My feet crunched over bits of broken glass, but the invaders did not hear. They were too busy focusing on the sounds in front of them.
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Jeremiah and Christy were in full form- and enjoying their jobs, by the sound of it. A wild cacaphony of growls, snarls, barks, and half-formed words issued from just beyond the curtains. The four invaders were all turned toward the noises, guns raised in shaky hands, expecting the worst.
Their leader caught sight of me in his peripheral vision and whirled around, levelling his large, ugly pistol at my face. Our eyes met. His widened.
"Jesus Christ!" said Nick. "I know you! You're-"
"Dead," I said, and leapt.
The gun went off with a flashbang- deafening in the enclosed lobby- and something hot tore through my left shoulder, but there was no time to worry about it. I hit Nick midair and rammed a knee into his forehead, sending him staggering backward toward the curtain. He stumbled, shook himself, and started to raise the gun again. As he did, I darted forward and ripped it from his hands. I threw it past the curtain- I needed both hands free- and wrapped an arm around his neck, pulling him backward and onto his toes. He thrashed wildly, yelling and gurgling under my hold, and I drove a knuckle into his lower back, just to make my point.
At that moment, Jeremiah and Christy leapt through the twin curtains. In the dark, open forests of Ellis Park, the two of them had seemed large indeed. Under the low ceilings of the lobby, they were huge. Wolf-Jeremiah and Wolf-Christy bore down on their respective invaders with almost casual ease, howling and snarling and generally making hideous spectacles of themselves as they went. The man closest to Jeremiah, faced with the prospect of taking on six hundred pounds of muscle and fur-covered bone, broke and ran. Wolf-Jeremiah reached out- again, almost casually- and yanked him backward into a vicious bearhug. The hatched-faced young woman on Christy's side managed to raise her weapon, but before she could squeeze off a shot, Christy knocked it from her hands with a swipe of her paw.
Morphine stepped through the door.
The last of the invaders, unfettered but also unaided, was turning around and around, trying to point his gun at everyone all at once. When Morphine stepped through the door, he zeroed in on her nebulous form. His pistol shook in his nervous, sweaty hands.
"S-stay ba- don't- I'll fucking shoot! I swear!" His voice was high and nasal.
"No you won't," said Morphine. She stepped forward, barefoot, onto the broken glass. "Do you know why you won't shoot, little one? Why you could never, ever shoot me? Would you like to know?" She kept moving, her purposeful steps taking her ever so slowly toward the barrel of the gun. I looked down and saw that she was leaving a trail of blood from under the hem of her dress.
"Shoot her!" yelled Nick. I tightened my grip, and his cries dissolved into gurgles as he fought for breath.
"Yes," said Morphine. "Shoot me, little one. I know you want to. Won't you feel powerful when you've brought down the mighty she-vampire with your big, powerful gun? Won't you lie in bed at night, dying one day at a time, and marvel at your own courage in the face of danger? Or is danger really you're afraid of? Oh no, my little pet, I think I know what you're afraid of, and it isn't just me, is it? When the sun sets, and the night sweeps across the valley, you're just another frightened child, aren't you? Afraid of the unknown. Afraid of yourself. Afraid of living forever..."
She stopped in front of him. For a moment, I was certain she was going to stick her finger in the barrel of the gun, like Bugs Bunny in the old Warner Brothers cartoons. Instead, she plucked the weapon from his hand as easily as though he had given it to her.
"Thank you, little one," she said, and backhanded him as hard as she could. He fell to the floor and lay still.
"Good work, my friends and associates. Good work indeed." Cross materialized in the center of the scuffle, wearing an exquisitely tailored robe of midnight blue. He did not simply appear, as he had done for us so many times. Instead, he seemed to fade in from the shadows around him, stepping whole and alive out of the darkness. In his robes, he looked every inch the Old World sorcerer, conjurer of demons and monsters, and maybe he was, in his own way. It is not left to me to speculate.
"I think," he said. "That it is about time we were aquainted. Renton, release your captive!"
I opened my arms. As soon as he was free, Nick bolted from my grasp and flung himself at the wizard, drawing a knife from somewhere inside his jacket. Halfway there, he slammed into an invisible wall of force and fell backward, stunned and confused. He did not hit the floor. As he fell, Cross extended a hand, and the same invisible force wrapped itself around Nick like a restraining rope, pulling his arms apart and lifting him up off his feet, until he hung, moaning, in the air above us.
Cross strolled casually up to him and tapped him on the shoe. "Now, boy," he said. "We can talk properly. You are the one called Nick, correct?"
Nick appeared not to hear or see him. He continued moaning, and tugging at his invisible bonds.
"I asked you a question, boy! I expect an answer." Cross curled one hand into a fist. The bands of force around Nick's body tightened in response, crushing his ribs, his arms, his head. He screamed.
"Are you prepared to answer me now?" said Cross.
"Y-Y-YES! MAKE IT STOP! F-F-F-"
Cross uncurled his hands. Nick slumped in his bonds with an audible sigh.
"Very good, then," Cross said. "As I have already asked you: Your name is Nick, correct?"
"Good. You know your own name. A good sign. Tell me, Nick, what were you hoping to accomplish with this little raiding party of yours?"
Nick said nothing.
"I am waiting," said Cross. The words were filled with silent menace.
"We were exterminating," said Nick, and grinned despite the pain evident on his face. "Exterminating vermin. Scum. Monsters that should be dead but keep on living like cockroaches that you have to step on again and again. Wiping scum like you and your monsters off the face of the earth, you fat, greasy fuck!" He squinched up his face and spat at Cross. The wizard wiped it off absently.
"How charmingly medieval," he said, moving closer. "What makes us scum to you, hmm?"
"You feed off us like parasites," said Nick. "And fuck THAT. Go ahead, man, kill me. You think you can do anything to stop it, huh? There are people out there who know, and if I die, it's just another reason to wipe you fuckers off the face of the earth." He barked a laugh.
"Yes, yes," said Cross. "I know what your reasons are now, and they don't interest me. It's all been said before. What I want to know is why YOU did it, Nick. I look in your eyes and I see an intelligence that your comerades don't have. So tell me now, here, in this theater: Tell me why you hunt us. I want to know."
Nick's face twisted up in a rictus of fear and anger. "Fuck you," he said. "Kill me."
"Not a chance." Cross smiled madly. "I won't allow you to die. Not yet. Instead, if you do not tell me what I want to know...well...you've got one more chance. Feel like relenting? Or do you want to find out what's behind Curtain Number One?"
"Fine. Jeremiah?" Cross turned to the larger of the two werewolves. "That man that you have in your arms now: Kill him."
I gasped. Surely Cross would not- Jeremiah would not-
Nick thrashed wildly in his bonds. "No, wai-!"
But Jeremiah would not wait. His wolf-eyes gleamed with blood lust, and for the first time, I had a glimpse of the creature behind the amiable, athletic young man-face: A capable of doing something worthy of death. Jeremiah grinned...
And ripped open the invader's throat.
"Quit this world, quit the next world, quit quitting!" -Sufi proverb.