by Mike Douton
It didn’t look like much.
The mortar holding the bricks together crumbled and collected at the bottom of the old mill walls. The windows were mostly intact, though cracked or painted over. There was no way the abandoned building wasn’t infested with an ecosystem of urban wildlife.
I thought about calling my rideshare back and getting out of dodge.
But was the mill as abandoned as I thought?
I crept around the building. It was pure chance I had even found out the underground show was going to be in town. Hearsay from a guy who knew a guy, but I latched onto it. Birds of a Feather were a near mythical punk band. For the last decade, they only played unlicensed, underground shows. They had no online presence and any videos that surfaced were garbled at best, but the world of punk rock chattered amongst itself. Whispers of awe turned to rumbles of anticipation when the band was supposedly near. But you had to find it yourself.
A flier on a telephone pole, half covered by a yard sale sign. A sticker on a bathroom wall with a date scribbled in sharpie below it. A bartender who overheard a guy talking to his date. A sound guy who rented out gear to a mysterious out of towner.
A yellow extension cord snaking through the weeds around the abandoned mill.
Signs of life after all.
I followed the extension cord around the building to the side facing the sluggish flow of the river. The rocky dirt took a sharp slope to the water’s edge but a catwalk jutted a few feet out over the riverbank. I climbed up and over a rusty handrail. When I stamped a boot on the metal grate, it seemed sturdy enough, though I might need a tetanus shot later. I lost track of the extension cord with my jungle gym moves and looked around low to the ground for the trail to follow.
My heart lurched and I almost fell off the catwalk. “Holy shit, you scared me!”
There was a woman perched in the open window sill right behind me. She rested her elbows on her knees and balanced on her toes without a care that a stiff breeze looked like it’d blow her back into the building. Ripped jeans, black tee, bangles and bracelets covering her arm from wrist to elbow, dark hair just peeking out from under a red bandana. She had the look that told me I was in the right place.
She stared at me for a long moment with large, dark eyes. She tilted her head to the side and gave me a slow blink. “What are you doing ‘round a place like this?”
I tried to play it cool. “You first.”
She cracked a smile at that. “Alright, I’ll play.” Her voice sounded like silk over quicksilver. “But only if I can bum a smoke first.”
I had a pack of Marlboro’s in my back pocket. I took one out and passed it to her along with my lighter. I lit one up for myself too. We smoked with the quiet solidarity of strangers stuck outside together for our vice. She closed her eyes and savored every drag.
“So this is such a lovely place, how’d you end up here…” I said.
“Thel,” she said. I must have raised an eyebrow or something. “It’s Greek.”
“Pete,” I said back. “It’s not.”
I earned another smile at that.
“Well, Pete, judging by your general appearance and the fact you’re here at all, I suspect we’re here for similar reasons.”
My whoop of victory echoed off the river and the old bricks.
“Thel, you don’t know how happy this makes me. This band is… like a fable! I was beginning to question if they exist. I have been searching for this show for years.”
She perked up a bit. “Determined.”
“Have to be,” I said. “Don’t find something like this with dumb luck. It has to be fate.”
“Too true. But Fate can be fickle.” Thel finished her cigarette and flicked the butt off into the river beyond the catwalk. I held out the pack if she wanted another. Instead, she grabbed my wrist. A shock like icicles in my veins shot up my arm and stole the air from my lungs. I staggered back a step, but Thel held tight, keeping me from falling.
She let go and I took my hand back. “Um. Thanks for not letting me fall.”
Thel had a new cigarette. “There’s something strong in you. You succeed where others fail.”
She tilted her head to the side and a stillness fell over her while she watched me.
I rubbed my wrist. “What do you-“
Thel pointed to my hands. “You play?”
The guitar calluses. The cold shock was just… nothing.
“Yeah, I’m not legendary like the band playing tonight though.” I rocked on my heels with an abundance of energy. “You ever see them play before?”
Her smile seemed sad, but it could not dampen my excitement. “You could say that,” she said. “Birds of a Feather have been around a while. Hang around the scene long enough and you get to know a bit of everyone.” She paused for another drag. “I’m no oracle, but you better go inside now. You came around the wrong side of the building and the show’s going to start soon.” From her perch in the window sill, Thel pointed to an open door farther down the catwalk.
I started to the door but didn’t hear Thel move. “You coming?” I asked her.
She stared out over the water and waved the cigarette in my general direction. “You’ll see me down there after I finish this. I’m on a pretty short leash.”
I should have waited for her, but I was giddy from excitement, bouncing on my toes in my boots. I headed for the door.
I turned back and Thel tossed something that I plucked out of the air. “For the smokes,” she said. “Stay out of trouble down there.”
I looked down and had a guitar pick in my hand. It was black, embossed with silver Greek letters. Thel’s name maybe?
I looked up and she was gone.
Thel must have hopped back inside from her perch, but I saw no sign of her when I went inside the building. Inside was a big open floor plan with regular support pillars spaced as far apart as possible to give room to the machinery that once lived here.
The floor was scattered with debris where holes in the roof formed over the years. A sickly shrub grew in one corner. Along the floor, the yellow cord led to a stairway down where a faint light came up from below.
I stumbled over the debris and made my way down. A doorman took ten bucks from me, cash only, and showed me inside a big dingy basement full of punks. Someone had swept the floor, maybe, but it was a carbon copy of the first floor, just underground. A string of dim lights on the low ceiling kept the crowd from stepping on each other. Portable construction work lights pointed to a corner where a drum kit sat waiting on a makeshift plywood stage. Along one wall, someone was selling beer out of coolers sitting on the floor. The back of the room faded to empty shadows but two hundred people, easily, jostled closer to the stage the closer to show time we got. A haze of cigarettes, sweat, and just a hint of pot hung over the crowd already.
I craned my neck, looking for Thel’s red bandana over the crowd, while trying to get closer to the stage. There was little progress with either. I ended up shunted off to the side of the room with a door at my back. I tripped on a cinderblock, probably once used as a doorstop. Rather than swearing at it, I stood on it. The extra six inches got me half a head over the crowd. Angled across the basement, I saw another door open up and Thel’s red bandana in the sea of people.
I yelled out to her, but the din of the crowd churned to a low roar.
She made her way through the crowd like a hawk on the wing, no one slowed her down, no one jostled her in the least.
I felt like a slack jawed yokel when Thel jumped on the stage with a guitar in her hand. I spoke with one of the Birds of a Feather! In Thel’s wake the rest of the band followed. The bass player had a 70s leather and spike look. Her black hair was done up in mini liberty spikes, the anarchy A hand scrawled on the back of her leather jacket. Long fingers like talons threw the horns to the jacked up crowd. The drummer walked up last like she was floating apart from the world. She had plaid pants and that ubiquitous Ramones tee. She gave a nod to the crowd and relaxed behind her kit.
“Well, well, well, lookee what we got here,” the bass player said. She sounded like a growl dragged through a pit of gravel. “Pretty good showing for a band that doesn’t fucking exist.”
“I’m Thel, that’s Celaeno,” she pointed to the bass player,
“and that’s Aibell,” the drummer raised her sticks. “And we’re Birds of a Feather.”
Her voice crooned even before singing a single note. I caught myself leaning forward to drink up every word on her breath.
“And you, my lovelies, Fate has chosen you to be part of the few, part of the elite, part of the special ones to be here today.”
Celaeno cut in. “And we’re gonna blow your minds.”
Aibell shrieked off a count and Birds of a Feather played the best damn set I ever heard.
The music was a force of gravity, pulling the crowd closer to the stage. A circle pit churned a vortex of people. We gave ourselves over to the music. One song bled into the other with no slowing down. I lost all sense of time. Aibell’s thundering drums became the beat of my heart. Celaeno’s lurid bass lines became the air shuddering in my lungs. But Thel. Thel’s voice became the very fabric of my soul.
The endless set became my life in staccato flashes before my eyes. The riot of color in the mosh pit flew together with fists and boots. Celaeno flit off the stage and waded into the pit, surrounded by the adoring masses as she slammed through the riffs elbow to elbow with her people. The crowd pressed together so when I leapt, my feet failed to hit the ground and the tide carried me on. Aibell seemed to float above her drums. Every smash of the cymbals brought a sanguine grin.
We could taste the music on the air.
And Thel shred through her chords like a woman possessed, her voice the sparkle of sound.
Once he hears to his heart’s content, sails on, a wiser man.
We know all the pains that the Greeks and Trojans once endured
on the spreading plain of Troy when the gods willed it so—
all that comes to pass on the fertile earth, we know it all!
The song dropped with a hum of reverb.
The crowd stuttered to a stop. I crashed headlong into a man and a woman, but they hardly moved to look at me. Everyone stood with their arms limp to their sides, staring up at the stage. The reverb became a cloud, thick in the air, holding the room still. Birds of a Feather put down their instruments and walked off the stage.
I looked around confused, but no one else in the crowd moved. I became afraid to move more than a hair myself. As the band walked away, a man emerged to take their place. He wore a sport coat over a ratty tee shirt and pock marked jeans, looking more like a tech bro than a punk rocker. In the middle of the stage he started chanting over the reverb still hanging over the room.
A hot panic crept across me. I darted my eyes around, trying to keep my head still like everyone else. Through the crowd, I locked eyes with Thel. She was near the door she’d entered from. Her eyes were sad. The word ‘help’ hung on my lips, but she looked away and disappeared through the door with her band.
Now the burning fear came over me.
Except it wasn’t really fear and it wasn’t metaphorical burning.
There was something hot in my pocket.
I took out the guitar pick Thel gave me before the show. The silver letters glowed and the heat pulsed into my palm in time with the tech bro’s chanting on stage. I looked up to him and his words slid like oil down my spine in a sharp language I never heard before. Thel’s pick was reacting to whatever he was saying. He closed his eyes, lost in his chant, raising his hands out to the crowd. I edged towards the door I had been standing next to.
My hand found the doorknob, though my eyes never left the guy on stage. His eyes snapped open, red mist spilled out. He gathered it in his hands and reached out to the first person in the crowd. Hands were placed on either side of the punk’s head. A harsh word, wrong down to my soul, rang out and a haze lifted from that first punk. It hung overhead like thick cigar smoke and the man on stage drank it in.
The knob turned but the door opened barely an inch. An old mildew stank drifted out of the crack. The tech bro was done with the first punk. He dismissed him and moved on to the next in the crowd. I leaned hard into the door, panic finally nipping at my heels. I needed out before I was noticed. Thel’s burning pick kept me from being a zombie lined up for dinner, but how long would that last? I braced my Doc’s on the ground and pushed. The door snapped open. I snuck through and shut it as fast as I could scramble.
I had busted through an old security chain, ripped it from the rotting doorjamb so there was no locking it behind me. Dim light filtered through windows overhead, the kind that were ground level outside and way too small for anything bigger than a raccoon to bust through. I was in a hallway. Left and right both looked like crap options. So I went left for the hell of it.
I scared a rat, saw walls full of bad graffiti, and finally a tee intersection. Left again.
A set of rough hands from the other direction grabbed me about the shoulders and flung me around face first into the brick wall.
Should’ve gone right.
Sharp nails gripped the back of my neck. My face scratched against the filthy brick.
“What are you doing back here?” said a gravel sounding voice behind my ear. Celaeno. This close, her breath smelled like death.
Thel’s guitar pick still warmed in my pocket. “Just looking for a place to take a piss,” I said. The lie came easy and I hoped it was smart. “In peace.”
Celaeno twisted my arms behind my back and frog marched me in the direction she jumped me from. I stumbled up a set of stairs, the second exit I was looking for, that opened up near what was originally the mill’s loading dock. A battered rental van parked inside the building. The debris of a traveling band scattered about. Sausages sizzled on a small gas grill. Aibell sat on a speaker case and scrolled through her phone while the sausages burned.
“Sit.” Celaeno shoved me to the ground next to the van. I started to get up swearing, but she kicked my foot out from under me. With a pair of cable ties, she bound my wrists to the van’s bumper.
Aibell rolled her eyes without looking up. “Carrion eater,” she scoffed.
“What’s going on over there?” That voice I knew. Thel came around the corner. “We’ve got ten minutes until—“ When she saw me she stopped mid-sentence and covered her mouth with her hands.
“Got a runner,” Celaeno sounded positively giddy. “I’m going to get the boss.” I could still hear the reverb in the direction she stormed off in.
“Pete…” she said softly. “What—“ she stopped with a look at Aibell. The drummer was worried about her phone. The sausages still burned. “—what happened? I said to stay safe.”
Thel cut the cable ties. I stood, rubbing the circulation back into my hands. Welts striped my wrists already. I shoved away from her.
“Could have bloody well told me ‘Don’t come in here, some X Files stuff is gonna go down.”
“It’s not what you think,” she said.
“Well that’s pretty easy to do since I have no idea what’s going on! There’s a wizard or something on stage sucking the brains—“
“Auras,” Aibell said without looking up from her phone. The sausages still burned. “He feeds off auras.”
Thel saw that my brain was about to fracture from reality.
“It’s true,” she whispered, just loud enough for me to hear.
I stepped back. “So… you gonna eat my soul or something… kill me like everyone else in there?”
“I swear it’s not like that,” Thel said. “Hengill, he feeds off the crowd. And not anyone’s souls. Their auras. Completely different. And just a little nip from each person.”
“And you’re just cool with that? Take a hit off someone’s soul and pass it to the left hand side? Just playing a warm up set for kicks?”
“I said it’s not like that Pete!” her voice cut through my head, pulled me to agree with her. “I placate the crowd. Aibell makes everyone forget what Hengill does.”
I rubbed my temples in frustration and took another step back even though every word Thel said made me want to go towards her. “Which is why you’re practically a myth.”
Aibell snorted this time. “More than you know, mortal.”
“How is that different? You’re putting us on a platter for the guy.”
Thel stamped her foot. “We’re trapped by Hengill more than you are.” She pushed the bangles away from her wrist. It looked like a tattoo at first, but it felt wrong. A dirty smog hung near that ink… no… not ink, a burn, black and hard, a half dollar sized whorl of wrong. I blinked and the smog was gone like it had never been but the burn remained. Aibell held up her hand over her head to show the same thing, finally putting her phone down.
“So you’re not going to eat me? Those aren’t people sausages?”
Aibell made a face at the sausages she just noticed were charred to a crisp. Thel shook her head no. She seemed deflated. “Hengill takes pieces. Just pieces. Then everyone walks away.”
“Celaeno might eat you,” Aibell said.
Aibell dumped the burned sausages on the ground and put new ones to sizzle on the pan. “What?” she said when she saw our looks. “Filthy carrion eater. Harpies are crude like that. She eats the ones Hengill breaks.”
Whatever soothed me about Thel’s words, shattered with Aibell’s.
She chatted on while she used a set of tongs to fuss with the new sausages. “Hengill’s slick. Kind of a prick, but at least lets us play on stage. Bastard got us good, tethered to him. But slick innit perfect,” Aibell said. “Sometimes when you just take a bit,” she jabbed one of the new sausages with the tongs. The casing burst, overheated from the inside and spilled out between the bars of the grill to the flame below. “Sometimes a bit is all it takes to break. Celaeno gets what’s left.”
I inched away from them. I was not being subtle about it. Thel looked sad.
“I also get the runners.”
I turned at the voice. Celaeno was there. Hengill, the tech bro, or rather, wizard bro, stalked behind her. His eyes still spilled red mist.
“Dear Aibell forgets to tell you the real brilliance here,” Hengill voice sounded too polished for its own good. “If one of you just –poof!- disappears, no one cares. Oh so sad, another headstrong runaway, gone off the grid to follow some deviant band that only exists in rumors and blah blah blah. I could feed Celaeno a dozen of you a night before the authorities would even notice.”
My feet moved. I wanted to run. Celaeno lashed out and grabbed hold of my arm, sinking talons into my skin. Blood welled up and burned. She threw me at Hengill’s feet.
“I only like ‘em dead though,” Celaeno touched a talon to her tongue and smiled.
“Stop!” Thel yelled. Her voice folded into my mind. Nudged me along. Stopping seemed like a good idea.
Celaeno winced. Hengill raged. He gathered a fist full of the red mist from his eyes and squeezed it tight. A dozen steps away, the mist leaked out of Thel’s wrist where the burn whorl marred her skin. He flicked his wrist and Thel crashed into the side of the van and crumpled into the ground like a ragdoll. Aibell ran to her side.
“Do not dare use your power against me, siren,” Hengill spat. “It seems you have forgotten what happened the last time a hand was raised against me.” His free hand gathered mist to his fingertips. He formed a claw and bore down like he was leaning into a strong weight. Burn marks appeared across the side of Thel’s neck.
“Stop Hengill!” Aibell shrieked.
“Pah!” he dismissed the mist he held and paced in a small, frantic circle. “Don’t think you can’t be replaced too, banshee.” He looked back at me with a feral grin. “Let me remind you what I can do.”
The mist spilling from his eyes became a torrent. Celaeno held me down on my knees. Hengill held the mist to either side of my head. I screamed. It burned.
It burned him.
Thel’s pick in my pocket smoldered my jeans and a fiery heat held back Hengill’s nasty aura leeching magic. I reached into my pocket again. It burned my palm, but the nimbus of heat flared hotter when the pick touched my skin. Celaeno started backwards with a curse. Hengill roared and pushed. The flames fed off the red mist, growing larger, hotter, with the energy Hengill threw at me.
His eyes bugged out. “You! You’re a mortal! You can’t do this!” He lost a step. He pushed harder. Hengill clenched his teeth and growled but whatever happened around me, happened to me, ate it up. Devoured the mist pouring from Hengill’s eyes.
The pick scorched hotter into my skin. Heat. Flame. Fire. It drowned all other senses. Cleared my mind. Filled my soul. The pick, my hand, now one in the same, a blinding white hot brand, pushed.
Hengill flailed back, retreated a step.
His misty magic flared around me, but the fire burned too hot. His magic burned away but the fire would not be stopped. The flames devoured the mist, flared back up to where it poured out of his eyes. Hengill screamed, clawed at his face, tried to snuff out the magic.
It was too late.
Hungry flames tore through Hengill like old parchment.
A scream. A death rattle. Then there was nothing left but ash.
The flames, satiated, were gone. I fell to my hands and knees in what was left of Hengill. The ash was gritty on my hands.
A short screech from Aibell cut through my ears. I saw her grab hold of her wrist. The burn whorls Hengill marked her with flared with light from within. They cracked and flaked off Aibell’s skin to drift to the floor and mingle with Hengill’s earthly remains.
“You … saved us.” I looked to Thel. The skin on her wrist was clean and unmarred.
“What have you done?!” Celaeno roared.
Without the flames to protect me, she grabbed me by the throat and pulled me to my feet. I tried to pull her grip off me, but her talons stretched across my skin. The harpy lost any humanity she might have once had. Animal rage twisted her into a scowl with sharp teeth. My feet dangled off the ground. Air came in shallow gasps.
“I will skin you alive and make you watch me eat your own flesh!” Celaeno yelled inches from my face.
Darkness crawled at the edges of my vision.
“Celaeno! Stop. Let go of him. He saved us.” Thel’s voice soothed the darkness. It was ok. This was nice.
The hand around my throat loosened for a moment. I gulped down a lungful of air before it tightened. “Don’t dare use your power against me. I hold his life in my-“
She dropped me. I collapsed to the ground. Celaeno fell beside me. A feather, a foot long and black with a glint of steel, stuck from her neck. Ichor, green and viscous, spilled from the wound as the light faded from her eyes.
I rolled to my back, Thel ran to my side. Her bandana was gone. She had slick black feathers instead of hair. “Pete, you need to be ok.” The feathers ruffled with concern.
“I’m ok.” My voice was raw, but I really did feel ok, which surprised me as much as anything else. I looked at my hand. A scar on my palm in the shape of a triangle with Greek letters was the only thing left from the flames.
“What happened?” I asked her. My thoughts only processed about half of what happened here. A shift in reality crept into my mind. None of what I just saw was real, right? But I just lived it! A man burned to death in my hands and I feel fine. I squeezed my eyes shut to keep out all of it but it was all still there in my head. I opened my eyes. Thel still crouched beside me, a siren, feathers for hair. Aibell, a banshee, floated an inch off the floor behind her. I shook my head and pressed the heels of my hands over my eyes. When I opened them, I still sat on a dingy floor with a couple of myths.
“I think we broke him,” Aibell said.
Thel shook her head. Her feathers glistened in what light there was. “He’s strong. He’s just seeing the world as it is for the first time.”
“How’d this happen?” I asked.
“Hengill swindled us into service many years ago,” Thel said, “and found an eager hand with Celaeno.”
A rumble echoed through the building. “Leftovers from tech bro?” I asked.
Aibell shrugged. Thel looked worried. They helped me up and we crept back to the basement venue. I nudged Celaeno over onto her back with the toe of my boot on the way by. She looked less than human without any life in her eyes. The pool of green blood reminded me she wasn’t really human anyways.
Thel shook her head and led the way. Aibell followed behind me. Heat in my palm twitched in response to the tension.
Thel cracked open the door to the stage area. The rumble turned to words.
Encore! Encore! Encore!
“With Hengill gone, the spells enthralling the crowd wore off,” she said. Thel looked back at us with a wild grin. “Celaeno must have interrupted him before he was finished.”
Aibell shrieked with delight. “Let’s do this!” She pushed past us and stormed through the door to the stage. The room full of punks erupted. Their sound shook through my core. Aibell slammed into a massive, frantic drum solo that echoed celebration to the frenzied crowd.
Thel took my hand, the one scarred by her pick, the one that saved us all. I felt warm, but I didn’t think it was magic. “Thank you,” she said. “Fate put you here but you didn’t have to do any of that. Most would have not been strong enough. I had hope you were.”
I shrugged. Embarrassed. “Good thing I came through the side door.”
The moment stretched out. We peeked in the door. Aibell’s sticks flew across her drums.
“Want to play?” Thel asked.
I shook my head. “I couldn’t. I’m not one of you.”
Thel, the siren with feathers for her hair, reached up and plucked one from behind her ear. It glistened with iridescence in the light between us. She unwound a thin leather cord from the collection of bangles and bracelets on her arm. Her wrist was pale and clean where the burn whorl was. She tied her feather to one end and bound the cord tight around my wrist three times.
“You are now.”
Thel pulled me after her in front of the crowd. Aibell hit a double cymbal crash when our boots hit the stage. Two hundred people clamored closer to us. To me. Their roar lifted my heart. I looked over to Aibell, lost in her drum riffs, floating just above the stool behind her drum kit. I looked to Thel. The sparkle in her eye lifted my soul.
I had no idea what I was doing when I lifted Celaeno’s bass over my head and felt the weight settle on my shoulder. My fingers tingled when they touched the strings. I plucked my first note and the low vibration rumbled through me.
I had no idea what I was doing and it was the best show of my life.
Mike Douton exists in Rhode Island writing SFF fiction. He went to film school, has been a radio disc jockey and a dot com prospector. He has built a nuclear submarine and isn’t allowed to give blood because of that one time with the cow brains out of a vending machine in Europe. He got on stage at a Dropkick Murphys show and drank free samples of Guinness in Dublin. This guy is an Irish – Native American descendant of a grave robber and the third in line storming the beach on D-Day. He keeps an anvil in his garage and seven different currencies in his wallet. Just in case. Find him on twitter @mikedouton or links to all his fiction at mikedouton.com.