The bookstore was located down a twisting maze of alleys, approximately fifteen minutes from the trolley stop. It had an unassuming front, drab brown wood with one small, dirty window set into the door. The name of the shop, according to the yellow letters on the window, was 'Ephemeral Fantasies', a name which would have drawn a considerably different crowd if not for the hanging sign above the door that proclaimed its real purpose in large yellow letters. It was by the singular word scrawled overhead that Edmond Holloway referred to the shop.
'Books' was his favorite shop, situated in his not-so-favorite district. The street, known for some obscure reason as Knuckleback Lane, smelled of decaying vegetables and rotting fish, due in part to the grocer at the end of the street and to the refuse overflowing the gutters along the sides of the road, throwbacks to before London had instituted a proper sewage system.
Like the rest of the shops on the street, 'Books' was frequented by a small number of very loyal patrons and seemed to oddly thrive despite its limited sales. It was bordered by a cobbler and an herbalist, each adding their own unique fragrance to the cacophony of smells outside the door. In the two years he'd been coming to this particular shop, Edmond had rarely seen anyone besides store owners walking the street, and he had yet to encounter another patron inside the bookstore.
He approached the bookstore at exactly 9:54 in the morning, a black messenger bag slung over one shoulder and a take-out box from one of the local bakeries in hand. The bell inside the door chimed as he entered, the only sound in the quiet bookstore aside from his footsteps. Edmond smiled, automatically relaxing as the smell of old books and freshly brewed tea filled his lungs. All around him, books littered every available surface, completely filling the shelves and overflowing into carefully managed stacks on the floor. He knew from experience that there was a mad sort of order to the lot, though he'd given up trying to find a book by himself after his first few adventures in the shop.
"Welcome!" The shop's owner, Arianrhid Kalestor, stepped from the backroom with his normal brimming smile. Blue eyes sparkled as he slid past Edmond with a brief clasp on his shoulder.
The blonde-haired man was a strange sort of friend to Edmond, one he'd stumbled on quite by accident while searching for a particular book on Nechtu demon culture. He'd found Ari's shop by accident after another shop owner had recommended him a shop in Fitzrovia and Edmond's notoriously bad sense of direction had gotten him lost down side-streets. He never had found the initial shop he'd set out for, but that seemed to be to his fortune. Ari had produced the required text, after Edmond had almost caused a small avalanche of books, and then proceeded to explain aspects of the Nechtu demons that were not written in the book.
Edmond was quite in awe of the seemingly normal shopkeeper. He had yet to get Ari to reveal any details of himself beyond his name and that he'd been living in London for quite a few years. He had no idea how old Ari was. Ari appeared to be in his late thirties, but spoke of events before Edmond's time as if he'd been there. If he hadn't seen Ari step into the sun a number of times, he would have been tempted to think Ari a vampire, though the notion that Ari was anything other than an strangely knowledgeable shopkeeper seemed preposterous.
Slipping behind the counter, Edmond brushed aside the curtain that served as a door with his free hand while Ari flipped the sign on the door from Open to Closed. The back of the shop was decorated similar to a Victorian parlor, with expensive furniture and china artfully positioned in a rich style that Edmond had come to associate uniquely with Ari.
He set the bakery box on a small wooden table draped with a cream lace tablecloth. China service for two was already set out. This week it was the pink-and-white cherry blossom set, a gift, Ari had once explained, from an old friend in Japan. Dropping his bag beside his usual chair, Edmond set out a piece of cake for either of them on the waiting plates and tucked the empty box under his chair.
"And how fares the world this morning?"
Edmond returned Ari's smile as the blonde man joined him. "Doing well, last I checked." He poured tea for them both before taking his seat.
"Good to know." Ari sipped his tea slowly, his every move executed with the finesse of an aristocrat, a trait which Edmond deeply envied. His father had always harped about proper etiquette and stately manners, though even at his best Edmond tended to appear more like an over-educated commoner. "I trust you received the books I sent over?"
Edmond nodded quickly and dropped two cubes of sugar into his tea. "Yes, thank you. They were- are much appreciated. Miss Everetts informed me this morning that the funds should be dispersed to your account on the 'morrow."
"How nice." Ari nodded politely, slipping a fork into his cake and taking a bite with barely a sound.
Edmond fell to the desert, eating as quickly as possible while still maintaining manners. This was by far the highlight of his week, and he would have gladly dispensed with the formalities of tea and cake if he thought Ari would let him. As it was, Ari still made occasional jokes about Edmond starving himself, despite the numerous times Edmond had proven that he could indeed put down his books and eat what passed as a decent meal. Admittedly, the only decent meals he did manage to eat during the day were the times Ari invited him out for dinner. He simply... forgot about the necessity of food when he was left to himself, and really, there were more important things than meals. Like that book on Cerulean Dragon-snakes that Ari had sent him two weeks ago, or the compendium he was preparing on the ancient demons that had once inhabited the British Isles before the time of the Watcher's Council or the Slayer.
He set his empty plate aside, waiting until he received a nod from Ari before pulling a well-worn notebook from his bag.
"Where did we leave off?" Ari asked patiently as he poured himself another cup of tea.
Edmond quickly flipped to the last page. "You were telling me about the Balak demon, the one with the green scales and the tusks protruding from the lower mandible."
"Ah, yes." Ari smiled at him and began his narration, pausing every few minutes for another bite of cake or sip of tea. "The Balak were originally inhabitants of what is now Northern Ireland. They are believed to be kin to the Fomorians, though their influence on the land diminished with the appearance of the Tuatha de Danann and then disappearing almost entirely after the Milesians drove the Tuatha de Danann underground." Edmond's pen flew across the page, doing his best to note down every word Ari said. Ari's voice had him trapped in rapt fascination. "The Balak are most commonly associated with fog. They have never viewed mortals in a kindly light and have developed a particular fondness for human flesh. They enjoy, above all else, to devour the human heart shortly after death and thus tend to eat their victims alive starting from the outer extremities..."
Edmond pressed a hand over his mouth to stifle a yawn. He'd stayed in far too long today, but the book Ari had sent over on demons in early Ireland had been too interesting to put down. The street was dark when he stepped out of the Watcher's Council headquarters, lit only by dim streetlamps and the rare open window. Fog hung low on the street, making it seem like the setting of one of those cheesy horror movies they played on the telly. He made his way home on instinct, thinking more about the prospect of a welcoming bed at home than where he was walking. Tomorrow, he thought, he'd start on that book about water sprites.
"Spare a light?"
Edmond paused, looking around the empty street for the source of the voice. Movement at the entrance to the alleyway across the street made him turn. The light in this area was poor. He could barely make out the figure of a man huddled under a blanket. Pulling out his wallet, he started towards the poor man.
"I'm sorry, I don't smoke, but I can spare a few bills for a hot meal if you'd like."
"You're too kind." The man's voice was deep and gravely, most likely damaged by years of smoking. Edmond held out a twenty pound note as he stepped into the alley. The man stood, presumably to thank him.
He realized the danger too late as the man kept rising well past the size of a human, towering a solid three feet over Edmond. He caught a glimpse of tusks curving up from the demon's lower jaw and green scales, which meant.... he should be running.
He turned too late. The demon grabbed his arm before he'd taken one step. There'd be bruises there tomorrow, if he lived to tomorrow.
"Thanks for the meal," the demon rasped with a grin, its mouth stretching almost to where a human's ears should be.
"I... uh, I..." He was shaking. He'd thought that whole quivering in terror bit only happened in movies, but he was currently proving himself wrong. There weren't supposed to be any demons in London, not with the Watchers here.
The demon chuckled, mouth opening wide to reveal two long rows of sharply pointed teeth as he pulled Edmond's hand toward his jaws.
That was his writing hand! He screamed, flailing wildly in panic. He must have hit something damaging because the demon released him with a shriek. It recovered in seconds and stepped to the side to block the way back to the street, its eyes blazing a murderous red. Edmond didn't hesitate a second time. Turning quickly, he fled down the alleyway. The demon pursued but Edmond was faster, size and considerably less weight giving him a bit of an edge. He took his turns blindly, darting away at every possible intersection.
In his head he started going through the few facts he knew about Balak demons. He'd lost his bag at the entrance to the alley and with it the stake he carried. Ari had mentioned special weapons needed to pierce a Balak's hide, though Edmond had already found they were vulnerable somewhere... he just wasn't sure where. Slowly sounds of pursuit dwindled and he slowed to look back over his shoulder. Fire might work but first he'd have to....
The arm came out of the fog in front of him. Out of the corner of his eye he could see green scales swinging towards him but there was not time to stop. The demon backhanded him in the chest, a feeling comparable, he imagined, to being hit by a truck. Edmond experienced flight for a brief second before smacking shoulder-first into a brick wall.
Pain blinded him. He heard himself hit the street. Blinking rapidly, he cleared his vision in time to see the demon step close, drool glistening on his tusks.
He never expected to die like this.
The demon reached forward and then stopped, its arm freezing in mid-air. From the look on the demon's face, it hadn't planned to stop. A wet, squelching sound filled the air, followed by the demon's high-pitched screams as its arm twisted backwards to point behind him. The limb detached from the demon, spraying white goo onto the cobblestones as it flew off into the garbage lining the alleyway.
Edmond finally got a glimpse of his savior as the demon whirled, furious. Ari stood behind the demon, his normally mannered face cold with rage.
"He's mine." The words came to Edmond through a thin haze and he shivered.
The demon took one look at its attacker and fled.
Cool hands brushed gently on his forehead. Edmond blinked. He hadn't seen Ari move. Time seemed to be passing in strange spurts now as his consciousness faded in and out. "What have you gotten yourself into?"
His consciousness faded out before he could answer. He was vaguely away of being lifted by strong arms, and then of a cultured voice speaking from a far away distance. After that, there was nothing.
He woke in a soft, unfamiliar bed. His chest ached. The entire right side of his body blazed with pain, throbbing steadily with his heartbeat. His head hurt, and he was thirsty.
Very carefully, Edmond eased himself into a sitting position, glad that he was alone in the room since that meant his very unmanly whimpers of pain went unheard. Once he rested comfortably against the headboard, he took a moment to assess his situation. His forehead and torso were wrapped in bandages, with more circling his right shoulder. Someone had seen too his injuries with a decent amount of skill, and he knew despite how badly he ached at the moment, he should have more injuries than he did. He remembered having more injuries.
The bedroom he lay in was elegant, reminding him of a late Victorian noble's house. Burgundy and mahogany filled the room, with freshly picked flowers sitting in a crystal vase next to his bed. The vase itself appeared to be worth more than a year's rent at his flat, and he hated to think how expensive the rest of the furnishings were. Wherever he was, the owner had obvious expensive tastes and a wonderful sense of style. Considering Edmond's acquaintances, that left only one option.
"How do you feel?"
Edmond blushed as Ari walked in carrying a tray, feeling suddenly self-conscious of his half-dressed state. "I'm not quite sure."
Ari set the tray beside the bed and took a seat, pressing a cool palm to Edmond's forehead. He barely held back a sigh, not realizing how feverishly hot he felt until Ari touched him.
"Do you have a headache?"
"A bit." There was hardly a part of him that didn't hurt.
"Understandably." He was oddly disappointed when Ari leaned back into his chair. He quickly put that thought aside as Ari poured two cups of tea. "You had quite the night."
Edmond accepted the tea with a small smile. Setting the saucer in his lap, he awkwardly drank with his left hand. Curiosity won over discomfort and he ignored the signals his body was sending to relax and go back to sleep in favor of questioning Ari. "What happened with the demon last night?"
"It fled," Ari answered simply, his smile widening slightly as he sipped his tea.
"I'm aware. It fled from you." Edmond's memories of the previous night were a bit foggy, but he distinctly remembered the demon fleeing at the sight of Ari. He'd never seen a demon flee like that. Admittedly, he'd also never seen a demon in real life either, but tales of a demon fleeing from a human were extremely rare.
"A wise choice, I'm sure." Ari had an enigmatic smile on his face, the same kind he used when he was teasing Edmond with some piece of information he knew Edmond desperately wanted.
He resisted the urge to glare at Ari, knowing a foul mood would only encourage Ari to tease him more. "But why? Meaning no offense, but I would hardly consider you dangerous." Edmond remembered the demon's arm twisting off and thought he might need to re-evaluate that opinion.
Ari's smile shifted to an expression Edmond had never seen on his friend before. It made his stomach warm up like he'd just swallowed half a pint of rum. "That, my dear friend," the shopkeeper's voice came out like a silken purr as he leaned forward, "is because you have nothing to fear from me. The Balak demon's situation was quite different."
He opened his mouth to ask about Ari's strength. Cool lips closed over his before he could voice his question and Edmond froze with his lips still parted. The kiss scattered his thoughts to the four winds. Ari had made jokes before about... he'd thought Ari had been joking, he wouldn't... Ari couldn't like him. A too-cold tongue slipped inside his still open mouth, leaving no doubt in his mind as to Ari's intentions.
His mind took a minute to restart after Ari moved away. "Oh." That was the best response his mind seemed capable of producing.
"Before you ask, which I know you will," Ari extricated the forgotten cup from Edmond's lap before it could spill, "I am not one of your kind, though my species is quite benevolent." A hundred questions jumped to Edmond's mind. The look Ari gave him kept him silent. "And I'm not interested in discussing it further."
He pouted. He'd never heard of a supernatural creature that had such strength and appeared so humanoid. Well, there were vampires but they couldn't stand in daylight. And there was the Ilthal, but their skin had a blue tint. There were others that could pass but they would have had to show their demon features in order to exert such strength.
Ari ruffled his hair playfully and chuckled, well used to Edmond's incessant thirst for knowledge. "We can talk later," Ari added softly, his hand still resting in Edmond's hair. He had hope that meant that Ari might tell him more eventually. "For now, you need more rest."
His eyes were already turning heavy again. "What about the..."
"The Watcher's Council has already been informed of your need for a short leave. I spoke with Miss Everetts earlier this morning and took the liberty of appraising her of the situation. Everything will be taken care of."
"Oh, that's nice."
He wanted to ask Ari to send for the book on water sprites but sleep came quicker than speech.