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.
An overwhelming urge pressed at her. A curious desire to follow the strange animal, get a better look. She squinted after it, torrential rain obscuring her vision. Having never been one to deny herself an adventure, Ruby started after it.
She followed the drenched pavement that curved round to the left, then slipped down a smaller path between two houses.
Her phone buzzed against her leg. Ruby pulled it out and checked the screen:
'MEET ME AT THE SPOKE AFTER SHIFT. NO EXCUSES. DON'T BE LATE! S XOX.'
Sandra clearly had a mission of her own. Ruby closed her eyes and smiled, stowing her phone back in her jacket. Once Sandra Serling had an idea in her mind, there was usually no peace until she’d gotten 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 smallest sounds magnified tenfold within the enclosed space. Ruby despised the wet. She suspected it was because hair dye and wet weather simply did not mix. This, she had discovered the hard way.
She scanned through the damp haze, shrinking into her jacket as a rogue gust sent drops splattering against the paintwork in a frenzy. This was going to be a challenge.
Ruby searched anyway. As a child she'd always had a knack for finding trouble. Now into adulthood, that much hadn't changed, except that these days she tended to go looking for it.
The rustic village of Crichton was normally quiet and empty, and today was no exception. The wind would heckle the trees, the rustling protests inescapable in a village so close to the coast. Birds would often cry out in strangled calls, echoed back by even stranger noises Ruby had trouble connecting to any existing animal. The sound of rain on the windows was a lullaby with which she had become all too familiar.
Occasionally, travellers drifted through. They would use the local bed and breakfast as a halfway point on their journeys, sticking around to recharge their batteries and then moving on to bigger, better things. Yes, it was quiet and empty. But the villagers of Crichton seemed to like it this way.
Just then, Ruby kicked something. A crate, lying abandoned in the alleyway. She jumped as it scraped along the concrete, startling the cat who shot out from behind as though its tail was on fire.
And then it was gone. Whatever it was, it was
Ruby jogged to keep warm. Her heart pounded in her chest and her arms prickled with goosebumps. Maybe she should be calling a vet. She'd never had any pets herself, but there was something that felt off about this animal. Then again, the chances of something that fast being injured had to be pretty small. Or… maybe she'd imagined the whole thing. Maybe she was chasing the neighbour's cat for no reason. Maybe, Crichton was already driving her crazy.
The wind picked up, throwing an icy blast at her back. Ruby tugged at her hood and crossed her arms, a violent shudder shooting down her spine. Personally, she wasn't keen on quiet. She was a city girl and more than anything, the eerie calm of the country just made her restless.
Glancing both ways before crossing the road was a habit that felt redundant here. Still, as she made it onto the curb and the pavement began to slope, Ruby found herself hoping with the will of an optimist that the cat had taken the next turn. It would pan out well for both of them. Now, where was it?
She glanced ahead, just in time to spot a kinked tail disappearing behind the faded bricks of Wishy Washy Laundrette. She grinned. Got you, kitty cat.
As Ruby swung around the corner in pursuit she braced herself, anticipating resistance. Then, she skidded to a halt.
The alley was empty. The only thing in the vicinity was a thin sheet of corrugated metal, propped against the boarded up walkway that blocked the path. Holding her breath Ruby edged forward, hand outstretched and ready to rip away the sheet. Careful now.
The rain drummed steadily against the metal, causing tension to creep into her muscles and fingers. Rain had begun to soak through the fabric of her hood and as something cold and wet trickled down the back of her neck, her body gave an involuntary shiver. As the moment dragged, doubt pricked at the back of her mind. It could something dangerous. She should probably let it be.
Ruby reacted with childish impulse, snatching it away from the wall in defiance — then did a double take.
She gawked at the solid wooden construction panel in front of her. House to her left, laundrette to her right. No way forward. No cat.
Ruby held the sheet of metal in her hands, staring at it 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
it go in and the only way out was back the way you came. It was a dead end. Yet, she reasoned as she stood frozen to the spot, the cat had disappeared into thin air.
Backtracking, Ruby turned and trudged back through the village. Let it go, she willed herself, pulling her soggy jacket around her tighter. There was really nothing more she could do. And Sandra was expecting her. As the welcome light of The Golden Spoke lit up the wet ground outside like a beacon, Ruby picked up her pace, eager to get into the warm, dry shelter 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.