One day, it was hot as absolute fuck.
Ronnie stood outside the diner, waiting for the damn call to get this shitshow on the road. If they made her wait more than five more minutes in this heatwave, shirt stuck to her skin, so stupid hot her toes were sweating, she might actually shoot someone despite her promise to behave this time. The sad part was that it wouldn’t be surprising if she did- it wasn’t in her nature to wait. Mama had always said that she needed to learn patience, to be content with uncertainty, but that sort of thing was never in the cards for Ronnie. Not with her magic, and not that Mama understood that — Ronnie didn’t have that kind of luck.
It didn’t help matters that for once, she was nervous about the gig. It had always been just a job before, but this time, she had the chance to finally get out from under Vent’s thumb. Sure, she was grateful to him for training her, but she was beyond done doing his dirty work. After all these years, the only thing she wanted was a normal life.
So, shit had to be done.
The burner cell vibrated in her palm, and even though she’d been waiting for the call, she still twitched. Ronnie licked her lips, and kept her voice firm when she answered. “Took you long enough. No bullshit chatter this time. Why the diner, and what do I have to do?”
“C’mon, don’t be like that,” the warm voice on the other end of the line purred. “What, no love for your oldest chum?”
Chum wouldn’t be what Ronnie would call their relationship. Travis was just the human patsy Vent liked to use as a go-between when he wasn’t on-plane himself. Occasionally, Travis provided remote support.
Ronnie didn’t know how Travis fit into this mess, but she also didn’t care enough to ask. “The mild tolerance I have for you is the only thing that made me answer the damn phone. Never thought you’d call in this marker, asshole.”
“Never thought you’d take yourself out of the game, but here we are.” All the warmth from Travis’ voice was gone now. “Earnest Frenchie is a line cook. He’ll head out back for a smoke in five.”
“Funny, the idea of running out of my soul seems to take the shine off things,” Ronnie retorted, then paused and took a deep breath- Travis was annoying, but he didn’t deserve her anger. “We doing this quiet or loud?”
“Loud. It’s a message as much as it’s payback. Careful, though, Frenchie’s a twitchy one.”
“Aren’t they all?” She paused, searching for that pocket of calm she needed just before a job. “Got me covered?”
Ronnie heard the click of keys as Travis killed whatever security cameras the diner had running. “Coms and cams will be down in three. Giving you a 12-minute head-start, so do your thing.”
In the seventy years since the planars had shown up on Earth, humans still hadn’t quite adjusted. This was planar business and best kept off the human radars. The last thing Ronnie needed was a bunch of cops or, worse, reporters showing up.
Ronnie hung up, dropped the burner, and crushed it under her heel. She wiped the sweat from her forehead, trying to keep her emotions in tight. If this went to plan, she’d finally be out for good.
One last job, she thought as she swung her legs out of the dilapidated car. And then, I’ll finally be free.
She got to work, making a salt circle in a wide berth around the back door. Loud didn’t mean stupid, and she didn’t feel like getting her car torched again. Her hands carved out each rune like clockwork, following some pneumonic device she’d learned long ago. Once she finished, the spell thrummed under her skin, instinctively telling her it would be big enough to convey her message.
Since Frenchie was a grekelhind, the salt would keep him from crossing into the aether. The runes, laced as they were with drake blood and onyx dust, would strip him of his human glamor in a very painful and explosive fashion. The only rub was Ronnie had to be within ten feet of the runes to set the spell off, which was a little too close for comfort.
Fuck, she thought bitterly, trying to center herself long enough to gather the energy and infuse the runes with her essence. I really hate this part. Drawing in a deep breath, she bit her lip and tried not to scream as she sourced the tiny piece of her soul, careful to keep herself in check. One wrong move, and I go down, too. Her soul had been worn down by her line of work, and her humanity was hanging by a thread.
Pain racked her body, but the runes flared with the transferred energy. Her soul pulsed inside her skin, making her shiver. The line between worlds was a tight one. When it was done, she heaved. In the span of a heartbeat, the pain was cast aside, and a steely demeanor painted her posture. With a flourish of grey-green powder, her flesh concealed against the brick exterior wall, leaving her practically invisible.
Waiting out the excessive heat, her thoughts started to wander. Ronnie wondered how the hell she ended up under a dragon who was basically a mob boss—all she’d done was use her magic to try and make a pinch from his horde so she and her sisters could eat. Soul magic was a rare human magic, so of course Vent offered her a choice when he caught her: work jobs only soul magic could accomplish or be lunch.
She’d chosen the former, under the condition she’d stop before her soul dipped below the threshold to keep her human. But with this last marker? The runes and the fade? She was pushing dangerously close to the line she promised herself she’d die before she crossed. Ronnie couldn’t take care of her sisters if she were a monster, now could she?
Time was up.
Activating the markers came quicker now, which was not a good sign. Not willing to think about that, Ronnie sighed, closing her eyes and hoping she wouldn’t blow up anything too important this time.
Whatever his faults, she couldn’t say that Travis wasn’t accurate. Just as he’d predicted, Frenchie came out for his smoke break right on time. And just as she’d hoped, he was too busy lighting up to see the salt-laden runes. By the time he did, it was too late- the grekelhind dropped everything, trying to shift and failing as the magic slammed into him. The lighter’s flame flickered and died on the scorched earth.
With the glamor stripped by her magic, Frenchie’s true form shimmered, and Ronnie couldn’t help but grin at the show. It was fucking loud, the boom shaking the diner to the foundation, the leaves from the trees. She’d left enough space, though, and her car was unscathed.
Even though the runes shielded the humans from her business, there was no hiding the explosion. Was that loud enough for ya, you arrogant prick? Ronnie thought as people began streaming from the diner. Coughing and screaming, the patrons started swarming out of the restaurant, totally oblivious to the writhing grekelhind sputtering and gasping in the back of the building.
Gotta love how they only see what they want to see, Ronnie chuckled, slipping back into the shadows and awaiting her unwelcome boss’s arrival. Still, this one must’ve done something really shitty to get on his hit list... Vent is usually too lazy to get off his ass to do anything himself.
“FUCKING BITCH!” Frenchie’s yell snapped her focus back. He burst into another coughing fit. “What I ever do to you?”
Ronnie was on him in another instant, her iron knife pressed along his abdomen. “Just the hired muscle, asshole.”
Frenchie fumed. “Just the fucking muscle, huh? Same fucking story every time, ain’t it. You damn humans, all high and mighty about outer planar creatures in your space, stealing your jobs, never mind we pay taxes like the rest of you! And then you, you humans, are the ones tapping across the lines and selling your souls drop by drop, but sure, I’m the fucking monster back here, just flipping burgers and trying to feed my fucking family!”
“Firstly, not fully human,” she sneered, pressing the knife closer and watching as a trickle of green blood pooled down the front of his apron. “Secondly, like I said... I’m just the muscle- you got a problem with this, you should take it up with Vent when he comes.”
At that, Frenchie’s eyes went wide. “Vent? HE’S behind this?”
Ronnie grinned, showing her teeth. “Yup.” She flicked her wrist; a flash of fire shaped like a rune -- Vent’s personal calling card -- appeared in the air for a second before disappearing. “And he should be here any minute.”
Most everyone else had run, thanks to the explosion. Some knew planar business could get messy, but curiosity died down years ago. Once people realized trying to make a viral video could end up costing you a literal arm or a leg, the engagement dropped. Only professional snipes chased the conflicts now, and Ronnie always did her best to cut out long before those scavengers showed.
Frenchie licked his lips a few times, all bravado gone once he realized the dragon was coming.“Look, I got money,” Frenchie said nervously, his scales shifting from a rich purple to a sickly pale green. “Money, jewels, whatever you want... Just let me go, pretend you never saw me, kid. You can do that, right?”
“You seem to be under the impression that I give a shit.”
Just then, Vent appeared in a puff of smoke. He looked human enough, dressed in a tailored suit with perfectly groomed hair. “Impeccable work as ever, Ronnie.”
“I live to serve,” she drawled, offering the dragon a mocking curtsy— he ignored it.
Vent adjusted his cufflinks. “Mr. Frenchie. Did you really think you could get away with it?”
“Get away with what?” Frenchie said, and Ronnie couldn’t help a small frown. Grekelhinds’ scales tipped a lot of their emotions and motivations in their colors. All she saw now was fear turning him almost bone white—there was no trace of crimson, which was a clear sign of lies.
Ronnie’s heart dropped into her stomach—she wasn’t a betting woman, but she’d bet the rest of her soul that Frenchie had no idea why Vent was after him.