It was likely something in her expression which made it so that the bouncer, once passed her I.D., didn’t attempt to commence the usual hassle about her height and simply stepped aside to allow her into the club.
The interior of the Black Dahlia was packed full with people, the reflective tile awash with the reflection of the countless writhing bodies filling the club from wall to wall. Strobe lights flashed in erratic patterns overhead, rapidly transitioning from liquid violet to acid green to hot pink to ocean blue in a dizzying display amidst the red light glaring down from the ceiling. The walls and the top of the bar, like the floor, were patterned in black.
“A false ID, Kennina? Tsk!”
“Oh, as if you’re any better.” She replied turning in the direction of his voice to meet his blue eyes, slightly hazed and watering. “Not a single one of the three of us is 21; as a matter of fact, I’m the oldest one here!”
“Any better? I’m worse!” Her taller friend hiccupped. “I won’t be 19 for two more weeks, remember?”
He was teetering back and forth ever so slightly, and she could smell the faint tinge of alcohol on his person. “You started drinking without me?”
“You are the world’s biggest lightweight, I hope you know that!” Alaric only grinned stupidly in response. “Where’s Etain?”
“Where do you think? She’s at the bar.”
“Well, we’d better get over there before they completely run out then.”
Maneuvering through the crowd clogging the floor with only some difficulty the pair made it over to the bar and found Etain smirking at them over a flagon of beer, poised to drop a small shot of whiskey into the amber-colored liquid.
“Glad to see that you could finally make it, Lane.” She jeered. “Man of the house hold you up?”
“If by ‘man of the house’ you mean my cat, then yes. I had to feed him again.” She replied, pulling herself up onto the seat nearest to her friend and rival while Alaric clambered into another with all the grace of a hammered elephant. “If things keep up the way they have, my cat will end up occupying my entire apartment on his own.”
“Sergio is an adorable little kitty cat; if you ever need anyone to take care of him I’ll do it!”
Kennina raised an eyebrow at the other woman. “How long have the two of you been here?”
“About 10 minutes.”
“And how much has he had?”
Etain eyed him for a moment before she sighed. “One shot, as far as I’m aware. If he had another, I didn’t see it.”
“Well, I suppose that’s what makes drinking with him so entertaining.” Her gaze shifted to the bartender, well dressed in an all-black uniform with hair cut short and face clean shaven cloth held in one large dark hand and clean glass in the other, as he came over.
“What can I get for you?”
“Long Island Ice Tea, please.”
Etain snorted. “How very feminine of you.”
Kennina rolled her eyes, accepting the drink when it was passed to her. “I’m not about to risk getting any more than buzzed tonight; I don’t want to make a complete fool of myself!”
“Oh, that’s right,” a devilish grin spread across her already impish face, “you have your date with Lord Kharon in one hour.”
“It’s hardly what you make it sound like.” She drawled, pulling the straw towards her to take a sip of her drink. “I’m possibly being considered for a promotion; showing up drunk would most definitely not help my case.”
“Don’t bother finishing that, then.”
“Please! I may be small but, unlike Alaric here, I can handle a drink or two!” She snorted, the ice floating in the warm colored liquid clattering softly against the sides of her glass as Kennina stirred the contents with her straw. “Not like I ordered something all that strong anyway, at least by the standards of my usual; do me a favor and don’t get yourselves killed if you’re called back out tonight.”
“We may not be the all-powerful rank #1 ‘Lioness’ Kennina Lane, but we scored just after you-ranks #2 and #3-on the entrance exam. You really need to have more faith in us.”
“I have plenty of faith in both of you,” a loud clattering sound as Alaric upended his drink trying to remain upright in his chair. “When you’re sober, that is.” Both women watched in silence as their companion finally succeeded in returning himself to a shaky equilibrium atop his stool. “If you only wanted to drink, why come to a club of all places? Usual venue not good enough anymore?”
“Aside from the fact that the barkeep there has gotten it into his idiot head that he knows better than I do when to cut me off?”
Kennina smirked wryly over the rim of her drink, nodding. “Yes, other than that.”
“Because this place just opened and I wanted a chance to check it out, but we don’t have the time to actually go clubbing until we have a day off and those are exceedingly rare to come by in our line of work.”
“Fair enough reason.”
The brunet nodded, signaling for another drink. “I agree.”
By the time she had finished her drink Alaric had all but passed out drunk on top of the bar and Etain was clearly beginning to feel it. Sighing, she got to her feet and pulled her coat back around her thin shoulders. “I should get going; I still need to get across town to headquarters and if I wait any longer there’s no guarantee that I’ll make it to my appointment in time.” Pushing the barstool back into place with her foot, she added “be sure to pass off any calls you get to another squad; with how wasted the two of you are heading out to exterminate anymore of those fang-faced freaks won’t amount to any sort of success.”
Alaric muttered something incoherent and Etain’s sharp-edged if somewhat slurred retort was drowned in her sixth drink.
Pushing her way insistently through the thickening crowds, Kennina managed to make it out of the door in just under two minute’s time. After the heat and crush of the Black Dahlia’s interior the chilling openness of the winter streets came as a mild shock to her body, sending goosebumps flushing down her arms; a cold breeze pulled the loose strands of her hair into a drunken dance as she hurried to the side of the street and flagged down a passing gypsy cab.
The leather seats were dry and cracked and the carpets were fraying, the mercifully heated interior smelling of rubber old chewing gum and what might have been popcorn; the glass partition separating the front of the cab from the back slid back and the driver, a pot-bellied man with a thinning hairline, glanced over his shoulder to address her.
“78-79 Broadway at Wall Street; Trinity Church.” Muttering something along the lines of ‘crazy worshiping types’ the driver slid the window closed again and moments later the cab slid seamlessly away from the curb and back into the eternal flow of the city streets.
The traffic was light that night, thankfully, allowing her to reach her destination in a record 25 minutes. Paying the driver the required toll of cash with a word of thanks and the most friendly smile that she could manage, Kennina watched the yellow checker-board cab pull away until its red tail lights had disappeared into the distance before quickly glancing down at her cellphone in order to check the time again; 10 minutes left to go before the meeting. I’d better head inside.
Bowing her head against the steely gusts which jounced the naked ebony talons of the stripped trees together, Kennina quickened her pace to a brisk jog as she made her way up the stone-paved path which charted a meandering trail through the rows of crooked head-stones with faces long worn smooth towards the front doors of the massive Gothic Revival church.
The cavernous ceiling arched to its completion far above her, the faces of saints angels a gargoyles spinning overhead in the dim light cast by a wall of burning tea candles. Her quiet footsteps resounded in the empty space, shooting down the open aisles between the abandoned pews to return to her ears like the rumbling of distant thunder as the hot standing air-thickly perfumed with the almost sickly sweet smoke of incense which tickled the back of her throat with each exhale-pushing down upon her shoulders.
Reaching the front of the church after what felt like an eternity Kennina skirted around the altar to the wall all but hidden behind it, tracing her fingers along the grain of the old stone until she located the small indentation which had been carved into it; no bigger than the average size of a decorative adornment to a keychain. Reaching into her purse, she fumbled around for a moment before removing a silver gothic cross-a crest, carried by all sworn in hunters-and setting it into the small hollow.
“Eros In nomine Michael et angeli benedictionem peto ut me ingressum.” The crest began to glow with a piercing white light which slowly spread outwards along the hidden cracks and fissures in the wall, the formerly solid stone shifting position and sliding into place to create an archway through which she could pass.
Retrieving her crest from the time-worn brick and replacing it in her purse Kennina stepped without hesitation into the bright light, feeling its warmth embrace her clinging momentarily to her body like a wall of gelatin, and then her eyes adjusted and she was standing in the headquarters of the Slayer’s Guild.
The lobby was enormous circular and open, the ceiling held up by the resolute squared off pillars positioned at intervals around the room and the air-artificially chilled despite the cold of the winter outside-perfumed by metal, rubbing alcohol and bleach; everything was patterned in various shades of black and white and men and woman dressed in suits and hunting gear were darting into elevators and through doorways totting briefcases teetering stacks of paperwork or weapons; the floors were paved in stark white tile, a massive version of the Guild’s crest-a snarling heraldic wolf emblazoned against a solid sable background-was imprinted dead center of the room wreathed by their motto, ‘Gladium in Tenebris Sumus’: We Are the Sword in the Shadows.
Beginning to border on late she hurriedly sprinted to the nearest elevator and slipped inside between the rapidly closing doors, mashing the button labeled PENTHOUSE with the heel of her palm before retreating into one corner of the otherwise empty space. She chewed on her lower lip the entire 37 story ride straight up, shifting her weight constantly from foot to foot and never quite able to sit still.
When the doors finally slid open again with a soft ding she released the breath that she’d been holding in a relived sigh, heading immediately to the desk in the waiting area behind which a young woman sat.
“Excuse me,” the secretary looked up at her hawkishly over the rims of her cat’s-eye glasses. “I’m here to speak with Lord Kharon on appointment.”
“He’ll see you now; head to his office.” Nasal. Sharp. Cold. All in all, Kennina was glad to get away from the crow-like woman and wasted no time in fleeing down another nearby hallway.
The door at the end was well made from heavy dark stained oak wood, golden letters proclaiming OFFICE emblazoned on the front. As she reached it she extended a hand to knock but voices from the other side gave her pause with her knuckles only a few inches away from the wood.
“It doesn’t matter; Eros’ will was shattered over 500 years ago when he killed his precious wife with his own two hands. Curse of Invulnerability and powers of the Demon Naberius aside, that coward is no threat.” A second voice, this one easily recognizable as Kharon’s, snapped. “The Dhampir are safe, Veles. Do not doubt my ability.”
“You say that there is no need for our Mother to become involved, to trust your ability to control them, and yet with all the time that you’ve spent amongst the mortals you, Kharon, have lost your edge!”
Something shattered against the floor as a chair was pushed back, hands slamming against the wooden top of a desk with a loud thud. “How dare you question-!”
“Contain yourself, brother. Our conversation is no longer private.” The second voice, raspy and hissing like the scales of a snake rattling against dry fallen leaves warned; inhuman sounding and more than enough to chill her blood. “There’s someone standing behind the door.”
Kennina only had time enough to scramble away from having her ear completely pressed against the wood and school her features into a mask of innocent surprise before the door was yanked open to reveal the leader of the Slayer’s Guild.
Kharon was a harsh man, if one possessed of a silver tongue he more than made use of. Tall, intimidating and built like a wall with massive shoulders and a broad muscular chest his face was comprised of all sharp features, stark lines and pale flesh black eyes overly intense and marred by a jagged scar running the length diagonal of his face. His hair, dark in coloring but not quite black, was long and unkempt hanging down into his eyes in chaotic greasy strands and cresting into a widow’s peak at the center of his forehead.
“Ms. Lane,” he snarled, voice cold and menacing as he stared her down, “what are you doing here?”
For a moment or two after the unfriendly demand Kennina simply stood there, mouth hanging open in a perfect o of surprise, before she managed to relocate her voice. “I…my appointment Sir?”
“Appointment?” Kharon turned suddenly and tramped back to his desk, yanking the top drawer of his desk open and closed three times in a bizarre display before grabbing a small calendar and tossing it down atop the desk. Ripping it open, he thumbed rapidly through it to the correct month before examining the notations made on the day and nodding. “Oh, yes. Your appointment on the matter of a possible promotion. I’d…forgotten. Come in.”
She hesitated for a moment further before crossing the threshold and stepping into his office. The Guild Leader’s other company-a young man with short brown appearing to be in his 20s whose eyes almost seemed to glow a disconcerting yellow behind the stark black bar of slit pupils-following her movement with his unnatural stare.
“How much did you overhear?” her attention was jerked back to the darker male at the sound of his harsh question.
“Overhear, Sir?” Kennina repeated, mentally thanking God for the fact that her voice remained steady and level and her gaze unflinching. “Until you let me in, Lord Kharon, I wasn’t even aware that you had company.”
“Veles, get out!” She flinched at his bellow with a sharp intake of breath; the other man retained his ground for another few seconds before abruptly turning and leaving the office, closing the door behind him.
No longer stifled by the piercing reptilian stare, Kennina allowed herself to discretely examine the small space. The office was warmed by a fire crackling in the stone hearth, the smoke coming off of it infusing the air to mingle with the scents of ink and fresh parchment. The source of the shattering sound that she had heard was a crystal ink-well which had toppled off of the cluttered desk during the heated argument very little of which she’d fully understood, the silver shards gleaming as they lay scattered amidst a rapidly spreading puddle of black ink but if he noticed her superior didn’t seem to mind.
“How did the hunt go?”
She blinked in confusion. “Hunt?”
He nodded, seating himself in the wing back chair positioned behind the desk to peer at her over the top of steepled ring-adorned fingers. “Your assignment tonight.”
“Oh!” That was right, the mission; sharp though she’d wanted to remain for her meeting with the current leader of the Slayer’s Guild perhaps she could have done with another drink or two to help her relax. “It went well, Sir. We located the Malformed pack-eight in total-within half an hour and between the three of us managed to dispatch them all without incident. I can submit a full report on the matter come morning, if you’d like?”
“That won’t be necessary, Ms. Lane.” He replied, repeating the earlier behavior of opening the drawer three times before pulling out a fresh ink-well and dipping a feather quill into it, clearing the excess from the metal tip before delicately setting it to paper. “I’ll continue reviewing your application and will have made my decision in regards to the matter for the promotion within the next few weeks; I’ll get back to you regardless of my decision. For now, you’re dismissed.”
Dismissed? Just like that? No tests? No interrogation? Not even a single pointed question, aside from ‘how much did you overhear’? It struck her as fairly strange, but she knew that at the moment she was in no position to question his authority.
“Of course, Sir. Thank you for taking the time to consider me for the position, Lord Kharon.” She hastily bowed out after receiving a distracted grunt in reply, closing the door of his office quietly behind her and proceeding passed the crow-woman back to the elevator.
Just what was it that she had overheard? From how defensive their leader had made a point of being about the matter, whatever it was was top secret. Or, perhaps, incriminating.
She kept her head down and eyes straight ahead as she moved through the headquarters’ halls, taking care to stay out of the way as she made a beeline for the door marked EXIT. Kennina relaxed only once the door had clicked shut behind her and she was surrounded by the calm and silence of an empty crypt.
Whatever was really going on behind the scenes it likely wasn’t good, but before she attempted to do any digging on the matter there were a number of terms that she needed better defined. And she needed to be sure that the information, however sensitive its nature, wouldn’t cost them their lives before she went and got anyone involved.
Bundling her coat tighter around her shoulders, Kennina scaled the stone steps of the crypt and set out back through the graveyard in front of the church.
Tomorrow was another day.ns 184.108.40.206da2