Eyes black and shiny as a corvid’s, Rolf scans the bustling hold. Sifts memories from minds like wheat from chaff. They flood through him, fill him to brimming with whispers, fragments, images.
A thousand thousand memories, all carrying their own scents, tastes, their own emotions. Treacherous deeps these, so many minds; a myriad thoughts, all so alien, so obscure, Rolf could be lost in the tumult.
His essence floats, weightless in the torrent, silent and unobtrusive, he hunts fearlessly for links, for clues. His lax body rests on Moe’s shoulder, warm as fresh baked dough. And from his parted lips a constant, automatic monologue rolls on in low, foreign voices, crackled with distance and power.
‘I loves pelpa pastries, soft, sweet, chewy as gumbas… loose tooth wiggling… must tell mama… we seen sunlight rise over the battlement of crags… light sparked off a million armoured troops and more, a whole constellation of em… gun sounds filled the breeze like death come marching… and we shat ourselves then, no shame in it… too young… too afraid… life warm within me… so sharp these kicks… like twigs poking in me belly… alien… scares me… don’t know if this is right… Madga ran away with my sweet biscuits, I know she did… silly Cartha… lost the bag on the deck, my arse… greedy bitch… last time I was only ten… so long ago… strange man took me in the back rooms… life would’ve bin so different if I just fought… lost it all in one moment… no getting it back…’
Tears slide, silver as mercury, from the corner of Rolf’s eye. Sink into the soft cotton of Moe’s shirt. Moe watches them fall. His jaw winds tight as a clock, muscle ticking on. He lowers his head. Mutters.
‘Look for the nun, the angel, the three, where are they?’
Rolf shudders. Sobs. Moe’s face darkens; his fist curls hard on his thigh. He closes his eyes tight so as not to see, and insists in a voice that brooks no refusal.
‘Find them. Look harder.’
And silver tears soak his shoulder as the disjointed monologue continues to fall from Rolf’s mouth, uncontainable, unstoppable.
‘Jaya was the finest time… best woman I’ve known… why’d I let it happen… oh Bethsemane protect me… it was a snow storm… terrible cold… such terrible cold… can’t bear to think… only three… lost in the badlands… had only four with me… not enough… had to leave one behind… never forget… ghosts don’t forgive they dunno how… he don’t love me no more… I seen ‘im look at ‘er… seen them lights in ‘is eyes… ones has gone dark fer me… I seen ‘em light for her… put ‘em out so I will… put ‘em out afore she sees ‘em… damned thing… been gone too long… cat always knows how to find trouble…’
Rolf jerks, twists, his eyes begin to emit a black light. He sits up, head pointed to the far corner of the hold. ‘Angel,’ he says, his mouth moving, his voice his own. Then he gasps. His eyes flash bright blue fire. Corvid black bleeds away in a great rush. Leaves ice blue in its wake, fixated and blank as glass.
‘Rolf?’ Moe shakes his shoulder. Rolf’s body slumps backwards into his chest. Moe’s face blanches curd white. ‘Fuck. Goddamn it. Shit. Rolf. Wake up!’ Moe lifts the heavy, slack weight of Rolf, cradles his head, rolls it till the curvature of an ear rests before his mouth. He shouts into it. ‘Wake the fuck up!’
A shadow falls across his legs. Huge shoulders, a head all but masked by a curl-brimmed hat, some kind of giant. A voice comes with it, low and deep as the grumble of thunder on the plain.
‘I’ll give your friend back when you explain what the hell he was doing stirring about in my mind.’
Eyes brighter than headlamps hit Meg and Leek. Feels like a wave striking through the air, invisible but heavy as high tide. It rips through them, pulls back out again. Drags tiny snatches of them with it like pebbles.
Each one, though infinitesimal, leaves a gaping hollow. Makes them cry out, fight to move, but their bodies are fixed in position, rigid. Tight as bowstrings, trembling under pressure.
He cocks his head, lets out a short spit of sound. Angry moggy.
‘You do not smell of her,’ he snaps, voice a vibrant, predatory depth, ‘but you follow her trail. Why is this?’
Leek flinches at the sound. Inhuman. Not what she thought at all. She shivers from the impact of the wave, the loss of those bits of herself. Can feel them drifting back on lesser waves. Painfully slow. Each return trickles a raw, frozen channel through the centre of her mind.
‘Follow who?’ she asks, her teeth chatter, uncontrollable.
Dazzling yellow eyes, bright as sovereigns, hold Leek in a lingering gaze. Spark a caressing glow. Slitted pupils flower, a mesmeric flare, till they swallow all but the thinnest band of shimmering gold. Leek’s breath stutters, halts. She takes a step back. Stumbles against the ornate wooden side of the sofa.
The cat-man looses a hungry smile, teeth sharp as wit and all as cutting, prowls forward on silent feet till he’s stood over Leek. She can’t decide whether to leak or leg it. He reaches out, grasps her shoulders, keen claws extended. They leave long red marks, exclamations, the dot a perfect bead of ruby blood.
High tide hits Leek’s head, a roaring force, foaming with energy. Her body jolts as if smashed into rocks. Lists. Sways. Slumps. His grip tightens on her shoulders, cruel, unforgiving. Leek lifts a limp hand to her forehead, lets out a moan.
He chuckles. The sound is sinister, threatening, yet curls about them soft and warm as a cat’s tail, a deep, rumbling purr behind it. Meg scoots behind the sofa, eyes large as portholes peeking over the top. Cat-man tenses, as if to pounce, his claws draw slow trickles of blood from Leek’s skin. He growls.
‘Answer me. If I have to find out for myself, you won’t survive.’
Leek’s mouth drops open like a trap. Waves press against her, too heavy. She can barely think. Can’t find her voice, it’s lost in the undertow. Her hand falls from her forehead, slow, so slow. She can see the trails of its movement through the air as it falls on his chest.
‘Please…’ a bare thread of voice, thin as water, as a sigh.
Silken black brows arch down. Golden eyes stare at the hand, the fingers. He removes one hand from her shoulder, claws dripping blood. Touches the hand on his chest, just once. Raises his gaze to hers, gold sparks, fireworks of fury at the dull grey seeping into blue. He growls a little, a guttural roll.
‘And you call me a kitty,’ he says, lip curled.
The tide recedes in a sudden rush, water sucked from a cave. Leek reels in the absence. Collapses against him. Mutters into muscles.
‘That poxy well hurt, you bastard. Thought you were a good kitty.’
‘I’m not a kitty,’ he grumbles as he lowers her to the sofa. ‘I’m a fucking angel.’
Leek’s mouth does its impression of a trap door again. ‘You what?’
Recovering fast enough to unsettle, she rises up and starts plucking. Pulling up arms, lifting hair, poking skin. He roars at her, teeth flashing white and vicious in the thaumic glare, but she doesn’t stop, just grins and says.
‘Shut it, I’m wing hunting.’
Up from behind the sofa, Meg leans on the back, watches the reversal of fortunes with significant interest, chin perched on curled fingers. ‘Fahnd anythang, shugah?’
‘Not a feather in sight,’ Leek declares. ‘I call foul. Kitty’s a little liar.’ She stares up at him, cocky and chock full of disdain. ‘No angel I ever met could lick its own balls.’
He lets out a crack of laughter, it rolls on, loops round the room like a mad bird, fluttering from corner to corner. He can’t stop, clutching his sides and wheezing. Leek stops poking at his chest. She sniffs, mulish, shoves her hands on her hips and levels the sort of glare that’s been known to make supernovae nervous.
‘And what’s so amusing, kitty?’
He chokes down his laughter, clamps his mouth shut. Grins at her, yellow eyes jaunty as pinkie rings. ‘I like you,’ he says, ‘you’re sparky, and you aren’t with her, that much is obvious. But you’re after her. Which puts us on similar sides.’ He cocks his head to one side, flashes mischief. ‘How much do you like raising hell?’
Leek’s head turns slow, round to Meg, grin growing wide as a horizon, back round to Kitty. ‘Let’s just say,’ she tells him, ‘that if I had to name a hobby, raising hell would be my first choice.’
He takes a deep breath. ‘You haven’t power worth a damn, just a little something odd, can’t place it. But can you fight?’
About to hit offended at a hundred miles an hour, Leek rethinks. Recalls the heavy press of power this angel sent against her mind and Meg’s. She’s no match for that; she hasn’t even what Minnie and Margo have, may never gain more than this ability to see the fields, the pathways, the web of things, some of the reality behind the illusion. But she can surely fight.
‘Give me a pair of blades,’ she says, face set as concrete, ‘and I’ll reduce whatever you point me at to twitching chunks.’
He shows his teeth, a wicked smile. Nods satisfaction. Turns to Meg, one smooth brow cocked.
‘I kin shoot tha whisker offen a rat’s face a fi-hunerd paces,’ she offers, hopeful.
‘Good,’ he says, ‘because we’ve vermin to cull.’
Quiet rage lights sizzling embers in the dark chocolate of Moe’s eyes. ‘Give him back and then we’ll fucking talk,’ he snarls at the huge man looming over them tall and muscular as a yew tree.
The man sniffs, thoughtful, sinks to crossed-legs in a movement so swift and fluid it’s as if he’s simply poured to the floor. He tips his hat back with the crooked stub of a thick thumb, regards Moe with a seething blue gaze, bright and penetrating.
‘Interesting. Your friend reeks of power and you have some small gift, a waft of ability, a touch of will. What are you?’
‘I’m an antiques dealer,’ Moe snaps.
‘And what else?’ The man asks, raising his brow in a slow arc. His face sets to an edge that abides no deceit. Power rolls off him in silent waves, impacts hard as slaps on Moe’s mind. Moe flinches; his lips twitch as they think to produce another half-truth and are forced to honesty.
‘I’m an illusionist, I can sometimes cast shadows that look and feel real. It’s not reliable, not by a long shot, I prefer to fight, I’m damn good at that. My friends and I fix stuff, stuff that Minnie sees. Because if we don’t then she gets ill. Fixing stuff keeps her mind here, where we like it.’
The power slides into Moe’s mind, picks him clean as vultures pick a carcass to bones and the giant smiles. ‘Ah, Minnie. The little eye that sees it all. And you are here to stop the Nun, hold back the bandits, destroy the three and protect the angel?’
The giant throws back his head and laughs loud and long. Square white teeth flash suspiciously bright in the vague thaumic yellow. Even in the bustle and hum of the hold it attracts attention, heads turning, folk staring. He ignores it all, indulges his amusement. When he’s done, he regards Moe for a long time with a candid and too clear gaze. Then he says.
‘You and your friends are going to cause a lot of trouble. It would be a shame to miss it. I might even have a use for you. Or you for me.’ He lifts a hand, flicks one long finger at Rolf.
Rolf lurches in Moe’s lap. Gasps out a breath long as a corpse sigh. Starts upright, eyes too wide for comfort. He twists, feels the lap beneath him and turns, frowning, almost bumping noses with Moe. Rolf puts on a delicious, filthy as sin, grin and drawls.
‘I do hope you were gentle with me.’
Moe groans, lowers his head into his palms as the giant’s laughter booms out once more. Says, voice almost a moan, ‘Rolf, we have company.’
Rolf sneers, growls. ‘I know. I can feel him. Bastard’s like a fucking beacon. He’s the angel. That is to say, the angel is within him.’
Moe’s head snaps up. ‘What?’
Rolf pokes a thumb over his shoulder in the direction of the grizzled giant sat cross-legged before them. ‘He’s a man, the angel is inside him. They’re not really separate anymore, though they used to be. She’s terrified of him but it’s not him she wants. It’s the cat.’
‘She wants a cat?’ Moe blinks, bewildered.
‘He’s not a cat,’ the giant says, before Rolf can open his mouth. ‘He’s an… angel, of sorts. And it’s not his power she covets, she couldn’t use it, it would destroy her. She wants information. She must not get it. None of them can have it. It would be… problematic for the balance of things.’
Moe looks between Rolf and the giant. ‘So where’s the cat?’
The giant grins. ‘He’s gone to scratch her up a bit. She irks him.’
Moe slaps a hand to his forehead, dislodging his hat. ‘You let the cat go to her.’
‘Not really,’ the giant replies in all honesty, ‘I just didn’t try and stop him.’
Kitty straps Leek’s blades to her back. She’s dressed head to toe in form-fitting leather straps, bound tight about ivory flesh. His eyes sneak continually to each section between bands, glowing and glowing. His hands trip, slip, follow his eyes all unawares.
Leek plucks a hand from her arse, slaps another away from the curve of a breast. Declares testily, ‘For an angel you really are a filthy perv.’
His grin is unrepentant. ‘I spend ninety percent of my time as a cat,’ he says, guileless, ‘and cats like to fuck.’
Meg swallows laughter at Leek’s look of pure astonishment as Kitty slinks away to the door. She taps her hand under Leek’s chin. ‘Get yer ahs offah that bee-hind.’
Leek bites a lascivious lip, mutters, ‘I will when Kitty stops waving it around like that, gotta keep an eye on it, it’s a walking dangerzone.’
‘We’re not going after her by ourselves,’ Kitty says, before he opens the door.
‘Why not?’ asks Leek.
He shrugs. ‘I can’t allow her access to me, no matter how much I want to scratch the old bitch to ribbons. She’s powerful, clever. She wants me badly, needs me, she won’t risk fighting, she’ll be underhand, devious. So we don’t attack her, not directly. There are other ways to hurt her.’
Leeks eyes narrow. ‘Spill.’
‘There are those who travel with her, her weapons and her companions.’
Meg nods, and spits out, ‘Lahk them big ole black nuns, the Sanctimonialis.’
He nods confirmation, slick of silken black hair gliding over his shoulders. ‘Those are her weapons. They are not to be trifled with. If they knew how much power they had, they would no longer answer to her. We’re working on cracking that particular puzzle…’
‘Ooh, do tell,’ Leek demands, eyes all a-glitter.
He shakes his head. ‘No,’ he holds up a long-fingered hand, nails curled to claws as she steps forward, belligerent. ‘Leek, it’s not something you can help with, nor I for that matter. Our job is less etheric, more about brute force; we have to remove her assistants, the twins. Angeline and Evangelista.’
Leek’s still too mad to talk, so Meg steps in for her. ‘And whut in tarnation do we want them fer?’
‘They’re her focus. Her lodestone. Without them,’ he says, a silken drop of absolute cat-satisfaction in his voice, ‘her power will destabilise and, with any luck, consume her from within.’
Meg nods, curls bobbing. ‘Piece o’ piss.’
Kitty’s brow pops up, as scornful as his gaze. ‘They aren’t helpless, those two. They’re ex-Sanctimonialis and Evangelista is by far the more dangerous, though to underestimate Angeline would be folly.’
‘Cat fight,’ Leek announces, grinning hard.
Kitty chuckles, ‘If you’re going to have a cat fight,’ he says, his voice so low and sensual it ripples her body in gooseflesh, ‘I may just stand back and throw jelly at you.’
She sniffs, leans in close, hackles raised remarkably cat-like. ‘You do that,’ she says, each word a precisely aimed bullet, ‘I’ll put you in a gunny sack and drown you.’
Leek stalks out the door, slinks off down the corridor. Kitty watches her go, his irises swirling, molten gold.
‘If she’s not careful,’ he mutters to himself, ‘I’m going to lap her up like a bowl of cream.’
© Ren Warom 2011