The first words that sprung to mind were 'mangled cat'.
It was large enough to be a dog, but was unmistakably cat shaped. Whole clumps of fur were missing from its misshapen torso and its bones jutted out at odd angles, as though someone had pulled the poor animal apart and put it back together in the wrong order.
Ruby stared at the creature and, for a moment, it stared back. Its muddy yellow eyes were large and round.
Then, as wild animals do, it bolted.
She squinted after it, the torrential rain working against her. An overwhelming urge pressed at her; a curious need to follow the strange animal and get a better look. Ruby, having never been one to deny herself an adventure, started after it.
She followed the drenched pavement that curved round to the left, her feet moulding soundlessly to the floor as she turned and slipped down between two terraced houses.
Her phone buzzed against her leg. Ruby pulled out her phone and checked it:
'MEET ME AT THE SPOKE AFTER SHIFT. NO EXCUSES. DON'T BE LATE! S XOX.'
Sandra was clearly on a mission of her own.
Ruby bit down on her lip, smiling, and stowed her phone back in her jacket. Once Sandra Serling had an idea in her head, there was usually no peace until she got her own way. Well, she would have to wait just a little longer.
The rain echoed and bounced off the walls within the little passageway, the slightest sounds magnified within the small enclosed space. Ruby despised the wet. She suspected it was based on the fact that hair dye and water simply did not mix. This, she had discovered the hard way.
She scanned around within the damp haze, shrinking into her jacket as a gust sent drops splattering against the paintwork in a frenzy. This was going to be difficult.
Ruby searched anyway, looking up and down. As a child she'd always had a knack for finding trouble. Now nearly into adulthood, that much hadn't changed, except that these days she tended to go looking for it.
The rustic village of Crichton was quiet and empty, and today was no exception. The occasional traveller drifted through, using the local bed and breakfast as a halfway point on their journeys, stopping no more than a night and then moving on to bigger things. The wind frequently heckled the trees, their rustling protests inescapable in a village so close to the coast. Birds often cried out in strangled calls, echoed by even stranger noises Ruby had trouble connecting to any existing animal. And the sound of rain on the windows was a lullaby she that had become all too familiar. Yes, it was quiet – but the people of Crichton seemed to like it this way.
Her toe caught an abandoned crate she was passing, accidentally kicking it. Ruby jumped as it scraped against the concrete. The cat shot out frombehind.
It darted away, sparing her a final glance as she wobbled on the spot in its wake. Whatever it was, it was fast.
Ruby jogged to keep warm, her heart thudding in anticipation. Maybe sheshould call a vet. She'd never had any pets herself, but there was something off about this animal. Or, maybe she'd imagined the whole thing and was chasing the neighbour's cat for no good reason. Maybe Crichton was already driving her crazy. Either way, she had to see it again.
The wind picked up, throwing an icy blast at her back. A violent shuddershot down her spine. Ruby tugged at her hood and crossed her arms tightly across her chest in response. Personally, she wasn't keen on quiet. She was a city girl and always would be. More than anything, though, the eerie calm of the country made her restless for more… well, just more.
She glanced both ways before attempting to cross the road, a habit that felt unnecessary in such a place. As the pavement began to slope, Ruby found herself hoping with the strength of an optimist that the cat had taken the next turn. It would pan out well for both of them. Now, where was it hiding…
Ruby glanced ahead, just in time to catch a long, kinked tail disappear behind the faded Wishy Washy Laundrette. She smiled. Got you, kitty cat.
As she swung around the corner she braced herself, anticipating a struggle. Ruby stopped dead in her tracks.
The alley was empty, but a thin sheet of corrugated metal lay propped against the boarded walkway that blocked their path. Ruby held her breath, edging forward, her hand outstretched and ready to rip away thesheet.
The rain drummed steadily against the metal, causing a creeping tension to build up inside her. She felt rain begin to soak through her fabric hood and her body gave an involuntary shiver. The moment dragged, becomingtaut and stretched. Maybe it was something dangerous. Maybe she should stop now.
Ruby reacted with childish impulse, snatching it away from the wall. Shedid a double take.
She gaped at the solid wooden panel in front of her. Building to her left,building to her right, path boarded up straight ahead. No cat.
Ruby held the sheet of metal in her hands, waving it about like an idiot. She lifted it above her head, flipped it over, checked the back, flipped it back. She couldn't understand it. She'd seen it go in. The only way out was back the way you came. It was a dead end. Yet, she thought, frozen in place, the cat had disappeared into thin air.
Ruby turned and backtracked through the village, retracing her steps. Let it go, she warned herself, hugging her wet jacket around her tighter. There was really nothing more she could do. And Sandra was expecting her now.
As she approached the welcome light of The Golden Spoke, her pace picked up, eager to get into the warm, dry glow of the tavern.
Within the torrents of rain, something pulsed with energy. It called out to him, enticing with a promise of unimaginable power, demanding his full attention. From the moment he had arrived he’d sensed it, and it was getting stronger by the second.
When he'd first stood breathing in the alien atmosphere, gathering his bearings, he’d discovered two things: one, the powerful presence was moving towards him, and two, it was extremely close. So close in fact that Drayvex had tensed in response to its proximity, his body automatically reacting to the unknown entity.
In that moment, a low level demon skittered around the corner. It took him a second to realise that it was, in fact, his demon. Drayvex glowered from his rooftop perch. Kaelor had followed him through the portal and his idea of blending in was truly spectacular. Moron.
The rain lashed around him in waves, throwing itself at him, then evaporating into a fine mist upon contact with his hot flesh. As the pulsing presence finally moved within view he looked down, his sharp eyes cutting through the downpour, and zoned in on the source of power. What he saw threw him momentarily off his guard.
It was a girl. A human girl emanating a throbbing black aura.
Drayvex narrowed his eyes, turning his body to fully face her, and relaxed his stance a fraction. He couldn’t see anything unusual or interesting, about her — just a normal, plain human being.
Then he noticed what was around her neck. As he stared in growing revelation at the small trinket, everything clicked into place.
It was a simple piece of silver jewellery, hanging on a worn, leather cord. The charm its self was unusually shaped. The main body was a crescent lying on its side, points facing downward. Underneath that was a smaller crescent, and under that a crescent so small it looked like a pincer. There was a small blood red gem in the centre, and written along each pincer were inscriptions so old they were practically ancient. Demon inscriptions. Yes, Drayvex affirmed, smiling. This was exactly the kind of distraction he’d been looking for.
The girl began to backtrack, Kaelor having given her the slip. Drayvex made a mental note to punish the worthless ingrate. If he'd wanted to be followed, he would have told someone he was leaving.
He continued to feel the presence of the aura long after her absence. Bringing up his hands, he studied his lethal black claws. These would have to go for what he had planned.
Drayvex clenched his hands into tight fists then unclenched them, flexing his fingers. He studied the human-looking nails that now took their place. Their black sheen was the only thing that gave away his disguise. As he let his tongue wander over a set of sharp teeth, he made a vow to himself then and there. The summon stone would belong to him. And he would do whatever it took to possess it.
Drayvex tracked the pulsing entity to a small building with a thatched roof. The sign hanging above the door read ‘The Golden Spoke’. He scoffed as he stepped over the threshold. Humans were all the same. They were so predictable, with their habits and rituals, which all boiled down to one thing — they were weak. Their herd mentality made them all the same in his eyes, the majority too afraid stick out from one another for fear of rejection. This was going to be simple.
As he surveyed the antiquated tavern and its few inhabitants, it took him less than a second to pinpoint the girl with the necklace.
She was sitting at a table by herself near the far side of the room, tracing a finger around the rim of a full glass of amber liquid as she stared into space. Once again he found his eyes drawn down to the necklace dangling at her neck. It swayed gently as she fidgeted in her seat.
He stared at it as he contemplated his next move, watching as the air around it seemed to ripple and distort. No doubt the girl would be a complication. Although, it was certainly nothing he couldn’t take care of.
He found himself amused, despite the ridiculous situation, admiring the stone's acquired defences. It was well known amongst all that craved power that once a summon stone was placed around the neck of the wearer, ownership was claimed, meaning that the summon stone would then protect its owner voraciously. This made it almost impossible to steal.
The only guaranteed way a claimed summon stone could change hands was when the wearer removed the necklace themselves, or died with it. The fact that the stone protected its wearer from malicious harm and intent made it all the harder to take it from them forcefully, and powers such as possession were definitely out of the question.
Yes, he mused. Whoever had invented that protection spell all those years ago certainly had a sense of humour. Then again, he would bet anything they didn’t anticipate a human getting their hands on one. He could wait for the girl to die of natural causes, of course. Seventy years was nothing to someone of his calibre. Or maybe she was a klutz and would kill herself. Drayvex smiled, feeling his ego swell in anticipation of challenge. No, all he had to do was take a different angle.
Drayvex tore his eyes away from the necklace and, with great reluctance, made himself look at the soggy human girl.
She was small with a slight frame and bottle green eyes. Her hair was damp and fell down her back in a dark cascade, its rich burgundy sheen a stark contrast against her pale complexion. Water dripped from the ends, making small pink puddles on the table. The small stud in her nose, along with the unnatural shade of her locks appeared to be her small attempt at human individuality. She wore a plain shirt which accentuated what little curves she had, casually unbuttoned at the top.
There was something about the way she held herself that made her look older than she was. He narrowed his eyes as he drank her in. As far as humans go, this one would be easy to seduce. Her body language screamed insecurity, but her sullen pout said ‘bite me’. Maybe he would devour her when he was done playing games. He smirked in response to that last dark thought and slipped towards her.
The girl didn’t see him as he approached her table. He pulled out the chair opposite and sat down uninvited, allowing the legs to scrape against the hard wooden floor as he did. She glanced up, hopeful.
Her face fell when she saw him. Clearly, she was expecting someone.
Drayvex made himself comfortable and lounged back in the chair. He folded his arms and gazed at her with open curiosity.
The girl stared back, clearly at loss for words. She seemed to arrive somewhere between surprised and confused as her mouth hung open but no words came out. He could practically hear the cogs grinding inside her head as she took him in with wide, green eyes, her attempts at subtlety failing dismally.
He bit his bottom lip and smirked, careful not to trigger the natural sharpening of his currently human teeth into fangs.
“Can I, help you?” she enquired, polite restraint audible in her voice. She reached up and began twisting a piece of hair around a finger as she watched him. A nervous habit?
He didn’t immediately answer and, for a moment, Drayvex didn’t move or speak, allowing the tension to build.
When he was satisfied that he'd gotten under her skin, he leaned forward, resting an arm on the table between them. A small candle flickered in the centre of the table, throwing the light as it danced, creating patches of moving shadow across her face. “Yes, maybe you can,” he replied smoothly, catching her gaze and holding it. Drayvex smiled, confident of his abilities. He concentrated the full effect he knew his gaze had on humans towards her.
The girl seemed to waver, doubt showing in the tiny creases in the corners of her eyes. They glazed over, before she quickly recovered herself. “Are you, looking for someone?”
Distracted, he reached out and picked up a stray bottle cap, rolling it between two fingers. “No,” he answered in a low voice, spinning the cap on the surface of the table. “I was wondering why you look so damn miserable.”
The girl stared back, clearly wondering if he was in possession of his sanity. “Excuse me?” She sat up, changing her position suddenly. So suddenly in fact that her arm collided with her glass, knocking it straight over the edge of the table.
Drayvex moved with lightning fast reflexes, reaching down and plucking the glass from the air before it could fall and shatter. He produced the sloshing glass of liquid from under the table and placed it back on the surface. He slid it across the table with a finger and the girl moved to receive it.
“I, um… wow.” She laughed once, a sound of disbelief, and looked down at her glass. “That was quite something. Thanks.” Her laugh had a warmth to it. He found himself wondering how often she genuinely used it.
Drayvex leaned forward, letting the table take a portion of his weight. He picked up the cap and returned to spinning it on the surface as if nothing had happened. “Have you been stood up?”
She laughed once, short and this time, without warmth. ‘Have I…’ She trailed off, and it was her turn to narrow her eyes. ‘No,’ she replied rather frostily, turning away a fraction. ‘I actually prefer my own company.’
As he watched her stare at a rather interesting patch of wall, it was obvious she thought she could lie to him. However, he didn’t find it too hard to believe that she preferred to be alone. This one didn’t seem to feel the need to surround herself unnecessarily.
‘I see,’ he responded softly, using his mind to spin the cap. Occasionally, he used his fingers to keep it going, for the sake of the girl. ‘Well, there's something to be said for good company.’
‘Hey, Ruby!’ An irritating voice shouted from behind.
Drayvex turned a fraction to see a tall, ginger mop bobbing over to their table.
‘Hey, I wasn’t expecting to see you here. How are you?’
Ruby seemed to shrink into her seat somewhat and the grimace that flashed across her face was not something he missed. ‘Hey Gary’, she said, sounding resigned. ‘I’m great.’
The ginger boy beamed, staring unashamedly at her. ‘Wanna join us?’ He pointed in the vague direction of a table of people.
Drayvex watched as Ruby cringed and then, smiled politely back. She seemed to flounder for a few seconds as the human named Gary stood, waiting for her reply.
“Actually…” She paused, her green eyes settling on him from across the table. They seemed to be pleading with him and Drayvex thought that if her eyes could speak, they’d probably have a speech prepared. “I’m kind of with someone,” she finished, taking the plunge. “Sorry.”
Gary's eyes grew wide as though he’d just been slapped.
I’d be happy to oblige, Drayvex thought, irritated, but I won’t stop there.
The boy seemed to notice him sitting at the table for the first time, gawking as though he’d just appeared out of thin air.
Drayvex ignored the weed and focused his attention on the girl. She continued to plead with her eyes. He rewarded her with a smirk. Okay, he thought. I’ll bite.
“Gary,” he drawled without looking over.
There was a brief pause before Gary spoke. “And who are you?” he demanded rudely.
Drayvex smiled without humour. He stood and fully turned to face the boy, matching him in height. “I’m busy,” he replied in a bored voice, directly meeting his gaze. “In fact, we're both busy. Ruby and I have a lot to talk about.” He continued, allowing his voice to become cold and unfriendly. “Or — ” Drayvex moved his mouth close to Gary's ear. “We may not talk at all.” He winked for added effect and watched Gary change from pale to flame red within seconds.
‘I see,’ Gary snapped. He threw one last glance Ruby’s way, before turning and skulking off back towards his table.
Drayvex smirked, amused at how easily he’d been able to bait the boy. Humans really were stupid.