Lamia - Chapter 24

Published at 4th of August 2023 05:34:16 AM

Chapter 24

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Mark held out a hand to stop Christian under a streetlight. “I think we’re in about the right spot.”

It wasn’t the classiest part of town, by far. Around them, a mixture of older residences showed their age in battered porches and peeling paint, dotted with a few small businesses: independent services like repair or clerical work, or tiny take-out shops and a couple of bars where the local men could have a few beers and watch sports, a gas station and garage, a corner store, a cramped-looking thrift shop. It was within tolerable walking distance of downtown for most, but it was a very different sort of habitat.

Christian pulled out the bus route map he’d tucked into his backpack, and tied the cord again. With it slung back onto his shoulder, he squinted at the section of map he’d marked with sparkly star stickers. The only thing Mark considered relevant about them was that they caught the yellowish streetlight and were easy to see. “Which corner is this? Mm, right. We’re fairly neatly in the centre of the area we wanted.” A star marked the approximate home of each of five women who had been attacked by a liminal, as closely as Christian had been able to pinpoint them by divination and favours from earth and air elementals. One every third night for the past couple of weeks, and tonight continued the pattern. Since they were all fairly close together, it seemed obvious that the liminal hunting them was based in this area. “So we’re going to do the bait thing?”

“It’ll recognize me immediately,” Mark said, pulling his leather jacket more snugly around him. It was hard to tell that the spring equinox was barely a week away, given the cold wind and the ample snow. He wanted spring back. “So other options are limited. I’ve searched the area for obvious signs and there are none. So yeah, let’s hope that it believes you’re a girl and decides to go after you. Anything predatory is going to see a bit of witchblood as making you more appealling.”

He didn’t like it. He didn’t really care one way or the other about individual humans, and definitely not enough to put Christian into danger. Not even if there was a significant chance that their target would decide that avoiding lamia-marked prey, even if her fingerprints had had several days to start to fade, was more important than the delectable temptation of a witchblood snack.

On the other hand, it offended Alexandra deeply that any other liminal dared to hunt in her territory, even if it was only pursuing women who were not on her own list of potential targets, and deaths that formed a pattern could lead to questions being asked. This one, with five in a repeated pattern and a single area, was being greedy. Alexandra herself killed much less often than that, and far more selectively.

She had a more personal dislike of ganconers and liminals akin to them. They didn’t use force, but it still felt distastefully similar. Long ago, not long after she’d struck out on her own to keep her lamia parent’s increasing crankiness from turning into aggression, she’d had an unpleasant episode thanks to an overly-aggressive man. Distracted by the approach of the local lamia, who was by far the greater danger, she’d lacked the experience to deal with both situations at once with any grace or control: she’d snapped his neck and then ran for it, switching back to Mark once she was a short distance away and seeking the first train out of the city. She didn’t consider it a grudge, exactly, that she selectively chose human prey that reminded her of that man or that she had even lower tolerance for liminals that did. It kept her territory cleaner if they weren’t in it.

Plus it would make Christian happy if the five women were saved from a slow wasting death. Killing the liminal would halt that, since no more life would be drained from them. Killing was still not something Christian liked, and Alexandra had every intention of keeping him away from that bit, but he was pragmatic enough that he didn’t question the necessity.

Christian nodded, and took his rainbow earrings out of the inner pocket of his jacket; removing them from the small plastic bag they were in, he slipped them into place one at a time. Mark had seen him wear them occasionally, and really, the changes were subtle, but quite effective.

“Okay, good start,” Christian said. “Let’s see if I’ve learned enough illusion from making prey for Sid to chase around that I can add to that a bit.” He closed his eyes, his expression turning distant. A hint of darkness emphasizing eyes and lips, nothing dramatic; under his green ski jacket and the sweater that Mark thought Cecilia had knitted for him with a bit of warming magic in it, overall outline wasn’t really visible, but he adjusted details a little to make his winter boots look like they had low heels, not particularly sensible on snowy sidewalks but certainly more feminine, and changed his jeans to a long denim skirt. His nails had glittery polish on them, but that was actually something he’d done on a whim and decided he liked, not illusion. He pulled the elastic out of his shoulder-length hair and left it loose.

“Looks good,” Mark said, looking the witch over critically as he turned in place. “Almost. The long skirt’s not moving right.”

“Oh.” Christian frowned, and it turned into black leggings under a much shorter denim skirt. “Is that better?”

“Take a couple of steps? Yeah, that’s much better. Let’s hope he’s in the area and going on sight, not scent or something. If he’s cocky enough to hunt in my city despite my territory markings, and he’s hunting this often, then he’s probably cocky enough or desperate enough to keep hunting even if I’m within a couple of blocks. I’ll be watching for you, though. Yell if you need me.”

“Don’t I always?” Christian grinned at him, and sauntered off, completely unafraid.

“Phone call every fifteen, or I come looking,” Mark called after him, and Christian raised a hand in a quick wave of acknowledgement. The repeated calls would add up fast to run out the time on both plans, but it would be worth buying more. Maybe someday someone would invent unlimited time, but he wasn’t holding his breath.

In theory, this particular liminal was only a threat to women, lurking in quiet places to seduce them with sweet words, then leaving them to fade away as he slowly siphoned off their life. In practice, it wasn’t impossible that he could be angry and potentially violent if he discovered he’d been tricked.

Not that it would matter to Christian, if he knew his protector was in range.

This was an unlikely area for Alexandra to plausibly be hunting on her own and ignoring the ganconer. There were a couple of small corner bars, the sort of thing local men congregated in to watch sports with other men over a couple of beers; she’d stand out in one, but that wasn’t necessarily a bad thing. Other than that, there was just nothing normally of interest. They’d just have to hope this ganconer didn’t bother to wonder about that as long as she wasn’t too close. The tempting bait of a young female witch walking around alone should help with that.

Mark went ninety degrees from Chris, and a block away, switched to Alexandra, in snug black jeans and heeled black boots up to her knees and a fitted black wool coat that reached to the tops of her boots. At least the cold bothered Alexandra less than it did Mark. Hands in her pockets, she strolled along the street, watching for one of those little bars or for liminals.

A couple of calls back and forth established that neither had seen anything yet. Alexandra paused in one of those local bars to make a show of checking out what was available, but left after a single drink.

“Oh my goodness. Mark?”

Alexandra blinked, and actually focused on the human woman who had just stopped short in front of her, coming the opposite direction. Val, in a heavy winter coat and sensible calf-high boots, had both hands full of grocery bags, but had apparently forgotten them, her eyes wide.

Alexandra weighed options fast. She could bluff it out, claim not to know who she was or who Mark was... but there was a ganconer in the area, and Christian would be extremely upset if anything happened to Val. For that matter, Mark was grudgingly becoming accustomed to her presence, in part because Val was very good at respecting boundaries and not asking questions. Val strongly preferred women, but she was quite open about that not being an absolute, and a ganconer only needed a small opening. Someone smart and thoughtful and sensitive like Val would be nearly as enticing as a witch.

Val shook her head. “Sorry. That’s probably rude.”

“Alexandra,” Alexandra said, making herself smile instead of heaving a huge sigh. If anything happened to Chris while she was distracted with this, she’d never forgive herself. “Here, do you need a hand with those?”

“I... sure? What are you doing up around here? I mean, you look absolutely amazing, but I only know of one bar that’s okay with any kind of fun gender stuff and it’s in the back end of downtown.”

“I was visiting a friend, and now I’m on my way to meet up with Chris.” She took half the bags from Val, who released them on automatic; starting to walk in the direction Val had been going in was enough to get Val moving too. “You live near here?”

“About three blocks. I don’t want to keep you if you’ve got plans, though.”

“It’s okay.” Alexandra shifted the bags to one hand and pulled out her phone to call Chris.

“Hello? You’re early, it’s not fifteen minutes yet.”

“Heya,” she said casually. “I may be a few minutes late. I ran into Val and she’s carrying a ton of groceries. I’m going to give her a hand getting them home, then come meet you.”

“Val? Oh hell, I knew she lived in this end of town but didn’t realize it was in this neighbourhood. Uh, she recognized you?”

“Yep. Not a problem.”

“You can explain that later. Yes, please, stay with her and get her home safely. I haven’t seen anything at all so I don’t think I’m in any immediate danger. I’ll start moving towards you and meet up with you.”

“Okay, sounds good. Three blocks shouldn’t take long. Sure, I’ll tell her you said hi. See you in a few.” She hung up, tucked the phone back in her pocket, and shifted half the bags back to her other hand to pretend that they had any appreciable weight for her. At least Chris now knew that she wasn’t actively watching him for a few minutes, and he’d be able to track her, since he was familiar with and attuned to her aura. “Chris says hi.”

“I really hope I’m not keeping you from anything. I know you two are really into your privacy and all, which is understandable because not everyone has figured out that we’re almost in a whole new millenium and it’s past time to step out of the Dark Ages. But, um, are you sure you’re safe out alone in this part of town? It’s not necessarily the friendliest or most open-minded. Me, I just needed somewhere cheap to live.”

“It’s fine. I can look after myself, I promise, and my plans are flexible. And thank you for how careful you are about respecting privacy. There are things I prefer to keep to myself.”

“I’m sorry if I shouldn’t have...”

“You were surprised. It was an understandable reaction. Although not many people actually recognize me back and forth.” The odd one did, like the clerk in the video rental store, but more often people failed to make the connection. It did amuse her when people thought Mark was a crossdresser, but what other conclusion were humans going to reach, really?

Val shrugged. “Maybe people are bad at making connections? Or it isn’t even on their radar as a possibility? Idunno. Maybe from a different angle or in bar lighting or something I might not have noticed. Or maybe I’ve just had a more interesting social life than some people. Hang out at the Lesbian and Gay Association and our one and only local gay bar and the AIDS project events long enough, and you never know who you might meet. Although I’m not really surprised if a lot of people don’t figure it out. Like I said, you look really good. Left at the corner.”

Gay men bored her, since they had little or no response to lamias, and hunting women was out of the question. That was the one bar Alexandra never visited. “I tend to lean more towards private get-togethers. Or just regular bars and counting on passing. It’s late, you can’t have just finished work.”

It wasn’t subtle as a subject change, but Val went along with it. She always did. It was one of the things that Mark actually liked about her. “Later than I usually wander around. I closed at the cafe, and ran into a friend, and we grabbed a coffee to catch up. Which ran a bit longer than I expected, but I still had to hit the grocery store. I think I misjudged how much I bought. I probably should have caught a cab, but seriously, I don’t make enough to be doing that on a regular basis, and the bus route out here is only once an hour after rush hour ends, so I’d have been waiting for over half an hour just to get on it and still walking a couple of blocks, so just not worth it. It’s a nice walk when the weather’s decent but a lot less so at this time of year. Spring can come any time. Oh. Could you please tell Chris that I might be a few minutes late to the game tomorrow night? The person taking over from me at the cafe has a doctor’s appointment and she thinks she’ll be done on time but you know what appointments are like. If she’s late I’ll be late getting out and all.”

“Sure. I’ll let him know.” Inwardly, Alexandra rolled her eyes. The recent regular game sessions every second week, combining what remained of Val’s old group and Christian’s, were valuable social time for Chris, and so they were tolerable, but it still struck her as absurd, a bunch of adults playing pretend with dice and rule books. The world would probably survive the repercussions of starting late one night.

She left Val at the doorway of her basement apartment, with her groceries, and lingered on the street until she was certain that Val was inside with the door shut. One less thing to worry about. They could keep hunting without worrying about Chris’ friend being collateral damage.

She expected to find Chris nearby, but he wasn’t.

He didn’t answer his phone, either.

She knew where he had been last time they’d checked in, and she knew that he would have been tracking her, keeping them from getting too far apart. That meant she should be able to locate him fairly rapidly on the quiet snowy streets, even if it wouldn’t be quite rapid enough for her peace of mind. At a fast walk, she headed in the right approximate direction.

A moment later, she felt a tug, something like a physical pull on her but it wasn’t specific to any one part of her person or clothing. She recognized that instantly, and chose her direction at the next corner accordingly.

In the sheltered doorway of a closed flower shop, she finally spotted Chris. He was leaning against the door, cornered by a man of middling height with dark hair. She could hear the lilting rhythm of his voice, coaxing and enticing all in one, almost a song, and she saw a hand playing with Chris’ hair.

Too intent on his prey, the ganconer failed to notice Alexandra until she was no more than fifteen feet away.

He spun to flee, but tripped over nothing visible and fell into the sandy slushy mess on the sidewalk.

“Oopsie,” Chris said innocently. “Val okay?”

Alexandra ran to close the distance, and hauled the ganconer bodily to his feet by the back of his jacket. “Fine. She’ll be late for your game tomorrow. There’s a bar two blocks that way, go grab some fries and I’ll be there in a minute. This isn’t going to take long.” She spun the ganconer around so she could tangle a hand in the front of his shirt. All that struggling was futile: she was stronger, and they both knew it. That was why ganconers drained victims so slowly: any faster and they’d choke. Too many at once and it would slow the drain on each to a trickle, though that wouldn’t stop the inevitable ending, only delay it. Usually they settled for only two or three at a time.

“All right.” Chris let the rest of the illusion fall while he removed the rainbow earrings, and obeyed, back to his usual self.

“Fuckin’ illusion,” the ganconer spat, but there was white showing all around his dark eyes. “Lady lamia, y’can hardly blame a guy for making a living.”

“I don’t really care what you do,” Alexandra said. “But you chose to do it in my territory, and you are doing it sloppily and to excess. You are greedy, stupid, and arrogant, and my witch is worried about the women you’ve already preyed on here and wants them to be safe.”

“Please! You’re serving a witch, y’can’t be like...”

Up under his ribs to his heart, rip it free, and that was the end of that. She wondered idly what he might have intended to say. Liminals usually knew better than to expect mercy from a lamia.

With a shrug, she dragged body and heart around to the back of the building and heaved them into a dumpster. On the occasions that she hunted to kill, she made sure the motivation for diligent investigation would be low, since the disappearances removed known violent sources of disruption. She nonetheless moved those bodies to a place they could never be found, despite how tiring planeshifting was for lamias. The ganconer, on the other hand, would break down into dust before anyone noticed.

Job done. She could get back to Christian, now, switch back to Mark before going inside, and tell him about her encounter with Val, so they could make sure they were giving the same story. She’d done nothing to connect Alexandra directly to the Terevan house, and Val was extremely likely to be discreet, believing that the issue was human bigotry and closed-mindedness. Christian would feel good about those five women, and there was no longer a liminal hunting humans in Alexandra’s territory. All in all, a good night and a successful hunt.

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