- Malady Place – E101 “Meeting Miss Faust” Act 1
- Malady Place – E101 “Meeting Miss Faust” Act 2
- Malady Place – E101 “Meeting Miss Faust” Act 3
- Malady Place – E102 “The Roomie Rules” Act 1
- Malady Place – E101 “Meeting Miss Faust” Act 4
- Malady Place – E101 “Meeting Miss Faust” Act 5
- Malady Place – E101 “Meeting Miss Faust” Act 6
Winter fought against the fingers of terror threading their way through her brain. Knowing that it wasn’t natural helped, as did her training, but there was only so much a rational mind could do when up against irrational fear.
She couldn’t actually see what was coming at them but for motion in her peripheral vision, so she focused on Renee instead.
Her boss looked utterly gleeful at whatever she saw that Winter didn’t. The purple flames flickering at the end of her staff danced in her eyes and seemed to bleach her hair white. While her attention never shifted away from the ceramic dogs on the shelf, she flicked the staff toward whatever burst from beneath the couch.
A ball of cracking, blue energy exploded from the core of one of the staff’s flames and streaked like a slow motion bullet. The air rippled out in its wake until it struck something about four feet from the two nominal FBI agents. With a hollow thump, it exploded, its own magic both annihilating the magic obscuring the imp and sending it flying back against the wall.
It was then that Winter finally saw her first real-life imp. The FBI had artists’ renditions, but they had born little resemblance to the creature she saw writhing on the ground before her.
As best as she could describe it was as the result of someone stretching out a chihuahua, removing its ears and skin, then replacing its forelegs with human-ish arms ending in four-fingered hands and its rear feet with something like chicken claws.
Defying everything she and, by extension, her instructors were led to believe, the thing had no wings and didn’t appear to fly at all—not that she could tell while it was writhing around on the floor with patches of its dark, bluish skin smoldering.
Renee didn’t even give it another thought. Her free hand came up and she made a sign with her fingers that Winter imagined would require way more joints than a human hand had to make. Something squealed like a rat in a trap and disturbed ceramic cocker spaniels on the shelf before hitting the floor.
“These are even lower level than I thought.” Renee said in the midst of burgeoning laughter. All the while, she swept her wand off to Winter’s right, sending out a crescent of purple fire that caught and revealed two more imps in mid-air and ignited them.
Winter stepped closer to her new boss, looking around at the twitching monsters while trying to pick out more out of the corners of her eye. “H-how many more are there?”
“No idea.” said Renee. She snapped her fingers in the direction of the first downed imp and it squealed as its body unraveled into greasy, blue smoke that collapsed and spread out along the floor before dissipating. “We’re going to have to go room-to-room to make sure. Shouldn’t take more than twenty minutes.”
Three more snaps dispatched the other three imps, including the one that Winter never saw until it was already dissolved into smoke.
Winter’s nose twitched at the sharp, sour odor of the smoke. “Is there any way you can make it so I can see them? I feel kind of useless just standing here being made afraid and not able to do anything.”
“I don’t think the Crosbys would like you shooting up their house, Snowy.” Renee chided.
“But you were just throwing fire!” Winter said, then lowered her voice. “Also, I don’t have a service weapon. I don’t have authority over humans, so I haven’t been issued one.”
For a long moment, Renee just stared at her. “You don’t…” She lifted the burning tip of her staff to scratch her hairline. “And you don’t know black magic. How exactly were you going to help deal with the imps.”
Winter folded her arms. Without the effects of the imps’ fear frequency, she was feeling more confident, especially after seeing the imps dispatched so easily. “Just because I don’t know black magic doesn’t mean I can’t defend myself with spells.”
A frustrated sigh escaped Renee as she gave the room a careful once-over, checking behind the couch and lifting the lid on the piano. “Snowy, protecting yourself is one thing, but you don’t get rid of imps just by being hard for them to hurt. You have to destroy them.”
“That’s what I mean.” Winter followed along close behind, too distracted by her argument to aid in the search even if she was able to see anything. “Black magic just refers to curses or spells that do overt harm to an arbitrary target. There are plenty of spells that are direct, that target only what you’re aiming at and can’t possibly do collateral damage—those are allowed.”
Renee made snickered. “Do you know how easy those are to dispel or protect yourself from?”
“But they’re just imps, right?”
A moment passed where Renee’s focus was fixed on the space between the piano and the wall behind it. Winter tensed, expecting that to herald another imp attack. Instead, Renee took a deep breath and turned to face her. The demon’s eyes were bright and curious.
“You really just want to help, don’t you?”
Winter fought down a blush. “Just because it’s a family tradition doesn’t mean it was a requirement. I’ve got a brother who’s a CPA.” Unable to meet her boss’s gaze for long, she studied a collectable plate on a nearby shelf. “Also… I really hope I can accomplish more than fill a seat across from you are some Chinese restaurant.”
A smile Winter had no choice but to call ‘precocious’ touched Renee’s lips.
“Don’t be so haughty, partner; the Chinese food duty is one of the most sacred in my weekly life.” She made a show of cracking her neck before saying, “But alright: if you want to help so much, I’m not going to get in your way. There’s just one rule, Snowy: Don’t. Die.”
Before Winter could say anything to that, Renee’s free hand came up and grabbed her by the face. Judging by what the junior agent could feel, the other woman’s hand was at least twice as large as it should have been just by looking at it. The grip was firm, but not painful, just enough to make sure she didn’t fidget. That, incidentally, was more than enough to make Winter panic.
No matter how much she struggled, however, Renee’s grip was as unmoving as a mountain, her arm locked in place.
Through the spaces between the too-long, too-strong fingers, Winter saw Renee’s eyes burst with flames identical to the ones that adorned her staff. Her hair, once in the faux-professional bun fell loose around her head and writhed in the air such that no wind could have been responsible.
When Renee opened her mouth, her words were preceded by a heat that Winter thought might ignite her, though it caused no pain. Authoritative and strong, the demon’s voice pounded in the air and in Winter’s head.
“Oh child of mortal flesh and centered mind, cast off the veils wrapped around you and the film that covers your eyes. Reject thy protections of the mind and see that which is harsh and hidden. Pierce the false and leave illusion forever broken in your sight.”
At least that’s what Winter understood. What she heard was a tongue so terrible and ancient that she actively felt her brain skip over parts of it in self defense… at least at the beginning. The end, she heard with perfect clarity and every complete word of it felt like it was being tacked behind her eyes with white-hot nails.
And while she would never testify to ‘seeing’ anything, for a fraction of a second, she got the distinct impression of seeing and feeling tarnished silver and bronze flecked with rubies like grains of sand, of three faces that were one, all wrapped around a core of purest white fire somehow diminished by being removed from a larger, brighter flame that seemed ever distant, but omnipresent.
Then Renee let got and Winter stumbled back from her grasp, blinking.
“Sorry about that.” said Renee with a shrug, “I’m not used to casting things on people. I’m better when it comes to casting them at people.”
Winter squeezed her eyes closed, a constellation of stars playing before her eyes. “What did you cast on me?”
“I just punched some holes in your mind’s defenses. Lower level imp powers, like the growl are really just magic that preys on existing issues. They hide from your sight because your brain skips over certain things it can’t work out and their magic covers them in a combination of colors and angles that forces that to happen.”
“…And you’ve made it so my brain can’t do that anymore?”
“Just remember I wasn’t going to do it until you talked me into it.” said Renee. “So you can’t get mad.”
Winter slowly cracked open her eyes to find Renee looking at her like a child discovering a new animal for the first time, trying to decide whether to pick it up or poke it with a stick. “Why would I be mad?”
Renee averted her eyes. “No reason. Let’s make sure there’s no more imps in this place.”
It took Winter a moment to figure out the dodge and by then, Renee was on her way to the dining room. “Wait, no. Why would I be angry about this? What’s the side effect?”
She was so intent on following Renee that, when the other woman stopped in the arch between dining and living room, she almost ran into her back.
Her first impressions were from Renee’s reaction: the demon’s back straightened and every muscle tensed. Her hair fell flat, reminiscent of a dog’s tail being tucked between its legs. The flames on the end of her staff guttered briefly before reasserting themselves.
Then Winter peered around her superior saw him herself.
He was sitting atop the dining room table, legs crossed beneath him, elbows resting on his knees, and fists pressed together in front of his protruding ribs. At first blush, he might have been mistaken for a stereotypical beggar: all skin stretched over bone from starvation. Upon closer inspection, his lack of humanity was clear. His skin was the color and bore the liquidous sheen of clotted blood and was devoid of hair. Yellowish veins drew road maps across that strange hide, and pulsed with alien blood.
His head was grotesque: a large, beak, one shade lighter than the skin replaced his mouth and hung open just enough to display small, sharp teeth. The rest of his head were taken up by eyes the size of softballs that bulged slightly from the head. They were brown and luminous with pupils shaped like arrowheads.
“Snowy?” Renee said, knuckles whitening as she gripped her staff. “Run.”
The creature’s eyes rolled in its head. “’Snowy?” It croaked with a voice that echoed slightly. This was followed by a laugh like sandpaper being torn apart. “I would mock your skill at names, but your use of ‘Faust’ speaks for itself.”
Winter wondered what that was about, but her common sense already had her turning and preparing for a sprint for the door.
A door that was no longer there.
“Faust.” The creature parroted her with another tearing laugh. “Apologies, Miss Faust, but I found it unlikely that you would hear me out without some sort of leverage. It took you long enough to get a new pet.”
“No one wants to hear anything from you, Zaimiel.” Renee brought her staff up before her. “You or anyone else. Then again, if you’re stuck haunting a random muse’s home, I imagine someone higher up didn’t want to hear from you either.”
The creature, Zaimiel, huffed out twin juts of hot air through its beak. “As usual, you fail to understand. One of Mameion’s underlings has been sending the imps here. He reported your presence to the Lightbringer and the Lightbringer ordered me to bring an offer to you.”
Renee shifted her weight subtly, putting herself perfectly between Winter and Zaimiel. “The Lightbringer of all people ought to know I won’t work for him. It’d be like him serving the Throne again.”
“At least he remembers why he broke with the Throne. From what I’ve heard, you have no idea anymore.”
“That’s why I’m sane and you’re a chicken.” said Renee, whipping the staff forward and sending out a barrage of iridescent bolts of power.
Moving more than his eyes or mouth for the first time, Zaimiel raised one hand and swept it before him as if cleaning a window with a rag. The bolts slammed into an invisible screen and dissipated harmlessly.
“Is that why you are also so weak? I remember a time when I was afraid of you. Throne knows why Lightbringer thinks you’ll be of use to us now, in a war.”
Renee started to send another spell in his direction, but pulled herself up short. “War? I haven’t heard of any new wars popping up?”
Something deep inside Zaimiel rumbled. “That’s because it hasn’t started yet. But it is coming. Renegades who think they can break with Lightbringer and the laws that govern our realms. They’re here, gathering alliances and strength. Lightbringer wants you to find them and deliver them into his hands.”
Renee narrowed her eyes. “Lightbringer isn’t this stupid. At least I don’t remember him being this stupid. If anyone starts causing trouble around here, I’m going to put my foot down anyway. Lightbringer knows this. So why would he send my least favorite white meat to try and toss orders about it at me.”
She pointed the staff at Zaimiel. “There’s something you’re not telling me.”
Zaimiel clacked his beak and laughed. “If you were in your right mind, you would know we never question Lightbringer’s orders—except to find an angle of our own. All I’ve failed to tell you is that Lightbringer bestowed upon me the power to ensure you do what we want.
He raised a thick-fingered hand and a wheel of fire appeared above it. “By my power will thou cleave, by my word will you serve. Beast of burden with the gifts of great flesh, these bonds I do forge to both empower and enslave.”
At the last word, the flaming wheel launched toward Renee’s throat. She moved on instinct, sidestepping the attack with ease and celerity. It was only in the next instant that she realized she wasn’t the target in the first place.
By then, it was already too late and she could hear Winter screaming.
End Act 4