A dirty stream of liquid wet the table under my feet. I chanced a glance at the body behind me. Only a puddle left. I've never seen that before. I knew my sword - it made vampiric flesh into goo, but not that quickly.
The creature spread her hands. Curved claws slid from her knuckles, dripping red slime. Claws that would make long gashes, just like the ones on Red's neck. He must've gotten a mere brush, because judging by the size of those claws, she could rip my heart out with one swipe. The hair grabbed, the claws shredded, and rows of needle teeth finished the job. She was a complete package.
The creature advanced, slowly, taking her time. Why not? I was cornered. Nowhere to go except outside to a three-story drop. I took a step back and bumped my elbow on the wall, near the fridge.
The hair snapped like a whip and caught my thigh. I sliced it, severing the strands, swiped the jug of kerosene off the top of the fridge, and sloshed it over her.
The creature hissed. I dropped the sword and brought my arms together. The hair clamped me and pulled, off the table, across the kitchen, closer and closer to the claws. She didn't notice the matches in my fingers until a whiff of sulfur announced a fire being born. The hair whipped in panic, lassoing me in crushing coils. I dropped the burning match into its depth.
It caught all at once. The fire surged, bright orange and hot. I tore myself free.
The creature screeched and flailed within the inferno. Something popped with the dry hiss of lard dripping into a fire. She stumbled back, crashed against the bathroom door, splintering the wood, and threw herself across the hallway into a mirror. She smashed into it again and again, breaking the glass into smaller and smaller pieces, until at last they showered from the frame.
I picked up Slayer. Stand still for a moment, and I'll cure all your problems.
The blaze belched a cloud of smoke, and the greasy stench of cooked fat filled the room. I gagged. The wealth of the creature's hair burned to ash, and gray flecks rained on the carpet and swirled around me, caught in the draft from the doorway. The creature convulsed, a lunatic sparkler about to go out.
Julie lunged from the kitchen, a knife in hand, and dived into the flames, burying her blade in the creature's stomach. Oblivious, the monster shook, gripped by a wave of spasms. Julie hacked, swinging wildly, carving chunks from the still burning body. All remnants of restraint fled from her eyes.
I grabbed her and pulled her to me, away from the fire. "Enough!"
Julie heaved, swallowing air in shuddering gasps.
The creature slammed one last time against a wall. Its back snapped like a broken twig. Rivulets of gray liquid burst under the charred husk of her corpse. The puddle spread and started shrinking. I ripped a drawer open, pulled a specimen vial from it, and scooped some filthy liquid. I corked the vial - about a third full and there were ash flakes floating in it. Probably contaminated worse than the city sewer. This was not my day.
I put my contaminated evidence on the table next to my saber and turned to Julie. "Let me see your hands. What were you thinking?"
I knew exactly what she was thinking: you or me. That creature had terrorized her. She didn't run. She didn't hide. She made a conscious decision to fight it. That was good. Except that Julie fighting a monster of this power was like trying to stop a trained Doberman with a flyswatter.
Julie's fingers had turned red where the fire had licked them. Probably minor burns. Could've been worse. "There is a tub of A&D ointment in the fridge. Put some on your hands..."
The magic blinked: gone for a second and up the next. I glanced at the doorway to check if anything came through. A tall figure stood behind my ward. Tall, slightly stooped, it wore a thin white habit. The deep hood hung over its face almost to its chest. Like a corpse, wrapped in white linen and ready for burial.
A male voice emanated from under the hood, cold, grating, dry like the sound of seashells crushed under a heavy foot. "Give me the child, human."
I had met and killed the puppets and the puppeteer decided to make an appearance. How flattering. I pointed Julie back to the left wall, out of his sight.
"What do you offer for the child?"
"Does that come with a possibility of parole?"
That threw him off track but only for a moment. "Surrender the child."
"Life, huh? That's not a very good offer. Shouldn't you at least throw in some riches and a pile of handsome men?"
"Give me the girl," the whispery voice commanded. "You're nothing, human. You're no threat. My reeves shall grate the meat from your bones."
So the hair ladies had a name. I bared my teeth. "Then why waste time talking. Take off that hoodie, and let's go."
He leaned back and thrust his arms up. Bulges rolled under the cloth, spiraling around his chest and sliding over his arms. A phantom wind stirred his habit. The cloth parted and within its depth I glimpsed an abomination of a face: a narrow fanged muzzle the color of old bruises, two huge round eyes, dead, cold, and alien like the eyes of a squid, and above them in the middle of the forehead, a soft pale green bump, palpitating like some grotesque heart. Twin streaks of gray ichor leaked from the bump, carving wet paths between the cruel eyes.
Tangles of green burst from the sleeves of the habit and split into tentacles that fastened above the door and raised Hood off the floor. He hung suspended in the tentacle net. The bump pulsated faster. His whisper flooded the apartment, so strong it soiled my skin. "Asssiiissssst..."
The magic burst from him in a cannon blast. The ward on my door tore like tissue paper and the blast smashed into me and out of the kitchen window. If the magic had substance, it would've shattered the walls. Shocked by the power, my mind took a second to comprehend that wards no longer shielded the door or the window behind my back.
A coil of black hair grabbed my waist and jerked me back with awesome force, pulling me to the broken window. I smashed into the twisted bars. Fiery pain raked my back and bit deep. I cried out.
A strand of black hair whipped my arm. Julie froze, her eyes wide in panic. The hair pulled me harder and harder, constraining my chest. I couldn't shift a muscle. A steel band crushed my lungs. I would pass out and it would get Julie.
"Kiill..." Hood rasped. Teeth bit into my shoulder and let go. The reeve screeched, burned by my blood.
She was undead. Pilot her like a vampire. I reached for her mind and hit a wall of Hood's defense. Impenetrable.
The hair squeezed. Out of options.
The pain slashed my back. I strained and let out a single word. "Amehe." Obey.
The power word tore from me in a flash of agony as if my insides were suddenly ripped from my stomach. The wall shielding the reeve's mind shattered. Hood howled in his tentacle net.