Brass Bulls

In Blood Hound, Lucy uses some minor summoning skills to gain information from the spirit world. It;s typical for the genre, and key to some series, but I never intended for her to keep doing it. She’s going to lose that option by the second book, and this story explains exactly why, while also giving a little more scene time to an extremely important character, and even tossing in some bonus foreshadowing for a lot of things.

This story takes place shortly after Blood Hound.

I normally never paid attention to the news, because it rarely affected the supernatural world, but this was different. There was no way what happened was mundane.

They robbed the maternity ward. The entire maternity ward. How does someone do that? Just load babies into a wheelbarrow? Stack them in the laundry cart? Stuff them in a sack? Horrible, morbid jokes for something so full of genuine misery. I hated myself for thinking of them.

I paced up and down my apartment, frantic. I had to help. I had to do something.

I kept remembering my own kids, now gone nearly eight centuries. Why was memory like that? It was another life – literally – and there was nothing I could do. Nothing anybody could do during those riots. But still, the guilt, the longing need remained. But it wasn’t about me. My own feelings of grief and loss were one thing, but the present problem was another entirely. I was intimately familiar with the pain that a lot of parents were experiencing at that moment. And I had to stop it. I had to spare them. I had to save their children. Saving people was what I did. It was what I am.

I had already called my friends in the police department, and Tony had said the worst thing I could have imagined.

“I’m sorry,” he had said. “We don’t have anything.”

And that was that. Nothing captured on security cameras, no witnesses, nothing. The babies were there, and then they weren’t. It couldn’t have been more obviously supernatural if the kidnappers had left a bloody pentagram behind.

And yet, I had no idea where to go. Nor where to start looking, for that matter.

I eyed the brass vessel on my desk, the one I mostly used to store pencils. With some chalk, candles, and incense, I could use it. Call something up from beyond, maybe a tiny knowledge spirit, and see what it could tell me. It had sort-of worked with Caacrinolaas, even if it had gotten the demon’s attention early.

What was there to lose?

Okay, stupid question, but in all seriousness, the consequences of doing nothing far outweighed the stakes of doing something dangerous. It had gone poorly last time, but those circumstances were also quite different. I had attempted to summon and trap Caacrinolaas in the middle of his rampage, only for a different demon to intercept the call and show up. And I wasn’t going to call a demon. That would be stupid.

There was a minor knowledge spirit named Byblos who had helped me in the past. He’d probably be worth a try again. I left the brass vessel where it was – this wasn’t a demon, there was no need for something like that – and got a tiny rubber effigy, instead. I had bought a bunch of little rubber monsters from a vending machine years ago, and they served as a way to restrict almost any spirit to an easily-manageable form. “Most” being the key word. It kept little thigns like Byblos for sure, but Caacrinolaas or that other demon would never need the anchor to appear in the first place. Yet another reason to go small.

Vampires learned magic. It wasn’t even a dedicated thing, most immortals picked up bits and pieces of how to manipulate the supernatural after a while. I knew some basics, though I could identify way more than I could actually perform. And this wasn’t terribly risky. It was a tiny summoning, for a tiny spirit. Low risk for comparatively low reward. Byblos could hold a conversation and answer some questions, with the quality of the latter depending on the rapport of the former. Comparatively simple. More powerful spirits could provide so much more – the reason why people summoned demons was because they promised unlimited knowledge, respect or animosity, or any variation of what one’s heart desired. The problem was that you were trusting unimaginable evil to help you.

I set up candles, an offering of incense, a chalk circle, and one of the tiny effigies. I forced myself to take my time with the incantation, even though the desperation I felt that led me to this was maddening. But to be honest, a couple of hours more probably wouldn’t make any difference at this point. They were babies. Their captors had plenty of opportunity to do whatever they were going to do, and I had the choice of taking the time for this ritual, or doing nothing at all.

Still. Waiting hurt. It always did.

Okay, candles lit. Circle drawn. Incantation spoken. Everything in place. This was the point where Byblos’s arrival would be announced my a small, quiet breeze, and then we could get down to business. He’d give me an annoyingly vague answer, and I’d use it to piece together the case and save a few dozen lives. Simple.

I mentally counted the time as it passed. Thirty seconds after the end of the ritual. Forty. A minute. At two minutes, I began to feel nervous again. Spirits took time to appear if they were already busy, but Byblos had a fairly decent track record so far. Still, I had nothing but time. I could wait.

Five minutes.

Six.

I felt a breeze rush through the inn and looked back at the tiny effigy in the circle.

“Byblos,” I said. “I have summoned you for a purpose.”

The circle changed, its lines and symbols shifting, transforming into a wholly different design. I recognized the seal just before a being emerged, casually flicking the rubber effigy away.

“Oh, you poor sweet child,” I knew that voice. I wished I hadn’t. “You knew this was a bad idea, didn’t you?”

I turned and faced Amon, Marquis of Hell.

Fallen angels operated under a strange and complicated hierarchy. Despite such ranks as Marquis, Duke, or Earl, they were also divided into different sub-groups. The Kings of Hell were on top, of course, as the inheritors of Lucifer’s Crown. Among the orders and divisions beneath them were the seventy-two Goetic demons, the Demons of Solomon. Legend ha it that wise King Solomon summoned and controlled demons, which made themselves available to summoners ad occultists in the future. Of course, these demon were also responsible for unimaginable pain and misery.

As for Amon, I had met him once already. I wasn’t eager to do so again.

His body was a strange chimaeric combination of animal parts – the head of an owl, the body and front paws of a wolf, and a long serpent’s tail instead of legs. His beak had teeth. Shark’s teeth. It sounded goofy, but there was a subtle wrongness to his form that kept me uneasy.

His eyes were solid golden orbs, metallic and dead, and as they focused on me, Amon’s beak bent into a grin.

“Well?” he asked. “Aren’t you going to say anything?”

I backed away from the protective circle surrounding the demon, and kicked over the candles, snuffing enough of them to break my summoning spell, and sever the spiritual connection keeping him here.

Amon ignored the candles and crossed the circle as if it weren’t there. I dove for my holstered gun on the coat rack, only for the demon to easily intercept me, shoving me to the wall with a single wolf’s paw. He pinned me and leaned in, that golden gaze now taking up most of my vision.

“Sit,” he said. “Stay.”

I jammed my knee into whatever I could reach. Without a groin to strike, I just hit snake’s scales. But I followed it up immediately, elbowing Amon in the chest. He frowned lightly and flung me over his shoulder, across my apartment. I hit my couch and bounced off, landing sprawled on the floor behind it.

“It’s very hard to hold a civil conversation when you are trying to hit me,” Amon said, slithering over to me and closing the distance before I could get up.

I rolled, jumping to my feet in time to catch a light flick of his tail which knocked me back on my ass again.

“Are you quite done?” he asked.

I looked up at the demon, and tried to gauge my options. Clearly, punching my way out of this wasn’t going to work. If I wanted to get to my gun, I’d probably have to swap the ammo already in there for sacred bullets, and I didn’t think he was going to give me that much time.

“So, what?” I asked. “You want to talk, fine. Hi, I’m Lucy, and you’re a piece of hell-stained demon shit. Okay, conversation’s over, you can go home now.”

Amon chuckled. “Did you kiss your children with that mouth?”

I launched at the demon again. He simply moved out of my way, and kept moving as I tried to hit him.

“I don’t feel like fighting today,” Amon said. “So I would prefer if you did not force me.”

I ran away from him, dashing to the bookcase in the corner. The brass vessel. Maybe he was tethered to it. If I could knock it down, or do something to interrupt–

I slammed face-first against the bookshelves. A force pressed me against them, crushing me so hard that I could barely breathe.

“Is violence your only language, Miss Lucia?” the demon asked from across the room, watching me from across the room.

I turned my head to the side,away from the books. “Get out of my house,” I said.

The force shifted, turning me around so that my back was against the bookshelf. Amon slithered up in front of me.

“You forgot to say please,” he said.

“I didn’t,” I said. “I just choose not to. Any invitation you think you had is revoked. I am casting you outside of my house.”

Amon picked up my brass vessel, and dumped the pencils out of it. He turned it around in his paw-like hands.

“They say not to bring up what you can’t put down,” he said. “But it’s not about what you bring up. When you open a door, my friend,you have to expect something to come through.”

“I didn’t summon you,” I said. I still couldn’t move underneath his will. I could run my fingers along the books I was pressed against, but that was about it.

“No, I sought you out,” Amon said. He set the brass vessel back down. “I have an offer to make you. Are you willing to listen, or are you going to curse at me like a child again?”

“Whatever it is, I’m not going to listen,” I said. “My soul’s not for sale.”

“I don’t want your soul,” Amon said, and began to look around the room. He started touching my books, pulling them out one by one halfway to read the cover, and then putting them back again. “Why would I? Souls are worthless on their own.”

“Whatever it is, I’m not agreeing to it,” I said.

He turned, and looked at me again. My heart froze under that golden gaze.

“I’ll give you what you want,” Amon said.

I rolled my eyes.

“The only thing that you want,” he said. “Tell me, when you can’t sleep, when you toss and turn and your heart aches, what is it that you need?”

“Nothing that you can provide,” I said.

“Oh, can I?” Amon asked. A glimmer shone across his golden eyes, a moment of reflected light on the cold metal.

Not without a time machine, but there was no way he could know that. He was likely guessing, cold-reading me, or using information he had gleaned from watching me recently. Or perhaps less than recently, I didn’t want to think about it.

“Just stop,” I said. “Let me go. I’m not going to agree to serve you for anything.”

“Serve me?” Amon asked, leaning uncomfortably close. “Oh no, no, no. I don’t need servants, either. I don’t really need very much. But this isn’t about need.”

“You won’t get what you want, either,” I said. “I don’t work for demons.”

“I’m not asking you to work,” Amon said, and grinned again. “I’m not even tempting you. This is a very simple offer, with very little commitment on your part. All you have to do is say yes. Work with me, not for me – or perhaps don’t even work at all. With me, every decision is voluntary.”

I looked away.

“Invite me into your heart, and do what thou wilt,” he said. “I’ll be your Jesus, your Crowley, your Moses, your Muhammad. I’ll be your Buddha and your Nirvana. I’ll be your savior, your friend, and your neighbor. With me, you can get what you want and what you need. You can have your satisfaction.”

“Just shut up,” I said. I ran my fingers over my books out of desperation to distract myself.

Amon leaned even closer, enough hat I could feel his feathers tickling against my ear.

“I know you’ve read the lore,” he said. “You have Johann Wier on your shelf. Do you remember what he wrote?”

I took in a deep breath, and closed my eyes. “’The strongest prince of all other,” I said. “And understandeth of all things past and to come, he procureth favor, and reconcileth both friends and foes, and ruleth forthy legions of devils.’ Yeah, I’ve read it. And I don’t care about your services. I know what you are.”

“What I am is the one who can restore to you all that you’ve lost,” he said. “Love, family, faith – why worship an uncaring god, when you can have a trusted friend? Lucy December, born Lucia bat Belaset. Cursed, abandoned, unloved. My child, I understand you. I will give you a home. A family. I will find love for you. And I don’t even ask for obedience.”

What did he think he was doing? Was he pretending that he could bring my husband and kids back from the dead? Was he offering to find me new ones? Why the hell was I even thinking about this?

“Do you doubt me?” Amon asked. “I, who crossed your magic defenses like they were nothing? I, who know you inside and out? Do you want a little demonstration? A tiny taste of what I can do for you as your friend?”

“No,” I said, but he did it anyway. A vision flashed through my mind in fraction of a second, a cacophony of pictures and clashing sound, filling my brain too fast for me to process. I jerked, banging the back of my head against the bookshelf, and my knees buckled. Whatever power Amon used to keep me pinned did not keep me from falling, and I slid down onto my rear.

“Your brain needs time to sort it out,” he said. “But in the meantime, I want an answer. What do you have to say?”

Something burned my hand. I pulled back, startled out of the moment. But then I reached back again, and felt that painful, uncomfortable heat. There was only one thing on my bookshelf that could do that to me.

I grabbed the Bible, and opened it. It wasn’t my old family Torah, that was buried in a lockbox. It wasn’t even a newer copy of the Law, or the Tanakh – the holiness of my own Jewish scriptures would cause too much damage left out in the open. But it was a Bible, and even diluted by the different faith attached to it, was still enough to burn me.

“Behold, how good and pleasant it is when brothers dwell in unity,” I said through the pain. “It is like the precious oil on the head, running down on the beard, on the beard of Aaron, running down on the collar of his robes.”

“Are you quoting the Psalms at me?” Amon asked.

I turned the pages almost at random, the pain making my hands numb.

“Arise, O Lord,” I read. “Save me, O my God! For you strike all my enemies on the cheek, you break the teeth of the wicked.”

“You’re wasting your effort,” Amon said. “Your god doesn’t help cursed sinners like you.”

“I cried aloud to the Lord,” I read. “And he answered me from his holy hill.”

“Do you think you’re holy?” Amon asked. “You drink the blood of the living. You live because not even death could stomach you. Violent, filthy-minded, a practitioner of the occult – why, precisely, do you expect to be heard?”

The pages slipped between my burnt fingers, as I lacked the strength to hold the book properly. But I kept reading.

“With my voice I cry out to the Lord,” I said. “With my voice I plead for mercy to the Lord. I pour out my complaint before him, I tell my trouble before him.”

“Be quiet,” Amon growled, leaning, his beak with those razor teeth coming closer and closer to my face. I felt a moment of strength in my charred, wracked hands, and held the book open as I kept reading.

“When my spirit faints within me,” I said. “You know my way! In the path where I walk they have hidden a trap for me. Look to the right and see: there is none who takes notice of me; no refuge remains to me; no one cares for my soul.”

“That’s right,” Amon said. “You have nothing. Nobody. Except for me. I will care for you, Lucy. I will provide all that your god denies.”

“I cry to you, O Lord,” I continued. “I say, ‘You are my refuge, my portion in the land of the living.’ Attend to my cry, for I am brought very low. Deliver me from my persecutors, for they are too strong for me. Bring me out of prison, that I my give thanks to your name.”

“He won’t,” Amon whispered into my ear.

The pages slipped in my fingers again. I could smell my burnt flesh in the air. The demon was so close that he was nearly on top of me, pressed over my tiny, weak body. And yet, I read another verse.

“I know that the Lord will maintain the cause of the afflicted,” I said. “And will execute justice for the needy.”

“You will never be rid of me!” Amon suddenly shouted, the angry rasp of his voice hurting my ears. “Never! I will have you!”

The page turned one more time, and I read.

“The Lord watches over the sojourners,” I said. “He upholds the widow and the fatherless. But the way of the wicked he brings to ruin.”

The demon lunged, as if pouncing me. I saw a flash of his golden eyes, his shark’s teeth, of feather and fur and scales, but then he was gone. At the moment when he would have passed through me, Amon vanished.

“Praise the Lord, O my soul,” I read to the empty room. “I will praise the Lord as long as I live; I will sing praises to my God while I have my being.”

And then I dropped the book from my burned hands, and passed out.

I awoke face-down on the floor. My body ached, but my hands felt a tiny bit better. Holy damage took longer to heal as a rule. The Bible laid next to me, but I couldn’t muster up the strength to pick it up and put it back on the shelf. Maybe it would keep protecting me from where I was.

I dragged myself to my feet. My head throbbed. I wasn’t going to fool myself, there was no way Amon was defeated. I hadn’t exorcised him, I annoyed him until he went away. I’d see him again. That was twice he had intercepted my attempts at summoning something else. He hadn’t been as enthusiastic about tempting me the first time, but I still couldn’t ignore it. He knew who I was. He somehow knew my history. And he clearly wanted me for something.

I could feel the information that Amon had blasted me with unfolding in my head. He was right, I just needed time to process it. This was twice that he helped me with a case.

I didn’t want his help. Maybe that was why he forced it on me. A violation I couldn’t resist. What was I going to do? Ignore the information, and doom a couple dozen children?

I sat on my couch, which was perfectly situated in my living room, thank you very much. When not compressed into a single jumble, the blast of sounds and images made more sense. A driving trance beat. Flashing lights. Sweaty, hyper crowds.

Qube. One of my least favorite places to go in the city, and apparently they had something to do with it. Qube was a loud nightclub in the middle of town that, although ostensibly mundane, was seen as sort of a “safe place” for supernatural beings. It was also a loud, annoying temple of hedonism. And I hated the music.

Well, on the bright side, maybe I could get the place shut down.

I checked the clock, and it was past sunrise. This limited my options for the next twelve or so hours, but there was at least one thing I could do. I left Tony a voice mail. Lt. Anthony Ortiz knew all about the supernatural, had been a friend of mine for years, and basically ran the station at night. He was off-shift, and probably asleep, but at least I could get the wheels turning.

“Hey, Tony,” I said. “It’s about the babies. I think Qube has something to do with it. The nightclub. Don’t ask how I’d know, it was very weird, and I’m tired. I know it’s not much to go on, but see if your guys can find any connections. I’ll go check it out tonight, myself. I hope this helps.”

I hung up, and then went to soak my hands. I filled my sink with cool water, and began to scrub. The ash flaked off as the damage healed, leaving my hands raw and sore, but functional. I closed my eyes, and felt myself beginning to drift away again, but caught myself before I lost my balance. Weariness suffused my entire body, and I leaned over the sink, my bones aching. So much terror, so much fear, and so much holiness.

I stripped off, drew a bath, and relaxed into the water.

So, when I couldn’t sleep, when I tossed and turned and my heart ached, what kept me up? I used to be human, a long time ago. And I had a family. I lost them in the same riot that claimed so many of my people, on the same night that I was cursed. When England expelled its Jews, I had already left, secure in the arms of the first vampire I had ever known. So, who did I miss most? Jacob, my old husband? The children he gave me? Cyrus, my vampire ex-husband?

All of them?

How about my God? I clung to whatever faith I could, but there was no doubting that Amon’s words struck deep. But I couldn’t let myself believe them. Faith was about truth – truth that existed even when you couldn’t see or feel it. And God had protected my people even in exile.

No, I wouldn’t be taking Mr. Demon up on his offer any time soon.

I stayed in the tub until the water cooled, then refilled it and relaxed for another round. Afterward, I toweled off and bundled myself in bed to catch a few hours of sleep until evening. Sleeping when stressed was the human equivalent of rebooting a computer, but it certainly worked.

Though I could have used someone else in there with me. Not for sex, not when I ached so much, but just to hold. You never realized how much comfort another body was until you didn’t have one. Well, I could turn myself into a blanket-burrito, which was almost as good.

And I slept. A few short hours of peace and healing before I had to follow a demon’s lead to save some children.

I got up shortly before the sun went down, and got myself ready. I realized that I couldn’t take a gun into a nightclub, not in light of recent history. If there was trouble waiting for me, I’d have to figure out another way around it.

I drove to Qube as soon as the sun went down, found decent parking four blocks from the club, and made my way over to it. I was semi-surprised to see a police car parked nearby. The police car parked nearby meant that Tony had gotten my message. The next pleasant surprise came when I saw who he had sent.

“Reed,” I said.

Officer Vincent Reed. Good guy all around. Tough, loyal, competent, and he had already lived through one demon attack without losing his mind or taking early retirement. Also, I had asked him out once on a whim, and we hadn’t done anything about that yet, but I kinda liked his smile a little bit.

“Oh hey, Lucy,” he said. We were standing across the street from the club, outside of the line to get in. “The lieutenant told me you’d probably be here.”

“Yeah, but I don’t need a warrant to get in,” I said. “So, what happened? I guess you guys found something?”

“They have a few employees who also work at the same hospital,” he said. “So it’s a matter of a few basic questions. Nothing much yet. Why did you call?”

“You wouldn’t believe it if I told you,” I said.

“I’ve learned to believe a lot of new things,” Reed said.

“A demon tried to bribe me into following it, and gave me a tip as a freebie,” I said. “Don’t worry, I didn’t take the bait. But a tip’s a tip, right?”

“Do you think it was trustworthy?” he asked.

“We’ll find out,” I said. “While you’re questioning them, I’ll be poking around backstage.”

“Do you want to meet up after, unofficially?” he asked.

“To compare notes?” I asked. “Sure. In fact, I’ll text you if I get in trouble or something.”

“Well, that too,” he said.

“Oh,” I said, and smiled. “Oh, yeah. Sure.”

He returned the grin. “All right. Well, I have business inside. We’ll discuss your breaking and entering later.”

“Yes, sir,” I said.

Well, I had to admit, that was a plus. Maybe not enough to make up for kidnapped babies and satanic threats, but it was definitely something.

Turning into a bat wouldn’t have worked. A flying bat in a nightclub? I’d get Ozzied in thirty seconds or less. So, I stood in line with everybody else, paid the cover fee, and made my way inside.

The sheer noise did more than annoy me, it gave me a headache. I understood that other people enjoyed it, but that did not mean I had to be any less of a curmudgeon. It was funny, really. Maybe I could listen to this kind of music at home, with the volume turned down a little. Or if someone I cared about loved it, I’d give it a listen. But this, this was different. Everything about it was an annoying mess. I wove my way through the crowds, trying to ignore anything that might distract me. I could smell the drugs in one dancer’s bloodstream. I could sense a pair of werewolves in the corner, scoping out the other attendees for targets. That was close to what I needed to focus on, though not quite there.

There was a feeling associated with heavy supernatural activity – hauntings, demons, and the like. Ordinary mortals usually just stayed away, naturally diverting from danger zones. The rest of us could feel it in the air, a sort of subtle wrongness that served as a fantastic warning alarm. This club wasn’t entirely mundane, but I tried to focus and see if there was anything worse going on behind the scenes. Anything I could latch on to and follow, like a trail of breadcrumbs. If I concentrated, I could open my senses more to the supernatural, and perhaps get a better feel for the area. Something involving babies would leave a definite imprint. Hell, it could probably be seen from space.

A man walked by. He looked ordinary – fairly attractive, not too special, probably worked out a little – but carrying an aura so dark that it nearly knocked me out. I stumbled and caught myself, then turned around to watch him go.

He stopped, looked back, and winked at me. That was all. But he knew me, and that tiny, momentary gesture communicated it all. Just who was he? What was he?

He stepped into the crowd out of sight, and I forgot what he looked like.

Right there. Occupational hazard.

I shook it off and began to creep my way to the edge of the club, looking for a way back into the offices, or maybe a service entrance. Places like this had to have storage space somewhere. For furniture and decorations, that is. I wasn’t going to go looking in the freezer. Well, not yet, at least.

I found what I was looking for in the back, by the bar. Small and easy to miss, mostly inaccessible to the clientele, and fairly regularly used. And with that, I had another problem. How, exactly, was a five-foot-tall gal in a trench coat going to sneak through a NO ADMITTANCE doorway? In a crowded nightclub?

“You could steal one of the staff uniforms.”

I turned around. “Who said that?”

But there was nobody. Of course. Or whoever had said that could have melted back into the crowd, this was a weird enough night already.

“Threaten somebody. They’ll let you through.”

I looked around again. Still nothing.

“Take it. Take it if you want it hard enough.”

Yeah, no. I decided to ignore it, and study the doorway again. Stealing a uniform was a cartoonishly bad plan. Bluffing or threatening my way through also had obvious flaws. I decided to get a drink and act like a customer while I waited. It had to be less suspicious than staring at the door, right?

I sat at the bar. Alcohol can affect vampires, though it takes a metric ton to do anything. We’re awesome on dates, is what I’m saying. But in my case, it gave me a chance to think while looking busy. Maybe I could turn into a bat and slip through when the door opened. Terribly slim margin for error, but not impossible.

“Do it. Do what you want. Take it.”

I sighed, and rubbed at my forehead. “Okay, whatever you are,” I said. “This is small potatoes. You don’t even know what I’m trying to do, do you? You’re just tossing out generic ‘do it’ temptation, and it’s kind of annoying whatever you are.”

It responded with several seconds of silence before a quiet, halfhearted, “Just do it.”

“Right, right,” I said. “Well, okay, look. You’re really not worth my time right now. You’re annoying. Someone kidnapped an entire maternity ward’s worth of babies, and there’s a chance that someone working here is somehow responsible. I’ve already had to fend off a Grand Marquis of Hell. I have no clue what kind of penny-ante tempter or trickster you are, but you’ve got nothing on any of the shit that’s going on right now. So please, leave me alone while I think.”

I had about a minute’s peace before my mysterious would-be tempter spoke up again.

“The next employee to walk through that door will forget and leave it open,” it said. “Then another one will yell at them. Turn into a bat and fly through before somebody bothers to close it.”

“Huh?” I blinked. “Really?”

“It’s babies,” the voice said.

“Well, thanks, I guess,” I said.

I made sure to pay for my drink, and then waited. Sure enough, the next person to come through the door left it open. And their obvious supervisor started lecturing. Almost as if somebody crept over their shoulders, giving really bad advice. I got up, purposefully strode near the door, glanced left and right one more time, and turned into a bat.

“Thanks,” I said just before changing. Once tiny, I fluttered up and over the door, and out of the noise and chaos.

The door slammed right behind me, as apparently one of the employees did his or her job. I was left alone in a brightly-lit hall, the muffled beat of the music throbbing deep in the background. Well, time to get to work.

I put some distance between myself and the door, turning human and heading down the hallway. I figured I had a very brief window before staff found me, so I needed to get off the beaten path. I kept my senses out, hoping to sense enough supernatural wrongness to pick up a trail.

I went the route of one of the fire exits, finding a stairwell. Storage downstairs, admin upstairs. Typical building. Downstairs. Downstairs felt wrong, which in this case was right. This was different than working on a hunch, at least. Maybe I could make some headway instead of wandering aimlessly around.

Why was it so empty down here? This was a fully-staffed, successful business. Forget the storage space, I could see where the janitorial staff kept all their gear, and there was no way they were taking the night off.

Empty.

And feeling creepier with every step.

The feeling was stronger underground. Palpable. I followed it now, focusing almost at the expense of anything else. But I had to be careful. This was getting weird really fast. Nothing about the situation made any sense. Why here? Why this place? Were the owners in on it? Was it a coincidence? And why were there two drumbeats?

The muffled sounds from upstairs still carried down to the basement, sure. But the second beat was unmistakable. A single, driving rhythm, running in sync with a heartbeat. And before long, I couldn’t even hear the sound from upstairs, either. Drums, drums in the deep, right?

I followed the rhythm until it drowned out all else, almost a better guide than that creepy feeling. I began to regret not bringing any weapons, even though I knew I wouldn’t have gotten this far with them.

A single locked door, painted pitch black against the wall. And above it, a small plaque. It resembled Qube’s stylized Cube logo, only the lines seemed oddly different. I leaned up, trying to get a good look at it. This would have been easier had I not been roughly Hobbit-sized.

It looked almost like a cubist version of the Chicago Bulls mascot. Weird, that. And certainly nowhere else in the club. The drums were definitely coming from behind this door, too. I tried the handle, and the door was no less locked than it had been a moment ago. But it had a traditional keyhole, and I had brought some lock picks with me.

So, here was the moment of truth. Should I call Reed? Keep things on the up and up? He was already in the building. Or I could just pick the lock, barge in, and hope for the best. Maybe there was a bin full of kidnapped babies just inside, right? Surely it wouldn’t be illegal breaking and entering if I were instantly proven right.

I closed my eyes, and thought about it for a moment. Maybe I could knock. You know, act all innocent, ask if they had any kidnapped babies inside.

No, this was insane. This whole thing was insane. I wasn’t going to find a maternity ward full of babies in the basement of a weird-ass nightclub. I was crazy for listening to a demon, as if he would actually give a genuine tip. For all I knew, Amon was in on it, and leading me in circles as a cruel joke. It seemed like him, didn’t it?

I leaned up against the door, and listened. Fair compromise. Maybe there was something behind the drumbeat. Something I could work with.

“Amon, if you were lying, I swear I’ll kick your scaly ass,” I muttered.

Drums. Right. Pretty annoying, but I had to listen past it.

Conversation. Crowd-sized. So, there were people inside. It sounded like a party.

And faintly, in the background, crying babies.

Well, shit.

Pick the lock? Pound on the door? Scream? What if it was innocent? Like, just a few moms with their kids, enjoying a staff party?

No. Hell, no. Very, very obviously no. So, I needed to do something, and fast.

I grabbed my lock picks, but first I pulled out my phone. And I slowed down enough to send a coherent text.

Vince, I’m downstairs. Go to the basement, past the janitor stuff, and follow the drumbeats. Black door in the back. I need you. This is bad. I really, really need you. May have found the babies. Help.

And then I started picking the lock. Hey, maybe if I just opened the door and came in, they’d assume I had a key and belonged there. Or maybe not. But I heard that cry. That one cry. And it was real, dammit.

The door handle turned on its own, and I jumped back.

A completely ordinary-looking man came through, his head turned away from me as he talked to the people inside. The loudness of the drumbeats inside almost drowned out his speech.

“Yeah, I gotta go take a leak,” he said. “Don’t start the party without–”

I rushed in low, using my smaller height to flip him behind me as I scrambled into the room.

It was a party. It was very clearly a party in a repurposed warehouse room, complete with a snack table and open bar. And the people in attendance? About ten people were in attendance, a decent mix of businessmen and party bros, all male, not all white. The drummer was actually one of the business types, sans jacket and tie. The only person wearing something even vaguely resembling cultist garb was the obvious leader, standing further in the back. He, of course, held a tome. The statues flanking him also identified just what kind of gathering this was. Religion could unify people from any background, but usually it was good faith.

Cows. The décor was all about cows. A cattle-headed centerpiece on the table. Plaques like the one over the door, lining the walls. At the end of the room were two bull-headed statues, one standing and one seated. The standing statue held up a single hand in a symbol of benediction. The other as seated on a throne, its hands held out just over its hollow belly. The stomach was open, filled with burning coals, the firelight reflecting off the brass surfaces of both statues. It was a furnace, designed to heat those hands, which had begun to take on an unsettling orange glow.

And then, only then, I noticed the babies. A large penned-off area, like a massive crib. Babies lined up in their own personal baskets, arranged in a neat grid. And I knew immediately what they were there for.

Not all demons were part of the hierarchies. Certain ones, such as Azazel, Adramelech, or Moloch, preferred to work on their own. Some posed as gods. Others commanded armies. Some caused natural disasters. I had never met one, personally, and I never wanted to.

Moloch called himself a god. He took many names, but only the ancient Hebrews knew him for what he was. He often appeared as a god, and demanded sacrifice – not just offerings, oh no, Moloch could only be placated by sacrificing what was most dear.

And about thirty or so of the city’s “most dear” were penned up, ready for sacrifice. The idol’s hands glowed from the heat, ready to accept each offering.

So, I kind of lost it.

“Hey, babe,” one of the business-typed wandered up. He was chuckling. “Wrong day. We’re doing Lamashtu tomorrow. Don’t worry, we’re keeping half of them for you ladies so you can–”

He reached to pat my shoulder. I grabbed him by the arm and flipped him, slamming him to the ground. I twisted his arm until it snapped, and his scream drowned out the drums.

Well, he wasn’t dead. Killing humans was where I drew the line. I shouldn’t. I couldn’t. But I had, before. I had the briefest, tiniest moment of clarity, remembering a kidnapped I had encountered just before Caacrinolaas, before I met Amon, and everything else about my life went to hell. I needed to pull back. I had to hold myself back. Vampire or not, I was better than what I wanted to do right now.

The babies were crying. I could feel heat from the furnace idol.

I kicked the man in the temple, and he stopped screaming.

Someone else ran up, and I backhanded him hard enough to clothesline him to the floor.

“What’s she doing?” someone else asked. At least half of the room was still in shock.

I could feel my curse coursing through my veins as I flew into a rage. Another cultist came after me, and I broke his knee with a kick to the side of his leg. When he buckled, I kneed him repeatedly in the face. The man I knocked over at the very beginning came back inside, and I slammed the heavy door on his arm. When he cried out, the real pandemonium began as people realized what I was doing.

A gunshot rang out, and I felt the bullet hit. But it wasn’t silver, it wasn’t holy, and I was in too much of a rage to care. I rushed the lone security guard in the room, and he had the sense to throw his gun out of reach just before I pounced him. Whatever advantage he expected his size to have melted away as I drove him to the ground, and began pounding on his face. I kept hitting, my knuckles covered in his blood, until others started to drag me off him.

The problem was, these weren’t fighters. Most of them probably couldn’t even make it out of a bar brawl. In any realistic prediction, their man with the gun would have neutralized any actual threat – such as the police – coming through that door. But instead, they got me. A tiny little person who hulked out into some kind of crazy action hero.

Or monster.

I pulled out of one man’s grasp, and elbowed the other hard enough to fracture some of his ribs. He gasped, and I punched him in the jaw, knocking out teeth. I vaulted past him and over to the other man who was just holding me, grabbing him as he tried to run and hurling him into the snack table, breaking it in half. Then I leaned down, grabbed a bottle, and threw it at the furthest person away. I heard it shatter, and him hit the ground, as I turned my attention back to the one on the broken table. I knee-dropped onto his chest. I kept going.

There was so much blood in the air. I wanted it. But I couldn’t. I couldn’t give in, not now.

More fighting. The drummer took a swing at me that looked impressive, but missed. I grabbed one of his heavy drumsticks and smashed it over his head. He stumbled into the leather drums and fell backwards I kept beating him on the head.

“Those! Are! Children!” I screamed, punctuating each word with another blow. The stick broke, and I pulled myself off him before turning and dashing after the last man still standing.

“Stop, stop!” he screamed, holding his book protectively in front of his face. “Please, stop!”

Stop. Stop, for the love of all that is holy, Lucy, stop.

I remembered who I was again, and took a breath. Had I killed anyone? I didn’t know. I hadn’t bitten anybody. I was covered in blood. And this man was cowering in front of me, scrambling back on the floor, and holding up a large, leather-bound book like a shield.

“Please, don’t!” he cried. “Don’t hurt me!”

I grabbed the book from his hands, and hit him over the head with it.

“Those are babies!” I hit him again. “Those are babies! Babies!”

He held up his hands to try to protect his face, so I hit him again. In a moment of utter savagery, I broke the book’s spine.

“You were going to burn babies to death!” I yelled. “And you’re asking me not to hurt you? What the fuck is wrong with you?”

“Lucy, look out!” It was the voice of the tempter-trickster. “He’s coming! Run!”

“What?” I asked, looking over my shoulder, though of course I couldn’t see the spirit.

All of the babies screamed at once. The flames roared from within the statue, casting the massive room in blood-red light.

“Moloch, save me!” the priest shouted, holding his arms out.

“Oh, crap,” I said, as Moloch’s presence began to fill the chamber.

Moloch was not a cow. I could understand why people thought so, though. There were horns. The evil spirit that appeared before us had horns, but that was where the comparison ended. It was hard to pin its shape down as any one thing, aside from huge. The demon loomed over me, looking down on me like a worm. Moloch’s voice came from all sides of the room and within my head, speaking in an unknown, unimaginable language, though the meaning was as clear to me as English. The words echoed so deep

Who interrupted my sacrifice?

I looked the terrifying demon in the eye, and quoted a Psalm.

“The Lord is my light and my salvation,” I said. “Whom shall I fear? The Lord is the refuge of my life, in whom shall I be afraid?”

The sound that came in response was less like a roar and more like thunder, as the spirit rose up even more in the room, surrounding me with its rage.

“Though an army encamp against me, my heart shall not fear,” I quoted the Psalm again., even though I felt more than enough fear at the moment. “Though war rise against me, yet I will be confident!”

I wasn’t confident, that was a lie.

“She did it,” the cult leader said, standing again. “Punish her!”

Moloch descended, but not onto me. He went into his acolyte, vanishing into the man’s body. Human eyes looked at me for just a moment before they clouded over and changed color, the irises blackening.

I tried to remember the words for an exorcism as the possessed cultist attacked, grabbing at my throat. His arms were like iron, stronger than any of the ordinary humans I had just beaten up.

“Those children are mine,” Moloch hissed in the man’s voice. “My sacrifices. You won’t take them from me.”

He pushed against me, using his size to shove me back toward the statues. I began to feel the heat of the furnace idol on my back. I strained, pressing back against him.

“You’re pathetic,” I said, feeling the heat grow closer and closer. “And your cultists are pathetic. The people who worship you can’t even throw a punch. And the ‘sacrifices?’ Even other demons hate you. They turned you in.”

He pushed me further back. I could feel those glowing bronze hands, inches from the back of my head. Waves of heat from the statue’s furnace made me sweat. Moloch turned his acolyte’s eyes to bore into mine, focusing with cold rage.

“And yet, in spite of your scorn,” Moloch said. “Fire still kills vampires.”

Inches. I had inches left to go. I strained, trying to push against him even harder. It was like pushing against a brick wall.

“Do you have another verse?” Moloch whispered into my ear. “Last words before you burn?”

“My adversaries and foes,” I said from the same Psalm. “It is they who stumble and fall.”

I ducked, wrapping my arms around the possessed cultist’s waist. While he was still pushing against me, I flipped him back, my head tucked in just enough to dodge those burning hands. My face came so close to the furnace that I had to close my eyes, but I heard his head hit the statue’s hands, and smelled the pungent scent of burning flesh.

I let go and rolled to the side, away from the idol. I glanced back to see the possess man holding his hands to his burnt face, screaming. I kicked up and twisted my feet, catching his ankle between my legs to trip him.

There was a moment, extremely brief, when the cultist’s eyes unclouded, and instead of the demon, it was a terrified human looking at me. And then he fell into the furnace, his head crashing into smoldering coals. He screamed as his head caught fire, and stumbled out of the statue, his robes blazing.

I backed away on my hands, scrambling from the sight as the cult leader went up like a candle. I couldn’t tell which was worse, the stench or his screams. Or maybe when the screaming stopped.

I couldn’t feel the demon in the room anymore. I could still hear the babies crying, and the groans of the men I had just beaten up. The corpse in front of me continued to smolder.

“Lucy, what did you just do?”

It was Vince. Vince Reed, standing in the doorway. Looking at the carnage.

I turned back to him. “Help,” I said.

I lost track of how long I sat alone in the station. It had to be hours. Long enough to process the babies and cultists, at least. I had been ushered away before anyone else arrived on-scene. My company was a small TV set. The maternity ward rescue was officially Breaking News, though little if anything was said about Qube, or its management. Mostly tearfully-happy mothers, which was the important part. But still, there was absolutely nothing about how they were found, or who was arrested, or what was going on. That bugged me. One would think that this was sensationalist enough for the media to pounce like a hungry lion.

The door opened, and I turned to look. It was Collier. Officer? Sergeant? Lieutenant? I couldn’t remember. He wasn’t much of an acquaintance. But he had been there when Caacrinolaas attacked the police station. It used to be that I never knew which officers knew about the supernatural, but these days, I could make assumptions about pretty much the entire night shift.

“We’re going to let you go,” he said. “Though we shouldn’t.”

“Hey,” I said. “So, like, am I officially here, or just hanging around?”

He scowled at me. “Poisoned fruit from a poisoned tree,” Collier said. “Are you even remotely familiar with the term?”

“Yeah,” I said. “What about it?”

“Due process exists for a reason,” he said. “Do you have any idea how badly you violated it?”

“Well, I’m not an actual part of law enforcement,” I said. “What I did was solve one of the most shocking and horrible crimes before things went really, really badly.”

“What you did was murder one man and brutalize almost a dozen others,” he said. “With evidence that you’ve been working with our department. Do you have any clue what this means if it’s proven that we hired, contracted, or otherwise encouraged you to act completely outside of the law?”

“No, what?” I scowled.

“The whole thing could get thrown out,” he said. “And justified. “Due process exists for a reason. We can’t just violate it because we’ve decided someone is guilty. And right now, thanks to you, the Lieutenant is breaking more laws to cover up for your ass.”

“Well,” I said.

“Qube’s owner is claiming no knowledge whatsoever of what his employees were doing in the basement,” Collier said. “And the one person who might have been able to testify otherwise burned to death tonight.”

I didn’t say anything.

“Enjoy your freedom,” he said, turning to leave. “It won’t last forever.”

The door slammed, and I closed my eyes.

Well at least he was nice about it. Right?

Reed came in next.

“Hey, Vince,” I said.

“Hey, Lucy,” he said. “You’re free to go.”

“Well, I was never actually being detained,” I said.

“No, but we needed time to think about what we’re going to do,” Reed said. “You have no idea what a mess this is.”

“Yeah, one of your buddies stopped by and told me,” I said. “I think I have an idea.”

He shook his head. “This is bad, Lucy. Nobody’s identified you by name yet, but there’s going to be a massive investigation on whether the police have been using outside contractors for their dirty work. Internal Affairs is looking very closely at everything I’ve said and done lately. I think we’re going to have to take another rain check on that coffee.”

“Oh, no,” I said. “The text.”

“Yeah, let’s just hope nobody finds that,” he said. “Next time, be more vague. Just typing, ‘Come down here, I need you’ would be fine.”

“Yeah, but people’ll misinterpret it,” I said.

“I guess they will,” he said. “Look, you need to put some distance between yourself and the department for a little while, at least until the initial investigation is over. Lt. Ortiz will call you when he feels it’s safe to do so, all right?”

I sighed. “All right. For what it’s worth, I’m sorry about this.”

“What’s done is done,” he said. “For what it’s worth, a lot of lives were saved today. The media’s going to have a field day over the kidnapping ring that’s been under all our noses and the pressure should keep people from looking too closely at us. Just be more careful next time, all right?”

So, I went home alone. I turned on the news when I got there, and listened to people theorize and argue about everything that had happened. No mention of police brutality or vigilante justice that I could hear, but the warnings were clear.

I cleaned up the mess from Amon’s visit. No wonder he had given me a tip. He had waved disaster in my face, and I took the bait. Things were fine only because I got lucky and had friends in high places.

Or maybe I had one really big friend in a high place.

I put on some gloves, and reshelved the Bible. Yeah, I had avoided disaster, hadn’t I? Surrounded by enemies, overpowered, completely out of my league. And yet, here I was, essentially untouched. Well, I guess I had a Refuge, didn’t I? And whatever Amon or Moloch or anybody else was planning, I was sure that I’d be ready for it when it came.

Thanks.