The death-mage’s shadow skimmed weed-clotted grass as he walked down the path. Insects hummed from the overgrown garden. The frayed ends of his robes snagged on the heads of weeds. Flower buds greyed and crumbled. The insects fell silent, mid-chant.
The rusted nails and worn planks of the stairs creaked under his worn boots. Old protection wards evaporated at the brush of his shadows. He made his way up to the front door, making as much noise as possible. His tall silhouette blocked the light, painting a sinister shadow across the frosted glass pane. Restless shadows leaked under the door, bubbling with malice.
When he reached for the door, various alarms throughout the weaponized house began to flash and flicker.
He knocked, politely.
Morgred Skinhunter let her breath out in a sigh and set the mug of untasted coffee on the table with a clack. She pushed to her feet, using the armrests as leverage to ease the peak of her huge belly up first. The tattoos and scars on her vastly muscled arms and shoulders bulged and warped as she eased herself vertical with a groan and limped barefoot down the hall.
“Wretched pregnancy,” she grumbled. “Worse than any damn injury.”
The freshly painted hallway and living room walls were lined with picture frames displaying shreds of flayed human skin – most featuring arcane tattoos. She checked the sword on the rack by the door, then chose the gun on the other side instead. Her swollen body and shapeless muumuu hid the gun.
Morgred unlatched the many bolts, locks and keypads one-handed, making a Hellish racket. The door eased open, revealing a sinister cut-out of hooded darkness. She stamped down the instinctive wash of panic and bared her teeth in a smile.
The death-mage flinched. He was exactly her height when she was wearing her combat boots, but he had moved down a step submissively, play-acting as couth and civilized as she was.
“Hi,” she said, brightly.
“Sorry for bothering you.”
“No bother,” she lied. This far into her pregnancy, everything was a bother.
The black of his hood, hair and robes stood in stark contrast to the flames in the sky behind him. It was a fine afternoon in Hell – an ironically named, partially colonized world where only the most desperate fought to retain their Settlers’ Contract.
Somewhere down the street a generator hummed. A street over, a chainsaw roared, hacking back Hellish growth or deconstructing some giant corpse. Morgred watched the death-mage’s gaze flick past her, skimming a career’s worth of macabre art and lingering on her legendary sword. He gallantly avoided looking at her giant belly or floral dress.
“Can I help you?” she prompted. Morgred’s life-coach had told her that was less confrontational then ‘what?’.
The death-mage lifted a piece of colored plastic from his side. A frisbee.
“Your child,” he said, cautiously. “Continues to toss these devices across the fence-line.”
Technically, Milly was not Morgred’s child, but Milly’s therapist had advised Morgred against arguing semantics. Especially when the child in question was lurking just out of sight, eavesdropping.
“I’m sorry,” she said. “I’ll speak to her.” She reached for the frisbee. He lifted it an inch.
“My garden has very delicate plants. They are easily damaged.”
“She’s paying you back for the…” Morgred snapped her fingers helplessly.
“Spike blossom,” he supplied. “Yes, the… er…”
“Ball,” she suggested.
“Yes.” His gaze skimmed off hers. “That was quite a mess.”
“Our backyard is very small. The, er, Hell-Hole thing on the other side…”
“It eats the toys she loses that way, and there’s that vast chasm at the back, so I suppose she sees your fence as the, er, safer side.” What confidence she had collapsed at the irony of that.
His sapphire gaze lifted to hers briefly, shadowed with confusion.
“I am sorry,” she winced. “We are trying to be good neighbors.”
“Of course. I… wasn’t suggesting…” He trailed off, and extended the frisbee in a bandaged, depleted hand.
She took it, very careful not to touch him.
He continued, reluctantly: “I’ve seen her up on the fence, peering over. Seeing where the devices land, I suppose.”
“Oh. Sorry about that.”
“She can see through my discretion screens?”
“That’s part of the problem, I think. The, er, sinister and terror wards don’t affect her.”
His gaze was still sliding across the front of her house, studying weapons and traps.
“Apprenticed as a mage-hunter, yeah.”
His shoulders slumped, dispirited. “The garden is very dangerous. Filled with all manner of deadly and poisonous things. I would hate her to…”
“I’m more concerned for her than the garden.” His voice was tight with the lie. One less mage-hunter would make every mage in Hell sleep better tonight.
Morgred lifted the frisbee and displayed her teeth in another smile. This time he managed not to flinch.
“Thanks for bringing it back.”
Morgred watched him turn, dragging his ragged black robes clear of the weeds growing through the stairs. His shadows defied the angle of the light to whirl ahead of him down the path, eager to be as far from Morgred as possible. She watched him pluck a note-pad and pencil from his robes and cross something off. They had managed a fourth conversation without killing one another. Morgred had met his life-coach – a plump, cheerful blonde.
Morgred relaxed. Maybe her therapist was right. Maybe she could do this? She studied the frisbee. Acid from one of his plants had damaged the edge of it. Malevolent (‘Milly’, her therapist had tactfully suggested) was testing the death-mage’s garden for the safest route to the back door, like any good mage-hunter.
Frisbee in hand, Morgred eased the door half-closed. Her gaze snagged on the dream-board on the back of her door. Front and center was a magazine cutout of a cheap ceramic mug: ‘World’s Best Mum’.
“I’ve got this,” Morgred reminded herself.
She closed the door on Hell and headed back to her coffee.
This story previously appeared in Grace & Victory Anthology – A Quiet Afternoon 2.
Edited by Marie Ginga
Nicole Walsh is a cat enthusiast from the east coast of Australia who loves fern gardens and long dresses. She writes short stories and novel-length speculative fiction and urban fantasy that spans from a little bit dark, a little bit amusing through to a little bit steamy. Visit Nicole at NicoleWalshAuthor.com and on Facebook.