Being a short short story, a couple of weeks late:
The ruen spread his feathered wings as taut as they would go and began his long glide down from the steeple of the fractured church. He landed with a soft thud in the deepest snow and ran a few steps to stabilize himself. He lifted first one claw, then another in distaste, and decided to manifest his talons as booted humanoid feet. He furled his wings into a tidy sleekness and covered himself with a handy piece of shadow, which he gnawed off with his beak.
The resulting hooded, booted figure would not have blended into any crowd save Halloween or a costume con, but the ruen would be avoiding crowds that evening. He strode off, shifting his heavy leather-bound book to one shoulder, where his wing would shelter it from the snow.
Max was also avoiding crowds as such that evening, because he knew the ruen would be too. He had put more thought into his costume, and as a result could have mixed in with any temporary tribe of street person. Max had spent a week getting to know this little grouping, and they made him sad: John and Riva, covered with tattoos and begging from rich tourists before going back to Riva’s parents’ basement and getting high with their take, Mollah the toothless old woman, who could have come from any country but America, and who surrounded herself with bags as if by a shield, Tony “Help a vet” from Idaho, who sat on his lower legs in a very deep and dirty pillow on his wheelchair, and Gunny Ricky, who really was a vet, worn thin and scared and violent by the shadows which pursued him.
Of a variety of ethnicities, ages, and backgrounds, they all had smells which would differ only to a perceptive connoisseur, but would drive most people away from close quarters. (Max had given a fastidious shudder and put together a simple spell that would brand him as another outcast while protecting him from the animal whiff of the others. He had his limits.)
But the grubber who had crept into Max’s heart might have been Max himself thirty years ago. Like Max, Roach wasn’t quite what most people would define as human (although they were all one and the same to the ruen); their people called themselves Th’nashi, which just meant “The People” in their tongue. They had a few differences here and there: most of them had fangs, a few of them had tentacles which they kept well-hidden, and fewer still had sorcery, which was the true secret the Th’nashi sheltered close in pride and fear.
Roach had begun to be a sorcerer, until his masters had burrowed into his brain and left an inhibition there. “Sober as a sorcerer,” was the saying, and Roach was far from sober anymore. The world of nine street-corners was all he knew.
Roach knew Max was Th’nashi too, could just barely sense that with what was left to him to hunt with, but he did not realize the wiry man with the Asianish face was a sorcerer himself, in fact the District Sorcerer of Nova Terra, the most talented sorcerer on the Eastern Seaboard. All Max would admit to was “having had something once upon a time” and then he would pass back the bottle he had pretended to drink from, so that Roach could drink deep and drown himself in that doubtful security.
Max had once been a drunk himself; it was how he had known how to play the part. And back when Max was on the beach, twenty-two and half sunblind, he had once seen a smaller ne’er-do-well get taken away by a ruen. Once sober, he had kept it to himself, but read and studied and talked to taciturn folk who worked with herbs and blood; he had left some of his own in payment for what he had learned.
Tonight was December 26, the Eve of the Feast of St. John the Evangelist. Until the sun rose upon the shattered old church, lit the torturous friezes of the cathedrals, and touched the household shrines of the elderly and devout, the ruen might step down from their pedestals, uncurl themselves from their interweavings, slip loose their plastic moorings, and spread their eagle wings.
If a ruen failed to consume a human soul before the dawn of the Feast of St. John, it would be frozen in the form of a statue forever and would never fly again. They focused on those whose souls were deep buried beneath the snow and ice of life—drugs, alcohol, and the sort of madness which stems from the guilt of unforgiveable sin. Unless, like Max, one actually saw a ruen’s dark-feathered swoop, its claws close around a heart, and its plunge back into the sky trailing a something, one would never believe it or miss the victim.
Not all depictions of the Evangelist were ruens, although many famous ones had been before they had been stilled at last. Nobody knew exactly what they were: Matthew, Mark, and Luke stayed stoic on their perches.
Max once again said to Roach, “You can give it a shot. Works for some.” Worked for me. But his attention wasn’t on the boy’s whining tonight. He was listening for softness and the rustle of feathers.
The sun was long gone, and the urban sky a mass of holiday lights through the heavy snow. John and Riva, realizing that the sort of naïve generosity on which they depended had gone home, went down into the subway; Mollah and her bags had long since shuffled and rustled onto a small van heading for a women’s night shelter. Now Tony rolled onto a surreptitious side street, and hustled into the warmth of his wife’s BMW while she folded his wheelchair, and Gunny Ricky shouldered his duffle bag and headed off to Kensington Street, where there were benches on which to spread his tarp.
“Tomorrow, men. Sleep warm.” He reached with pleading eyes for the bottle.
Roach gave him a thumbs up and watched him drink. “Semper fi, Ricky.” He offered the bottle to Max, who played his charade, and then zipped it back into the top layer of hoodies he was wearing.
Max didn’t want to leave either man alone that night. He had made the human mistake of getting attached to these two, but he decided that a combat-crazed former Marine might, just might, give the ruen a wrassle for its money, giving him time to sprint over from the spot he shared with Roach, which was a broad doorway facing the churchyard. The two of them headed there now. Max had a battered Army/Navy surplus duffle, but all Roach had was a couple of retail bags from Save-Mart with a blanket spilling out of the hole in the bottom.
Max’s sleeping bag was a minor work of art, in that he had worked hard to get it to look like a piece of trash. Instead, it was rated to -40 degrees and made this patch of sleeping rough more like a camping vacation. Not that he would sleep tonight, but he set down his peripheral spells anyway. Ordinary human monsters looking for a bum to set on fire wouldn’t notice them tonight; nor would the cops.
A ruen had superhuman strength, hampered only by its disorientation at being in a motile body, which slowed it down. Max was an eighth-dan black belt in karate and was himself superhumanly strong, although nowhere near as much so as a being whose mortal form still mostly consisted of stone. Points, ruen, but not many, seeing as they didn’t know how to fight—they swooped upon their prey with the expectation of pigeon, not wildcat. More annoying to Max, they were immune to sorcery, and that was his home base, as it were.
That was why he had gone seeking those who knew the more esoteric magicks of the world. Sorcery followed the rules of physics, by and large—but magick had rules of its own. He hoped they worked. He wished he had shared this task, told somebody where he was, what he was doing. Too late for that now.
Much too late. He heard the whistle of huge feathers and for one frozen second, thought the ruen had come for him, still somehow able to smell a year and a half in the sun and the booze. Within that second, it all flashed before him: This was his nightmare, unrecalled in the daytime, but which had sent him on his quest. Not knowledge, nor a noble desire to do the world good by ridding it of a true monster—just fear of feeling the icy claws in his own chest.
But it was Roach, as Max had calculated, Roach who had already tossed ten years into the bottle and was well willing to waste ten more. The ruen had landed on his chest with its boots, and clacked some ancient and alien words of self-abuse. It manifested its talons, and gained the air again for a second strike.
I hope this works. It’s probably such a young language for it, Max thought. Let’s get the show on the road, and if this doesn’t work, there are always fireballs.
“In principio erat Verbum, et Verbum erat apud Deum, et Deus erat Verbum!” he cried, and reached into his vest for his grandfather’s flask, heavy and ornate Victorian silver. He had the Latin Vulgate at heart in places, and few were as dear to him as this: In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. . . He uncorked it with one hand and began tossing out a grainy red and white powder. “Hoc erat in principio apud Deum. Omnia per ipsum facta sunt; et sine ipso factum est nihil quod factum est!”
The powder had broken Max’s heart, in a way; it had been a non-conformist Bible with rubrications, even older than Grandfather Narmer’s flask. He had cut out all the words of Jesus, still red after all those decades, and snipped them as fine as scissors could snip, before running the whole thing through a mortar and pestle. Now, however, it was taking the promised effect.
“In ipso vita erat, et vita erat lux hominum,” Max chanted. As the old conjuh woman had promised, at the first words the ruen had ceased its attack and fumbled for its book in a frenzy, opening it to the beginning, which Max was quoting at it. But then the powder began hitting it in spits, mixed with the driving snow, and it screamed in agony as the pulverized scripture began hitting its body, dissolving it away like acid.
Roach had crawled away wide-eyed. Left alone, he would pass it off in the morning as a DT-fed hallucination. Young Max would have done the same, but he had been a finer sorcerer before his fall, and fascinated with old tales and whispers.
Max had chosen a church Bible to use—some would say desecrate—but he needed as much of the powder as one Bible would hold. Even so, he was running out. “Et lux in tenebris lucet et tenebrae eam non conprehenderunt!” he screamed. He blinked away tears. After his sobering, Max had joined the Lions of Mercy, and those words were engraved on all their chapels: And the light shineth in the darkness, and the darkness comprehendeth it not.
Max had sworn himself to the light.
The ruen crumbled. Whatever unfathomable magicks had caused it to embody itself as poor St. John, they had decreed that the ruen play by the rules binding its impersonation.
Max drew a long, shaky breath, then flashed his fangs at Roach. “Pretty fly for a vampire,” he joked. The Th’nashi were only the sources of the stories; they needed blood on a regular basis but did no lasting harm to the human “donors,” nothing more than that and the sorcery.
“What was that thing, man?” Roach gasped. “What are you?”
Max sighed. “That was a monster. They’re called ruen, and they come for your life after you’ve made a decision to throw it away. I’m a recovering drunk, and you might say I’ve come for your life to give it one more chance.”
Roach blinked, looking at the flask in Max’s hand, which was still dribbling grayish powder flecked with red. He had no words.
Max seized the advantage. “Come with me. Just for a little bit. We’ll talk about sorcery and what not, and if it doesn’t take, all of your misery will be refunded.” He gestured to the subway, then caught himself. “Unless gating makes you sick?”
Roach shook his head. The two men shimmered and were gone.
Down the street, Gunny Ricky tightened his grip on his St. John medal, and smiled in his sleep.