Thursday, November 15, 2007


"Zephyr's looking good, Matt."

She approached the garage carefully. The possessed motorcycle had been parked outside for almost an hour now and Matt still hadn't come inside. That could only mean that something was wrong. Archie had warned her not to go outside tonight but, with Matt possibly in danger, what else could she do.

Then she saw him, sitting on her dad's old Crafter's workbench.

"You... not so much. Are you okay? Do you need any...?"

She stopped in her tracks. In the dim light, he was only barely visible but she could see enough to know the answer to her first question was clearly no. Matt was leaning forward on his left hand, gripping the edge of the bench tight enough to make his knuckles bone white. There was an old military style duffel bag on the floor at his feet, laying open and slightly spilled.

And he was covered in blood.

It was clinging to his shirt, what was left of it, and it still dripped from his shoulders and his long black hair. Even his boots were drenched, oiled leather slaked in crimson. His eyes were dark, as always, and there was so much scarlet on his face it looked like he was weeping red tears.

"Gods, Matt!" She started running to him.

"It's okay, Mercy. Most of it isn't mine."

That didn't stop her or even slow her stride. Mercy got to his side and started checking him over, not really caring if he wanted to be cared for or not. If he was still injured, if he was bleeding out...

...but he wasn't. Though his shirt and trench coat both had a few dozen holes, some of which went through both front and back, he wasn't hurt. There were no open wounds, even though his clothes clearly stated there should be. She was grateful, of course, but also confused. She could heal fast too but not this fast. And last she'd known, neither could he.

"What happened?" she asked softly as she went over him again.

Matt sighed, staring down at something clenched in his right hand. "I had to fix my bike."

She stared at him. Even for Matt, that was pretty oblique. "What?"

"Do you remember high school, Mercy?" His voice was calm. Almost too calm.

Frowning, she stepped back and got a chair from the corner of the room. Coming back to join him, she sat down. She'd seen this look before, heard this tone. Matt wasn't really here right now. Something had happened. Something ugly. All she could do was be with him and try to talk him through whatever was going on in his head.

"Sure, sort of. I spent most of it possessed, of course, so things aren't as clear as they could have been. Why?"

Matt opened his hand slowly, showing Mercy what he had been holding so tight. A half-crushed pack of Taj Ma cigarettes with a small, plastic lighter engraved with a cross tucked into one side. Even from four feet away, she could instantly smell the cloves. Goth smokes, she used to call them. That smell brought back memories...

"Did you have many friends back then?"

Mercy shook her head sadly. "When the demon had me, I just used people. I never got close to anyone. Heck, I couldn't. If I tried to make friends when I was in control, the demon would go out of its way to hurt them when it took over later."

Matt nodded slightly, his gaze still quite vacant. "I had friends. Not many, but I did."

"That's... great. Right?" Mercy wasn't sure what to say. From the wound of Matt's voice, great wasn't really the right word.

He kept talking in his low, dark voice, seemingly oblivious to Mercy having said anything at all. In a way, she was grateful for that. "Brad, Roy, Janet, Kimmie and Ariel. Those were my friends Senior Year. "

Mercy stayed quiet, just waiting for him to go on. She'd heard him mention Ariel before but the others? They were new.

"We were total idiots trying to be cool with magic. We had a coven. Straight out of The Craft. We even had out names in Enochian on our binders. So lame..." He looked down at the cigarettes again, staring at them so long that Mercy started looking for a lighter for him.

She found one on the other workbench and held it up, silently offering him a light. He looked at the tiny flame, shook his head, and closed his hand around the pack again. "I don't smoke, but thanks any way."

Mercy wanted to ask why he was holding a pack of cigarettes if he didn't smoke but thought better of the question after another look into his emotionless eyes.

"Ariel and Kimmie smoked. Maybe they still do. Funny, isn't it? Out of my five friends, the only two still alive are the ones that lit up. I'm no Morrisette but that sure seems like irony to me." He shrugged, the joke never reaching his face.

With a flick of his wrist, Matt tossed the pack into his duffel. The pale white box disappeared into its cavernous depths, lodging somewhere between a bag of beef jerky and an old issue of Easy Rider. "If I'd known, I'd have tried to get the others to smoke too. I used to hold a lit one but I never took a drag. Can't stand the smell... though cloves are lot better than normal tobacco, you know?"

His words were friendlier but his tone was still frigid, still a hollow echo. Unsure how to respond, Mercy chose not to do so at all. When he was done talking, she had a feeling she'd know.

"The night before graduation, we got caught up in this damn war. The Dark Ones must have decided something about us was valuable. They sent a son of a bitch to 'lead us' in a ritual. We thought it was for prosperity but we were dead wrong."

He shifted on the workbench, changing out hands and leaning on his right. "The bastard shot Janet and Brad, put Roy into a coma and left Ariel and Kimmie pretty fucked up. I took a round here..." Matt tapped his shoulder. "...but I didn't go down. To be honest, I didn't even feel it until later. That's because I'd already be bound."

He took a long breath before continuing, drying blood cracking at the edges of his mouth. "That's where my demon came from. The D.O. decided I didn't need to be a healer. They corrupted that gift and out this... thing in me. It's a good thing Ariel killed the fucker because if she hadn't, I would have. Slow."

"He took almost everything from me and that night, the Dark Ones took what was left."

Mercy couldn't stop herself from murmuring, "Your parents?"

He nodded coldly. "While I was out at the park getting soul-raped, they were busy sacrificing my folks and burning down my house."

There was a low growl in the back of Matt's throat. "That's D.O. standard procedure with recruiting. Leave nothing for a potential new witch to go home to and eventually, they join up rather than be alone."

Mercy hissed, "Those bastards." Then, trying to find some light in all this, she forced herself to smile and say, "But you broke the system. You didn't go to them."

Matt nodded again, very slight and very distantly. "But it works, Mercy. It works all over the world. Maryland, Oklahoma, California... even right here in Tennessee. The Dark Ones make young, stupid pagans too scared to fight back and too isolated to have any hope. They don't have the strength to run and so they fold just to have somewhere to belong."

She knew he was right; alone and afraid, even she had been temped a long time ago to just give in to her demon. What she didn't know is what brought this on tonight. Why was Matt dwelling on the past? He wasn't the sort to just brood without a reason.

"Matt? What happened? Why were you staring at your friends' old cigarettes?"

He finally reacted to her with more than just murmurs and slight gestures. Matt turned to look her in the eyes, his own looking utterly haunted. "I got angry, Mercy. They hurt my bike. I wanted to make the Order pay. Pay in blood to fix her."

Mercy looked over his drenched clothes and ruddy skin. "I'd say they even tipped."

"My friends and I... we were just stupid kids playing at witchcraft. We didn't know any better."

He was drifting again, falling off-topic. She tired to bring him back around by holding his hand but the gesture, while not refused, was otherwise completely ignored.

"The Dark Ones recruited us young, just like they are doing everywhere. Just dumb kids, scared and confused. Not knowing any better. But it's like an arms race, Mercy. I didn't know. I was just so angry. I killed everything but the Bishop escaped. His bodyguards got in the way... I didn't even look at them until it was too late. Until they were all dead."

She looked at him, bewildered now. "What are you talking about, Matt?"

"Those cigs... in my bag... those didn't come from my friends."

Mercy narrowed her eyes, trying to understand what a pack of cigarettes had to do with recruitment drives and an arms race.

Matt closed his eyes, trembling.

A red-stained pack of clove cigarettes. And a lighter with a cross on it...

Her eyes widened. "Oh Gods, Matt."

And looking at his face, she could see it clearly now. He was crying; the tears were just dissolving the blood around his eyes and moving it in rivers down his face.

"Stupid kids... stupid, stupid kids..."

Wednesday, October 17, 2007

Road Rage

They called it the Dead Ten, a stretch of interstate around the north side of Chattanooga ten miles long and completely devoid of life. No street lights, no off ramps, no police. No cell phone service.

Break down in the Dead Ten and that's what you are. Dead to the world.

Unfortunate, the Dead Ten was also the only way to reach the Northhill area, the suburb of choice for stupidly rich Tennesseans and, not so coincidentally, one of the most important financial backer-magi of the Order of Saint Michael Archangel. Expensive neighborhood to live in.

Expensive neighborhood to die in.

He was dwelling so much on what he was about to do in Money Hills that he almost missed the telltale sign of a shadow descending over him. Almost. As fast as he could, Matt slid forward, sitting on the manifold in front of his seat. Beneath him, Zephyr rumbled and shook, reacting to the sudden shift in weight.

The move was almost too slow. Almost. Behind him, Matt felt something hit where he'd been sitting. There was a flare of light and the impact of something heavy above his bike's rear tire. Matt leaned just enough to look in his rear view, cussing at what he saw.

A winged man, eyes ablaze with holy light, was perched at the very end of his leather seat, one foot planted between his tail lights. The golden edge of the angel's sword was thrust point first into the leather where Matt had been just moment's before. Wings unfurled and spread in a pair of white arches over the back of the motorcycle, the angelic assassin was already pulling his weapon free.

"Death from above," Matt growled under his breath and reached into the air. One of his sword's manifested instantly, a chorus of angry voices protesting him as it bent to his will. He's started calling this one Gospel because of the choir that constantly echoed from within its divinely crafted blade. Swinging Gospel in an awkward arc behind himself, Matt manged to get the angel to at least waste a few moments parrying.

Sparks flew as the immaculate weapons collided. Both complained in hymns of outrage. From the mirror's view, Matt could see the angel pulling back for a thrust. He waited until the last moment and then flattened across Zephyr's right side. Still perched like a raptor on his bike's back, the assassin's strike cut through empty air, the point of the glowing sword stabbing through Zephyr's speed gauge in a spray of glass shards.

Matt growled again and sat back up quickly, catching the sword broadside with his shoulder in an attempt to disarm the angel and through him off balance. The lost speedometer irritated him, but he never really cared how fast he was going anyway.

Unfortunately, the celestial behind him was both fast and savvy, pulling his weapon out of the gauge even as Matt was moving. A low, scoring strike laid open Matt's coat sleeve and upper arm nearly to the bone.

Matt grit his teeth, not wanting to give the heavenly son of a bitch the satisfaction of hearing him in pain. He grabbed the handlebar again and revved Zephyr's engine. If the angel wanted to play balance games, he could accommodate. The bike sped up, moving down the long stretch of dark road like a runaway train.

"Time for fun," he muttered and tilted his weight sideways before the angel could attack again. Zephyr leaned dangerous to the left, then quickly back to the right as Matt rocked sideways. The weaving had two results; the angel had to reach forward and grab on to the seat for support and his attacks were clumsier and harder to control. Annoyingly, he wasn't dislodged. Damn angels and their grace.

Still, getting missed by the contact barrage of thrusts was a bonus. The scars and punctures to Zephyr's cowling and dashboard were adding up though and it would only be a matter of time before either Matt lost control of her or something important got stabbed... possibly himself.

He was trying to counterattack but the position made that nigh impossible. The angel was having to block and parry though, something that was buying him time at least. Between weaving sideways, keeping the bike under control and avoiding impalement, Matt was pretty much out of of options.

A quick glance in the mirror showed him that the angel had wound his clutching hand into the leather strap across the middle of Zephyr's seat. The winged killer wasn't going anywhere. Damn it!

Then a wicked smile crept across Matt's face. That gave him an idea. It was reckless, risky and would probably end up getting them both a dozen shades of hurt. Matt grinned and reached for the brake.

"Are you insane?" The angel shouted at him from the back of the speeding bike, obviously seeing what he was about to do.

"Hell yeah!" he yelled into the racing wind and ground the front brake to a dead stop.

Zephyr immediately went nose down, her front shocks absorbing as much as she could. The angel's wings, unprepared for the sudden shift in position, hit the incoming air flat sides forward. A rage of grisly, shattering sounds ripped through them as virtually every blessed bone suffered a harsh collision with physics.

Matt shifted into Neutral and threw all of his body weight to the left, leaning into the stop and forcing his bike to fishtail. The front wheel skidding and smoking, Zephyr nearly folded in half as she slid. As the entire motorcycle started to turn around, now freewheeling down the asphalt backwards at breakneck speed, Matt used his own momentum to spin in place.

Even as he turned around, he slashed with Gospel in a wide, powerful arc. The sword figured out what was about to happen before the angel did, howling an aria of protest even as it finished its bloody stroke.

Matt reached out with black tendrils of wild magic, destroying most of Zephyr's forward momentum in a body-wrenching halt. The bike's tires squalled to a smoking stop, nearly throwing him clear off his ride. Instead, he twisted with the kinetic force, letting it spin him back around to face the front of his back and throttle her to a growling stop.

There, back a hundred feet, a one armed angel lay in a pile of broken flesh and feathers. Incredibly, almost piteously, he was still alive. Barely. Looking up into Zephyr's headlight, its beam easily visible in the cloud of rubber rising off the road. "You..." The not-so-immaculate was rasping for breath. "...haven't won... hellspawn."

It was hard to hear the angel's words over the tirade of furious, lyrical voice swirling around his bloodstained sword. Gospel was pissed. Good.

"Really? Cause, from where I'm sitting? It kinda looks like I just did."

"Kill..." The angel was obviously weakening, the light in his eyes almost gone. "Kill as... many of us... as you can... it won't matter." The celestial somehow managed to sit up, the wet sound of his fragmented body making even Matt wince. "HE is here now."

Before Matt could ask the obvious question, the angel reached out with an almost right-angle arm and spent the last of his strength in a sudden, violent gesture towards him. Matt had to dive free of Zephyr as the angel's sword flew through the air on a column of holy fire. It slammed into the front of his bike, stabbing through handlebars, manifold and engine in a flare of divine wrath.

Zephyr howled in pain, her chassis sparking wildly as she fell over, wounded to the core. Matt, who would have been similarly struck had he not dodged, rolled across the side of the road and came up in a crouch with both pistols blazing. The angel ended its life torn in a hail of exalted gunfire.

"You mother f..." Matt spat at the twitching corpse, emptying his guns until all that remained was a shredded mess cast into shadow by a dim, sputtering headlight.

Five minutes later found Matt talking constantly, reassuring his wounded mechanical familiar that she would be all right as he walked her the rest of the way down the Dead Ten. He needed parts. He needed soul energy. He needed a circle to work in.

The Order was about to provide all three.

Monday, October 15, 2007

Heaven Calling

Let not thy enemies vex thee. Send unto me the measure of their sins and I shall cast down among them my wrath.

No sooner had he gotten in the car than a small buzz in the glove box caught his attention. There was a message waiting for Uriel on his cell phone. Starting the car, he retrieved the small silver annoyance and flipped it open. The name and number on its tiny display actually made him pause.

Sitting in the alley, the engine in his Concept S growling away, he hesitated for just a moment before pushing redial. Of all the calls he knew he would be getting, this was the one he'd been hoping to put off.

"You have to stop. Now."

Uriel almost smiled. No hello, no pleasantries. Exactly what he'd expected.

"And a good day to you too."

The voice on the other end was completely unamused. "There is nothing good about today. You have to stop. That is an order."

Alright. Right to business, then. "Sorry to disappoint you but I don't take orders from On High. Remember?" Uriel tapped his fingers on the steering wheel, considering whether or not to start to driving. He had a feeling this conversation was going to require more attention than he could spare on his way to the next safehouse.

"Fine. Then consider it an order from me."

That made him wince. Only slightly, but the reaction was there. "You are going to get involved?"

"You've ensured I have to."

That... posed a complication. "I don't recommend that."

"Yes, well, I don't take recommendations from Down Below."

Uriel narrowed his eyes, staring down at the phone for a moment before answering. "You know damn well I haven't fallen."

"Perhaps but you certainly aren't on the side of the angels either."

Uriel steadied his breathing. He knew what was going on. Rattle your enemy, make him upset. Make him make mistakes. Make him defeat himself before the battle even begins. Clever...

...but two could play that game.

"That entirely depends on which angels we are talking about."

There was a long pause. Uriel knew that meant he'd scored a hit. The Holy Schism was still a sore point with the Old Guard, a chink in their exalted armor. It was a cheap shot, to be sure, but he had to take what he could get.

"Last warning, Uriel. Leave the Order alone."

"Or what? You'll dispatch more errand boys like Tanarael for me to break and send home hurting?"

Another long pause. "Tanarael's not hurting, Uriel. He's dead."

That stopped Uriel cold. Dead? He sighed inwardly. That, he supposed, had been the risk of using an entropic, especially one carrying a paragon demon in his soul. His "partner" certainly had the power to actually kill a celestial but Uriel had believed that power to still be dormant.

Damn. This complicated things too.

"Perhaps you shouldn't be putting the Host in harm's way, then." It was a blank response, no emotion behind it. It was just something for him to say while he tried to figure out how to handle this latest development in the game.

"Don't worry. I won't be."

"Well that's good. If you'll excuse me then..."

"Attack the Order again, Uriel, and you'll have to have to deal with me."

He blinked at the phone. "You're serious? You'll actually come down here?"

"I'm already here."

Those words didn't come from Uriel's cell phone; they were spoken aloud. There, at the end of the alley, standing right in front of the opening into the busy street beyond, was a figure of muscle and presence.

Dark hair spilled out over both the man's shoulders, one side caught in a bright silver clasp shaped like folded wings. His strong jaw was set in a seemingly permanent scowl beneath a pair of mirrored aviator glasses. Handsome yet terrifying to behold, the man wore his ankle length trenchcoat and half-calf leather boots like a suit of black armor.

"I know where you are headed, Uriel. Don't go there. Don't make me end you."

A bus drove past behind him, its brights flaring the alley for a moment. Uriel glanced away from the painful light and when he looked back, the figure was gone. All that remained was a single falling feather the color of a raven and, in the distance, a large black bird disappearing into the city beyond.

Uriel sighed deeply, folding his phone and putting it away.

"Yeah. Nice talking to you too, Michael..."

Thursday, October 4, 2007

Exit Strategy

He started on the fourth floor but by the time Matt brought Zephyr to a stop again, he was at the bottom of the ground floor stairwell. Five seconds after that, his teeth stopped vibrating.

"There has got to be an easier way to do this," he groans, trying to keep the contents of his stomach where they were. He felt dizzy and ill but at least all his bones were intact. Driving down eight landings worth of concrete stairs will do that to a body.

"Seriously, can't you like... fly... or something?"

His motorcycle just roared at him in frustration. The engine wound up and eased down, the spiritual equivalent of, "Whatever."

"No, seriously. You are supposed to be the soul of a griffon, right? So why is it I only ever see you fly when I'm not on you?"

The bike dropped into a low, irritated growl. Matt got the distinct feeling this was something he needed to not push any farther. He was getting tired of reaching these little impasses but right now Zephyr was his ride home. Best not to antagonize living vehicle, especially when one is not carrying cab fare.

"Fine. Let's just get back to Casa de Mercy. Okay?" With that, Matt sent a quick pulse of entropy at the fire door between the stairs and the building's wide open lobby. The black, hissing magic left his hand, convulsed through the air and settled into the metal beyond. The door shuddered, a shadow passed over it and the air grew cold enough for Matt to see his breath.

A moment later, the fire door disappeared in a fall of ferrous powder, rusting away to nothingness in an instant. A thousand years of erosion in the blink of an arcane eye.

Matt grinned to himself. No matter how many times he did, it never got old.

He guided his bike through the ruddy mist of the former door, hopping the jamb and turning sideways onto the lobby tile. From here is was just a half-throttle ride through the main hall to the front doors, both of which were most likely in smouldering pieces all over the foyer. At least, that's how they were when he came into the building. That's what tended to happen when high security met high explosives.

Matt opened up the bike's choke and let Zephyr run a bit. The back columns of the lobby zipped past in a blur. He was doing 40 miles an hour inside an office building. This was so much fun, it should have been illegal.

Oh yeah... it was illegal.

Of course, so was breaking and entering, a couple dozen counts of discharging a firearm in city limits, assault, battery and however many miscellaneous felonies he had performed on the premises thought. In the balance of things, a little reckless driving was the least of his infractions.

Up ahead, approaching very quickly, his last turn before getting out appeared. He reached out, grabbed the corner rail and spun Zephyr in a perfect right angle turn, locking her brakes and downthrotlling to kill his momentum. The end result was him stopped at the opening to the foyer, just forty feet of marble tile between him and the exit.

Forty feet of marble tile and a single figure standing between the ruined doors. Matt stared at the man, trying to make out his features in the darkness of the hall.

Long white hair, streaked through with dove grey, framed a downcast face, the man's features obscured by shadows. He was wearing a floor length coat and tall boots with small silver plates across both toe and heel. Riding gloves covered each hand, disappearing into the long cuffs of his pale shirt. Silver buttons walked the length of his chest, appearing wherever the coat lay open all the down to the argent plate at the front of his polished black leather belt.

"Hey!" Matt called out, gunning his bike and holding down the brake so his wheels spun but he stayed still. "I'm coming through! You might want to get out of the way!"

The man looked up, his eyes hidden behind narrow, almost sagely-looking sunglasses. He stared forward, presumably at Matthew, and slowly shook his head. The man moved to settle his feet in a sentry's stance, arms at his sides. He clearly had no intention of stepping aside.

"Look!" Matt growls slightly, idling Zephyr forward a few feet. "I have had a long night and I intend to go home!" Then, a little quieter but no less exasperated, "I am leaving. NOW. Get out of the way."

Again, there was nothing but a shake of the head from the long white haired figure at the threshold.

"Suit yourself!" Matt took his hand off the brake and let Zephyr rocket forward at full speed. Her back tire squealed, sending a cloud of noise and burned rubber into the air as he raced toward freedom and the front doors. Just before his bike made contact with the fool blocking the exit, there was a sea of white and then motion and sudden pain.

It took a moment for Matt to remember what had happened. Until that clarity returned, he simply laid at the base of one of the lobby pillars, his body protesting the pain of impact and the sheer speed of the man's attack.

Wings. It had been wings. Just as Zephyr was about to made contact between her front wheel and the black coated figure's chest, he had turned sideways and manifested a massive pair of snowy feathered wings. One had caught Matt's motorcycle broadsides and sent her across the room to wreak into a cut stone wall. The other had done much the same to Matthew, slinging him bodily into a column.

Shaking it off as best he could, Matt leaped to his feet, fighting off the wave of vertigo that accompanied the move. He reached into his coat, pulling both pistols from their holsters with a hiss of well-oiled leather. If he was fighting what he thought he was fighting, there would be no time to waste or to aim. He would have to shoot fast, try and take the bastard down before...

...and Matt looked at the front doors to find no one. The man was gone. Matt sighed, correcting himself. Not a man.

And as the shadow from above gave him only a split-second's warning to dodge before a glowing blade of deadly light transected where he was standing, Matt finished the thought. This was not a man at all.

It was an angel.

Matt dodged to the side, avoiding the sword stroke but failing to evade the burst of broken tiles that resulted from the forceful strike and the landing angel hitting the floor where he'd been. Several of them darted around him, one catching his cheek and gouging him deeply. "Ahhh!"

There was no time to dwell on the pain. The celestial assailant was not slowing down and not taking even a moment to recover. From the moment it landed, it was spinning into another attack. Matt barely sidestepped a lunge and ducked a head stroke from the man, distracted by the almost sinuous way his opponent was moving. This was almost a dance for the angel, almost too graceful and ceaseless to be real.

But the painful cut on his face and the sudden sting of the angel's sword tip drawing across his right arm was enough to bring Matt back to reality. As hypnotic as the unearthly figure was, the winged white-haired killer was exactly that - one of Heaven's executioners. He could never let himself forget that. Angels were divine slaughter hounds, the winged pack of the Christian Wild Hunt.

At this distance, which wasn't much, his guns would be useless. He tested that theory by firing off a couple of rounds from each. The ease with which the angel avoided the point blank barrage was almost laughable. Matt tossed the guns and stepped back for a moments breathing room.

Room and space to draw a more appropriate weapon. Closing his hand around empty air, Matthew willed his own angelic sword to appear. Its edge manifested just in time, catching an incoming swing from what was now his very surprised looking foe.

"You have no right to that weapon." The angel's voice was calm and clear, an audible perfection to match his outward one. Unfortunately, the winged warrior wasn't saying anything Matt really wanted to hear. Not again, anyway.

"That's too bad, since I'm keeping it." Now that he had the option to parry, he was back in this fight. Matt intercepted the next attack, catching the angel's sideswing and then deflecting the riposte that followed. The angel was good. Damn good. Good enough to wound him twice more in the next minute. Matt was defending himself adequately but he couldn't keep this up for long.

He parried aside the next head stroke, managing a clumsy attack of his own and getting counterslashed for his trouble. At this rate, he would have to buy a new shirt; the one he was wearing was rapidly becoming tatters and blood stains.

If he was going to walk out of here alive, he was going to have to cheat.

Fortunately, he didn't mind that thought at all. There was a time and a place for nobility. This was life and death; anything was fair game.

Unfortunately, most of his tricks would not work here. Angels were immune to his magic and aside from his sword and fallen guns, he possessed no way to hurt them. He needed a way to get past the angel's guard, though. His opponent was just too damn good. If he couldn't get the celestial to drop his guard, eventually Matt knew he'd make a mistake and get skewered.

Ending his life as another mark on an angel's kill list was not appealing. He considered how to avoid that fate as he and the angel continued to do battle. Their weapons were glowing fiercely, flaring into angry flames every time they met. The fight ranged from the middle of the hall to the far corner of the room past the new-destroyed elevator and back again.

Unfortunately, Matthew's arms were getting tired fast. He'd managed to ward off the seemingly indefatigable angel with only a few scratches and shallow cuts to show for it. However, each minor slash was a bit deeper than the last. If this kept up...

Then the angel got lucky and drove his sword point into Matthew's shoulder. There was a wave of raw, holy agony, a power that had him screaming in pain and nearly unconscious. It was all Matt could do not to look his blade in the sheer agony. He had to get away, had to get this weapon out of him...

...but then his awareness kicked in and he knew instinctively what to do. Instead of pulling the blade out, he decided to keep the blessed thing in him. It hurt like Hell, pun intended, but it also immobilized the angel for a moment.

All Matt needed was that moment. With the angel's sword pinned in his own body, there was a single window of attack open to him. Throwing everything he had into this last strike, Matt turned his blade from a defensive motion to a killing blow. If it missed, there would be no stopping the angel's next attack. He had to make this one count!

The stroke came up between the two of them and connected with the angel's upper chest in a draw cut. Long coat and white shirt both parted under its edge, pale flesh cleaving right behind it. Matt was suddenly awash in an angel's blood, caught for a moment in a spray of blood.

There was enough demon active within Matt now that the touch of an angel's blood was like acid! Matt cursed, howled in pain and whirled away before he could complete the strike. "Damn it!" he spat, turning around as soon as the sudden red pain was gone. His sword was steaming and his warding coat was nearly spent from saving his life...

...and his target was gone. There was a glowing sword of light impaled through his upper shoulder, a trail of blood leading out of the building and a mass of feathers - some of which were fluttering to the ground as he watched.

"Bastard got away..."

Paranoid and gasping from pain, Matt managed to pull the blade out of his body, drag his way to his damaged but not destroyed bike and get out of the accursed building. He was hurt. Badly. He needed a doctor but no hospital would admit him without I.D., especially when the interns started asking awkward questions; some of which had no good answer. He had no I.D., no insurance and his injuries were obviously violence-related. The police would have to get involved and from there things would just get ugly.

Forcing himself not to pass out, Matthew kept his motorcycle on the road and managed to stay conscious... mostly. Right now he needed the only comfort or care he knew of...

Right now he needed Mercy.

Wednesday, October 3, 2007


The door was locked. Seven warding spells protected it from being broken, burned, unlocked, affected by magic, touched by living flesh or seen by mortal eyes. It had kept the sanctum to which it served as the only entrance safe for decades. Nothing had successfully penetrated its demesne; it was a testament to the protective powers of true cabalistic High Magic. Behind its complete and total defense, those kept inside were in one of the safest places in North America.

In fact, they were so safe that it took both a wave of raw entropy weakening the rune-inlaid metal around the door and the impact of Matt's motorcycle moving at more than 90 miles an hour down the long hallway leading up to it to tear the invulnerable door from its nigh-invulnerable frame and send it smashing through the far wall.

For the guardian knight standing directly behind the door, life was brief. His wet testament adorned most of the back of the room by the time Matt pulled Zephyr sideways and body-checked the other guard with the animated bike's muffler cowling.

Before the unfortunate man's shins had even finished breaking, Matt was up off Zephyr's seat, somersaulting through the air with his pistols drawn. One shot through the back of the guard's head ended the pain of his ruined legs. Matt considered it a kindness.

The cabalist priest crouching behind the room's massive desk obviously disagreed. "You murdering blasphemer! Burn in the lowest pits of Hell!"

He'd heard that before. Many times. "Thank you for the stock dialogue." Matt hit the ottoman with both feet, using it to spring back into the air and avoid another predictable fate. For a group priding themselves on their mastery of 'holy magic', it was funny how many of them carried guns. Or, in this case, a shotgun.

The cone of fire and steel shards tore through the air under him, right where he would have been standing had he landed and stayed still. The buckshot ripped apart the recliner and wall behind it, sending a cloud of sheet rock powder into the air.

Matt dove behind the calcite fog, using it to mask his landing and keep from getting shot again. The Order of Saint Michael Archangel usually armed their priest-mages with Benelli Novas, sturdy shotguns capable of chambering both slugs and shot in the same feed. Nice guns which, Matt counted his blessings, were almost always carrying pellets to make up for the poor marksmanship of most of the 'blessed ones' carrying them.

If the gun had been full of slugs, the shots the priest was now firing into the recliner would be ripping straight through both the chair and the Matthew. He was not all right with that last part. As it was, the pellet shards were making an unholy mess of the chair but not achieving nearly enough penetration to reach him.

Silently, Matt counted each round. Three... Four... Five...

This was where it got interesting. A few of the priests in the Order were knowledgeable enough about their guns to request an extended capacity. If they didn't, the Nova Pump would be dry in five shots. That meant Matt could pop up and end this now.

If this priest had added the option to his issued weapon, the barrel could still conceivably have two rounds left. Popping up would be a bad choice if that was the case.

Matt decided to take the chance and rolled out from behind his cover, his silver-plated pistol whipping up to draw line of sight on the manic Father. To his dismay, the man of the cloth pulled his weapon around just as fast, an cold smile as he pulled the shotgun's trigger.


The smile traded faces and Matt pulled his trigger a split-second later.

His handgun didn't click. It made a nice, earth-shattering kaboom. The puff of fire and smoke bursting from its barrel surrounded a magically created bullet forged of pure force and blessed by an act of, if the Order was to be believed, Pope Urban II. Every pistol carried by the highest agents of the Order of Saint Michael Archangel, including the two Matt had liberated, carried a relic in their handled. These relics, arrowheads from the first Crusade, allowed the weapons to strike through magical protections and the foul defenses of demons and other heretics.

Matt had become amusedly aware that for all their attunement against 'evil', the guns managed to do nicely violent things to members of the Order as well. Was that a divine commentary about these soldiers of the church? He didn't know and he really didn't care.

All that mattered was the result, that being the passage of the glittering clear projectile through the air between his weapon and the priest's left shoulder. It hit, pierced the protection spell on the holy man's vestments and went straight through the man's shoulder. The hole going in was considerably smaller than the one coming out. The wall went red and the priest went down.

Matt took a second shot before he stopped rolling. This one did ouchful things to the man's right arm, sending the Nova Pump flying across the room in a sanguine shower. Then he was up and taking aim with both guns. No more body shots; the pistols were aimed straight for the High Father's head. He wanted to fire, the darkest corner of his soul was screaming for him to end this man. The thought of shooting until there was only pastor paste on the beige carpet was so appealing. So deliciously violent...

No! He wasn't here to kill. He was here to deliver a message.

"Get out. Get your people and get the fuck out of Tennessee. Go thump your bibles in another state." As he spoke, Matt thumbed back the bolts on both his guns. It had taken him days to perfect that little bit of legerdemain but it looked really cool. "You're not welcome here any more. Get it?"

The priest looked up at his from the floor. Though both shots had been non-fatal, they were still serious. The shoulder wound was just going to bleed until it was stitched shut and the arm... well... quick enough medical attention might save it. Might. "You are a monster. The Order of Saint Michael Archangel takes no orders from the spawn of the Devil."

"I am trying to save your lives, old man. You don't want to know what's coming next." He wasn't lying. This priest had no idea why Matt was here. if he had, the poor man might nibble the barrel of his own shotgun.

Instead, the older priest, going a touch pale from blood loss, spat at him. Literally spat, as the bubbling droplets on Matt's face could attest. "Let me guess," the man said in an Italian-accented snarl of derision. "Hell rides behind you? So arrogant. So typical..."


The man's head lolled backwards, pitched forwards without a face and slumped to the ground. Matt lowered his guns, cussing and looking to the doorway. There, a smoking pistol rested in the flawless grasp of a white gloved hand. "Heaven... actually."

"Damn it!" Matt hissed. "I thought you said we were here to warn the Order."

The angel pushed his mirrored sunglasses back up to the bridge of his nose with his free hand. His suit, which should have been covered in little crimson dots form the spray of the dead priest's ruptured skull, was immaculate. As always.

"You did warn the Order."

Matt sighed and holstered his guns. "Yeah, sure, and now they are all dead. What good is a warning if everyone who heard it is dead?"

Uriel returned the sigh, kicking a guard's corpse out of his way as he crossed the room to the dead priest. He knelt, his white clothing completely uncorrupted by the wholesale death he waded through without hesitation. "Two things. Pay attention."

"I have a choice?"

The angel shook his head. "If you don't want me to kill you, no."

Matt glared but knew that was no idle threat. "Okay, fine. I'm listening."

"That's better. The first thing is that messages are not always meant for the people who first receive them." As he spoke, Uriel tore open the man's cassock and pulled a gold crucifix off his red-drenched neck.

Matt looked away. He was in no way squeamish about death but this didn't look like anything he needed to watch. Whatever the crazy angel was doing, he didn't feel like providing an audience. Instead, he pulled his motorcycle around and walked it back to the doorway of the ruined office. "And the second thing?"

"The second thing," Uriel said as his gloved fingers dropped the small cross into his inner jacket pocket. "Not all messages can be given directly. The people who find this mess, the people who will be sent to clean this up? They'll get the message loud and clear."

Matthew stopped at the door just as he was climbing astride Zephyr. "Wait a minute."

Uriel looked up, rising to his full six foot height over the bodies of the fallen. For a moment, the shadows of the room included a full spread of wings folding to settle against his back. In the next instant, the dark image was gone and in its place a soft white feather fluttered to the ground. Its silken fletching touched the edge of a pool of blood, staining half of it in a matter of moments.


"You said we were going to get rid of the Order in Tennessee, not attract even more of the bastards here. You lied to me. This isn't what I signed on for."

The angel looked down at the floor, regarding his lost feather with a strange, unreadable expression before raising his eyes to meet Matt's. Disturbingly, Matt could feel the celestial's gaze though all he could see was his own reflection in Uriel's sunglasses.

"I did not lie. This will ultimately result in the dismantling of the Order."

"By starting a war?"

Uriel nodded, tugging his gloves tight at each wrist. "Indeed."

Matt turned away, unable to bear the intensity in the angel's attention. "You son of a bitch."

"Correction. Technically I was never born."

Matt's only reply, at least at first, was the growl of his bike's massive engine as he revved her to life. Then, without looking back, he murmured, "Don't you care about the people who might get caught up in this?" He didn't bother to speak up; the inhuman creature would hear him anyway.


Then, just as Matt started driving away down the fourth floor hallway, Uriel said to the empty air, "But apparently you do."


Friday, September 28, 2007

Captive Audience

Stay waited for the imagined murmurs and comments to die down among her stuffed animals.

"Thank you all for coming."

It had taken more than an hour to find boxes, pots, junk mail and anything else not nailed down in the house to serve as chairs for her plushies. Every other night or so, Matt would come home with a new one and leave it beside her in bed. It was cute, she guessed, but there were an awful lot of them now. Besides, she was running out of names for them all.

"Mister Flailie, can you get the lights?"

She was addressing the day-glo green octopus next to the attic loft light switch. Then she pretended he'd reached up with a fuzzy tentacle and turned them off. Taking a second to go do that herself, she returned to her place in front of the assembly.

"Thank you. Now, as you all know, I have been working for some time on this composition and now, finally, I am ready to unveil the first part. I call this work in progress..."

She picked up the little key chain remote used to operate he home studio projector from the living room downstairs. She'd managed to get it all the way up the stairs all by herself and only dropped it twice! A few of the silly bits here were supposed to be carrying it for her but the Teddy Brigade had been no help at all.

With the projector attached to Archie's laptop, which she was absolutely sure he wouldn't mind her borrowing, and Powerpoint running, she pushed the forward button and projected the first "slide" onto the wall. It almost fit in the blue sorta-square she'd drawn there. Oh well. Close enough!

The image was just letters but they were big and in a great font. Bally-Hoo. They looked like circus letters and that made them funny. Like elephants. But not like clowns. Real Clowns were creepy. Reading along with the screen, she said:

"A Studee in Sharpies."

She paused, imagining lots of applause. "Thank you, thank you. Too kind."

Once the non-existent uproar died down, she pushed the button again and revealed a picture of herself holding her prized possession - the 61 pack of permanent markers Matt got her from the Office Depot. It had been a 64 park but all her blacks were gone. Those had been some pretty amazing zebras though.

"Here we see the artist and her tools. You will note the markers arranged by color group. Warm colors on the left, cool colors on the right and really awesome colors in my pockets."

Button press. The wall was painted suddenly with an image of Stay hiding behind the couch. The angle made it clear she was taking the picture herself at arms' length.

"Art requires timing and patience."

The next button press was the same scene but with a black granular mess all over Stay's face.

"And Oreos!"

Button press. This picture of Stay had her holding the camera in one hand and an uncapped bright orange Sharpie in the other, all while standing over a deeply unconscious Archie.

"This is one of my favorite canvases. Notice the tosselded hair and the drooliness. I use that for blending effects, like so..."

Button press.

"And so..."

Button press.

"And so. Notice how the red transitionates right into the lime green near his ear. That's the merging power of spit."

Button presses came pretty quickly after that, showing scene after scene of people with all manner of things written and drawn on their bodies. The first ten were all Archie, the poor Council mage whose poor choice in love interests had landed him in a house owned by Mercy with a little girl devoid of any.

Each image of Archie was progressively messier, with the 'masterpiece' being his hair dyed by orange and blue markers, a completely red nose, a big fake smilie face and flowers on his cheeks in a tasteful mix of lavender, brown and aqua.

Real clowns were creepy. But Archie Clowns were awesome!

"I seem to have mislaid my Mercy flashdrive but when I find it, I'll host another party. Thank you all for being here but before you go, I have a pest da resistance. A real magnet opiss if you will." She let the silence, which in her mind was the buzz of sudden interest, fade before she reached for the button to reveal the last slide.

"Ladies, gentlemen and whatever you teletubbies are, I give you..."

Button press.

"Kitty Matt!"

The response to her art was so loud, she could almost have sworn she even heard Matt's voice among her throng of stuffed fans. It honestly looked like he was even at the top of the stairs, face covered in lots of jungle colors, a cute little triangle making his nose look like a kitten nuzzle.


That was so lifelike. It was almost like he was really... ummm... here... Oh. Poop.


Tuesday, September 25, 2007

Guest Services

"Have you seen my kitchen!?!"

Matt cringed, dropping a bag containing Stay's disastrous breakfast attempt into the can outside. He'd seen Mercy head inside a few minutes ago but had hoped she would just go upstairs to Archie and avoid the rest of the house. That was her usual habit after work, mostly because Arch loved to be woken up by the lovely redhead in her Hooter's outfit.

Tonight, of all nights, she just had to go into the kitchen, didn't she? Matt sighed, resisting the urge to look up into the sky and asking God if the Almighty really hated him this much. It was a pointless question; the last year had pretty much answered that one.

"Yes, I have. I'm sorry, Mercy..." There wasn't anything else to say. The little blond moppet was a one-girl war zone in pigtails. He'd pretty much given up on staying in hotels after the "Zebra Incident" and he was running out of excuses for her. When Stay got bored, the world suffered for it. And sadly? She got bored way a lot.

"There's a burn mark through the stove top!" Mercy was closer, about halfway between the front door and the curb where he was standing. She was closer but her voice wasn't any quieter.

"Yeah. It looks better if you don't move the dish towel." That had been Stay's excuse to him. It hadn't worked when she said it and he doubted it would work now.

It didn't. "What was she doing? Smelting gold?!?"

"Worse." He sighed and hung his head. "She was watching the Food Network."

"Oh Gods." She was right behind him now. "It's a wonder I have a house left at all. Did you see what she did to Archie?"

Matt nodded. "I'm sorry, Mercy. I really am. I can't control her at all. I tell her to behave and every night I leave thinking she means it when she says she will. Some nights she's an angel and others..." He closed his eyes, not used to feeling so helpless.

Her tone softened as he felt her hand slip over his shoulder. "You know why she's doing this, don't you?"

He shook his head, feeling his loose, long hair flow across his shoulders. His shirt hadn't survived the evening and his jacket was draped across the seat of his bike. Mercy leaned in close, her chest pressing softly against his back.

"You know, sugar, I keep forgetting how young you really are. You don't know kids at all."

He shuddered as she kissed the back of his neck. It always hurt for him to admit a weakness, even a slight one like this. He hated not being an expert, not being able to handle something on his own. Still, lying to this woman had never been easy. She was so much like him, after all. "I really don't, Mercy. I'm not old enough to take care of a child."

She hugged him tight, pulling him against her ample chest and squeezing tight. She was being incredibly gentle, which meant she was watching her strength. Mercy had been possessed by a demon once. She was free of it... mostly... but it had left its mark. Some of the mark was good, some was bad. And some was what made her just like him in a way. Her demon was the same kind that he was still wrestling with inside. And it made her want the same thing.


Constant, unforgiving, raw sex.

Even now, worried about Stay and upset, the touch of a woman was making him hungry. He could feel she was thinking the same thing; her body was about as subtle as his when desire started overwhelming reason.

And like him, reason rarely put up much of a fight...

"Talk later?" His voice was a starving whisper.

"Shut up and kiss me."


Later, much later, they were laying beside each other against the side of a burbling hot tub. Mercy leaned across him delightfully, pouring them both another glass of wine. He just watched her peacefully, all his energy drained and quiet for a while.

"Think the neighbors saw?" he asked with a soft laugh.

She sat back up, handing him one of the goblets. "I hope so. It was quite a show, sugar."

He chuckled and sipped at the red. "That it was. Sorry about the mailbox."

She shrugged, a lovely gesture with her wet curls plastered to her shoulders and his naked form obscured by only the slightest of bubbling foam. "Bah. I was gonna replace it anyway, sweet. Besides, I'm more worried about that dog."

Matt laughed, nodding. "I think he's scarred for life."

"Well, if the neighborhood bitches start turning up with broken tails and no fur on their necks, we'll know he learned something." She giggled into her wine.

For a while, they just soaked and enjoyed the comfort of quiet contact. When the bottle of wine was gone and the last of the nibbles were history, Mercy leaned over and kissed him again. "Mmmm... thanks for the ride, sugar. I needed that."

"Me too." Truer words were never spoken. There was something about Mercy that kept him coming back and it wasn't just free room and board.

"Who'd have thunk you'd be staying here with me when we met, huh?" She was laughing again, running a finger down his chest with a calm yet playful look in her eyes. The woman was voracious and her recovery speed matched his own. Aside from him, only Archie could match her and with that poor fool being run ragged by the Mages Council these days, he wasn't always around to keep Mercy "fed".

Well, that was a chore Matt didn't mind helping the tired wizard out with. Not at all.

"Certainly not me," he answered honestly. They'd met a couple of months ago in a back alley near the waterfront. Mercy had thought he was a demon and, since she was a demon hunter, that hadn't gone well. They'd fought, beat the crud out of each other and spent the next five hours breaking almost every public decency law on the books.

This was Tennessee, though. There weren't many of those laws to start with. And the few they hadn't shattered into a million little obscene pieces, they'd managed to fracture tonight. That poor, sad little mailbox...

"About Stay," he started to say.

She shushed him with a kiss. "It's all right, sugar. She's a little girl and she doesn't have anyone but you to watch after her. She's gonna act up now and then, just 'til she finds the high water mark."

He tilted his head, nibbling the edge of her ear as Mercy's hands found something to hold other than stemware. "What... mmmm.... what do you mean?"

"She needs to know what's right and wrong. She's ten years old, Matt. You're her friend and her caretaker but she needs a father too. She needs to know the rules and you haven't set any, darlin'." Then Mercy got very, very distracted.

The tub was definitely getting hotter by the moment. Fighting to concentrate, Matt bumped her head with his to get her attention. "But what are the rules?" he managed to say.

She looked up at him before going underwater again. "That's for you to decide, sugar, but if you'd do me the kindness of taking away her cooking privileges, I'd be real grateful."

He grinned down at her, only barely thinking about... anything. "Oh? How grateful?"

She showed him.

By the time he got inside and found Stay asleep in the living room on top of every pillow and seat cushion in the entire house, Matt was too tired to care, too happy to be upset and too warm to do anything more than fall down on the pile and go to sleep with a silly, well-worn smile on his stubbly face.

Eventually, Stay woke up, looked over at Matt and cuddled up next to him. She was so glad he was home. Everything was boring without him here. She knew he was mad about the stove... and the wall... and the Archie but she was really sorry. She really meant it this time. She'd be good. Super good so he'd never get all growly again.

He just seemed so happy now.

And sound asleepy.




Saturday, September 15, 2007

Stay... Up All Night...

To understand why Matt was sitting at the front door, head covered in a bucket, wet, cold glop dripping down over his face into his lap, one has to look four hours into the past...


"Bored now."

Stay sighed deeply, her little face scrunched up as she sat on the couch, surfing through the channels on Mercy's widescreen plasma. It was a huge television but there wasn't anything on but an old Robin Hood movie and the Food network. There wasn't really much of a choice, so he punched in the channel button and leaned back to watch someone goofy-looking make an omelet.

That was a mistake. "Hungry now."

The show made it look easy so she hopped down off the couch and turned off the TV. "Mmmm... eggies." She padded into the kitchen, not wanting to disturb Archie if he was up making a late night snack. He wasn't, which meant he was still passed out on the couch. That was all right; she'd just double everything and make him something too...

Stupid smoke alarm.

Stay made sure there was no evidence of "Battle: Omelet." The stove was cleaned up, the pan was outside in the dumpster and the fire damage to the stove... well, as long as Mercy didn't move the dish towel, no one would ever have to know!

Still, the alarm had been really loud until she'd smashed it with a rolling pin. Archie should have woken up. She was grateful he hadn't, but still. Maybe he was hurt or something. She should go check up on him. Grabbing some cookies from the jar she could reach... now that it was in pieces on the floor... Stay stalked in to the living room.

The poor man was still in his suit and trench coat, passed out on the couch with one foot on the armrest and his hat perched on the end of the other one. He was fast asleep, pale in that way that meant he'd used way too much magic. Matt looked like that a lot; Stay knew the signs.

Archie was a nice man; Stay was really glad to see he'd be okay. He was just sleeping like the dead. That means he'd be out for hours still.

And that meant it was Marker Time!!!

Half an hour later, Stay stepped back away from Archie's stubbly face. It wasn't her best work but he did look a lot like a leopard now. Well, a leopard clown. She didn't have any black left after drawing zebras on the motel walls the other day, so she's had to use her other colors. There probably wasn't a orange and purple big kitty out there in the real world but Stay thought there should be. It was cute!

She was careful to put all the caps back on her markers. She liked Sharpies. She liked them a lot.

But now what to do? Stay had a feeling the Food Network was only going to get her in more trouble and black and white movies were boring. That meant nothing for at least another hour until someone got home. She knew better than to try vacuuming again.

Poor kitty.

So if she couldn't watch TV and she couldn't do chores, what was she going to do?

"Bored now."


Then she remembered the Big Book of Fun upstairs in the loft. That was the room she was supposed to be using as hers but she liked it better sleeping in random places so Matt and Mercy would have to hunt for her. That was a fun game. The dish cabinet hadn't been too comfy but it was a LOT better than the dryer. Ouch. She wouldn't do that one again.

Of course, it had been quieter than that time she'd tried to sleep under Mercy's bed. Such strange sounds... And all the bumping. So weird. She hadn't known Archie was so religious.

Oh well. The Big Book of Fun would help! It was an activity book with crafts and puzzles and games that Matt had bought her at Wal-Mart. Well, "buy" wasn't really true. Stay had gotten bored and pushed their cart out of the store while Matt was in the office with all three of the store's cashiers.

They'd been really religious too. Weirdos.

She wasn't going to complain though; she'd gotten a whole lot of Yu-gi-oh cards that night!

But now it was time for the Big Book. Like she always did when she was this strapped for something to do, she turned to a random page and found....

"Paper Mache."

What the heck was paper mache?

She read the whole page. Twice. It really just looked like a messy way to do something she could accomplish with a small ton of play dough. That wouldn't be any fun at all. Why would she do something like this for fun? A big bucket....

...of water....

...and sticky flour....

Stay started smiling. And giggling.

This was going to be GREAT!


Matt stood up slowly, pulling the bucket off his head, his face covered in clumps of grey and his left eye stuck together. Greeting him was a cherubic little blond girl with a digital camera and an innocent little grin.

"Hi hi! Welcome home!"

He glowered. His one open eye started to darken. "Stay?"

She took another picture. "Yes, sir?"


Tuesday, April 17, 2007


"Why do you like to hurt people?"

The hardest questions in Matt's life had always been asked over french toast.

He wasn't sure why but it really seemed to be true. His mother had asked him how fast he could pack when he was nine. They had to move out of Phoenix because the police were looking for his father and they'd gotten close again.

He's been asked to give up his lunch money or get a broken arm when he was eleven. That hadn't ended well; he'd actually gotten a broken arm, a broken leg, and a cracked rib for his answer. That was the day he decided that being quiet and staying out of sight was the best way to live his life.

At fourteen he'd been asked by his best friend if he could ever think of a boy in a sexual manner. Said friend was male and, not that Matt knew it at the time, both homosexual and mentally unstable. He found out the first part after answering, "No." Two days later, Matt found out the second part for basically the same reason. His New Year's Resolution that year had been to never appear in anyone's suicide note again.

A year later, his dad asked him at breakfast to help him bury someone. The body had been a state trooper, someone who'd tracked his father across half the country and ignored protocol by busting into the house with a drawn weapon and no warrant. They'd had to move again over that ugliness.

It had been three years since he'd had french toast, long enough that he'd forgotten its apparent curse. Now he was sitting in a Denny's, cooked bread in his mouth, listening to Stay ask a painful question while tasting maple syrup. If his mouth had been empty, he'd have said something vulgar.

As it was, he took a bite, chewed it up and swallowed it with a long drink of orange juice. Stay's bright eyes let him know that she wasn't going to let it drop. She was sitting there, breakfast plate already cleaned off, waiting for him to answer. Damn it.

"Why do you think I enjoy it?"

It was a cop out answer and damn the little cherub, she obviously knew it. The look she gave him was one of 'Not fair!' as he answered her with a question. And a lame one at that.

"Because you laugh sometimes when you do it."

That stopped him. He'd been reaching for his milk but now all thought of food stopped. "I what?"

She nodded, earnest eyes still bright. She didn't seem at all upset talking about death and killing. She just seemed to want to know why he enjoyed it, something he never really thought about, especially in such blunt terms.

"I do not laugh." he sighed and looked down at his plate. Nothing there looked appetizing any more. "Stay, I don't enjoy killing. I wish I didn't have to do it any more. But there are people out there who want to kill me. Should I just let them do it?"

She shook her head. "No. Of course not. I wasn't saying you were doing bad. I just wanted to know if it was fun. I have a gun and I was thinking maybe I should help you next time."


Everyone in the Denny looked their way, even the chef through the little dungeon window to the hell called a fast food kitchen.

Matt looked down and stayed quiet until people started minding their own business again. It took a while but eventually the average American attention span worked in Matt's favor. Within a minute, no one was paying him or Stay any more attention. After they were alone again, he said in a much softer voice, "Stay, you can't hurt people. It's not right."

She wasn't buying it, not that he could sell it very well even if he believed it. He'd left too many corpses in his wake since leaving New Jersey to really believe what he'd just said.

"Okay, okay... there are times when you'll have to, but don't try to find reasons. I don't want you to ever have to use that thing."

She looked confused now, but was self-aware enough to reach across the table and steal a piece of bacon. Munching on it idly, she glanced back up into his eyes and asked, "Why not?"

What was he supposed to say? How could he put it into words? He didn't want her to lose her innocence the way he did at her age? He didn't want blood on her hands? He didn't want to be responsible for turning a little girl into a sidecar killer?

Eventually, he went with another conversational surrender. "I just don't, okay?"

She shrugged and went back to coloring the waffles on her place mat. In the typical fashion of a child, she'd gotten all the answers she was going to get and was bright enough to realize it. As such, she turned her attention elsewhere - namely, blue and yellow crayons.

Matt took a drink of milk, breathed a slow sigh of relief and went back to eating his french toast.

"Oh, Uncle Matt?"

He made a curious sound, his mouth stuffed full. "Whaa?"

"Why do you screw so many hot girls?"

The geyser of egg-soaked breakfast bread was epic....

Monday, April 9, 2007


He put his hand on Stay's shoulder and guided her behind him. "Go back inside and close the door."

"But..." Her voice was quiet and worried. "But what if something happens to you?"

Matt looked at the dozens of people in front of him, all of them staring holes through him as tensions rose. "Then hide. And run as fast as you can if you're found."

She did as he asked; he appreciated her for it. She walked back into the Order chapterhouse, closed the door, and even thought to lock it. Good girl. That would give her a few extra seconds if this went south.

And the way things were looking, the situation already cruising through Mexico at Mach Four...

Matt smiled and held up one hand. "Hi there. This a bad time?" He was talking to thirty some-odd people, men and women, all standing around a dozen different cars parked haphazardly in the house's spacious front yard. It seemed like they were roughly broken up into four groups with a few clearly here by themselves. Until Matt and Stay had stepped outside, they'd been out front arguing among themselves.

Bad timing.

Now they were all silent, focused on Matthew and the four heavy duffel bags full of gear he'd just looted from the Order of St. Michael Archangel chapterhouse. From what little he'd overheard as he stepped out of the building, they were here to do what he'd already done - loot the place. Unfortunately for them, he'd gotten here first.

Of course, given how many of them were standing in front of him, not one of them looking particularly happy, perhaps this was unfortunate for him.

One of the three people standing around a Lincoln Town Car narrowed her eyes at Matt and curled her lips into a thin smile. "It is a fine time... for you to drop your things and get out of here. This building and all its contents is now under the domain of the Gardener..."

She was cut off by a shout from a group of angry looking older teens and young adults. They were crouched or leaning against a pair of sports cars, sunglasses reflecting glaringly back at everyone. "The hell it is! You're just here to pick over the bones like we are!" The one speaking was wearing black cargo pants and a fishnet shirt over his pale, thin chest.

"You are all heathens and grave robbers. Only we have a right to that house and to the one who defiled it!" This came from a broad shouldered man in a fine suit as expensive as the one on his bodyguard. This pair were standing beside a steel gray Lexus, its windows dark and opaque. The crucifix on the luxury car's front license plate instantly rubbed Matt the wrong way.

As soon as the suited man spoke, the entire group devolved again into bickering. Power flared along several hands, magic rising to a fever pitch. Matt could tell that energies were about to be unleashed and from the way the others reeled back and took up defensive stances, so could they. Some looked eager to fight; others were seeking cover or reaching for cell phones. One way or another, this was about to get ugly.


Matt was as surprised he'd spoken as the gathering seemed to be. The last thing he wanted to do right now was get involved in a redneck magi turf war... but he also knew there would be no getting out of here if things turned violent. He couldn't risk Stay's safety, nor did he particularly want to get spell-perforated himself.

"Look, people. There's a ton of shit in there. You could all grab shopping carts and come out with a nice Abracadabra grab bag or two. Do we really need to fight about this?"

His words appeared to reach a few people, but the man in the suit refused to be swayed. He looked at Matt, sneered, and spat, "Pretty words, hellspawn. But we won't fall for your tricks. Why do you want us to go in there?"

Matt blinked, as confused as he probably looked. "What?"

"I can smell your fiend-stench from here, devil thrall. What kind of trap have you set for us?" Even the people who looked disgusted with the holy wizard suddenly turned suspicious. Paranoia was rampant with everyone here and Matt had just become an easy target.

"Damn it! I am just trying to get us all out of here intact. There isn't any trap!"

The priest mage snorted. "Really? Let's just test that, shall we?"

Matt nodded. "Go for it, asshole."

The man took a pen out of his suit pocket and threw it hard across the yard into the hole Matt's motorcycle had made in the building's front wall. It sailed over the grass and past the ragged bricks without incident but as soon as it entered the house itself, there was a crackle of raw power and a loud clap of thunder. The pen shattered instantly, torn apart by magical energy.

"Fuck," Matt said, smacking his face into his hand. Somehow, during the time he'd been inside, the house's defenses had obviously come back up. "Look, I can explain..." he started to say...

...and was driven back against the front door by a blast of holy light! The priest and his guard were both pointing right at him, their hands wreathed in divine radiance.

Before Matt could regain his footing or catch his breath, the others were on the move. The only thing they apparently wanted more than the treasures inside the chapterhouse was a common enemy. Sadly, the holy roller had ensured they saw Matt as that target. He slumped to one knee, silently thanking his warded coat for shrugging off the blow that should have caved in his ribcage. "D... don't. Don't do th..this."

His voice was shaky and, because of the sucker punch, inaudible. A dozen people were running straight at him, pulling weapons as they advanced. He groaned and rose to his feet. No more time for talk.

There was too much incoming. Three people were shooting, two were hurling bolts of fire and one was lifting shrapnel up out of the yard and sending it all arrow-quick at him. Immediately on the defensive, it was all Matt could do to throw up a barrier between himself and approaching pain. A wall of raw entropy answered his call, shimmering darkly into existence around him.

Bullets rusted, fire burned out and erosion turned the debris into inert ashes. That bought him a few seconds, long enough for him to move the battle away from the front door. A stray shot could pierce the door or wall, possibly hitting Stay.

A familiar word sent energy to his legs, giving him a massive leap up off the porch and over the assembled mass. In midair, he pulled his pistols and lined up a pair of shots. Taking down a mage or two wouldn't be fast enough and he really didn't want anyone killed if he could help it. Most of these fucks were just greedy, not evil. He needed area effect. He needed to disperse the groups and stop their focused ability to fight.

He needed a couple of explosions.

His bullets crossed down through the air and slammed into a pair of car hoods. A beat-up Impala and an expensive Lexus were perforated as his shots drove holes into their engine blocks. Normally, this would not have been enough to ignite anything but Matt laced both rounds with destructive magic. The spell, a particularly wicked one he'd been working on since finding it in a Dark Order spellbook, made the worst possible outcome into the most likely one.

From the way both vehicles erupted into metal and flames, he'd gotten it right. As he flipped and landed in a combat crouch, the twin blasts behind him did a fine job of forcing the gathered crowd to disperse. Ballistically.

Now others were flying through the air, though not with quite the same grace or control. Yes, the explosions were probably going to kill a few people, but that couldn't be avoided. Sometimes, to make an omelet, you had to break a few assholes.

The magi strong or lucky enough to weather the firestorm turned and attacked. Three spells were incoming. One,. a discharge of lightning, ground out on a chunk of car Matt pulled up off the ground with telekinesis. That same piece of automotive steel reflected another beam of holy light.

Matt had just enough time to realize that meant the priest wizard was still standing before the third spell slammed home. A mental effect, he was less prepared to defend against something like this. Sheer confusion tried to short out his ability to function. He staggered and nearly fell, vertigo blazing along his every nerve. "Damn it," he hissed. "Got to focus!" He slammed one fist into his leg, the hard impact of his gun butt bringing him back to cognizance.

The priest, over confident, had stepped out of the flaming debris to press his advantage. Matt grinned to himself, snapping up with both guns, and caught him flat footed in his sights. "Say Hi to God for me."

Before he could fire, a booted foot smashed into his arm, ruining his aim and making both shots go wide. One bullet drove into the ground impotently while the other took a Hot Topic-clad punk with an ankh earring straight through the head. A fine red splatter marked where he dropped, a goth marionette with its strings violently cut.

"Hellspawn!" The roar came from beside him, but Matt was already vaulting away. His arm was throbbing, probably broken, but he couldn't worry about that right now. He snapped his head up just in time to see the priest's bodyguard bearing down on him. The huge man was wearing a pair of fingerless gloves and holding punching daggers with cross cut-outs through the blades. He'd have admired their workmanship if the bastard wasn't trying to introduce them to his skull.

He dodged left and got a kick in the chest for his trouble. He ducked to avoid the next swing and was backhanded to the ground. Rolling out of the way, he felt a sting of screaming pain as the bodyguard stepped on his hurt arm. "Return now to Hell, spawn of darkness."

If there was one thing he was grateful for where religious types were concerned, it was that they stopped to preach before doing anything. The few seconds of sililloquy was enough time for Matt to work a mental spell of his own and hurl it full force at the big man's mind.

Matt had been hurt so often in the last few months that he'd started to wonder if there was something he could do with all that pain. A captured St. Michael laptop provided his answer; a Sensate Gate. Since learning about this technique for storing away dark emotions and agony, he'd been quietly socking away every hurt and ill he'd suffered. Now, he reached out and touched someone... with four months of utter torture compressed into a single heartbeat.

Matt called it a Mindscourge. The man, his eyes rolling back as he rasped for air before falling down, obviously didn't have any kind name for it at all. He gurgled once, convulsed and collapsed. For the look of him, the spell had forced a massive coronary.

He couldn't help himself. "Glad we had this little heart-to-heart," he told the cooling corpse as he leaped to his feet. There was at least one more mage to deal with and he probably wouldn't do a good job of that on his back. A quick scan of his surrounds brought bad news. There wasn't just one opponent to worry about.

There were eight.

Four of them were a little burned and seemed downright upset. One was, as he'd figured, the priest. The other three were the Lincoln Town Car crew. Normally, they were probably all enemies but tonight, there was a common foe - him.

"Fan... fucking...tastic." He quickly spotted a wide tree trunk he could use for cover and ran for it. His earlier spell was still energizing his legs; this made the dash inhumanly fast and caused the mass incoming fire to miss cleanly. Fire, frost, and bullets all missed, tearing up the Order's finely manicured lawn. Crouching behind the tree, he heard a wave of attacks burrow into its gnarled form. The old oak wouldn't last long under that kind of withering assault.

He considered climbing into the tree's upper branches for a surprise strike but his broken arm vetoed the idea immediately. He couldn't jump the distance; too many lower branches would get in the way and getting tangled meant certain death right now. He needed to think of something clever. Now.

But he was out of time. There was a blur to either side of him and the eight were on him. Each one moving at lightning speed, it was all Matt could do to keep up with them visually. He would need to match their alacrity if he was going to survive but the only spell he had for that took a second to cast. He needed space.

A primal scream did the trick. He released his hold on the entropy inside him, bellowing in a roar of destructive sound that splintered wood, shattered ear drums, and broke glass for a hundred feet all around. The force of the wail sent everyone hurtling backwards. While they were picking themselves up, he was working the Herculean Rhyme.

The priest, not surprisingly, was the first to his feet. Eyes glowing with holy light, he blinked away tears of blood and tried to focus through the pain of the scream reverberating through his skull. Hammering Matt with a counter charm, he was joined in his efforts by the woman magi from the Lincoln group. Both of them pushed their power against Matt's, trying to stop his spell with all the power they could throw at him.

To everyone's surprise, including Matt's own, it wasn't enough. The Rhyme completed and potency flooded through his every muscle. His vision took on a dim, red haze and all he could hear was the sound of his own heartbeat thundering in his chest. The force of their failed negation magic slammed both the priest and the women hard, sending them both to the ground.

Matt hoped against hope that they wouldn't get up again.

Then he was moving, leaping on top of the closest one before the man could get up. Matt's punch drove his gun through the mage's chest, tearing a ragged hole and sending crimson in a gout across the grass. Without pulling his arm free, Matthew turned and brought both his pistols level with the next one to stand.

Surprise was all that the target got to register before six bullets tore his upper body asunder. A detonation of blood covered those near him, a second shock to ass to the deafness from which they were all still reeling. Two found the wherewithal to attack, their own guns firing through the space Matt had been. He was now moving faster than they could, his body a few feet past where they perceived him to be.

The woman worked a quick spell and touched the tree for support. Its natural energies powered her magic, sending a wave of enchantment over the clearing. Gardenarian spellcasting at its finest, Matt noted, as his guns were repelled by the force of Gaea. He let go of them rather than be hurled back with them; they landed nearly a hundred feet away on the lawn. She wanted to play without firearms? He could do that too.

The spell had apparently disarmed everyone; there was no significant metal left to any of them. Two mages stood up, fire in their eyes and on their lips. A cooperative spell. From their matching pentagram amulets and the simultaneous casting, they were obviously coven mates. That was fine with matt; they could share the same coffin too.

He ran past them, eyes focused on the bitch with the nature magic. His right arm extended as he went by the two wizards, Matt didn't even finish calling forth his sword until he was right in the woman's face. Its damage was done, however, since its magical presence occurred before its physical manifestation could take place. A second after he stopped in front of the Gardenarian priestess, the two men trembled, spat blood, and fell over.

Externally, they were perfectly healthy. Inside, their organs were all cleaved completely in half. They were dead before they hit the ground.

"What... what are you?" Her words were thick with fear but her reflexes were still focused. She threw up a shield that forced him back a few feet as she reached for a wand of yew wood in her belt. He tracked the gesture and saw the wand. Instantly, he felt it was a dire threat and every instinct screamed for him to evade.

He didn't argue. Diving aside, he narrowly avoided a wave of invisible energy. Something karmic, he assumed, given the type of wand. There was a lot of blood on his hands, figuratively and literally, right now; a karmic strike could be devastating. He needed either cover or another target and he needed it quickly.

Another mage provided both. Matt tumbled forward, grabbed the man by his button-up dress shirt, and lifted him off the ground. The man's hands shook in sudden fear, dropping the glass athame he'd been holding. Seeing it fall, Matt thought quickly and lashed out at it with his foot.

The crystalline blade shattered instantly, sending shards of glass spraying towards the woman. She hissed a druid's curse and lifted her hand to shield her face as the tide of clear razors hit her full force. There was a cry of pain and then nothing. Just dead silence. The man in Matt's grasp looked terrified at the sound; she must have been one of his cabal.

A split second of pity seized him and Matt put the man down by dropping him. "Run," he growled. "Run away now."

The mage didn't argue. He got to his feet and took off, wide eyes and panic stricken. Matt tracked him with his predator's eyes for a moment, distracted by the rabbit-run. That proved to be unfortunate when a lash of magical pain struck him in the side.

It was a torment spell, one Matt had felt before. A favorite trick of the Order, it worked by telepathically forcing signals of pain into the body. Most mages used it in the form of a glowing whip, just like this one was doing. The wielder obviously wasn't Order of St. Michael, but Matt had long since figured out that spells rarely stayed the property of one tradition for very long.

"Son of a bitch!" The teen with the whip was the same one who'd spoken out about bone picking. Wiry and intense, his fishnet shirt was torn and his chest was bloody. Probably from the car explosions, since there were also burns on his face and hands. "You killed Ronnie, fucker!" This one was crying too, but it wasn't blood from the sonic shock wave. It was tears; he was standing there, defiant, body wracked with sobs even as he pressed the attack.

There were a million things Matt could have said but none of them would have made any difference. He probably had killed Ronnie. That might have been the punk that ate his stray shot earlier. That didn't matter, nor did the fact that it had been an accident. Matt had gone into this not wanting to kill any one and, as usual, he'd completely screwed that up.

Sword and whip met in a bright, crackling clash. Matt was on the defensive. He was raging with the power of the Heracles spell but he didn't want to kill this guy. The mage looked to be even younger than he was. He was fighting out of grief and rage. Matt could sympathize with that. If he could, he'd spare this one. He really didn't want to kill anyone else if he...

A backlash of pain down the torment spell send a spasm through Matt's back. He howled in rage and lashed out wildly, virtually no control over his muscles as his spine lit up in anguish. Staggering, gasping, he moved back and shook his head, trying to clear it as the sensations of being on fire subsided. He whirled back into a defensive crouch, bring up his glowing angelic blade to ward off any more whip strikes.

But none came. Back where he'd been, half a teen was dropping to his knees. The top half, still wrapped in bloody fishnet, was laying beside his own falling leg, mouth opening in closing in shock as the realization of his own death dawned in his dimming eyes.

"Oh God damn it!" Matt roared in frustration. Even when he wanted to spare people, they ended up dead. "God fucking damn it all to fucking Hell!"

Almost like a message from the Lord, a blast of golden light ripped down from the sky and drove him to his knees. His active spells all failed, strength and speed ripping out of him as his magical power dwindled to nothing.

"You will pay for your blasphemies, hellspawn." The voice was behind him, weak but defiant. The priest, it seemed, was still alive and well.

Alive. Well. And really pissed.

It hurt, but Matt turned his head to look at the priest as he walked slowly closer. Matthew's sword was gone; the holy smite had temporarily dismissed it. he was unarmed, hurt and gasping for air. Somehow, he didn't expect the priest was going to give him a chance to catch his breath. Still, stalling was worth a try.

"You aren't... Order," he said as loud as pained lungs would allow. "Why are you here?"

The priest stopped advancing, tilted his head and gave Matt a puzzled look. "Why? Why? The Order of Saint Michael, Archangel was an extremist group whose practices and faith were not condoned by the Catholic Church. Publicly, at least."

Matt narrowed his eyes. "So what... what are you? Holy backup?"

That actually brought a bitter laugh from the man. "Not backup. Oversight." As he spoke, he took a battered leather Bible out from under his coat and turned to the Psalms. "The Order's methods may not be well-liked among my brethren but we cannot allow their failures to remain undealt with."

That didn't surprise Matt, though the idea of a group bigger than the Order was a bit of a shock. "Failures... like me?"

The priest nodded and made a gesture in the air over his Bible. "Just so." He murmured a small phrase in Latin as the air around him began to glow with bright, angry energy. Matt was in no shape to dodge. Damn it. "Burn in Hell, Mr. Engel."

"Yeah," Matt said, his thoughts going instantly to Stay and how he hoped she would get out of the house safely. "Fuck you too, Father."

The light become painfully bright and a roar of thunder split the night. Matt expected there to be searing agony but instead, he felt nothing. No smiting. No burning. No hell. Nothing had happened at all. Daring to open his eyes, he looked up at the mysterious priest who'd been about to end him.

There, to his great and instant relief, was Zephyr. Engine roaring, she was parked on top of a broken mass of religious fucktard. It was everything he could do to stand and stumble over to his motorcycle after picking up the fallen Bible. Even lifting his leg to climb onto it was an exercise in willpower. "What kept you, slow poke?" he mumbled to her.

The bike, for its part, chose not to dignify him with an answer. It just spun out on the priest's wet corpse and roared off towards the Order house again. There was a fledgling to pick up, after all. Dealing with rude, ungrateful masters could wait until they were a long, long way from this bad, blood soaked place...


She stood over the bodies and the wreckage, the light of the car fires reflecting in her eyes. Her shirt was torn and ragged, her arms and legs cut in a hundred places. There, in the ruins of the house's lawn, lay the bodies of her coven mates - friends and lovers all.

They'd come to get back what the fanatics of the Order had stolen from them, the relics and texts that had been seized from Gardenerian libraries across the nation. Now they were dead. All of them lost, except for her. As their High Priestess, she'd led them here to "reclaim their destiny". Now, as their High Priest, she would have to bury them.

Bury... and avenge.

Tuesday, March 20, 2007

Dashed Expectations

Matt checked himself over. Once, then twice. Everything had to be perfect. One mistake and he wouldn't be walking out alive. He was still riding high on the energy rush he'd taken from that lovely girl named Kristy at Whataburger.

Would she be able to walk tomorrow? Did it matter?

His pistols were the first to be examined. They were clean and charged, energy pulsing through their stolen handles and pilfered rounds. Two high caliber handguns straight from the cold, dead hands of high ranking St. Michael hunters, they were two of his closest companions. They'd be ready for what laid ahead. Probably, he thought bitterly, they were more ready than he was.

A moment's thought checked the burning wrath in the core of his soul. There, the angelic sword lurked like an angry sun, straining to rise phoenix-like and turn him to ashes if his control ever slipped. If he was wise, he'd throw that thing in the nearest sewer and never look back.

Oh well; he'd never been accused of wisdom. The sword was his, damn it, and he wasn't letting go of it. If the fucking flapbacks of the Celestial Host hated him for that, they shouldn't have tried to kill him in the first place.

He tightened his coat around his shoulders and felt the fit of his vest. It was a memento of the night he'd broken out of Fort Brag - an MP slimline bulletproof chest guard with kickers plates in front and back. It would stop a shotgun blast at point blank and a .30-06 round as long as the angle wasn't dead on. Literally. Of course, it was also the recipient of a bastion spell, the strongest one he could cast. As long as whatever hit it wasn't enchanted by someone stronger than him, the vest would probably hold up just fine.

Sadly, assaulting an Order of St. Michael Archangel stronghold in Chattanooga, Tennessee meant he'd likely be going up against several dozen mages, most of whom were practiced experts in their fields.


This was going to hurt.

Matt ran down his readiness checklist again, pulled on his helmet and gunned Zephyr's engine. It was a straight run down the street, over the brick and steel fence and then through the old building's plate glass porch window. It was ballsy, insanely violent, and utterly without sense, reason, or logic.

All his hallmarks.

With a roar of defiance at the god who'd put him on this one-man's road to hell, he kicked off the brake and accelerated as fast as his possessed motorcycle could go. It was do or die. Kill or be killed. Matt was damned sure which choice he'd be making tonight...


The little girl jumped at the sound of something heavy smacking against the hotel room door. The older boy had said not to approach it for anyone and to never open it for anyone. If it was him, he wouldn't need her help and if it was anyone else, there was no sense making it easier for them to catch her.

His warning wasn't wasted. She scampered down off the bed, crawled along the floor and ducked into the closet behind a bag of dirty clothes. They smelled like sweat and blood but that's why Matthew had told her to use them for cover. "Most people won't get near anything messy, " he'd said. "Hide behind something ugly that stinks and you'll have a better chance staying safe."

She wrinkled her nose and tried not to cry out. Crawling was still painful for her; the wounds in her side were not completely healed yet. Still, if what she dimly remembered was true she was lucky to be alive. There had been an accident - a car crash. Two others (her parents, maybe?) hadn't been so fortunate; they were dead. She was only alive because the boy saved her.

There was a thud outside, a heavy sound of someone sitting down in the front room's only real chair. No footsteps, no signs of searching or anyone coming into this part of the suite. If they were here to hurt her, this was a strange way of going about it.

Slowly, cautiously, she slipped out of the closet and peered into the front room. Her reasons for doing so were two-fold. First, she didn't think the kind of people Matthew had said would be after them were the sort to sit and wait for her to come out. Secondly, there was food. The smell of something edible. Right now, as empty and growly as her tummy was, any food at all would be a reason to risk to getting caught.

There, in the chair by the door, was Matthew. His coat was on the foot of the bed, his guns on the table beside him. Between them, a stuffed bag full of fast food beckoned like a checkered flag at the end of a long race. She crept forward, unsure what to make of the shadowed expression on her savior's face.

"M-m-matthew sir?" She didn't speak very loudly; she couldn't. Her lungs still hurt every time she breathed and it was hard to get enough air to talk sometimes.

"Yes, Stay?" his dire voice whispered just as softly, bleak and dark.

That's what he called her - Stay. She couldn't remember her own name so ti was as good as any. She'd heard the name Stacie on television and asked him if Stay was short for that but he'd said no. When she'd pushed further, he'd told her it was short for "Stay of Execution". She wasn't sure what they was but it certainly did not sound pleasant.

She came over and crawled up on the bed next to the bag with the big W on it. Inside were cold hamburgers and nuggets of what might or might not be actual chicken. Right now, she didn't not really care. It was all edible and as much of it as would fit was going in her mouth. Right now.

"Cahnn ah asph oo summphn?"

Matthew didn't look up. He just murmured. "Sure. Ask me anything. Just finish eating first."

That took a while, and the whole time he never looked up, barely breathed, and felt so cold even the room heater kicked on in a vain attempt to warm the room.

"What's wrong?" She slurped the big soda he'd brought, even though the ice was long melted and it was badly watered down. It was still better than this place's tap water. Ugh. She was probably at a worse risk of infection from drinking that than she was from her surgical scars. At least, that's what Matthew had said and he seemed to know everything.

"D...s....p....ed" His tone was too low, too muffled. She couldn't make it out.


He looked up and glared. "Disappointed. Okay? I'm disappointed."

She frowned. "Did your fight with the bad men not go well?"

Matt got up and started pacing between the door and the bathroom. He reached into his pocket, took out his last pack of cloves, tapped one and brought it to his lips. Then he looked at Stay and grumbled. The cigarette went in the trash.

Then so did the pack.

"It didn't go at all, Stay. They were already wiped out. Every last one of them."

Her eyes widened. "All of them?"

Matt nodded and started pulling his things away in his big military duffel. "Pack up, Stay. We are getting out of here."

She scrabbled down and headed over to the little pink backpack he'd gotten her from Wal Mart. She didn't have the heart to tell him she thought the Powerpuff Girls were sort of lame. She'd wanted the dark purple Megatron bag but no... here she was with Blossom on her back. "Where are we going?"

"The Order House. They are having a 100% off Going Out of Existence sale and I'm in the mood to shop."