Small beads of sweat joined forces on my forehead, coming together in a sign of unity before sliding into a defenseless eyeball.
What the hell am I doing?
Cathy, my lovely yet ill-inspired teenage daughter, beamed at me from a few rows over, her once-white jiu-jitsu gi now crusted with sweat and a few drops of someone else’s blood.
That’s right, I’m being a good dad—and trying to lose a few pounds in the process. Yay me.
Cathy turned away to listen to the instructor, a tall and well-built Brazilian kid fresh off the boat. I might have been passable in the low speech of demons, but this guy’s Portuguese accent was giving me fits.
I wiped more sweat off my face with the cardboard sleeve of my loaner gi—a five-pound, white, Japanese looking suit that soaked up sweat like a shammy—and tried to focus on the instructor. His scrambled accent droned on, so I took a moment to survey the hotbox-turned-dojo. Cathy’s love affair with martial arts meant I’d been to a few of these places over the years, and as dojos went, this one wasn’t half-bad. It was clean and reasonably well laid out, with dense red mats covering the floor and walls—more than enough padding to take the impact of thick-skulled older guys like myself. The only real problem, aside from our instructor’s befuddling accent, was the heat; air conditioning was clearly not something martial artists put much thought into.
Cathy and I knelt together with a dozen or so men and women on the lava-hot mats while our instructor stepped through a simple yet hard-to-follow escape. It all had to do with someone pinning you down—school-yard-style basic self-defense. Every few minutes Cathy would lean over and assure me I’d be able to handle it just fine.
As far as my daughter and the rest of the world knew, I was middle management for a local builder—keeping the workers working and the projects on track. It wasn’t glamorous, but it paid for a life with two kids and a loving wife. All of this was great, but the real reason I took the job was the flexibility; it gave me the time I needed for my second life.
My daughter didn’t know it, but I was actually here as much for her as for the crash course in how not to get beaten up by some Demon of the unspeakable darkness. The terrifying denizens of the netherworld weren’t up on Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu yet, so I took every advantage I could get.
Our instructor rounded off the demonstration with what I guessed must have been a perfectly delivered joke in Portuguese, then sent us off to pair up. I wasn’t keen on seeing strange, sweaty men climb on top of my baby girl, but I got the impression many of them weren’t keen on it either. Cathy might have been a little on the small side, but what she gave up in size she more than made up for with wild energy.
A couple of the guys had started calling her ‘little twister,’ but somewhere along the way that got twisted itself, and now she was ‘tiny twister’ and every inch of her five-foot-tall frame loved it.
“Hey, I’m Mike,” my randomly assigned partner said, extending a sweat-soaked hand my direction.
“Eugene, but everyone calls me Gene.”
We shook hands and sized each other up; it’s just what men do—especially men with a little gray in their hair. Mike offered to play the victim first, which was fine with me. It gave me a few extra seconds to watch my daughter girl-handle another would-be attacker.
In the natural world I had nothing to worry about with Cathy—she was more than capable of taking care of herself. But it wasn’t the natural world that kept me up at night, it was the supernatural one.
I went through the motions of an attacker and Mike demonstrated his basic understanding of the technique. He succeeded in tossing me off and gaining the upper hand, but I wasn’t really trying, I was distracted by something sparkling on the bench.
Cathy had taken off her necklace.
Any normal parent wouldn’t have had a problem with this, but I was far from a normal parent, and that was far from a normal necklace.
One of the problems with being a Magician was that you had a tendency to make a lot of very scary things quite angry with you. I didn’t mind, it was all part of the process—can’t make omelets without breaking open a few monster skulls and all that—but what about the family?
Mike climbed on top and pinned my arms down just like we’d been taught. I tried to remember the right sequence of moves but couldn’t shake the visual of my daughter’s necklace casually discarded.
She took it off! She took the necklace off!
My brain was having a difficult time reconciling the complex set of leg movements required to escape thanks to the terrifying realization Cathy was completely unprotected.
“No, you have to shift your hips more,” my well-meaning partner said, trying to keep me from embarrassing myself further.
The necklace, a powerful Lenar’s Logic Loop that I’d spent over a year painstakingly creating, lay like a discarded sock on the bench.
“I got it.” I pushed my hips out and struggled to free myself from an overzealous Mike. It worked, but not without a little give from the larger man—Cathy wouldn’t be pleased, but hell, neither was I.
A Logic Loop was Deep Magick: important, powerful, and altogether representative of thousands of hours of work—yet there it was, lying on the bench, leaving my beautiful daughter completely exposed to the supernatural world. Yeah, she might be able to fight off angry men, break arms, and put people in choker holds, but with the necklace off, she was powerless as a newborn kitten against the hordes of unfathomable evil.
Mike and I switched positions and the big man went to work on another escape.
“Think you could make it a little harder this time?”
“Grauior…” I mumbled under my breath. It was a simple bit of Magick, but one I loved using to play tricks on the nurse at the doctor’s office. It took me right up to 250lbs without changing my actual size—yeah, physics can suck it.
“Oof—” Mike said, no doubt feeling the sudden change in weight distribution rather keenly. “That’ll work…”
I all but ignored my half-crushed partner and instead put all my energy into willing Cathy to look this way.
Come on, sweetheart… Damn it, Cathy.
Back when Porter and I were new parents we’d had ‘the talk.’ For most couples, that conversation was about how to split up activities: child care, diapering, feeding, etc. For us that conversation centered around how to keep our newborn safe from my world. The night she’d been born, Cathy’d almost been ferreted off by Pixies, eaten by a Shade from the second circle of Hell, and sacrificed to a self-aware Tocobaga burial mound—it was an important discussion.
Magick was in my blood, but not my wife’s. My little Midwest transplant was about as normal as apple pie. That didn’t make her any less beautiful, but it did make her far less likely to borrow a grimoire or show me up with her own evocations. Still, our early marital years hadn’t been without their challenges, the biggest of which being how we would protect our children—should we have had any—from the terrors that existed just beyond the visible world.
In the end we’d settled for serious Deep Magick, a big fat lump of it in fact—a talisman that would make Cathy all but invisible to the things that go bump in the night. It had taken all I had at the time to build it, and even more weeks after had been spent recovering from the making, but there it was, one of the most powerful Magickal items I’d ever created—now keeping that bench perfectly safe from the forces of evil.
My partner struggled to free himself from heavy Eugene Law, giving me ample time to try and get Cathy’s attention, but she wasn’t having anything to do it with. That diminutive grappler was too busy twisting arms and wringing necks to pay attention to her old man.
Mike shifted under me and I adjusted my position. In doing so I caught a blast of hot air from one of the fans, and with it a scent I wasn’t expecting. It wasn’t the smell of the loaner gi, or the caustic stench of bleach our instructor used to clean the mats; this was something far worse.
Not every soul ended up in a better place when they died—not by a long shot—and some of them were willing to do damn near anything to find a way back.
Florida’s problems with New Dead were well documented, if not well understood. There was even a whole Twitter account dedicated to the antics of ‘Florida Man,’ an amalgamation of all the terrible and inane crimes perpetrated by individuals in the Sunshine State. I just happened to know more than half of them were the work of New Dead.
How did they get here? That’s what wasn’t well understood. Through some twist of fate Florida happened to exist at that geometric vertex where the natural and supernatural collided with high frequency—plus we had ‘Thinnings.’
Those threadbare sections of the veil that kept the supernatural world far away from the real world grew like stink on a dead rabbit down here in the orange juice capital of the world. When they popped up, bad things came through—our tourism board worked so well even the damned like to visit.
Still, there was one here now, in Cathy’s jiu-jitsu class—how had I missed it? While the telltale signs of the possessed were impossible for a normal person to see, Magickal blood meant I got the benefit of seeing all sorts of things you can’t un-see: Dragon egg fever, Alligator Men, murderous wraiths on I-75, and even the ashen bodies of the damned.
Mike’s weight shifted underneath me—somehow my partner had found a way to dislodge all 250 lbs of Magickally enhanced Eugene Law and send it tumbling to the mat. My body hit the rubber with a resounding thump, drawing looks from more than half the class.
That was when I found it.
If the eyes really were a window to the soul, then this young man’s body was running a double-occupancy special. Black as coal with burned edges, they sank deep into the crumpled paper of his ashen cheeks ringed with tar.
Yep, New Dead—damn it.
A smile split his face, knocking free large flakes of withered lip that tumbled away like ash from a spent cigarette.
I could see him, but he hadn’t made eye contact with me yet—instead, he’d found something far sweeter to feast upon.