Taiyō scooted in his rickety chair to let the hulking troll woman squeeze by on her way to the golden bar top. Her round, gray face and bulbous nose reflected in the long mirror behind the bar. Taiyō leaned his chair back on two legs, black boots crossed in front of him, and studied the violet crystal shards growing out of her thick skin all along her arms. He pulled a grimace, feeling sorry for her boyfriend.
The barkeep, a twenty-something girl with wild brown hair tied back in a scarf and a moon pendant necklace dangling between her breasts, greeted the troll woman by her first name—something Taiyō couldn’t pronounce if he tried. He wondered, not for the first time, why werewolves always wore moon jewelry. Shouldn’t they hate the moon?
The troll woman leaned in and spoke low in her gravelly voice. The barkeep nodded, eyes flicking to the small office behind the bar. Taiyō’s chair legs hit the floor. A muted but familiar rush of excitement zapped his system.
He watched himself approach the bar in the mirror between the bottles of Green Fairy Absinthe (imbued with the hallucinogenic tears of real fairies), Demon Drug (a personal favorite of Taiyō’s; that shit could keep you going full speed for days), O-Positive Liqueur (a favorite of the vampires), and others. He walked with his hands buried in the pockets of his custom red leather jacket. Custom because he’d superglued gold braided ropes and tassels across the chest—very Revolutionary War chic. His onyx hair, kept shaggy, was gelled back from his head like a porcupine caught in a strong wind—very anime, and totally worth the long hours and ridiculous cost of hair gel. His eyes were almost as black, set deep beneath hooded lids. He winked at himself. Overall, he blended quite nicely with the aesthetic of the place. He even matched the décor, all gold with red trimmings. A red curtain hid the dank brick tunnel that led back up into the movie theater. Nothing in here had changed since the twenties. The theater itself was not a well-traveled place anymore; they only showed two movies at once, and one was always something “vintage,” like The Wizard of Oz or Citizen Cane.
He tipped a barstool onto one leg and swung his own leg over it. Close enough to listen in, but not close enough to make them antsy. He held his phone in front of him, pretending to scroll through text messages. The two women chattered with heads close together. Taiyō pretended to scratch his wrist and clicked the camera button on his new watch. He snapped a few pictures of them in the mirror for good measure, in case the watch gadget didn’t work. He didn’t trust anything about the Order of Perseus, not even their gear. Damn monster hunters. He hated himself a little more with each press of the button.
He leaned over as subtly as he could, trying to pick up their conversation, but all he heard was giggling—the werewolf’s a sexy rasp, the troll’s a wet gurgle. At last, he caught a snippet.
“… can’t believe she had the stones to say it,” said the werewolf girl.
“About time,” said the troll.
Taiyō sighed, stuffing as much drama into it as possible. Nothing. Again. That Scarlett chick had faulty intel. Nothing out of the ordinary here.
The werewolf girl stood straight and eyed him with arms crossed, one hip cocked. “Can I help you, champ?”
“Ah, now, see, I prefer ‘scamp’,” said Taiyō, delivering his best roughish grin.
“Is that a dog joke?”
“Uh… no? Unless you like that. In that case, I’m a dirty, dirty dog.”
She scoffed. The troll woman scrunched her beady eyes in distaste.
“No? All right then. Double shot of Demon Drug please, toots.” He slapped the bar, easing some of the restless tension in his shoulders.
“Shouldn’t you be at band practice?” She wriggled her finger at his jacket.
He scowled and shrugged the jacket closer to his body. “Just hand it over.”
“Seriously, how old are you?” she said.
“Not exactly legal.”
“Please, this whole place isn’t exactly legal. Besides, I’m a warlock.” He raised a hand, palm up, fingers reaching toward the ceiling, and let a tiny bolt of lightning dance between them. “I absorb magical substances easier than anyone else in here. It takes twice as much to get me hammered.”
The troll woman, bored, grabbed her own drink and returned to her boyfriend—a fat sucker with a bald head and mushrooms growing out of his shoulders and ears.
The barkeep grabbed the slim red bottle and a glass. “Young kid like you doesn’t have anywhere better to be on a Saturday night?”
“Maybe I like you,” said Taiyō.
She slid the glass down the bar. “No you don’t, but you’re here looking for someone.”
“What makes you say that?” he said, inwardly patting himself on the back for how casual the question sounded.
“You’ve been in here every night for the last two weeks.”
“Maybe I like the scenery.” He tossed back the double shot in one swallow.
The chatter dimmed as new arrivals came through the door. Vampires carrying guitars, a keyboard, a violin. Fledglings by the looks of their clothes, turned in the last decade or so. The ancients hardly ventured out, preferring to stay in their mansions or woodland caves awaiting the next pretty woman to wander past. Taiyō rolled his eyes as they headed to the far corner of the bar to set up for the night. He hated vampire bands. They hadn’t gotten the memo that the emo wave was over. Nothing but angst-ridden ballads about love and death and being misunderstood.
“Your parents know you’re here drinking that crap?” said the werewolf girl, just as the familiar warmth of the Demon Drug invaded his veins, making the world sharper.
Parents. His heart galloped, a mix of the liquor and the image of a twisted, mangled body on the living room floor, dark hair soaked with blood, tattered blue dress draped over the chalked pentagram on the hardwood.
“Come on now, sweetie, you know us monsters never have the best relationship with our parents. Hell, troll parents are more likely to eat their babies than raise them. Vampires can’t even have kids. And don’t get me started on succubus children. Those suckers are all kinds of messed up, watching mommy work. If a witch has a child, there’s a 50-50 chance she boils it in her cauldron.” His playful smirk faltered and he stared down into the empty glass, willing it to refill with his eyes. “And sometimes, warlocks summon demons that slaughter their wives right in front of their children.” When the smile returned to his face, he was frightened by his reflection. “Shall I go on?”
“Point taken,” she said.
He stared at the bar to avoid her pity. “I hate that word,” he said after a moment.
“Well, it’s what we are, so get over it,” she said, her mouth a hard line. “Just be grateful you’re the sort who can blend in. And that you actually have a choice about how you use your abilities.” She made a white-knuckled fist around her moon pendant.
“Do I?” he said with a sharp exhale through his nose.
“Yes.” The pity in her eyes was gone, and he realized with a jolt that they were bright violet. Actually quite beautiful. Her voice was cold when she added, “So start acting like it.”
Taiyō found himself studying the bar again. I’m trying.
One of the vampire bandmates drew her attention away. As she mixed up a Bloody Mary—light on the tomato juice, heavy on the O-Positive—the owner of the joint, a goblin named Balgrog, emerged from his office. He could hardly see over the bar. Only the tips of his pointed green ears breached the gold counter as he marched toward the barkeep, grumbling. He wiped a runner of snot from his long, hooked nose and pointed at her, yellow eyes narrowed.
Taiyō sat straighter and attempted to snap a few photos with the watch camera. Balgrog was the real target of the Order of Perseus’ investigation, but Taiyō had only seen him briefly a handful of times during his stakeouts.
“Callie, I’ve been doing the books, and I’m not happy.”
Callie cocked her hip again. “Are you ever?”
Balgrog chittered his needle teeth like an angry squirrel. “Don’t sass me, fluffy. Are you giving out free drinks to your pack buddies?”
Callie threw back her head and sighed. “No, boss.” She handed the vampire his drink, and he hightailed it back to his instrument.
“Then you’re over-pouring. Are you measuring?” Balgrog stood on tiptoe to grab a set of grubby measuring spoons and cups off the lower shelf.
“I’m not over-pouring anything. How much are you short? Two denarii?” Callie said with a scoff. “Why don’t you check up your—”
The whole place went silent. Taiyō turned to the red curtain, held open by one of three newcomers. Punks. Bright hair, dark clothes, silver piercings. Ink running over their skin. The girl had half her hot pink hair shaved. The guy holding the curtain had a snarling wolf tattoo in place of hair.
Humans. Had to be. Monsters didn’t need to put in all that extra effort to make themselves frightening.
Idiots. Slaves in a gladiator arena. Taiyō slowly scanned the bar, afraid to make a sudden movement and break the spell of shock that was keeping the three alive.
A succubus in the corner cocked her head playfully, sizing up the two males. When she put them into a trance and had her way, they wouldn’t see the horns or the small, bat-like wings. The trolls wore dumbfounded expressions, but once their small brains caught up… It’s clobberin’ time! Taiyō thought, fighting a laugh. The vampire band’s pupils had dilated to ridiculous size, nearly covering the whites. The minotaur in the back sniffed the air, fanning his nostrils to reveal the blood vessels inside.
“Ah,” said Balgrog, startling everyone, “at last you’re here.” He hurried around the bar and waved his arms like a traffic cop. “Come in, come in.”
Taiyō was so stunned he forgot about the camera watch until Balgrog had led the three humans all the way around the bar. He only managed to get a few shots of their backs as the goblin led them into his office. Oh well. It wasn’t like Scarlett needed HD shots of faces, or even irrefutable proof. Monsters didn’t get trials, and the Order of Perseus was of the mind to slay now, ask questions later. Still, he needed to figure out what the hell was going on.
He reached into his jacket’s inner pocket and retrieved a small vial of blue liquid he’d whipped up two weeks ago. While everyone’s eyes were on the closing office door, Taiyō knocked back the potion. He scrunched up his eyes against the tickling in his ear canals, waiting. When it was gone, he could hear the male troll’s fist scraping along his table, Callie’s nervous breathing, and the succubus humming to herself.
He ignored it all and focused on the closed door.
“Have you got it?” A girl’s voice.
“You have the payment?” said Balgrog.
“Here.” A guy’s voice. The soft thunk and tinkle of a bag full of something shiny exchanging hands. Half of it probably wasn’t even valuable in the human world. A goblin would go apeshit for some aluminum foil, though gold was always preferred.
Balgrog’s freakish, child-like laugh said he was pleased with whatever it was.
“Hand it over, ugly.” Another guy’s voice.
“Here, here. It’s all there,” said Balgrog, all the glee gone. If the humans didn’t watch it, they’d learn the damage goblin teeth could do. “Snipe spine, powdered werewolf’s tooth, demon drug, fairy wings, vampire bat saliva, and a hex bag for the lady.”
“When can we get—”
The screech of a vampire’s violin drowned out the girl’s sentence and made Taiyō curse and slam his palms to his ears.
“Not a fan of vamp ballads?” said Callie, her voice banging against his eardrums as she shouted over the other instruments joining in.
“Who is?” said Taiyō, extracting the bitter antidotal herb from his jacket.
Callie raised an eyebrow as he chewed it like cud.
“Don’t ask,” he said.
When she turned away, he ran through the list of items in his head. Pink Hair had a grudge against somebody, ordering a hex bag. He shuddered. But what about the rest? The punks might have been making a potion, but he doubted it. More likely, they were getting high out of their minds. Combined correctly, those ingredients would be like mixing PCP and LSD. He wouldn’t be surprised if they had blood on their hands thanks to a few wild benders. It was a miracle they weren’t dead themselves.
The assault on his eardrums lessened, but he glowered at the band. The lead singer had his eyes closed, too preoccupied with his own whining to notice.
The humans exited the office, the largest of the guys, his spiked hair tipped with electric blue, held a large brown paper sack. Taiyō snapped another picture.
So Balgrog wasn’t just dealing in illegal monster materials; he was dealing to humans. The Order of Perseus would stick his head on a pike outside their headquarters. A wave of guilt doused Taiyō. Could he really do this? These were his people… weren’t they? Even if they weren’t exactly people.
With a small grunt, he steeled himself. Balgrog should know better, and what was one goblin in exchange for the name and location of the demon who’d killed his mother?
Instead of counting their blessings and bolting back out into the sanity of their own world, the punks sat at the bar. Wolf Head gave Taiyō a once-over as he sat on the stool next to him.
“What are you, sweetheart?” Blue Tips asked, leaning on one elbow toward Callie.
Callie pushed a strand of her frizzy mane back under her scarf. “Too much for you.”
Blue Tips scowled but didn’t challenge her while his friends laughed. At least he wasn’t a complete idiot. Close, though. Pink Hair spun on her stool and scanned the joint, her eyes settling on the band. Taiyō hoped she’d seen enough movies to know she shouldn’t look them directly in the eye. Wolf Head followed her lead, but he squinted over at the trolls, and Taiyō caught a mumbled, “Badass.”
They were all going to be eaten, and yet… how he envied them. This was novelty, not an inescapable reality. Taiyō laid his coins on the bar top and winked at Callie before sliding off the stool. His work was done.
The curtain flung open just as he reached for it.
Taiyō leaned back his head, splayed his palms to heaven at his sides, and spat a demon curse at the ceiling in exasperation. What next?
“Charming,” said Yazmina, voice like a pur. Though, with the iridescent emerald and ruby scales covering her entire voluptuous body, one might have expected a hiss. “Remind me again why we broke up?”
“You’re a djinn. I’m a warlock. Never should have happened,” said Taiyō with a dramatic shrug. “What with warlocks having that problematic history of trapping djinns in lamps and all that, and you being a psycho who eats dreams… and brains… and anything else that will fit in your mouth, really. Makes sex too much of a high stakes gamble, and there’s a few things I’m not willing to bet.”
“Aw, Taiyō,” she said, sashaying across the remaining distance in her body-hugging black dress. “I thought you liked when I drank up all those nasty dreams about your mommy.”
Her forked tongue caressed his cheek.
“It’s what you replaced them with I didn’t like,” he said, jerking away.
He tried to move around her, but she caught him with her palm flat on his chest.
“What?” she said, dragging out the word and rolling her yellow eyes, pupils like fingernail moons. “They were exciting dreams.”
“More like fever dreams.”
She made a dismissive sound deep in her throat and tossed her auburn hair over her shoulder. “Please, you’re the self-proclaimed daredevil. I thought you appreciated the rush. Speaking of which, I heard you caused a few disfigurements down on Phillips Street. Order of Perseus on your ass?”
“In a manner of speaking,” he mumbled.
“It was an accident.” The guilt was a fist this time, gripping and twisting his innards.
Was it? an internal voice like a gremlin asked for the hundredth time. Or did you want them to notice you?
Yazmina laughed, a sound like a cloak dragging through dead leaves. She stopped with a sharp inhale, yellow eyes locked on something over Taiyō’s shoulder.
“What are they doing in here?” she said in a half-whisper. He’d dated her long enough to detect the fury in her deceptively blank expression.
Taiyō looked back to see Pink Hair slapping Blue Tips’ arm and nodding toward Yazmina. Wolf Head was already gaping at her like she was a cool villain from a comic book.
Shit. She would rip them apart and stuff the smallest bits down their throats. Scratch that. She’d play with their minds so that they ate the pieces like candy.
The others were holding off out of respect for Balgrog’s business. Yazmina and the concept of respect had never been properly introduced.
Wolf Head slid off his stool and ran a hand over his scalp tattoo as he approached. Taiyō groaned internally, looking from the curtain to Yazmina to the inked idiot.
Not my business.
“Hey there, sexy,” said Wolf Head.
“You dare speak to me, mortal?” Yazmina’s tongue flickered between her lips on the word, ‘speak,’ and the punk took a step back at the shrill wrath in her tone.
“Whoa, you’re not into it. That’s cool,” said Wolf Head, holding up a hand and literally bowing out.
“You drive us into caves and hidden rooms and shadows, and then you come to our havens to gawk at us?”
Taiyō could feel the magic coming off her like an electric current, raising the hairs on his arms and neck. She’d turn their brains to soup and drink them through the crazy straw she kept in her purse. Wolf Head retreated to his buddies, tripping over his combat boots. Pink Hair gripped Blue Tips’ heavily biceped arm. The band picked up the pace with a moody rock number while the other patrons watched Yazmina in raptured silence.
“Tell me, flesh sacks.” Her neck elongated and slithered through the air, bringing her face toward her prey. “Do you like what you see?”
She hissed like a python, baring three-inch fangs, and Pink Hair screamed.
Taiyō gave the curtain one last longing look before reaching out with his mind for the power he envisioned as a warm, glowing ball in his chest. Lighting jumped between his fingers.
Yazmina’s head reared back like a viper. Taiyō thrust out his arm. She struck so hard and fast that for a split second Taiyō thought he’d missed, but the bolt struck the side of her head and slammed it into the bar.
The speakeasy was in an uproar. The minotaur bellowed and the trolls stomped the floor in protest.
Yazmina shook her head, and some of her hair fell to the floor, blackened. She turned slowly, her hiss growing louder.
“You’re protecting them?” she said, her neck returning to its normal proportions.
Taiyō shrugged. “Looks like it.”
“You have no right.”
“You really want more hunters after you?”
“They come here, they’re fair game. The hunters won’t even know about them.”
“Still not letting it happen.”
“I have every right to a meal. Especially these arrogant fools. In this place. You’re going to deny me that?”
“I don’t like the way you play with your food.”
“Then I’ll play with you!”
Her eyes glowed like fireflies. He bent at the waist, hands to his head as the vivid images slammed into position behind his eyes.
His mother rose from the pool of blood inside the pentagram, head lolling on a broken neck, leaning on a femur that bent in half, one arm twisted behind her back. She reached the other out to him, a stark white bone protruding from flesh at the wrist.
“Look what you did!” she said. He could see her teeth threw the rip in her cheek. “Look what your lies caused! You should have warned me!”
Somewhere in another life, he felt rough, scaly hands on his shoulders and a tongue at his ear.
His mother lumbered toward him on her shattered leg. “You are not my son! You’re Satan’s spawn! You and your father!”
He focused on the distant smash of cymbals, the high whine of a bent guitar string. He shut his eyes and groped for the power source. He touched its round edges with his mind and set it off like a bomb.
He heard yelling. It was him. Screaming. Someone else’s. He smelled burning hair.
He opened his eyes. Yazmina jerked in his arms, her mouth frozen open as she’d moved in to inject her venom into his brain. Her hair was a fiery halo. Her scales rippled as the lightning coursed through her body. A stray bolt smashed the mirror. Another flew at the troll woman, who threw up an arm, deflecting it off a crystal and into the ceiling. Taiyō released his mental grip on the power source and caught Yazmina as she fell. Her scales cooked his leather jacket sleeves. When he saw her chest rise and fall, he let out a relieved breath of his own. She was out cold… and bald. (God, she was going to kill him if he ever crossed her path again.) But she was alive.
The punks fled, screaming like banshees, leaving the paper sack on the bar. Silence remained. Charged, angry silence. Even Balgrog, head poking out of his office, was silent. Though by the way he was looking at the damage, he was going to blow any minute.
Taiyō laid Yazmina gently on the ground and walked to the bar. Callie cautiously raised her head up, her shoes crunching glass shards. She had a cut on her cheek.
“Sorry about that,” he said, pointing at it.
“I need another double for the road.”
She grabbed the bottle. “I hope they were worth it,” she said so only he could hear as she poured.
He tipped back the drink and welcomed the immediate buzz.
“Wasn’t about them,” he said, putting down another coin. “Not really.”
“What was it about?”
“Acting like I have a choice.”
This is the second episode in the Order of Perseus series. Read the first episode: Specimen: Unknown