We waited for the storm, but it never came. Instead, we were stuck with clear skies with stars winking down at us. The air was balmy, a skin I couldn’t wait to tear free of, and every street was ablaze with streetlights.
It was the sort of night we hated, because everyone was wide awake.
Russ and I bided our time. It didn’t usually take us long to grab one of them. But tonight, we’d been out on the balcony for longer than usual to choose an inconspicuous target.
Downstairs, jazz music from the al fresco restaurant would have put me to sleep if I could sleep. (It was too oily for my taste. But Russ loved it, preferred it to the thumping hip-hop that I listened to. For a lowly hellhound, he sure had snooty taste. He also gave himself the name Russell, because he thought it was insulting to be called names like Choco or Lucky.)
But as it was, sleep would remain out of my reach as long as my pet demon was hungry. Think puppies are bad? Meet a hellhound pup. But he was my responsibility, my friend ever since I came of age. Even if he was a tad problematic, being a demon and all, I couldn’t leave him to starve.
Although it would be a lot more convenient if my companion animal didn’t have an exclusive appetite for depraved souls.
“That one, over there!” Russ hissed, getting up from next to me.
“Be careful!” I yanked him back into the shadows, then craned my neck in the direction he was straining towards. “Which one?”
“The young one in the red dress at the café.”
I sighed. It was getting harder to hunt these days, with the authorities alerted to one too many kills. We couldn’t risk another high-profile attack. “Too obvious. She’s wearing a tight red dress.”
Russ turned his yellow eyes on me. “So?”
“So, she’s the sort who enjoys attention, even seeks it. She’s a terrible prey. Too many people will notice.”
Russ pouted. “Fine.”
I took a second look. “The one with her will make a better choice.”
He didn’t wear a suit, or even a crisp shirt. All he had on was a mangy grey t-shirt and jeans. He probably had no idea he was going to end up in an al fresco restaurant with the girl in the tight red dress and fake eyelashes.
He was strong, yes, but of course they were always no match for us. He would put up a struggle, but nothing that we wouldn’t be able to handle. Such men had few friends, too, and tended to disappear for long periods of time. No one would find it amiss if he disappeared out of the blue.
Next to me, Russ inched over to the railing to get a better look. It made me nervous, how antsy he was about getting. It was hard enough trying to cover up for him every time he made a kill. He could at least try to be discreet about it.
“Can you please rein it in?” I hissed. “Remember the last time you jumped the gun and almost got us arrested?”
He directed his baleful stare at me. “But I’m hungry.”
I sighed. Other people had puppies and kittens and bunnies as their companion animals – why did I have to get stuck with a hellhound?
We waited until the target had packed the girl into a cab (she didn’t look very happy about that) before sliding back down the stairwell. He strolled down the street with his hands in his pockets. The lights were too bright, the air too still, and it was too quiet where we were walking. Anything could give us away. I had to remind Russ not to slobber too loudly – his hunger was getting out of control.
We rounded a corner bookstore with a huge sign that screamed of a clearance sale, and finally arrived at the end of an alley. A corner of my lips rose. Alleys were my favourite.
The target stopped. I followed suit, throwing out a hand to stop Russ.
When he turned, I drew myself and Russ into the shadows.
“You can show yourself, you know.” His voice was deep and velvety, containing a hint of a smile. “It’s not like I haven’t been waiting for you.”
I held my breath and stayed where I was. He was bluffing; he had to be. I had always been careful to cover our tracks.
“I know about you and your demon pet. He’s a pain to feed, isn’t he?”
Russ growled in indignation. I rubbed his neck to calm him down, then stepped out of the shadows. “He’s my responsibility.”
“I’m here to make a bargain.” He pulled out a silver dagger from his pocket. “In exchange for your freedom, the beast is mine.”
Okay, now he was bullshitting. There was no way we could ever be free of our companion animals. Pain in the ass or not, we were stuck with them for life. It was how the Capital took care of orphans like us, made sure we stayed in line. Of course, none of them knew Russ was a hellhound. He had snuck out of the Underground and disguised himself as a harmless border collie, and I was assigned to him when I came of age and left the orphanage.
“A border collie would suit you perfectly. You both have the same temperament,” they said. Little did they know this guy had been teaching me more than what a regular dog would. Like how to negotiate with a knife-wielding stranger, for instance.
I looked down at Russ, who stared up at me, then turned to growl at the man, “Fat chance I’m going with you.”
“It’s not your place to speak, beast.” He didn’t even spare a glance at Russ.
When I first met Russ at age ten, none of the other kids had dared to go near him. He had a patchy black mane and unnaturally bright yellow eyes, so everyone generally steered clear of him. But I was the only one who could hear it – really hear it. It sneered at the adults the way I sometimes did, especially when they said it was “too scary and rambunctious” in the same tone they said I was “too defiant and problematic”.
But it didn’t matter if the adults didn’t like us, or if we had to scrounge for our own scraps. Russ and I had each other, and frankly that was enough for me.
I stuck out my chin. “Why Russ?”
The man shrugged. “He’d come in useful at the border wars.”
The border wars had been going on for longer than I had been alive, ever since the Capital raised its barrier against the outside world, against magic. A whole generation of children – including me – had been separated from their parents and given guardian animals, but our defences were weakening. Basically, by sending Russ to the border, he was sending him to his death.
I shrugged back. “No deal.”
“He’s just a brute,” the man said. “It doesn’t do you good to get too attached to him.”
I didn’t back away when he loomed closer, raising his dagger.
Russ snarled, his huge wild body shaking. He lunged at the man in a split second, bringing him to his knees. I seized his knife and plunged it into his shoulder. Russ sent me a look and I nodded back. We were a team; we always had been. The man clawed at me, but I twisted the dagger and he let out a cry of pain at last.
“Russ and I don’t accept offers from strangers,” I said close to his ear. “Also, if I wanted my freedom, I can go get it myself.”
“You and your beast deserve death,” he rasped. “The Capital should have disposed of you both when it could.”
“Well, it’s a pity they didn’t then.”
The Capital had always counted on the fact that orphans like us were powerless enough to rely on our companion animals. But not all of us were liabilities. Not all of us could be beaten down. Some of us were strong enough to fight for our freedom.
Russ and I claimed our kill for the night, our last night in the Capital. Really, once he was fed, he became a perfectly agreeable pup. I could even ignore the smell of blood and death on his fur.
At the edge of the night, the border was waiting for us, and beyond that freedom lay right at our fingertips.