Everelda lifted her gas lamp to illuminate the dripping, russet curve of the sewer ceiling. The flame guttered and flared, burning blue on the billowing miasma. She splashed on through the trickle of putrid water running down the centre, disregarding the foulness splattering over her tall hunting boots. The sewers had been built a mere ten years ago and already the stench had embedded itself into the walls. She tried to imagine being reduced to living in these conditions, before reminding herself that she owed these beings nothing. She was here on a mission to bind one, not to empathise.
At last she reached the junction. The nest lay beyond the northern entrance, if her earlier divinations were accurate. Of course, hunting the creature down would’ve been considerably easier had Lord Fortesque deigned to divulge the demon’s name. But Everelda was no novice. The vaulted chamber had that familiar atmosphere she had come to recognise, of darkness deeper than mere shadows. This was the spot.
At least the ground here was clear. She set down the lamp, took out a chalk, and began drawing a circle on the mercifully dry ground.
It was an incomplete circle: an open trap, with the gap parallel to the north passage’s gaping mouth. Around the perimeter of the completed section, she painstakingly copied out the words to the Lord’s Prayer in Latin, gut twisting at the blasphemy. Gone were the days when she could draw upon her own dark powers —her respectable clients would never stand for that. Instead, she confined herself to the guild-approved methods. She bit her lip, trailing behind her words of borrowed power, too great for even a demon to pass through once activated.
Task complete and chalk still clutched in her palm, Everelda slipped her hand into her waistcoat pocket. The cold, smooth cylinder under her fingertips reassured her that everything was going according to plan. And so she baited the trap -with herself.
And not a moment too soon.
A towering column of darkness separated out from the black of the north passage, sniffing out her feeble soul. The demon bristled with talons and horns, swayed with the lashing of a serpentine tail, fluttered with the spreading of vast, leathery wings. Its claws clicked against the bricks underfoot as it stalked closer, gleaming like oil on water in the undulating light.
Everelda felt her legs weaken as it approached. She recognised that form, that musk, that deep, purring rumble. Her chest tightened, as though all the air was being squeezed from her lungs. It couldn’t be…But it was.
“Everelda,” spoke the voice of the abyss as they stepped into the pool of lamplight, joining her inside the circle. They hadn’t noticed the chalk on the ground, but they weren’t the only one here caught off guard. “Of all the sewers in all the world, for you to arrive in mine.”
“Marthim,” Everelda replied, her voice faltering. This was the demon Lord Fortesque had sent her to bind? What was she to do, so woefully unprepared? Her mind raced between working out how she could still fulfil her contract and how she could weasel out of it.
She wasn’t ready for this. She was a mess. She ran her fingertips through her straggly hair, wishing she’d dragged a comb through it that morning. After years of imagining what would happen if she saw them again, imagining what she would say and how suave she would act, she found herself at a loss. She clenched the chalk in the hand behind her back as her carefully laid plans crumbled around her.
Marthim planted their taloned hands on their hips and cast an appraising glance across her person, lingering on her grubby trousers. She shivered as they absorbed every inch of her, drinking her in. She had forgotten how they could do that. Oh, Lord, the ecstasy of being known so utterly. Thank goodness they could not read her mind. If they knew what she was planning…
“You’re looking well,” the demon continued.
Everelda waved her empty hand as if to bat away the compliment. “No, I don’t. You, however…” She floundered, for they were more resplendent in power and sinister beauty than she had remembered. And she had remembered often over the years. Her pulse quickened. A small voice at the back of her mind reminded her that she had a job to do, but it was almost impossible to hear over the blood pounding through her temples.
“I do try, but it’s so hard when one is reduced to living in a sewer.” They preened a little, arching their slender neck. “So. I hear you’ve turned Hunter these days?”
Straight to the point, just as they had always been.
“That’s right,” Everelda replied. She took a cautious step to one side, hoping to appear nonchalant. “Got to pay the bills somehow. And I’ve got the knack, apparently.”
The pungent air quivered with laughter. “That’s one way of putting it,” Marthim said. “You certainly captured my heart, oh cruel master. And now you unleash your fury at my abandonment of you upon the rest of my kind?”
Everelda’s insides squirmed. How could they possibly know how it felt, to go from being connected to a power so immense and invasive to being suddenly alone? How could she articulate the void in her being that they had left? Fury was so small a part of her maelstrom of emotion. When they had left, they had taken everything that brought meaning to her world, including her enthusiasm for the occult. Hunting was the only solace she had managed to find, some small connection that tethered her to their world. How could she even begin to explain? The rift between them was too great.
No. There would be no explanations. She was here to perform a duty. She continued to move herself in tiny increments around the inside of the circle. Marthim turned slowly with her, matching step for step, moving away from the gap on the northern section of the trap. Their body swayed like a mesmerising cobra as they followed her lead.
“You don’t mean that,” Everelda found herself saying. “We were both to blame for what happened.”
The column of shade shrugged. “Maybe. Or maybe it was neither. We were different entities back then. Let’s not regress.”
Everelda had reached a quarter of the way around the circle and dwindled to a fraction of her resolve. Marthim tilted their head, awaiting her response, tail swishing gracefully behind, almost invisible in the shadows.
“You’re right, let’s let bygones be bygones.” Her stomach clenched with guilt at what she was about to do.
“So. Are you here in a professional capacity?” Marthim asked.
“You could say that.”
“You’re here to catch a demon?” they asked, voice bright with interest. “Anyone I know?”
“Could be,” Everelda said. Only a few more steps and she would reach the incomplete section and this whole wretched ordeal would be over. Their many glinting eyes fixed on hers, as they danced to the rhythm of the earth’s pulse. Sweat beaded on Everelda’s brow.
“Not Jezebel, the poor dear? She’s had such a time. Or Mephistopheles? You know, he’s quite down-and-out these days.”
“No, neither of them.” One more step and she would be at the gap. The sooner she completed her task and put Marthim behind herself the better. As if she could ever put Marthim behind herself. She hadn’t managed to yet. She clutched at the stick of chalk like a talisman.
“Well, then, I fear you may have come to the wrong stretch of the sewers. The only other demon around here is…”
Everelda dropped to the ground, spun around and closed the gap in the circle with one arc of her hand. Her heartbeat thundered through her entire body.
“Me?” said Marthim, voice quavering a little.
“I’m sorry,” Everelda whispered, stepping out of the circle, leaving them standing there, alone. Their wings fluttered. “It’s not personal. Lord Fortesque hired me when you bailed on your contract.”
“Everelda?” Marthim cried with such pathos that Everelda had to turn away as she uttered the words that would make eternal the binding of the Holy Circle. They caught in her throat as she chanted, choking her with her own hypocrisy as she petitioned the Almighty. Then she snatched the vial of holy water from her pocket and smashed it on the ground, showering the words with glass and droplets. She looked up with tear-blurred eyes.
Marthim stood exactly as they had been before, elegantly composed and utterly unbound. Everelda’s mouth opened wordlessly of its own volition.
“You of all people should know that only works on a demon already contained within a circle,” they chided.
“But you are…” Everelda said, and as she did so her eyes traced her chalk outline.
The stretch that she had manoeuvred Marthim to turn their back to had been deliberately and meticulously erased. She shot a glance at their winding tail. The obsidian scales were pale with chalk dust.
“I was prepared to face any of your wiles, Everelda. In fact, I was quite looking forward to the challenge. I have to say, a single line of chalk was rather a disappointment.”
“But how?” she gasped. Marthim took a step forward, so that the long claws on their toes teased over the line.
“…Did I know you were coming?” they finished for her. “That was easy. I used Lord Fortesque, knowing he would hire you when I walked out on him. He actually tried to summon Azazel, can you even imagine? Of course, she didn’t show up, so I did instead. Granted a few requests, killed off a couple of his rivals, turned a hay bale into a horse, you know the drill. And then I ran away with a sackful of his family heirlooms, just to make a point.” They chuckled and the sound was like the glorious victory cry of a thousand hyenas. “Honestly, why else would I ever enter a contract with someone so dull?”
The memories trickled back from the recesses of Everelda’s mind, familiar yet richer with the fermentation of time. They always had been beguiling and infuriating in equal measures. She ran her tongue over her dry lips.
“So…you engineered this meeting? What do you want, Marthim? If you’re after vengeance against me after all these years…” Her insides contracted at the thought. The sickening anticipation of agony mingled with the sweet promise of justice. She gazed up at them with wide eyes.
“Oh, please don’t be so melodramatic. I just want to talk.”
“Talk?” Her mind scrambled for a firm foundation. “If you wanted to talk, why didn’t you just come and see me? I’m not exactly hiding and you certainly don’t lack the means.”
“Turn up in your pokey little room above the fishmonger’s in all my glory and wrong-foot you? Make you all defensive? No, no. This way was much better.”
That nagging guilt at betraying Marthim: that had all been masterfully engineered. She ought to be outraged, yet she couldn’t bring herself to feel anything but…what was this? A brightness? Hope? No. The best she could hope for now was Lord Fortesque calling down the constabulary upon her head. Everelda sighed.
“Whatever happened between us?” she asked.
“Well, I’ve been thinking about that a lot recently.” They smiled at Everelda’s expression of surprise. “You know it’s not like me to dwell on a mortal so. Do you know what I concluded? That the time simply wasn’t right for us.”
Everelda’s eyebrows rose.
“You were so young, and hungry for fire. You fell in love with my power as much as anything. And I was proud and unyielding—I make no apologies for that. But you changed, as you began to suspect that there was more to life than witchcraft. Matured. You wanted more, and I was…unwilling to provide it. The differences between us became too great to be spanned by carnal attraction. And then the spark between us died. That’s all.”
Everelda stared. How could something so tumultuous be so casually summarised? There must be more to it than that. But when Everelda replayed those dusty, painful memories, she could find no flaws in their assessment. They were supernatural, after all.
“Before that, though,” Everelda said, her voice tremulous;,eager, “we were…” What was the word? Happy? No, that couldn’t be right, it was far too small.
“Yes,” Marthim said, their voice soft yet mighty, understanding her unspoken meaning as they always could. They couldn’t read her mind, but they knew her so well that it made little difference. “And I believe we could be again.” They stepped over the chalk line, overwhelming Everelda with their magnificent presence. “I’ve missed you.”
A weakness seeped into her knees.
“But we changed. We lost the spark. And I said all those things…”
“You changed. We grew apart.” They stepped closer again, close enough that their musk almost drowned her. She gulped in deep breaths of them, filling herself. “But then…I changed too. And I think you might’ve changed again. You’re not the same witch who said all those things. I think it might be time to try again, if you want to.”
Everelda raised a hand to catch the sob as it bubbled out of her mouth. Marthim offered a fantasy that she’d never dared to entertain. Yet, here they were, separated by nothing but a mere foot of dirty brickwork and nearly two decades of regret. She cleared her throat before venturing to speak.
“But where in the world could we belong -a demon like you and a wretch like me? Lord Fortesque will be after us both in the city; we can’t stay here in the sewers; I abandoned the Sisterhood long ago…” It was too good to be true. There was no way this could work out.
“Are you accepting my proposal?” Marthim asked, a curve of fangs flashing in the dark.
“Yes, I am,” Everelda said with a heady rush. She didn’t even pause to consider. The truth burst out of her, as though it had been held up behind her tongue, waiting to be spoken for half a lifetime. And once the words were out, the weight of them lifted from her shoulders. She beamed up at Marthim.
“Now, where are we going?”
They fanned their wings and drew themselves up to their full, formidable height. Their power throbbed in time to Everelda’s pulse. She loosened her stiff collar, suddenly stifling.
“I was hoping you’d permit me to take you to visit my family?” they said in a voice as smooth as a dagger through velvet.
To hell? She baulked, mind reeling.
“Don’t worry. They’ll adore you.” Marthim said, reading the uncertainty on her face. “And we don’t have to stay if you don’t want to. The whole world is at our feet.”
She turned the thought over in her imagination and it dawned on her that this was the perfect place for the pair of them, if they were a pair. She felt giddy at the concept.
“But I’m a Hunter…”
“A witch,” Marthim corrected, without a hint of uncertainty. “Once a witch, always a witch.”
The final piece of her that had been missing slotted back into place.
“Then I would be honoured,” she said with a grin and a stately bow. They clapped their terrible talons together like a gleeful child and her heart almost burst with adoration.
“But first,” she amended, and Marthim froze, arching their multitude of eyebrows, “let’s pay Lord Fortesque’s bedchamber a visit. I did promise to deliver you to him after all.”
Marthim’s eyes blazed in the dim light of the sewer, and then they burst into peals of terrific laughter.
“I am delighted to see that you have not changed too much,” they said. “What a wonderfully wicked idea.”
Marthim reached out and, after what seemed an eternity of waiting, brushed their razor-sharp fingertips gently—oh, so gently—down Everelda’s tweed jacket sleeves. Their hands closed around hers. She turned her face up to meet the full awe-inspiring wonder of theirs. Then they enfolded her in the most luxurious rolls of darkness, consuming the sewer, their past, the whole of Everelda’s mundane reality.
And the demon and the witch winked out of existence, together.