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The Demi-Monde: Winter

Rod Rees

Prologue

The Demi-Monde: 37th Day of Winter, 1004

Norma ran. Picked up her skirts and ran as she had never run in her life. Ran as though the hounds of hell were at her heels.

Fuck it… the hounds of hell were at her heels.

And as she ran she heard a crackle of gunfire behind her, the sound of the shots ricocheting through the night-silent streets of London. The gunfire told her that Mata Hari and her Suffer-O-Gettes had kept their word. They had tried to delay those SS bastards for as long as they could. Suffer-O-Gettes died hard.

Run, Norma, run! Mata Hari had screamed at her as Clement’s SS-Ordo Templi Aryanis thugs had smashed down the pub’s door. And she had run. She couldn’t – wouldn’t – let the SS catch her.

Mad, evil bastards.

But she was running blind.

Snow-blind.

The snow was so thick that she could barely see a dozen strides in front of her, snow that the icy wind was whipping into her eyes, making them water with pain.

Angrily Norma shook her head, ordering herself to ignore the pain, ignore the cold, ignore the frosted numbness crawling along her fingers and her toes, ignore the protests of her mutinous body. Ordered herself to ignore everything but the need to put as much distance between herself and the animals chasing her as was humanly possible.

She had to forget everything but the need to run. Forget that duplicitous, scheming, treacherous, underhand, slimy son of a bitch Burlesque Bandstand.

Bastard.

She ran until her heart pounded in her chest, until her legs throbbed with pain, until her lungs felt as though they were on fire. She ran hard, keeping, as best she could, to the ruts in the road left by the rubber-covered wheels of a steamer, desperately trying not to leave tracks in the freshly fallen snow. Tracks they could follow.

The sound of a hunting horn echoed behind her… maybe only a few streets behind her. The SS had shaken off the Suffer-O-Gettes. Now the Daemon Hunt was on in earnest.

Run, Norma, run!

Yes, now she was sure she could hear them. She could hear the smash of the gang’s hobnailed boots snapping through the tight streets and along the narrow alleys that made up the Rookeries. She could hear the bellowed shouts of that hideous, hideous man – boy, rather – Archie Clement and the screams of his pack of Blood Hounders as he flogged them in pursuit.

The leather soles of her boots skidded on cobbles patinaed by a slick coating of snow, sending her tumbling into the fetid gutter, sending her sliding on her knees and on her outspread hands. The pain as the stones ripped through her skin was excruciating, but driven by adrenalin and the knowledge of the fate that awaited her if she was captured, without even pausing to inspect the damage to her body she rose to her feet and began to hobble on, sobbing with pain, desperation and terror.

Get a grip, Norma.

This was no time for weakness. Not now she was cut. Cuts seeped blood. The Hounders would just love that. It’d drive them crazy… blood-crazy. Now they’d have her spoor for sure.

As though in reply she heard the mournful howl of a Hounder as it picked up the scent of her blood.

Run. Don’t give up.

Maybe the snow would cover her tracks… cover her blood trail.

Please, please, snow harder.

She slowed at the corner of the street, trying to get her bearings, trying to catch her breath. For a gasping instant she looked around to check the street signs. So near: she was only three blocks away from the Thames… from freedom. Just another couple of hundred yards along the backstreets shadowing Regent Street and she’d be out of the Rookeries. Just three more blocks and she’d be able to see the Awful Tower.

Her breath was shorter now, her body rippling, trembling uncontrollably with cold and exhaustion. There was another eddy of wind and she felt the sleet cut across her face, felt the cold scythe through the thin cotton of her blouse. She had never been so cold in all her life. When she had made her escape from the Prancing Pig there hadn’t been time to search for a coat or a hat or a pair of gloves.

There had just been time to run.

If she didn’t get out of the snow soon she’d be finished. Frozen to death.

Concentrate.

This wasn’t a computer game. Not any more. She wasn’t just a player. Not any more. Now she was one of the Kept. Now she was a Demi-Mondian.

Damn it all, concentrate, Norma. Die in the Demi-Monde and you die in the Real World.

Another plaintive howl from a Hounder. They were getting closer.

She pushed herself forward, slipped on the icy cobbles and caromed painfully against a wall, tearing the shoulder of her blouse and scraping skin from her arm.

Ignore it.

But she couldn’t. The pain and the cold and the tiredness overcame her desperation. She did her best to keep moving but she was spent.

Now all she had the strength to do was limp as fast as she was able towards the sanctuary of the French Sector. Just get to the Pons Fabricius… once across the Thames she’d be in Paris, only minutes away from the Portal.

Please God…

She could smell the river, that sweet, sickly stew of ships, slaves and sewage. So close. And it was snowing even harder now. Wonderful, glorious snow, snow that would cover her tracks.

Still the thought nagged at her that this was all nonsense. This couldn’t – shouldn’t – be happening. It seemed impossible for her to have been caught up in such a terrifying surreality… in such a terrifying reality. Yeah, the Demi-Monde was real all right. Too fucking real. The pain she was feeling was real. The cold was real. The fear was real.

As she stumbled along she threw a glance over her shoulder, peering into the dark, snow-shrouded streets of the Rookeries. She couldn’t hear her pursuers any more. Maybe she’d lost them? Maybe they’d abandoned the chase? Maybe her young legs had outrun theirs?

Fat chance.

They never gave up. No one wanted to go back to Crowley and tell him they’d failed. Even Clement was scared of Crowley. No, they would hunt her down like the pack of rabid dogs they were. And she knew she wouldn’t be able to go much further. She was finished, defeated by the cold. She had to find somewhere to hide.

Looking around she saw, ten feet on from where she was standing, the entrance to a narrow alleyway, an alleyway without street lights, its darkness so complete that no one, not even Clement would be able to find her in there. Maybe he wouldn’t even want to follow her in there. No one knew what was hidden in the shadows of the Demi-Monde, the shadows hiding the horrible things that crept out of the Hub.

Terrific.

Norma limped painfully towards the beckoning darkness and dodged down the black, rancid alley. Skirting along the twisted tenement walls that crowded in on her – trying to ignore the unspeakable things that scuttled about in the shadows – Norma found a dark doorway that offered a semblance of safety.

Hidden there, she stood for a moment bent over, hands on knees, trying to catch her breath, trying to pant new energy into her cold, aching body, all the time trying to still her sobbing, trying to stay quiet. She had to remain

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