Chapter 11: People Who Died

Gods.

It’s the kind of claim people make in my circles, but only rarely. I met a goddess, once. More specifically, I met a very old vampire from a very rare breed, who had portrayed themselves as gods to an ignorant civilization of humans. Certainly, she was powerful. She could have broken me in half over one knee. But that was because she was old, and the old were strong in my world. It wasn’t because she was some kind of special thing, above and beyond the norm. The world I inhabited was supernatural, but it was still rational. I had to believe that. The alternative was too alarming.

That, I suppose, was the problem with knowing ‘The Truth’. You are raised to believe one thing, and one day, your doors of perception are thrown open. You realize that all that you know is only a shadow. You see the man behind the curtain, and you learn The Truth. Then, you are enlightened. You know. You have something that few others do, and you feel blessed for that. To learn The Truth once is a freedom. But if it happens a second time, it stops being The Truth. It becomes just another layer of an onion of infinite leaf. You thought you found The Truth once before; how can you ever trust it again? More than one epiphany is just confusion. I suspect that is why so many humans stick with their belief systems. It is easier to live with your mistakes than to find new ones to make.

I sighed, and leaned back in the chair of the rental car. I missed my old Studebaker sedan, but it was in mint condition, and I would never subject it to the madness of New York City driving and parking. This place was a mosh pit for cars. I adjusted the car’s screen again to keep the sun off of me. I did not want to expose myself to any more of the scorching rays than I needed to. Summer could be difficult for my kind.

I had met Ariel. If half of what she’d claimed was true, she had to be the one Lady De was talking about. At the same time, it was difficult to imagine her as a betrayer. At worst, she was unhelpful. She seemed, more than anything else, like a rather frightened young woman who was not sure what to do, who had been hurt, who was trying to avoid making the same mistakes that she had made in the past. I could hardly blame her for being unhelpful. It sounded like she was under far more pressure than I could imagine. And she clearly had an unrequited crush that was tearing at her. She reminded me of the girl I had sacrificed my honor for.

I thought of Officer Blanski. The warning Dane had mentioned was pressing on my mind. I had watched too many partners killed in the line of duty because they did not realize their own mortality, too many mortals who thought that they were the heroes of the story. It was an affliction of those without immortality. They believed they would live forever. And so often, they hastened their own demise because of it. I was attracted to Blanski. He was a promising young man. Perhaps, if we both survived these issues, he would be open to the idea of a transfer to Binghamton.

Or who knows? Perhaps I could make a living here.

I pulled up in front of the abandoned building. I could taste Earl’s chi on the air. Earl had been a ghost- a Phantasm, in Atina’s parlance. The soul of someone who had died connected to something. They were notoriously difficult to get rid of. Most tended to be homebodies, sticking to one place. Earl had been different. He was fond of his family. This was not necessarily a good thing; In life, Earl had been a bit of a bastard, a drug dealer who’d died in a shootout. He’d had a less than wholesome effect on his descendants ever since. He’d made his way to New York City back last August, and I hadn’t heard from him since he’d told me where he’d moved. That wasn’t entirely ominous- He didn’t like keeping in touch with me at the best of times. But it would be worth leaning on him for information.

I parked next to the curb. Even in Manhattan, there were buildings like this. Dark, ominous, sunken in like cankers on the urban landscape. They were the skin lesions, the bruises, that marked a city’s weak points. In the best cases, they were vastly outnumbered by healthy buildings, and kept in check. When a city began to die, they multiplied, spreading across it like the sores on the body of a cancer patient. To the ordinary human, it would have been an unsettling place. They would justify their fear as the product of broken windows and dark places, the things where a predator might lurk. But in truth, it was a reminder of their own mortality. They were being made unsettlingly aware of the fact that they, too, would someday die, and rot, like the building.

But for most undead, it was comforting. Peaceful. Familiar. There were entire cities where the undead congregated, nestling in the dead places where nothing was active. Where they could be still. I had never cared for them. It was comfortable, but it was stasis. You could become a corpse in a place like this. I took a deep breath, and snorted through my nose. Yin chi was rife in the building, like a miasma hanging across it. If I breathed it in, it would slow me down, bring the aches into my bones. My connection with Dane provided a trickle of Yang chi, but from this distance, it was nothing particularly impressive. I would just have to make do.

It was nearly seven PM, but the sun was still high in the sky, so I covered myself with a jacket as I made my way up the front steps. The door opened easily. No lock or buzzers on it. The first floor lead into a fortune teller’s office, the carpet dingy, the walls stained with cigarette smoke. It brought a slight smile to my face as I thought of the prophecy.

I’d heard once that, in New York State, it’s illegal to give someone a bad fortune. Atina had called it hogwash and spent a night poring over the penal code, which was just one of the many reasons I was fond of her. As far as she’d been concerned, it was illegal to tell fortunes as anything except entertainment, and the tone of the fortune was immaterial. I was inclined to agree that any fortune teller who wanted to make a living on it would give good fortunes, only. As I mounted the stairs, I thought about the prophecies I’d heard.

Humans have a knee-jerk reaction to prophecy. I should know, because I share it. When you are told what you’re going to do, the instant reaction is to defy expectations, to do something else. I’ve sometimes wondered if it’s an evolutionary response. Being predictable is a wonderful way to be eaten by a lion, after all. Thus, prophecies were a strange problem. If you took the prophecy as true, and acted in accordance with it, you were making yourself predictable. Losing your free will. If you tried to defy it, you end up doing the same. Either way you become defined by the prophecy. Dane had demonstrated that with Officer Blanski. She knew that a threat had been made against him by someone very capable of following through on those threats, and she had no idea on how to stop it. Damned if you do, damned if you don’t. If she was wrong, she would regret it. But humans are full of regrets. I share that in common with them, too. You get over them eventually.

I passed the second floor. The doors were locked, except for one, which lead to a bathroom. The lights were off. A disconnected bath tub sat in the middle of the tiles. I couldn’t see much else inside, for which I was extraordinarily grateful.

In the face of a proposed prophecy, what was there to do but live your life as though you hadn’t heard it? To do otherwise was madness. I mounted the stairs to the third floor, and paused.

The door to Earl’s apartment hung loose, one hinge shattered. The other was barely holding the door in place. I carefully slid it open, and entered the room. The lights were off, only a little light filtering in through curtained windows. Claw marks were visible across the walls, massive and jagged slashes in the brickwork. The room was a loft, a square room perhaps thirty feet on a side. It was sparsely furnished. A couch sat against one wall, a broken box TV sitting across from it. A handful of dust-coated pictures hung on the walls, with a mattress in one corner.

The wall to my right was collapsed in, leading into another apartment. Numerous abstract statues were visible through the hole, suggesting whoever had owned the place before had been well-off. I frowned softly. It was strange that no police had been here. Perhaps whoever owned the building hadn’t cared enough to investigate.

I closed my eyes, and breathed out a bit of Yang Chi in a single word. “Earl.”

He appeared. Slightly transparent, but otherwise as he had been in life. Denim jeans and jacket, slick and greasy hair, pale skin and unhealthy looking teeth. He stood with his back to me. “So you finally found me,” he whispered. “I haven’t done anything wrong, you know.”

“Come on, Earl, it’s not that bad. I’m just here to learn what the word is on the street. You’re too twitchy.” I gave him an easy, reassuring smile. His fists clenched.

“I didn’t think you were real.”

I frowned. “What?”

He turned, and his eyes widened. A hideous jagged wound stretched across his chest. From his right shoulder to his left hip, he had been torn open. There was no gore, no blood, no viscera spilling out. It was like he was a wooden doll, and had been cut open, hanging open and revealing undifferentiated substance within.  “No, please, no, NO!” His voice raised into a high, shrieking cry, as he backed away, his arms spinning, holding them up to protect himself. His hands were cut off, landing on the ground, disintegrating into ectoplasm. One of his feet followed, and he fell back, scrabbling with the stumps of his arms, backing away. Then his head was removed with a single swipe, twirling away. He disintegrated, leaving a sticky mess of ectoplasm slowly evanescing on the floor. And then he appeared again, facing away from me. “So you finally found me,” he began.

I stared down at the wet patches where the floor was stained with the ectoplasm. The flesh of the ghost. He’d been reduced to an Echo, a simple emotional moment. Something had killed a Phantasm. Brutally. I knew that they could be destroyed, but it was usually the effort of years, tearing down the things that held them to this world. I’d never heard of someone simply tearing one apart like this. Only nightmares and rumors.

“Brutal, isn’t it?” I spun, and drew my revolver. A man stood in the opening to the other room. About five foot nine, his skin was tanned, his hair dark and curly. He had all the hallmarks of ethnic Greek, right down to his broad, pearly smile. His curly dark hair hung around his head. An eyepatch covered one eye. He held a TEC-9 in one hand. I raised an eyebrow. “What happened to the poor guy. I mean, it’s bad enough dying once. That’s supposed to be the worst that can happen, right?” He smiled cheerfully, leaning against the wall.

“Did your little buddy kill her, Jack?”

“Oooh,” he said, grinning. “Harsh words. Was your buddy Earl here a killer?”

I frowned, looking at Earl’s echo as it stumbled back, its head coming off. It didn’t reappear this time. Not enough Yang chi remained to empower it any longer. “He was a scumbag, a drug-dealer, and an asshole. But no, I can’t say that he was much of a killer.” I turned back to look at him. “You only take the lives of killers, huh? What causes that? Nobility? A sense of moral outrage?”

“Territoriality, mostly.” He chuckled. “The greatest power in this world is to kill. In a single life, countless actions are taken. Countless tiny impacts. The sum total of a life can be… fantastic. It only seems miniscule because there are so many other humans. But when you cancel out just one of those.. All of those actions they could’ve taken. All of that life they still had to live. And when you kill a killer, that action is amplified by all the lives they would have taken.” He stared at me. “You know it, don’t you? It made such an impact on you that it twisted the way you viewed the entire world.”

“Ahahah.” I smiled. “As far as I am concerned, murder is a terribly inefficient form of argument. You don’t persuade anyone, you simply silence dissent. And sometimes, not even that. I know people who can be far more persuasive with words than with weapons.”

He nodded slowly, and tilted his head. “A shot through the heart wouldn’t harm you. Your heart doesn’t pump anymore, and your body doesn’t need blood. I could fire at each of your major joints, leave you incapacitated, but that wouldn’t kill you. A shot to the head… No, you are a spiritual creature, not intellectual. Your brain is not the seat of your ability to survive.” He smiled, his teeth shining.

“Impressive. You’ve figured out a whole lot of ways to not kill me. You’re a human, right?” I lifted the gun, leveling it at his head. He showed no apparent signs of fear. “Such fragile creatures. That’s why I love you.”

“You cannot love us,” he said, his voice harsh. “And I am not finished. You are a Jiang-shi. That means you feed on Chi. It focuses on the breath, the intake of oxygen.” He pointed one of his fingers at me, thumb raised, miming a gun. “A single bullet to the throat, lodging in the esophagus. Cutting off air, and chi. Your body would not be able to feed on the Chi it needs. Body and soul would come apart.” He smiled, his teeth shining in the light as my pulse quickened. “Everything in this world can be killed. Men. Monsters. Gods.” He chuckled slowly, and the sound lengthened, croaking and creaking like a rusty chainsaw. “The wind itself.”

“Well, all of that seems like a very good reason to shoot you immediately.” My finger tightened. He grinned, and I hesitated.

“Prophecy has seen my death. It’s not here.”

“Prophecies can be wrong,” I said, and fired.

His hand was already moving as I pulled the trigger, the double-action trigger lifting the hammer. The TEC-9 rose as I squeezed, and the roar of the .500 engulfed the quick cough of the TEC-9. A hole opened in the wall behind him, just to the side. He gave me a pleasant smile.

“That’s fucking bullshit,” I said, my eyes narrowed. “I don’t care what supernatural fucking concept you slept with, you can’t stop a bullet with another bullet.”

“Life’s not fucking fair, is it? You should know that more than anyone. You can feel free to keep firing, and hope you get lucky. A lot of people have tried that tactic. But luck doesn’t help much, does it? You need to be a hero for that.”

I frowned, and lowered the weapon. “Well, attrition isn’t in my favor. I have to admit, you really know how to shoot if you’re that accurate. The TEC-9 is a piece of shit.”

“Weak souls depend on superior weapons to survive. There’s the tale of Miyamoto Musashi. In the 17th century, he defeated a foe with a bokken carved from an oar on the trip to the duel. He killed a man with a wooden sword carved in a hurry. I always found that admirable. To triumph through skill in such a way that no one could mistake it.” He squared his shoulders as he lowered his own weapon. “I wanted to speak with you.”

“Well, what do you know, that’s something we have in common. Let me guess, you want to know why I’m after you?”

“I can guess.” His face fell. “Look, Jiang-shi. You were once a human. I can respect that. You did not choose your corruption, and you live alongside humans without killing them. You don’t have the taint of murder on you. Nearly a century of undeath, and you strive to live peacefully alongside humans. That’s an admirable thing. I would hate to kill you because you chose the wrong employer.”

“Is that why you’re here?”

“Well, that’s a part of it.” He smiled. “Earl didn’t die at the hands of ‘Jill’. He was killed by the one we’re hunting. The killer. The one who rules over New York. Bastet. The Goddess of protection. You’ve felt the effects of her presence here. She killed your friend, and she is the one who has made this city a place of fear for every supernatural creature who entered. Why else would we hunt her?”

I slowly studied him. If I had the energy, if I had the strength, if I had the Yang necessary, it would be easy to close with him. He was fast, but I was superhuman. His aim aside, he was merely human. It felt so frustratingly close. But all I could do was keep him talking. “He was hardly my friend. I’ve heard some things about what this… Bastet, has accomplished here. She protects people. She keeps humanity safe.”

“She is not human. She cannot keep humans safe. She can only keep them in servitude. You’ve seen the way officer Larson responds to her presence. She no longer believes in herself. That is the nature of gods, and heroes, and monsters like you. You are powerful. And you make humans weak.” His grin grew tighter. “This is what it feels like to be on the other side of the equation, Jiang-shi. This is what Bastet does every day to the world. What justice is there in that?”

“Ah,” I nodded. “You’ve got a problem with strong women. Your mother, maybe.”

“Come now. I know Jill could kill me easily. She’s strong. Truly strong. I just provide her with some much-needed backup. But we’re getting away from the point, here. I approached you to warn you about your employer. The Lady De.”

“Yeah?” I asked, shifting on the balls of my feet. The gunshots had been loud. Someone might come to investigate. That wasn’t a good thing. I didn’t want anyone else getting in the way of this psychopath. He was building towards something.

“She is the goddess Amaterasu.” He said it matter-of-factly. “She is after us because Jill and I lured Susano-o into an ambush, shot him dead, and took Kusanagi-no-Tsurugi. She is a goddess, and she is not fond of humanity.” He smirked. “She had an unpleasant run-in with a fat man. She’s never forgiven humanity for it. She has even less fondness for Americans. I would not trust her to follow through on whatever bargain she has made with you.”

“Really?” I asked, stepping towards the window. I was aware of the tightening of his hand around the grip, but I kept moving in the hopes that it would throw him off. “Why give me that warning?”

“Because I want the goddesses dead. And I don’t particularly want to kill you. I think that things will play out the same either way, but killing you would be so…” His lip curled. “Sloppy.”

“You want to kill a being which, to my understanding, defends the Earth from apocalyptic threats. Why get squeamish about killing me? You’re going to kill countless individuals anyway.”

“When a big game hunter takes down a lion, do you think that they care about the havoc it will wreak on the ecosystem? The sudden loss of an apex predator?”

“I imagine the good ones do. If they want to keep hunting lions.”

“Well, fair enough. I’m not trying to shepherd the gods. I’m trying to exterminate them. I’m warning you because when you fail, she may take things poorly. And a goddess of sun is a dangerous thing to disappoint for the undead.”

“Too true. So, you think you’re a protagonist in this story, do you? A hero?” I gently thumbed the hammer back on the revolver, holding it in place.

“Not in the traditional sense, perhaps. But yes. This is my story. My triumph. I am the one who is going to walk away from all of this.” He smiled toothily. “I invite you to prove me wrong. The moment of despair when an opponent realizes that they’re doomed… That is a wonderful thing, you know?” He smiled, and I looked over my shoulder at him, smiling. Fixing his position in my mind.

“I’m more of a lover than a fighter.”

I dove sideways. I leapt with the strength I had built up, expending Yang Chi to spring up. No fatal shot pierced my throat, no crack of gunfire rang out. I hit the ground, rolled, and came to my feet in a single movement. I raised the heavy gun in both hands, kneeling on one foot, gun aimed where Jack’s head should be. There was no sign of him. A swirl of dust rose from the rubble in the wall, and I cursed. I stood up quickly, knees aching slightly, and moved to the wall.

“I have my reasons for all of this, you know. I was a boy when my mother was chosen as one of the handmaidens of Artemis. She was the one who taught me what the gods are truly like. Petty, and vindictive. I went to find her one day, and accidentally saw Artemis. The goddess plucked out my eye for my misdeeds. On that day-” I focused, my eyes closing. The positions of the statues. If he was willing to keep talking, to make himself obvious, I would let him. Some people just loved the sound of their own voices.

“So I dedicated myself to marksmanship, and met a woman, black-haired and lovely-” I dashed out of cover. The ten feet and half a second it took me to reach the statue stretched out like an eternity, giving me plenty of time to examine my surroundings. There were half a dozen statues in the room, ranging from slender wireframe things to massive slabs of iron and rock. I slammed into the base of the twisted, curlicued wooden statue, and pressed my back up against it. There was no snap of gunfire. Jack was a perfectionist like that. He wasn’t going to fire until he had a clear bead on me.

“It was when I was ready that I set out, and hunted Artemis down, as she had once hunted stags. The goddess tried to test wits against me-” I listened to his voice. I tilted my head slowly from side to side, pinning down exactly where he stood. I dashed out from cover again, sprinting as hard as I could. Once again, my back struck a statue, and I sank down, breathing hard, listening. He was still going on.

“It was difficult, of course, watching her die, but the satisfaction I took from it was almost sexual, and I must admit that I continue to think of it to this day-”

I sprang out from cover, spinning as I went, drawing the revolver. I leveled it at Jack’s cover, sidestepping around it, and fired.

The bullet struck a tape recorder, taped to the back of the statue, shattering its faceplate. Black tape spilled out across the floor as the speech was cut short. The cold barrel of a gun pressed into my back.

“That was one of my favorite speeches, you know,” whispered Jack, as the cold metal stroked the space between my shoulders. I froze. My joints were stiff, and growing stiffer. The exertion of the running, the building, the hopelessness, all of it was catching up with me. “Jill helped me with some of the gorier details. The sex stuff really gets under people’s skin, you know? Makes them angry. Some people get so bothered by the description of violence against women, even when the woman’s a goddess.” He chuckled softly. “Well, you tried, right?”

A flashlight came on. “Drop the gun.” Officer Blanski stood in the opening to Earl’s apartment, his pistol in one hand, his flashlight held against it, illuminating Jack. The gun was pointed squarely at Jack’s head. He was dressed in civilian clothes, a light T-shirt and a pair of slacks.

“Oh, good. I was beginning to worry you hadn’t heard us.” Jack smiled. Then he spun.

Most people have a moment of hesitation before violence. They need to think before they act. Jack, I was beginning to realize, did not have this moment of hesitation. When he moved, it was with the smooth certainty of instinct, reacting before thinking about the situation. I spun as he did, only for his TEC-9 to bark. A bullet slammed into the .500 an inch from my hand, the submachine gun’s light round slapping it from my hand, and leaving my fingers stinging as the gun fell to the ground. The TEC-9 barked twice more.

Blanski’s gun flew from his hand. And a dark red spot spread across his chest. His eyes dropped, and confusion crossed his handsome features. A familiar kind of confusion. The kind of confusion that you experience when you realize that your story has just come to a premature end.

Yin and Yang chi have many connotations. They can be a product of the supernatural, or the natural, as they were in this building. They could be channeled through breath. And they could represent powerful emotion. As I watched the sweet boy drop down to his knees, bleeding out because he’d had the audacity to save my life, I felt the Yang in the room swirl and grow stronger. I dropped and reached for the gun, my joints loose and painless. I caught the handle and trigger in one easy movement, lifting it.

Jack was already in motion, dashing across the room. I tracked easily on him, the world seeming to move in slow motion. I was utterly aware of my own breaths, and the gun did not even waver. I let the barrel rise slightly, setting it on his head, and pulled the trigger.

I don’t know why the gun didn’t fire at that moment. Later, when I examined it, I found that the double action assembly had been broken. It may be that Jack’s shot had damaged it, though that would be a surprise. It may be that the technology of the gun chose that moment to fail me- Such things happen to my kind from time to time, inexplicable failures. But Jack turned to me in the doorway, and his smile spread across his face like a crescent moon. “Look at that. What you’re feeling right now? That’s the frustration of fighting the hero.” He nodded his head towards Blanski. “Better hurry. No time to pursue me. You need to save his life. You’d just get yourself killed if you tried to follow me.” And then he was gone.

I ran to Blanski’s side, crouching down beside him. The shot had hit an artery. His heart was pumping the blood out at a terrible speed. It was only sheer adrenaline that was keeping him conscious. “Detective Li. Heard you were coming here. Was worried about you.” He coughed, and there was too much red on his lips. “Sorry. Fucked up. Didn’t follow your advice. I-” He coughed again, his words growing choked.

I felt for the connection with Dane. The power of the chi. Healing something like this was difficult. Impossible, even. I could not patch the wound, and I could not replace the blood that was being pushed out of him. Not quickly enough to save his life. But I could give him time.

I reached out, and broke the connection with Dane, the pact snapped off in an instant. I prayed that she would not need the power. I held his hand. “Blanski. Please. Let me help you. Just… let me help. You were really fantastic there, you know that? You saved my life, I’m fairly sure.” I wasn’t sure if the words were true, but I wasn’t going to split hairs. The young man was on the verge of death, and I didn’t want to see the life pour out of him. I planted a kiss on his forehead

I felt the connection take place. I exhaled every last drop of Yang Chi into him, drinking in the Yin chi as I did. He took a sharp breath, and began to gasp and pant, his eyes opening. “I- Oh, fuck. That’s a lot of blood.” I nodded, and took out my phone. I couldn’t speak. Every joint was stiffening. The place was poisonous with Yin chi, and after expelling all the energy I’d taken in, I was starved. I could only hope that I would wake up again. I felt him take the phone from my hands.

Thoughts swirled in my head as he dialed the phone, and the blackness surrounded the edges of my vision. The warning about Amaterasu, the prophecy that Jill had made, the comments. The fact that I had cut off my connection with Dane. My body felt weak, the darkness narrowing my vision down to a point. I was so weak I could barely hold myself up.

Then my face pressed against Blanski’s chest. The rich, coppery smell of blood mixed with his deodorant, the acrid tang of gunpowder, and beneath it all the musk of a human. My eyes closed, and I gritted my teeth. I couldn’t die yet. Not while his life was still in danger. The knowledge that I had to survive brought another little rush of Yang chi, making my heart pound as I squeezed him a bit tighter. The paramedics found the two of us there, my fingers still wrapped around his hands. I didn’t let go until we reached the hospital.

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