parry. To a trained observer, it was blatantly obvious that I wasn’t doing much at all. The damage I was inflicting was healing up as soon as the blade came free, and the blight I was draining out was minimal at best.

But the sun kept setting, and the wall’s shadow kept advancing. I lurked at that edge, careful to never dart into the darkness for more than the length of a thrust, retreating across the carefully manicured grass one step at a time.

The Snot demon left a trail across the greenery, burned dead and brown like a snail trail from Hell. (Mrs. Effingham wasn’t going to be pleased at all when she saw that.) Twice, it braved the waning sun to try to wrap me up in its slimy coils, but I was too fast and it was too wussy to handle the light. Bubbles rose to its oily surface, bursting against the air with the stench of sulfur, the sound creating a distinctive hiss of frustration. It was getting pissed off.


The sky was sunset red when my heels hit the tile border around the koi pond, and I had to grin. Sure, I had no more room to retreat, and in about ten seconds, the sun was going to drop down below the top edge of the wall, casting the entire yard in darkness and giving the demon free rein. I had Monty right where I wanted him.

In an eyeblink, the sunlight was gone, and the angry demon rose above me, swaying as it towered. The face at the end was pocked by bursting bubbles of agitation, but there was no mistaking the snarl on the mockery of a mouth.

Come get some, bitch. I took one step back, into thin air, holding my sword safely to the side as I fell back.

I hit the water hard enough to almost knock my carefully gasped air from my lungs and sank straight to the bottom. From there, I watched through the riled waters as the enraged oil serpent dove headfirst after me.

It intended to crush me, I think, the heavy mass of black sludge spreading out to fill the shape of the pond, its entire body pouring into the water. For a split second, I thought it was going to succeed, and I know I felt my ribs creak under protest. The natural human demand for “Air!” registered in my brain, certain I was about to be smothered or drowned, or both, but before I could even think of flailing in panic, the weight suddenly lifted, and the demon launched itself out of the koi pond with an inhuman shriek.

I fought to the surface despite the weight of my armor (and the padding beneath that had soaked up its own weight in water), to see the Snot demon writhing on the grass like a salted earthworm. Over and over the coils rolled, like it would tie itself in knots, and a thick oily smoke rolled off its transparent skin.

I’d be lying if I pretended I wasn’t a little smug. “That’s right. Holy water, bitch. Suck it.” The glint of gold caught my eye, and I bent to retrieve my coin from the bottom of the pool. My fake, absolutely worthless, magically blessed coin. Thank you, my love. One of my wife’s brilliant ideas. I couldn’t wait to tell her it had worked.

A hand entered my vision, and I looked up to find Elliot offering to help me out of the koi pond. Probably not a bad idea, considering how much heavier I was now than when I’d gone in. “Thanks, kid.”

I grabbed his forearm, intending to haul myself out, when I heard it. It was the sound of bacon sizzling, the sound of water boiling furiously. I looked over, dreading what I already knew I was going to see.

There was Monty, swelling up like the world’s biggest blood blister, its surface straining to contain the rolling boil within. Even as I watched, a thin slit appeared, and the oil slick spurted from it, driven by the unbelievable internal pressure. Monty was about to blow.

“Fire in the hole!” I grabbed the kid by the front of his shirt and dragged him into the water, falling on top of him to protect him further. Problem being, there was room for one man at the bottom of the pool, but not two. Half submerged as I was, the explosion was enough to deafen me, the sound wave skipping across the top of the water to smack me upside my very thick skull.

I waited as long as I could, until bits-o-Monty stopped raining down on me, before I fought my way into standing, letting Elliot scramble for air. Drowning the client would be bad, m’kay?

He threw himself facedown at the side of the pool, gasping and coughing, while I examined the state of my demon-splattered self. Already, the boiling droplets had eaten through my leather bracers, and were currently burning into the skin beneath. With a hiss, I plunged my forearms into the water, sighing at the soothing relief. I dunked the rest of me for good measure, surfacing with a splutter and shaking myself like a wet dog.

“You okay, kid?” I glanced at Elliot who had become strangely quiet, then turned to follow his stunned line of sight.

The portal was there, hovering just against the back wall, swirling in shades of black and blacker. All over the yard, tiny gobbets of Snot demon were dissolving into their base component, blight, and drifting through the planar tear. It looked like an eerie black river running uphill, finally slowing to a trickle before the portal snapped shut with an audible pop and the reek of ozone.

Just to be sure, I stripped off my right bracer, and scrubbed the remnants of the tattoo flakes off with the blessed water. “There we are, Elliot, all nice and shiny again.”

He examined his left arm, bare now too, then bent to scour it off as well. He scrubbed and scraped until the skin of his arm was blistering pink and I was afraid he’d draw blood. I caught his hand. “Hey. It’s cool, okay? It’s all over.”

He stared at me with wide, shock-filled eyes for a long moment, then nodded. There were tears glimmering in his eyes, but he refused to let them fall, and I pretended I didn’t see.

Instead, I turned to eye the destruction left in the wake of my battle. The yard was essentially burned barren, the grass withered and downright charred in places. I was still standing knee-deep in the once-pristine koi pond, which would probably never support life again. Already, the large ornamental fish were starting to float to the surface, eyes gone cloudy in death.

I managed to clamber out of the pool, flopping on the dead grass with a wet squishing sound. It was going to be days before the padding under my mail dried. Hell, it might be days before I decided to stand up again.

The arrival of my archnemesis, Mitzi the poodle, was heralded with a string of high pitched yips and yaps that threatened to burst my eardrums. The vicious little rat came streaking out of its doggy door, tiny needle fangs bared and aimed right for my face now that it was within its short little reach.

I waited until it was almost on me, then roared “Boo!” at it. The pink dog almost flipped itself completely over, scrambling to reverse direction, and it disappeared back inside with the high, “yi! yi! yi!” of fear. I laid my head back on the ground, folded my hands across my chest, and just watched the dim light of the stars appear overhead.

I hate poodles.



N othing says the end of summer like the annual Dawson family barbecue and snarky T-shirt contest. I won, by the way. I always win. It’s my contest. (We used to have a dirty T-shirt contest, but that got awkward once the kids started learning to read.)

My own little five-year-old censor, Annabelle, was playing on the patio with her cousin Nicky, closely supervised by my brother’s wife, Stephanie. Mira, the light of my life, and Melanie sat close by, the women no doubt having some in-depth and disgusting discussion about Mel’s very large belly, due to pop in about three months.

The sire of said impending spawn, Marty, hovered in a small protective circle of other males, made up of myself, my brother Cole, our friend Will, and my live-in student Esteban. The general theme seemed to be making sure Marty knew just how that happened, and much off-color advice on how to prevent it again. But really, we teased. Marty was gonna be an amazing dad.

He wasn’t what you’d think of as the quintessential “dad” figure. Short and squat with biceps the size of my damn thighs, Celtic tattoos from wrist to shoulder on both arms, scruffy black beard and a shaved head… Honestly, if we lived in some fantasy world, he’d be the surly dwarf character and that’s the truth. He’s even a blacksmith, an honest-to-God blacksmith. How’s that for a stereotype?

But what most people didn’t see was the genuinely good heart and fierce loyalty he could show. Marty was good people.

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