December 1st, 1899
It was almost always hurried. Only a few of the girls were confident enough to linger with him in the darkness, to chance being alone with the monster that protected them from monsters.
Most of them preferred clients who didn’t have dried blood on their cuffs and collars. He could set his uniform to clean itself automatically of contaminants, but there was enjoyment to be had, in the reactions of civilians to the evidence of his work.
The working women especially. As hard as some of them had become, with all the de
ath and misery and violence they saw, most of their regular clientele didn’t approach for a fuck with a liver or kidney still speared on a knife.
It rarely mattered that the knife had ended the life of some worthless shit who wanted to rape, murder, or cannibalise those working on the edges.
No matter how many times he saved their lives, they remained afraid of him – rightfully so, of course, but it was still insulting that they didn’t give him the service he deserved. Surely saving their lives was worth more than whatever their next customers would pay. They would let him finish, then run.
They always ran.
He adjusted his jacket, his knives staying still in each of their pockets or straps. There was no point in carrying rattling weapons. No point in letting an enemy know that he was coming. In the darkness, there was no such thing as fair play.
Those like him were desperately trying to retain their hold on the shadows, stealing those who would tarry outside at night, sometimes leaving remains, the rest of the time leaving nothing but a short scream.
The old ways were fading as the humans slowly claimed more of the world.
Claimed more of the world while losing their knowledge.
It was an age of enlightenment, or so they thought, because they could light parts of their world at night.
To the truth of the world, to the magic, to those who shared the land with them, they were becoming blinder and blinder by the day. It sickened him.
And as easy as it was to blame the humans for losing what had been relatively common knowledge, for turning what had been memory into story, the fae had to bear the brunt of the blame.
The fae had been pulling themselves away from society for centuries. The fairies led the charge, declaring the humans too primitive to deal with. Humans, after all, barely had adding machines, whereas the fairies had been selling computational devices with screens for decades.
And neither the fae technology nor human technology were capable of anywhere remotely close to what the system was.
His ability to shit represented a greater technological feat than the total combined technology on the planet.
Fae were becoming a myth, retreating into Faerie, leaving only those who were able to operate in the open: those who were able to pass as human, and those who wanted to prey on any human they could find.
A few decades ago, even a woman would have been able to identify most of the creatures that roamed the night. Still not be able to fight them, but at least know what they were and not assume that they were some nameless demon from hell.
There were fewer and fewer shadows in the world; fewer and fewer things to be discovered; fewer fae hiding at the edges. Humans everywhere, and hardly a decent fuck amongst them.
The world was changing. Any simpleton could see that.
And it was a change that his kind wasn’t going to survive.
It was so clear that some of his kind had gone into open rebellion. Shirking their Duty. Falling or making plans to fall.
Agents would replace them. The shiny new boys in suits.
Not that they were exactly new. Some of the bastards had been around nearly a century, but only in diplomacy roles, for those delicate situations where a knife or a well-placed kick wouldn’t serve the job.
Rhys retrieved his pipe, stuffed it full of some excellent tobacco that he’d taken from the corpse of a fae – a fairy, possibly a gnome. He couldn’t remember. There hadn’t been much of it after he’d been done with it.
He’d stopped it from stealing, stripped it of all its valuables, then disposed of the body in the river.
He lit the pipe with a thought, the flame flaring beautiful and deadly, like the succubi that refused to give him the time of day, impugning his skills in the bedroom just because he wasn’t as real as the other people they bedded.
Duskers, agents, all those who came before, all those who would come after – all were artificial.
No one that he could ever feasibly call kin would ever come from a womb, egg, or fruit.
He sucked in a lungful of smoke, enjoying the flavour, enjoying the feeling of it violating his lungs.
Smoking contraband was something the agents wouldn’t do. They held onto their rulebook like a frightened woman would clutch at her babe.
Rhys blew a smoke ring and watched a howler crawl across the roof above him.
The monkey-like fae froze and looked down at him, its dark eyes almost luminescent in the night’s low light. He won the staring contest, as he usually did with the little creatures. No howler with even half a functioning brain would try to take him. None would try to stir any shit while he was around – they knew all too well what would happen to them.
What, precisely, would happen was dismemberment, followed by display on one of the rooftops that constituted their roads above the world.
Howlers, as moronic as they were, had no trouble remembering what one of their own looked like with a spike driven through its head. As a result, howler crime was very, very low in his city.
There was a sound down the alley.
In a second he had left his comfortable position atop the wooden bin and was moving toward the sound. He sniffed the air again. Hob. He rounded a corner and found the small creature digging through the garbage, occasionally chewing on a discarded piece of food or slipping broken pieces of crockery into its pockets.
It was a city hob. There was a distinctive look to each of the subset of hobs, and there was no mistaking the small pieces of metal and tile lurking beneath the hob’s skin.
There was the sound of water hitting the ground, and the smell of piss in the air. He grimaced and ignored the scent. Hob piss was worse than a dead dog – this he knew for certain.
‘Evening,’ Rhys said, blowing another smoke ring.
The hob swore in one of the more obscure fae languages, then looked up at him. ‘And to you, Rhys,’ it said, respect heavy in his voice.
There was a shifting, creaking sound near the hob – the little creature affecting the building, preparing the bricks to assist in a quick exit.
‘Do I know you?’ he demanded of the hob.
The short fae stumbled back and shook its small dark head. ‘No, no sir, you don’t, but I know you. We all do.’
‘Of course you do,’ he said, a requisition causing another flame to flare in his pipe, just for effect.
‘And what do you know?’
The hob tossed a moldy heel of bread back into the bin. ‘Duskers leave blood wherever they go,’ the hob said. ‘All kinds of blood.’ It was silent for a moment. ‘But a city with a Dusker is safer than one without. Sydney’s converted over to the new kind. Nights are less safe for everyone, now.’
He took in the news but didn’t let it show on his face. Sydney – there’d been six of his kind there, and now they were all gone. All gone, and he hadn’t even been informed.
They were disappearing faster and faster, now. City after city was changing over to agents like pennies being swapped out of circulation.
Agents. Angel-kind that were happy to be in the light, happy to walk among humans, happy to pretend to be one of them.
It made him sick, sicker even than when he’d been tricked into–
‘I like it here,’ the hob said nervously. ‘I’ll stick around at least till they get rid of you.’
In a movement that would’ve seemed like a blur to a human eye, he had his blade at the hob’s throat.
‘They aren’t,’ he snapped, ‘going to get rid of me.’
The building beside him rumbled, and for a moment, the hob’s skin took on the look of the packed earth. ‘You protect the city, but a lot of people hate you.’
Those were two facts he couldn’t refute.
Before he could respond, the hob was sucked into the building, away from where Rhys could get at it with any of the weapons in his jacket.
He was, however, not without options.
Rhys jumped up onto the edge of the bin, pulled his cock from his pants, and pissed over the garbage.
It was a tiny gesture of his superiority, at least. The little bastard would have to find somewhere else to eat tonight.
One ruined meal didn’t change the fact that he protected the city, wouldn’t change that he was useful to those around him.
He heard a woman scream, so he quickly made himself decent then shifted toward the source of the sound.
The woman’s companion was lying face down in a puddle of his own blood. Rhys paused for a moment and focussed his hearing on the man – and heard a ragged heartbeat. Alive, but immobile, so he was a problem. Dead weight that needed to be protected.
The woman screamed again.
Rhys turned, almost surprised that the source of the woman’s anguish wasn’t her companion’s state, but instead was the man that had attacked him.
He took in the details within a few seconds. The assailant was part demon, or wished to appear as one
– a twisted face that was far from human in appearance, asymmetrical features, and eyes that were far too large for the face.
Large eyes were unusual – they made perfect targets. They would pop nicely. Fae that could be classified as predatorial, along with demons and their bastard spawn, tended to have small eyes, or different methods of sight altogether.
The man wore a simple buttoned shirt, but its sleeves had been burned away. Deep cracks ran over his skin, fire burning beneath.
The woman screamed again. Rhys took two steps to his left and slapped her across the face.
She collapsed beside her partner and rolled onto her side, a fresh red imprint of his hand against her pale skin. She took one more look at him, then clutched at the bleeding man, willing him to rise and protect her.
He drove his hands into his pockets and quickly withdrew them, a long-bladed knife in each.
One was a regular, required knife, utterly unremarkable. The other was one he adored; it rotted the flesh and turned a body against itself. He’d taken it from one of the creatures he killed. It was wondrous, and it was definitely one of the things that an agent would destroy in an instant. A knife that turned living flesh into a rotting ghost of itself had no place in their system of rules and fair play – and all the blood would ruin their suits.
He had no such issues with blood.
The demon screamed at him, an incomprehensible gibberish of insults and expletives.
Rhys didn’t bother to listen. It had already crossed the line; it was already marked for death…and nothing it could say would change that now.
If the demon wanted to beg, however, he would listen to that. Listening to a bastard beg for their worthless life was a unique, sweet pleasure – something that satisfied him to some level that seemed deeper than even his system code. His soul, or whatever emulation of soul that he had.
Fire crackled through the demon’s veins, pooling almost liquid into its palms. Rhys ignored this and stabbed the required knife straight into the creature’s right arm. The blade sunk through flesh but melted almost instantly. He let go, unfazed by the loss of the required knife, and withdrew a baton from one of his jacket’s pockets.
The demon roared, swore some more, and flung the liquid fire at him.
Rhys shifted out of the way. He appeared behind the demon, who immediately pulled a similar trick, leaving nothing but a smoky pile of ash where it had been. The demon pounded a fiery fist into his back, and he stumbled.
It hurt, but that only served to make him angrier.
He spat on the ground as he got up, then struck out with his leg, hitting the demon in the groin. He grinned as he heard a high-pitched shriek from the beast, and he kicked it again for good measure.
Part of him heard the woman crying, but at least he could ignore that. It wasn’t as bad as screaming.
There was nothing about a woman’s scream that was attractive, not even during sex when she was screaming from pleasure or from beautiful pain.
The demon threw more liquid flame at him, and this time he wasn’t quick enough to dodge it. He tore off his jacket and threw it to the ground, letting the flame consume it rather than burn further into his skin.
The demon actually stopped for a moment, when his jacket came off. The long dark duster that served as the outer layer of his uniform hid all of his weapons from view, kept his dangers under an innocuous costume.
Civilians who saw him – the regular people, who had no idea of the magic under their feet – tended to think he was a stockman, someone in from the country. A man on a short holiday to a bastion of civilisation.
The jacket hid everything he truly was, hid the accoutrements of his position.
Besides his impressive collection of knives and blades, his shirt was covered in two-day-old bloodstains, and a tiny fairy skull – a delicate piece of brutality – hung from his belt, as did several tools of blunt torture and a gun in a holster.
The gun was a recent addition, and not something he’d particularly been receptive to. It lacked the elegance of a good sword, or the intimacy of breathing down your enemy’s neck whilst slitting their throat. It was cold and impersonal…which was something the new penny boys seemed to be making their motto.
The agent that had taken up residence in his city – an inefficient bastard called Reynolds – had suggested he start carrying one. It was Reynolds’ reasoning that all agents used them, so it made sense for the duskers to upgrade, as well.
He had taken the gun, but he had spat in the man’s general direction and proceeded to suggest at length the whorish positions he thought the agent would be good at, should he decide to give up the pretence of protecting the city and try to earn a dirty, but honest, living.
Pretending to be human – and using a gun to distance them from their work, from the kill… There was no way that their mode of operation would be successful. There was dirty work to be done in the shadows, work that guns couldn’t handle.
The demon hit him again, its fist burning through his shirt and into his skin.
There was pain, a lot of pain, but Rhys didn’t let it show. He had no intention of giving the beast the satisfaction of knowing that something had affected him.
He punched the creature in the face, and it stumbled back, pulling away a decent chunk of his skin with its flaming fist. Rhys faltered, recovered his footing, and began to slash at the creature with the knife that caused rotting.
A strike across the demon’s left arm immediately dulled its fire, a quick thrust into its thigh made it fall, and his slash almost made contact with its throat, but the creature managed to dodge.
Rhys roared at the creature, a display of emotion that he doubted Reynolds and his ilk could lower themselves to. Men in suits knew nothing of the primal anger that got one through a fight. He assumed that, had Reynolds been in his position, the agent would be nothing more than a stain on the dirty ground, and the civilians would be meals or taken to be used as currency.
The monster came at him again. More liquid fire flew at him, through only from one hand now. The smell of rotting flesh filled the air as the monster’s leg came apart where he stood.
He shifted behind the monster again, and this time, he cut the demon’s throat. It fell without a fight, not bothering to hold its lifeblood in, to gasp for another second’s worth of existence.
A quiet end, as they all should be.
‘Ma’am,’ he heard a voice say. ‘Are you all right?’
Rhys turned to find Reynolds crouched beside the woman, offering her a hand. The woman clutched the agent’s hand, her screaming and whimpering replaced with crying.
‘Had it handled, Reynolds,’ he growled.
‘I can see that,’ the agent said.
He glared and shifted away, leaving the agent to take whatever unnecessary actions that his rulebook told him to.
The familiar shapes of his home greeted him. Stone walls and simple furniture. Weapons and wards.
Everything he needed.
He immediately stripped off the remains of his shirt and dropped it into a metal pail near his desk, lighting it aflame with a thought. The action had long ago fallen into ritual and become commonplace –
burn contaminated clothes, rather than just dismiss them to the place of unneeded requisitions.
With this shirt gone, the wounds were a lot more obvious, but the means to treat them were readily available, and the methods were so simple that even a civilian could be taught to apply them.
He crouched in front of the footlocker at the end of his bed and pulled the well-worn kit from its usual position on the left. On the right were a small stack of diaries, his initial records of his kills – something he had fallen out of the habit of keeping. No one was interested in records, and he had no cause to share them.
He moved the medical kit to the multipurpose table in the centre of his space. With his left hand, he laid a scalpel and two large syringes of blue on a piece of black velvet.
Rhys pulled out the small wooden stool from under the table and sat on it. He lifted the scalpel, allowed himself one deep breath, then cut into his chest.
Without feeling much of anything, he cut away the damaged and burnt skin, leaving a bloody but clean hole in his chest.
The self-surgery was clean damage, damage caused by required tools and means, so the amount of pain was low – only comparable to a punch in the face. He tossed the scalpel onto the velvet, then lifted a water bladder from the medical kit and squeezed some blue onto his hand. The blue from the bladder was about the same consistency as petroleum jelly, thicker than that contained in the syringes, and it provided the best initial treatment.
He dropped the bladder onto the table and worked the blue into the wound. It soothed as it burned. All the damage from the demon’s magic had to be burned away, lest he suffer an integrity loss, but the lesser damage was allowed to heal.
He allowed the blue to work for a moment, until a message in his display alerted him to full integration, then he shot both of the syringes directly into the wound. The remaining flesh and skin regrew in seconds.
One wound was dealt with. The other, on his back, was far too inconvenient to treat himself.
He closed his eyes and flicked from display option to display option, looking at the list of persons he had dosed with tracking blue – people he had chosen as points of convenience, people who owed him favours, or informants that it was ideal to keep a trace on.
He selected his obvious choice, Julia; targeted her and shifted her to his side.
The woman appeared, her neck arched and her dress in disarray. He’d obviously pulled her from another engagement, but that had long since become commonplace in their relationship, so it didn’t warrant comment.
Julia straightened herself and tied her hair back with a green ribbon. She caught his eye for a moment, sighed, then moved to the black velvet. ‘You need new syringes,’ she said, even as she picked up the scalpel.
A thought fulfilled the need as the tip of the scalpel broke his skin.
It was a credit to her, and a pleasure to him, that she never hesitated in slicing into his body.
She was no doctor, but she made an adequate nurse – or more than adequate, when her skills in bed were taken into account.
It wasn’t the first time she’d dressed his wounds, nor would it be the last. It was less humiliating than asking for help from Reynolds, and less of a waste of time than going to one of his brethren in another city.
Going to another dusker always involved telling the story of how the injury had been obtained, which amounted to little more than a pissing contest, each man arguing his last kill, trying to outmatch each other.
There was little point. All kills were unique, things to be savoured – and his stories were always far better than his fellows’.
There were several slaps on the ground beside him as she let the discarded pieces of skin fall. Her slender hand reached past him for the bladder.
He grabbed her by the wrist, holding her still for a moment. ‘Don’t use too much.’
She pulled her hand free, an act of defiance that he wasn’t used to, and he heard the blue liquid squirt into her palm. ‘I know how much to use, Rhys.’
She massaged it into the raw wound, then stepped around him to reach for the syringes on the black velvet.
She applied them to his back, as he had done to his chest. She placed each down carefully, then rummaged in the medical bag and found a smaller syringe, which she injected straight into his neck. He groaned in pleasure as relief washed over him, all the remnants of pain disappearing.
He turned to her, pleased to see that she hadn’t taken a step toward the door. She was instead waiting patiently, waiting for the inevitable. He tossed her a rag, and she wiped her hands free of the remains of the blue, then placed the rag down on the table and began to repack his medical kit.
Julia smoothed her clothes. ‘Can I return to my own work, or do you require something more of me?’
He stood and caught her chin. ‘What kind of meeting would this be if you didn’t come to my bed?’
The corners of her mouth turned up, just a little. ‘I would suspect you were a changeling.’ She took a step back and began to get undressed.
Rhys retreated to the bed, sitting on the edge and untying his boots. It would have been simpler to dismiss them, but this felt far more real. He stood and stripped his pants and undergarments, then laid back on the thick pillows – a small luxury that he allowed himself.
He watched Julia undress, knowing he was one of the few clients who got to take in the sight of all of her. Most just got her cunt.
What lay between her legs was certainly pleasant, but it was far from the most interesting part of her.
‘Turn,’ he said as she approached the bed.
She turned and swept her dark hair over her shoulder, presenting her back, baring her scars for him.
Rhys leaned off the bed, slid a hand over her hip and into the hollow of where her thigh met her body, pulling her closer.
The scars, as many times as he had seen them, never failed to fascinate him. They were glorious, signs of strength, signs of survival, everlasting proof of one of his acts of kindness.
Two bastards had solicited services as an excuse to get her alone, then proceeded to beat her, break bottles over her back, and…had died quite suddenly: he had slit the throat of one and stomped in the head of the other.
Technically, it was out of his bailiwick, as it had been a…disagreement between humans, but there was more to Duty than following the rules set down by the system. The intent of Duty was more important than the letter of Duty.
And the intent of Duty had cast him in the role of guardian angel to whoredom.
Julia had been a shaking, bloody mess of ripped calico and ripped flesh. The glass had cut deep, deep enough to kill without treatment. Even with a human doctor, it would have been a miracle if she had survived – if the doctor had deigned to treat her in the first place – so a shift had brought them back to his home.
He had laid her on the table and treated her with fae medicine. Small, cheap items he had bought or stolen, items that to the fairies and fae were simple, over-the-counter pieces of science and magic. Items that were far beyond human capabilities.
Items that turned mortal wounds into something that could be survived.
The drugs and creams hadn’t worked nearly as well as blue did for him, but they had allowed her to live through the night and into the next morning, when she had finally woken up, surviving against the odds.
Rhys let his free hand flutter over her scars as his left massaged her thigh for a moment, then slipped properly between her legs.
The hand tracing her scars pressed forward, slipping around her body to grab at her right breast, and pulled her back onto his lap.
He worked his fingers for a moment, feeling her become more and more wet with each movement. He buried the first finger within her, pumping it just as his cock would mere moments in the future.
Julia’s hand came down and brushed against his hand, urging him to bring a second finger inside her.
Her fingers moved away to manipulate herself, bringing herself into the moment with him.
She leaned back against his chest, and his arm locked around her middle, holding her steady, giving her the freedom to allow her legs to splay, to give herself into the combination of their hands.
She was panting now, a thin layer of sweat forming on her shoulders.
Julia shrieked a little as she came, her muscles beating against his fingers, proof of his effect on her.
Her body rocked as she rode through the orgasm, slowing as she collapsed fully against him, limp as a rag doll.
He enjoyed allowing her to come first. He was sure it was a rare pleasure amongst her clients, who were usually solely interested in assuring their own pleasure was satisfied. He was often guilty of it, himself, but there was a difference between a hurried liaison and inviting someone to your bed. One was a means to an end; one was an experience to take pleasure in.
Rhys lifted her from his lap and rolled her beneath him.
Julia looked up at him, well-practiced desire in her eyes. She looked up at him, then lifted a leg and hooked it up over his back, pulling him down towards her.
He lifted a hand down between his legs and guided himself into place. She pushed herself against him, helping him inch inside.
Rhys braced himself with both hands against the bed and pushed until he was entirely enveloped. He paused there, enjoying the sensation of power and control over the situation – it was almost as intoxicating as the act of being lost in the more vigorous moments of sex.
Julia smiled up at him – another moment of practiced eroticism.
Rhys dipped his head towards her, his lips resting over hers, and she looked up, lifting her chin, assenting to the kiss.
He kissed her deeply, then moved his arms down to wrap around her waist, pressed their bellies together, and began to move.
Rhys closed his eyes and lost himself in the moment.