Chapter 1: Penny drop
It was a quiet night in Bill’s Tavern. Smoke wafted over the empty tables. Long shadows stretched the walls. Sounds hung in the air like wet washing: a steady splat of rain on the windows, the wind moaning down the chimney, and one long sigh from the demon slumped at the bar, drinking himself into a stupor.
“Don’t get so hung up on it, Al,” chippered the leprechaun from beside a tankard almost as big as he was. “Sometimes these things aren’t meant to be. Isn’t that right Bill?”
The barrel-chested barkeep said nothing, merely nodded and kept polishing his pint glasses.
“She was––” Al began, stopped, and stared into his drink. He sighed again and ran one honed nail around the lip of the glass. “She seemed,” his red eyes narrowed, “so innocent. And pretty––beautiful even. What was the harm in it? I thought.”
The small, squat sprite gave his companion a comforting pat on one plated forearm. “Well, that’s the way of it isn’t it? But don’t you think it’s time you moved on? Give up on it yea? It’s been twenty year––”
A flash of red eyes and the demon rose from his stool. “Give up on it?” His voice boomed across the bar, rattling loose a trickle of dust from the rafters. “A demon without his flames is like… is like,” he faltered. “Look, I’m not sure what it’s like, but it’s not good.” He swayed in the lanterned light. “I’m the laughing stock of my legion.” He hiccupped and the leprechaun clucked his tongue.
“Sit down Alcibiades, you’re going to get us thrown out again.”
Alcibiades slumped back into his seat. “Sorry. It’s just, I had my whole career ahead of me, you know?”
Behind them, the door of the tavern banged open, bringing a gust of the storm from the crossroads in. Boots squelched across the floor, heading for the bar, and a cloaked figure drew up a chair and sat down. Bill the barkeep set aside the latest pint he’d been polishing and went to the stranger. “What’ll it be friend?”
The demon harrumphed, rested his chin on the bar and drew circles in the ring of water left from his glass. “Make it two.”
“You going to pay for your last one?” Bill asked, with a pointed look to Alcibiades’ finished drink.
The leprechaun sighed, “I’ll cover it Bill. Al’s had a rough couple of decades.”
Bill raised an eyebrow at the sprite. “On your tab is it? Awaiting the day you recover your pot of gold again? I should warn you, it’s quite the debt you’ve racked up these last twenty years since you lost––“
“Pipe down, I’m good for it. You know I am. The day I get my hands on that scrawny girl––”
Bill waved him off. “Yes, yes, we know. All right, this one’s on the house, Trev. For Al.”
The demon grunted from the surface of the bar. “Thanks Bill.” He sighed again and stared into the distance.
“Woman troubles?” the cloaked stranger guessed as Bill turned to fetch their drinks.
Trev nodded. “You could say that. Fool’s gone and got himself locked in a contract with a human. Traded his ability to wield fire in exchange for her first born.”
The cowl snapped to them and leaned in close. “Oh?”
“I keep checking in on her, but no child. Not even a man on the scene. Not once in twenty years,” Alcibiades said.
Bill placed a smoking glass of dragon’s blood before each of them. The stranger picked his up, gold rings glinting on his fingers and raised it. “To our human troubles then.”
Alcibiades looked up from the bar, eyes shining, almost hopeful. “You too?”
The cloak sagged a little, drink paused halfway to the cowl. “Sadly so. A tale similar to yours in fact.” He flipped the hood away, revealing high cheek bones, sunken green eyes and a smooth dark scalp covered in glyphs. A five o’clock shadow graced his cheeks, making him look gaunter still, like he’d just crawled from the grave.
Trev’s eyebrows shot up. “A story like ours? What could a human want with a warlock?”
The warlock stared glumly back at them. “The ability to tap the energy of the netherworld, open portals, summon underlings,” he shrugged. “She asked for my books in exchange for her future child. At the time I saw no harm in it. But she cleaned my entire library out.”
Trev cocked his head and hooked his thumbs into his tiny trousers. “So, she took a few books, that’s not so bad.”
“She took them all. Twenty years ago. I’m so far behind in my studies that the Dark Lord…” He looked down at his glass, sagged a little more. “Well, he threw me out.”
“Condolences,” Alcibiades offered. “What’s your name, friend?”
“Acolyte Fa––” The warlock stopped and winced. “Farai. Just Farai now.”
“To your books Farai,” Alcibiades said, raising his glass.
“And your fire,” Farai returned.
“And my gold,” Trev saluted.
Ferai smacked his lips and pushed his glass across the counter. “Hit me again, Bill, if you’d be so kind.”
“Excuse me,” a voice interrupted. It was hoarse, feminine, and it split the air like a whip. The trio turned. An old woman, white haired and wrinkled, leant on a broomstick. Ferai’s face twisted into a sneer.
“What do you want, witch?”
The woman’s hazel eyes flicked to him, lips pressing into a line. She lifted her thin, pointed nose and sniffed. “Believe me, talking to you gives me no pleasure either, warlock.” She almost spat the last word.
Bill thumped Ferai’s refilled glass onto the bar top, slopping half of it over the side. The four of them jumped. “Need I remind you, this establishment is neutral ground. Keep up your hissing and I’ll let you scrap it out in the storm like a couple of alley imps.” He jabbed a finger at the tavern’s front door.
A silence stretched between the group, the warlock and the witch glaring at the other until Ferai broke and bowed his head to Bill. “Apologies.”
Bill’s eyes flicked to the witch. For a heartbeat, her fingers twitched, gaze lingering on Ferai as if longing to pluck out his eyeballs, then she stilled and nodded. “Forgive me, Keeper.” Her eyes ran over Trev and Alcibiades. “Your story. I couldn’t help but overhear. You made a contract with a human in exchange for their first-born child? A child that your human seems intent on not having.”
“Aye,” Al mumbled, smouldering eyes turning mournfully to his empty glass.
The witch turned on Farai. “Both of you?”
Ferai glowered at her from over his drink. “What is it to you? Come to laugh? Rub it in? Do your best, bet it’s nothing I haven’t heard––“
“I am the same.”
Ferai choked on his drink. “You?”
The witch propped her broom against the bar and drew up a stool. Bill raised a questioning eyebrow and she nodded. A fresh glass brimming with dragon’s blood arrived before her and she sank around it. “It seemed too good to refuse,” she said, peering into the drink. “Figured she’d be knocked up in a few years for certain.”
Trev leaned over and patted her withered hand. “What did she take from you?”
The witch’s watery eyes turned on him. Deep lines crevassed her face, her jowls sagged, and a stray hair sprang from a mole on her forehead. “My youth. Never thought I’d have to wait this long to get it back.”
Ferai cleared his throat. “How long?”
“About twenty years.”
The four of them stared at one another.
“No,” Alcibaides began. “You don’t think, it’s the same––“
“Gods and demons,” Ferai breathed.
The witch nodded.
“Well, shit,” Trev said.