Winter’s Wake

Art by Nicole Ramsden

Portals of hellfire are sprouting across the city, leaving desiccated corpses in their wake. Someone is messing with infernal magics, and that sure sounds like a perfect job for a demon hunter.

Shame the only one available is a fresh university graduate with a trust fund and rose-tinted spectacles.

Quin Pelon wanted a career of adventure and romance, but when a rash of hellfire-induced corpses start showing up in the city of Marshmere, she finds out that adventure tends to come hand in hand with, you know, actual work. Recruited as a consultant by the Hex Street Peculiars — Marshmere’s answer to the things that go bump in the night — Quin finds herself teaming up with Isla Brekke, one of the few cops that isn’t a corrupt and lazy scumbag, to cross the boundary between her world and that of the Fae, all to answer one question:

What could drive a person to use such dangerous magic?


TW: Self-harm

Tim Thomson stood outside the warehouse, nervously rubbing his hands.

This was the last one. Fifteen interviews in two days, not a single offer of paid work. He’d spent the last of his money on a good piece of rope, ready for if this one didn’t go his way. He hadn’t considered finding a good piece of timber yet, he was trying to be optimistic.

Swallowing his nerves, he threw open the door of the lean-to shack that served as a reception and stormed in. Immediately, he was smacked in the face by the aggressive funk of avoided paperwork, the peculiarly moist dryness of sheaf upon sheaf of cheap yellowed paper slowly becoming one with the desk upon which they were piled. Somewhere in that mess, a voice called out.

‘I aspect that’re be young Mistah Thomson?’ it said. It was a street voice trying to sound proper, which meant this was probably the respectable face of a criminal enterprise. Tim had been to enough of those in the last two days to get a taste for them. ‘We didn’t think ya’d be coming. Little late, but thas no trouble. Come sit.’

The stacks weren’t as hard to navigate as Tim had first thought. Months of dutiful shuffling had carved a small path to the desk. He followed in the footsteps of many reluctant pen pushers before him, a crabwise shuffle through to the voice.

He met the chair first, and the owner of the voice second as he sat down. It was a dull, squat man with more hair in his nostrils than on his head. Tim reached over and shook his hand. ‘Sorry I’m late. The letter said 1pm.’

‘The copy I’ve got says 10am,’ the man said. ‘Don’t matter though. Ye’ve only gots ta be on time when ya’re getting paid. Which you ain’t. Yet. I’m Lockman, I’ll be him what interviews ya.’

Tim sniffed. This was a good start. Every other interviewer had started things off by sucking their teeth and rolling their eyes. Lockman waited until at least halfway down Tim’s resume. ‘Is there a problem?’

Lockman didn’t stop reading. ‘Not so’s ya’d notice. Well, apart from ye’re level of experience.’

There it was. His applications always fell down here. Six months shearing sheep for Mister Groin out in the plains didn’t tend to translate well to city work. ‘Ah, yes, but if I could just –’

‘What’s a fella as qualified as you doing applying for this job, hmm?’ Lockman interrupted. ‘Ye’ve got letters after yer name. Thas not usual for someone what hauls crates to a boat at night.’

To his credit, Tim managed to condense his confusion into a single blink. This wasn’t something to question, however. ‘I… Yes, well, I’m looking for a change?’

‘Pretty big bloomin’ change, this,’ Lockman said, beaming. ‘But’s long s’you don’t start putting on airs, ye’ll fit in here fine. When can ye start?’

Another blink. Don’t question it, he thought to himself, don’t even think about it. If you think about it, something will reset. It’ll all snap back like some horrible rubber band, and you’ll be out looking for a sturdy cross beam before dinner. And yet…

‘Tomorrow,’ he said. ‘Is that all? I mean, I was expecting a bit more of an interview than that.’

Lockman smiled again, and Tim noticed he was missing most of his upper teeth. He pulled a slightly less yellow sheet of paper from under the desk and slid it towards Tim. ‘Ye’re the only one what applied. Seems we’ve got us a rep-yoo-tay-shun. ‘S all talk though. Just sign yer name here, no need for all them extra letters.’

Tim’s hand trembled as he etched his name onto the paper. Lockman had offered a pen and ink, but the ink was mostly goop and the pen refused to drink it up. Etching was better anyway, easier for a man whose heart was pounding like a bass drum, just waiting for something to go wrong. It was a slow and awkward action, but he had relaxed enough by the end of it that he felt confident enough to finish with a flourish. A single, deep slash to cross both Ts.

Smiling, he span the paper around and slid it back to Lockman. ‘Thank you for this. Really. You won’t regre–’

There was a sound like a sack of wet cats striking an outhouse door, and Tim was gone. In his place was fire. A lot of fire. It hadn’t been a lot of fire at first, but then it had spilled off the chair and onto all the paper.

A brave finger scratched the inside of a hairy nostril. ‘Huh. Un’spected.’

*

Quin Pelon, newest and only demon hunter in the city of Marshmere, was watching the sun rise from her bed. She had managed to crack open a single eye and angled it towards her grimy, curtainless windows. Today was the day; she had to make an effort to see it start.

Staring out at the burnt orange sky was a good way to start any day. But today was an important day and, as such, it needed ceremony. It needed a vignette. When she looked back on this day, it needed to be a warm memory. And she was going to make it one even if she had to suffer the worst night’s sleep in her life.

She hadn’t slept, in point of fact. The entire night had been spent fretting over the business cards, the delivery of which was scheduled for that morning. The final thing she needed to open her business. Couldn’t have a respectable business without business cards, now could you? Her father had been very clear on that fact, a business without cards was just a person in a room.

He had a great way with words, her dad. And a great bank account, which she had happily tapped for start up capital. The cards were the smallest expense by far but, to her, the most important. She had spent days trying to come up with something that didn’t scream ‘Please don’t laugh, I’m trying’.

She let the sun crawl halfway past the horizon before she wrenched herself out of bed and towards the bathroom. She poured a basin of water and dunked her head. It was the closest thing to bathing she’d manage today, there was an image to uphold.

But what was that image? Demonology had gone out of practice once wizards had gotten into the game as a self-preservation technique. People had been very keen on shoving swords through their pointy hats when they thought magic was just for fireballs and dark crusades across the surface of the planet. The life expectancy for your average wizard nearly doubled on the day they decided to make themselves useful.

But that didn’t matter to Quin. She’d read books. They’d been in that bit of the library no-one ever bothered with these days, the bits where the books are kept on chains because otherwise people might take them home and remember them. Reading does things to a girl’s mind. Makes them develop horrible things like ideas.

People had ideas about demon hunters, and if she was going to make it in the business then she would have to live up to some of them. The surface ones at least. The eye liner and the scraggy hair, the skirt that was a perfectly decent length but coupled with fishnets that tricked the eye into thinking it wasn’t, and a big hat with a buckle on it for reasons she couldn’t adequately explain. Those were what people remembered, not the actual meat of the profession.

Which was good, because she had no idea about that part. That meant she could make it up as she went along.

By the time she made it downstairs, the urchin from the printers had already left a box on the cobbles outside. She picked up and brought it back inside, dropping it down on what would soon function as her work desk. Carefully, she removed the wrapping.

And smiled.

The printer had done a good job. He’d made her look professional, even with all the runes she had wanted on there.

Don’t get much call for runes, he had said. And yet he’d had a box of them pre-cut for his press, just behind the counter. Of course, he had forgotten about that until after she’d paid the premium. Funny, that.

She couldn’t be angry now, though. Not with these gorgeous things to hand.

Beaming, she flipped the sign on her door. Open for business! All she had to do was wait for the clients to come pouring in.

It wouldn’t be that easy, she knew. She was a dreamer, true, but not an idiot. You don’t just open up shop and have someone walk right in with a case, not outside of a bad novel at any rate. There was legwork to do, advertising. Slipping a dollar to a grimy sod with a good pair of pipes to go down to Nobbery Square and scream her advert out over all the other loud buggers. The gristle.

It was then that the client entered.

Yes, she was a little surprised by that turn of events as well. But there he was, tall and knobbly, in a fine suit no less, lurking awkwardly by the door. Quin put on her best smile and beckoned him closer.

‘Welcome,’ she said, a little louder than was necessary. ‘Come in, come in! I’m Quin Pelon, how can I help you?’

He sidled closer, and with each step he looked to be more and more uncomfortable. ‘Are you the proprietress of this establishment?’

‘I am. How can I help?’

‘I’m with the Guard,’ he said. ‘You need to come with me.’

Now that he was closer, she could see that he wasn’t lying. From a distance his suit had seemed fancy, that was true, but that was police craftsmanship at work. It was fitted in all the right places to draw the eye – and the knife – away from where the breastplate wasn’t. It was no secret that the plainclothes guardsmen still wore breastplates, but the collective consciousness had a way of forgetting things it didn’t see regularly. If you were close enough to notice there was metal under that seemingly fine shirt, you were probably in enough trouble that it didn’t matter.

Quin had never had a run in with the law. She’d been a good girl. Her family had had just enough money to place them in the strata of society that saw the guardsmen as defenders rather than oppressors. Every fibre of her being told her that she had nothing to hide, and thus nothing to fear.

And yet.

And yet.

‘Why?’

He puffed out his chest. His jacket moved a little, revealing a sliver of burnished brass on his belt, and polished iron on his hip. Badge and flick-sword. ‘It would be easier if you co-operate, miss. Got a lot of stops to make today, would prefer to only have to explain once. Saves time, you see.’

‘Yeah, no,’ she said, turning away from him and back to her fresh box of cards. ‘I’m not inclined to move from this spot without either payment or an explanation.’

‘Payment?’

Quin put on a Voice. She had a few in her repertoire: demure, naïve, dull, fiery, and entitled. She opted for the last one. It was her understanding that the right level of pomposity in a voice could trigger the part of a guardsman’s brain that took well to orders. ‘Well, way I see it, you can’t be here to arrest me. I’ve done nothing wrong. Which means I’m needed for something else. Now, seeing as I’m a business woman –’

It was funny, she later thought, how people were so afraid of getting decked. It was always the having been decked that hurt more.

*

Quin woke up on her face for the second time in one day, though she was considerably less comfortable this time. The floor was cold metal and it was moving, bouncing at irregular intervals. Her poor brain was slamming around inside her skull with each jolt, and even rolling onto her back didn’t stop that.

He’d hit her. The guardsman had hit her. In the back of the head. Not the most auspicious start to a business. Although maybe she could spin this. People liked a certain musk of crime around their demonologists. Probably.

She sat up. She was in the back of a wagon, that wasn’t a surprise. Floors didn’t move on their own, and the ones that did certainly didn’t bounce. There were others in there with her, she noticed. A man in ragged robes was laid out over her legs. Over him lay a woman with black lipstick and twigs in her hair. In the far corner, away from the doors, lay a pair of hedge wizards – she recognised them from an awning at the market. There were ten of them all told, all either unconscious or moaning quietly to themselves.

The wagon came to a halt and some uncharitable soul unbarred the door, letting the harsh light of day assault Quin’s bleary eyes. He cast an imposing silhouette, but she could tell it was the same guardsman that had clubbed her. ‘Alright you lot, out. Come on, out.’

Quin didn’t need telling twice, though it was easier said than done. She was trapped under two people, neither of them exactly light and most assuredly both unconscious. The guardsman, evidently, wasn’t interested in helping.

Still, despite her predicament, Quin was the first one out of the wagon and into the street. The guardsman got as stern a glare as she could muster – what her mother would have called a milk curdler if she was feeling generous – then tried to place where she was.

This wasn’t one of the guardhouses, was it? The guard was not a modern organisation, and it had stuck like glue to its original buildings wherever possible, everyone knew that. They also knew that these old buildings had been absorbed by the ever-expanding city, a horrible fungus of people in need of evermore space. Maybe this was a guardhouse, but it looked more like a shipping warehouse.

Quin had managed to ignore the smell of the docks. Some things were so vast that they managed to be too big to perceive, and so was the smell of the docks. Your brain needed a run up to prepare for something of that magnitude, and hers was about ready now.

The smell of dead fish, rancid sailors, and acrid oil smoke hit her all at once and made her eyes water. A few stiff breaths made it worse, and then a few more took her out the other side. It was easy for her, it was the sheer volume that was the issue rather than the various stenches themselves, but the rest of the people from her wagon were suffering.

The guardsman clapped her on the shoulder. ‘This way.’

Slowly, she walked her eyes up his arm to his face, letting them linger for a moment. ‘Where are we going?’

‘Just follow me,’ he said, trying to retract his arm in a way that made it look as though her glare had nothing at all to do with it. ‘Please.’

Quin gave him the slightest of nods. The man would get the absolute baseline level of politeness she could muster from now on. He didn’t seem to care. He turned and whistled to the rest of the group before trudging his way over to the warehouse. With a shove, he forced open a large metal gate and led the group inside.

There were guardsmen inside, a lot of them. But more important was the number of not-guardsmen. Fifty? Sixty? Probably closer to a hundred, Quin estimated, and all of them dressed in the slightly eccentric stylings of the magical professions. This made sense, she supposed, considering her company in the wagon, but the sheer number of them. The entire city’s “magical” contingent?

And, of course, Quin.

She wasn’t sure whether this was a nice little legitimisation of her business or something decidedly terrifying. The latter seemed more likely.

The guardsman led the group to the back of the huddled mass of wizards, witches, various mancers, and so forth. A guardswoman in full street attire frowned at him. ‘You’re the last load. How many did you have to hit?’

‘All of them, sarge,’ the guardsman said, somehow managing to stand even straighter. ‘They were hesitant to fulfil their civic duty, sarge.’

‘Hmm, I’m sure,’ she said. ‘Clear off. I’ll give them the talk I’m all but sure you didn’t. Try not to lamp anyone between here and the catering tent, yeah?’

The guardsman snorted but said nothing. It clearly wasn’t worth the trouble to defend himself, not when there was free food to be had. He all but cantered away from Quin, leaving her and the others with this slightly dour-looking woman.

At first glance, Quin had thought her to be in her forties, but second glance had told her that was wrong. Early thirties, but worked hard enough that the mistake was an easy one to make. No sign of her hair poking out from under her helmet, which meant she wore it short, and the quick-snap gaze of some bird of prey spoke to a vocational pull towards the job. She had an aura of caution and exhaustion, which was considerably more welcoming than the last one.

The guardswoman sighed. ‘Sergeant Brekke, Hex Street Peculiars. Hello.’

‘The Peculiars?’ one of the hedge wizards said. ‘I expect better treatment from you lot.’

Brekke flashed him an apologetic smile. ‘Some of the rank and file are lacking in social skills, you know how it is. The guard will take anyone, provided they can write their own name. Takes us a while to whip some manners into them. Anyway, onto business…’

‘Yes, I would very much like to know why I’m here,’ said the woman with the twigs in her hair. ‘I’ve got clients, you know, and my concoctions won’t keep if they aren’t stored properly. I was halfway through decanting a particularly volatile brew into a gentleman’s –’

‘Yes, quite,’ Brekke interrupted. ‘We’ve got a situation, and you’ve all been drafted in as temporary consultants as, quite frankly, the lads in plainclothes are stumped. You’re all experts in that hocus pocus stuff, so you’re on the Viceroy’s shilling for the foreseeable. Any questions?’

Quin’s hand shot up. ‘Er, yes, I have a few.’

Brekke nodded her way. ‘Ask the biggest one first. We don’t have all day.’

‘Why am I here?’

‘I already explained that.’

‘Yes,’ Quin said. ‘But I don’t do magic.’

Brekke frowned. ‘Name?’

‘Quin Pelon. One N, one L.’

With another sigh, Brekke unhooked a small notebook from her belt and flicked through the pages. ‘Pelon, Quin. Says here you’re a demon hunter.’

There was a smatter of sniggers from the group behind her, but Quin nodded.

‘Well then,’ Brekke continued. ‘That’s a protected profession, means you’ve registered with the city as a certified occultist. If you’re a certified occultist, that’s why you’re here. Captain had us work our way down the entire register, that’s how badly this investigation is going.’

So, day one, and immediately out of my depth, Quin thought. Barely been out of bed for an hour and already things are going to pot. If this was the wonderful world of work, she had half a mind to tell it to shove itself up its non-existent…

‘What’s the pay?’ she asked instead.

Brekke bristled. ‘Standard rate of one shilling for the morning and the inconvenience, dollar a day should you provide something useful that we can work from. We’ll give you a promissory note when we let you go, cashable at any Guard-approved bank.’

There was a murmuring from the group, they liked the sound of that. A shilling for a morning of standing around on a wharf didn’t seem so bad. It even took the edge off for Quin. She could forgive a lot if the apology came in the form of a coin. Or a legally-binding scrap of paper that could, with some effort, be turned into the form of a coin.

‘All right, then,’ Quin said, speaking over the murmurs. ‘What’s the case?’

‘See that building just off the warehouse?’ Brekke said, and Quin could. ‘That caught fire yesterday. Only the inside, the outer wood is too damp to burn. Interior looks like a blast furnace now, of course. We have reason to believe that magic was the cause.’

Quin shrugged. ‘Ok, and? Isn’t that what the Peculiars are for? Cases involving magic, mystery…’

‘Anything involving critical thinking skills, yes,’ Brekke said, ‘But, thing is, we’ve had a series of cases like this. Strange fires popping up out of nowhere, doesn’t match any of the spread patterns we know of. And then there’s the disappearances.’

‘Vaporised, one would assume,’ said the other hedge wizard. ‘The initial flash of heat from a wayward pyromancy far exceeds that of ordinary fire.’

Brekke held up a hand. ‘No, we’ve ruled that out. Got a witness. He says taken, not vaporised.’

A hush fell over the group. It lasted a few seconds but was broken by the first hedge wizard. ‘Teleportation?’

‘That’s what we suspect, yes.’

At once, the group shoved past Quin and Brekke, all but slavering to get a look at the scene. They joined the crowd and melted away, becoming one with the great din of occult mutterings and weird hand movements. Quin watched them, confused, until she felt Brekke’s eyes on her.

She turned to the guardswoman. ‘What?’

‘You must be new at this,’ Brekke said. ‘You’re the first one to not even blink at the mention of teleportation. Teleportation is impossible.’

‘Yeah, maybe, but so is magic. Lots of that around.’

‘Huh, you really aren’t supposed to be here, are you?’ Brekke said, almost sounding relieved. ‘Even by the standards of magic, teleportation is impossible. Easy way to get yourself killed, bad way to get anywhere quickly. Too many variables, putting your bits back together at the end is like shaking a bag full of dice and hoping they all come up sixes. And there’s a dice for each cell in your body. And most of the dice don’t even have a six on them because of complicated reasons I don’t understand.’

‘Oh, that makes more sense I suppose…’

‘Does it? Then maybe I didn’t explain it correctly, because I’ve been at this job for nearly fifteen years and I’m still stumped by this. We all are, hence the think tank here.’

Quin rubbed her eyes. They were still stinging. ‘They’ve not been much help so far?’

‘They’re not even trying,’ Brekke said candidly. ‘Not really. They’re trying to read the magical energies or something. They want to know how he – whoever he is – did it.’

‘Seriously? They’re not trying at all?’

‘Frankly, it’s rare they do. That’s why we’re so good at our job over at Hex Street. Can’t rely on anyone but yourself. Still, the captain likes to make a show so here we are. Look, you’re clearly out of your depth here. You want to leave, I’ll sign you out. There’s a desk by the gate where –’

‘Can I look?’

Brekke almost swallowed her tongue. ‘Look at what?’

‘The scene,’ Quin said. ‘Would that be all right? I’m here now, may as well earn that shilling.’

And it will be something I can use to wow prospective clients, she thought to herself. Might even get away with putting “consultant to the guard” on the next batch of cards. That’s bound to turn some heads.

Brekke nodded. ‘Unsurprisingly, you’re the first to ask. But yes, of course you can. Follow me, we’ll skirt the throng. No sense trying to deal with a throng.’

Together, they circumnavigated the mob. Quin couldn’t help but think of them using that word. Their behaviour was too uniform, too coherent, to be anything but something as amorphous as a mob. A hundred pairs of arms, moving like branches in a high wind as they tried to trace the last few motes of magic. It could be a beautiful spectacle if one wizard was doing it, but it lost a lot of that beauty with the mob. It was hungry, desperate clawing, not the charming digital ballet it could have been.

They passed a few guards on the way, but none of them said anything. A few allowed themselves to throw a pointed glance towards Quin, but it didn’t linger. It seemed they were as uneasy with the mob as she was, considering the speed at which they turned their attention back to the mumbling masses.

This was a bloody stupid idea and, on some level, the guards knew it. They’d needed help, fine, and called in the alleged experts, but the Peculiars had known the outcome before this had even started. Trying to move this lot on would be like snatching a water skin from a very thirsty man.

Magic – and by extension, the people that used it – were weird.

When they finally reached the building, Brekke put her shoulder against the door and pushed it inwards with a grunt of exertion. Half the frame came with it, but the door opened.

‘After you,’ Brekke said, gesturing inside.

*

A mound of wet dust slopped onto the floor in front of him and started to ooze outwards, slimily reaching for the corners of the room. Another failure.

Why was this being so hard? It should be working. He had everything he needed, and yet this kept happening. He’d gone through three mops already, the man at the hardware store was starting to think he was strange.

He sat down, drumming his fingers in an uneven rhythm as a log in the fireplace finally gave in to the flames and turned to dust. At least that was dry.

The system would have to be tweaked, that’s all. The whatsit, the algorithm, it needed better numbers maybe, or more of those letters that were secretly numbers. There were different combinations in the book, perhaps one of them would work.

The puddle continued oozing closer to him. What had it been called before things went squiffy for it? He dipped a finger into the slime and then put it to his lips. A leathery tongue lapped at it for a moment, then receded.

Ah, Tim Thomson, that was his chosen name but not his true one. At least things hadn’t been that far out of whack. There was still some connection, some bridge. Nothing he couldn’t come back from.

Wiping Tim on his shirt, he reached into a pocket and grasped a small knife. Rolling up the opposite sleeve, he started to carve.

A remembrance.