Agney Hall (Aurora Trease pt 2)

Agney Hall stood frowning on the moor, its dark windows wreathed in eyelids of snow. Aurora Trease paused for a moment on the brambled escarpment that overlooked the place from the south, her large footpads steaming in the snow, her breath billowing out in panting clouds as her tongue hung out between sharp lower canines. The wind blew her silver fur into wicked tufts, giving her an even more ragged appearance as she contemplated what sort of scolding Blake would have for her if she burst in this way. She snorted and gave a slight shrug before making her way down, expertly navigating the steep incline by using the clumps of heather and grass to brace her descent.

Dusk was falling. Trease was glad for the lengthy, dull shadows, making her greyish form almost invisible as she stole close to the manor. The house loomed ominously as she approached, but it was her house, and she paid it no mind. She knew every stone, every path, every cold pane of glass, every weathered beam of wood. Her childhood was bound up in this ancient place, and it was no more enemy to her than it was a friend.

She decided against the front door, making her way along the dark side of the house towards the servants’ entrance. She listened for a minute just outside the door, a murky rectangle indentation, and heard a couple voices inside. Neither of them were Blake’s, and she paused to consider what to do. Her mind turned to a secret passage that could be accessed via the storm cellar. She made her way around the corner of the house cautiously, keeping an eye on the moor for watchers. At the edge of the shadow she stopped, the cellar door in sight. It would be easier to open if she were human.

The transformation was agonizing, moreso because her human form now bore the cuts and bruises of a long night journey through the wilderness. Naked in the damp cold, she began to cough uncontrollably, and her whole body shook with pain at each spasm. Finally she managed to pick herself up out of the mud and hobble over to the cellar door. Her fingers protested numbly as she struggled to articulate the latch. At last it gave, and she wheezed as she pushed the heavy wooden door up and probed into the black square with her wet bare feet, finding the dirt-covered steps leading down. The wooden door closed behind her as she descended confidently into total darkness.

It was only a few steps to the opposite door, a few steps to the stairs leading up. She strode across the blackness, shrugging off the fears of a sick old lady, accessing her demon-wolf. Her eyes glowed that aurora blue-green for which she was named, and she could just make out the lines of the walls and objects in the cellar. Nothing had moved or changed since the last time she had seen this place, and a chill ran up her spine. The house seemed impervious to change, to the passage of time, to the ravages of existence itself. With decay it grew stronger, more permanent with every storm, more obstinate with every tragedy. She inhaled deeply, slowly, unsteadily warding off a fit of coughing, as the musty air aggravated her lungs. She exhaled, even more slowly, determined not to let a single cough arise.

The elderly Blake was in the sitting room, stoking the fire, which he had been commanded to light every evening whether his Lady were home or not. The sitting room doubled as a library, and the bulk of the ancient books in the house were shelved here along the walls in regal array, carved cedar shelves with mahogany panelling between, all the old volumes bound in gilded cloth hardcovers that still gleamed dully in the firelight. The magnificent chandelier remained unlit, saved for special occasions, but its crystalline mass caught the orange light and tossed it in a thousand directions like magic. Blake sat in the smaller of two armchairs that seemed to hunch near the fire, their high backs casting gargantuan, dancing shadows on the walls of books behind him. He yawned and stretched out his legs and arms toward the fire, black sleeves and pantaloons making his lanky form appear somewhat spider-like. He never noticed the false bookcase along the side wall sliding open on its well-oiled track, the naked, haggard form of Madam Trease stepping out from the shadows and towards him.

A floorboard creaked, slow and deliberate. Trease knew it was there, and she had stepped on it on purpose. It was her house, after all. Blake fairly jumped out of his seat, dropping the poker with a clatter and nearly losing himself when he saw his Lady standing there, dripping wet and nude, her hair straggled down her shoulders and back, her body covered in red cuts and welts.

“Madam!” he exclaimed. “What has happened? But let me get you a towel, just a moment.” He darted away and returned in less than a minute with a large towel and a bathrobe, which he quickly draped around Madam Trease’s shoulders. She was smiling grimly, having achieved some amusement from making her oldest servant jump a little.

“Tea would be nice, Blake,” she muttered as she collapsed into the larger of the two chairs, letting the fire warm her legs and feet.

“Yes, Madam! Right away!” Blake was about to ring a bellrope when Trease raised a single hand which stopped him as surely as a magic spell.

“Get it yourself,” she commanded. “I’ve no desire for the others to see me like this.”

“Of course, Madam!” Blake hurried off.

When he returned, it was with tea, crumpets, and a change of clothes. Madam Trease smiled at him for the extra effort, and decided to let him dress her then and there. She was tired of being a wolf, and doubly tired of being a naked, bedraggled woman. Normally the duty of dressing would be carried out by the lady’s maid, Margaret, but Trease trusted Blake more than any of the other servants, and she still had no desire for any of them to know how she had arrived that night.

As he dressed her, Blake cautiously inquired as to her adventures of the day. “Were you not supposed to be in Lornden tonight, Madam?” There was a note of scolding in his voice, but it had been almost entirely deflated by his concern for her wellbeing.

“Indeed, such was the plan,” Trease admitted. “But trains have a way of unsettling me.” Her mind was working now. She had had much time to consider the repercussions of her actions while running as a wolf, but now, in the firelit sitting room, her thoughts were much clearer.

“I need you to send a wire, Blake. Tell [William] Lord Treleaven I’ve taken ill, that I never made my train, and I shall be indisposed for the rest of the week. He will be cross, he’ll ask questions. Send no more information than what I’ve told you.”

“He’ll want to know what to do with the children, no doubt.”

“Him and that tipsy tart will just have to reschedule their damned vacation,” Trease curved her words with more than a little venom as Blake finished buttoning her dress. She thought of little Wesley and Annette then, and she felt bad, but she didn’t say anything. They had no doubt looked forward to spending time with her, and now their elusive mother was distant again, and ill, and the future was grey and uncertain. She knew what it was like to be a child haunted by tragedy and uncertainty.

When Blake was done, she turned and looked him in the eyes, her poise as noble as a goddess. “See if you can arrange for the children to come here instead. I don’t care about William or his tart, but I’d like to see them just the same. This house may not be as exciting as Lornden, but I’m sure I can find something for them to do.”

“As you wish, Madam.”

“Also,” she added, “contact Sir Harold. Invite him over for tea on Thursday. It’s time I found out what’s been going on in the Pack.”

As Blake nodded knowingly and left to carry out her wishes, Madam Trease sat back down in her chair and sipped her tea, feeling once again alive, and a lady.

In the candlelit great hall adjacent to the sitting room, the chambermaid, Sally Olwind, took a step back from where she had been listening curiously at the double doors. She scrunched her face quizzically and continued on her way, wondering why her Lady was suddenly back from her journey. She took her questions with her down the winding stairs to the servants’ quarters. At Margaret’s door, she paused and knocked. The severe whiplash monotone “Come in” caused her to hesitate fearfully, as it always did, but she twisted the brass knob and opened the door.

Margaret Densfield was a short, stocky woman with sombre eyes that seemed capable of peering straight through walls, disguises, and pretenses with equal clarity. She was not a pretty woman, but she was what one might call handsome, with a bearing of authority that seemed to elevate her beyond her garb and station. She was at her writing table when Sally called, composing her diary for the day, and she only half-turned in her chair to analyse the chambermaid over her reading spectacles. “Yes Sally? What is it?”

“Begging your pardon, Ms. Densfield, but I was up in the Great Hall, and I heard voices, and I stopped by the double doors leading into the sitting room, and I could have sworn I heard Madam Trease talking to Blake, but isn’t she supposed to be on a train to Lornden? I know I didn’t imagine it, but I can’t think who else it might have been, Ms. Densfield. Has she returned? So soon?”

Margaret gazed thoughtfully at the corner a moment, then waved her hand nonchalantly. “Yes of course, she never left, silly. You know as well as I do, she cancelled her train to Lornden.”

“But I—”

“Shush, now Sally, you’ve interrupted my diary. Stop wasting your precious few thoughts on matters that don’t concern you, and find your bed before the Moon turns you into a turnip.”

Sally sighed. It seemed Ms. Densfield always knew everything before she did. “Yes, Ms. Densfield.” She closed the door quietly and shuffled off to her bunk.

When she left, Margaret snapped shut her diary, folded her spectacles away, and sat for a few minutes in deep thought. Of course she had known nothing of Madam Trease’s return, but she could not very well allow Sally to think her omniscience was fallible. Truth be told, she was not at all happy to be kept in the dark about her Lady’s comings and goings, so Sally’s news had disturbed her deeply. She took an oil lamp and climbed the winding steps up to the Great Hall, heading straight for the double doors to the sitting room. She opened the left door and entered, and there, sitting in front of the fire, were Blake and Madam Trease, just as Sally had guessed.

“Margaret,” Madam Trease said, barely managing to conceal the quaver in her voice at being found out so soon, but the look in her eyes gave her away for an instant.

“Madam,” Margaret curtsied, her deep eyes never leaving Trease’s face. “You are back from your journey already?”

“Why Margaret, I can’t believe I didn’t tell you, I took ill this afternoon and had to return early from the station. My trip to Lornden has been cancelled.”

Margaret nodded slowly. “As I surmised, Madam, though it is nice to finally be informed.” Her voice was icy as she eyed the discarded towel and bathrobe. “Shall Blake be taking over my dressing duties then?”

“Oh Margaret, don’t be silly. I had a fever and couldn’t sleep, I didn’t want to wake you in case you were asleep already. Blake was here tending the fire.”

Again the slow nod, the penetrating stare. Then Margaret seemed to remember her place and cast her eyes down, retreating a step. “If there is nothing you require, Madam, I will take my leave.”

“By all means,” Trease smiled somewhat cryptically. “Blake can handle my needs until the morning. Get some rest, Margaret.”

When the lady’s maid had left, Blake and Madam Trease exchanged a look. “That woman,” Madam Trease muttered. “Sometimes I wonder if she thinks she is the lady and I the servant.”

“She has a stubborn disposition, to be sure,” Blake nodded. “But the other servants respect her greatly. I dare say they like her more than me. Which reminds me…” he shifted in his seat, suddenly remembering something. “…there is a matter I should discuss with you. It concerns your apparently rapid decline in health, Madam.”

“You know as well as I do, the vampire curse—”

“Indeed Madam, I know, but the servants don’t know, and they’re starting to talk. It looks mighty strange for a woman to go from her thirties to her sixties in a few years, and I imagine it must look pretty strange to anyone who sees you with your children too. It’s becoming harder to hide that something pretty peculiar is going on, Madam.”

Madam Trease stared into the fire, biting back the resentment of Blake’s observations. “Damned vampires,” she hissed, and thought of William Lord Treleaven, her former husband, and the vicious little minx, Lermine Loxworthy, who had whisked him away from her. Her mind wandered suddenly.

“Let me tell you, Blake, I hated living in Lornden. I don’t want to go back. It’s a wretched place.”

Blake listened silently.

“Full of vampires. They own everything.” She wheezed and coughed, again feeling that pain in her abdomen, now creeping up the side of her chest. “I can’t prove Miss Loxworthy’s part in my illness, or my rapid aging, but I’m as sure of it as I am of your loyalty, Blake. She wants me to suffer, that little bitch. I could see it in her eyes.”

Blake’s face seemed to lengthen with sorrow. “How long, Madam? Forgive me, but if you’ve already aged this much…”

“Not long, I’m afraid. The doctors in Lornden could do nothing for me except seltzers and hail-marys.” She coughed, a sound filled with agony, and her knuckles whitened as she clutched the chair stubbornly. “I’m dying, Blake. Sooner or later, but I doubt I have more than a year left. A lot less, I’ll wager.”

“And the demon-wolf? Surely there is some power you can draw—”

“The wolf’s got nothing to do with it, Blake. Loxworthy’s struck me in my vulnerable place, the human lady. The disguise. It’s the weakest link, and she knew it. Once Madam Trease is dead—” she coughed— “The wolf will be sent back. Banished.”

Blake frowned. “There must be something we can do, Madam. The Pack?”

Madam Trease nodded. “It’s my last hope. If anyone knows what can be done, it will be Sir Harold.”



Sir Walter pushed through the thicket of leafless winter bushes, as snow from the coniferous branches overhead dumped down on him repeatedly, their precarious peace disturbed by his passage. He had thought he had caught a glimpse of a pale woman through the trees, but now he was thrashing through a blind spot, the direction held in his mind like an inner Polaris. Far from calm, his breath came in panting sobs, as he recalled the way his melancholic sister Delane had died.

He remembered her screams as she fled the house that day, her fragile mental state finally collapsing under the strain of all the things only she could feel, and see, and know. She used to say things like “My skin is too tight!” with a sob of horror that would make his gut clench miserably as he wished he could help her. Then that fateful night came and she ran, ran until she couldn’t run anymore. They had gone after her, Mother and Father had, but only after wasting precious moments arguing. By then their quest was futile, and the darkness of the woods had swallowed her up. It was cold enough that snow still lay on the ground in some places, but a fine rain was falling, a frigid soak that no half-dressed girl with a delicate constitution could survive for long.

Walter himself, just a boy of twelve, had donned his rain gear and tramped out to look for her. The servants were roused and the dogs were leashed. They called her name into the trees for miles around, dogs sniffing with no luck in the cold and wet, until hours went by and everyone was soaked, and the grey of dawn bleakly lit the overcast east. Then they found her, curled up in a muddy hollow beneath an oak tree, clinging to its roots with fingers bone-white. How she had died was not clear, whether from cold, or some unnatural force, but her head was twisted back and her eyes were open and staring, as though she were trying to see something in the great trunk of the tree, blackened with rain, which caressed her with its roots. Her neck was so slender and pale, he remembered, like the neck of a fawn.

They had held the funeral for her the very next day, and it had seemed too soon. Just as they had buried his sister, so he had buried that day, buried it far down in his mind and body, and had built the great house of his personality overtop of it. Sir Walter was afraid of nothing, could track any prey, was never found weak or irrational by circumstance. But now he was afraid, and irrational, and the panic he felt rising up inside him was like nothing he had ever felt, not even the day Delane had died; because on that day, up until the moment his young eyes had seen hers, lifeless and staring, he had not truly believed such a thing could happen.

He peered through a break in the twigs and thorns. Clearly he made out the shape of a woman, huddled beneath a tree, just as Delane had been. He made an animal noise with his throat as he flailed with his arms, and the dense bushes gave way, rent into pieces by his tremendous effort. He stumbled out into a clear patch of snow and quickly covered the ground to the place he was sure he had seen her. What he found made the warmth drain from his body and a centipede shiver up his spine.

She lay huddled in the hollow of a willow tree’s roots, at the edge of a stream. Naked as a newborn babe, save for the lengthy black hair that streamed from her head and formed a nest of coiled strands around her, she appeared to be fast asleep in a fetal position. Her skin was nearly as white as the snow that surrounded her, an inhuman tone that made Sir Walter certain, with a ghastly, sinking feeling, that he had arrived too late. Surely this was the colour of a dead woman’s skin, and this, the body of a dead woman. He fell to his knees, sobbing uncontrollably, his head bowing to his breast as the tears fell into the snow.

When the torrent of grief passed, he raised his head and saw, to his surprise, the pale woman sitting up and looking at him with eyes as dark as the night. He nearly jumped with fright, then beamed with relief. “You!” he sputtered. “Alive!” His face creased into a joyful smile, to complete the spectrum of emotions he had seldom, if ever, expressed before today.

The woman simply stared back at him with a kind of slightly amused bewilderment. Sir Walter whipped off his foxfur overcoat. “You must be dreadfully cold! Here! Take my coat!” Before she could respond, he had wrapped his coat over her shoulders, covering her completely like a great blanket. “What’s your name?”

Nema had almost forgotten she had been transformed. Upon hearing the noise of the hunter’s bawling, she had awoken to a flood of instincts. At first she had been ready to spring at her hunter and kill him, but she determined not to show the slightest hint of fear or alarm until the moment came to strike. Then she became aware of a confusing new reality. The man did not look alien and godlike to her, and his speech was not the cacophonous gibberish of another animal’s language. Moon must have imparted to her some knowledge of human language, because she understood what he was saying, and she could also read his emotional outburst rather clearly. She perceived that he was no longer her hunter, and her initial alarm subsided. By then he was taking off his coat and throwing it over her, and she got her first real taste of warmth since she had changed forms. When he asked her name, she found a response forming in her mouth. Her tongue moved, her lips parted, and she heard herself say: “Nema.”

Sir Walter’s entrancement with the mysterious pale woman continued to increase. When she said her name, he repeated it, like a mystified child, then laughed. He had never felt so joyful. It was as though a part of him had been condemned to live in a kind of inner purgatory since the day he and his parents had found Delane’s body beneath that fateful tree, and now he was being given a path to redemption in the form of this woman. The parallel chain of events was impossible to ignore. “Nema!” he repeated again, and so enthusiastic was his smile to her, that she found herself smiling back.

“Nema, is it?”

Sir Walter turned with a start at the sound of Sir Vark’s steady, low voice behind him. He had completely forgotten about his hunting party, and the appearance of his old friend brought a portion of his composure back. “Ah,” he said, feeling a bit foolish, crouching in the snow with no coat. He stood up. “So you found us then! How?”

Sir Vark looked at Sir Walter as though he had gone mad. “I followed the woman’s tracks.”

“Ah yes! Tracks! Of course!” Sir Walter suddenly became excited again. “Vark! I have to introduce you to someone! This is—”

“Nema, yes, I heard.”

“—Nema! And she was just lying here beneath this willow tree, bare as a chicken bone. You hear me? She was lying beneath the tree!” He caught Sir Vark by the shoulders and shook him, as though trying to force the import of his words into his body.

“Indeed,” Sir Vark squinted at his old friend. “Perhaps it’s time we head back to the lodge.”

“Lodge! Yes of course, we must get Nema indoors before she freezes!,” he turned to address the woman, still sitting rather calmly in the snow with the coat draped over her, her head poking out the top. “They’ll have a nice warm fire and food for you to eat.” Sir Walter gathered her up in his arms, coat and all, and carried her back to the hippocanises, with Sir Vark trudging behind, still shaking his head.

When they returned, Teppard and Mudbraith were sitting atop their mounts, ignoring one another. The former was reading a small book, his rifle crooked in one elbow, while the latter seemed content to stare into space and occasionally snort his snuff. The three Drawling Brothers were nowhere to be found.

Sir Walter helped Nema up onto his mount and followed her up, holding her close in front of him as he took the animal’s reins. He seemed completely preoccupied with his new find, and the others stared at her, then him, and back again at her. Sir Vark mounted his hippocanis silently. Finally Mudbraith asked: “I thought you went in there for a wolf?”

“What?” Sir Walter seemed to have just noticed the others. “Oh yes. Wolf. No, we let the wolf go. This is Nema!” He beamed as he introduced her.

Teppard shut his book with a snap. “You let the wolf go?”

Sir Vark looked around and raised an eyebrow. “Where’d the Brothers get off to?”

Mudbraith shrugged. “I think they went looking for game. They seemed concerned we might head back empty-handed.” At the last statement he turned his cold stare at Sir Walter meaningfully.

His glare was lost on the leader. Sir Walter seemed once again to have forgotten all else but Nema, and he talked softly to her as he coaxed his mount into motion. Sir Vark followed, hiding his own feelings behind the stony disposition he bore so well in front of the others. Teppard swore and kicked his hippocanis to follow, and Mudbraith watched them all with a kind of sardonic disbelief, snorting one more dose of his snuff before he, too, followed suit. The Brothers would find their own way back, in their own time.


hippocanis n. (pl. hippocanises) – A kind of docile dog-horse. According to popular myth, it is said to have been created by the demon Akal’naza’, the Mischief-Maker, so that he could win a bet by correctly answering an impossible riddle while sojourning once in human form. The riddle, posed by Brombak the Unfair, was “What animal is as large as a horse, as quiet as a rabbit, and can track the smell of prey as well as a bloodhound?” Of course no such animal existed. Akal’naza’ requested a day and a night to ponder the riddle, during which time he used magic to create the hippocanis. Producing a whole herd of the creature for Brombak’s astonished perusal the following morning, he won the bet and was grudgingly given safe passage off the Isle of Neverleave, traditionally the only person to have ever done so. The animal became popular amongst human hunters for its unique attributes. Despite its size, it is a remarkably quiet beast, which makes it ideal for sneaking up on prey.

The Seven Hunters (Nema Pt 2)

The seven hunters followed the trail of the great wolf to the edge of the stream, where their hippocanises lost the scent. The great beasts snuffed around and murmured in frustration, while the lead hunter, a hard-faced man named Sir Walter Shivington, swept his keen eyes up and down the stream. “Only one question,” he muttered to his hunting companion of many years, Sir Vark Anarkus, “did it go upstream or downstream?”

Sir Vark stroked his beard as he looked up and down the stream, but a younger hunter, Edward Teppard, who had overheard Sir Walter, piped up: “Wolves don’t usually play that trick; that’s more a fox thing to do, i’n’ it?”

Sir Vark shot a glare so withering at Teppard that the younger man’s enthusiastic smile seemed to deflate and his mount actually took a step backward.

“Thank you for that entirely useless observation, Teppard,” said Sir Walter, without looking at him. “In case you hadn’t noticed, this is no ordinary wolf we are pursuing.” He scratched his mount’s hairy neck thoughtfully, the way some people scratch their head, and muttered, almost inaudibly, as his eyes peered into the shadows between the trees, “If I were you, I’d head downstream.”

The three Drawling Brothers sidled up on their hippocanises, exchanging glances that gave the impression of telepathy, and the seventh hunter, Lascow Mudbraith, took a hefty pinch of snuff from its little gilded box and snorted it with contentment. Teppard dare not say a word more as the whole group waited for Sir Walter’s verdict.

“We go downstream,” he said, and kicked his mount into motion. The group of men followed, and the only sound they made was the collective muffled swish of twenty-eight hippocanis feet, barely louder than a whisper in the breeze.


After a time they came to a small pool shrouded from view by a thick copse of trees. It was a secluded spot, but they could clearly see the large prints of the white wolf leading up to the water, though the falling snow had obscured them somewhat. Sir Walter peered at them carefully, motioning with his hand for the others to hang back while he examined the tracks. He dismounted and followed the tracks along on foot until he came to a place where the indentation in the snow indicated that the wolf had sat there for a time. Then a second set of tracks led away, and this confused him. He could not be absolutely sure, but the second set appeared to be those of a human.

“Vark, what do you make of this?” Sir Walter never used Sir Vark’s title, a peculiar inconsistency between them. If Sir Vark was offended by this discrepancy, he gave no sign. The bearded man dismounted and approached, examining the tracks for himself.

“A woman, I’ll wager,” he said, only loud enough for Sir Walter to hear.

“But where did she come from?” Sir Walter scanned the whole area around the pool for more tracks, but there was only the single set. “And where the devil’d the damned wolf go?”

“Into the pool?” Sir Vark offered, peering suspiciously at the water, as though the wolf might leap out at any moment with fangs bared. The black water stood eerily still, as if it were returning his gaze cryptically.

“And the woman came out if it, I suppose?” Sir Walter frowned, obviously not willing to accept this ridiculous explanation, but equally unable to perceive an alternative.

“There is one other possibility,” Sir Vark offered. “It may be we have been chasing a demon-wolf.”

“Nonsense,” Sir Walter waved a hand dismissively. “I’ve been all over the wilds, and you too. Wolves we have seen, vicious ones at that. But not demonic wolves that transform into people and back again. Childhood nursery tales, nothing more.”

“Even so,” Sir Vark narrowed his eyes, “those tracks—”

“Those tracks could mean anything, and in any case they aren’t clear enough to know for certain if there wasn’t a second set that maybe got snowed over. We don’t know. In any case, if there’s a woman wandering around out here with no shoes, we should find her and help her.”

A change had come over Sir Walter. He never stopped searching the area with his eyes, and he seemed anxious. Sir Vark had never before seen Sir Walter particularly anxious about anything. “And the wolf?” he inquired.

“The wolf be damned. Help me find the lady!” he scrambled off into the thickest part of the copse of trees, apparently convinced he had spotted her. The branches snapped and crunched loudly as he disappeared from view.


Someone was in his building.

Vyzor could sense the intruder, not with his eyes, nor even with his nose, but with an inexplicable sense inherent to his demonic heritage. It was as though his skin and his devil both screamed out at him at once, INTRUDER! but it was a silent scream, a feeling.

His devil resided within. He had named it Vex, because it often only spoke when something was wrong, and the advice it gave was terrible but often correct. If Vex told him to kill someone, he would know events would pan out badly for him if he did not.

Vex was telling him to run, this time. Vyzor frowned, and stood to his full height in the gloomy darkness of the abandoned room he had chosen as his sleeping chamber. He focused all his demonic senses on the intruder, but could tell very little about them. They were all the way down at the bottom of the building, too far for him to discern much. He scanned all around, sensing the whole building, section by section, but all he felt was the usual presence of rats, cockroaches, and spiders, and a host of even smaller pests, the usual inhabitants of a large abandoned building.

There’s just one of them, Vyzor stated. It wasn’t so much a challenge to Vex’s authority in these matters so much as it was an observation that contained an implicit question. Why would Vex tell him to run from one? One was prey, or a negligible threat, but never cause for flight. Even the larger groups of demon hunters rarely came out this far into the Dark Sector, the part of the city abandoned by the fleeing and decimated humans during the Great Cull. That had been a long time ago. The Cull had failed, the humans prevailed, or so the saga went. They owned the city now—or their superiors did—and the demons and other dark creatures had largely been disposed of or driven away, but there were still places they knew not to go, places where the darkness reigned supreme, and trespassers would not be appreciated.

A rumble shook the building, and Vyzor’s heart jumped into action as the sensory shadow of the intruder moved impossibly fast for a split second. He focused again on them, and realized they were now one level above ground, one level higher than they had been one second ago. Had they broken through the floor? He felt his breathing quicken, his muscles tense as he waited and watched. Then it happened again. The intruder moved, the building rumbled with a shockwave, and now the intruder was one—no, two—levels higher than before. They were approaching his position, and making a lot of noise doing so. Clearly they were not afraid of alerting him to their presence, if in fact they knew he was in the building at all.

She knows, Vex said. She! Vyzor focused again and saw that Vex was, as usual, right. The shadow was closer now, and he could just make out the outline of her poise, her defiant grace and feminine curves, and now his nostrils were beginning to catch the faintest hint of—no, it was gone now. Not close enough yet.

A single female, he argued, still not willing to run. She comes alone, and she enters my building, and she breaks through the ceilings. But why? Is she a hunter? Hunters only came in packs. Alone they were scouts, terrified. This one prowled slowly, confidently, and was steadily getting nearer.

She is a hunter. She knows you’re here. She is trying to scare you into making a mistake.

Another rumble shook the building, and some plaster fell from the ceiling onto Vyzor’s shoulder. He spread his wings momentarily to shake it off, and then froze. He could not be certain, but it seemed as though the hunter had turned to look directly at him when he spread his wings. He thought he had done so silently, but evidently she could still detect him somehow. He folded his wings, very slowly. The sensory shadow moved quickly, until it was directly beneath him, and stopped. For the first time in his life Vyzor felt a sensation he had heard humans describe to one another: a chill ran up his spine.

You should run now, Vex quietly informed him.

Shut up! he told his devil, and listened, and watched.

The sensory shadow of the hunter seemed to be watching him right back, and he wondered what was going on in her mind. He had never seen anything like this one before. She seemed to be able to sense his every move, and she broke through the structure of the dilapidated building as though she were punching through wet cardboard, with the speed of a gazelle at that. Some kind of android? He snorted—a mistake, borne of thousands of hours spent in his eccentric isolation—and he could feel her tension rise, her focus increase. She knew almost exactly where he was, somehow, from the barely audible sound of his wings opening and closing, and a single snort as he mused to himself. Those sounds could have come from any of the vermin that infested the place, but she knew, somehow. She was still ten stories below him, but she knew. He had been hunted many times, by packs of murderers, but he had never before felt anything but the demonic rage of the brawler. Now, for the first time in his life, he was prey.

His heart was beating fast, and he told Vex to make it slow down. She could probably hear that too, somehow. He breathed slowly, evenly, in an attempt to impose calm on his body, which had worked itself up to an animal fright. Not prey, he told himself, and his devil. A worthy opponent. He smiled. This was what it felt like to be up against your nemesis. That was the moment he knew that only one of them would leave that building alive. He would fight her, and kill her, or he would die trying.

Immediately he began to form a strategy.

Run, Vex feebly tried again.

Shut up, Vyzor responded, almost absentmindedly, as he scanned the structure above him. He didn’t care if she could sense him now, but he had to make her believe he was still scared. He remembered a place at the top of the stairs where the human structure was confusing to him, and he wondered if it was confusing to humans too. He had found their designs to be often lacking in artistry and efficiency, concerned more with containing the lives and pursuits of their bloated billions for as little cost as possible. Perhaps he could use a design flaw in the building to give himself a momentary tactical advantage.

Before he was done formulating his plan, he felt her move beneath him. Her sensory shadow seemed to fade, and he had difficulty pinpointing her location as she moved like a gust of wind. Then he spotted her, momentarily, and his heart started pounding. She was only three levels below him, climbing the stairs stealthily but with incredible speed. It would likely only be seconds before she was on top of him.

He didn’t wait for Vex to tell him. He ran.

His size gave him difficulty as he struggled to stay ahead of his pursuer, and Vyzor thanked the hells that spawned him that he was a relatively small demon. Still, he was much larger than most humans, and he had to alternate between using flaps of his wings to increase his speed through the more spacious areas of the building, and folding them close to allow him to traverse the more cramped passages. All the while he growled with frustration, his senses telling him his hunter was too close, too close. He might not have the time to trap her; he might simply get to the roof and die.

He didn’t bother using the stairs, but travelled used a series of holes he had previously broken between levels in the months he had resided in this building. The top four storeys of the building were like swiss cheese, now, from all his comings and goings. He hoped his modifications increased her confusion, but his senses told him she was still gaining on him. He paused before the final hole, half his body illuminated by a patch of moonlight that shone through, and looked back into the darkness of the corridor behind him. He could hear her, smell her, feel her, and she was running right towards him. Still he lingered, until, for a moment, he could see her with his own deep purple eyes.

It was a snapshot, of a dark feminine form sprinting forward, the top half of her face covered in a cybermask, the bottom obscured by shadow. Her bodysuit was black and minimal, but he could see weapons strapped to her hips and legs and a small utility pack on her back, and something else that looked like a pair of thick antennae protruding from her shoulders. A gun was in her right hand, and she aimed it at him so quickly he almost did not have time to leap through the hole onto the roof before a fiery blaze crossed the passage below and impacted somewhere on the other side of the building with the sound of a mortar shell hitting home. The hunters carried some of the most powerful handguns ever created by humans. Vyzor did not doubt that the shot had put a hole the size of a small demon in every part of the building that had obstructed it, and he wondered where, if ever, its path would end.

Get that gun out of her hand, instructed his devil, to which Vyzor growled with irritation. He knew he had to get the damn gun out of her hand. Sometimes Vex had an annoying habit of stating the very obvious.


Three more shots blasted through the roof in a triangular succession as his assailant attempted to determine his location. Her guesses were very good, and Vyzor barely managed to dodge the last shot as the heat seared his left wing. It was a preamble, he knew. She would be right behind those shots, hoping that she had either wounded him, or else that he had been staggered enough that she had time to attack and kill. The latter situation was upon him, so he did not wait to recover his footing. He rolled off and behind a small trellis, part of a maze of such structures that once teemed with vegetable life and now held only the petrified and withered remains of a green-thumb legacy.

He dared not take flight. She would almost certainly shoot him out of the sky like a clay pigeon. His only hope lay in disarming her. She could have set the whole top of the building ablaze, laid waste to the Dark Sector until her quarry was nothing but a smoking crater, but something stopped her. He wondered how many shots she had, and for the first time found himself considering the cost of hi-tech ammunition as a factor in this conflict. He scrambled deeper into the trellises, crouching low and hoping she could not pinpoint his exact location on sound alone. Another shot tore through the derelict garden maze just behind him, putting a hole in the low brick wall that signified the edge of the roof, and causing dozens of flaming pieces of wood to explode outward like matchsticks from a central beam that could have shot a hole through a battleship. He felt the burning debris rain down on him as he moved quickly, darting this way and that, attempting to use the added noise as cover as he looked for an alternative strategy.

He stopped behind a brick structure that appeared to be an air conditioning unit. It had long since ceased to serve any function and now stood moldering in decay. Vyzor reached into the mechanism through a hole and found the fan inside. With a careful wrench of his hands, he managed to get the metal blades free of their shaft. He now had a circular, chakram-esque weapon, the first tool he had ever been forced to use.

Vex told him to dodge and he dodged, the air conditioning unit exploding behind him, throwing fiery bricks in all directions. He cursed and peered across the roof, through the dust and smoke, and saw her lithe figure lining up another shot. He stepped back and off to the side to avoid the shot, which blazed only inches from his face, and in the same motion, spun his body like a discus thrower and sent the blades of the fan hurtling towards her. He heard a clank, and possibly a female grunt, and saw her silhouette drop to one knee. With a quick spread and pump of his wings he was upon her, a shallow arc ending in a pounce, their bodies entangled in a vicious struggle as they rolled towards the opposite edge of the building.

She was strong, very strong, and again he felt certain she was something not quite human. Not an android, unless they had improved those remarkably in appearance since the last one he had encountered. He had her beneath him now, and he was winding up to deal a deathblow when suddenly her right arm was free somehow. Probably a cyborg, he concluded, as her right hook clocked his jaw and sent his head reeling into a starry darkness for an indeterminate span of time. When he came to she was on top, punching his head over and over. A human would have stayed unconscious, and his fate would have been sealed by the hammer of those blows, but demons were made of stronger stuff, and Vyzor’s rage had a way of steeling him against damage. With each painful blow to his face, he felt more of the fires of the hells burning up within him, as his purple-black demon blood spurted in his mouth and nose, the taste of a defeat he could not accept.

Wings! Vex screamed at him, and he obeyed. With a desperate effort, he flexed his wings as though he were attempting to spread them open for a glide. They were bunched beneath him, so this had the effect of straining his ligaments as he pushed upwards against his assailant. Her cyborg face glared featureless down at him, and he could see the reflection of his own bloodied face in its visor. Visor, he thought as he pushed and pushed with his wings. Like my name. Then suddenly the wings burst free from under him and he was free, with the little hunter in his enraged demon grasp, her powerful fists beating into his body as he stood up, spitting blood and roaring.

The edge of the building was close, with its low brick wall, designed to provide some perfunctory deterrent to death by falling. He raised her small body high and brought her down hard, her head smashing through the bricks. No human could have survived it, but he never for a moment made the mistake of thinking she was human. He picked her up again, still struggling, but weaker now, in a daze. He brought her down on the bricks again, smashing a second bite-like semicircle in the little wall. Somehow, her head was still intact, and she was still alive, but nearly unconscious now. He looked over the edge of the roof at the roof of another building, lower down. Raising her again above his head, he threw her down with all his might into that building, and then expanded his wings and flew up a few meters before diving down like a bird of prey after her falling body.

She broke through the roof, and almost through the floor of the apartment below. He found her in a person-shaped dent in the tile floor of the once-lavish bathroom, now derelict like everything else in Dark Sector. Her cybermask had shattered, her helmet split in two, one of the halves missing. He flapped to a landing, his rage starting to sputter out as he looked down at the unconscious woman, his night vision giving him greater detail with each passing moment. He picked her up with both hands, grabbing the straps of her utility pack, miraculously still attached to her after that fall. She must have broken through head-first, he thought, and felt amazement growing within him. No human, no android, no cyborg could have survived.

Yet he felt the life still within her, and even as the demonic rage tempted him to continue his violence, to keep smashing this being that had hunted him until it was beyond recognition or salvage, what he saw as his eyes adjusted to the darkness gave him pause. Her skin was a deep ashen grey. Her eyes, as they started to open in a daze, were a deep red, like blood. Parts of her bodysuit had torn off in the fall, and the protrusions which he had taken to be some sort of antennae were now revealed to be parts of her body, hacked off to stumps and healed over, contained in some sort of casing to prevent them ever growing back. In disbelief, he ran his fingers through her jet-black hair, and there beneath the oily waves he touched two hard, raised plateaus, the vestiges of horns.

Rain fell now, and he could not remember when it started. It poured through the hole he had made in the roof with her body, the body he now held with tenderness as he recognized one of his own kind. As he caressed her dark grey face, watching the water collect there in droplets that grew and fell with mesmerizing emphasis of her striking contours, she regained consciousness. The softness of his touch, so alien to her experience, seemed to revive something inside her that she had forgotten, and she moved her head to rub her cheek against his hand. She looked up at him with eyes that were conflicted between hate, fear, and desire.

“You,” he said. “You’re a demon.”

The fear in her eyes diminished, and the hate was replaced by a sadness that rose from within. She said nothing.

“What have they done to you?” Vyzor touched the stump of a wing, the remnant of a horn, with gentle sorrow. Her eyes grew even sadder, and he suspected the rain falling in her face was concealing a flow of tears. Then she tilted her head upwards a little, and he found himself tilting downwards, and they kissed. The rain flowed down their faces and around their lips, washing away the blood and mingling with their saliva. He tasted her passion, her love now as deep as her hate had been.

He lifted her like a child and brought her into the living room, setting her down on the dusty leather couch. He sat beside her, and she climbed on top of him, straddling him as they continued to kiss. There they fucked, as demons fucked in the hells of old, before the war with humans, before the Invasion, the Inquisition, the Cull, and the Dark. He saw her body transform as it drank of his essence, which he freely gave her in the throes of a violent climax. Her eyes blazed brightly, her wings, horns, and tail grew back as she screamed with pain and passion. Vyzor felt that, even as he restored her to herself, she was restoring him as well. He had become half a demon, a vagabond, a nonentity, in the decades following the Cull. Now he felt the fullness of his being come alive in this woman, this vibrant demoness.

Afterwards, they slept on the floor of the once-human dwelling, her wrapped in his wings, their tails coiled around each other, and loved each other again and again in their dreams as outside, the night reigned.

Nema and the Moon

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Nema, the white wolf, ran as she had never run before. Death was on her heels. The air whizzed with death’s fiery fingers, the trees and shrubs split and burst into splinters around her, the night roared with the terrible thunder of the angry gods who pursued. Her thick white fur helped to conceal her against the snow, but its whiteness was also the reason she was so covetously hunted. They wanted the rare prize, these hunting gods, the rare white wolf to adorn their ladies’ shoulders, a prize upon a prize.

Not gods, Nema understood. Hunters, like me, but with lightning and thunder, not tooth and claw. The ironic realization made her snort and quicken her pace.

She had never before seen these creatures. Her home was the deep north, and even the other wolves feared her. She was the mighty champion of her domain, twice as large as any other wolf, pure white from head to toe, with deep, coal-black eyes. She had no mate, no litter, and she hunted alone. Now her tail singed with fire as another shot grazed the fur, causing her to growl in anger as her body sprang forward with fear.

Hunters or gods, I should like to rip out their throats, Nema thought, but for all her fury, they were gaining on her, and she was getting tired. I need a plan, she thought, remembering the many times in her youth that a clever rabbit would escape her by devising some trick. I need to be a clever rabbit.

The trickling sound of water up ahead gave her hope. A stream could conceal her tracks, but she would have to be even more clever than that. She jumped the little stream and made a sprint of tracks into a thicket of bushes, then turned and jumped back, landing in the water with a splash. She looked back at the trail that led into the bush, hoping it would be enough to throw the hunters off for a time. Downstream she ran, as fast as she could, knowing she would have to think of another plan soon. She kept her body low, hoping the banks of the stream would hide her, and trying not to splash too much in the water by careening from side to side in the shallows.

Eventually she came to a small drop, about twelve feet high, and she jumped down with little hesitation, continuing down the stream’s winding path. No shots had split the air around her for a minute or so, and she felt her little plan had worked. She slowed to catch her breath, and as she did, she found herself at the edge of a moonlit pool, invisible in the thick trees that surrounded it. A black, almost ominous stillness caressed the water, broken only by the trickling gurgle of the stream that fed it, and illuminated by a single, wide shaft of moonlight that fell through a wreath of dark treetops. The Moon was full, and her reflection peered back up at her from the softly rippling water.

Nema sensed she was in a sacred place, and she sat by the water, hoping the hunters could not find her for the time being. Her wolf eyes gazed at the pool, mesmerized by the haunting beauty of the place, and especially of the Moon and the dark water.

The silver light seemed to brighten and focus on the black depths, and a pair of feet touched the water, sending ripples out to the banks. Nema blinked. The feet belonged to a pair of moon-white legs, which belonged in turn to a graceful feminine form, naked and glowing with the haunting white of the celestial orb. A woman was floating there, in the light beam, her toes just touching the black water, her eyes and hair as dark as midnight. She hovered there and gazed back at the wolf whose colours resembled her own.

A light snow had been falling, and now the flakes seemed to slow in the air, almost standing still. Nema looked upon the glowing woman and understood that she was in the presence of the Moon Herself.

“You are the Moon,” she said.

“Please, just call me Moon,” the woman smiled back at her.

“Moon,” Nema echoed, transfixed. Then she remembered herself, and said: “I am Nema.”

“I have heard the stories of your deeds howled at me from packs across the whole of the North,” said Moon, “the White Wolf who needs no mate, who hunts alone, and from whom entire packs of grey wolves flee. It’s nice to finally meet you.”

“I am honoured,” Nema bowed her head.

“Yet you never howl in worship, as the other wolves do,” Moon observed.

Nema had no response to this. She had never felt the need to howl at the Moon, despite a kind of quiet respect she held for the celestial body. Now she wondered if she had been in error. “I did not mean to offend you,” she offered.

“I’m not offended, merely intrigued. What brings you to my pool tonight?”

“I, the great hunter, am now hunted. The men chase me with thunder and death, and I know I cannot escape them forever.”

Moon looked sympathetically at Nema and nodded slowly. “It is the way of things. Your place it has been to rule unchallenged in the woods and tundra, but against this kind of death, the natural law is powerless.”

Nema observed: “You look like them, but more beautiful by far. Surely if they saw your beauty, those men would not hunt you as they do me. They would fall in worship, or run in terror.”

Moon smiled. “It is true, I have not been hunted by men, but worshipped and adored by all of nature and men alike. The great weakness of the man is the form of the woman. Do not underestimate their bloodlust, though. They would hunt me if they could, and enslave me too. A living trophy they would make of me, if I had not the power to prevent it.”

“Could you grant me this power, to prevent the hunt, to cause those men to worship me as they do you? To respect me as the other wolves in the world know and respect me?”

Moon smiled, and because Nema was so beautiful herself, and looked already quite Moon-like with her snow-white fur and midnight-black eyes, she was overwhelmed with an indulgent favour for the noble beast. “Nema, white wolf of the North, you shall have what you ask. A form like mine, and a power like mine too, to be a kind of Moon, walking among men.”

Nema felt all the hairs on her body stand on end as these words were spoken, and a change began in her body, a very strange feeling of displacement. Her paws seemed to pull apart and unfurl into small, frail, twig-like shapes, her mouth became short and small, her head grew round, and the hair on her head grew very long and black. She felt her wolf-fur shrink to a useless fuzz, except in certain places where it became short and black. Her tail shrank and disappeared, and her hind paws unfurled into much smaller twigs. She had not realized how strange was the form of Moon until it became her own, the form of human women, the mate of the man who hunted her. A sound escaped her mouth, the sound of surprise, a kind of bleating primate sound.

“I have almost no fur. I should be freezing,” Nema said.

“You are not as other humans,” Moon informed her. “You are the form and reflection of Moon. You have the power of Moon. Yet you are still Nema, and you have the heart of a white wolf.”

Nema looked at her reflection in the dark pool. “I look like you,” she said, “but also different.”

Moon nodded and smiled. “No reflection is ever perfect.” And at that moment the light from the Moon moved along and ceased to shine on the dark pool, and the form of Moon faded fast and vanished. On the dark bank, still pondering her reflection, crouched a magnificently beautiful human woman, naked and impossibly pale, with black hair and eyes, unaffected by the freezing cold as her toes splayed in the snow.