sent them to bed, figured you were caught up in something." His only eye lingered on her bruises and bandaged hand. "What happened to you?"

She shook her head and sat by the fire, basking in the warmth. "It's a long story," She sighed. "Just relieved to be here." Pointing her chin at the dozing youngsters, Saiya asked how market day went. He thought it over as he adjusted his makeshift eyepatch.

"Pretty well. They had a good time, got some sweet buns and watched the jugglers and puppet shows. We all wondered where you went, last we knew you were going to find some meat pies and never returned." He studied her carefully. Saiya gently rocked the baby and gave no reply.

"The Ravens came by earlier, too. Something about a stranger? They wouldn't tell me much." His good eye bored into her, drilling for answers.

She rose, putting the baby in its crib. Giles followed, stony face waiting for an explanation. "Someone sent an assassin after me," Saiya relented. "And I asked the Ravens for help. Things got... complicated and I had to stay away until it was safe to return."

He thought this over for a time and nodded. "Okay," Giles frowned. "But why you? I don't understand."

"I'm not entirely certain myself. It's been a terrible day, we can discuss it after some much needed rest." She smiled and ruffled his hair. He made a face and knocked her hand away. "I'll hold you to that," Giles grumbled and returned to the fire.

"Oh leave it alone, you've stoked it enough." Saiya waggled a finger. "Off to bed with you, mister." He held up the poker. "Just one more."

Shaking her head, she turned away. "You're obsessed. There must be a fire eater in your family tree." Giles half-smiled and stabbed at the coals. They snapped, sparks dancing up into the chimney. "Alright, all done." He said reluctantly.

The fire hissed, pale smoke spilling out and spreading over the floor. Orange flames grew hotter, turning a bright blue. Giles stood up, perplexed.

Saiya saw the fumes escaping the chimney and rushed over. "What have you done? I told you to leave it alone," She scolded the boy. He scratched his head in confusion. "I didn't do anything, I swear!"

The pale smoke stung her nose and throat, making her dizzy. "Put it-" She coughed. "Put it out! Get the water." He rushed over to the washbasin and filled a bucket with soapy water. Saiya backed away from the noxious fumes, sputtering for breath. He dumped the water on the coals, but it did little to dampen the indigo flames.

"It's not working!" Giles turned to her, biting his nails. She opened her mouth to say something but another wave of suffocating vapor smothered her words. "Are you alright?" He tugged on her arm, eye wide with panic.

The door swung open. A cloaked figure loomed in the entrance. Blue light played across his lined face, giving it a ghoulish appearance. He grinned widely. "Well well, what have we here?"

"Giles-" Saiya gasped. "Take the children... into my room." He looked from the stranger back to her. "B-but-"

She pushed him roughly. "Do it!" Giles opened his mouth and then began pulling the half-awake youngsters into the room. Saiya faced the hunter, putting a rag to her mouth as the smoke stung her eyes. "Please... they're just children. Don't hurt them."

Gabriel shrugged indifferently. "Never intended to. You on the other hand..." He unsheathed a sword, holding the crossbow in the other hand. "You've led me on a merry chase now, haven't you? Even sending a nasty group of assassins after me. But I plucked those Ravens and roasted them real good." He laughed roughly.

The pale smoke now filled the room, giving Saiya no fresh air to breathe. She sank to the ground, dizzy and weakened. Pointing to the fire with his sword, Gabriel chuckled. "That's a new trick of mine, courtesy of an old friend. We might do business long-term now I know what he can do."

Saiya wheezed from the floor. "Please," She rasped. "I'm not what you think..."

He groaned and looked skyward. "If I had a copper for every time one of you begged for mercy..." Raising the crossbow, Gabriel tilted his head. "Any last words?"

Saiya. Jocosa murmured. Give me control.

"He's too strong," She mumbled. "You'll die." Gabriel frowned, suspecting the substance made her delirious.

Worth a try.

Sinking back into the mind's depths, Saiya relinquished the body to its previous owner. The woman blinked a few times and sat up. Gabriel tensed, ready to put a bolt in her brain. But something was different. Was he imagining it? It seemed her eye color did change. A brilliant green stared up at him, sparkling with excitement.

"It's been some time since I've been back in my old self." Jocosa sighed, opening and closing her hands. She felt her hair, patted her stomach, and tugged at her ears. "Not much has changed it seems." She stood, wobbling a bit uneasily before finding her footing.

"One move and you'll be all over the walls," Gabriel warned the strange woman, who ignored him and seated herself in a rocking chair. He was growing less and less sure of this whole affair by the moment. She seemed unaffected by the smoke, which was bizarre. It was guaranteed to weaken demons, hell it was pretty damn effective a minute ago.

"What... are you?" He asked, tracking her movements the crossbow as she swayed back and forth in the chair.

Jocosa raised an eyebrow. "Curious, are we? If you want to know my story, I'd be happy to share it with you."

Gabriel considered taking her head and being done with this nightmare. He came this far, why not see it through? Still, he never encountered a demon quite like this one before. He pulled up a chair, back to the wall, and rested the crossbow on his knee. "Talk then. But make it quick."

Jocosa leaned back and clasped her hands. "Let me tell you a story about a dying woman."

"Once upon a time, there was a woman who worked in the fields. Her husband was a miller and ground wheat into flour, coming home each day with white hair and dusty clothes. One day, a rich merchant came into town and invited the miller to go hunting with him. We will talk business, he said. Accompany me on a merry hunt and we will return and celebrate our good fortune afterward.

The miller was overjoyed at the prospect, seeing an opportunity to expand with the funding and knowledge of a capable trader. Although his wife wasn't sure about his new friend, she could not deny it was a good chance. So off the miller went, riding alongside the merchant.

It seemed like all was well in the world, until the miller's horse saw a snake and tossed him. When the unfortunate man tried to get back on his steed, the panicked animal bucked, kicking him in the head and killing him instantly.

The merchant was beside himself and tried to console the weeping widow, bringing her lavish furs and exquisite dresses. But he was soon gone as well, off to another kingdom to further his business. The widow loved her furs, despite the circumstances behind them. But alas, she became ill and began wasting away. The doctors revealed she was with child, but what of the sickness?

It was the furs. The well-meaning merchant had unknowingly purchased some that were cured with mercury. Each day the widow wore them, the poison ate away at her body until it was too late. Baring her husband's child and growing frailer by the day, the desperate woman turned to the forbidden arts for help.

Summoning a wicked demon, she forged a contract bound in blood. If the fiend was to see that her life was long enough to raise her child, the widow would gladly exchange her soul. And thus, the pact was made.

But as the years went by, the demon became more and more accustomed to life on earth. Instead of taking her soul all at once, the infernal creature agreed to slowly consume her essence a piece at a time in order to extend the contract to its fullest. The woman raised her child and began taking in the street urchins that had no home of their own.

Her soul was slowly devoured, causing the demon to manage more and more of her life as she wasted away in spirit but not in mind or body. Each time the creature partook of her, it also acquired her memories. Perhaps it was a result of the slow process? Or it was a result of the many years spent sharing one body?

But nevertheless, the demon started to grow more human by the day. Now it scarcely needed to feed, only requiring it when great power was needed. It seemed that life had reached an equilibrium for them both. Until a hunter crossed paths with them... and the rest... you know."

Jocasa finished her tale, eyes no longer bright. Her voice was softer, faltering, and weak. She turned to the hunter, who sat expressionless during the entire story. The fire was nothing more than a few scant coals, no longer giving off any pale smoke.

"What say you now... hunter?" She smiled feebly. "Are we a threat to you or others? Will you finish the job, knowing our secret?"

Gabriel stood, eyes glittering. "You think I'm to believe a fairytale you spun to save your skin? Demons are habitual liars, why should you be any different." He gripped the crossbow, hands ready to deliver judgment.

"If this is what you wish, then please... take care of the little ones." Jocasa entreated him. "Whatever sins you think I've committed, they are innocent."

His finger quivered on the trigger, torn between redemption or damnation. A familiar voice swam into his head."When the time comes you will know what path to take, what choice to make when every option is unthinkable."

The hunter clenched his jaw, grinding his teeth with indecision. "I'm really sorry," Gabriel said mournfully. She closed her eyes as he pulled the trigger.

There was a soft thud as the bolt vanished into the fireplace. He slung the weapon on his back, turning to leave. A small voice gasped. Looking down, Gabriel saw that the children had left the room at some point during the story, witnessing the whole thing. Some of the faces he recognized as the rascals who soaked him earlier that day.

"Be good," He gruffly addressed them. "Or I'll have to come back."

They all nodded gravely.

Gabriel felt like he made the best and worst decision possible. It would be some time before he could sort out the violent turmoil churning within. He tipped his wide-brimmed hat at the children and stepped through the door before he changed his mind.

"Wait!" It was a different voice, belonging to the demon. He tensed, ready to unleash a killing blow. But Saiya pressed something into his hand and smiled. "A token of our gratitude. I can't do it often, but sometimes I can use a little magic of my own."

He glanced at it. A golden crown lay there, glinting regally. "I can't accept this-" Gabriel started but she waved away all protests.

"Think of it as payment for hunting a dangerous monster and fighting a horde of assassins," She winked. He closed his hand around the coin and nodded. "Take care," The hunter said awkwardly, before leaving the little house behind. If he turned back, he would have seen all the children waving enthusiastically.

Gabriel wandered the streets for a time as the sun rose, pondering the events and questioning if it all really happened. He glanced at the coin now and then, just to remind him of his sanity. Could man and monster really co-exist, he wondered? What other unlikely events would he stumble across? The thoughts rattled his brain until he could no longer think straight.

Passing by a familiar bench, Gabriel came across a beggar. The emaciated man held out a tin cup. “Alms for the down-trodden, good sir?” Then he recognized the hunter and shrank back. "My apologies, I didn't mean to-"

There was a deep thunk as something landed in the metal mug.

Gabriel walked away as the beggar thanked him profusely, shouting well-wishes that followed him down the street. He reached into his pocket and shook the coin purse. It sounded awfully light, as if he could only afford a mug of the cheapest ale and some stale bread. But on a day like this, he mused, those will suit me just fine.

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