The family waited for me on the gravel drive in the chill of the misty morning. The hope in their expressions bothered me; I was not a man who delivered salvation, only death.
Their home was haunted.
A novice might have noticed the mist that clung to the eaves or the rot that ate away the siding. They would have seen the wild lawn or the cracked windows and their thoughts would have strayed to stereotypes that lingered from well before the Gate opened.
Novices were idiots. These days, most homes in the northeast appeared as such. If anything, the family had done well maintaining this particular farmhouse.
I had cleared enough infestations to know the real signs. I saw a subtle coating of Hell dust in the corner of the windows—discernible by the way that it cast a shadow, just as a lamp might cast its light. I felt a pressure in the air, like a weight suffocating the countryside until even the most oblivious of wildlife stayed far away. I could just hear a slight hum over the crunching of gravel beneath my boots, like the tang of a cord under tension.
These were the signs of the damned.
“Can you get rid of it?” the father asked. He was far too insipid for the brown-eyed woman who clung to his arm.
“Of course,” I said. The man blurted out a thousand questions, dying to know how I was going to risk myself to save him from disaster. I ignored him. I was here for one reason, and it sure as Hell wasn’t to save him.
I opened the back of my Jeep and unlatched the bin that held my weapons. I dug through it and found a tangled rope of prayer beads. Next, I took the entire jug of holy water. For good measure, I grabbed a tin of crushed sage and an iron bat. Finally, I secured the coup de grace: a smoke grenade laced with St. John’s Wort. I was confident that I knew what waited for me in the house thanks to the information provided in the job posting, but only a fool didn’t prepare for every contingency.
With that thought, I loaded the pistol that I always kept in the holster on my belt. The rounds I chose were specially packed to send damn near anything back to Hell.
“He’s going to kill it, dear,” the husband said to his wife in a hushed tone.
“I’ll kill it. No question,” I said—not that I had to explain myself to him. I extended my hand and he duly turned over a dirty white envelope. I thumbed through it. It looked close to two thousand— at least they weren’t trying to short me. I tucked the envelope into my pocket.
Without another word to the family, I approached the old farmhouse. The house was ominously silent, save for the subtle groan of the porch steps under my weight. I crept up the half-rotten porch and opened the front door, watching for any sign of danger. Slowly, I crossed the threshold, expecting each move to be the one that revealed my foe. The floor creaked in a thousand tones as I took measured steps into the foyer. I held the prayer beads like a ward in front of me.
The foyer opened into a dark and dingy living room, where it felt like the house was trying to suffocate me with its musk. The place was a wreck, with the family’s personal effects scattered around and furniture thrown asunder.
A door banged across the house.
“Not today, you bastard,” I muttered as I uncapped the jug of holy water. I sprinkled it along the walls. If it was just a wayward spirit, the holy water would send it right back to Hell.
With the beads as my shield, I moved deeper into the home. The house groaned. A layman might have thought that was just an old house settling, but I knew better. It was the spirit getting angry. Holy water was the ghostly version of a bug bomb and I soaked the first floor with enough of the stuff to drown any God-fearing spirit.
The lights flickered around me. The windows seemed to shutter and shift, bending the light that came through into impossibly narrow beams that provided almost no illumination. I clicked on my flashlight—it had a warded case to protect it from the spirit’s magic—and its light was stark in the bleak shadows.
I flung the rest of the holy water around upstairs. It should have killed a lesser spirit. I paused a moment, but the house still creaked around me. The spirit was clearly still present. There was no way it was just a wayward spirit. Several other options ran through my mind—hex, demon, poltergeist, any number of fringe entities—and they all boiled down to being much more powerful than I had anticipated. While a small part of me groaned that the job wasn’t going to be so easy, the rest of me relished the chance to kill something powerful.
It was time to fumigate.
I found the basement door and stared down into the darkness below. There was something primal about a dusty, cobwebbed descent into darkness that pulled on ancient threads of fear. It was the fear of the unknown, the fear of what waited in the dark, the fear of mankind’s oldest threats. In those moments—where my body wanted to freeze and my heart pounded away on its own accord—I forced myself to remember who I was; I was not some prey waiting to be devoured. No, I was the goddamned predator.
The lights flickered and then went out completely, the pans that hung over the sink clattered together in a horrible cacophony, and the basement door slammed into me. I felt no fear. I felt only pity for the hellish thing that I was about to destroy.
The thrill of the hunt carried me down the stairs. I flicked my flashlight around the basement. It was exactly as dilapidated as one would expect for an old farmhouse. I took a moment to appreciate the fact that I hadn’t walked into a ghoul’s nest before I pulled the smoke grenade from my belt and twisted off the safety pin. I flung away the spoon and dropped the grenade in the corner. After a few moments, the grenade popped and red smoke hissed out in a thick stream. The smoke quickly filled the basement with the overwhelming scent of St. John’s Wort, a sickly-sweet odor overridden by the chemical burn of the smoke.
I rushed back up the stairs before the gas overtook me. No matter what kind of spirit hid in the house, St. John’s Wort would chase it out like a roach, where my holy water would kill it.
At least, that was the plan.
When the damn thing manifested in front of me, everything changed.
Of the possible spirits that could manifest, a poltergeist was most likely. It appeared on the landing, outlined by the spreading cloud of crimson smoke. A tattered black robe billowed over its shapeless figure and rusty chains draped down its arms onto the floor. It hung silent for just a moment before it attacked.
I dodged and nearly fell back down into the basement. The smoke tingled on my skin and burned my lungs when I tried to breathe. I readied my iron bat and charged at the poltergeist. It waited for me. I swung and it flickered, then reappeared behind me. I let my momentum carry me in a full circle. My iron bat tore through the specter, erasing it from the earthly plane of existence like a smudged drawing.
That was when I learned another important detail: This creature was strong, stronger than anything I had ever faced before. I was no scholar—I only studied enough to know how to kill—but whatever I faced was no poltergeist; my iron should have sent it in shambles back into hiding. It didn’t. The house quaked as the spirit regathered its power. Under the applause of flickering lights, the thing reappeared down the hall and lashed out with its chains.
The chains gouged a line into the plaster of the wall and wrapped around my leg. The rusted metal was ice on my skin. The spirit pulled me off my feet with a smooth sweep of its arm. I flew through the hall and smashed into the kitchen table. It caved beneath my weight. I smacked my head off a chair and the world spun around me.
The trick to being a slayer—and living for any substantial amount of time—was knowing when to retreat. I’d found a spirit more powerful than anything I had ever faced before, and I’d challenged it in its own domain. That was a huge mistake. It was time to flee and regather my wits.
I dove for the ground as a rusty chain smashed into the table with far too much force. I rolled and sprinted toward the front door. The hallway stretched before me, defying physics. For each step I took, the floor grew two.
The spirit advanced on me.
The house mocked me with a chorus of crackling laughter. Like a lab rat on its wheel, I sprinted on. Fear had me and I struggled to untangle myself from its knotted embrace. I stumbled down the hallway as chains flew around me. They missed me by inches. But the house was determined not to give up so easily. The hallway twisted as if I was in a funhouse surrounded by mirrors. What should have been a straight shot to the front door became a winding passageway. For each turn I took, two more appeared, morphing into a horrible maze and sweeping me up into a madness that carried me on and on, all the while the spirit cackled at me from the walls where it had fused with the very essence of the house, chains hung down around me, the walls shrunk in tighter and tighter, and laughter echoed, louder and louder, until only madness remained. I fell into a darkness so complete, so black, that it swallowed me whole.
I felt myself slipping away.
Some corner of my mind, a fragment from a past long dead, remained anchored in the moment. The only way to survive is to fight, it told me. You need to fight.
I took a deep breath and the fog cleared from my mind like the last webs of a dream shaking free from my consciousness. Part of me struggled with some fundamental truth, some understanding that lingered from the dream, but I was unable to grasp it as my senses became my own.
I was in the basement of the house. I had been hallucinating. My flashlight lay at my feet, illuminating the plume of blood-red smoke that continued to spit from my grenade. The spirit loomed over me, its arm extended. A tendril of white light twisted from my chest to its hand like smoke rising from my skin. For a fleeting moment, I was in awe at the strength of the spirit; never had I faced something so terrifyingly powerful. Then, I got angry. Very, very, angry.
I lashed out with my bat, and like any good spirit, it had the decency to melt away from my attack.
The stairs tried to twist away from me again, defying what I knew to be true. I ignored my vision, closed my eyes, and stepped toward where the stairs should have been. I used my bat as a cane and moved one step at a time up the stairwell.
I made it to the top of the stairs and turned left. The house tried to trick me, showing me a vision of a solid wall. I took another deep breath, banished the fear and confusion from my mind, then stepped into the wall. It tingled on my skin like a curtain of mist, but I passed through.
With my eyes closed, the monster tried other means to confuse me. It assaulted my ears with sounds of horror; I recognized some as people long dead, screaming for my help, sending my heart pounding away in true, absolute horror. I heard Kayla, and her voice made tears spring to my eyes. Pain jabbed into my heart as she called out my name, but now, like then, I could do nothing to save her. All I could do was move forward and get revenge later.
Step by step, inch by inch, I fled from the house. The horror nearly overtook me. The sounds, the smells, the feelings. Each threatened to break the last tendrils of sanity that vainly held me afloat. Were I a weaker man, I would have collapsed into a quivering heap and offered myself to the spirit. How the family escaped the house was beyond me.
My burning hatred kept me moving. I could not die, not while I had a job to finish.
Escape came with a rush as the influence of the hallucination fell away. One second I was walking into a writhing nest of icy chains, and the next I was embraced by the cold touch of the morning air.
I stumbled forward, nearly falling down the splintered steps of the porch. I caught myself on the crooked banister and heaved the sweet morning air. I could still hear the screams but I refused to let the memories take me. I was a slayer, not prey to be incapacitated by some long-gone memory.
“Did you kill it?” the woman asked, hope thick in her voice like honey. Hope was a terrible thing, because I almost always had to strike it down. Hope was ignorance that could kill.
“No…” I said, wiping the sweat from my forehead. “That’s the most powerful spirit I’ve ever encountered… Have you brought anything new into the house recently? An antique or something you scavenged?”
“No, no of course not. Everybody knows that items can be possessed; everything we have was cleared by the Templar,” the husband said.
Of course, they went to the Templar first. Why would they solicit for aid from any random slayer, when they could ask the holy Templar? That meant they had asked them to cleanse the house and balked at the predatory cost before they posted the requisition on the town hall board.
“You’re sure?” I already knew the answer, but it never hurt to ask. It made them less likely to fight what came next.
“Yes! We aren’t stupid,” the wife huffed. Their son started to whimper from his hiding place behind her legs. Knowing what I knew now, I didn’t blame him for crying.
“That’s bad news. That means the spirit took root in the house itself. That’s always a danger when you settle in the wilderness,” I said.
“Wilderness? We’re inside the bounds of Bradenburg. We pay our upkeep fee just like everyone else,” the father said.
That struck me. For a spirit as powerful as this to get inside the Templar’s wards was troubling. The Templar may have been a bunch of extortionists, with trumped-up, pompous ceremonies, but they knew enough magic to be useful. Their wards never failed, barring sabotage or incompetence.
“Well, that doesn’t change the situation. The poltergeist has your house and I have to get rid of it,” I said.
The family looked at me with such profound gratitude—such utter trust—that I almost froze in my course of action. The old me would have faltered…but that person was long gone.
I went to the back of my Jeep and grabbed a can of fuel. It was never good to waste gas, but I suspected that I needed something a bit stronger than usual to smoke out this particular spirit. Under the near-worship of the family, I took the fuel to the side of the house and started soaking the wooden porch. The old wood would go up like a bonfire.
“What are you doing?” the father exclaimed. He ran up to me and tried to rip the fuel can from my hand. I pushed him away. He stumbled back and unceremoniously tumbled into the gravel.
“I’m killing the spirit. This is the only way to do it,” I said, moving on to the back of the house.
“You’re supposed to have Templar tools, why don’t you just use them to kill it?” the mother asked.
Because I didn’t risk my life when there was an easier option. I learned that the hard way. But that wasn’t what they wanted to hear, so I tried to be more tactful. “You said you didn’t bring anything into the house. That means it’s in the house itself. Fire is the only way to get it out,” I explained.
“But we’ll lose our home,” the father said. Spineless, he watched me with a look of utter defeat. It felt better than his undo adoration; at least I deserved this.
“The Templar said they could do it!” the mother shouted at me. She at least had the backbone to get angry.
“Then you should have brought them here,” I said. “Ah, but you couldn’t, could you? Too expensive?”
She sputtered, then stood straighter. “Your services will no longer be necessary.”
“Too late. I can’t in good conscience leave this spirit here. Sometimes, winning this war requires personal sacrifice,” I said. I might have been willing to leave before, but mimicking Kayla’s voice crossed a line. The spirit would die. By my hand.
Clearly at a loss, she tried to wrench the fuel can from my hands. She put up a better effort than her husband, but I shoved her and she tripped and fell. Her husband rushed to her side to help her back up, tears in his eyes. Following the lead of their father, their child started bawling.
In another life, the tears of this family might have moved me. Now, I saw only weakness, a weakness that could not be afforded in the face of true evil.
Like the reaper come to collect his due, I grimly finished my task. I took a minute to savor the satisfaction I felt as I flicked the match onto the porch and the structure went up in flames.
As the mist fled from the bonfire and the sun peeked overhead in the autumn sky, fire consumed the house. At first, all was quiet except for the sobs of the family and the crackle of the flames. Then the screaming started. It sounded like the shriek of a bobcat as the spirit died. I savored every last bit of that motherfucker’s death. I laughed as it tried to escape the bounds of the house, only to snap back into the flames. It soon melted into a stream of black tar that the fire carried up and away into the morning sky. The sun would destroy the last bits of its essence just as thoroughly as the fire destroyed its form.
When the flames started to die down and I was sure that the house would burn to its foundation, I returned my tools to my Jeep.
The family huddled in the shadow of the flames, watching their life burn to ash.
I walked over to them and handed back the envelope of cash. At first, they stared at me with dead eyes, unsure of what fresh horror I would inflict on them. But the truth was, I was no monster and I had not set out to hurt this poor family. Sometimes, the hard choice was the only way to kill that which was truly evil. In this situation—like many others—I just did what needed to be done. Good intentions didn’t make me a saint, but they sure as hell made me better than them.
They didn’t say a word to me as they snatched their envelope back, nor did they thank me for killing the spirit. It was fine; delivering another blow to Hell was its own reward.
When I turned to my Jeep, I saw it.
Burned into the lawn, almost near the wood line, was an exact shape. Anger flushed my cheeks as I realized that the family had failed to mention something so conspicuous. I stomped through the grass toward it. When I got closer, I saw that it was a circle of ash with a series of shapes outlined in its center. On the bottom edge, there was a bird perched on an open book. The bird’s wings were spread and its head was thrown back. From the tips of its wings, two hammers extended to the sides of the circle, and from its beak, a cross stretched to the top. The circle was huge, probably twenty feet across. I had never seen anything like it.
“You didn’t think to mention this to me?” I shouted, furious that they had withheld information. Ignorance was how a slayer ended up dead. If they had told me about the shape, it was likely I never would have entered the house in the first place.
They ignored me. The bastards thought silence would pay me back for burning down their house.
I took a good look at the symbol, then grabbed a notebook from my Jeep and sketched the shape before I kicked it out of existence. Whatever it was, any power it once held had long since fled.
Still, I faced a daunting question: What kind of magic was this and how did it bring such a powerful spirit inside the city’s wards? One thing was for sure: Whatever this new threat was, I would end it.