People appearing in my office without an appointment are always a sign of bad things to come. Today was no exception.
A useless morale-boosting meeting had eaten the better part of my morning. Useless because people who work in blood and death on a daily basis aren’t much for the “Rah rah rah!” speeches used to raise morale. Those of us who work in the Violent Crimes Division are more subdued, and none of us chose this line of work for the kudos. We did it because it needed doing. Because we possessed the abilities to get the job done.
But what did I know? I didn’t have the title of doctor or a string of fancy letters after my name. Just a gun, some ass-kicking skills, and a nasty demonic heritage few people cared to mess around with.
Back in my office, I was writing up a report for my supervisor, Tommy. Outside my open door, Stella and Paolo Dante were wrestling their latest capture, a homicidal troll, to the common room floor as a group of agents rooted them on. Stella’s long arms wrapped around its throat in a chokehold, while Paolo quickly bound a silver chain around its thrashing legs.
Encouraging cheers from the watching agents strove to outmatch the creature’s deafening bellows. I couldn’t help the smile that tugged the corners of my lips upward. The Dante twins, hard-nosed Italian fata, were the best violent crime agents in the New England Vamyraset Agency. It was always a pleasure to watch them in action.
A break would be a welcome relief, but I needed to hand this report in before the end of the day. Without my partner to take some of the load, I was rapidly becoming overworked and turning into a very grumpy girl because of it.
I looked over at Luka's empty desk. If he weren't out on disability he would have been out there cheering the twins on with everyone else. But I wasn't Luka and I needed to get some work done.
I tapped out a tuneless beat on the arm of my chair, trying to ignore the cacophony. An echoing bellow rattled my window and set my teeth on edge. I tossed the file onto a teetering stack of paperwork with a sigh. I’d never be able to concentrate in this din.
Just as I rose to close my door against the noise, the temperature in my office plummeted. Rows of goosebumps pebbled my bare arms. I couldn't contain an involuntary shiver.
Ripping pressure stabbed at my fingertips as diamond hard claws replaced my once perfectly manicured nails. My gun was in my hand and pointed at the door before the first twinges of alarm had fully registered. The claws hampered my grip, but not enough to throw off my aim.
A grey-cloaked figure towered just inside my doorway. I could still see the two fata struggling to get the belligerent troll under control, but could no longer hear anything outside my office.
Damned silencing spell. Am I supposed to be impressed?
It took a moment for me to realize that yes, I should be impressed. We were on the fifth floor of the Vamyraset Building. Dampening spells built into the foundation suppressed the magical abilities of non-agents.
From the very first moments, I had been gathering information and using it to build a mental profile of him. Whoever this was, he had access to major power and wasn't to be trifled with.
Stillness cloaked by movement was my overall impression; a core of inner immobility surrounded by flowing folds of cloth that rustled and stirred as if by an inner wind. The cloak hood was pulled low over his face, hiding his features in black shadows, but I caught a hint of sunken cheeks and bony chin. Possibly a lesser member of the High Sidhe; one with an affinity for Winter, judging by the cold rolling off him in almost visible waves.
So far he’d made no threatening move or gesture; I couldn’t continue to hold a gun on him without justified provocation. Scaring the hell out of me and being as powerful as he was didn’t count. There were no laws against silencing spells being used in the building; they were used by agents all the time to protect victim confidentiality. That he was powerful enough to override the dampening spells couldn’t be held against him.
Anyway, I was a fully-trained agent, if I couldn't hold my own against one person, I deserved whatever beating I received. There was nothing to be done except make the best of the situation. Holstering my gun and pasting a smile on my face, I walked to the front of my desk, hand extended in greeting.
“My apologies. You startled me. I'm Agent Alexis Powers. How can I help you?”
A black-gloved hand emerged from the folds of cloak and gripped mine, taking care to avoid my razor-sharp claws. I gave no outward sign that I noticed the chill seeping through the leather glove. Definitely not human.
Politely dropping the icy hand, I clenched and unclenched mine, attempting to return some warmth to it.
“I am looking for something.” The sound emanating from beneath the cloak was more the howling of an Arctic wind than an actual voice. Lances of sub-zero cold swept over my body, stealing all warmth and moisture from my flesh. I grit my teeth to keep from whimpering.
“I'm sorry, you've got the wrong department.” I briskly rubbed my arms and stepped further around the desk to guide him out. “This is the Violent Crimes Division. Ryuu Inoue on the third floor is the best Finder in the Agency. Just tell him Agent Powers sent you down and he’ll be more than happy to assist you.”
If he’s not still pissed at me over that Atlantean Ring of Power debacle, I thought, ruefully. Just thinking about that case again raised my hackles. It wasn’t my fault the thief had gotten himself murdered, which transferred the case to me. Ryuu had no right to interfere and snatch the dwarf and ring from my custody.
Pushing the incident, only one of many such encounters between the two of us, from my mind, I flashed my visitor a bright smile and extended my arm to direct him back out into the common area of the department.
Ashen fabric blocked my way. There had been no movement on his part, but there he was standing in front me, cutting off my route to the door. He loomed taller than my five-foot-ten frame, forcing me to crane my neck to look in the direction of his concealed face.
“You are the one I have chosen to help me find what I am looking for.”
His words were a physical force beating down on me, willing me to obey him. With a focused application of my own will, I ignored the not-so-subtle compulsion. I had gone head-to-head with the toughest of Mom’s demonic friends. How much worse could this be?
The temperature in the room continued to drop. A thin layer of ice had formed on top of a glass of water and my lucky bamboo was drooping and turning brown.
“Why me?” I demanded. “I don’t know anything about being a Finder. I deal with violence and death, not lost trinkets.” I couldn't believe I was standing there arguing with this guy. He was really starting to piss me off.
Sinister chuckles raised the hair on the back of my neck. “I am not looking for a mere trinket.”
I shook my head. I had too many other cases on my plate. I wasn't going to take on a case meant for another department.
“I'm sorry.” My voice was hard, my words final. “You're going to have to speak with Agent Inoue. I cannot help you.”
“Alexis Rachelle Powers, you will help me find what has been lost.” The ice-laden threat hissed out from the lightless depths of the hood.
An almost palpable sense of menace pervaded the room, raising new goosebumps on my arms. The temperature dropped another ten degrees and the breath whooshing from my lungs came out as a fine white mist in the freezing air.
Without warning, blackness tinted with red overwhelmed my sight, leaving me blind. Anger and adrenaline rushed through my system as my body tensed for an expected attack. Seconds later, my vision returned. I knew I needed to destroy this creature standing before me. He posed a danger to me and I couldn’t let that threat continue.
My teeth had sharpened into points that scratched shallow furrows into my tongue as I licked my lips. The sweet, coppery taste of blood filled my mouth. The anticipation of the battle to come was overpowering. I wanted to tear his limbs from his body and paint my office with his blood.
An instant before I would have attacked, some small, sane voice in the back of my head held me in check. Why was I in such a high state of blood rage?
Anger, violence, destruction, death – they were food for my soul. Or at least half of it. I had spent my entire life building my defenses up to be nigh indestructible. They had stood up to concerted attacks by high-level demons intent upon making me lose control. They shouldn't be failing now.
The grey hood cocked to the side.
“Impulse control issues?” He knew what was happening to me.
“Stop it. Whatever you're doing to me, just stop it.” I gasped as a choking wave of anger flashed through me again. “I am an agent of the Vamyraset and this is an unwarranted attack.”
He chuckled again. “What is happening is not deliberate, I assure you. Your fragile human life withers in my presence.”
Recognition fluttered at the edge of my consciousness. I grasped at it and, as realization dawned, my heart sank. There was no way I was getting out of this case.
Missing items might not have been my department, but if Death was searching for something, I'd be forced to make an exception.
“All right, then.” I swallowed the lump of fear in my throat. I had to get away from him before I completely lost my hold on my humanity.
Demons feed off chaos and destruction, and death was a type of destruction. As my human life-force slowly died away from Death’s inexorable pull, my demonic side would grow in power until it consumed me. I had spent far too many years learning how to control my demonic impulses to have it all come crashing down now.
Take a deep breath. Hold it for a count of five. Slowly exhale.
My carefully maintained façade of civility was beginning to crack. I had to hurry this meeting up or my co-workers were going to have a long-repressed half-demon rampaging through the office.
Not that I was overly concerned for the safety of my fellow agents. They were more than capable of defending themselves. My concern was for myself. The Vamyraset’s zero-tolerance policy against violence in the workplace meant if I fucked up and lost control, I was toast. They would not hesitate to kill me.
“What are you searching for?”
I rubbed irritably at the tattoos on my neck. They were starting to burn even though my office was fast becoming intolerably cold. The skin around the base of my claws was a deep purplish blue and my lips had cracked and bled. Wispy strands of neon-pink hair floated around my face, crackling with static in the cold, dry air.
I sank into my chair and pulled out a pad of paper and a pen. I was going to jot down some notes, hoping the familiar act would help calm my nerves, but the claws made writing a challenge.
I snapped the pen between my fingers in frustration. Black ink splattered across my desk and files. Curses streamed from my mouth as I wiped at the stains with my sleeve.
“I am searching for a soul.”
I whipped my head up and stared at Death, gaping in astonishment. My first thought, well, you can’t have mine, was suppressed as soon as it popped into my head.
“A-a soul?” How on earth could Death lose a soul? “Where did you lose it?”
Death did not answer right away. The silence stretched so long it seemed he was loath to answer the question.
“I did not lose the soul. It was stolen.”
This time, it wasn’t Death’s voice that knocked the wind out of me. I couldn’t conceive of how somebody could steal a soul from Death. Death was the Harvester of Breath, the proverbial shepherd leading spirits to their next destination. To steal a soul from Death and hide it away would take an extraordinary amount of talent. Not to mention quite a bit of chutzpah.
A pulsing beat started to creep up my spine and down my legs. My skin throbbed and itched as it hardened into scales. Gritting my teeth again, I loosened the fists I had unknowingly made. Blood streamed down my left hand. I had inadvertently slashed my palm open with my claws.
I pulled every last shred of self-preservation I had left around me and forced my instincts down as far as they'd go. They were still there, a low thrumming in my blood and bones. My entire body ached to let go and give in to my more destructive urges.
“Whose soul was it?”
Did I even want to know? Not really.
I was tempted to pass this off to one of the other agents once Death left. Even if I had the balls to do something so phenomenally stupid, the entire Agency was short-staffed. Nobody had the time to devote to a case as important as this one.
With Luka out, I didn't either, but what was I going to do? Tommy had better have some answers, because I surely didn’t.
Death spoke again, drawing my attention back to him.
“The soul belongs to Father Rupert Callahan of Sacred Heart Cathedral.”
A spasm of pain wracked my body.
Holy words and objects are anathema to demons. My humanity had given me some measure of defense against the pain they caused. Or at least it had. With my human life slipping away, that protection was diminishing as well.
I was so screwed.
Of course. It had to be the soul of a Catholic priest. Nobody would steal the soul of some regular old joe-schmo. Oh no, they really had to up the ante with this one.
“Let me get this straight. The soul of a man of the cloth was stolen and you don’t know where it is, so you need me to find it for you?”
Death’s slow, silent nod sent shivers down my spine. I closed my eyes for a moment to regain my equilibrium. When I opened them again, Death was gone.
“Dammit! Why me?”
I screamed in frustration at my empty office. My voice had roughened to a rumbling growl – not a good sign.
A few of my co-workers gave me curious looks through my open door. Only then did I notice that the normal sounds of the office had returned.
I got up to close the door, thankful for the small bit of privacy. I flipped off the lights and sprawled out on the floor, closing my eyes and breathing deeply. It was a calming exercise Mom had taught me. It wouldn’t give me complete control over myself, but it would keep me from ripping the head off the next person to look at me funny.