“–brings to five the number of Chicago police officers injured while off duty just this month. CPD spokesperson Micheal Howie denies any connection between these incidents and the ongoing crackdown against the terroristic Corbin Street Gang, which has been described as open war since the near fatal torture of CPD Sergeant James Lawson late last year. Howe also denied that last night’s assault on a presumed Corbin weapons cache was the work of the vigilante known as The Shade. If you will recall, the assault left eight alleged members of the notorious and brutal gang hospitalized, some in critical condition.”
The television clicked off.
“He’s getting worse,” Candace McCartney murmured to herself as she dropped the remote on her kitchen table and shifted her attention to what was taking up most of said table’s surface. She’d placed a paper map of Chicago, marked in red where confirmed reports of appearances by The Shade had taken place and in green where possible sightings had been reported, front and center. Next to it was a bowl of water scented by various herbs with a silver cross pendant at the bottom. There was also a small baggie of white sand, the lid off a peanut butter jar holding an aromatic oil, and a cheap pen knife she’d just purchased from the convenience store down the block.
There are two kinds of witches in the Hollywood style of things: striking exotic beauties who hid sorcerous deeds behind feminine wiles and hideous hags whose evil was rivaled only by their foulness.
Candace was best described as ‘cute’ with a round, youthful face, large brown eyes and a perpetual friendly look to her even with—as it was now—her face was creased by a worried expression.
But a witch was what she was; a self-taught practitioner who just happened to come across a book of spells that worked—a literal Book of Shadows. In a few short months, it had changed the way she saw the world. Tonight, she hoped she might use it to change the world itself for the better.
The first step, she mused as she extracted the cross pendant from the water bowl, was finding a man who was doing just that already—before he changed for the worse.
“Be careful with those! Those are rockets—rockets!” Bertram LeBlanc slammed the heel of his hand against the side of the truck his men were loading for emphasis, ignoring the fact that there were already boxes of grenades and rockets on board. “You want to make things explode or you want to be the one exploding? Think!”
He mopped sweat from his brow with his sleeve before adjusting the machine gun with under-slung grenade launcher where it hung at his side from a strap. “You see what idiots you send me as new recruits? All I ask is they follow orders and they’re throwing crates of rockets into the truck. Throwing.”
Beside him leaning against the truck, Melody Fries puffed on a vaporizer that emitted the scent of something sour and foul to Bertram’s nostrils. “These new young bucks,” she scoffed, “They’re here for big booms, not the message, not the business end of things, not even respect from the other gangs. They’d be just as happy shooting their loads in a rock quarry as they would be an art gallery or a parade. Verne says we must teach them, but I question if they want to be taught.”
They likely would have continued like that if every light in the warehouse hadn’t picked that moment to go out.
Fries had heard more than enough tales from her beaten and bruised comrades to know that this was no ordinary blackout. “Shit,” she muttered, “It’s a raid! Get the lights back on. Now!”
Somewhere in the depths of the warehouse, the sound of a generator coughing to life could be heard, but at the same time, men and women were crying out in pain and or surprise. Pools of light from weapon-mounted lights started to appear in the darkness, moving in erratic, frightened patterns. Then the screams started and there wasn’t even the shadow of a doubt anymore.
The Shade was there.
Hastily installed emergency lighting flickered on just as the first shots were fired. Neither Fries nor LeBlanc had much faith that they would turn the tide, but they might buy them time to escape. Without a word of communication, Fries moved toward the driver’s side of the truck and LeBlanc headed for the passenger’s.
Once, the Corbin gang thought they’d had the Shade figured out. They thought he was like them: a normal man big on the theatrics and making an example. Knocking out the light, they imagined, was just a scare tactic meant to confuse and intimidate. Then they’d seen him.
Out of the corner of his eye, LeBlanc watched as some… thing that was all black scales and spindly, wriggling legs rose up, ignoring the dozens of rounds of ammo being pumped into its body, and dragged a screaming man under its bulk, his screams cutting off abruptly as he disappeared.
The part that chilled him was that that wasn’t the most horrible thing he’d seen during a raid by Chi-town’s only known prelate.
On the other side of the truck, what Fries was seeing was less less horrifying and more surreal. A figure had dropped from the rafters and was gliding slowly toward her. It was most definitely a woman; dressed in a leather ankle-length dress with a single slit up the side and about a dozen matching belts with silver buckles wrapped from thigh to bust and soft knee-high boots. Most striking was the hat. She was wearing an honest-to god leather witch’s hat with a big, silver buckle front and center. A domino mask in the shape of a raven did a modest job of hiding her face.
Of course even the hat could have been overlooked thanks to the fact that she was riding sidesaddle atop a giant, black feather. A giant, black feather that was gradually picking up speed as it descended toward her.
Without a second thought, she raised her machine gun and opened up with a burst of fire while at the same time throwing open the truck’s door for cover.
In response, the figure swept the hat off her head, revealing a wild mane of black tresses before she lowered the hat point first. It seemed to expand to block her entire body from view as rounds bounced off it with hollow thuds. Seconds later, the feather struck the door and ripped it cleanly off its hinges, slamming it backward into Fries and sending her sprawling. Her head met concrete and she was out of the fight before it even began properly.
LeBlanc saw it all with wide-eyed disbelief. Not wanting to take a chance, he pulled open the passenger door and fired a grenade round through the cab at his attacker.
She barely looked, flipping the hat around again and catching the grenade round in it. There was no sound. No detonation. The round simply disappeared into the depths of the hat and ceased to be. After which the assailant jauntily donned her headgear once more.
From the voluminous sleeves of her dress, she then produced a foot-long length of tapered wood that looked for all the world like a cartoon character’s version of a magic wand. With a single wave, a flock of blackbirds sprang into existence and immediately swarmed over LeBlanc, pecking and scratching.
He flailed around, screaming and dropping his gun, then fled into the warehouse, best by a screeching avian cloud.
Wrapped in layers of glamour that changed her entire appearance, Candace had to smile to herself. For a first outing, things were going well.
Then she turned around to look for either more gangsters to dispatch or the Shade to confront and immediately thought of the old adage about being careful what you wish for.
He appeared before her as a towering thing—less a man or even a humanoid figure and more an area of space where existence simply failed. There was nothing there, not even shadow and it was disconcerting even for Candace, who felt she had a handle on what was really going on.
“Who are you.” Not a question. Somehow it felt more like a void that demanded the answer so as to fill itself.
Candace steeled herself, pressing her lips together and mentally counting to ten to slow her heart rate. “I didn’t think your illusions included sound. Is there anything else I might have been wrong about, Sergeant?”
The silence he responded with initially was no less terrible than his voice when he did reply. “How did you know I would come here?”
“I doubt you would believe it if I told you.” As much as she was certain the Shade, aka James Lawson, was an illusion caster, Candace didn’t think he was casting her kind of illusions. She’d yet to see proof that anyone in town but herself was capable of using magic. Most likely, she figured her was a descendant: someone whose powers allegedly stemmed from the old super soldier projects performed during World War II over one hundred and thirty years earlier.
“Then I don’t have a lot of reason to believe you when I ask why you’re here rousting the Corbins. For example: whether or not you’re part of a rival gang.” The Shade make a point to loom over her.
Candace stayed her ground. “It’s your choice whether or not to believe me. But the god’s honest truth is that I’m on your side… conditionally.”
“Conditionally?” Some of the menacing effect dropped out of his tone thanks to the sheer surprise of what he’d just heard.
She bowed her head. “Conditionally. I’ve been following your career this past year. Don’t worry about your identity—there’s very little chance someone else could do with I did—and I like what you’re trying to do.” That said, she lifted her chin and looking him in the chest where she imagined his real eyes were. “But the past few weeks, I can’t say I like where you’re going. You’re not striking them to disable or disarm anymore. That’s all you need to do thanks to your illusions after all. No, you’re swinging to hurt them. Bad. Some of the guys from the other night might not live.”
Having said her piece, she rocked back on her heels and waited for a response. None came. The hulking shape merely hunched into itself.
After a full minute, Candace had had enough. “Don’t you care!?” she shouted at him. “Or do you think they deserve it? I saw what they did to you and it was horrible—horrible enough that I understand why you started this crusade, but… but it’s not horrible enough to justify becoming like them. Or fueling them. The Corbins thrive on escalation. You know that. Do you want things to get better or worse? Or does it matter as long as you get revenge?”
Anger was flowing through her by then, making shaky the concentration she had on maintaining her glamour. Some of her belts seemed to go out of focus or change positions across her body.
The Shade reciprocated by allowing the eye-scrambling void of his appearance soften into a mere form of shadow. “It didn’t start as being about revenge… and it shouldn’t become that way either. You’re right. Perhaps I’ve done enough and I ought to give up before I actually do go too far—or before I get to enjoy it.”
Calm started to leak in as Candace heard not the voice of some dark, omniscient god saying those words, but a man—a defeated man. “I… don’t think that’s the answer. It’s not the answer I came here to offer, at least. I figured maybe you needed someone to look out for you—tell you when you were getting off the script, you know?”
After a moment’s thought, she extended her hand. “Plus, I figured that even with your amazing illusions, taking on the Corbins isn’t exactly a one-man job. I’m… a little new to this of course. You at lhave a year of vigilante work on me, not to mention your time on the force. That’s why I’m willing to accept a junior partnership. Just call me your Apprentice.”