But surely, these creatures are all but tales, having never existed in the first place. Stories to pass the time, to entertain. Stories told to frighten children, or to inspire and motivate them. Or perhaps, maybe the stories are told to hide what is real, beneath a Veil of fiction?
In a dank little apartment in Seattle, there slept, as you might expect, a man. He continued to sleep, as he had for the previous three whole days, the entirety of which he spent completely immobile. Not a twitch, nor even stirring for an instant. It was an uncomfortable sleep, and though his body rested, his mind existed elsewhere, very much alert and active.
He was an average looking man, of the appearance most wouldn’t notice in a crowd. He was of an average height, an average weight and an average build. His black hair was scraggly, falling just below his jaw, and sticking out in all directions from years of poor management. Days of sleep had prevented him from shaving, and a thick stubble had taken up residence upon his face, though such an appearance was hardly uncommon for him.
Curiously, though he owned a bed within that very room, this man chose not to sleep on it. Instead, he slept upon the cold, wooden floor, with no blanket nor pillow. He wore minimal clothing as he slept, only a plain, black pair of boxers with no shirt. A white circle of chalk surrounded him as he slept, with strange sigils at five points along the outline. The circle, he knew, kept his body safe and his mind free. If ever you were to meet this man and ask his name, he would tell you as such:
“You may call me Seth Rivers, professional wizard.”
As peculiar a reply as it would be, it may be of note that half of that statement would be a lie; but perhaps, not the half you would expect.
For the first time in three days, a noise could be heard within this little room, as the wizard awoke with a start, his left foot breaking through the chalk circle as he sat bolt upright, a heavy sweat newly formed upon his brow. His head throbbed, as the sudden return to his body had been unpleasant. He took several deep breaths to calm his rapid heartbeat as he sat upon that cold, wooden floor, before finally coming to his feet, though it took him two or three attempts.
He gazed about his little room in the dark, and found it to be a disorganized mess. Half-finished books piled high in the corner, some magical, but mostly mundane. Three of his dresser drawers were half opened, with clothes falling halfway out of each. His floor was populated by dirty clothes all around, so that he could jump from pile to pile to avoid freezing his feet at night. The singular organized portion of his room hung from the door itself; three mounted hooks held, from left to right, a robe, a tunic and an old, worn brown jacket. All in all, the room was exactly as he’d left it.
He groaned, feeling much too old for his age. Twisting and stretching, he felt every joint and every bone pop from their inactivity. Satisfied with his body’s ability to move at last, he swiped a pair of denim jeans and a black t-shirt from his bed, quickly changed and finally left his room behind.
Oh, he thought to himself as he closed the door behind him. It’s going to be one of those mornings.
Pain filled his eyes as he stepped from the doorway, dropping Seth to one knee as he hissed and clutched at his eyes, demanding they behave.
“What the Hell’s going on!?” he shouted in agony, pouring will into his left arm and stretching it in front of him. “Are we under attack!?”
A sigh came from around the corner. “Yes, yes, nice to have you back, boss,” came the familiar, female voice. “You’re under attack by what we of the living generally refer to as ‘light.’”
Seth grunted in reply, abandoning the readied energy and rubbing his eyes. “Christ, really? Were they always this bright?”
“Amazing what three days of darkness will do to your eyes.”
He grumbled something unintelligible to even himself and stumbled his way into the kitchen, where the rejuvenating scent of fresh coffee greeted him. It was a small room, much like the rest of his home, barely having enough space for the essentials. A counter covered in assorted mail, an unused toaster and a coffee pot sat directly in between the stove and refrigerator. A sink piled high with dishes on the other side of the stove, and Seth found himself making a mental note to get them cleaned later, an empty promise he made himself every morning.
He clasped his hands together and bowed his head, uttering a short prayer unto his deity, Lord Folgers, before pouring himself a mug. The toaster clicked at him as he took a sip, and he glared at it in turn, not in the mood for its protest.
A slender, straight-haired black cat jumped onto the counter as he took another drag. He scratched her behind the ears as she did.
“And good morning to you too, Fluffy.”
“Call me that again and I’ll snap your neck,” the cat seethed. “You’re lucky enough I let you call me ‘Anne.’” She paused a moment, and began to purr. “A little lower, by the way.”
He complied. Aanerud the Shape-shifter, or “Annie,” as he preferred to call her, was not to be denied. She was nearly as old as time itself, with power to match. For whatever reason, perhaps on whimsy, when the two had met two years prior, she’d decided to stick by his side. He momentarily reflected on his luck as he took another sip of his coffee.
But, Seth found himself musing, if you’re going to choose to be a cat in my presence, you’re going to get cat names.
“Whatever you say, Mittens,” he chuckled to himself, ignoring her hiss/purr combination. He patted her head thrice, and left the kitchen, slapping his answering machine on the way.
“You have no messages,” he spoke alongside the machine with a sigh; it had been some time since his last client.
A cool autumn breeze and typical Seattle rain greeted Seth as he wrenched the door open. He allowed it to mostly close behind him before stopping it with his foot, while retrieving his mail from the box affixed to the door. He absently flipped through the various envelopes in his hands as he pondered the sign on his door, which read:
PARANORMAL CONSULTATION AND RECOVERY.
FOR HIRE. INQUIRE WITHIN. NO PARTIES.
Maybe I’d get hired more often if mortals thought that sounded less crazy, he considered with a sigh. This is a lost time. He shrugged the thoughts away as he re-entered his home, closing the door behind him.
“Anything interesting?” Aanerud called from down the hall.
Looking up from the mail in his hands, Seth found Aanerud, in her human form, leaning against the edge of his desk, looking every bit as seductive as a shape shifter would make themselves; curves in all the right places, with skin a light shade of bronze, while her hair glistened a nearly pure shade of black. Her eyes, for their part, shone a deep shade of red, their color the only constant amongst any of her forms. Whether or not she even could change their color, he realized, he wasn’t certain. Like many creatures from beyond the Veil, Aanerud cared little for clothing, and it showed.
His eyes drifted across her for maybe a half second longer than he’d intended, drawing a bemused smirk from Aanerud as she sipped away at his coffee.
“Annie,” Seth sighed, pinching the spot between his eyes. “Clothes, please.”
“You mortals are all such prudes,” Aanerud huffed as she hopped from the desk to pilfer some clothing from Seth’s room.
“Let’s see,” Seth began, turning his attention back to the mail and ignoring her comment. “Junk, junk, bill, bill, aaaand our electricity’s getting shut off soon.”
“Oh, that’s always fun,” she quipped. “We’re going to have to start thinking of things to sell if you don’t get any clients soon.”
Seth slumped into his chair, tossing the mail onto his already cluttered desk. He pondered over his belongings for a moment, trying to find anything to part with. There was no spare furniture to sell, and he certainly couldn’t sell any tools of his trade. He glanced about the tiny apartment for ideas, his eyes finally settling on the kitchen.
“Aha!” he jumped, snapping his fingers. “The toaster! We could sell the toaster,” he exclaimed. The toaster rapidly clicked in nervous response from the kitchen, but its protest only made Seth even more cheerful.
“No,” Anne replied, returning from the bedroom wearing a large, blue t-shirt, which hung low enough on her to double as a skirt. “We’re not selling Bob.”
The toaster clicked once in merriment as Seth, his cheer destroyed, pointed back toward his bedroom and snapped “pants.” Aanerud threw her hands up in defeat, trudging back to the room as he continued. “But, fine. What do you suggest we do, then?”
“Search me,” she called back. “Treasure hunt?” She returned from the bedroom, now wearing a pair of gym shorts under the shirt, and sat opposite Seth at the desk as they each remained silent, hoping the silence would grant them an answer.
“You know,” Seth began, finishing a drag of his coffee, “it could be a long shot, but I heard mention of one of those would-be-psychics opening up across town. Could be something to this one?”
“Ugh,” Anne spat. “Sure, just like the last four. What’d they call themselves?” She waved her hands through the air mockingly. “Amethyst the Beholder, Celesto the All-Knowing, Circe Hufflepuff. Or my personal favorite: Zatanna Batman. Yeah, some real winners, there.”
“At least Celesto had some talent,” Seth protested. “Though, maybe a pyromancer should avoid divination…”
“Right,” Anne chucked. “So, who’s this one?”
Seth turned his head away from her and muttered the name under his breath.
“Ooooh?” she chided, always game for a laugh. “What was that? I couldn’t quite catch it.”
She snapped her fingers and hopped about victoriously. “And we have a winner! Right up there with Mrs. Batman.”
“Alright, alright, it just a thought,” Seth grumbled, slumping back in his chair. “But it’s not like opportunity’s just knocking at our door, here.”
If it ever seems to you that the Powers that Be and Fate Itself often align their goals for the simple intention of proving you wrong or screwing your life over, it’s not necessarily because you’re paranoid (though you may still be). With that in mind, no sooner had Seth finished his sentence, did three sharp knocks came from the front door.
Seth and Aanerud exchanged a look with each other, then faced the door.
“Bullshit,” Seth declared, as Aanerud nodded in acknowledgement. They waited in silence for a moment before three knocks sounded again, and both sprung into action, heading in opposite directions. Aanerud quickly darted back into Seth’s room, returning a moment later to throw him a coat, and then hiding in the room once more.
Seth, meanwhile, started for the door, catching the coat as he went, slipping into it to appear as though he were less of a slob who slept in until two in the afternoon. He cleared his throat as he went, preparing to sell himself as best he could.
Seth Rivers, he thought, Professional Wizardry services available at professionally reasonable rates. Satisfied with the tagline, he put on his best marketing smile, gathered up his confidence and opened the door.
He promptly lost his confidence.
Standing in front of him, upon his own doorstep were three men he’d never seen before, each well-groomed and dressed in black suits. The two standing behind their leader wore sunglasses, despite the lack of sunlight, and Seth spotted a wire in each of their right ears. They were tall, pale and gaunt, both dark-haired with military cuts. Bodyguards, Seth reasoned, making a note that each likely carried a sidearm.
But neither of them concerned him. Their leader stood in front and between the two, dressed much the same as his guards and with an earpiece, although no sun glasses. His oily-looking blonde hair was entirely slicked back. Oddly enough, this man did not carry a sidearm, but rather, a curved sword hung at his hip, its ornate handle curving opposite the blade, and ordained in emeralds and a silver cross guard.
Seth had never met this man in his life. Never heard of him, never seen him. He did know him by reputation nor face, and yet there he stood, immobilized in fear by some mortal gangster who stood upon his doorstep. He knew the man, but he knew not how. All that he knew for certain was one thing:
Hector Slick had visited his home.
The man carried a presence more terrifying than anything Seth had known since Merlin, and he found himself doubting that anything could terrify him more than just seeing this man on his doorstep. And then, Hector spoke.
“Mr. Rivers, I presume. I’m in need of your services,” he began, his words carrying the sort of tone developed only through power.
Seth’s limbs acted without consulting his brain.
As quickly as he could, Seth dove for the small umbrella stand next to his door, wrenching free a double-barrel shotgun. He moved with a swiftness he’d never known, but Slick’s guards were faster, as one drew his sidearm with superhuman speed. A shot rang out, and Seth’s right shoulder exploded in pain, as he lost his grip on the weapon, staggering back.
Stupid limbs, he thought with a snarl, planting his right foot behind him. Pouring his will into his left fist, he raised an invisible shield between the men on his doorstep and his own position, though without a focus he feared it wouldn’t hold for long. The bodyguard, for his part, kept his weapon trained on Seth, but did not move or fire further.
“All right, all right, that’ll be enough of that,” Hector spoke, raising his hand to his guard. “There’s no need for violence, here.” The guard glanced between Hector and Seth, grunted, and holstered his weapon.
Seth, however, kept his shield readied, glaring at the trio on his doorstep. He briefly pondered his options, and found few available, as his right arm hung, limp and useless, at his side, and deprived him of retaliation.
“Seth!” Aanerud exclaimed, running around the corner into the short hallway. Her expression flicked to horror as she regarded Seth’s arm, and fury as she regarded Slick and his men. Her red eyes blazed in rage as she slowly stepped past Seth, the entirety of her form shifting into something dark and monstrous. The bodyguards, who hadn’t hesitated against Seth, each took a step back and found themselves reaching for their firearms.
Hector, however, never gave an inch, but simply rested his hand on the hilt of his blade. It was a simple act, a short one, and moreover, it was a message that Seth recognized: it was a warning.
“Annie,” Seth spoke softly, trying his best to defuse the situation. “It’s alright, there’s no need to cause a scene.”
The darkness that Aanerud had become pulsed in anger, emitting a vicious hiss directed at the men on her doorstep. She glanced toward Seth for confirmation, who mouthed the words stand down. Her eyes narrowed briefly in irritation, glancing between Seth and Hector.
“I could use some bandages though, if you would,” Seth continued, smiling weakly as he clutched his right shoulder with his left hand, his barrier finally dismissed.
Aanerud’s form pulsed once more, and quickly shifted back into that of a human, though she still wore her rage openly. She glanced between Seth’s shoulder and Hector’s men one last time, growling. She placed her index and middle fingers under her eyes, and turned them back to the guards, who jumped a bit at the gesture.
“I’ll be right back,” she hissed, turning her back on the door and heading toward the bathroom. Somehow, Seth felt, she never lost sight of him. He breathed a sigh of relief, wincing as his shoulder throbbed.
“It’ll be alright,” Hector assured him. “It should be a simple flesh wound, designed to immobilize, but not cripple.”
“Oh, really?” Seth spat. “Maybe you should try one next time. What do you want, Hector Slick?”
Hector raised an eyebrow at that. “Ah, you know who I am, Seth Rivers?” he mused, putting emphasis into the name, as though knowing it gave him power.
“Yeah, still working that bit out myself,” Seth replied, his thoughts racing for an answer. His shoulder throbbed, cutting off his train of thought. Right, he realized. Self-interrogation later. Mob boss now.
“Fair enough,” Hector continued with a smile. “I have a business proposal for you, Mr. Rivers. Can we come inside to discuss?”
Seth stepped to the side of his doorway, clearing a path, squinting his eyes at the trio. “I don’t know,” he began. “Can you?”
If looks could kill...