A young demon hunter out on his first mission encounters a little more than he had expected.
The hunter glided silently through the night shrouded streets, avoiding the revealing light of lamps with a practiced grace and a cat-like agility. No thieves or cut-throats shared the shadows with the hunter this night, when he stalked the darkness they wisely shrank back to whatever hovel they dwelled in, waiting for a night when the hunter was not on the prowl, waiting for a safer time to carry out their criminal and depraved acts. To any passersby the hunter was just another shadow, an unexplained chill down their spine, an unnerving sense of unease.
At least that’s what the hunter told himself.
He ignored the squelching of his soaking wet trainers, fortunately the puddle had not washed away any of the black paint he had coated them in, he ignored the empty beer can he accidentally kicked, anyone who heard the loud clattering would believe a cat had been startled, he ignored the people pointing and laughing in his general direction, they could not see him, they laughed at the darkness in a feeble attempt to hide their fear of it. None of these things mattered to him, he had a job to do, he was the hunter, the night shadow, the bane of darkness, he was Celestin.
He spun at the sound of his alias, cursing under his breath that he had allowed himself to be noticed. Perhaps a warlock had illuminated the area with a spell, an imp had targeted him with a fire arrow, or maybe the girl walking towards him was not as human as she appeared. Celestin tensed battle-honed muscles, ready, as always, for anything.
“Kevin, what’re you doing?”
Celestin eyed the girl suspiciously. He knew her, she had gone to the same school as him, not The School of Shadow Death from which he had recently graduated, but the school that all human children were sent to, where they were taught the trivial and inane. Her name was Chantel, her dress was too short, her heels were too high and she showed too much spray-tanned flesh to be inconspicuous to anyone but the blind or dead. Well, perhaps not the dead. She was a target, a prize that the forces of darkness would be drawn to like a moth to a flame.
“What’re you doing?” Chantel asked again.
“Working.” He cringed at his response. He must work in secret, she could not know, would not understand his purpose here tonight.
“Nothing to concern you. Go back to the light, do not linger here in the darkness, there is danger.”
Chantel’s face took on a peculiar expression. For a moment Celestin thought she might cry, he understood, he wanted to cry himself sometimes, but that was not his way. He must be cold as ice and hard as a steel blade.
He was momentarily taken aback when Chantel did not cry, but screeched with hysterical laughter.
“Hey, guys,” Chantel shouted to a group of people across the street, “come and check this out.”
The people came running towards them, a mixture of girls dressed in a similar fashion to Chantel and boys a couple of years older than them.
“Who’s this loser,” said one of the boys as he draped a muscled arm across Chantel’s bare shoulders.
“Kevin Matthews, we went to school with him. Do you remember, Trace?”
“How could I forget,” said another girl in response to Chantel’s question, “he followed me around enough.”
Celestin knew her too. She was Tracy Thomas, he admitted to himself that he had held a childish crush for her, but those days were gone, their paths had split long ago, they had separate destinies.
“He fancied you then?” the muscled boy said laughing.
“Hey you can’t blame a man for that,” another boy said grabbing Tracy’s rear, “she’s well fit. I just want to know why he’s creeping around here?”
“He’s working, he says,” Chantel laughed, “says we should keep out of the darkness, it’s dangerous he says.”
“What a loser.”
The muscled boy took his arm from around Chantel and moved towards Celestin, mockingly. “What’s the danger, loser? Are you going to protect us from the bogey man?”
Celestin ignored him, the bogey man was not his target tonight, the bogey man could wait.
“Maybe he’s the danger,” another boy said, “watch yourself, Jonesy, he might bury you under his patio.”
“Is that it,” the one called Jonsey asked, “ are you the danger, loser? Are you a ninja or something? Why don’t you show us how dangerous you are?”
Celestin resisted the urge to show him exactly how dangerous he was. His duty was to protect these people, he reminded himself, not too destroy them.
“I reckon you’re right, Jonsey,” the third boy laughed, “he’s dressed like a ninja, I reckon he’s a ninja.”
“He’s a psycho,” Chantel said.
This was getting dangerous. They were drawing too much attention, other people were beginning to look to see what the commotion was about. If these people continued to draw attention to Celestin then his enemies may become aware of him and his whole mission would be in jeopardy, not to mention the lives of these poor fools. Celestin could see only one path open to him, only one possible way to protect these innocents, he ran, the sound of laughter fading behind him as he vanished into the night.
Coming to a rest behind a wheelie bin, Celestin breathed deeply and allowed the tension to seep out of him. He had been warned about that reaction, people would never understand the job he did, would never appreciate the sacrifice he made, but it changed nothing. Celestin had taken a blood oath when he had enrolled in The School of Shadow Death, there was no turning back. He would suffer the scorn of others, he knew he would suffer far worse injuries during his career as a Soldier of Elysium, scorn was nothing to him. He had spent long hours ridding himself of emotion, now he was a focused hunter.
His breathing under control, Celestin looked about him to determine his location. He had been fortunate, he had come to rest in the very street in which his quarry lived. Luck, or the instinct of a warrior? An interesting thought but one to puzzle over another time, his target was close, and he had a job to do.
He eased himself out from behind the wheelie bin and surveyed up and down the street of semi-detached houses, quickly spotting the one he sought. Before moving any further he studied the house carefully, looking for signs of a trap. To any with an untrained eye the house looked much the same as any other in the street, clean rendered walls, painted, wooden window frames, a neatly kept garden and hanging baskets stuffed full of flowers. All perfectly normal, all completely innocent, nothing at all to even hint at the dark goings on behind the closed curtains. But Celestin was not fooled. A little too much lavender in a garden was not incriminating in itself, but mix it with a sandalwood tree, patchouli, garlic and an impressive collection of herbs led to only one conclusion. A witch lived here. And she was not the good kind.
Celestin moved soundlessly towards the house, weaving between parked cars like a wandering spirit until he came to the house next door to that of his quarry. As with all the properties in the street there was a gate at the side of the house leading to the back garden. He knew his safest route would be to approach the witch’s house via her neighbour’s garden. The gate stood a little taller than Celestin but he knew it would prove no obstacle to one of his agility. With a final look around to check no one was looking, he sped towards the gate with almost preternatural speed, at the last possible moment he leapt into the air, reached out his hands and vaulted over the gate.
For Celestin time seemed to slow as he flew over the gate and into the alley running down the side of the house. Any observer would have gasped in awe and commented that the greatest athletes in the world would not be able to best his grace and perfect form, children would point in delight and cheer, seeing someone who looked every inch the hero from a comic book. But Celestin knew that heroes from comic books were not reality. The hero knew he would always get the girl, there were no girls in Celestin’s world, deep down everyone knew the hero would survive and the villain would be defeated, Celestin knew that death and despair could be waiting around the next corner, for the hero the alleyway would be clear, no one would be inconsiderate enough to leave a bicycle just behind the gate in a comic book. Celestin was not so lucky.
The sound of Celestin colliding with the bicycle was only slightly dulled by the pain caused by the saddle’s crushing impact with his groin. Breath left his body, his vision blurred and only his highly trained warrior reflexes prevented him from vomiting all over the racing bike with its winged handlebars and eighteen gears. He took slow, deep breaths to realign his chakra as he listened carefully to see if the commotion had drawn any attention to his presence. A dog barked briefly several houses away, but other than that the street remained quiet. Celestin smiled ruefully as he untangled himself from the bicycle’s carbon fibre frame. If people were not as unobservant as the people who lived in this street, then maybe the forces of darkness would not have gained such a sure foothold on the corporeal plane.
His chakra realigned, Celestin moved silently down the darkened alleyway and into the neatly kept suburban garden. A brief scan of the area showed the garden to be occupied by only a hideous collection of gnomes, fortunately only the garden variety, any other and Celestin would have regretted leaving at home his limited addition battle axe with hand-carved scrollwork. He spotted security lighting on the side of the house and smiled again. A lesser man would not have noticed them, a common thief would have walked blindly into the garden only to be illuminated by the revealing light. There was nothing common about Celestin. He knew the range of security lighting, he had been trained by The School of Shadow Death.
He dropped to his belly and slithered expertly across the patio and onto the freshly mowed lawn. A quick look back revealed he was now out of range of the lights sensors but he slithered a little further to be sure. Satisfied, he rose to his feet and moved quickly to the wooden fence that divided this garden from that of his prey. He reached up to the top of the fence and pulled himself up to study the garden beyond.
More herbs and other things used to fuel a witch’s magical arsenal were planted in great quantity within the garden, though there was nothing obvious to indicate any guards. Witches however did not always deal in the obvious. Celestin reached inside a pouch on his utility belt and pulled out a handful of red powder. Paprika did more than merely spice food, it was excellent for detecting magical wards. A quick flick of his wrist cast the paprika across the garden and Celestin watched closely looking for the tell-tale blue shimmering in the air that would reveal a magical ward. He grinned when no such shimmer appeared. The witch felt secure in her lair, her arrogance would prove to be to Celestin’s benefit.
He vaulted over the fence coming to land in a standard combat position, chosen for the ease with which he could avoid a barrage of magical fireballs or flow into an offensive strike against a previously unseen opponent. His caution proved unnecessary, but caution was what kept a Soldier of Elysium alive. A faint illumination came from behind the curtains of the patio doors, wasting no more time Celestin darted towards them and flattened himself against the wall. He could hear muffled voices coming from within the house, but despite his highly sensitised hearing he could not make out any of the words. A kitchen door stood to his right a little further along the rear of the house, keeping his back to the wall he moved stealthily towards it. Hearing nothing at the back door he reached out a hand towards the handle, it moved at the slightest touch. Unlocked. Celestin smiled. This witch was a fool. Before entering he made a quick survey of his weapons, throwing knives every one of them, there would be no hand to hand combat here, any half decent witch would be able to get off several deadly incantations in the time it took him to close the distance with her. No, tonight it would be a quick strike and out. His heart beating heavily in his chest he took one deep breath and dived through the door, rolled across the kitchen floor and came up in a crouch, throwing knives at the ready.
Nothing moved in the kitchen other than the steam rising from a large pot on the stove. Celestin moved towards it grimly, not wanting to look inside but feeling compelled by duty and a morbid fascination. Who knew what a witch would have bubbling in her cauldron, what foul brew she would be preparing to unleash upon the world, what nightmarish stew of villainy and hate would be suffered by humanity. He gingerly lifted the lid and looked inside. Chile con carne. Well, Celestin thought as he shrugged and replaced the lid, even witches must eat sometime.
Stepping silently out of the kitchen he found himself in a hallway, there was a door straight ahead of him but the voices he had heard earlier came from further down the hall. He moved cautiously down the corridor towards the voices and a reddish glow that illuminated his path until he came to a pair of pine, louvered doors. He could now hear the voices distinctly, one was harsh, guttural the other soft and melodious, definitely belonging to a woman. He put his eye to a crack between the doors and peered in.
Immediately he located the owner of the woman’s voice, she stood with her back to some heavy curtains that Celestin assumed covered the patio doors, but it was the woman herself that held his attention. She was simply the most stunning woman he had ever seen. A little older than he she had waves of black hair falling to her shoulders, firm, round breasts heaving just above her tightly clinging top, a face of unspeakable beauty, firm, round breasts heaving just above her tightly clinging top, a long red skirt covering her shapely hips, firm, round breasts heaving just above her tightly clinging top, heeled, black boots sticking out from beneath her hem, firm, round breasts...Celestin snapped his attention back to the woman’s face. He had to concentrate, he was a professional with a job to do.
“Everything has been prepared as instructed,” the woman spoke to someone Celestin could not see. “When the day comes we will be ready.”
“And are you prepared?”
Celestin could not see the owner of the second voice but something about it sent a chill down his spine, it was too harsh to belong to any human being.
“I have been prepared since the day of my birth.”
“Of course you have.” The second voice sounded amused.
The woman raised her chin slightly and her eyes stared at the unseen speaker coldly. “I do not care for your tone. Remember who I am and who I will become. The faithful will be rewarded, the unfaithful...” She did not bother to finish her sentence though the threat was plain to hear.
“Forgive me, I meant no offence, My Lady. Your report has been most satisfactory. If there is nothing else?” It may have been Celestin’s imagination but he thought he detected a slight mocking in the speaker’s tone.
Apparently the woman had detected it too for her face took on an even frostier expression. “You are dismissed,” she said, displeasure ringing like a bell in every word.
Suddenly Celestin could hear a sucking sound, like air being pulled through a hole. It only went on for a matter of seconds, but with it went the reddish light that illuminated the room. It was replaced with a dim light that appeared to be coming from some cloth covered table lamps. Celestin’s heart beat faster within his chest. What manner of creature would leave in such a fashion? Plainly this woman was the witch he hunted but it appeared as though something larger was going on. What had she been giving a report on, and what was she prepared for? He wracked his brains fiercely, wondering what to do. Should he kill the witch now as he had originally intended or should he try interrogating her for more information? He made up his mind, a straight kill would be the safest option. He was a formidable warrior but he was not prepared to interrogate a magic user. He would need a powerful good witch or warlock to aid him, to block her spells. Celestin worked alone.
His mind set, his knives ready, Celestin took one last look through the crack before he attacked. The woman’s air of confidence appeared to have vanished with the unseen speaker, it was replaced by a worried frown. Something about her exchange with the speaker was troubling her. It did not matter to Celestin, it was time for her to die.
“Can I help you, dear?”
Celestin’s heart leapt into his mouth at the sound of the unexpected voice. He spun to face the newcomer, his highly developed warrior reflexes reacting without conscious thought. Swipe, swipe, jab, jab, high kick, swipe! A classic combination, a killing combination, a combination that would destroy any enemy that stood before him.
At least it would of if that enemy had not been standing six feet away.
The distance gave Celestin a chance to study his opponent more closely and he breathed a sigh of relief. It was not an agent of evil at all but an old lady with a blue-rinsed perm, a knitted flowery cardigan and a look of curiosity on her grandmotherly face. He had not missed then, Celestin told himself, some subconscious thought had battled with his highly developed warrior reflexes to keep the old lady from harm.
“Are you alright, dear?” the old lady said.
“You must flee this place,” Celestin whispered urgently.
“You’ll have to speak up, dear, I’m a little deaf.”
“Get out,” he whispered still.
“No, I still can’t hear you. It’s this new hearing aid, it’s not as good as my last one, but the doctor insisted it needed replacing.”
“Leave, you are in danger!”
“Eh? You need to speak up...”
She was interrupted by the opening of the pair of pine, louvered doors. Celestin turned to see firm, round breasts heaving just above a tightly clinging top. He looked up into the beautiful woman’s face, only now realising how tall she was. He prepared to meet her in hand to hand combat, knowing that it was too late but his sense of honour cried out to protect the old lady.
“Run,” he roared, “she’s a witch! Flee for your very soul!”
“Oh, you’re here to destroy the witch,” the old lady said, “why didn’t you just say so. That’s me, dear. Calepseo!”
The old lady flung out her hand in Celestin’s direction, a wave of magical energy swept over him, his vision blurred, the hallway spun, he felt himself falling as he was engulfed in darkness.
It was the sound of a kettle boiling that woke him, the old fashioned kind that whistles. Slowly his vision returned, blurred at first but gradually becoming clearer. He found himself looking down at his own legs and he appeared to be sitting in an old wooden chair. He tried moving his arms but he could not, they seemed to be tied behind him, though he dimly noted that his legs were free. The sound of someone taking the whistling kettle off the stove made him look up. He saw he was sitting in the kitchen, the large pot with chilli con carne in it was still bubbling away, the old lady was pouring water into a small teapot.
“Where am I?” Celestin said a little groggily, though he wondered why as he had already identified exactly where he was.
“Oh good, you’re awake,” the old lady said, putting the kettle down and turning towards him.
“What foul concoction are you brewing now, hag?”
“Tea, milk, no sugar. Would you like some?”
“I will drink nothing made by your foul hand, witch,” Celestin spat defiantly. The very thought of drinking something made by an agent of the dark turned his stomach, besides he did not like tea.
Celestin was a coffee man.
“Suit yourself.” The old lady pulled up a rocking chair, it had a pile of knitting sat on a cushion. She picked the knitting up, sat down and began clicking away whilst fixing him with a steely gaze. “Now we will begin with a few simple questions, starting with your name.”
Celestin smirked. The School of Shadow Death had trained him to resist against interrogation techniques, the witch would have to do a lot better than knitting to crack his resolve. “My identity is secret,” he said.
The old lady frowned at him. “Oh dear, you’re not going to be troublesome are you? I do hate it when they’re troublesome, it makes such a mess on the lino. It would be so much easier if you just told me everything you know about my granddaughter.”
“Yes, you were admiring her earlier. You seemed to be under the impression that she practiced the craft.”
“If she’s not a witch then what is she?”
The witch paused in her knitting and studied Celestin carefully for a long moment. A small smile appeared on her thin lips. “You really don’t know, do you.” Suddenly the witch cackled, rocking back and forth in her chair with glee. “You have no idea what you’ve stumbled on.”
Tears were rolling down the witch’s cheeks. Celestin felt his own cheeks burning with anger and embarrassment, he was being mocked by the old hag and he had no idea why. It was time to readjust the balance.
“You would be surprised at what we do know, hag,” he spat. He felt a small spark of satisfaction when her cackles began to die down.
“We? Who’s we?”
Celestin smiled but said nothing. Let her play the guessing game. Suddenly the witch pointed a knitting needle at him and Celestin flinched away instinctively. The chair gave an ominous creak at his sudden movement, Celestin suppressed another smile as the witch stared at him down the long point of the needle.
“You will tell me everything you know,” she said, “one way or another. We are too close to what we have worked for to allow for any interference. By the look of you I would say you were a sad loser who just happened to stumble onto something he doesn’t fully understand. The question is, do you have any friends at all, or are you working alone?”
Celestin had no friends. Something about that thought made him sad, but he buried the emotion. He had made his choice.
The witch stood up from her rocking chair and stepped towards him, knitting needle pointing at him like a damning finger. Celestin tensed.
“I know your type,” the witch said. “You sit alone in your room reading comic books and downloading things on the internet, dreaming of being something you’re not, wishing you were more than you are, and then one day you stumble on something, something that people with a life would dismiss as fantasy. But not you, you believe every word.” The old lady stood right before him, the knitting needle pressed lightly against his chest. “So you dress yourself up, convince yourself that you’re a hero, look for signs, and then in you blunder to a world you cannot begin to understand.” The knitting needle found a gap in his shirt and hooked onto a leather cord that hung around Celestin’s neck. “Some have friends,” the witch went on, “they cluster together, a small gang of pathetic weirdoes, convincing each other that they belong, that they have a purpose. But others do not even have that luxury.” The knitting needle began to pull the leather cord out of his shirt. “And I suspect you are one of those. A nobody, somebody that won’t be missed. How very convenient.”
The pendant that hung on the leather cord popped out of his shirt, the witch looked at it and suddenly she hissed, pulled back, her eyes growing wide with fear.
Celestin had no idea who Lucius was or why the witch would shriek his name in such obvious terror, but he knew what the pendant was. He had received it on graduation at The School of Shadow Death, it was their emblem, a dagger stabbing straight down through a black, corrupted heart, the emblem of a Soldier of Elysium. But none of that mattered. The only thing that Celestin cared about at that moment was that the witch had inadvertently positioned herself perfectly.
Celestin kicked out at the witch knocking her into the rocking chair with such force that it fell over backwards tumbling her onto the kitchen floor. In the same instant Celestin stood, still tied to the chair and slammed it hard against a kitchen cupboard, shattering the chair into several pieces and freeing him from his bonds. The witch was already beginning to recover but Celestin gave her no time, he dived and rolled past her coming up next to the kitchen stove, ready for battle as always. The witch began to rise to her feet, muttering an incantation that would surely mean Celestin’s death. Heroes throughout literature were often linked to certain weapons, King Arthur had Excalibur, Robin Hood a longbow and Hercules the strength of the gods, but this was the real world and Celestin had to resort to the only weapon to hand.
A pot of bubbling chilli con carne.
Grasping the pot firmly Celestin lifted it off the stove and flung it straight at the witch’s head. She did not even have time to scream as scolding hot chilli poured over her in a shower of spicy doom. The witch staggered back, kidney beans, beef mince and hot sauce oozing over her face and burning her eyes, her legs tangled in the overturned rocking chair, she fell, her neck coming down hard on the kitchen work surface with a sickening crack signalling her demise as she fell lifelessly to the floor.
Celestin breathed hard, his adrenalin pumping, causing his whole body to shake. He had won, his first mission had been a success but he felt no satisfaction as he stared down at his victim. The witch had been right, he had stumbled onto something he knew nothing about. Who was her granddaughter and was the identity of the unseen speaker? A quick search of the rest of the house revealed that the beautiful woman was long gone and he found nothing to indicate what he had stumbled onto. That concerned him greatly. He would report back to The School of Shadow Death as he was required to do but it bothered him that he had not been able to discover the witch’s plans. The only thing he knew for certain was whatever those plans were they would not bode well for humanity. That fact would not stop him, he would not falter in his duty, he had a job to do and he would do it well or die. Whatever the forces of darkness had planned they would find him standing in their way no matter what. He was a Soldier of Elysium, a warrior of the light, a graduate of The School of Shadow Death.
He was Celestin.