The cold October night air blew against my cheeks as I cycled down the street, my backpack full of dreams, potions, and magic-infused crystals. The sky was cloudy and dark, the occasional shimmering star peeking from behind the gray curtain. The moon was a sliver of white, shining down the narrow street. I smiled in exhilaration, the sound of the wind increasing to a tormented shriek. I could hardly hear it: My earphones were playing Taylor Swift’s “Look What You Made Me Do,” the volume set to the max. My nose and ear tips were frozen stiff but the rest of my body was getting warmer, my heart pumping, my lungs burning. God, it was awesome to be outside, to move, to breathe fresh air. As much as I adored my lab, it tended to smell of alchemy. And alchemy, when done right, never smelled good. The breeze carried the distinct scent of the sea. North End has a large wharf in the Boston Main Channel and, cycling through the neighborhood, I could appreciate the salty tinge in the air. I would have to visit the beach soon. Saltwater was an important ingredient in some antidotes, and was also used for making Verna’s glowing crystal. Though for Verna’s recipe, the seawater had to be collected using a copper ladle with seven holes, which was an utter pain in the ass. I shook my head, dislodging the train of thought as I cycled even faster.
It was getting late, really late, and I didn’t want my client going to sleep before my delivery. I needed the cash tonight. Tomorrow morning, Breadknife would be knocking on my door for his monthly payment, and I was still a bit short. I nearly missed the apartment building, a typical three-story red-brick structure. This one was a bit dirtier and shabbier than the rest, the graffiti on it sprayed in layers, tags and signatures painted over each other, intermingling into an unpleasant dark mess. I hit the brakes, jumping off the bicycle before it stopped completely. A man in a trench coat leaned against the wall, smoking. The orange tip of his cigarette burned brightly in the shadowy street, casting an eerie light over his face. He gazed at nothing, not even sparing me a glance. I walked it over to a nearby streetlamp and took out a thin chain from my backpack.
Looping it around the lamppost, I attached it to my bike and brought the chain ends together. A silvery light flickered in the darkness and the chain was sealed. I peered back at the smoking man suspiciously. He didn’t seem like a bike thief, but you never could tell. Just to make sure, I leaned closer to the chain and whispered, “Angustus.” The chain tightened, its links shrinking, locking the bicycle even tighter to the metal pole I texted my client, informing him that I was here. As I waited for his response, I hopped from foot to foot, the adrenaline that pumped through my blood nudging me to move. As I waited, I took a cursory look in a nearby window’s reflection. My wavy dark hair was a mess, set in windblown-tothe-right style. I brushed my fingers through it, fixing it as best as I could.
I smiled at the girl in the reflection. Small mouth, eyes I liked to think of as chocolatey. A bit short, angled nose, loose purple shirt, dark blue jeans. And freaking awesome black boots, a gift from my friend, Sinead, for my twenty-third birthday five weeks ago. The backpack with my products was slung on one shoulder, worn from use. The 21st century had seen a boom in quaint mystical shops. Every aged hippie or goth chick could start selling energy-cleansing crystals and so-called magical herbs. But my shop had a large volume of repeat clients, and I constantly found new ones. Word of mouth was all the advertising I needed, because my potions actually worked. And I let everyone know I delivered my products to their door.
Lou Vitalis—your friendly neighborly alchemist, here to help you out. For a reasonable price. Still no response from the client. I called him. It took twelve rings before he finally answered, his voice slow and sleepy. At first I thought I had woken him up, but then I remembered that was just the way he talked. He buzzed me in and I headed up, ignoring the subtle aroma of piss in the building’s lobby. His door was brown, dirty, no nameplate. I knocked several times until I finally heard him say, “Coming, man, I’m coming, hang on.” A lock clicked, followed by the sound of a bolt sliding.
He opened the door—a pale man in his twenties, unshaven, with red-rimmed eyes and stained, drab clothing. Behind him, in a living room decorated in the universally grimy style of stoned bachelors, two men sat on lumpy pillows, sharing a hookah. “Hi Ronald,” I said, stepping into the living room, circumventing an empty discarded Coke bottle and an ashtray. “Hey, man. Did you bring the stuff?” I nodded, breathing shallowly, and only through my mouth. The room’s smell of sweat, smoke, and old cheese mixed together unpleasantly. Opening my backpack, I took out a small nylon packet containing a thin purple powder, which seemed to glimmer as I held it to the light. Ronald held out his hand, his body tensing with urgency. I looked at it, and then at him. I didn’t like the needy desperation in his eyes.
“Ronald, have you been injecting this stuff?” I asked, my voice cold. “No, man, no way! Only snorting it, like you said!” I raised an eyebrow doubtfully. Children’s sweet dreams were potent stuff, but they weren’t addictive when inhaled. They just assured a good night’s sleep, accompanied by a measure of nearly unattainable innocence. There was something wonderful in going to sleep without thinking about anything beyond your toys, or the friend you met in the park, or the fire truck you saw that afternoon. But boiled and injected, those dreams became much more potent. And highly addictive. Innocence and purity-of-heart on steroids. I wasn’t happy about this. I liked repeat customers, but I didn’t want addicts.
For one, addicts were unpredictable and dangerous. And besides, my moral compass, though not the cleanest, felt uncomfortable with it. Still, I needed the money. “Cash first.” I folded my arms. Ronald rummaged in his pocket and retrieved two crumpled bills, handing them to me nervously. I glanced at them, not touching. “We agreed on five hundred,” I said, my voice becoming even more frosty. “Bitch, take the money and give us the dope,” one of the hookah-smoking guys barked. I glanced at him, my expression bored.
He was bald, his eyes sunken, his shirt torn, his stomach bulging underneath. But under the flabbiness of his belly there was strength. He was large, and I pegged him at about two hundred pounds. Which was about ninety more than me. A sudden air of menace filled the room. My hands began pulsing, getting warmer, reacting to the tension. I met the man’s stare dead-on, then rummaged in my pocket, retrieving a crumpled pack of cigarettes. Almost bored, I fished one out and placed it in my mouth. I don’t usually smoke, but this cigarette contained more than just tobacco. I inhaled the contents, not bothering to light it.
I felt the powder in my mouth. Rancid, dry, evil. I leaned against the peeling wall, and said, “Why don’t I just leave, taking the stuff with me, asshole?” The large man stood up. He was much taller than me, which was no great feat, but he towered over Ronald as well. This was a guy who didn’t simply stand. He loomed. His face twisted in a mixture of anger and superiority—a man used to scaring people into compliance. “The bitch has a mouth on her.” Tendrils of smoke started rising from my palms. In a room filled with hookah smoke, they went unnoticed.
“Dan, there’s really no need for violence,” Ronald told him, voice quavering. “Lou and I agreed on the price beforehand. I have the rest in my room, I’ll go get it, I—” “Shut up,” Dan grunted. “Two hundred is more than enough for this shit.” I sighed, mentally nicknaming him Big Dumb Dan. “Really? Are you an expert on dream value?” He took a step toward me. It was like looking at a bulky, very sweaty glacier approaching. “You know what? Why don’t I just take it?” “Go on, give it a try,” I said. I could almost feel the powder I’d swallowed intermingling with my blood, dissipating, spreading in my body. Children’s dreams were potent stuff, but not all were sweet.
Some were nightmares. A child’s nightmare could be infinitely worse than an adult’s, their rampant imagination unhampered by years of experience. And a talented alchemist knew how to distill those nightmares as well. I was a very talented alchemist. And the nightmares were coursing through my veins. My usually delicate hands morphed into rough, deformed claws, the nails long and broken. My skin became gray, dry, lifeless, sections of it peeling to reveal rotting flesh underneath. My hair twisted on my scalp, like a writhing pack of angry snakes. Big Dumb Dan’s eyes widened, his mouth going slack. Behind him, the other guy said, “Her eyes— oh god.
Look at her eyes.” I smiled and licked my lips with a tongue that felt long and serpentine. “Well?” I asked, and my voice echoed strangely in the room, the words reverberating with an otherworldly, high-pitched, tortured scream. “I thought you wanted to take it. What are you waiting for… bitch?” “I’m… sorry.” Big Dumb Dan took a step back, his voice shaking. “You’re right, of course. Your price is fair.” I turned to Ronald. “The price just went up,” I said, my voice still echoed by the tormented wail.
“It’s six hundred now.” Ronald went for the money quickly while I stared flatly at the two other men, occasionally licking my lips with that strange tongue. If Big Dumb Dan had decided to risk rushing at me, he would have found out I could easily be overpowered. My appearance was nothing more than smoke and mirrors —parlor tricks to impress the crowd. A punch in the face would have knocked this nightmare out easily. But you don’t punch nightmares. You cower from them, trembling, hiding under the blanket, crying for your mother. Neither man acted, their eyes clear windows to the terror that paralyzed them. Ronald returned, shoving a bundle of bills into my outstretched claw. I handed him the powder, and he shuddered as my dry, peeling skin touched his.
With a final smile full of bared teeth, I left the apartment. Chapter Two My hands were pulsing with infernal heat as I closed the door behind me. The skin of my palms burned, itching for relief. I unfurled my fingers, still long, gray, and misshapen, and let the flames erupt. The fire covered my claws in the blink of an eye, orange and red flames licking my skin, enveloping my hands up to the wrist. If anything, I was even scarier now, a nightmare with her hands ablaze. But unlike the nightmarish illusion that cloaked me, the flames were real, my body’s reaction to the mixed anger and fear inside me. They would burn for a few moments until I calmed down. I considered waiting out there in the hall until the flames—and the nightmares’ effect—subsided. But it stank, and I didn’t want Big Dumb Dan to have a change of heart and find me standing just outside the door.
I left the apartment building, my flaming hand leaving the front doorknob pulsing with heat. To my chagrin, the man in the trench coat was still outside. He had moved slightly, and now stood directly by my bicycle. To retrieve it, I would have to approach him, looking literally like a nightmare. What I had done just now was bad enough. These men would tell their friends about this, and it would start a rumor about a witch, or a monster, or the bogeyman. A local tabloid might hear about it, publish an article. It would get some undesired attention. And that was bad. It was the one thing we all agreed upon.
Magicians, witches, alchemists, demons, monsters—all the creatures beyond the veil tried to avoid being discovered. Because if there was one thing more deadly than us, it was the mass hysteria of regular people. No, I wouldn’t risk another man seeing me like this. In a few minutes, the effects of the nightmare powder would wear off, the flames on my hands would dissipate, and I would look like a regular human being again. I turned my face quickly away, trying to hide my burning claws with my body. I walked a few feet into the gloom, away from the dim streetlights. In the dark, I glanced at my blurry reflection in a rain puddle, and nearly recoiled in horror. The eyes staring back at me were the eyes of a demon—orange and dark, something flickering inside them. My tongue was forked and black, and my hair was styled in a manner popular among Medusa and her friends. No wonder those guys were terrified.
I gazed at the puddle, wondering what would happen if I took a selfie and posted it on Instagram. Woke up a bit cranky this morning. #NeedMoreCof ee. Someone cleared his throat behind me. It was that man. “Are you okay?” I nodded brusquely, not turning around. I clenched my fists, trying to hide the flames. “Isn’t that your bicycle over there? I hope I didn’t scare you away.” “I’m fine,” I said sharply. My voice was echoed by the sound of a tormented, agonized shriek.
There was a moment of silence. “You don’t sound fine. Cigarette?” Damn it. I turned around, face full of fury, giving him an eyeful of a creature from hell. “Leave me alone!” I snarled, and bared my teeth, unfurling my claws to let the flames rise. His eyes widened. Now he would pee in his pants and run into the night, screaming about a demon. Instead, something almost like amusement touched his eyes. He rummaged in his pocket, taking out a cigarette. He put it in his mouth and then, to my utter shock, leaned forward and lit the tip with the flickering flame on my palm.
I gazed at him in confusion as he straightened, meeting my stare with intense, grass-green eyes. Now, up close, I saw him clearly. His hair was jet black, and had a richness to it that made me want to run my fingers through it. He was unshaven, with sharp cheekbones, his lips quirked in a seemingly perpetual half-smile. An aura of smugness emanated from him, as if he was in on a million secrets I didn’t know. He exhaled the smoke sideways, then took the cigarette from his mouth and offered it to me. “You look like you need it.” “I don’t smoke.” “Worried it’ll blacken your tongue?” “What do you want?” I contemplated walking to my bicycle, but curiosity got the better of me. “Just wanted to talk.
” Despite his casual behavior, his tone had an iron edge. “You’re selling dreams to those people up there. You really need to stop.” “I don’t know what you’re talking about.” His smile widened. “I thought we’d be beyond the stage of denial by now, what with your whole horror-movie getup. What’s someone like you doing with guys like these, anyway? You seem like a…” He paused, hesitant. “Nice girl?” He let out an amused laugh. “Well, maybe not right now. But when you’re not wearing your nightmare costume.
” My claws were slowly morphing back into regular hands. My skin looked healthier. The effects of the powder were wearing off, though the flames still danced around my fingers. “You don’t know me. And what I’m doing is none of your business.” The tormented shriek was gone. “You’re wrong.” His smile disappeared. “What you’re doing is my business. You’ll stop selling those dreams, girl.
And trust me when I say those people are nothing but trouble. Stay away.” His eyes flickered for a moment as he spoke, the green color shimmering, changing to jet black. Then he blinked, and the color shifted, becoming green again. I wanted to come up with a retort. Lou Vitalis didn’t let strange men tell her what to do. I opened my mouth, but then shut it, the words momentarily gone. He flashed me a final smile as he dropped the cigarette on the ground, stubbing it out with his shoe. “I personally prefer this look on you. It’s a mild improvement.
” Turning away, he went over to the door of the apartment building. He pushed the door, which opened easily. I clearly remembered shutting it behind me. It should have been locked. Instinctively I knew he was going to Ronald’s apartment. I decided not to stay around to see what happened when he got there. My anger gone, the flames on my hands had shimmered away to nothing. I whipped the chain off my bike, leaped onto it, and furiously pedaled away.