Heavy breath on the back of the neck, Nikki feels as though the world is bearing down on her. It’s hot and sweaty and raw and red and everything is melted butter. She levels eyes at the red hot poker of a demon. Try it, hellspawn, she moans, words whimpering their way past her lips, soft, limp, useless. All confidence lost, all drained and frittered away into windswept ashes.
The tears felt blood-soaked, hot, wet, thick. Salt lines dribbling down cheeks. They could well have been. The sky was burning enough. Smoke, all cloying and lung-tearing filled the hirozen above a muted orange blur. Someone had seared the sky itself, tore it open, ragged and raw. Ripped and bloody. Like the tears themselves. The sky wept fire and she wept blood.
Twitcher drummed a tattoo on the table with his fingers. Budda-budda-budda. Budda-budda-budda. She watched him, straight backed, tense as a bowstring. Budda-budda-budda. Budda-budda-budda. He never stopped moving, this seething, rawboned bundle of limbs. She knew him, had split blood alongside him. Loved him, hated him. Feared him. Budda-budda-budda. Budda-budda-budda. They’d stared down hellspawn together, grasping bitey demons, all soul-hungry and teeth. She didn’t trust him. Didn’t trust his fingers. Budda-budda-budda. Budda-budda-budda. She shifted her weight, feeling cold-steel against the inside of her thigh. One quick thrust. One hot spurt.
Budda-budda-budda. Budda-budda-budda. Budda-budda-budda. Budda-budda-budda.
Her heart burned, fire gripped and twisted. Dark things nipped at the edges of her soul. She bowed her head and walked. Nikki knew no pain, knew no fear. She was past all that. She shrugged her coat around her and walked into the rising sun. Beyond lay the city. ragged and desperate. Home of once and future, but not today. Today she would walk through. Stares and glares would follow her. Mark the black fingernails. The blood encrusted on the scabbards at her waist. She would bow her head and walk. The dark things would not have her.
It’d hadn’t rained in what felt like forever. This time, though, it rained as though making up for lost time. It came down in sheets, buckets, waterfalls. Streams from the sky. God himself was pissing on them all. It wasn’t the clean, cleansing rain that Nikki remembered. There was no starting over to come after this, no washing away the sins and the blood and the death. This rain was filled with all that had gone before it, clogged with ash and dust and the pieces of ruined men. It soaked her to the bone, hot and sticky. Like the air. Like everything had been, for so long now.
She spent the night curled inside the abandoned tyre of some monstorous vehicle. One of the relics of the last days, when war machines tore across the landscape, intent on far away enemies.The rain had let up once or twice, but it poured down again now, heavy thrumming on the thick rubber. She set her blades into the wall of the tyre, now pitted and scared with age. One by one she sharpened them, the slow repititive motion of the wetstone almost soothing in the halflight of the demon fires. She honed her blades, stared into distant lights and was close to peace.
She shouldn’t have travelled the road. She’d seen the signs, the cleared debris, the quenched fires. It seemed to be a road made for travelling, and in the old days it had been a faster way home. She should have known better. It looked to good to be true and so it was. They came slinking from the shadows when she was too far down the road to run back, broken things. Once men and women, now beasts of low cunning and hunger. The things they’d seen and done had shattered their minds. They wanted her body, her meat, her knives. If they had been proper raiders, any of the gangs that looted and plundered with thought and purpose, who fought with plans and care she might have been in serious trouble. These things, though, came at her like a pack of dogs. She stood in the middle of the road, hands free and relaxed, listening to the pounding of her heart. The first died with a thrown spike through it’s throat, the second with one through it’s heart. Then they were upon her, half dozen ravenous hands clutching sharpened metal shards and clubs of bone. She flicked the curved blades from the small of her back and slashed them away.
They howled at her then, screamed, cried out wordless hate. She kicked one back, then took a hand from a wrist. She spun, letting out red hot spurts from those that tried to circle around her. A bludgeon knocked her down, but she was up just as fast, mud and blood flying off her at she leapt at them. She found a neck, an eye, a chest and suddenly they were all down, those not dead twitching and wimpering.
Nikki sighed and laid down her knives. She unloosened the heavy cleavy from her side and set about the bloody task of ensuring no demons crossed the void.
Steam rose from the cracks in the road, sun burning off the nights rain. The air choked, tar fumes and sulphur. She was out in the open, driven forward by the promise of home. Pulling her on, pulling her in. Making her stupid, rash. Sentimental. She should have travelled at night, but home was within reach, as much a home as she’d ever known. Traded enclosing cool for choking steam. She’d wrapped a cloth around her face, but she could still smell it. Still feel it working it’s way down between her lips, attacking her lungs. Her shoulder ached, her chest burned. Nikki pressed on. Pressed on home.
Nikki tapped the bar. The man behind it, the Mayor, produced a large, misshapen clay jug and refilled the slightly rusty tin that passed as a glass with a clear, foul-smelling liquid. She sipped it and nodded. Sipped burnt coals. It tasted right.
Outside, the rain still cascaded from the sky, as though making up for lost time. She was in one of the few places where she felt safe, where she felt at home. The Mayor was serving homebrewed rotgut out of a burnt out department store. She’d once worked right here, behind this very bar. A makeup counter. It seemed like lifetimes ago. It might well have been. Everything was different now.
She hadn’t known The Mayor then. She didn’t think she knew anyone who made their home here. Anyone from before. Most likely they were all dead now, or wandering the Lowlands with their minds burnt out on DevilDust, waiting for demons to take their fast decaying forms. The Mayor had drifted in a few years ago, like everyone else, but with three large, muscular sons at his back and a knowledge of how to make a still from scrap metal. He’d soon been made the communities leader. Hell, for giving them access to fresh booze they would have whipped up a frothing jihad and burnt the country again for him, if he wasn’t content serving drinks in safety. He and his boys kept out the worst of the riff-raff, broke up the fights and keep enough scrap floating in from wanderers who needed a stiff, gut-rotting drink to keep the settlement walls strong and its citizens armed and armoured. He was the closest thing Nikki had ever met to ‘a good man.’
The sheet of rusty corrugated iron that impersonated a door was pushed aside with a drawn out screech. Wet heat flooded in and was cut off with another screech. She watched a hooded figure, dripping, steaming, limp it’s way to the bar and sit down. He put a box of nails on the counter and lifted a finger. The Mayor gave him three tokens and a tin half full of rotgut.
She’d developed a habit around strangers, around everyone. One hand checked the blades at her wrists, a shift of the back reminded her of the curved knives nestled under her jacket, beneath her shoulder blades. A curl of the toes confirmed the spikes in her boot, the long, hard steel against her thigh.
Then the tapping started.
Budda-budda-budda. Budda-budda-budda. Budda-budda-budda.
It echoed inside her skull. The hooded figure slid closer to her, still tapping. Budda-budda-budda.
“Heyyy girl,” it burbled, in a gargled voice that was obviously him, “Been a while.”
“Twitcher,” she said, draining the contents of her tin in one gulp, “You’re supposed to be dead.” Budda-budda-budda.
It turned to her then, like a marionette with a poor puppeteer, “Who says I ain’t?”
She cut Twitcher’s throat when they’d run out of enemies for him to focus on. It was her or him. And now here he was, a Vessel, some Demon’s plaything. She cursed. How could she have been so careless? Some idiotic notion of sentimentality had stopped her from beheading his corpse and now here he was. In her last safe place. In her home. The Mayor was at the other end of the bar, talking with some locals. There would be no help from that front.
The Twitcher-Thing sensed her thoughts, “Ain’t no help coming, girl,” it croaked, old blood welling from the gash in its neck, “It’s just you, me and the pieces of Twitcher’s soul. He’s pretty fucking mad at you girl, what’s left of him. Just itching to rip you open.” A dark-red bubble burst on the edge of its lip. “You should have taken his head, you know. You’d done it to a hundred others. He wouldn’t have hesitated. He would have peeled off your skin and danced around in it. He would have raped your headless corpse and laughed while he did it. You knew it. That’s why you killed him. So what stopped you? Sentimentality? Loyalty?”
It laughed, a hideous bubbling noise. “There ain’t no more room for that, girl! You should know that! This is our world now. And you…why, girl you’re just one annoying little gnat that needs squashing.”
He lunged for her then, bloody fingers grasping for her neck. She snatched a blade from her back and sliced off half of one hand, kicking him backwards. He howled, a spitting burbling cry. They felt some pain, she knew. Just had to keep hurting it, until it went down. She was dimly aware of the other humans in the room fleeing in panic.
“How many of my kind have you sent back to the Void?” It cackled, “A hundred? Two? That ends today! There’s me and there’s all the revenge Twitcher wants in here with me! AND FOR THAT YOU WILL BURN!”
Its good hand spat eldritch fire. She ducked just in time, the flames searing her face. Her wrist blade, little more that a piece of sharpened metal found its chest and it stumbled, the fire sputtering.
A Flame-Vessel. She cursed under her breath, throwing herself over the bar. She should have seen the signs. A Vessel empowered by the remnants of it’s host’s soul, those pieces which had hung on out of some strong emotion. Or sheer stubbornness. They were tough, dangerous and extremely strong.
It came after her then, too close and she hit it with a lump of metal The Mayor kept behind the bar. It’s cheek splintered under the blow and it spat at her, steaming black blood. She twisted away, rolling back over the bar, but she could feel specks of it eating into her skin. Hateful fire chased her as she ran to the weapons locker by the door. Cleaver, she needed her cleaver. She kicked at the lock once, twice, then spun and hurled a knife through the Flame-Vessel’s eye as it closed on her. She kicked at the lock a third time and it shattered. Nikki snatched up her cleaver and turned to take a blast of fire in the side. She rolled, hissing in pain, then came up and charged. She sliced at the chest with a curved knife in her hand, throwing it off balance. Then hack, hack, hack. She separated the head from the neck. The fire died. Twitcher was truly dead. Another Demon was back in the Void.
She fell to her knees beside the corpse. Her shoulder still ached. Her side was a sharp, hot mess of pain.
The Mayor arrived then, found her beside a headless corpse. His son’s at his back and a shotgun in hand. A gun. Nikki hadn’t seen one of those for years.
“Girl,” he said, low and sad, “You gotta go. For good. We can’t have your enemies here.” White knuckles around the trigger housing.
Nikki sighed. “Fair enough. I’ll go.”
The knuckles relaxed. She peeled the hooded coat from Twitcher’s corpse. No need to waste. The Mayor gave her water and rotgut, bandages and dried fruit. Then she was out again. Out amongst the downpour and Demon-fire. Out without a home. Without a direction.