“So what is it we’re hunting here again?” Aaron said quietly.
“What?” Clive said. The shuffling evening crowds walking on the streets of New Orleans had apparently washed out Aaron’s question.
He whispered slightly louder, “What are we after?”
“Speak up, man, you’re drawing attention to yourself.”
“I’m drawing attention to myself?” Aaron looked around the restaurant patio where the four of them sat eating their dinner. “You’re the one talking loudly. Anyone could listen in.”
“You know what people sometimes try to listen in on,” he looked quickly back and forth and then leaned in close to whisper to Aaron, “people whispering suspiciously.” He sat back in his chair. Richie laughed. Marcy simply shook her head slightly, a little grin on her face. “No one pays attention to you if you’re just another bloke.”
“Fine,” Aaron said. “What is it we’re after?”
“Soucouyant,” Clive chirped. “Sometimes called a Loogaroo. I prefer the latter because it sounds funny.”
“Right. So where’s this one from?”
“What do you mean?”
“Country of origin.”
“Er, here. All around the Caribbean, actually.”
“Really? We’re picking on a local?”
“You got a problem with that?” Richie asked, giving Aaron a sideways glance.
“No, it’s just everything I’ve seen or met so far has been from Europe or Asia or the Middle East. It kinda seemed like they all rushed in post-Columbus uncontested. I just hadn’t figured there were any Vampires native to the US.”
“There aren’t many,” Marcy said through a bite of salad. “From what I’ve read, there are no legends or reports of much of anything north of here. There’s some things that fit the description in South and Central America, but get into America and everything’s imported.”
“Huh,” Aaron said. “Any idea why?”
Clive shrugged. “Injuns killed ‘em all?”
“You watched too many westerns as a kid,” Marcy said.
Aaron said, “So back to the, uh…Loopdyloo.”
“Yeah, that,” Aaron said, ignoring the insult.
“It’s a weird one,” Clive said with a warning tone.
“The last new thing I met turned into a giant, buxom snake. Lay it on me.”
“By day, normal person,” Clive began. “Stereotype is an old hag woman, but truth is it can be anyone.”
“That’s not so weird.”
“Then at night its skin sheds off and it flies around as a ball of fire to drink people’s blood.”
“There it is.”
“People in the area have been reporting strange lights in the sky, dark bruises appearing on their bodies overnight, people going missing or dying mysteriously, a couple of them exsanguinated and skinned. All consistent. Cops probably think the last part is a serial killer.”
“Wait,” Aaron said, “it eats their skin?”
“Nope. Just stores it for later.”
“Why would it…wait. Are you saying this thing can walk around in the skin of its victims during the day?”
“Kinda ups the gross factor,” Marcy said, “doesn’t it?”
“Eh, so far still better than the Jiangshi. So what are we going to do about it? I’m not exactly sure how you’re supposed to cut the head off a ball of fire, or stake it through the chest.”
“Might be easier than usual, actually,” Clive said. “If these things don’t crawl into a skin by dawn, poof. Dead.”
“So, we find and destroy their skins?”
“Don’t destroy them,” Marcy said. “Especially not the original. Pour some rock salt on them and they’re useless to the Soucouyant.” She reached into her backpack and tossed him a cylinder of salt.
“Why can’t we destroy them?” he said as he caught it.
The three more experienced hunters looked at each other. “The skins are valuable. The Hunter community can use them,” Clive said.
“Like how Coroners put ashes in the water supply to inoculate people who have been bitten?”
“Sorta,” Richie said plainly. “We sell them.”
“The skins can be a useful ingredient in some magical practices,” Marcy clarified. “Selling things like that that we accumulate to Wiccans and small time wizards helps put bullets on the table.”
Aaron opened and closed his mouth a few times. “Let me just be clear about this,” he said. “Magic is real. I mean I knew that already in general, but like friggin Dumbledore bubble bubble toil and trouble magic?”
“This surprises you?” Clive said with a grin.
“Of course not, nothing could surprise me, we’re hunting some Buffalo Bill living pyrotechnic right now. I just figured if those things were real, you guys would be tracking and killing them, not selling them condiments.”
“We do,” Richie said. “When they act badly.”
“We only go after them when they start using magic for evil,” Marcy said. “Friendly old ladies mixing love potions we couldn’t care less about, except when they pay us. Hell, some Hunters use magic in their trade.”
“But you guys don’t?” Aaron said.
“Oh, right,” Aaron said mockingly. “Us half-breeds. So, back on topic. What’s the plan for the Loogaroo? Find it’s lair?”
“Hopefully,” Clive said. “For now we focus on tracking it, hopefully catch it while it’s still night before it can hurt anyone else.”
“I thought we were salting skins?”
“Keeping people safe is still the priority. What do you think we are? Complete sociopaths? Better to track it and corner it until dawn when it’ll die.”
“How do we corner a flying ball of fire?”
“With this,” Marcy said. She reached into her backpack again and tossed a jar full of uncooked rice and seeds to Aaron. He caught it and looked at her. “Arithmomania. It’s obsessed with counting. Pour that on the ground in front of it and it’s compelled to count every last one. Affects a lot of Vamps but most breeds can get over it easier. Not so with Soucouyants.”
“Did you really just tell me that Count Von Count is accurate?”
“Ah Ah Ah!” Clive laughed.
“So I take it we’re in the middle of its hunting grounds?”
“Every report of it has been from within a mile of this spot,” Clive said. “Figure it can’t be held up far from here.”
“So we what? Split up, gang, and hope one of us spots it?” Aaron said, figuring that was the best strategy.
“No splitting up,” Clive said. “We stick together on this for safety. Wander this area and keep out eyes open.”
“That,” Marcy said, “and a few other observational methods.” She showed him the screen of her phone.
“Twitter?” Aaron stammered. “You expect the thing to give away its position on social media as it’s preying on the population?”
“It’s a friday night,” Marcy said with a shrug. “Bunch of twenty-somethings out partying see a ball of fire streak across the sky, what do you think they’ll do?”
“Ah the Internet,” Clive mused. “What doesn’t it make easier?”
“Apparently, feeding on the living.”
Shortly after midnight the restaurant had closed and forced them out, so the four of them wandered in circles around the neighborhood, trying not to make any cops suspicious of them and their concealed weapons.
“That’s it,” Clive said around two in the morning. “Aaron, what was that plan of yours again?”
“Uh, split up to search it out?”
“Ah!” he exclaimed in an exaggerated tone. He looked at Richie pointedly, “That sounds like an excellent idea. Very efficient.” He took out a map. “We take up locations here, here, here, and here so at least one of us can respond quickly to a report anywhere in the area.”
Richie said, “Clive, I thought we discussed––”
“Keep your phones on Walkie-talkie,” Clive continued as if uninterrupted. “You see anything, you alert the rest of us. Marcy, if you get any alerts, tell whoever’s closest how to get there. You go here,” he indicated the Northernmost of the four points. “I’ll be here,” the Southernmost, “Richie and Aaron go here and here,” The Eastern and Western respectively. “Got it?”
They all agreed and walked off in four directions. Aaron wasn’t ignorant to what was going on. This divide and conquer method was obviously standard procedure. It was the only method that made sense, the way they were doing it they could have missed the thing entirely. There was only one explanation for why they were doing it. To keep an eye on him. Aaron had known form the start that Richie wouldn’t trust him as far as he could throw him (though the saying may not be overly apt, since the dhampir had displayed strength of literally supernatural proportions) and it would be just like him to want to keep an eye on him, and not let him run loose where he could meet with a potential conspirator. It didn’t make it sting any less that he wasn’t wrong.
Yes Aaron was also meeting with a group of Vampires through astral projection. The Hunters knew that much but what they didn’t know was the extent of his relationship with them. He was, in a sense, a full time conspirator with both. A double agent. The Hunters were unaware that the vampires knew he was traveling with them. Similarly, the vampires were unaware that the Hunters knew about his relationship with them. Essentially either thought he was their spy, infiltrating the other without the other’s knowledge. Of course Richie didn’t know any of that.
The others trusted him slightly more, as evidenced by the fact that Clive had posted him and Richie as far away from each other as possible. Unfortunately this also meant that his spot was over half a mile away and it took him about ten minutes to walk there. If Richie was the one who met the Loogaroo, it was going to take Aaron a while to get there. Though arguably in good shape, he was never a very athletic guy.
He found the spot Clive pointed out for him using the GPS on his phone, which was by an old brick faced building that might have been a brewery, he didn’t bother to check. For about a half hour he paced around the area, checking the sky and occasionally his phone for signs of malignant ball lightning. After that he thought he’d get a better view.
He leaned against the old building, locking his knees so he’d stay upright if he went limp. He’d managed to stay awake while astral projecting before, but it was far from easy and extremely disorienting. He let his eyes droop and his head rolled forward.
Suddenly he was on top of the building. The glittering lights of the city were sprawled out beneath him in all directions. Cautiously he peered over the edge of the building and saw a little blob of orange surrounded by the top of a red hoodie sticking out from the wall directly below him. “Is that really what my hair looks like from the back?” he muttered. “Did I just quote Hermione?”
He stood back and looked out over the city. Street lights and storefronts glowed. Cars sped through the streets. People shuffled from sidewalk to sidewalk. It occurred to Aaron he’d never asked how big the Loogaroo fireball was supposed to be. Or what color it was. All he really knew was that it was supposed to be a flying flame. He was suddenly nervous he might send the group after a low flying helicopter.
Then something caught his eye. Far off in the distance, maybe a mile away, a little yellow-orange glow. Barely more than a spot at this distance. It wavered back and forth sporadically, like a fly seen from across the room, or a mote at the end of a loose strand of spider’s silk. The pattern seemed…curious. Searching. And fundamentally alive. Or was it?
A distant chirp bit at Aaron’s ear. A persistent, warbling sound like a single voice out of the din of a crowd gnawed at him, coming from nowhere in particular like a ringing in the ear. He tried to brush it away so he could keep an eye on the distant light. When he realized what he was hearing he woke up back in his body.
“…repeat,” Marcy said over the walkie-talkie on Aaron’s phone. “Richie there was a report by your location at––”
“I saw it,” Richie’s voice said, the conflicting signals clouding the message with static. Marcy must have let off the button and Richie came in clearly, “I’m in pursuit now. I’ll call back in five when it’s dead.”
Great, Aaron thought as he pushed off the building and broke into a sprint, heading for the location Marcy continued to describe, because running a mile was so much fun in high school.
Aaron felt his feet smack against the pavement as he ran. He wished he’d worn better shoes for this. But he couldn’t let up. He’d have to push it if he wanted to even remotely keep up with Clive and Marcy. They were already closer, also Clive was so tall he could get their in a few steps and Marcy was obviously…very…fit. Ahem. Aaron on the other hand was just below average height and always fancied himself an intellectual rather than an athletic. Plus the shoes he was wearing were really terrible for running.
He made it about half way there before he had to stop and lean against the railing of a porch, which meant he was right about where he was when the group split up. His breathing was heavy, his feet hurt, and he felt like he was about to throw up. As he wiped some of the sweat from his forehead onto the sleeve of his coat, a woman’s voice with a Cajun accent said, “I’ve never seen a man run like that unless there was a girl in front of him or a man behind him.” He looked up.
In front of him, her long dark legs dangling off the metal railing he rested on, was a very beautiful woman. Her skin was dark, yet seemed to glow in the faint lights around them. Her hair was tied into cornrows that draped over one bare shoulder. The tube top and skirt she wore could hardly be called immodest in the heat, but they were pleasantly tight over the curves of her body. The soft features of her face were put into stunning contrast by the black cat’s eye glasses that rested on her nose. She reminded him a bit of Marcy, only exceedingly more feminine.
“So?” she said, her accent spilling out of the word like melted chocolate. “Which is it?”
“Uh,” Aaron proclaimed, trying not to look too sweaty. “Transvestite over to my left, oddly enough.”
She laughed through her teeth, revealing a pleasant array of dimples. “Funny man, eh?”
“When I want to be.”
“So what are you running for?”
“I’ve got time,” she said as she slipped off the railing.
It took Aaron a moment to bring himself to say, “Well, unless you can share, I regrettably have to be on my way.” He began to move forward but she stood in his way.
“My name is Monique,” she said. “Monique Katherine Blanchett. Here’s the part where you tell me your name.”
He smiled at her directness. He found he liked it. “Aaron. Aaron W––”
Before he could finish his full name his phone chirped and Clive’s voice spat, “Richie, where the hell are you!”
“Dammit,” Aaron said. “Sorry, I have to go.” He resumed his sprint, leaving a beautiful, clearly interested girl behind him. Idiot.
About five minutes later he arrived at a street corner by the location Marcy had described where she and Richie were standing and held onto a stop sign so he wouldn’t fall over. “How––” he said between breaths, “did––it––go?”
“Damn thing jumped me,” Richie said. A portion of his jacket looked scorched. “I caught it in the middle of feeding on some old guy. Damn near threw me down a flight of stairs. Couldn’t even get the rice out of my pocket.”
“He might have a mild concussion,” Marcy said. “Clive got here as it was fleeing and took a couple shots at it. He’s off north seeing if he can follow it to its den now.”
“Where the hell were you?” Richie snapped at Aaron.
Aaron gave him a baffled look. “I was––a mile––away! Had––to run––all the way––here!”
“Uh,” Marcy said. “Couldn’t you have astral projected over in an instant?”
Aaron suddenly stopped breathing so hard. He straightened up, turned to face the pole he’d been holding on to, and began gently banging his forehead against it.
“I tell you, woman, I’m fine!” Richie yelled as Marcy tried to get him to lay down in the bunk in the RV. “Just let me back at the thing!”
“When I found you you’d been knocked unconscious and your jacket was on fire,” she said. “Do I need to return you to those conditions to get you to rest?”
He calmed, though he was clearly still fuming.
“And you,” she said as she turned to Aaron, who was sitting at the table facing away from the bunk. A wolfish smile worked its way across her face. “I can’t believe you forgot you could astral project.” She started laughing and struggled to talk. “You should have seen yourself when you got there. You looked like you were about to fall over.”
“That’s not funny,” Aaron said. “The funny part is I was actually using it to get a better view when you sent out the word.” That sent Marcy into an uproarious laugh. After a moment Aaron started chucking along with her. Richie remained silent. When they had calmed down a bit Aaron said, “Christ, I’m still not used to this. I’ve been in this for what, a few months now? I still haven’t quite wrapped my head around the powers I have. Can’t think of what I can do as…a normal part of my life.”
Marcy placed a hand on his shoulder. “I’m sure you’ll get used to it. I’m gonna go see if I can find Clive.” She left the RV.
Richie scoffed quietly in the back. “‘Hasn’t wrapped his head around it,’” he muttered.
Aaron paused to take a deep breath through his nose. “No one else here this time. Might as well say it.”
Richie made a clicking noise with his tongue and pulled a lighter out of his pocket which he began flicking open and closed absentmindedly. “Fine,” he said at last. “How am I to know you didn’t stay out’a the fight on purpose?”
“Are you implying that I’m a coward?”
“If I were implying anything, that wouldn’t be it. Maybe you didn’t want the Soucouyant dead. Maybe you stayed away so it could take me out. Maybe you even warned it.”
Aaron turned around to face him. “What the hell reason would I have to do that?”
“You’re one of them.”
“Not yet I’m not.”
“Still seems a good enough reason to me.”
“Hey, it’s because of ‘them’ that you’re here isn’t it, dhampir?”
Richie suddenly clicked the lighter shut and sat up. He stared at Aaron with those sunken eyes and they seemed like daggers to him. “I spent my whole life,” he growled, “watching my mama do everything she could to take care of me. She didn’t have a penny to her name. Nor any family. And here I was, all sickly and weak. Always needing my pills and my doctors. And so strong I didn’t know what to do with it, couldn’t help always getting myself hurt, breaking my soft old bones. So she worked. Morning noon and night. Every day. All my life. She loved me that much, for all the trouble I’d caused her. Didn’t take me long to see. How sad she was. How hard it was that she loved me. She’d never want me hating myself, but I hated the thing, cursed the thing that raped her and left her with something like me. My father was a monster for more than one reason.”
Aaron saw that he was crying.
“So then they show up,” Richie continued. “Clive, all larger than life, and Marcy, beautiful and very nearly innocent, fresh from that rampage of hers. And they tell me what I am. Tell me why I was such a burden on my mother. Tell me what my father was. They tell me I have the power to make every thing like him pay. Pay for everything they’ve done to all the people they prey on, for all the women like my mother and the children like me. Every last one. Why wouldn’t I want to be a part of that?
“You can see some of the auras I can, right?” he asked Aaron.
“Um…yeah,” Aaron said quietly. “Only some. I think you called them death flashes.”
Slowly Richie pulled his pistol out of the shoulder holster hidden under his coat. “Can you see this?” he said. A faint white nimbus, like steam from a tea kettle refracting moonlight, radiated from his hands, wrapping around the gun, enveloping it and permeating its every part. Aaron slowly nodded. “Clive told you you needed to stake a vampire and ground it to kill it,” Richie said. “I don’t. I shoot you through the heart with this, you’re dead. Not wake up later to hang out with your bloodsucking buddies dead. Dead. Still heart, still body. Same with all the rest of them. I can kill them as easily as I could kill a man. That is my power over them. I’m here because of them. And it’s because of that that I can kill them. I am a testament to their own self destructive nature.”
“And I’m the child of one of them too,” Aaron said. “Just like you. Except I’m a means for them to reproduce. I’ve been given powers, same as you, except mine aren’t for their destruction, they’re for their continuation. So to your mind I stand against everything you value in yourself. To you I’m a monster no matter what I do.”
Richie slowly laid back down and continued playing with his lighter. “Just so we’re clear,” he said.
They sat in silence for a few minutes before they heard Marcy’s voice approaching the RV. “I just don’t understand how you could loose it.”
“It could fly,” Clive replied as he stepped into the RV.
“It was a shining ball of undulating fire.”
“It. Could. Fly! It lost me going over buildings.”
“Fine, I tripped over my own feet while staring at the sky and lost track of it. Are you happy? Are you happy now?”
“Kinda, yeah,” she said with a smile
Clive said, “Richie, you all right?”
Richie responded by snoring.
“Good,” he said and turned to Aaron. “You really forgot that you could astral project?”
“Oh, shut up.”
“And right after you were doing it?”
“You told him that?”
“It was funny,” Marcy said with a smile and a shrug. “What am I, your doctor?”
“No, but––oh, forget it. What’s the plan from here?”
Clive sat across from him at the booth and became sober automatically. “I may have lost the thing, but the direction it was going still narrows down where it could be holding up. We use the same strategy we used late tonight, take points around what we think the area is just after sundown and stake out for it.”
“Say,” Aaron said, his voice insincerely questioning, “why didn’t we use that method from the start tonight?”
Clive and Marcy both looked away for a moment. Clive said, “The original method seemed more appropriate at the time.”
“Bullshit. Walking around all together like that was stupid, the thing could have flown right past us.” He looked back at Richie, sleeping in the back.
“Aaron,” Marcy began.
“He doesn’t trust me.”
“And that’s his business,” Clive said. “Not yours and not the group’s.”
“If that’s true why didn’t we catch the Loogaroo leaving it’s den instead of running after it once it had already bit someone?”
Clive said, “Look––”
“No, you look. I may have Motetz Dam blood, but for the moment, I’m human. I think and I feel and I breathe like a human. I don’t treat the rest of you like you’re already corpses so I’d appreciate it if you didn’t treat me like I’m already a Vampire.”
“We’re not the ones you have to convince,” Marcy snapped. “Richie…he’s always––”
“I know, he told me his sob story. But the guy needs to learn there’s more to the world than black and white.”
“Sometimes there isn’t,” Clive said. “There are some things in life where good and evil count. There aren’t many, but this business is one of them. There’s people, and there’s things that hurt them. That’s what we deal with. I’ve been doing this most of my life and I haven’t seen it get a whole lot more complex than that yet.”
“Until me,” said Aaron. “Until I walked in. I’m still not sure if you’re working with me or using me or just babysitting me until I’m dead and dangerous, but whatever I’m here for,” he stood up, “get used to looking at a big old shade of gray.” He walked to the bunks. “Um,” he said, ruining his dramatic exit, “should we be letting Richie sleep like that?”
“It’s a myth that you shouldn’t sleep with a concussion,” Marcy said. “We should check on him every couple hours, but sleeping should actually help.”
“Okay,” Aaron said and climbed into the top bunk to sleep through the day.
Aaron had been having difficulty sleeping normally, partly because of the erratic schedule of the Hunters and partly because no sleep feels as deep as an out of body experience. He awoke in the mid afternoon exhausted, his legs aching from the sprint of the previous day, and extraordinarily hungry.
He crawled out of the top bunk and found that Richie was still asleep below. Marcy rested laying on one seat of the booth, her legs dangling over into the isle, while Clive sat on the other side and stood watch.
Aaron said to him quietly, “I’m gonna go get some breakfast. Well, late lunch, I guess, at this time of day.”
Clive nodded and Aaron walked towards the door of the RV. Before he could walk out Clive said, “You are right, you know. You are a shade of grey. And that isn’t something any of us is used to dealing with. Our job is pretty simple. People are dying, and we stop the things causing it. We hide from proper authorities because words like ‘gun permits’ and ‘murder’ get thrown around, but we know what we’re doing is right and we don’t have to think twice about that. It’s especially easy for us, we deal with Vampires. They aren’t people, not anymore at least, they’re predators that we protect people from. It can be a bit harder for other factions of Hunter, people who hunt Witches or Werewolves, things that are still at least a little bit people. But all in all, we’re protecting the innocent, and that’s good, it feels good. It’s that thought that keeps us going, through all the violence and the mayhem and the loss. We do good.” He bowed his head, realizing he had begun rambling. Aaron simply nodded and left.
The first thing he saw that looked good was a deli, so he went in, ordered a sandwich, and paid with a credit card the Hunters had given him that they said was paid for by their network of Coroners and Salesmen.
After he sat down at one of their tables a familiarly accented voice from the seat behind him said, “Well, if it isn’t a small world.”
Aaron turned to look at the woman he had met briefly the night before, making an exaggerated show of looking around the diner as he did so. “No,” he said. “I don’t see any dancing ethnic robots. And neither of us is in a boat.” She laughed. “Monique, right?”
“Yes,” she said. She was as lovely as the night before, though she now wore jeans and a T-shirt with an Ouija board design that hung loosely over her shoulders. “And you are Aaron…?”
“Uh,” Aaron thought for a moment about the fact that he was traveling around the country with members of an armed secret underground organization that generally left a trail of missing persons and bodies in its wake. “Just Aaron, for now.”
Monique cocked an eyebrow. She said, “How mysterious. Well, Just Aaron, what brings you to the city?”
“Hm? And may I ask now what you were running so fast to last night?”
He leaned in closely over his chair and smiled. “Just business.”
She smiled. “You like to keep a girl guessing, don’t you?”
“Is that what you’re doing?”
“What’s your best guess so far?”
She squinted at him dramatically. “You seem a bit young to be a secret agent of some sort.”
He barked out a laugh. “That’s your guess? That’s the first thing that comes to mind?”
“Why not? Dashing young man rolls into a major city. Won’t give out his name to beautiful girls, runs though the street like he has lives to save while mysterious voices yell as if there’s danger from his phone?” She whispered, “Carries a concealed weapon under his coat?”
“Alright, sure.” Using his best Captain Kirk impression he said, “My real name is Jackson Lockhart. I’m an operative with the Central Intelligence Agency, here on an urgent mission to prevent the Evil Dr. Evilil from––”
“Aaron!” yelled the woman at the counter.
“––Oh! That’s my sandwich, hang on.” She laughed as he ran up to get his breakfast. As he sat back down with the wrapped up meal he resumed the fake voice. “The only problem is, now that I’ve told you all this…I’ll have to kill you.”
“Well,” she said calmly, “that sounds like something you wouldn’t want to do in public.”
“No, not at all.”
“That might blow your cover, you could be arrested and your mission might fail.”
“Indeed it could, and no one would want that.”
“So you couldn’t possibly do that in a place like this.”
“I dare say not.”
“In contrast, my apartment, which is only a couple of blocks away, is nicely private.”
“That has the potential to be an ideal location, yes.”
“Oh, I assure you it is. I could show you if you like?”
“That would be helpful of you. Please, show the way.”
Aaron shoved his sandwich into his coat pocket with the jar of rice as the two of them left the deli.
Aaron slowly blinked himself awake. This particular nap had been very restful. He lay on the unfamiliar bed at an angle, the scattered white sheet only half covering his naked body. Monique was nowhere in the tiny bedroom, but the shower was running in the connected bathroom and he thought he could hear her singing, though it didn’t sound like English. Also, she was terrible at it. No one’s perfect.
Aaron checked his watch. Then he remembered he didn’t wear a watch. He looked around for a clock but found none in the room. He stood up, slipping on his boxers as he did so and went to a window covered by heavy drapes. He peeled one back and saw that the eastern sky was turning orange. The sun was setting. He’d have to get to the Hunters to help find the Loogaroo soon. He didn’t want to just leave Monique without a word, though.
A note. Best he could manage on such short notice. He looked around the bedroom, but there wasn’t much there besides the bed, a small drawer with some makeup scattered on top of it, and a lamp. To be fair, there wasn’t room for much more. It reminded Aaron of his old apartment in LA.
He picked up his pants off the ground and slipped into them as he went into the apartment’s other room. He could call it a living room, but given that it was also a kitchen, calling it the “other room” as compared to the bedroom seemed more appropriate. It too, was tiny, with little more in it than an old brown couch with a desk beside it, a TV that reminded Aaron of his early childhood, some scattered stools and cushions, a small table to eat at, and more lamps. Even the kitchen lacked anything more than a microwave, a fridge, and an oven, all of which looked like they’d come with the apartment and had barely been used since. Aaron figured she was a student. The only thing that stuck out in the room was the brick fireplace in the corner, the inside of which was scorched and black with recent use, despite the lack of logs or ash for the wood-handled pokers that hung beside it to tend. Oh, and Aaron’s shirt, jacket, and shoes lay scattered on the floor.
He looked around and again found neither pen nor paper. He checked the drawers in every desk, the TV stand, even under the couch. What kind of student is she? Aaron thought. Eventually he resorted to checking the cupboards in the kitchen area. He opened one and found that it contained only a large cookie jar. Aaron craned his head to check that the bathroom door was still closed and pulled the jar out. Just one, he thought.
The jar had a face in it. Eyeless, toothless it screamed at him, malformed and crumpled like paper tossed away. He thought it must be a mask, but no, there was too much detail, the pores of the skin, wrinkles of a sun-worn man, flecks of gray in his curly dark hair. Inside its vacant eyes and mouth it was fleshy pink. The face was only the top of a pile, a mound that filled the jar, an entire body’s worth of skin.
“That’s not a cookie,” Aaron squeaked.
“No, it is not,” said Monique. She stood at the door to the bedroom wearing a short blue robe that Aaron would have found attractive if he wasn’t so terrified, holding a small bowl of what looked like bronze in one hand and a lit match in the other.
“Y’know,” Aaron said, “just once I’d like to meet a beautiful woman who won’t try to kill m––” Monique dropped the match into the bowl and Aaron suddenly felt numb. He staggered nearly fell over, barely catching himself. “What the hell?”
“Can’t have you using your little magics on me,” Monique said, “can we, dhampir?”
“What?” Aaron stumbled backwards through the room.
“Don’t deny it. I can smell it on you. Your half breed blood. I even heard you admit it to the other one in your vehicle.”
His conversation with Richie the night before. She must have only caught a piece of that. “What have you done to me?”
“A paralysis spell. Simple magic I knew even when I was human, but it requires a piece of you. Had you told me your name, I could have used that. Unfortunately you would not speak it, so I had to get close enough to get a more physical sample.”
Aaron looked at the bronze bowl. Or tired to, he was becoming cross eyed. “Oh, Ew.”
“Not even remotely what I meant,” she held up a small pair of scissors from the pocket of her robe.
Aaron was having trouble standing, or thinking clearly. “You’re the Loogaroo.”
“One. It was my sibling that the tall one shot at and chased.”
“And I take it your name isn’t really Monique?”
She laughed, “Why would I let you have my true name? No, that name belonged to her,” she waved a hand to indicate her entire body. Or rather, the skin she was wearing. “Do you like her? I picked her from our collection especially for you. I saw how you looked at that girl you traveled with and thought she might remind you of her. Was I not wrong?”
“So you’re wearing––” Aaron breathed, “And I–– Oh, god this is officially grosser than the Jiangshi.”
“Oh, look at that,” she peaked behind the drapes. “The sun sets.”
“You know what that means,” Aaron stumbled against the table and managed to hold himself up against it. “The other hunters are going after your sibling. They’re going to find it, and they’re going to kill it.”
“Then my revenge shall be swift.” She placed the bowl full of brunt hair and herbs on a desk. “Because I’m going to bleed you dry. I won’t be nurtured by dhampir blood, but that’s not the point, is it? I want your skin. Once I have that, I can walk up to them like I’m sitting in a wood horse. Even the other Dhampir won’t notice until I’m already too close.” As the light peeking between the drapes faded a ripple went over her skin. Her eyes rolled literally back into her head and her mouth lolled open limply. Feral orange light poured out of her empty mouth and eye sockets and even her nostrils. From each orifice a weaving tendril of flame wormed out and merged into a single mass in front of the hollow face. The light of the thing could be described as neither flame nor the bioluminescence of a lightning bug but somewhere in between. More and more of the pyre poured out, the flesh behind it slowly deflating. After a few seconds all that was left of the woman he’d called Monique was a limp pile of abandoned skin, and an undulating mass of orange fire floating above the floor, marbled with greens and blues and reds, with the barely visible dark shapes within it of warped and scattered bones undulating like objects seen from the bottom of a pond. A voice like the hiss of a dynamite wick and the crackle of a campfire came from it, saying, “Close enough to slit their throats!”
Aaron collapsed onto the table. He could barely lift his head and he felt his eyes closing. “Good plan,” he muttered. “One problem.” The Loogaroo neared him until it hovered over his head. He could dimly feel its heat singe his body. The bent and undulating shape of a skull moved to the bottom of the ball of flame, a trail of vertebrae lazily tracing after it. The elongated jaw nearly poked out of the fire as it neared Aaron’s chest. “I’m not a dhampir,” he muttered as he fell into unconsciousness.
“What?” he heard the creature say in his mind’s ears.
He reached out from where his body lay with his astral form and wrapped his phantom hands around what could almost be called the creatures neck, willing cold into it as he did so, sending out steam from where he touched. “Strigoi Viu, bitch.”
It screamed, a roar that sounded like a bonfire and flailed away from his body. He held on with his mind and it swung him around the apartment. Furniture and walls passed through him, lamps flickering as it tried to shake him off. He didn’t even have difficulty holding on, likely because he didn’t actually have any mass to flung around, so––
As he thought that he suddenly felt pulled by the inertia of his flailing form. His grip on the creature faltered and he was thrown across the room.
“Damn Coyote Principle,” Aaron said as he rose to his feet.
The Loogaroo hovered across the room from him, somehow crouched, like a hunting wolf stalking its prey. The two of them stood, slowly drifting to one side or the other, waiting for the other to make the first move. They stayed that way for a few minutes. Suddenly the undulating ball of flame shifted, and the warped skull within turned to look at Aaron’s body. His paralyzed, helpless body laying on the table. The Loogaroo flew at it with a shriek.
“Hey!” Aaron cried and with a thought he stood between the Loogaroo and his body. He punched it. He tried to get it in the face but it didn’t quite have one. In any case it lurched back in shock. Then its skeletal hands reached out of the flames for his throat. He may have been a spirit, but he’d seen before that vampires could strangle him if they tried. He grabbed at the boney wrists and willed more cold into them, sending steam out through his hands. But the Loogaroo had seen it coming. Along with its hands, the warped skull reached out of the fire and smacked Aaron across the forehead. He lurched back and the Loogaroo lunged again, this time reaching his neck.
He fell to the floor with the creature’s warped hands wrapped around his throat. He heard gurgling noises from his body on the table. He was actually choking. He couldn’t get the Logaroo off him. He tried sending out cold and force and even fire but with each attack the thing’s grip simply redoubled. He couldn’t transport or phase or whatever it was he did to get from one place to another out. He was as good as dead.
His jacket lay on the floor within arm’s reach. The rice. Count Von Count.
He reached out to the jacket and his hand simply passed through it. He tried again and again to affect it but he was only a ghost. Come on, man, he thought. You can move things with your mind, how is this any different? Focus! It wasn’t easy with a ball of fire choking the life out of him, but he cleared his mind. He remembered the first time he’d used his will to apply force, back in the sewer in LA. He remembered the fear of the Vampire attacking him. That part was easy. He remembered his will to live lashing out of him, remembered what it felt like to push something away. He took hold of that same will, that force with in him, and he molded it around his hand, picturing every crevice of his palm, the softness of the skin, conforming his will to every bone and tendon. He reached for the pocket of his jacket.
And he smashed the jar of rice and seeds on the ground, scattering its contents across the floor.
The Loogaroo’s grip slackened, and its attention turned to the pile of grain.
“That’s right,” Aaron said, suddenly able to breathe again. “Get counting you OCD bitch.”
The Loogaroo flew way from him, hovering now over the pile, one skeletal hand reaching out to count the seeds two by two.
Aaron stood in his astral form and watched his body take long, deep breaths. Reddened bruises formed around his neck in the shapes of the bones of two hands.
He walked around the Loogaroo as it counted furiously and, still focused on his hand, pulled the jar of salt out of the other pocket of his coat. He walked over to where the skin of Monique lay crumpled on the ground, its gaping, boneless mouth gaping up where the Loogaroo had flown out of it. He crouched over the skin for a moment as a sign of respect and then poured salt into the open mouth. The creature hissed in fury behind him.
He walked over to the kitchen nook and did the same to the skin he found in the cookie jar. Focusing on his hands, he went though the cupboards to find more large jars, pots, and vases each containing a human skin. He carefully pulled each one down and removed its top so he could pour salt into the skin. After he had salted seven skins, the last one he found, on the very top shelf of one of the cupboards, was stored in a large, old, stone mortar. He carefully set it on the counter to see that it contained the rumpled skin of a decrepit old woman, one who’s gray hair fell ragged and patchy, and who’s deep skin had been worn terribly by sun and time alike.
He lifted the skin out of the mortar slightly, so the Loogaroo could see it from where it counted rice. “This is your original, I take it?” The creature growled at him. “Might I say that you are a terribly ugly creature.” He turned back to the mortar and picked up the salt. He said quietly, “But at least you actually were a woman.” He lifted the salt canister over the skin.
He felt something grab his shoulders and thrust him across the room. He hit the rack of iron fireplace pokers and felt them disperse his astral form, his back crying out in pain for an instant before becoming entirely numb. His head began to spin, but as he looked out he could see the Loogaroo staring down over its last remaining skin. The rice on the floor had been organized into careful rows of ten, separated from the various types of seeds and even the shattered glass of the jar had been given its own pile. The Loogaroo turned to him as he lay dazed on the floor before the fireplace. It flew at him with insurmountable fury.
Aaron focused on his hand again. In a flash he reached up and grabbed the fireplace poker he’d slammed against by the wooden handle. He thrust it out to point at the Loogaroo and it rammed into it, unable to stop its own momentum, the iron piercing through its fiery form.
It sputtered in shock and the flames lowered noticeably over the warped skeleton. “Something like you,” Aaron said as he slowly rose to his feet, still holding the skewered Loogaroo, “really shouldn’t leave something like this just lying around.” He shifted his weight and drove the tip of the poker into the floorboards. The Loogaroo screeched and its flames burst outward before fading into nothing around a blackened skeleton which clambered to the floor around the red-hot poker.
Aaron’s body sprang to life, and suddenly he found himself corporeal again. The paralysis spell had apparently relied on the Loogaroo remaining alive. He cautiously touched the raw, stinging skin of the marks on his neck. He put on his shirt, pulled the sandwich he’s ordered earlier out of the pocket of his jacket, sat in front of the smoking skeleton of he recent tryst, and had dinner.
“That’s one way to work up an appetite.”
Aaron waited outside the RV as the sun rose. He didn’t have a key. He held an impromptu bag made out of a bed sheet that contained a number of objects one would not one to be spotted with on the street.
Shortly after dawn the other hunters rounded a corner seeming very proud with themselves. As they saw Aaron, Richie said angrily, “Where the hell have you been?”
“We killed the Loogaroo,” Clive said happily as Marcy unlocked the RV.
“Good for you.” Aaron reached into his bag. He tossed Clive the blackened skull. “I killed the other one,” he said and walked calmly into the RV.