I stared into the abyss, waiting for it to stare back. Instead, the veil of darkness lifted and I could see my ceiling clearly with what little light made it through the curtain cloaked over my window. Everything was oddly still and serine. Silence permeated every corner of the room, and even my bed made no sound as I lifted my hand and put up three fingers. Three, two, one. As soon as I reached zero, a knock resounded at my door. Right on time.
"Who is it?" I asked.
"Me." The familiar voice needed no introduction.
Rolling over, I stood, reaching for a pair of pants to dress myself. I opened my room door to Doc on the other side. I couldn't see much detail, as only his silhouette stood against the light as he towered over me like he does everyone else. The hallway light bothered my eyes a little, so I blinked as it flooded into my room.
"Were you asleep, Krow?"
"Yeah, but it doesn't really matter that much; I just woke up a few seconds before you knocked."
"In that case, get ready. We got a mission."
"Where?" I stretched and popped my joints before finding my way back to my bed and taking a seat.
"The Vatican." Doc was now leaning against the door frame.
"Huh, I thought they could take care of their own stuff."
"Looks like a special case. You're taking the lead."
"Me, really? Alright." I began looking for a change of clothes in the dark instead of turning on the light. "Who else is coming?"
"Just us. It's the Vatican, remember?"
"Oh, yeah." I stretched out a finger. "Light ball." A small dull sphere of light blinked into existence at my fingertip. Its wide spread of low-light was much preferred to the all-encompassing blindness the room light would have caused. "I'll be up and moving in a bit." Reaching into nearby dresser drawers, I began assembling an outfit.
"Alright, I'll leave the letter they sent." He tossed it on my bed and closed my door.
After finding what I needed, I gathered my clothes together, went to the bathroom, and took a shower. On the way back to my room, I heard someone quarreling downstairs. Sara likely caught wind of the mission and wanted to come along, but it was the Vatican. Times may change, but they only ever worked with men except under special circumstances. That thought got me wondering if the reason we were going qualified as special enough despite the contents of the letter only asking for men specifically.
The conversation was still going by the time I got to the stairs leading down. I couldn't see either participant since they were in the living room away from the stairway and the hall was clear to the front door.
"I already told you what the letter said. Only Krow and I are going. This may be a special case, but for some reason, they're not making exceptions." Doc sounded calm as always, but he was obviously annoyed.
"I still think it's stupid. If they're having that much trouble, shouldn't we all just go?" Sara was as persistent as always.
"I know, this is the third time you said that but like I said; we're dealing with the Vatican and they're not making exceptions.
"Doc, I'm at the door," I called, opening the door into the enclosed porch and quickly making my way outside through the next door.
"I'll be there," he called back.
I waited about a minute before Doc appeared in a red long-sleeve and black jeans. We were dressed similarly as I had on a grey short-sleeve and black jeans.
"Sara still where you left her?" I was sure she wouldn't be able to hitch a ride on Doc so easily without him knowing, but it was still worth asking.
"Still where I left her." He looked ahead to the edge of the yard in the distance.
Wasting no time, we headed into the nearby forest and stepped in between the trees. The letter we held began to glow and tug away from us as it led us along a specific path. Less than a minute of travel later, the trees grew taller and more varied than the oak and pines that surrounded the house. Eventually, the dense forest we walked into was completely replaced with one of a much smaller scale and ruins could be seen in the distance accompanied by the sounds of tourism.
"Looks like we're here," I said, taking a full turn around and taking in my new surroundings. Closing my eyes, I felt the natural energy swirl around me. It was both calming and volatile. Opening my eyes, I saw the city from above. There was nothing but partly cloudy sky in all directions as I faced downward, wind whipping by me. This was accompanied by a feeling of danger and euphoria as if I was at the cusp of death yet drowning in awe of my surroundings.
Suddenly, I felt a hand on my shoulder and I was back on my feet in the forest. "Astral-projecting again?" Doc smiled. He was the only one who could tell when it happened.
"Not really. That's not how it feels." I shrugged.
"But it's like you leave your body every time," he said like he does every time.
"Eh, probably." I started walking again, exiting the small garden-like forest. "So, when are we going to meet the client?" I asked.
"Before nightfall. That's when we get down to business." He reached into his pocket and pulled out a map of the city littered with markers. "But first, where do you want to go? They have good yogurt here as well as shaved ice."
"I like ice."
We wandered around the city trying the local delicacies. Despite the wide variety of historical structures, we only visited the ruins. After all, the most interesting parts of humanity are what's left behind.
An hour before sunset, we headed for the Vatican. There were swarms of tourists traveling around either with or without a guide in search of sights to behold. Doc and I went straight for the Apostolic Palace. We headed for a side entrance but a guard in blue stopped us.
"Excuse me, sirs, the main entrance is over there." He pointed over to where most of the crowds gathered.
"Oh, what a terrible night for a curse." I gave the phrase we were told in the letter while looking toward the sky.
"Right this way." The man led us between the buildings until we were in an impossibly placed parking lot near the Sistine Chapel. We entered through a gated door and down one of the many marble hallways before turning toward a blank wall. It vanished to reveal a gray stone spiral staircase lined with torch lamps.
As we descended, I noticed something peculiar about the lamps. They had a strong aura of magic and a bit of something else that I couldn't quite put my finger on emanating from them.
"What's up with these torch lamps?" I said, eyeing each one as we passed it.
"Those are holy lanterns. They are enchanted so that when exposed to holy energy the flames turn gold and when exposed to unholy energy they turn blue." Doc and I looked at each other in recognition as we continued to descend.
The staircase didn't lead far. Maybe around three stories down to a large, dark, stone room. There was barely any light, despite being lined with holy lanterns. They only showed as faint orange glimmers in the distance.
"This is as far as I go." The guard turned and headed back up the stairs.
We took a few cautious steps into the eerie blackness. Suddenly, one of the lights on the far side of the room turned a bright blue and began growing larger. I looked over at Doc, knowing that he wouldn't make a mistake, but he was no longer there.
I watched the light continue to grow as it rapidly approached and something struck me as odd. There was no heat despite it being a ball of fire. I concentrated on my eyes and cast 'sight'. The darkness lifted and the rest of the room came into view.
Like the stairs, this room was stone, but it wasn't half as big as previously thought. The lamps made more than enough light to see the small crowd of old men in pale cloaks. They turned and went through different doorways in separate directions. All except one.
"This way." The cloaked man led us through a series of well-lit corridors to a large red-oak door shaped like a cross. The man knocked twice, paused, and knocked once more. I could hear a faint voice from the other side of the door and then he opened it.
The inside of the room was completely different from the outside. Wooden shelves filled with scrolls, books, and religious trinkets lined the walls. There was some sort of a heating element as the temperature rose drastically when we entered. The few lamps dotting the walls shone with bright gold flames. A large, wooden desk stood on a crimson rug in the middle of the room. At the desk sat a heavily wrinkled, bearded man in white.
The door closed behind us as the man at the desk spoke. "I am brother Peter Nicolas, the highest advisor to the Pope in the realm of magic and legend. I trust you are the hunters we sent for?"
Doc looked at me, and I spoke. "My name is Daniel Moore, and this is my brother, Doctor Ganger. We're here because you stated in your letter that this was an emergency, but this is the Vatican. Surely, you have someone capable of solving your problem." My name was an alias, as most others in my line of work use them to protect themselves from those who would rather see us all perish. Doc, on the other hand, used no alias as his namesake makes it nearly impossible to identify him. He can change his appearance at will.
"I'm afraid not. We were surprisingly ill-equipped for an event of this magnitude." Peter opened a drawer and pulled out a short stack of papers. "There are six demons that have been terrorizing this country over the past month." The man in the pale cloak received the papers and handed them to us.
Each document described the six 'demons' as follows: An Alghoul, a succubus, a specter, two fairies, and an adolescent dragon
The demons weren't demons in the traditional sense. This was just the name given to any magical non-human threat capable of severe casualty or mass fear among the populace. This was, however, only according to the Vatican.
"You have a succubus on the loose yet, you sent for men specifically. Why was that?" My question was rhetorical.
"Getting permission for the exception of calling in outsiders came about by a long and arduous vote from the holy court. Any more voting would have cost more precious time. You will be considered a temporary part of our order as long as you work with us, but first, you must meet our requirements or you wouldn't be here. As transcribed in the letter"
"Do you realize that we'd have a small army of more than capable hunters here if your order wasn't so narrow-minded?"
"I'd gladly waive that stipulation if it meant ridding this country of those demons all the faster at this point." He nodded. "But it's not just up to me; however it doesn't matter who the men we hire work with."
"Oh, and another question. This one, I've been wondering about the most. Why call a company that is mainly female and ask for men?" As I asked, I realized he already answered. "Never mind."
"Most of the particularly malevolent activity happens after ten PM when the Apostolic Palace closes to tourists." He sat back in his chair. "And there is one more thing." He gave the cloaked man a look who then promptly left the room. "The dragon only flies on nights when there are meetings of importance among me and my colleagues."
"You think the dragon's not just a dragon?"
"I fear it may have replaced a member of the high court. If not, then a member of high standing." He reached into another drawer and pulled out a softball-sized white crystal. "We will hold a meeting tonight to discuss important matters unrelated to the demons, but you will be there with this." He held it out toward us.
"What is it?" I inspected the device in his hand. It looked like a white billiards ball, but with no distinguishing markings or features.
"This is a truth-seeking orb." He sat it on the table. "Its activation is tied to the phrase 'shine my light'. Once the phrase is uttered with this in your grasp, a beam of light will follow your gaze and expose any truths you seek. It should help expose the imposter among us."
"If that's the case, why can't you do it?"
He sighed. "It's against our code to suspect each other without due reason and process. If I were to make a move on my own, it would only allow them the opportunity to escape and incite scrutiny upon myself."
"I see." I tugged on my collar, and the color of my shirt shifted from gray to black with slivers of red before lengthening out to a jacket closer to a trench coat. Doc did the same, except his was more like an all-black cloak. I picked up the orb and placed it in one of my many pockets.
Peter took a quick look at a small clock on his desk. "The meeting will begin soon." He stood and ushered us out of the office, down a few corridors, and into a large room.
The room was a half-circle. The flat wall to the right of the entrance was a chalkboard stretching all the way to a wide opening on the other side that seemed to lead into the unknown. It looked like it led into the catacombs.
There were rows of seats starting at the front and rising twenty rows upwards into a multi-layered column. It narrowed toward the top until it reached the far-rounded wall. The seats were being filled with cloaked men ravaged by old age.
Doc and I sat in the front row of younger men, still at least thirty years my senior. Peter traveled up the stair-like structure to a red-oak chair at the top.
The meeting proceeded with a slew of topics that were uninteresting as far as it involved me. The whole time, I was concentrating on sensing the presence of those around me. Particularly the presence of any magical aura that felt at least the slightest bit familiar. After all, a dragon should be able to know another when they sense them.
I was so preoccupied with my endeavor; I didn't notice that I was being called to stand as a guest. It took Doc nudging me to realize what was happening.
I stood to a short applause and said, "Good evening, gentlemen. My name is Daniel Moore. Your country's elder adviser called me here to help capture and relocate, or destroy the six demons that have been terrorizing this town."
Peter, ever so high up, stood and sat back down in recognition. His smile masked his wrinkled age by at least fifteen years.
I pulled the truth-seeking orb from my pocket and held it above me. "He asked me to shine my light."
The orb levitated from my hand and as it did, all the flames on the chandelier above flickered and turned bright gold. I scanned the crowd with my eyes and a jet of light from the orb followed my gaze.
I stopped. I spotted a man who seemed pretty normal with a large coat, dark pants, and navy blue shoes. Who, for no reason, seemed oddly more suspicious than others that the light has touched. Then, all at once, it happened.
His skin shredded off, showing a dragonoid body with long and slender scales and thin wings, black all over. He flew over the column of men and into the large opening.
I had jumped clear over the column towards the opening and into the chase. A few of them were behind me. A dim laser marked through the air in an irregular pattern. It was likely a wizard spell, but it missed completely. I continued to chase after the dragonoid.
On the chance that someone was working with the dragon, I summoned my sword within the folds of my jacket so they wouldn't see it appear out of thin air. A black katana marked with red. "Let's go," I said, sprinting towards my opponent. The blade sparked and glowed a faint red as I went. I turned the corner and stopped dead in my tracks.
There was a wall of water backed up from the base maybe six feet high, a foot or two from the top, and made of glass bricks. It looked to lead outside as sunlight was shining through.
I saw the dragonoid soar into the opening at the top. After that, the water swelled up and closed the opening. It didn't spill. It just closed the opening. Visibility also decreased on the target. It disappeared into the murky blue.
I ran towards the wall with a few people behind me. Holding my sword in my right hand, I pulled the top blocks out. As I pulled off the glass blocks, water poured down from the new openings. I stopped breathing on instinct as the water poured over me. I gave up after four or five blocks then the water went back into the wall formation as before. I could breathe again.
Something moved inside the water. In what seemed like a river blocked by an invisible wall. A small ball shape suddenly opened into a creature and jumped out at me.
I caught it with the flat of my foot and kicked it to a far wall on the right. It jumped back at me. This time I pinned it to the hard stone floor. It squirmed and started stabbing the air with a large stinger.
Now I could clearly see that it had two claws or pincers about the same size as small twigs, about eight small legs, and the color was off. I couldn't tell if it was red or black. But then as I realized it was a scorpion, a man came to me and started frantically telling me it was a rare freshwater scorpion and to get my foot off of it because it was poisonous.
Puzzled at his explanation, I looked down at just the right time to see it sting me.
5. 4. 3. 2. 1. Seconds.
I blacked out.
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