“I’m just saying, it’s a little…underwhelming,” Aaron said.
“Underwhelming?” Richie stammered. His poor posture and sickly composition were especially pronounced as he hunched over the light of the laptop. “We tell you that near every hunter of the monstrous and mystical in the world is united by a super secret, encrypted, deep web website through which they exchange information and clues of the workings of the paranormal, and you find that underwhelming? What did you expect?”
“I don’t know, crystal balls, magic carrier pigeons, prayer to Artemis, not…Van Helsing Facebook,” he said, but thought that it might just be of use to him.
“Y’know what we call people who use those sorts of things?” Richie asked. “Targets.”
The Hunters’ RV was parked in a lot nearby New York’s Chinatown. Clive was waiting outside for the rendezvous while the rest of them watched from inside. It was a dark, warm night and the stars were washed out by the skyline.
“But why, in God’s name,” Aaron said, “does it look like a Dungeons and Dragons forum?”
“In case anyone finds it who shouldn’t,” Marcy said as she sat cross-legged on the lower bunk at the back of the RV, her dark skin gleaming under the lamp she used to polish a number of throwing knifes. She had a habit of cleaning and maintaining weapons when she was bored. Which was pretty much whenever she wasn’t using them. “It’s pretty well hidden, but in case anyone goes looking too hard, it helps if it looks like we’re just a bunch of nerds.”
“I’m sorry, I’m sorry,” Aaron held up his hands in mock surrender. “Maybe I’m just biased. The other guys communicate through telepathy and astral projection.”
Marcy and Richie glanced at each other. Both of them were sworn to track and kill the Vampires, or Motetz Dam, as they called themselves, that Aaron was associating with. “You know,” Marcy said, “if you could tell us where they were––”
“I would if I could,” Aaron snapped. “But they never give me the opportunity. So far it’s always been basements and chain restaurants. Nothing with landmarks I could identify.” Which was more or less true. Aaron had a general idea of where the Motetz Dam were most of the time. Given enough thought and observation he could probably narrow it down. But he wasn’t yet sure where to lay his loyalties, and it was too early to side with the Hunters.
“They’re here,” Richie said as a black van slid into the lot. They could see Clive salute at the van and a moment later a man stepped out and walked across the lot toward them. “C’mon,” Richie said and led them out of the RV to stand by Clive.
The man approaching was about Clive’s heigh, which was impressive, being a good half a head over Aaron and Marcy, and nearly full head over Richie, but much thinner than him. He was dressed all in leather and his dark blond hair went almost down to his shoulders. He had handsome, angular features under a thick layer of stubble. No one else got out of the van but it shifted as if more people were inside.
“Who are these guys, again?” Aaron whispered to Marcy.
“Demon hunters,” she replied, as if it was the most normal thing in the world. “He’s an old friend of Clive’s, ran with him for years. Bought him the hat.”
Aaron glanced at Clive’s signature green-brown Akubra bush hat. “And he called us here why?”
As the man neared them and was about to speak the door to the van slid open suddenly. A young Latina woman stepped out and took long strides toward them. “YOU!” she cried, pointing a gun at Aaron.
Aaron’s head snapped back less in shock than in recognition. “Eva?” She stopped a pace behind her companion.
“You know each other?” Clive and the man said together, Clive with his Irish brogue and the man in what sounded like an Australian accent.
Eva said, “We went on one date.”
“She tried to stab me,” Aaron supplemented.
“You were one of the first things I Saw,” she said, glaring angrily. “You’re the reason they started making me take those fucking meds.”
“Yeah, because you tried to stab me on out first date!”
“They told me vamp hunters picked up some scrawny ginger guy who isn’t quite human,” she said. “I should have put two and two together then and there.”
Aaron turned to Clive. “Really? You put out that I was ginger?”
“What’d you say he was again?” Eva asked the man. He turned to Clive and pursed his lips.
“Stigoi Viu,” Clive supplied.
“Basically a Vamp that ain’t dead yet,” Richie said.
“Ah, yeah,” Eva said. “That looks about right.”
“You can see that awful aura around him too?” Richie said.
“No, for me it’s more like…rot.” she said, squinting at him and looking angrily thoughtful, lowering the gun only slightly. “Or like moss. Creeping through and binding what should be separate. Ugly as shit is what it is.”
“Could someone please tell me what is going on?” Aaron yelled. “Why are we meeting with a girl who, and I can’t emphasize this enough, tried to stab me last we met, for her to point a gun at me and make cryptic insults on my person?”
“You haven’t told him much, have you, Clive?” the man asked. Clive shrugged in response. “Eva here’s the seventh daughter of a seventh daughter,” the man said and patted her on the shoulder.
“Yeah, she talked about all her sisters,” Aaron said.
“And just as many aunts,” she said.
“Pricey Christmas,” Clive muttered.
“Seventh of sevenths are naturally prone to mystic tendencies,” the man continued. “Varies from person to person, but in Eva’s case she has the second sight.”
Aaron arched an eyebrow. “Seriously? Did you by any chance have a psychiatrist as a child who never interacted with anyone else and looked oddly like Bruce Willis?”
“Fuck you, freak,” she spat, and raised the gun.
Marcy leaned over and whispered in Aaron’s ear, “Did you really just openly mock an armed woman who’s visibly angry at you and, as you keep reiterating, has tried to kill you in the past?”
“Yeah, probably not my best decision. And in this month alone, that’s saying something,” he replied.
“Go back to the car,” said the man to Eva, “and get ready to go.”
She begrudgingly obeyed, watching Aaron with narrow eyes all the way, never completely lowering the gun.
“Goin’ somewhere, Bill?” Clive asked.
“Clear cut possession up in Maine,” the man replied. “And turns out this,” he gestured in the direction of Chinatown, “isn’t our jurisdiction. Came in a few days ago on a flag from a coroner. Bodies popping up with no apparent cause of death, clear signs of––” he glanced briefly at Aaron, “soul draining. We come in, figuring it’s an incubus or succubus. Then the dead start getting jumpy. Literally.”
Clive nodded in recognition. “Jiangshi,” he said. “No’ somethin’ you see every day.”
The man, Bill, grinned. “Well, if you don’t think you can handle it––”
“Don get smart. Hell might freeze over and chase more work than ye can handle onto your hands.”
“Still can’t tell a decent joke, I see.”
“You go’a file or no?”
“Sent it to you. Took care of what was right in front of us, but the rest is your job.”
“Gotcha. Thanks. See ya ‘round.”
“Good luck,” Bill said as he walked back to his van.
Clive turned and walked back into the RV with the rest of them.
“So what was that all about?” Aaron asked once they were settled inside.
“Passin’ off a job to us,” Clive said as he settled in front of the laptop at the RV’s table.
“Why couldn’t they do it?”
Clive shrugged, which with shoulders as broad as his looked like moving mountains. “Like he said, jurisdiction. They hunt Demons, we hunt the Undead. Groups tend to be specialized like that for the sake of efficiency. Each knows their trade better than anyone else. They don’ hunt Vampires as to better focus on demon hunting.”
“Yeah, about that,” Aaron said. “Demons? Seriously? You guys have fucking exorcists on the payroll?”
Clive and Marcy both scoffed. Clive said, “Believe us, tha’ movie was tame compared to wha’ actually goes on.”
“Okay…” Aaron said. “So what is this…janshi thing we’re here for?”
“This is a first for you too, isn’t it?” Marcy asked him.
“Heard of ‘em,” Richie said. “Never killed one yet.”
“Looks like you’ll get the chance,” Clive said. He told Marcy to drive them to an address he pulled off the laptop. He turned to them. “Jiangshi come out of China. Nasty buggers, feral, vicious. Rottin’ corpses risen and let loose, stiff with rigor mortis so they have to sort of hop about. It’d be funny if it wasn’t so damn terrifying. Don’t feed on blood, like most of the things we hunt, go for the breath of life, life force, qi, wha’ever you wanna call it.”
“Like the pyromaniac over here,” Richie said with a nod towards Aaron.
Clive glowered at him for a moment and ignored the comment. “Drain a person, then the victim rises up and does the same. If one takes enough lives, it mutates, evolves, levels up. At that point things get real scary.”
“What do we do about it?” Aaron asked.
“I got that, but how? Standard procedure?”
“Simpler, actually. None a’ the requirements a’ full-on vamps. Iron knife or bullet aught t’do the trick. A little fire maybe.”
“So where are we going now?”
“It’s already claimed a few victims. If we don’t take care of those now, they’ll rise up and just cause more trouble. A misstep here and it won’t much matter if we get the original.”
“How exactly do you plan to get into government building to shoot a bunch of corpses?”
All three of them scoffed.
“Something you’ve done before, I take it?”
“It’s monster killing 101,” Marcy yelled from the front.
Aaron thought about his third goal. Beyond helping the Hunters. Beyond his tentative allegiance to the Strigoi Gregor and his band of Motetz Dam. He wanted to find his father. The Strigoi who spawned him and left him born a powerful Strigoi Viu. He figured he wasn’t going to do much for that goal here and now. “Guess I’ll just sit back and let you guys take the lead, then. Maybe play some sudoku.”
“Hell no,” Clive said. “You’re comin’ with.”
“You need the practice,” Clive said with a shrug. “And you might just make things easier.”
Marcy and Richie stepped into the old, stony building wearing official looking yet nondescript security guard outfits with confidence while Aaron walked closed behind them. Richie, in a no doubt purposeful move allowed the glass door to fall onto Aaron, which he of course passed through as if it were nothing.
It had been odd going into astral projection like this. Normally Aaron had automatically appeared wherever his Motetz Dam comrades were, but this time he rose from where his body was laying, stood incorporeally and looked down on his own sleeping form. It looked odd, backwards, having only seen that face in mirrors before.
“Can I help you two?” an overweight, balding guard by the door asked Marcy and Richie, who were actually physically in the morgue, lazily looking up from a game he was playing on his cellphone.
“They’re with me,” said a man wearing scrubs from down the hall. He was tall and thin and had a shock of black hair that was pressed down over the top of his head like he still wore a hat, invisibly. The guard shrugged them onward and returned to his game.
The man in the scrubs led them into the dark building. When they were out of earshot of the guard Richie muttered, “God bless night shift workers.” He turned to the man in scrubs, “You must be Dr. Richmond?”
“Yep,” said the man. “And that makes you Richie and Marcy, right?” They shook hands.
“Pleasure to finally meet you,” Marcy said. “You’ve done a lot for the cause as a Coroner.”
“That’s how you get in?” Aaron said aloud in his etherial form. “You know a doctor? I was expecting disguises and sneaking in.”
Richie shook a finger in his ear like it was ringing. “Our, uh, new associate is also here.”
Aaron smiled. He leaned over and put he mouth next to Richie’s ear and said, “You can hear me?” Richie flinched away and looked up and down at Aaron with accuracy, probably not seeing any more than the faint aura he usually saw around his body.
“Oh, the uh…” Dr. Richmond bared his teeth and made a hissing sound. That drew a chuckle from Richie and made Marcy roll her eyes.
“Hey, you can’t see me, man,” Aaron said, “but I can hear you just fine. Does anybody not know about me?”
They walked on, led by the doctor. In his physical ears back in the RV Aaron could hear Clive say, “You get in alright?”
“Headed to the bodies now,” Marcy replied into a walkie talkie. “How’s Aaron looking?”
“Mutterin’ a lot. He still there with ye?”
Richie said, “The walking aura and the headache I get where quippy retorts normally go indicates yes.”
They were led into a clean tile room with a wall of sealed metal cabinets lit by fluorescent overhead lights. “These are all the fresh ones,” Dr. Richmond said, indicating the wall. “Do yourself a favor and don’t open the bottom left one.”
“Thanks,” Marcy said. “Do you mind standing guard?” The doctor nodded, smiling, and left the room. She turned to Richie, “Which ones are we sure are victims?”
Richie looked over the wall of cabinets, occasionally referring to a list of names. “This is one of the first known cases,” he said and opened a drawer to reveal an elderly Asian man with no notable injuries.
“You see anything on him?” Marcy asked.
“Not a thing,” Richie replied. “We sure this is the right guy?”
“Probably one way to find out. Aaron?” she said into nowhere, apparently thinking he must be floating above them.
In his astral form Aaron could supposedly only touch magical things, like Vampires. Anything else he’d pass right through. He’d fall through the floor if he didn’t avoid thinking about it. So one could assume, if this was just a regular corpse, he wouldn’t be able to touch it.
Carefully Aaron held his hand by the body’s head, and numbly felt pressure against his fingertip as he nudged its head out of position. He started to shake off his hand and wipe it on his clothes, then he realized you probably couldn’t get an infection through your soul.
“Well, that looks fairly conclusive,” Marcy said.
“Aaron could move it?” Clive said from across the void and through the walkie talkie.
“Yeah,” Richie said bitterly as he pulled a small iron knife out of a pocket.
Richie drove the knife into the corpse, along the existing Y incision, so the mark wouldn’t show. The corpse immediately jerked, arms reaching out stiffly, mouth opening in a voiceless screech. Aaron saw an aura wash over the body, much like the ones he’d seen on vampires, only this one was more of a sickly greenish white than deep red.
“Okay, that I saw,” Richie said.
“No kidding,” said Marcy.
“No, not that. Death flash, like normal only…different.”
“Good to know you can at least tell when you’ve stabbed the right corpse. Can you still move it Aaron?”
Aaron waved his hand through the body’s head for a few seconds.
“Looks like that’s a no.”
“Richie,” Clive said, “you take the list of known victims. Marcy and Aaron, check the rest of the bodies just in case. Some poor sap might have been repor’ed as a heart attack.”
Richie went about seeking the proper names while Marcy and Aaron made their way across the rows. Marcy would open a door and wait a moment while Aaron batted uselessly at the corpse’s head, and Marcy closed it back up when she didn’t see movement. A couple of times she closed the door on his arm, which he of course barely noticed, but he still thought it a bit rude. Also, Dr. Richmond was right, they shouldn’t have opened the bottom left one.
Richie was finished stabbing corpses and stood by the door as Marcy and Aaron were on their last few. “Hurry up, I wanna get out of here before someone starts asking questions,” he said.
“Just a couple more,” Marcy said and opened the second to last drawer on the upper right. Aaron reached up and swatted at the body of a young man to find that it moved with his hand. “We got another,” Marcy said to Richie. He began walking back over.
The corpse rolled off the slab in a sudden, jerking motion and landed clumsily on stiff legs. Aaron heard the crack of one of its legs breaking but the jiangshi didn’t even react. In quick, jerking motions it lifted up stiff, straight arms at Marcy and made the motion of a hop that seemed to have all the force of a small car at Marcy. It held her by the throat and opened it’s mouth in a way that seemed to nearly dislocate its jaw. Marcy pulled a knife out of one of her sleeves and began stabbing and slashing at the thing’s arms to no avail.
Faster than he thought would be possible in his physical body, Aaron lunged at the jiangshi, grabbing it by its cold, stiff shoulders and pulling it away from Marcy.
With a sound like cracking knuckles the jiangshi turned its top half a full 180 degrees towards Aaron by its spine in jerky motions, twisting the flesh around its naked torso into a spiral. Its stiff hands grabbed the arms of Aaron’s astral form in an iron vice and it stared through him with white, cataract eyes. It took a wheezing, harsh inhale through its too-far-open mouth and Aaron felt his very self being pulled in. He looked down and saw his form being distorted, pulled forward by his chest like putty, towards the mouth of the jiangshi. He tried to get away. He tried to wake up, to appear somewhere else, but he couldn’t, the thing had him trapped, locked in its embrace and it was feeding on him. The peak of the distortion in his form moved ever close to the jiangshi’s mouth, becoming more distorted, fuzzy until it became no more than a hazy yellow glow, slowly draining away from him.
Richie ran up and stabbed the jiangshi in its side.
Aaron woke up in the RV, gasping for breath. Clive was holding his arms him down on the bunk and Aaron flailed, terrified.
“Easy,” Clive said. “Easy!” Aaron eventually settled down, but his eyes remained wide and his breathing heavy. “You looked like you were havin’ a seizure.”
“I––it––I” Aaron stammered. “It tired to eat me. I pulled it off Marcy and it tried to––to––it was absorbing me!”
Clive sat down. “I should have seen that comin’. Jiangshi feed on souls, and when you’re projectin’ you’re nothing but. Of course it would go after you if it noticed you. Like seeing a walking pile of steaks among a herd of cows.”
Aaron’s breathing was still labored. “That would be horrifying.”
“Would it?” Clive said. “I may be a bit desensitized.”
Aaron passed out.
In the hazy blackness of his unconscious state, Aaron heard a whisper, a murmur, like the tenth echo of a barely uttered word.
He heard his name.
“Fear is quite an overstatement,” he heard next in a deep resonating voice that cried of eastern Europe. “We are simply wary of those who would associate openly with a member of the living mass, let alone one who is an associate of a Scavenger party, even if he is such a half-breed.”
Aaron how stood in the lavish tea room of what he assumed was a sizable mansion. Heavy curtains covered the windows even though it was the middle of the night. The high ceiling curved up to a hanging crystal chandelier, shining with candles that also adorned the walls and sat on the many small tables. Above a stone fireplace carved with what looked like scenes from Greek myth was a very old looking portrait of a middle aged, olive-skinned man with harsh, yellow eyes and a balding head surrounded by fluffy brown hair and a matching beard.
Ornate, comfortable looking armchairs of red satin littered the center of the room around a similar sofa. Aaron stood behind one of the larger of the chairs in which the speaker sat, obscured by the back of the chair. At its side a thin, swarthy man in a tan suit and fedora who Aaron had learned was named Nikolas stood with his back to Aaron. Across a small coffee table from then was a sofa on which Gregor the Strigoi, Marigold the Baobhan Sidhe, and a third woman with lovely, pale features and long black hair who he’d seen in the sewers of LA but had not been introduced to him.
The edges of the room, in contrast, were lined with a layer of wooden perches, suitable for a large bird, and accordingly each supported something that appeared almost as a sinister looking horned owl, but in size more on the scale of a large eagle or a small pterodactyl than the birds they appeared to be. Their feathers varied from black to brown to golden blond, through most of their folded wings were deep red. Their beaks were elongated and shined metallically, like gold. They had not two, but four sharply clawed legs which in their perched position gave almost the appearance of a seated dog. And their eyes were big, and perfectly round, and a sickly, deep shade of yellow, and entirely without pupil.
As soon as Aaron appeared every round owl eye in the room turned fluidly to him. In another moment Gregor, Marigold and the brunette looked up from teacups filled with thick red liquid and stared with shock.
“And for that matter,” continued the man obscured by the chair, “I find your willingness to trust such a boy questionable at best. What you have proposed is not––” the voiced paused and after a moment the head of an old man poked out from beside the chair looking back at Aaron, the same old man depicted in the very old portrait, looking no worse for wear. He said what sounded like a greek curse word and turned back to the three on the couch. “What the blazes is going on?” he yelled.
“Excuse me for a moment,” Gregor said and set down his cup of blood. He walked over to Aaron a bit more quickly than a person should be able to without running, grabbed him by the arm and led him out of the room into an equally lavish hallway, closing the door behind them. “What on earth are you doing here?” he whispered angrily.
“Sorry, I thought you’d––summoned me.”
“Well, I mentioned your name, but that should not even have resonated to you. Were you lying around waiting for the smallest cue to join in?”
“Not exactly, I think I just passed out.”
“What? What have those scavengers got you doing for them?”
“Nothing, we were hunting some jiangshi––”
Gregor’s demeanor calmed immediately. “My word, are you harmed?”
“Uh, no, just a little out of it.”
“You have to be careful around those things, they are ravenous. They feed indiscriminately and you would be at particular risk if you encountered one while astral projecting.”
“Now you tell me.”
“Nothing. What’s with the concern all of a sudden, last time I was almost killed you seemed more worried about the Vampires than me?”
Gregor waved a hand dismissively. “Like I said, jiangshi are feral, they are useless to us. They have no intellect of their own. They are not even true Motetz Dam, they feed on life directly instead of through the medium of blood. The originals are usually corpses animated by magic and let loose, they have more in common with zombies than us. Now get out of here. Negotiations with these striges are delicate, and frankly, you are one of the reasons.”
“So I heard. They don’t trust me?”
“They do not trust anyone. That is why they have Nikolas watching us.”
“All those owl…things?”
Gregor nodded. “They do not often take human form among outsiders. Maybe a hundred in the entire country and they all respect and obey Leonardo. That is exactly the kind of organization we are looking for.”
“Hey, who’s the brunette?” Aaron asked. “I saw her in the sewer, but I haven’t met her.”
“Carmen. A Lilin. She does not always travel with us, preferring to keep with her apostle and her daughter, but she is loyal to our cause.”
“And, what is that cause, again?”
“All in due time,” Gregor said without hesitation. “Now wake up, the Strix is going to grow impatient.” He walked back into the room and Aaron allowed his astral form to fade.
“Wait, did he just say magic and zombies?” Aaron muttered as he awoke back in the RV’s cot.
“I swear,” Marcy’s voice rang out from the front of the vehicle, “if he saves my life one more time––”
“Don’t worry about it,” Aaron interrupted as he got up. He felt a vague, dull fatigue over his entire body, and felt anxious and mildly paranoid. “After the last couple times I’ve learned that it never does me any good. Your honor will remain intact.”
“You alright then?” Clive asked. The three of them stood towards the front of the RV. Richie had his eyes closed and was listening to something on headphones while Clive and Marcy looked at something on the table.
“I’ll live for now, but remind me to stay attached to myself around those things.” He looked at Richie and Marcy. “You two alright?”
Marcy said, “Richie took out the one that attacked you and we got out of there. Richmond’s gonna have trouble explaining how a corpse got twizzlered, but other than that everything went off without a hitch.”
Aaron walked over to them, getting slightly dizzy as he stood up. “So what do we do now?”
“Find the original,” Clive said. “Richie’s listening to the police scanner and we’re seein’ if there’s any patterns to its attacks.”
Aaron saw that there was a large map of Manhattan spread out on the table with several red dots drawn on it, each marked with a number going up to eleven. “Seems to be localized to the area around Chinatown.”
“You don’t say,” Marcy quipped as she stared down at the map pensively.
“The numbers indicate the order that the attacks happened?”
“Aye,” Clive said.
Aaron looked over the map for a moment, then grabbed a pencil off the table. He drew a line from 1 to 2 along a street. Perpendicular to that he drew a line from 2 to 3. Then again 3 to 4, and so on.
“I’ll be dammed,” Clive said.
“Left.” Aaron said. “That’s the pattern. It attacks, then it takes the nearest left and follows a street a random distance to its next victim. Who knew liking puzzles would come in handy one day?”
“Eldridge Street,” Clive said and moved to the driver’s seat. “The next one’s goin’ to be on Eldridge Street.”
Richie opened his eyes and said, “I know where––” before Clive peeled out of their parking spot nearly knocking him off his feet.
“Eldridge street?” Marcy asked him.
Richie blinked. “Yeah, how––”
“Clive, hurry, we’ve got confirmation!” she called to the front, and the RV accelerated.
Aaron tried to hide a smug smile.
As they approached the address Richie heard Aaron moved up to where he could talk to Clive.
“You said these things change when they feed enough,” Aaron said. “Change how?”
“Pray you don’ find out!” he yelled as the RV screeched to a stop. Marcy handed Aaron a pistol as they rushed out of the vehicle to a brick apartment building.
“Did the police alert say which apartment?” Clive asked Richie.
“No, just a report of a sightin’ at this building.”
Aaron ran up to the front of the house and pressed all the intercom buttons.
“What are you doing?” Marcy yelled.
“We need someone to open the gate!”
“We can do that!” Marcy said as she held up a curved length of metal with a padded clamp on the end, apparently designed specifically (likely by her) for opening such gates from the inside.
“You search the inside for it,” Clive told Aaron.
“Uh, fuck no,” he replied.
“The last time I was around one of those things it almost swallowed me whole. No thanks.”
“It won’t notice you unless you touch it or make noise, there are lives at stake, man!” Clive lifted Aaron up by the waist in one arm like he was nothing and brandished his banana-shaped revolver in the other hand. “I’ll carry you, now get in there!”
Aaron ran a hand through his hair. He was terrified. He was also very much aware that people would die. He made an exasperated moan and willed himself asleep.
In an instant he was inside the front hall of the building. He could hear the others talking outside. He ran began running through apartments, ‘through’ being literal as he sped through doors and walls from one room to the next, glancing at each for signs of trouble, but finding only sleeping people, people in front of the TV and a few couples having sex (in one room). After he’d cleared the first floor he willed himself up to the second and found himself instantly in the hall there. He heard the frame of the front door behind him splinter. He ran through the door of the first apartment on his left and found a man putting on his robe to discern what all the ruckus was about. Aaron quickly ran through a wall into the adjacent apartment.
A young man held out a large kitchen knife, dragging a limp young woman toward a window with his other hand. The creature edging towards him was once a young, thin woman with a lopsided bob of black hair, now matted with moss and trash. Its skin was a livid pale and it shuffled forward with its arms outstretched.
Aaron awoke over Clive’s shoulder as the group was climbing the first flight of stairs. “Second floor, second door on the left.” Clive dropped him to his feet and they ran up the stairs into the hall. Clive kicked open the door Aaron told him and they all stepped inside guns held at the ready.
The man Aaron saw lay against a heater, his knife fallen uselessly to the floor, smudged in the dried remains of blood. The woman he had been dragging lay on the floor with glossy, open eyes. The creature hunched over the man, its mouth open too wide, a stream of white aura trailing from his mouth to its.
In that instant they watched the jiangshi change. Its skin became a ghastly shade of pale green, like some bacterial culture was growing over it. Its fingernails grew out pointed into long, sharp claws. Its hair lengthened down to its waist and became stark, gleaming white.
Clive fired a shot that hit it in the shoulder. Instantly its head shot round at him with a terrible creak and it looked at them with white, cataract eyes. Without an instant’s delay its rigid form shot through the window as if yanked by a cord, shattering glass and wood like nothing, knocking the railing of the fire escape out of place as it flew, literally flew off into the night, leaving the two corpses in its wake.
“Bloody fuckin’ Hell!” Clive screamed.
“What in God’s name is going on in here?” said the man from next door Aaron had seen as he stepped through the door rubbing his bleary eyes and putting on his glasses.
Clive replied calmly, in an American accent, “We’re with the FBI, sir, please return to your home.”
“Oh,” said the man as he left, “fine then.”
As Aaron blinked at the neighbor’s compliancy, Clive returned to panic. “Shit, shit, shit,” he said in his own accent.
“So that’s what happens when they feed enough,” Richie drawled.
“You’re damn right it is,” Clive spat. “Now it can fuckin’ fly!”
“C’mon,” Marcy said. “We’ve got to get out of here.”
“Won’t do us any good,” Clive said, “we can’t well catch the damned thing.”
“I realize that, but the cops are gonna show any minute.”
“Oh, right, that,” Clive said and went after her. “Richie, take care of th’ bodies.”
Richie went over to the bodies. “The boy’s still breathing.”
“Then don’ stab him!” Clive cried from the stairs. Aaron went after him as Richie went about assuring the peaceful rest of the boy’s girlfriend.
They piled into the RV and left as inconspicuously as they could in a giant old RV driving away from the scene of a crime at night.
“So what now?” Aaron asked. “It probably won’t keep to that pattern, now that it doesn’t have to follow streets. So what? We keep listening to the police scanners? Start shooting into the sky at random? Monitor Twitter for hashtag Supercorpse?”
Clive pulled over the RV. “Now, we call backup. There are two or three people in the area who might be able to track the thing and owe favors to th’ network.”
“Bob’s dead, remember?” Marcy said.
“One or two people, then. I’ll make the calls.”
“Then I’m getting a last meal,” Marcy said. “I’m starved, and a few of the Chinese places we passed looked good, and were still open.”
“Mind if I come with?” Aaron said. “Nearly getting your soul eaten really takes it out of you.”
Marcy said, “Sure,” with a wave of her hand.
“You wanna come?” Aaron asked Richie.
“I’ll pass,” he said harshly and slumped at the table.
Aaron and Marcy found a decent looking Chinese place and ordered a variety of food. “You’re not eating much,” Aaron asked her after a few minutes of uncomfortable silence, “nervous?”
“No, just, dieting,”
Aaron blinked. “Really?”
She looked up from her sparse plate. “What just because a girl likes guns she can’t watch her figure?” she said mockingly.
“No, I just…wouldn’t have pegged you.” Marcy seemed content to let conversation drop there. “I get the feeling that Richie doesn’t like me.”
She looked up with her eyes and took a bite of chow mein before answering. “He isn’t the most trusting guy. Especially––” she trailed off.
“I get the sense he hasn’t been with you guys that long?”
“About a year. A little less. Picked him up in Texas, same trip where Clive got that stupid banana gun he made me bring into working order.”
“You are pretty good with that sort of thing. You said you invented the Overkill and those staking things? That’s impressive.”
That brought a lopsided grin out of her. “I was an engineering student at MIT. Was gonna build rockets that go to the moon. At least that’s what the drawings I made as a kid said. Skipped two grades in high school.”
“Wow. How’d you get from that to, well, this?”
Her smile dropped and without missing a beat she said, “My parents, and my boyfriend were killed by a rogue pack of werewolves.”
Aaron sat quietly a moment and blinked at her. “Um, and that’s how you joined the hunters?”
“Sort of. That’s when I tracked down each of the wolves and killed them one at a time. Mostly using traps, weapons I designed specially for the task. To be honest I got a bit sadistic at times.” She took a bite from an egg roll. “After that was said and done word got around and every hunter in the country wanted me, it was just a matter of picking one.”
“Uh,” Aaron said, “so why’d you pick Clive?”
“He seemed the most inept with technology. Figured he’d need me the most. And he was pretty much the only one who didn’t seem like a serial killer. Figured if I was going into this, I should be with someone who’s a good liar. That was…three years ago.”
She calmly went back to eating her food. Aaron just stared at her for a moment. Then he made a choking sound. He tried to hold it back but in a few moments he was laughing.
“Is something funny?” Marcy asked with and utterly straight face.
“No, no, I’m sorry, it’s just…I’m sorry…Your story is better than mine.”
“I’m really sorry, it’s just…Here I am, a living vampire who had a psychic panic attack at a rave so you kidnapped and interrogated me before I’m released by a group of vampires that I end up spying on for you, getting me entangled in this whole fucking mess of lunacy and vampire hunting, and your story’s fucking more dramatic than mine. I mean, you…you went straight Punisher on a pack of fucking werewolves. That’s not a sentence that should describe real events in a human’s life. That’s a crappy B movie they show on cable networks.”
Aaron covered his mouth with his hand and managed to calm himself down, and for a moment the two of them stared at each other from across the table. Marcy made a snorting sound. Both of them laughed. They pounded their fists on the table. They doubled over trying to catch their breath. People around the restaurant glared at them. They didn’t stop.
After they were done with their meal they walked out of the restaurant with grins on their faces.
“Okay,” Aaron said, “what’s the weirdest case you’ve been on with Clive?”
“Ooh,” she said and slowed her step a bit in thought, falling slightly behind Aaron. “Ten bucks says, you’ve never heard of a Manananggal.”
Aaron chuckled. “No, I cannot say I have.” He heard what sounded like trash cans being rustled. “What is it?…Marcy?” He turned and saw no one there. He backtracked slightly to look down an alley they had passed.
The jiangshi held Macy on the ground at the back of the alley, hovering slightly above her yet clearly exerting massive force on her arms. The same stream of white aura Aaron had seen it take from the man in the apartment streamed from Marcy’s mouth into the jiangshi’s. Marcy grappled for a small caliber gun tucked into her boot, but the creature held her and she was slowly loosing strength.
“Oh shit oh shitohshit,” Aaron jittered around on his feet deciding whether he should run away before remembering he was armed and fumbling for the gun tucked into his pants. It fell out of his hands and clattered loudly to the ground. He stooped to grab it as quickly as he could but by the time he looked up again the jiangshi was in front of him. It grabbed him by the shoulders and pulled him into the alley with such speed and force that he felt his head snap back. It slammed him against the trash bins at the back of the alley so hard he saw stars. Macy lay unconscious or at least too weak to move by his side
He felt a pressure in his very soul. It was like when he used his telekinetic abilities, but where that was a voluntary push, this was a tug from a terrible, foreign source. It wasn’t like when the other jinagshi attacked him at the morgue. In that case he was nothing but soul the monster could absorb, here his body acted as a sort of funnel. His essence was pulled from all through him towards his stomach, where it streamed up his throat and out his mouth. His mind became fuzzy and his body became fatigued as he watched as the stream of faint yellow-white light drifted into the gaping jaws of the creature. It felt like loneliness. He couldn’t move under its grip. He tried to vanish from his body in his astral from where the jiangshi couldn’t reach him, but he was trapped by its feeding. He tried to move something. Burn something. Freeze something. He was too weak. His soul was leaving his control and couldn’t be used as energy under his control. He tried to absorb the life force of something, anything around him for more power, but even that seemed impossible while the jiangshi was feeding on his soul.
His soul. His life force. It would be the same as that of anything else wouldn’t it? Life force is life force, and the jiangshi wasn’t the only thing with a skill for absorbing it.
He focused on the stream he saw leaving his mouth. He’d never done this before. Every time he’d used his power he’d simply taken it from the ambient life around him, down to the bacteria in soil. This was different. It had to be directed. He remembered that the life force he saw was his own. That it belonged to him. He told it to get back where it belonged.
The stream into the jiangshi’s mouth slowed. Then it stopped. As it moved back towards Aaron the jiangshi began jerking spasmodically. He felt himself becoming fuller. The fatigue in the core of his body eased. His head began clearing.
Suddenly the pressure on Aaron’s soul redoubled. The jiangshi was fighting back. It hadn’t expected the battle, but it was equipped for it. The stream began moving back towards it. But Aaron knew what to do now.
He focused harder. The stream slowed once again. Harder and again it began flowing towards him. He felt himself becoming full, back to where he was before.
Then, for a moment, he began to feel better than had had before. The flow of life in his mouth seemed to have a different…flavor. A different character to it. It cried of old pain laced with completion and absolution, yet still a sense of emptiness, all beneath a fuzzy, thick yet nearly transparent blanket of warmth, of kindness and joviality, of friendship reinforced by years nearly replacing the emptiness of the core. This wasn’t him. This was Marcy. He was taking what the jiangshi had taken from her.
At that the jiangshi seemed almost panicked. The grip of its cold hands on his shoulders became a vice. Its eyes widened with the crackling of dry skin until it almost seemed that the decrepit white eyes were about to pop out of their bony sockets. Its efforts on his soul redoubled again and it inched its face closer to his with the creaking of the tendons in its shoulders as if for better leverage. Aaron felt Marcy leave him, followed by more still of himself.
Aaron fought with all he could. His breathing became fast as he pulled against the jiangshi’s influence. He could smell the rot of its face mere inches from him. The struggle came to a near stalemate, the stream undulating with the evened force as neither party could quite outmatch the other. But Aaron knew, he knew that the jinagshi had more endurance than him. That he would weaken over time while the monster, being dead, was well past fatigue. And he would loose.
“Ah, fuck it,” he said released his focus on his soul to pull the gun out of Marcy’s shoe. He jabbed it into the jiangshi’s stomach, literally into it as the muzzle of the gun penetrated its rotting skin and into its useless guts. Aaron pulled the trigger repeatedly with bangs muffled by the carcass. Blackened spurts of what was once blood shot out of the jiangshi’s back, its shoulders, its head. The green white aura he’d seen before washed over the corpse and it slumped over onto the ground as Aaron felt the portion of his soul that was still between him and it flow back into him unaided. It wasn’t all he had before, the jiangshi had died with some of him still within it, but he’d live dammit.
“Aaron,” Macy said. She looked weak. Apparently the gunshots had woken her and she’d finished reaching for the gun in her boot. “Did you take my gun?”
He held up the small caliber pistol covered, along with most of his hand, in dark congealed blood that seemed slightly greenish, a dried splotch having formed around the muzzle where the flash had burned it. “You want it back?”
She glanced between him and the corpse of the jiangshi and took a few labored breaths, apparently trying to put her thoughts together. “What did I say about saving my life?”
Aaron made a breathy noise that could almost be considered a laugh. “Believe me, I didn’t do shit for you, this was entirely my own neck on the line.”
“Oh,” she said and laid her head back onto the ground. “Good.” Aaron helped her to her feet and they used each other as crutches to get back to the RV.