Even long ago, by the time Morry had finished his training in the fine art of giving things that go bump in the night a terminal bump back, Carol the Blade already was a legend in the city. Sure, the people who lived and worked in the cloudiest reaches of the granite skyscrapers might not know her name, but the definitely-not-people, the things that dragged their tails and sharpened their claws along the shadows below, not only knew it but feared it, and really, at the end of the day, when a forked-tongue beastie with eyes like siphons for the soul was floating over someone’s bed, wasn’t that the kind of reputation that mattered? Morry had heard several Blades tell stories about Carol, but even from the first, he was a fan.
People rarely get to meet the figures who inspire them the most. Morry—well, early on in his training, he spent his nights with other novices, scraping away at the low-life creatures that clung like barnacles to the edges of darkness. He then spent his days doing data entry. His expectations for any brushes with fame, he figured, were set right where they needed to be. A metaphorical three feet above sea level was a perfectly safe spot for one’s hopes and dreams. All the same, Morry knew he should have seen something unusual coming the night he met Carol. For one thing, it was the night he almost lost half of his left hand.
“Ow,” he murmured, glancing down at the chunk of his hand to which his ring finger and pinky were attached. The connection of digits to palm was still going strong. It was the gap that appeared between that part of his palm and the rest of it, along with the violet-tinged smoke spilling forth from the wound, that worried him. He had never seen half of a hand look so floppy before. A human hand, anyway.
At least he hadn’t been wounded for nothing. The bogeyman lay beneath Morry, its limbs draped across all three train rails, as long and limp as the noodles with his favorite chop suey. The other Blades had been occupied taking care of the rest of the bogeyman swarm creeping through Budinger Park. As soon as Morry saw this one break away from the fight and shamble toward the Mason Street service entrance, he knew that he was needed elsewhere. While the bogeyman reduced its form to vapor and seeped beneath the door, Morry hurried to the D line entrance. He leaped down the stairs, paid his fare (being ever mindful of the city he had vowed to protect), sprang past a few stumbling subway patrons onto the tracks below, and met the bogeyman deep in the tunnels. There he fought and killed the creature, earning himself a wound that seethed like fear at midnight.
Battles like those always happened late, at least, when gaps the size of a ghost hound’s tooth existed between each subway train’s arrival. That meant that Morry had some time to breathe, study the wound, and think about where he should go and what he should do next.
Unless the trains happened to be running off schedule.
“Well, that’s unfortunate,” said Morry as a southbound D line train rounded the bend near the Geraldine stop, bringing its bright light down upon him.
He ran for several yards, feet slamming onto the track’s planks, dark smoke streaming from his hand. He was prepared run farther when suddenly he realized that there was no need. This was due mostly to the way he had begun to float, lifting off from the ground like a plane departing a runway and rising toward the tunnel’s ceiling at a speed much faster than his legs could have carried him on the ground.
Oh, thought Morry, so this is what it’s like to be plastered to the front of a train car. Oddly pleasant experience. I imagine, of course, that my soul being detached from my body is what makes this so enjoyable, and I’d be having very different thoughts if all of my pieces were intact.
“Lift your legs and pretend you’re flying,” a voice called above him. “We just have to make it to Grande.”
Part of being a decent Blade was knowing when it was important to follow instructions. Morry figured that anyone helping him outrun a train probably wouldn’t appreciate being second-guessed, so back went his legs. He also managed a glance over his shoulder, however, and that’s when he saw her: hair in braids that bounced along her back, a bright pink bandana tied around her forehead, her grin and her gaze both as sharp as arrows. He didn’t have to twist far to realize that she was hauling him by the back of his overcoat with one hand and using her other hand and her feet to spring them along the tunnel’s pipes.
Ahead of a speeding train.
Which was catching up to them.
By the time Carol the Blade flung Morry onto the near end of the Grande station platform, he was already halfway in love.
Carol tumbled onto the platform behind him, somersaulting and landing on her forearms and knees. The train pulled past and came to a stop several yards down from them, allowing the few nighttime riders to board, which they did quickly, only one turning his head toward Morry with a suspicious squint. “Doors closing,” an automated voice sang as the train lurched forward.
The Grande station was quieter then than a church on New Year’s Eve.
“It’s you,” Morry whispered from a spot on his back. “Oh. My. This is an honor.”
“Heya.” Carol the Blade spoke with a smile between heavy breaths. She pointed. “Nice hand you’ve got there. Does it always come in two pieces like that?”
“Only on good days, I suppose,” murmured Morry, gazing down at the gash, which had begun to froth.
Carol cracked her wrist, her neck, and several spots along her back as she stood. She crouched next to Morry and peered at his hand, taking care, Morry noticed, to keep her own hands drawn into fists in front of her, as if preparing to beat up any of Morry’s bodily fluids that happened to stray too far from the wound. “Is that from the bogeyman’s tongue?” she asked.
“I think so. I managed to remove its claws.”
“Really? Nice.” Carol spat on Morry’s hand.
“Thank you?” he asked.
Carol chuckled. “Sure know how to make a memorable first impression, don’t I? Not to freak you out or anything, but that wound is more than I can fix with just, you know, my own personal brand of first aid. Can you walk?”
“Yes, I’m pretty sure. It’s just that lying down and curling into a ball seems like a much better option.”
“Yeah, that’s how the bogeymen work. You know that’s how they work, right?”
“So I’ve heard,” said Morry, pulling his knees toward his chest. When, he wondered, had smoke gotten into the corners of his eyes?
“Okay, here we go, let’s get walking. We’re going to take a little trip to see my girl Luz.” She wedged her hands beneath Morry’s shoulders and rocked him forward; at the same time, he worked on convincing himself that Carol knew what she was doing, because she was Carol the Blade and wouldn’t steer him wrong. Eventually his legs acquiesced, and the two Blades made their way up the stairs, past automated turnstiles, and onto the sidewalk above the Grande Street station.
While they walked—or, in Morry’s case, stumbled—they talked about beasts in the city and how long they each had been hunting them. (“Twelve years here,” said Carol. “I was in Wichita before that. This is nice.”) Later, he had trouble remembering all the details of what they discussed. He was able to remember much more clearly the way Carol laughed, or the strength with which she supported him. Everything about being with her, Morry marveled, was easy and effortless.
What wasn’t easy and effortless was climbing Carol’s stairs. He had heard rumors about the training regimens and daily habits of the city’s most fabled Blades. Not even one of those stories, he thought at the moment that Carol began dragging him up from the third-floor landing, mentioned anything so difficult as living in a five-floor walkup.
“Congratulations! You survived the night’s final battle,” Carol said when they finally reached her door. She propped Morry against the wall like a thick, sentient broom handle and looked at him. “I just want you to be prepared. Luz isn’t exactly… human.”
“Oh,” said Morry. “Is she a demon?”
“Wouldn’t that be something. She isn’t even female. She just picked pronouns based on what she liked.”
“Oh,” said Morry. “But she’s a healer?”
“Best I’ve met.”
“And she can make my hand stop bubbling like a cauldron?”
“I’d be surprised if she couldn’t.”
“Does she happen to have any hot chocolate?”
Carol grinned. “It wouldn’t be our place if she didn’t.”
“Then I’m ready.”
“Great.” Carol turned to her door and knocked in a particular rhythm. She and Morry waited together for a few seconds, Carol rocking on her feet from heel to toe. Then Morry heard the deadbolt turn and saw the apartment door swing back, and he was greeted by the sight of Luz.
“Oh, my,” Morry caught himself saying.
“There was no lamp or other light on in the apartment behind her. It wasn’t necessary. Luz may have been a six-foot-tall, roughly humanoid entity that appeared to be carved from rock, but that wasn’t what stunned Morry. Luz had cracks and fissures all along her stony surface. Through them, Morry could see what looked like the light of stars and the swirls of galaxies, and occasionally the streak of a comet flashing past the gaps, all of it glowing against the black backdrop of space-time that Luz contained within her mineral-based shell.
“Morry, this is Luz, my partner,” said Carol. “Luz, this is Morry, another Blade. He took out a bogeyman but got scratched up pretty bad.”
“You poor thing,” said Luz, extending one charcoal-grey arm. “Please, come in.”
“Thank you kindly,” Morry said, falling forward across the threshold as his conscious mind decided that now was a good time to take a break.