Nocturnal

Standard

NokkI can hear it moving, I think.  It’s hard to tell with the other noises.  A car whooshing by sometimes.  Some cat moving through the bushes outside.  A neighbor went to the bathroom a few minutes ago.  I jerked when I heard the sound of the water moving through the pipes.  If I squeeze my eyes shut and focus, I think I can hear it breathing.

“Sounds like the start of a cheesy horror novel,” Tashi said.

Gary set down the photocopy he’d been reading from.  “It’s an entry from his notebook, where he started jotting down his observations.  He wrote that down right after he got the nerve to flip on the lights.  About two-fifteen in the morning.”

Gary and Tashi were seated in their usual booth at their usual diner, eating their usual Friday morning breakfast. In actuality, Tashi was eating her usual Friday morning breakfast—one of her favorites, while Gary was staring balefully down at his bowl of plain oatmeal.

“Food should be more than sustenance,” he said, glancing at Tashi’s fork as she raised a piece of her bacon, avocado, and tomato omelet to her mouth.

She glanced at his oatmeal and gave a sympathetic shrug of her eyebrows before returning her gaze to the case file before her.  It was a low-urgency case brought to the local Agency office by a private citizen, as opposed to law enforcement.  Such cases were normally handled by rookies and their trainers, but Gary and Tashi had just closed a few rough cases lately and their director offered them this one as a break.  They were going over the evidence provided so far before they went to interview the witness who reported the issue, Mike Morgan.

A third agent would be joining them at the office to observe their interview with the witness and possible victim.  The agent was from Amber division.  Gary noticed his partner was prickly about this.  Tashi liked being a field agent with DarkOrange.  But she aimed to one day be an agent of DarkBlue, the science and technology division.  She had respect for all the other divisions as well: Yellow, the basic training division; Maroon, which provided force protection when needed either by the agency or at the request of local and national authorities; and so forth.  But she didn’t seem comfortable with DarkAmber, which handled paranormal, supernatural, mythical, and mystical matters.

Gary kidded her and warned that her skepticism would turn into denial.  But Tashi seemed determined to doubt.

“Why do they think there might a supernatural component anyway?” she asked.  There is not enough evidence yet to make a preliminary assessment, much less draw any conclusions.”

Gary shrugged.  “Somebody must have seen something in this evidence that we’re not seeing.”  He thought about whether he should suggest that their director might have given them the assignment because she thought it would be good for Tashi to experience a case that didn’t revolve around hard science.

***

The agent from DarkAmber was waiting for them at their cubicles.  They saw him through the glass-panel windows that looked into the inner offices from the lobby.

Gary noticed that Tashi seemed surprised to see the somewhat bureaucratic-looking man in the steel gray suit.  He leaned over to her as they swiped their cards at the door.  “What were you expecting?  A velvet cloak and gemstone rings on all his fingers?  He’s not a sorcerer, Tash.  He’s an agent, like us.”

Tashi made a non-committal “hmm” sound as the agent from Amber division approached.

“Tashi Conrad and Garrison Takita, I presume,” the agent said, offering his hand.  “Mars Dietrich, DarkAmber.”

They exchanged pleasantries.

“I believe your witness is waiting,” Agent Dietrich said.

***

“I felt something touching my legs last night too,” Mike Morgan said.

He was sitting on the couch opposite from Gary and Tashi in one of their waiting rooms.  A bottle of water sat before the young man.  Dietrich sat on a desk against the wall, watching and taking notes.

“Every time I felt something, I’d jerk my leg away and turn on the lights and throw the covers off.  And there wouldn’t be anything there.  But when I’d finally turn the lights off and try to sleep again, it would come back.  It started with my ankles, and moved up my calves.  It didn’t feel like hands really.  Maybe.  It was rubbing.  So, I left the lights and the covers off.  That seemed to work…”

Tashi propped her elbows on her knees and leaned forward.  “But?”

“I I felt like I hardly slept at all.  I can’t go on like this or I’ll be useless at work, at everything.”

“Among the noises you’ve heard,” Gary said, “have you heard any vocalizations?  Like vowel sounds or even whole words?”

Mike Morgan tensed up.  He reached for the bottle and gulped some water.  A shaft of sunlight lay across the floor.  Dietrich quietly raised the blinds to let more light in.

Mike relaxed just a little.  “I heard a cat outside.”  He looked up at Tashi.  “You know how they can sound human sometimes?”

“Yeah, that is creepy,” Gary said.  “That’s why I’m a dog person.”

“What kind of sounds was the cat making?”

Beads of sweat were forming on Mike’s face.  “It…it sounded like.  I mean it was a regular ‘meow.’  But I was so worked up that it sounded like it was saying ‘now.’”  He laughed nervously.  “Like a question.  Like, ‘nooooow?  Nooooow?’”  He looked at Gary.  “It was loud.  You know how crickets are so loud that you can tell when they’re inside?  But it had to be outside.”

Tashi asked the requisite follow-up question to eliminate obvious answers.  He didn’t have a cat, or rat, or snake, or anything else that might explain something crawling under the covers with him at night.  He didn’t think he was under any particular stress at his office job or in his family or social life.  The most stressful thing that had happened in his life was the death of his neighbor a week prior.

The woman, he knew her only as Mrs. Forthington, was elderly and she smoked.  So the medical examiner deemed her death as due to natural causes.  Mike was the one who found her.  The residents took turns checking up on her each day.  Tuesdays were Mike’s days.  He recalled that despite her unhealthy habit, the woman seemed one of those people who escaped the horrific results of a lifetime of smoking.  She was in her mid-seventies and still able to get around just fine.  She chose to stay indoors because she loved to read and listen to music.  But she’d been complaining of being short of breath in recent weeks.  Everyone thought it was normal, that age and decades of smoking were finally catching up to her.

Mike described the atypical sounds he started noticing in the middle of the night a few weeks before his neighbor passed on.  Being woken by the sound of water splashing, even though there wasn’t supposed to be anyone in the pool after nine.  Hearing the meowing of cats as if they were in the hallways, even though no pets were allowed in their building.  Mike figured it all had a logical explanation, maybe a new neighbor had started feeding strays, and maybe some kids were breaking into their pool sometimes to swim or skinny dip or some normal thing.  And maybe all the sounds he heard at night when all was quiet were the natural sounds of a forty-year-old building, moaning and groaning and settling as if begging for a remodel.  And maybe he was on edge because he’d found a dead body, something he’d never seen before.

But then, a few nights ago, something happened he could not easily explain or ignore.  He woke suddenly, unable to breathe, and saw two large yellow eyes floating above his chest.  He yelled out and turned on the lights and found nothing there.  It had gotten worse after that.  He felt something every night.  And he heard the breathing.  And his room felt stifling.  He woke up sweating all the time.

He thought that something, some creature or phenomenon that was beyond him, killed his neighbor in the night and then latched onto him when he found her.  He was still open to believing it was all in his head.  He looked at them with with an expression that was half-embarrassment and half-expectation, as if hoping they would assure him he was being foolish so he could feel relieved and go back to his normal routine.  His fears likely seemed foolish to him in the light of day.

They told him they would investigate further and gave him their cards.

***

The three agents went to Mike Morgan’s apartment complex, where Gary and Tashi questioned a few residents who were at home during the day.  No one thought there was anything unusual about their elderly neighbor’s death.  And those who knew Mike Morgan had only generically pleasant things to say about him.

They then visited the morgue and examined the elderly woman’s body.  Her family was still traveling from out of state to come and claim her.  There weren’t any marks on her body.  No autopsy has been performed as her death had been deemed natural.  Dietrich noted that the woman seemed unusually pale.  But that was not unusual for a woman who spent so much time indoors and for someone who had passed not too long ago.

There was no solid forensic evidence of any unusual phenomenon.  And according to Dietrich, there seemed insufficient evidence of paranormal phenomenon.  He wanted to request an autopsy just in case they had missed something.  But all three agents were approaching the conclusion that, after a final review of their notes, they would mark the case closed and let an appropriate agent counsel Mike Morgan on what to do next if he continued to have night terrors or even just nightmares.

Then Tashi noticed the unusual way the woman’s hands were clenched in death.  The last two fingers of each hand were bent down.  The thumb and forefingers were stretched out.

“It’s a warding gesture,” Dietrich said.  “For keeping away evil.”

Dietrich asked the medical examiner if she had arranged the woman’s fingers that way, to which question he received a curious look.

***

The next morning, as they sat to review their notes, they received a call from a frantic Mike Morgan.  He he woken in the middle of the night, drenched in sweat, and unable to breath, and when he went to the bathroom after finally calming down, he found strange welts around his throat.

He had no other injuries, so they called him into the office so they could examine his neck and get his statement.

“I did some research last night,” Dietrich said, sipping on a mug of coffee.  “I suggest we keep the case open until we can get an autopsy on Mrs. Forthington.  I have a notion of what type of entity might be causing the phenomenon our Mr. Morgan has described.”  He excused himself to go retrieve his briefcase from Gary’s cubicle.

After Dietrich left the room, Tashi shuddered and made a face as if she’d just bitten into an aspirin.

“You’re not curious?” Gary asked.

“Supernatural stuff is not really my thing.  None of it makes any sense.”

Gary raised a brow.  “Last case, we almost got infected with some kind of multi-virus.  The case before that, we voluntarily took a drug that made us temporarily blind.  And before that, we almost got sucked into another dimension.  All of that, you can shrug off, but a little creature from myth might turn out to be real and that’s what freaks you out?”

Tashi pressed her lips together as Dietrich returned to the room where they were all waiting for Mike Morgan.  He had a book open in his hands, a small leather-bound volume, and his brow was furrowed as he read from it.

“Let’s hear it,” Tashi said.

Dietrich glanced up and lowered the book.  “I think what we’re dealing with is a nokk.  We named it after this Scandinavian myth about a creature called a nokken.  It’s the male version of a nixie or water spirit.  They are supposed to be shape-shifters.  Sometimes benevolent.  Sometimes malicious.  That’s usually the way with a lot of these creatures of myth.  In some versions of the myth, the thing looks like a man and plays music to lure people into the water to drown.”

“Why are mythological creatures always trying to drown or dismember or otherwise kill humans?” Tashi asked, frowning.

Gary crossed his arms.  “Probably to steal our souls.”

Dietrich’s eyes grew wider.  “You might have a bit of the truth there, Agent Takita.”  He sat down at the desk and leaned toward them.  “The nokk absorbs some substance contained within the exhaled breath of certain individuals.  About a third of the adult human population and almost all children exhale this substance.”

“Lovely.”

“So in a sense they are drinking in the energy we release.  Not exactly our souls, but I can see how that can make it into the legend.  But a few details don’t fit.  The creature is shy and very light, light as an insect.  It wouldn’t let a human feel its mark and it wouldn’t make any sounds, or so we think.  It’s like a commensal organism, neither helping nor harming the humans it feeds from.  So little is known about the nokk, apart from myths and decades-old observations, that it may be possible for such a generally harmless creature to have harmed someone, especially someone weakened by age.  I hope Mrs. Forthington’s family agrees to the autopsy.  And when Mr. Morgan comes in, we should ask if he would let us monitor his bedroom for a few nights.”

Gary frowned.  “Hey, what about that urban legend, about how cats are sent to steal people’s breath? Could this nokk have made that meowing sound that Mike heard?  How sure are you guys about the no-sounds thing?  Maybe these nokks have perpetuated that urban legend.”

Dietrich looked thoughtful and gave an appreciative nod to Gary.  “That might be possible.  No one knows what a nokk looks like because they are so elusive.  No one knows what they sound like either.  That’s why it’s generally thought they don’t make any sound.”

“So this thing is drinking Mike’s breath?  Why did things get violent?  What does it want from him?  Please don’t tell me it wants to use his body to incubate nokk babies?”

Tashi shook her head at him.  But Dietrich looked a bit troubled.

“I hope that isn’t the case,” the Amber agent said.  “There is just so little we know about these creatures.  You are familiar with the four fundamental forces of nature, those being the strong and weak nuclear force, electromagnetism, and of course, gravity?”

Gary glanced at Tashi.  She stopped short of rolling her eyes, but her gaze did flick toward the Amber agent, her jaw clenched slightly, and she released a controlled breath that probably started off as a sigh of exasperation.

Agent Dietrich either didn’t notice or ignored Tashi’s reaction and continued.  “Some propose there are other forces we have not yet discovered or detected.  And that some creatures, like the nokk, are animated by these other forces.  In this case, we have named it simply the night force, not knowing its nature.  Blue division is working on trying to suss out that nature actually.”

At this, Tashi raised her brows slightly.  “Really?  Have they discovered anything about this ‘night force’?”

Dietrich sighed.  “Not yet.”  Then he smiled.  “That’s why this could be a rare opportunity for us to gather data on the nokk—if that is indeed what we are dealing with—on behalf of Amber and Blue.”

Tashi gave a slight shake of her head, but her eyes betrayed curiosity.  “Let’s hold our horses until we find out more.”

***

Mike Morgan agreed to let the Agency set up cameras and various environmental detectors in his bedroom in the hopes of catching whatever it was that was haunting him.  He joined Tashi, Gary, and Dietrich in an unmarked gray van with monitors and read-out stations for all the instrumentation they had set up.  But they saw nothing that night.  Or the next.

“I have to go in there and sleep,” Mike said.  “It won’t come if there’s no food, right?”

After a bit of paperwork and the waiving of some litigation rights, Mike Morgan was allowed to return to his apartment the next night.  All they saw for the first few hours after he turned off the lights and went to bed was just Mike tossing and turning.  But then, he seemed to finally fall asleep.

And then, they saw a vague shape appear in the room.

Tashi was ready to go barging in, but Dietrich urged her to wait.  He wasn’t even trying to hide the smile on his face at the sight of nothing but a shadowy amorphous shape.  But Dietrich was right.  Mike seemed fine, comfortable even as he turned over slowly to lay on his back.  The shape floated over him and hovered over his chest.  It stayed there for the better part of an hour with Mike none the worse for wear.  Dietrich made notes and observations from monitoring the environmental sensors.  Then the shape floated away from Mike’s chest and moved over and around him.  Dietrich surmised that it had finished feeding, but he couldn’t guess why the creature remained in the room.  The nokk hovered around Mike for a couple of hours.  Gary’s bottom had gotten numb and he was starting to feel hungry.  Tashi had leaned back in her chair and was dozing.  Even Dietrich was fading.  He was doing some neck stretches when some environmental sensors showed changes in status.  No alarms were set off, but the humidity in the room seemed to spike and one of the cameras near the window just went out.  They could still see Mike from the overhead camera.  Gary shook Tashi awake.

And then they saw something move into the camera’s view.  A hulking shape lumbered toward Mike and leaned over him.

“What just happened?” Gary said.  Was that the nokk?

Mike raised a hand as if to strike at it.  The shape seemed to hesitate.  But then it leaned further down and covered all of Mike’s upper body.  Mike’s legs began to kick out.  Through the microphones, they heard the sounds of his thrashing, though he did not cry out.

Tashi and Gary leapt out of the van as Dietrich signaled to the Maroon agents who were waiting in a nearby van.  Tashi was in the lead as they ran up to Mike’s second-floor unit.  They had his key and they entered his unit.  Hovering camera eyes followed each of them and threw white light into the living room.  Tashi reached the bedroom first and propelled herself toward Mike and the hulking shape that was smothering him.

Gary watched his partner on the ground, struggling with the thing.  There wasn’t enough light from the camera eyes.  Tashi grunted as she tried to strike it.  The creature yowled.  It sounded like a cat.  It slipped from Tashi’s grasp as Gary searched for the light switch.  He found it, flipped it, and turned around as light flooded the room.  Tashi was leaning down out of the open window.  She yelled down to the Maroon agents who were responding, directing them to chase the thing.  She turned around and that’s when Gary noticed that she was soaking wet from head to toe.  She told him to look after Mike who had woken in a terror.  Gary heard a splash as Tashi left the room.  Mike Morgan was upright in bed, trying to catch his breath.  There were fresh welts on his neck and on his arms too this time.  He too was soaking wet.  And so was his carpet where Tashi and the hulking thing had struggled.  Both of Mike’s hands were held up, making that warding sign that Dietrich had seen on the woman who’d died.

***

“How did you know to make that sign, Mike?” Dietrich asked.  He was not a field agent, but Gary and Tashi judged it best to let their Amber colleague do the questioning.

They were sitting in Mike’s living room.  It was nearly morning and the commotion they made had woken some of the immediate neighbors.  Agents from both Blue and Amber divisions were beginning to arrive to collect more evidence, including the watery liquid that was still drying on Mike and Tashi.

The Maroon agents who tried to chase the thing had heard the same splash that Gary had heard.  But they didn’t see the thing.  And neither did Tashi when she caught up with them.  The pool couldn’t be seen from Mike’s window, but it wasn’t far off.  When Tashi and the Maroon agents looked, there was nothing and no one in it.

“Forget signs,” Tashi said.  “How did Amber not know how big and nasty these nokks can get?”  She was fuming.  Mostly from losing sight of the creature, Gary was sure, but Dietrich and Amber division were easy scapegoats.

Mike shook his head.  “I don’t remember.  I think I…maybe I dreamed it?  It just made me feel a little safer to do that.  It wasn’t enough, I guess.”

Dietrich crossed his arms.  “I think it may have slowed the thing down a bit actually.”

Tashi caught a passing DarkBlue agent by the arm.  “Do Mike and I need to be decontaminated?”

“As far as we can tell, you’re both just covered in water.”

“Your spectral readings also seem normal.”  A DarkAmber agent nearby added.  “Still, it might be a good idea to shower as soon as possible.”

“And give us your clothes for further testing,” the DarkBlue agent said.

“We’d better get to the office for a proper decontamination,” Tashi told Mike.

“Before you do that,” Dietrich said, “I need to show you all something.”  He led them back to the observation van.

“I was observing everything as it happened,” he said.   “And I did a quick review of the recordings and the instrument readings for the past ten minutes.  I now have a revised theory of what has been happening.”  He took a deep breath.  He looked at Tashi.  “That wasn’t the nokk you were fighting, Agent Conrad.  Quite valiantly, I might add.”  He showed Mike the recording of how the nokk had floated harmlessly over him, feeding without hurting him.  He advanced the recording to when the other shape came into the room.  Mike drew in his breath.  The nokk was still there, and rather than floating, it jerked around Mike’s form, almost as if it too were in distress.

“We saw this part,” Tashi said.  “But I didn’t notice it there.”

Dietrich nodded.  “That’s because you were focused on that other thing and on keeping Mike safe.”

The nokk was still in the room when Tashi and Gary entered, floating in a corner.

“According to the audio sensors,” Dietrich said.  “The nokk is what made those yowling sounds.”

He showed them an overhead view of the room and overlaid an acoustic map.  Sound waves emanated from the struggle on the ground and then sharply from the corner where the nokk was hiding.  The hulking creature had made no sounds.

Tashi told them the thing felt solid, but slippery, as if it were covered in watery slime.

Dietrich, who was so excited after seeing the nokk, now could not hide his anxiety.  He looked at Mike.  “I think the nokk taught that warding sign to your neighbor and to you.  It kept hovering over your hands.  They’re supposed to be light, but not intangible.  The sound of cats was meant to chase the thing away.  That’s why the nokk stayed, to protect you, protect its host.  I’m so sorry I didn’t see it before.  The evidence was all there.  The cats, the water, the warding.”

Mike was still breathing with some difficulty.  “Agent Dietrich, what was that thing that attacked me?”

“I’ll need to do more research, while you’re in decon.  But I think it was some kind of water demon.”

“Water demon?”

Dietrich held up a hand.  “I know what you’re thinking.  Why didn’t it try to drown you?  That’s what they do.  I don’t know why.  That’s why I have to go to the archives.  And Mike needs to stay elsewhere.  If we’re really dealing with a demon, I need to find out how to capture it or kill it.”

***

While Tashi and Mike went through full decontamination at the office and Dietrich returned to his own office to research, Gary spent a full day in the field investigating Mrs. Forthington.  He questioned the neighbors again and he learned that the medical examiner had received permission for the autopsy and had performed it.

He met Tashi, Dietrich, and Mike at the DarkOrange office that evening.

“I think I may have found out where your demon came from,” Gary said.  “Mrs. Forthington may have been a home body, but she did receive a guest a few weeks ago.”

Mike frowned.  “She did?”

“She kept it secret, it seemed.  Her guest was unwanted.  So says one of your nosier neighbors.  The guest was a woman and she brought a gift, an urn of some kind.  Turns out we brought it in for testing.  Blue division didn’t find anything, but Amber did.  Writing on the inside of the urn.  Something ancient from Europe.  Carpathian maybe.  They’re still double-checking, but if they’re right, the words translate to some kind of binding chant.”  Gary had pictures of the writing and urn that he passed over to Dietrich.

Dietrich gaped.  “That urn must have contained the demon.”

“Why would Mrs. Forthington let it out?” Mike asked.

“She probably didn’t,” Dietrich said.  “Her guest did.  The urn was brought into the home, offered to the resident, and then opened after the resident accepted the gift.  The demon would have latched onto the resident.”

“Other agents are trying to track down this woman.”

Tashi frowned.  “Murder by demon.  What’s that code?”

“Not to worry,” Dietrich said, turning to Tashi, then Mike.  “Our division does indeed have laws about such things.  If we find her, and find her to be guilty, there are punishments.”

“The medical examiner found one unusual detail of the autopsy too,” Gary continued.  “Mrs. Forthington’s lungs were completely desiccated.  And that wasn’t from a lifetime of smoking.  Not only that, but her biochemistry was tested and she wouldn’t have held much interest for a nokk, so there doesn’t seem to be any connection with the nokk and this water demon, other than Mike.”

“You were right,” Dietrich said to Mike.  “The thing latched on to you after it killed your neighbor.  I on the other hand was only partially right.  This thing is not just a water demon.  It’s what we call an elemental. ” He held up the picture that showed the inside of the urn.  “This urn is made of clay, which represents earth.  There’s a bit of ash on the bottom, that’s fire.  Air is everywhere.  What’s missing is water.  Mrs. Forthington’s guest likely poured some in there after she opened the urn.  And part of the writing is scrubbed away.  That’s how she unlocked the demon’s prison and fed it just enough so it had the strength to crawl out.”

“What did it do to Mrs. Forthington?” Mike asked.

“If it’s been locked away, it was probably stealing energy from her, so that it could regain its strength and mastery over the elements.  It started with water.  That means it needs three more victims and you were to be the second.  That’s why it’s only coming out at night.  It hasn’t regained mastery of fire yet and it likely can’t bear the sunlight.”

Mike grew pale. “Energy.  Does that mean…did it just kill her or did it steal her soul?”

“I don’t know, Mike,” Dietrich said.  “It might have.  Souls and spirits and all is beyond my current scope of understanding.  But the good news is, the lore I do know about says that souls cannot be destroyed.  So if the elemental did steal it, then we destroy the demon and we free that soul.”

“Do you know how?” Tashi asked.

Dietrich nodded.  “It’s a simple solution.  We find the demon’s name.  Then we call it out and that will bring it under our control, if it doesn’t destroy the demon outright.”

“That sounds a little too easy.”

“Simple doesn’t mean easy.  Demon’s guard their names as they would their lives, being as how their names are their lives.”  Dietrich rubbed his chin.  “But we may have run into some good luck.  The Amber archives don’t have much on elementals.  General information, but few details on names.  However, I have a wealthy friend who’s interested in the paranormal.  He recently bought a manor that once belonged to an occultist who disappeared sometime in the twenties or thirties.  She had a most extensive library, with volumes even we don’t have.  I asked to borrow this one.”  He pointed to the book on the table before them.  It was as long as his forearm and almost as wide.  It was bound not in leather, but some metal alloy that Gary didn’t recognize.  “This volume is supposed to be protected by enchantments and the like.  It contains lists and descriptions of specific demons and it’s supposed to be as complete a document as we have.  I have enough information from our case now to find the demon that’s after Mike.  And once we have the demon’s name, we have the demon.”

***

Dietrich searched the book for days, while Gary and Tashi kept Mike safe.  And Maroon agents patrolled the apartment building.  No people were harmed, but the Maroon agents reported that dead animals were showing up around the building.  The elemental was trying to gain enough strength to attack a human being without being latched to one.  It was only a matter of time.  Gary was afraid that Dietrich wouldn’t find any names.  But he found dozens of potential names.  The problem was in narrowing the field down.  Saying a demon’s aloud was no game.  Apartment tenants began to report seeing something skulking around outside.  But the thing was too smart to be caught by agents.

Whether Dietrich could find the right name or not, they had to act.  So Gary and Tashi arranged the other details of the trap they were setting for the demon.  Mike Morgan bravely volunteered to be the bait again.  He would only be able to attract the demon if he was asleep and vulnerable.  DarkOrange evacuated the apartment building.  The Director arranged for the old gas leak excuse to empty the building for the night and put the residents up in a hotel.  And Dietrich, his eyes bloodshot and bulging, handed them a the list with three possible names for the demon, but could narrow it down no further by the time night fell.  He warned them not to call the names until they faced the demon.  He warned them that a human voice must utter the name.  A recording would not do.  And he warned them that they risked summoning the other two demons as soon as they uttered their names.  But it was a chance they had to take.

***

They waited.  Mike couldn’t sleep from his anxiety and fear, so he took a mild sedative, arranged his hands in the warding sign and lay down.

The trap worked.

The demon appeared in Mike’s bedroom.  And as it slouched down toward him, four Maroon agents barged into the room holding cats in their arms.   Camera eyes floated around them, shining light at the demon.  But the elemental, it seemed, had anticipated their attempt to attack it.  It slipped through the agents’ grasps even though they piled on top of it.  The cats all fled the room.

Tashi and Gary took advantage of the confusion.  They had the names and Gary prayed that one of them was the right name.  Tashi had the urn too.  It was damaged, but it might help them contain the thing if all else failed.  Tashi opened her mouth and uttered the first name.

Gary opened his mouth and inhaled water.  He coughed and before he could take another breath, he felt water surround his face, his whole head like a bubble.  He held his breath and clawed at the water.  He looked at Tashi.  She was on her knees, the urn in pieces all around her.  She was reaching for her pockets, probably trying to find something to soak up or contain the water bubble around her own head.  Gary wondered if Mike had straws in his kitchen cupboard.  If he had straws, maybe they had a chance.

Gary calmed himself and started backing away toward the bedroom door.  The Maroon agents were already lying on the ground.  More agents came through the door.  And more agents fell to the ground, drowning.

The demon skulked toward a sleeping and helpless Mike Morgan.

***

Gary was knocked to the ground as the elemental threw off more agents.  He tried to crawl backwards to the doorway, repeating the word “straw” over and over in his mind.  His hand found the threshold.  He wanted the keep his eyes on the demon.  But he glanced over at the threshold when he saw a form there.  A cat had appeared in the doorway.  A black cat.

Gary heard its muffled howl through the water bubble.  He watched it leap onto Mike’s chest and bare its teeth at the elemental.  The cat howled again.  And more cats darted into the room.  They circled the demon.  Through the rippling of the water bubble, Gary saw the elemental’s true shape.  It had a horse-like head.  It had scales on its man-like torso.  It had a tail, a thick, dinosaur tail with a mace at the end.  Gary’s chest hurt.  He grasped it.  And he grasped the door frame and tried to rise.

Straw, he thought.

As one the five cats leapt at the demon.  The bubble around Gary’s head burst.  Gary sucked in a breath.  He coughed as the demon flung a cat aside.  It was doused in water.  The cat hissed in anger and darted back toward the demon.  Gary heard more coughing and groaning from his colleagues.  He heaved a breath and yelled out the second name.  The demon froze.

That’s it, Gary thought.  That’s its name.  He yelled it out again and again as if chanting it.  And Tashi’s voice joined his.

Dietrich arrived with more Maroon agents armed with silver spears and enchanted scrolls, ready to contain the demon using the expertise gathered by DarkAmber.  But the composite creature that Gary saw was gone.  It was just a hulking shape again and it collapsed to the ground, leaking water everywhere, until it dried and shriveled, and right before their eyes, became a desiccated husk.

Mike was awake, drowsy from the sedative, but awake and surrounded by the five cats as if by his personal guard.

***

Warding Sign and Black Cat

Agents from both the Amber and Blue division were closing up the scene, having gathered up the demon corpse.  No agents had drowned, though a few were in critical condition and had been taken away already.  Everyone else was being treated and prepared for full decontamination.  Mike over the course of only the few days seemed to have grown gaunt and short of breath.   The demon’s attacks had taken their toll.  He thanked the agents and Dietrich gave him the contact information of an Amber agent who might help heal some of the injuries to his lungs.  Mike held the black cat who seemed to have led the assault on the elemental.  It was laying—almost floating—in his arms.  Dawn was approaching and the sky was lightening.

The cat gave a small meow, looked up at Mike, then leapt from his arms and ran off.   Mike watched fondly.

“See you later,” he said.  He waved to the agents as an Agency paramedic led him away.

Dietrich turned to Tashi and Gary.  “You’re both really okay?”

Gary coughed.  “Aside from the nightmares I’ll be having tonight, I’m good.”

“I still have a funny taste in my mouth from the demon water,” Tashi said, flicking out her tongue.

Dietrich shook his head.  “I mean, I didn’t even do anything and I still can’t fathom going back to the office to write up a report after everything that just happened.”

“Welcome to field work,” Tashi said, smiling.  She leaned toward Dietrich.  “That black cat Mike was holding…the nokk?”

Dietrich shrugged.  “They are shape-shifters, or so the lore says.”  He inclined his head toward them and split off to join his fellow Amber agents.

“Whatever that cat is, he saved our lives,” Gary said, throwing an arm around his partner’s shoulders.  “If I ever see him again, I’m going to get him the biggest tuna fish he’s ever seen.”

“If he’s a cat, he’ll like that.  But if he’s a nokk?”

“He can drink my breath any time he wants.”

Tashi laughed.  “Gross.”

“What?  It can’t be any worse than oatmeal.”

 

Copyright © 2014 by Nila L. Patel.

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