“Victor the Red.”
“Victor the Exterminator.”
“Victor the Asshole Who Won't Fucking Decide on a Sobriquet.”
“I like that one.”
James gives a short, half-laugh at that, and then goes back to his drink. “Maybe if we shortened it a little. Say, maybe to one word.”
“You're a dick.”
“Victor the Asshole.”
“You sure you don't want any? You look beat.” He lifts the cup of coffee and tips it in my direction.
He sits and I stand for a while in silence. The crowd approaching the street visibly slows as the monsters notice the two of us. Confusion and panic are on some faces. Some stare, while some quickly head in either direction down the street to get away.
“So that's why you come here?”
James just smiles and takes another swig of coffee. “Welcome to Megalos, ya parasites. Try not to die too quickly.”
I open my mouth to play along. Make some joke or another, or just agree with him. Nothing comes out, though. Instead, we simply watch as the remaining monsters slowly scatter, trying to find new lives in a strange new town. The docks clear up, as all that remains are the handful of monsters restocking the ship, getting it prepped for the next trip over and back. Busying themselves with ruining my country.
“Are you sure you don't want something to eat? You've been looking kinda peaked all morning.”
“I probably just caught something.”
“It's all the arachne blood. You'd be healthier if you stopped bathing in the stuff all the time.”
But it keeps my skin so clear, I fail to say. “Yeah.”
I excuse myself and head off on my rounds. Keeping a clear head is getting harder and harder, but the walking helps. Routines and patterns make all the little errors in thinking stick out more.
It's past two in the afternoon, and yet I'm barely halfway done with my rounds for the day. I've been pausing more than usual, and when I resume my walk it's with a slower pace than usual. My legs feel heavy. My body feels heavy.
“You smell sick,” the feminine voice behind me announces.
“I might be.”
“You're not. That's the strange thing.”
I turn to look at the hellhound as it follows behind me. I didn't hear it approach at all. I assume the only reason I didn't smell it was that I'm upwind of the thing. “Elba,” I offer.
“Right.” I look back toward where I'm headed and continue my rounds.
“Come with me,” it demands suddenly.
The thing is silent for a while, though I can feel it following behind me still.
“Please.” For some reason the sound of metal grating against metal comes to mind.
“Sure.” I come to a stop, and I turn to look at the thing. It's staring at me with an expression combining anger and incredulity. It turns and starts walking, and I follow.
“Was that all it ever would've taken?”
“I suppose. I don't have anywhere I really need to be.” The thing is silent again after that. After a couple blocks I fish around in one of the pockets I've devoted to tranquilizer cartridges, and take a shot out. The needle is one of the massive gauge ones that are only vaguely humane because of how quickly it pierces the skin. I stare at it for a few steps, hesitant, but I suppose every man has to stab himself with something eventually.
It hurts like a bitch.
The hellhound slows as it turns to look at me as I put the dart back into my pocket. “Why do you smell like blood?”
“Because I'm bleeding.”
She looks at the line of red running down my arm for a moment, and looks back to where she's headed. “It'll never heal if you keep picking at it.”
The down-to-earth statement is perhaps the oddest part of the entire situation.
It takes me to the house where it was first summoned. Apparently no one's bought the thing yet. At this rate, I'm tempted to do so myself just so that I don't have to deal with anything else happening here.
The door creaks as the hellhound pushes it open, and the floorboards creak as it steps inside. I wouldn't expect anything different. All the same, I follow it inside. I'd say that I find it unsettling, but I honestly don't feel a thing. If anything, this feels like visiting the friend of a friend whom you don't particularly like, but you talk to in order to keep things going smoothly.
It feels like an obligation, and I don't honestly know why.
Maybe because it asked nicely.
I close the door behind myself, and quickly regret doing so. Between the curtains and the autumn daylight, the house takes on a dusky lighting. The thing turns to face me, and the contrails of red from its eyes are brighter than the surrounding room.
And then we stare at each other for a while.
“Why did you come with me?”
“I don't know.” The answer comes quickly – I'd been half-thinking it the entire way.
“You don't know what I was planning to do to you.”
“I don't really care, either.”
“That's the worst part of all of this,” it admits. “I'm here because of you.”
“I can't. I won't.” The thing advances until it's directly in front of me, eyes level with my own. “And I'll be damned if I'm going to let you ignore me anymore.” It's voice rises and lips curl into a snarl as it continues “If my life has to center around you then you don't get to just go on insulting me with your apathy.”
“Then I'll insult you with my attention. Either way,” I trail off.
“You don't get to-”
“I get to do whatever the Hells I want,” I interrupt. “Because your options are to kill me or to shove off, and one of those you're actually willing to do.”
It stands still in the light, for a moment, the black lines of the window frame like bars crisscrossing its body. “It's not right,” it says, finally, in a small voice. “You're so small and weak.”
“Accept it and move on. Humanity won. You things simply aren't smart or willful enough to undo the victory.”
“No,” it says flatly, and then repeats it with a burgeoning smile and altogether far too much enthusiasm. “No, you're going to break. I know just how I'll do it, too.” A grin of absolute joy spreads across its face as it takes a step forward. I suppress the urge to back away from it at its sudden exuberance. “I'm going to hold you, and I'm going to pat your head.”
“What.” It's not so much a question as it was an expression of surprise.
“And I'll kiss you, softly, and tell you how much I love you,” it continues, staring happily at me as it advances. I finally take a step back to get away from the thing, and just as soon its face is directly in front of mine and my breath catches.
“You're going to be my sweet little cuddleslut.”
Hells. I've driven it mad.
I reach for my sword and in a single flash of movement my arm is numb from an impact and the sword is sent flying down the nearby hallway. I don't bother to study the thing directly in front of me, and instead I bolt. The first step is interrupted by what I recognize by feel is its leg, and I bite back a curse as I tumble to the ground. I roll with the impact, though, and am running again less than a half-second after my back hits the ground.
“You're going to kiss me back soon enough. You'll be too happy not to.”
I put two floors between myself and it, planning to have it follow as I loop around and run for my sword. The plan emerges, unspoken in my mind as I put boot to flooring. I twice leap over a table and misplaced set of chairs only to find boxes in my way. Curse this unpleasantly crowded house, and curse whoever died leaving it like this. I leap onto the chair, and then kick off and around the corner.
A moment of disconcerting unreality strikes me as I leap forward and, at the same time, see the position of the room change barely at all. The chair had apparently started to come undone, and it couldn't tolerate my weight shifting as quickly as it did. I landed hard, my chest striking the wooden floor first with the rest of me following immediately afterward. The impact was enough to knock the air from my lungs, but even with the second-long sensation of asphyxiating my instinct to move still took hold.
Unfortunately, I'd given the thing more than enough time to catch up. I felt the grip of it around my ankle, and the kick to move myself away from it only served to spin me around so that I lay on my back to stare at the thing.
It hushes me as it advances, a warm and placid smile on its face. “Do you think you can outrun me? Do you think, if you get out of here, that I can't drag you back? This is your life now, until you take that thing off of your neck. And you will,” it adds quickly, falling to all fours in front of me. “Because I asked nicely, and you'd never do anything to hurt your dearest wife, would you?” It reaches out with a clawed hand and places it against my chin and cheek, slowly stroking my face. The fur, in places, gives way to almost uncomfortably warm pads of soft skin in the most unpleasant manner possible.
“I regret a great many things right now,” I manage with one longer breath between the shorter, faster ones of exertion.
It smiles, and the saccharine sweetness of its voice only intensifies. “See? You're already turning into a big ol' softy for me.” Its face inches closer, until the seething warmth of its breath touches my face. “Gods, you're beautiful.”
White light pierces through several of the windows. It bolts upright, though still on its knees as the sound of screeching tires reaches our ears. I hazard to look away from the thing as new lights shine through the window. From what little I can see, blue circles of light, filled with runes and symbols float in the air outside. I take a shaky breath, and turn to the thing staring at the windows, and then at me. After a moment, it all but deflates.
“I was summoned months ago.”
“Three months, I've tried to find a way to take you.”
A single puff of air, bitter and humorless, escapes its lips. “I'm almost glad.”
And then the door explodes inward and a half-dozen men in the armor of paladins flood the room. The pneumatic hiss all but covers the words of one of them, calling for the hellhound to surrender, but by the time she finishes her spiel there are several darts in its back, and it slumps limply to the ground.
My attention turns inward as the paladins go about their duties, lifting the insensate hellhound and dragging it outside while a pair fuss over me, looking for wounds and asking questions that I suddenly find myself unable to focus on enough to understand, yet I somehow answer.
The autocrat steps through the door, and my mind focuses on that as the stable thing. The part of this situation that I can understand and accept.
“Erlinson. Sir.” He looks to me, and he smiles.
“You look like you're having a bad day, Victor.”
“I'm having a bad lot of things, sir.” I meant it to sound jovial, but I don't think it did.
“Well, one less thing to worry about tonight, eh, Victor?” He moves forward, casually dismissing the paladins still hovering around me, and squats down a few feet away.
“Our finger-wigglers'll do their chant and make it so that whatever that baphomet did isn't forcing this thing to chase after you. Once they're done we'll take the transmitter out and release the thing into the wild.”
“Oh, right. I'll need a little help with that.” He looks back to me, brow furrowed in incomprehension. “I didn't think I could pull the gun without it noticing,” I begin.
I walk out of the house some long minutes later, scratching at the bandage on my arm. “You know, it's kind of comforting to see that people are crazy no matter where you go,” a feminine voice tells me. They're all feminine, though, so that hardly helps.
The walk upstairs to my apartment takes a lot longer than it usually does. My legs feel limp, but at the same time burn from the exertion of the day.
I pass the dogbird on the way to my apartment.
“Wait,” it calls behind me, and my legs stop. I'd probably have taken any excuse to stop. “You're starving!”
I turn to look back at the thing without moving my legs. “Yeah.”
Confusion gives way to pain, gives way to more confusion as its expression shifts and its eyes dart over my face. It's breathing speeds up noticeably until it finally half-asks, half-whines “why?”
I look away, toward the wall. I don't want to tell it. I look back and shrug. “I guess I haven't been hungry.”
“Well, can,” it starts, and then stops. “Can I make you something?”
“Will you eat it?” For a moment it seems so earnest. I try to think through the question, but instead I simply stare at the thing while my mind is silent.