Chapter 1: Introduction
“Kuh!” The man grunts as he slams onto the dingy ground outside the bar, beaten and bloody. Two looming figures follow closely behind.
The burly reptile on the left speaks, “Cough up, cat.”
Our victim attempts to rise off his stomach, “Heh, go fuck yours- krhgh, ooh,” only to collapse after a hard kick to the ribs. The men advance once again.
“We want our money, Husk!” The Doberman-like partner squats in front of the heaving Husk. “Now are we gonna have to really mess you up?” He picks the dire man’s head up by the hair. The dusky eyes cross and uncross.
“Do… h-ugh. Do your worst, fucker. Ergh.” His head slams to the ground, a shuddering howl emerges as a boot smashes against it.
Dog faces reptile, hand in the pocket of his black jeans. “We doing this?”
Croc speaks, “Guess so.” Dobe hoists Husk up by the nape of his neck, the cat floating in and out of consciousness. A gleaming white dagger points to his face. The faint glow given off from the knife dances across the grime-ridden alley, merging with the warm orange of the bar. “Now, kitty. You see this?” Husk’s eyes remain spiraling. They straighten out a tad after a sharp smack, blood trails flow between his sharp orange teeth.
“Look here.” The very tip of the blade comes to rest on his cheek, a slight sizzling emanating from the flesh. The victim snaps back to reality, his legs pitifully kicking against his assailant. “We’re givin’ you one last chance here, you old bastard. Hand off or face off,” he orders with an icy, straight glare.
The hanged’s struggling ceases, his face contorts into a grim grin after a sputtering fit of coughs. “Guess my luck had ta’ run out sometime, heh. Get it over with, bitch.”
A tune raps out from the doorway. Quick and polite, dressed up in the solid timbre of the thick wooden door.
A man stands over the threshold, noticeably thinner than the two perpetrators. He himself is dressed in a simple black pinstripe, shoulder pads high and haughty. Full ears sprout from his fluffed red hair and an ornate horn-rimmed monocle adorns his right scarlet eye. They etch a determined grimace into their lips, stained fangs show underneath. A slight static fills the air, his voice carries a similar soft filtering along with an old-timey showtune accent.
“Gentlemen, gentlemen! Is there not a peaceful way of reasoning with our…” his wide eyes scan the scene, “feline fellow here?”
The two burly men glare at him until finally, Croc speaks, “You got twenty-thou to make up for what this sack cheated?” Dobe gives the heaving cat a shake, the knife lightly scraping black tracks in his fur.
“Well, no. But… I may have something else that interests you?”
“You’re wasting our time. Speak or leave,” Dobe cuts through to the point.
“Boys, boys. Let’s not be hasty here, after all, it does make waste. I’m here to offer you a trade,” the static in the air intensifies to a dull roar as he dons a wry smile, “your lives for his.”
Both goons look to each other and then back to the antlered negotiator. Dobe bursts out into laughter, staring down the deer-man. “Ruth, snatch this joker, will ya’?” The crocodile advances on our hero, as the once wry smile grows into a full beam.
“What the fuck’re you smiling at?” Ruth asks. An instant later, his head meets the edge of the concrete step from a forward fall, bones crack from the heavy impact. A subtle slithering comes from the dark, just out of view.
“Ha-ha! Whoops! Looks like Ruth here should’ve been watching the walk.” The smug demon approaches the dog from his stair, waltzes past Ruth’s still body, and comes to a stop near the crocodile’s original position. The remaining man is as still as his victim.
“... Ruth,” his sorrow tinged voice echoes through the tight corridor. Husk falls to the ground with a heavy grunt and Dobe rushes to Ruth’s side. Just moments later, many small gunshots ring out, holes adorn the back of his head and neck. The two dead men lay together on the cold steps, and Husk lays too on the frigid earth.
The last standing demon sheathes his empty snubnose and squats down to the frozen cat’s level, poking him once, then twice with a long finger. He doesn’t stir, doesn’t speak. From a touch, his pulse is abnormal, two beats here, a pause, another beat and ride on. “Unconscious… hmm. Time to make tracks.”
A hard metallic thud comes from the back of the truck, along with some rustling from a bright blue tarp. A slam of the door and the vehicle sputters to life. It pulls out of the dingy bar’s parking lot and enters the stream of Hell’s nighttime traffic, horns, revs and yells emerging from the mechanical Styx. A nightly forecast announces itself for the radio until the dial pivots to another station. A cool big band plays out, small, quick taps on the steering wheel go along to the rhythm.
Among the chaos of the streets comes an apathetic peace, an acceptance for how things are. It won’t hold up for long, knowing our driver. A smile no longer overshadows his features, instead, a sleepy-eyed poker-face occupies the space. Slow drive, as to be expected on Hell’s Central Highway. He had been planning his little escapades for about a year now, and even still his plans were rolling slowly along. But it'd happen, sometime.
The warm air comes streaming through the window as he drives, his hair waves and flicks around his vision. Not too bad of a night, all things considered. He picks up his tall glass, only to set the whiskey back into it's cupholder. A small sigh escapes him as the slow stream of cars slowly progresses, he leans back into his seat. The engine sputters as the vehicle slowly accelerates and brakes.
Eventually, the beaten pickup pulls into a small driveway, centered in front of a gradually crumbling sandstone building. A two-storied shack in a cul-de-sac just between the harsh red wastelands and the just-as-rough city limits.
The fancy figure steps out of the low carriage and circles to the back. The tarp swishes off to the side, revealing the still slumbering Husk. He hoists the cat upon his shoulder and locks the car with a chirp of the keys. A short walk up the stone-set walkway, the sturdy door presents itself. The same knock comes from earlier, and the man heads forward.
The door swings open on its own with a soft foot push, the hinges squeak faint and pitiful.
“Niffty! I’m back, and I’ve got a gue~eest!” His voice comes out singsong, bounding over the soft crackling of a fire.
A small girl with scarlet hair and eye scuttles out of the low-light, an excited smile and frantic mannerism accompanying her. A plain beige dress drapes over her tiny body, her only style comes from a dripping polka-dotted ascot hung around her thin neck.
“You brought a guest? Guest? I don’t see any guests. Alastor, where’s the guest?” Her orb scans the ground around his feet, dusty and absent of life before focusing back on Al.
“Here, let me show you.” He saunters over to the dining room table and throws the out-cold cat onto the rickety thing. “Here he is. Husk.”
At once the hyperactive cyclops crawls onto the round table, next to the cat, carefully poking him over. “Ooh, these teeth are filthy. Orange, bad.” She moves on from the cosmetics to his wounds, gashes on his arms and legs, shattered bones in the wings. But the wings… breakages aren’t the only thing strange among them.
“Ally! Ally, look at this!” Niffty pulls a hefty leather bag from a pouch hidden in the feathers, the insides obscured by the worn brown material. Al’s long-fingered hand quickly snatches it from her grip, and the contents of it weigh heavy on the bottom.
“Caution, my little Niffty. We don’t know this man, he could be holding something...,” he feels the bag up and down, “dangerous.”
Carefully, the bag is torn open by his claw-like appendages, and the contents spilled onto the table. Bundles of bills, each held together by thin plastic markers. 5 thousand each, 8 full rolls.
After a small lull in the examination, Al pipes up, “Rhino. Those crocs weren’t yanking me around, it seems. Hell, it’s twice more than they knew.”
“What’re you talking about?”
“I wasn’t able to glean much, but it appears that our pally here swindled the cash.”
Niffty nods, “Oooh,” then she pauses. “What do we do with him?”
“Hmm.” Al runs his hands over the bare cat’s body once again, taking an inventory of wounds and fractures. Wide gashes on the legs, most definitely a concussion. “Sutures. Poor boy needs sutures. Niffty, do you still have that needle and thread?” He turns to the small girl who’s still toying with Husk’s ruby feathers.
“Nada. Ran out of thread a week ago.”
“Well, that’s a problem.”
Alastor steps into the spacious living room, a great blaze crackling in the fireplace. Neat stacks of books, empty spools and matchbooks adorn each surface, setting apart an end table dedicated to a tombstone radio. Niffty comes and sits before the hearth, face to the flames. The strange weather patterns of Hell’s outskirts make it a blessing to have a fireplace, the cold and heat can fluctuate like a desert. He paces for a moment, and after a look to girl at the fire, an idea pops into his head.
“Now that’s a thought… do you have a poker?”
“Yes, a fire poker.”
She grabs a rod poking from the ash, a wrought iron length with a red-hot end. It’ll have to do. Al grabs the hooded handle and holds it straight up. The metal crackles angrily.
He travels back to the unconscious man on the table and looks down at the cat.
The odor of Husk’s drink becomes plain. “Hooch. Ooh, that’s strong,” he pauses, smirking to the man. “Sorry, my dear, but… I’m not. Best to burn then become infected.”
He slides the money off the table, splays his body and checks it over once more. Three dire slashes. One on the calf, one on the opposite thigh, one just left of the square of his back. Plenty of bruises spread over.
“Well, there was a scuffle…” he takes the iron and points it to the first gash.
The hot metal pushes against the open flesh, a grody hissing and bubbling emerging from the wound. The stench of burning flesh and hair meshes poorly with the booze, creating a nauseating atmosphere.
“Oh, lord.” Al steels himself and continues his procedure.
After a few seconds of running the hot iron over Husk’s blackened cut, he pulls away. The wound has fully sealed, but it’s crude. The black char runs over his leg, ugly in contrast to his lush plum fur.
The next wound is smaller but just as wide. It covers over just like the last. Both men are motionless.
Niffty slips into the room, arms swinging at her sides. “Oh. Yech.”
“Cauterizing. Dirty work, you see. And smell.”
She points a finger gun to the poker. “Can I watch?”
“You needn’t ask, my deary.” He pulls up a chair beside him, and she clambers onto the rickety stool. At attention, she stands, watching over the cat’s still body.
Al checks his pulse once again, and it has evened out to a steady beat a second. Shallow breaths, but that’s to be expected. He rolls Husk over and lifts his wing.
“Niffty, hold this up, will you?”
“Yessir!” She grabs the wing and pulls it over her head. The last major opening presents itself, right beneath the base of the wing. He’s lucky he didn’t have the entire appendage lopped off.
He presses the still smoldering rod against the opening, and quickly it burns over. Niffty winges but watches on. With a low sizzle, the rod draws away, a small flame still singing his wing. Al pats it out hurriedly and signals the girl to his side. The wing sets back in place, she hops down.
“Niffty, do me a favor? Fetch a roll of bandages. And petroleum gel.” She salutes and runs off. Quick as a flash, she returns with the plastic container and roll. He takes them and gets to work on covering the burns, applying the gel, wrapping it tightly, and repeating thrice.
Al lets out a full exhale, “Whew,” and lifts the cat back up onto his shoulder. Slowly, he makes his way over to the living room couch and sets the cat down on it. The short girl follows close behind.
“Why ya’ putting him there? He can sleep on the floor. I’m sure he wouldn’t mind.”
“Well, when he wakes up, we want him in a swell mood. I’ve got a feeling about him.”
“Well, alright. Where do I sleep?”
“At the fireplace, like a cute little dog,” he grins to his partner. She returns the smile. “You’ll have my bed, of course.”
“But where will you sleep?”
“Well, the fireplace is still open.” Niffty snickers. “Hey,” Al crouches to her level, setting a hand on her shoulder. “Don’t fret over me, I’ll just make a little lying place. Okay?”
“I'll stop, sorry," she bounces on her feet.
“Don’t be. I’ll see you tomorrow, yes?”
Gunshots. The cat wakes with a gasp, like a dead man rising from his grave. He hisses in pain. The orange daggers of teeth clamp down on themselves.
“What the fuck’s this?” His question groans out, eyes still closed.
A fire gently crackles in the background, and a grainy radio plays a familiar song. He curls to a sitting position. Immediately the scars and bruises on his body react, the sores around cracking and breaking to breathe. Husk slams back down into a coffin position, sinking down into the cushions.
“God-DAMN that stings.” He moans. The tune goes on as he starts to slowly build motivation to stand. A minute passes, and he still hasn’t opened his eyes. A minute more, and he rolls off the couch down onto the hardwood floor, face down once again. The surface is rough and cold, deja vu inducing.
“Ergh.” With a burst of energy, he pushes himself up and launches to his feet. The shaken knees buckle, but slowly the pain in his legs stabilizes. A long exhale. Finally, the deep autumnal eyes open to squint. “What the...”
The surroundings are unfamiliar. A dark, crumbling but spacious sandstone-and-wood structure, nearly the exact opposite of his slum apartment. Paper-thin glass windows adorn the scarlet walls, pointed out to the barren outskirts of Hell, black trees and orange sand.
“Our little prince is finally awake, I see.” Thick, manilla claws unsheathe from his paw-hands as he snaps up into a fighting stance.
“Who th’ fuck’s there?” The man in red takes a step forward into the low firelight, eyes aglow and grin wide. “Oh, no-no-no. You stay back. You see this?” The cat jabs long twice with his nails, bouncing on his knees. “Yeah, that’s the old Soviet-style. Take another step, see what happens, Smiles.”
“Oh, those Soviets…” The approaching one trails off for a second, then snaps back into the present. “I mean no harm, sourpuss. Calm down, won’t you? Old Alastor here wouldn't lay a finger on you.”
He stills for a moment, glaring at the lanky man from behind his arms. “Husk. And calm down, nah. Where in the Nine damn Circles am I?”
“Whoa there! No need to reference the Comedy, my boy. I take you into my humble home, and this is what I get?” The demon shrugs.
“Yeah. Put the emphasis on ‘take’. I don’t even know how I got these scars, for all I know it coulda’ been you,” he points a hand to his scar-covered thigh.
“Well, that’s just the reason you’re here. I want to talk, inform you on things,” he states, businessman-like.
Husk lowers his boxing guard and collapses back onto the couch, an arm raising to cover his eyes. “Well… go on. You got any drink? Headache’s comin’ on.”
“Oh, yes. But is that really the best thing we can be doing right now?”
“According to you, best thing to do right now is talk. Accordin’ to me, the best way to talk is with drinks. Don’t have to be fancy, just a little somethin’,” he waves to the red demon with a loose, now clawless hand. He simply turns his head. “Hurry it up, will ya’?”
“Ssssure. Wait here.” The tall man turns on his heel and steps into the dining room.
Broken cabinets and drawers, with a low-end fridge. The rickety table still holds up, and the rolls of money still lie on top. Quickly, he stuffs the bundle into the fridge. A moment after, he reaches into one of the few still-secure storage places and pulls out a black bottle of whiskey along with a couple of stout glasses. He returns to Husk’s couch and sets the glasses and bottle onto the small, round table.
“Is this what you wanted?” The bottle pours into a cup, and the full drink slides to the man sitting adjacent.
“Yup.” The cat downs his drink and sends the cup back. “Thanks, now we can talk, heh.”
“So?” The interrogator takes a sip of his drink, then refills Husk’s.
“So? So what? You’re the one that kidnapped me,” the gruff demon smirks to the other.
“Erhrm,” he clears his throat, “first off, what do you remember?”
“Gulpin’ down a bottle, playing a little blackjack. Ordinary night. Besides that though… not much’s comin’ ta’ mind.” He tips the glass back once again. “Hey, that ain’t bad.”
Al leans back in his chair, studying the gambler. “Makes sense. You received quite a few undoubtedly heavy blows to the head back there.”
“Huh. Well, how’d I do? In the fight.”
“You got your fanny handed to you on a silver platter. Your head would have been served on one too if I hadn’t cut in.”
“Well, thank ya’. I guess. Now what’s with the burns, they torture me or somethin’?” He splays out on the couch.
“No. I had to cauterize your gashes. They cut you up like a cantaloupe, and I didn’t have the thread for stitching.”
“Well… damn. The original disinfectant, the old trial by fire, yadda yadda. So what do I owe ya’?” Alastor’s dimly lit eyes flick to the fridge and back.
“Tell me, Husk, are you any good in a brawl? While you’re sober?” His claws pop back out of his knuckles, and he looks to Al with a smirk.
“One a’ the best. Hell, even when I’m punch drunk, I can still whip a guy’s ass. And speakin’ a’ that, uh, how many of those guys were on me last night?”
“Two, in the end anyway. Though earlier, I did hear quite the ruckus near the tables.”
“Kuh. Cowards musta’ snuck up on me,” he spits bitterly. “So, you need a fighter? What’s the job?” The deer grins wide.
“Nifft~yy! Files!” Alastor calls out into the open air of the living room, past the crackling of the hearth. In a second, something falls down the chimney and into the blazing stack of tinder.
“What the hell?” The shape tumbles out from the pyre onto the cold floor, covered in black dust and flickering flames.
The shadowy figure scuttles towards Alastor and hands him a singed folder. Its large eye gazes at Husk. “Husk, this is Niffty. Niffty, Husk.” The soot-covered girl shakes off the powder and fire, grinning to the guest/captive. She jumps over the table to him and leans into his face.
“Hi! I’m Niffty! Nice to meetcha’!” Her hand shoots out to his, that toothy smile fixed on her face. Husk’s claws retract.
“Yeah. Husk. You too,” he shakes her charred hand gingerly. “You uh, alright?” The girl nods many times. “Want a drink?” Another few nods. Husk reaches across the table to grab the bottle and pulls it back to him. His old cup fills to the brim, and it goes to the girl at his side. He takes a swig from the bottle.
Niffty throws the drink back and slams the glass to the table. “Ugh! That’s gross.” Husk pours her another.
Just as Niffty lunges for her cup again, Alastor snaps his fingers. Both other demons look to him. “So. This folder,” he holds it up, blackened edges glowing in the light. “It contains info on our target.” He passes it to Husk.
The flaps lay open, and spreadsheets of information on a single man spread across the table. Multiple images of a sturdily built lizard with long black hair. “A hit, huh? Interestin’. I’ve seen him ‘round. Why you want ‘em dead?”
“I need to test something. He falls into place.”
“Fair ‘nough. You got a plan?” Another swig from the bottle for Husk.
“Files.” The cat looks back down to the scattered papers. Locations, tendencies, strengths and weaknesses pop from the pages. “He’s a strongarm for another I need to go after. If I can sweep his legs, it’ll be so much… easier,” he finishes with a sinister tone.
Niffty finishes her cup again. “Yeah! Easy!” She holds it to the cat sitting next to her. The cup quickly fills back to the top. Al glances between the two.
“Wasn’t lookin’ fer’ an explanation. What I asked for was a plan, so you’d best tell me before I finish this bottle,” he jabs a finger to the dealer. “So talk to me, Smiles.”
The man shoots the cat a glare and speaks once again. “Yes. I was just about to, so simmer. Down.” Husk spins his finger in through the air, prompting him to hurry up. Another cold look and he continues. “So, our Aron is somewhat of a brawler, as you can tell. Scars, tattoos, the whole waterworks and the mill too. And like you, he’s a heavy drinker.”
“Regular juicer too, huh?”
“Anabolic steroids. Yes.”
“We’re not takin’ him head-on, are we?”
“Oh, we are.” Husk slaps a hand to his head with a groan. “That’s exactly where you come in.”
“What, you expect me to go up to this guy and clock him? ‘Zat it? What, uh, we just run up and lay track? You-” a spur of static shrieks through the air. Niffty jerks up from her drink, patterned ears flatten on the drunkard’s head.
“So! Husker, my boy! I imagine you’re starving. A couple days in the hole, after all! Now, what would you like to eat?” Husk’s easy, even look cycles into shock and then just as quickly into a wide, sharp grin.
“Macaroni and cheese.”
“Mac ‘n cheese. You got any?”
“Mmh?” Her eye perks up from the scarred wings.
Al gestures to the kitchen. “Do us a favor, will you? Whip up some macaroni for our guest.”
She wobbles back from the table and rushes into the small kitchen. A clatter of metal comes before a slam. The fridge opens, then closes with a hard bang. “Hey Ally! What’s-”
Al’s head turns nearly 180 degrees to glare to the kitchen. “Milk! Macaroni. Needs. Milk. Chop chop!”
“Yezzir!” She slurs back. More banging, shaking, and pitter-pattering.
“So. 3 days?”
“Tonight makes it.”
“Damn.” He takes another swig of his whiskey, then collapses the rest of the way onto the sagging couch.
Husk waves the bottle at the sat-up character across the table. “So what? You’re the guy here. The boss, the one I owe. You tell me what.”
“Husk, what I NEED is for you to hold your tongue. I will tell you my plan. I will tell you everything.”
Silence from the gazing Husk. He nods and takes another swig.
“So. We will face our little Arry head-on, with a frontal. Do you understand? Frontal?”
“Cut the shit. Yo. Sé. Inglés.” The deer twitches.
“In 3 days, we run a car through his front door. We get out. You kill everything you see. You keep killing until he is dead. Understand?”
“Yup. ‘Zat it?”
“Good, good. Now. You got my stuff?”
“On the front table. Go on,” he waves to the front door.
Husk slowly stands from his place and looks around the place once more. Still, the place is dark. The fire is the only illumination, besides Al’s hazy eyes. The kitchen is black as the edges of the living room, set aside a ring of blue flame and the small figure dashing about in the low glow. Al stares. A small walk into the dark and he comes out to the front door. The table to his left carries three things. A wallet, a wing sling/pouch, and an old Colt.
He slides the wallet into the pouch and the pouch over to the base of his wing. His hand approaches his gun, the fingers hesitantly curl around the cold, loose metal. A bony, frigid hand comes over his. His head yanks up, another long hand gripping his hair.
“You understand what this means, Husk?” His gloved hand coils around the cat’s like a snake. The rough man snarls as they glare at each other, the figure's eyes casting a gruesome red from the shadows onto him. Deafening quiet.
“It means I trust you, so don’t you disappoint. Nasty things will happen if you do.” The shadow whispers as its form dissipates into the shadows. The gun finds home in the dry leather sack.
Husk, now alone, looks back to the living room. The fire crackles, the radio slowly drawls. Al’s side of the table rests just out of view, and the clatter of the kitchen plays out quietly. Yet another job to do.
sorry for the long-ass wait, but i've been kicking life's ass lately. also i have been straight up not feelin it.