Julian’s keys hit the door as she spins around the hood, her boots sliding in the grit laid down the one time the road had iced this year. She yanks on the door handle hard enough to damn near free her shoulder from its socket, then remembers she locked it.
“Drive!” She hauls herself over the side of the bed.
The engine roars on a second later, and the tires spin and shriek underneath her. Her bicycle slides hard into her body, a pedal digging at her ribs as the truck grates 180 degrees in the narrow dead-end street and then lurches to a sudden stop.
A strangled cry. The balding man stumbles backward, almost creamed.
“Hey!” She lunges against the side, stretching an arm out to him.
A grinding second and cloud of diesel exhaust later, she’s yanking a dirty tarp over herself and the stranger, pushing him down prone for stealth and safety both.
“That thing… it was still coming…” he wheezes between whining, asthmatic breaths. “Oh, God. Oh, God.”
Overhead streetlights push through the tarp and fade in pulsing succession. Nazlı can keep track of the first couple of turns but then loses the thread of where they are until the prickly sizzle of the century-old ley-net surrounding Spenard.
She claws her way out from under the tarp in bad need of some fresh air, slowly choking to death on the smell of the man’s panic and her own stale cigarette breath. She does not look behind them for the dog as she steadies herself.
Tapping on the back window of the cabin until she meets Julian’s eyes in the mirror, she holds up the jar and jerks her thumb behind her to indicate their additional cargo, who Julian probably can’t see but will hopefully interpret. Hard to tell how much he’ll have seen of her yanking the guy in as they sped away from Seacliff.
She can see in the dim reflection of the rearview that there is a deep crevasse between Julian’s eyes. He doesn’t put on that face unless he really thinks he might have gotten into something he can’t get out of. But at least they’re headed to the home office, now.
The ‘home office’ is the operational headquarters of the somewhat dubious organization that more or less employs Julian. Their Anchorage facility comprises all the units on the second floor of a converted hotel, used largely as offices with a few crash pads at the periphery. Any strange conversation overheard by residents in the other units is attributed to LARPing and in return they do not report on the majority of other dodgy behavior on the property.
Nazlı’s panic only subsides when they are behind both the secure doors of the building and the outer door of the offices and the inner office door. The jar is on the table, the heart occasionally shuddering through contractions, and the stranger is pushed into a chair in one corner with his balding head in his hands. Nazlı and Julian lock eyes.
“What the fuck was that thing?” he sputters.
“That was a fucking hellhound, Julian.”
“Oh God…” says the man in the corner.
“Couldn’t you just… rebuke it or some shit?”
“Rebuke? What the fuck do you think I am, some kind of shitty video game cleric??”
The office door opens and Nazlı whirls to direct her anger at who it was really for. As soon as her mouth opens, she snaps it shut, cowed into silence and falling back to her place beside Julian.
Guan Zhihao stands in the frame of the doorway like she could have been painted there, as implacable and ageless as any great art. Her long, black hair is swept into a sleek knot and trimmed into slanted bangs and she’s wearing a smashing black damask coat that Nazlı is rather jealous of.
Zhihao isn’t Julian’s boss, she’s the overmind of of the organization’s branches in the whole region, a lawful and inscrutable goddess of all things hidden above one latitude in the whole hemisphere, practically. Nazlı’s family has known her longer than Nazlı has known Julian and certainly longer than Julian has worked here. Everyone has always called her the Bishop, as long as Nazlı can remember.
“Bishop Guan,” Nazlı stammers, dropping her eyes.
“Nazlı. How nice to see you again,” she says in a voice that is always slightly higher and slightly more girlish than Nazlı expects, the vowels slightly docked by her native Chinese. Nazlı’s even pretty sure she’s not being sarcastic.
Without thinking, almost without will, they part at Bishop’s approach, and Bishop lays both her hands on the jar.
“I’d like a full report of the last sixty minutes if you please, Mr. Faith,” she says, utterly gentle. In her whole life, Nazlı has never seen her need to exert any more force than that to meet a need or give a command.
You just don’t say no to Bishop, no matter who you are.
Julian, sobering to attention, starts in on a concise blow-by-blow of their misadventure while Bishop looks on, impassive but not unpleasant. Nazlı goes across the office and sits down next to the man, who is still cowering. She’s not sure if he saw Bishop come in or not.
“Hey,” she says, trying to modulate her tone to be a little gentler than she’s feeling. “You need to pull yourself together right now cause Bishop’s gonna want your story next and that thing is still on your scent.” And theirs, she doesn’t add, fists clenching involuntarily.
At this, he looks up, glancing at her between his hands. He’s definitely worse for wear, his eyes bloodshot and hooded, skin ashen. He squints at her for a long moment.
“You’re… familiar. Have we… have we ever met before?”
All at once, Nazlı feels tired. “No,” she says, wavering for a moment then coming down on the side of the unvarnished truth. “I remind you of something vague you saw, the day you died and someone yanked you back. What happened?”
Shame floods his features. He looks down again. “I don’t know what you’re talking about.”
“Bullshit you don’t.”
He closes his eyes. His whole face crumples. “God, I’ve been so stupid.”
Nazlı feels her father’s hand on her shoulder, an echo of the gentle guidance through her homeschooling in the art her family has always practiced. The dead need counsel, coming or going. This one obviously hadn’t gotten any.
“It’s okay,” she says, even though reality is pretty far from it. She glances up at Julian and Bishop, who are still embroiled in low conversation, mostly from Julian’s side. “Start from the beginning. I already know you’re back from the big sleep, so no risk of me thinking you’re a lunatic, there.”
He doesn’t look as relieved as she expected. “It… I was in debt. Bad debt. I… had started drinking, and when I drank, I let the gambling get away from me. It was all over, I swear, but I needed to pay off what I owed and took out a loan and just… made everything worse. Then I met someone who said they could get me away from all of it. One more payment, and it would all be done.”
“What, like, some kind of fake-your-own-death scheme?”
He nods, grave-faced. “She was a doctor. I… figured if anyone could do it, that would be the way. I have no family, I’d lost most of my friends by that point, I wasn’t scared of starting over with nothing.”
Nazlı grits her teeth, silently assembling information. Whoever this was, she clearly didn’t have this poor bastard’s best interests at heart. Definitely a magician to watch out for.
“But after it was done. I didn’t know it was going to be like… this.”
Nazlı looks hard at his face. She can always tell when someone’s risen, it’s an uncanny and inarticulate sense developed early in anyone with her kind of training and background. But even without that, this particular fellow’s fate was written pretty clearly on the lines and dark circles in his face. The risen do not dream and find it almost impossible to sleep, piling day after stolen earthly day with the petty stress and larger anxieties of being a person without the psychological and neurological reprieve brought by your nightly beauty rest. They had a lot of learning ahead of them, if they wanted to continue in some measure of the life they knew, re-teaching their brain how to decompress and self-heal each of those little daily wounds.
“That still doesn’t tell me what you want with that.” She indicates the jar sitting on the table, equidistant from them and Julian and Bishop.
The man glances up reflexively at her gesture and then cringes away, hiding his face.
“Oh,” he shudders. “It’s so awful.”
Nazlı doesn’t think it’s that awful. She’s seen way more gruesome things in coven houses and laboratories in her life, but maybe he can see a different cast of it than she can. It wouldn’t be that unreasonable for him to have developed a bit of his own second set of senses, after passing through that barrier and coming back again. Nobody emerges from that unchanged. Fuck, people can’t even get close and return without losing at least half their marbles. ‘Near death experience’ crazies, always trying to tell people what it was like to ‘see the light’.
“She said she could help me, if I… If I did some things for her. Found some things.”
“Help you… with what? The insomnia, the… everything else? I do have some idea of what you’re going through.”
He blinks at her but doesn’t argue, then nods, swallowing hard. “At first it was just a couple of errands. Like, deliveries, almost. She gave me a few things to leave places, drops I guess, but she never told me for who. But then she asked me to… go find that. She told me where it was. And it wasn’t hard to find, but once I had it…” Another shudder.
Nazlı’s eyes sneak over toward the phylactery just in time to see the captive heart give another clench. She looks away, too, considering revising her opinion of its awfulness.
“Is that when the hellhound came for you?”
His eyes go wide. “Is it… it can’t get in here, right? We outran it?”
“We didn’t outrun it. It lost our scent. There’s a very old spell around this part of town that muddles magic but I assure you, it cannot keep a creature like that from crossing over it.”
She isn’t sure his face can grow more waxy, but it does.
“It’s okay,” she says after a few seconds of watching him work his dry lips and stare at the opposite wall of the room, out of focus. “We’re in the best place for help that you could ask for. And at this point, it’s after my friend and I, too, so. We have to do something about it, right?”
“Indeed,” Bishop says, on their side of the room now and making Nazlı jump because she hadn’t noticed her. “And that is, unfortunately, going to have to be our first order of business.”
“Can’t we just put that… thing back in the hole where I found it?” the man says, glancing among their faces.
“Too late,” Nazlı says in perfect unison with Julian.
He looks down, chastened, terrified.
“The three of you are going to have to go reckon with the hound’s master.” Bishop sways away from them, going to the gun cabinet in one corner and unlocking it.
“Fuck, tonight?” Julian says, calculating how long it’s going to take them to even get out to a place where they can reckon.
“Unless you’d rather sleep while that thing is tracking you,” says Bishop. “Or you have another idea.”
Nazlı leans forward and puts her elbows on her knees.
“What does she mean?” the man asks haltingly.
Another idea sounds vastly preferable to Nazlı to driving at least an hour with a hellhound or hellhounds riding Julian’s exhaust fumes and then hoping they can make accord with whatever sent them. Hellhounds are not, of course, bound by the laws governing the legs of regular dogs, so going 80 mph over open ground is no guarantee of safety. Town was confusing to it. The mountains to the north would not be.
“What’s your name?” she says, not feeling like explaining Bishop.
She restrains herself from wincing.
He looks down, and for once, for the first time, smiles a little. “Yeah, they used to call me Mayonnaise Maynard in school.”
Not well enough, apparently. She sticks out her hand. “Ok, Mayonnaise Maynard. I’m Nazlı. That’s Julian. She’s Bishop. And we’re just gonna call you Spears in this office, sound good?”
The other two don’t acknowledge the introduction, but Spears nods at her, managing to hold onto a little bit of that smile. Having names for the strange faces seems to settle his stomach a little, but he’s still looking everywhere that isn’t the phylactery.
“I’ve got an idea of how we can get us all out of this mess, and after that, I’m going to take you to someone who can actually help.”