If there’s one thing I hate, it’s speaking in front of a group. That’s why my job is so perfect for me. No reports to give, no presentations to make. I go in, I kill the demons, and I get out. Simple.
So I wished somebody would explain to me what the hell I was doing sitting on a folding metal chair, facing a room of teenage zombies, their greenish faces attentive, as I wiped my sweaty palms on my jeans and waited for my turn to speak. When Tina, the zombie who’d briefly been my apprentice a few months back, asked me to speak to her class for Career Night, the answer had been easy.
“Why not?” she’d demanded, her bottom lip jutting out.
“You’re not my apprentice anymore. You quit, remember? What would be the point of me talking to your classmates about a career that none of them will ever pursue? It would be a huge waste of everyone’s time.”
“But you have to.”
I looked at her, trying to pick one of the several dozen reasons I didn’t have to, just to get started.
“We’ve been working on our career projects all year,” she said. “When I dropped out of school to sing backup for Monster Paul, I was like, ’Yeah, whatever.’ I mean, who thinks about some dumb school project on the road to fame? Then when I went back to classes, it was too late to start over with a new project. My portfolio, my poster, my final paper—it’s all about demon slaying. If you don’t come in and talk to my class, I’ll fail the whole project.”
I doubted that. What teacher would fail a student for being unable to cajole an adult into talking to the class? Yet Tina looked at me earnestly, her bloodred eyes wide. After Monster Paul’s band broke up, she hadn’t shown the slightest inclination to return to school until several encounters with my aunt, Mab, had changed her mind. Mab would be disappointed if Tina dropped out again. I could almost hear her now: “Surely, child, there must have been something you could have done to keep that young lady in school.”
So here I sat, sweaty palms and all, waiting for my turn to speak. It was a typical school classroom: dingy walls, tile floor, a blackboard in the front. A bulletin board held a display about Frankenstein, which the class was reading for English, while career–related posters were taped to the walls and even to the big window at the back of the room. Tina’s poster featured a hand–drawn depiction of a blonde zombie, dressed in black jeans and a pink jacket with sequins glued on, using a flaming sword to battle a skyscraper–sized demon. The ten students, all zombies, were squeezed into chair–desk combos, while their zombie teacher sat behind a big oak desk near the door.
Each speaker got ten minutes, including a few minutes for Q&A. Somehow I’d been appointed to go last. Lucky me. I tried to look like I was paying attention, although anxiety made it hard to focus on others’ words. Even in my leather jacket I was shivering. I didn’t know whether that was from nerves or from the fact that zombies don’t feel the cold, so they don’t bother to heat their buildings. Either way, I was giving new meaning to the phrase “cold sweat.” Again, lucky me.
The first three zombie speakers were all manual laborers: one worked in construction, the other two hauled around boxes in a warehouse. Because of their super strength, zombies are in demand for that kind of work, and it’s what most of the students in this classroom would eventually do for their jobs. All three speakers had brought props: a hard hat, a hand truck, pictures of a forklift. I, on the other hand, was completely propless, utterly bereft of the tools of my trade. I work with weapons, and the school board has a zero–tolerance policy on those. Tina had argued with me, but I’d be the one who had to explain to the Goon Squad why I’d shown up for Career Night armed to the teeth. No, thanks.
The current speaker—I didn’t catch his first name, but I thought his last name was Blegen—was the short–order cook at Munchies, a popular snack shop that serves every kind of junk food a zombie could ever dream of. And that’s a lot of junk food. Zombies are nonstop eating machines; Munchies’s menu is the size of a small city’s phone book. Blegen was discussing the challenges of his job.
“You know what’s hardest?” he was saying. “Onion rings. Mmm, that smell. There’s something about the combination of hot grease and onions . . .” He gazed skyward, his gray–green lips stretched taut in a grimacing smile, as though he were seeing a vision of onion rings at the pearly gates. “When I cook a batch of onion rings . . . man, it is just so easy to forget that I work in a restaurant and the food is for the customers. As soon as those rings come out of the deep fryer, I want to grab them by the handful and stuff the whole basket in my face.”
He could do it, too. Zombies didn’t feel heat, either. A little grease burn wouldn’t bother one at all.
The class sat riveted, devouring his words like . . . well, like onion rings. My nerves kicked up a notch. Damn it, this guy should’ve gone last. The Munchies cook was going to be an impossible act to follow.
A tall, skinny boy with curly red hair raised his hand. “What about pizza?” he asked. “Have you ever made a pizza and then eaten it before the server could take it to a table?”
“Every night.” An excited murmur ran around the room. “For some orders, like double sausage with green peppers and onions and extra cheese—that’s my favorite—I’ve learned to make two pizzas at a time. That way, the waitress has a chance to grab the second while I’m scarfing down the first.”
“Brilliant!” exclaimed the teacher. Mrs. McIntyre, a frizzy–haired zombie with wire–rimmed glasses, wiped her mouth with the back of her hand. She looked like she was considering a career change herself.
Blegen answered a few more questions, then passed out buy–one–get–one–free coupons to the class. “I tried to bring our Munchies super–deluxe chip–and–dip platter to share with you guys, but I got hungry on the way over.” The sigh of disappointment ran so deep that he handed out another round of coupons. Mrs. McIntyre got a couple extra.
The teacher clutched the coupons to her chest, then she looked at the clock and gasped. “Goodness, I’m afraid I let Mr. Blegen go over his allotted time by a few minutes,” she said. I glanced at the clock, above the bulletin board to my right. Only five minutes left. Good. I’d get this over with and then get out of here. I wanted to hear the end–of–day bell every bit as much as I did back when I was in high school. “I do apologize, Ms. Vaughn,” she went on. “Why don’t we skip Tina’s introduction and go straight into the details of . . . er, what is it that you do?”
“No fair!” Tina shouted before I could answer. She stood up. The rhinestones on her T–shirt, which outlined the Playboy bunny, sparkled under the classroom’s fluorescent lights. “Everybody else got to introduce the speaker they invited. I made notes and everything!” She waved a sheet of paper at her teacher.
“We’re running short on time now.” The note of strained patience in Mrs. McIntyre’s voice showed she’d had many dealings with Tina. “Sit down, please. You can hand in your notes to get credit for your introduction.”
“This sucks,” Tina muttered. But she plopped back into her seat.
And then it was my turn. I stood, not surprised that my knees felt a little shaky.
“Hi,” I said. My voice was shaky, too. I cleared my throat, paused, then cleared it a second time. “Hi,” I tried again. Better. “My name is Vicky Vaughn, and my job is a little different from the others you’ve been hearing about tonight. I’m Boston’s only professional demon exterminator.”
“Slayer!” Tina slapped both hands on her desk. “Slay–er. See, that’s why I wanted to introduce you. When you say ’exterminator,’ it sounds like you kill bugs and stuff. That’s just gross. If you want to sound cool, you’ve got to call yourself a demon slayer.”
“Now, now,” Mrs. McIntyre interrupted. “Let Ms. Vaughn talk about her job in her own way.”
“Her own lame way.”
Their back–and–forth had taken up another minute. Just three minutes left before school ended for the night. Almost there.
“So. What my job is . . . I exterminate—or ’slay,’ if you prefer—other people’s personal demons. That’s what I do for a living. There are many kinds of personal demons, but for the most part I deal with three main types. There are dream–demons, called Drudes, which invade people’s dreams to cause nightmares. Drudes feed on fear; that’s why they like to scare people.” I twisted my mouth into a weak smile. “Fear, to a Drude, is kind of like onion rings to Mr. Blegen.”
That got a laugh. Maybe I wasn’t so bad at this.
“How do you kill a nightmare?” the red–haired boy asked.
“I don’t kill the nightmare; I kill the Drudes that cause it. Once the Drudes are gone, the nightmares go away.”
Tina bounced in her seat. “She’s got this awesome machine that gets her inside people’s dreams,” she said. “I followed her into a guy’s dreamscape once. It was freaky.”
Right. She’d followed me, blasted a dream–image of the client’s mother into oblivion, and then set his dreamscape on fire. “Freaky” didn’t begin to cover it. But now wasn’t the time to remind Tina of the havoc she’d caused. I still had two demons left to describe.
“The second kind of personal demon is called an Eidolon,” I said. “A guilt–demon.”
“So that kind feeds on guilt?” asked a girl in the second row.
“Exactly. When a person can’t resolve guilty feelings, an Eidolon may appear to make things worse. When you’ve got an Eidolon, it feels like a giant maggot gnawing at your guts.”
“Eww,” The girl wrinkled her nose. “Tina, I thought you said she didn’t kill bugs.”
Tina rolled her eyes and sank in her chair. She looked like she wanted my presentation to be over almost as much as I did.
Only one minute left before the bell. I pressed on, speaking fast. “Harpies are the third kind of demon. Those are revenge–demons. Unlike Drudes and Eidolons, which are attracted by a person’s emotions, Harpies must be conjured by a sorcerer. If you’ve got an enemy with some spare cash—well, a lot of spare cash—your enemy might pay a sorcerer to send some Harpies against you.”
“What do they look like?”
Before I could answer, the bell rang. Students gathered up their books. It was over. I breathed a sigh of relief.
Bang! Glass shattered as something crashed through the window.
Kids screamed and crouched in their seats, covering their heads as the glass sprayed everywhere.
A large, feathered body hurtled into the classroom, clawed feet first. Huge talons, sharp as spikes, reached for me, aiming for my chest.
I dropped and rolled, and the Harpy hit the wall. It bounced off the blackboard and landed hard on the floor.
“Awesome!” Tina shouted. “You did bring a prop!” She ran to the front of the room.
“No, I . . .” My voice trailed off as I concentrated on the invader.
The Harpy shook itself and stood. I reached into my boot for a dagger. Nothing. That stupid zero–tolerance policy meant score zero for the demon slayer.
“Okay.” Tina’s voice took on a lecturing tone. “So, as you can see, a Harpy has the body of a large bird. Like a vulture—at least, it sort of reminds me of the vultures you see in cartoons.”
The Harpy sprang back into the air to take another dive at me. On my knees now, I grabbed my folding metal chair and swung. That knocked the demon back, but it locked its talons around the chair and yanked it from my hands. Before I could react, it crumpled the chair into a ball of twisted metal and tossed it aside. The Harpy landed and, almost too fast to see, ran at me.
I shoved it hard in the chest. The Harpy whipped its head to the side, and its beak gouged a bite from my right arm. I pulled away before one of the snakes that hissed out from its scalp could latch on to my flesh. I sat, drew back both legs, and kicked. The Harpy took to the air, hovering near the ceiling and shrieking.
Tina raised her voice over the din. “As you can see, Harpies have Medusa heads, with snakes for hair and everything, except instead of mouths they have beaks.” She paused. “Oh, crap. I shouldn’t have said, ’As you can see.’ Don’t look at its face. Just like Medusa, it’ll paralyze you with fear. If one of those snakes bites you, that paralyzes you, too. Oh.” Another pause. “I guess I should’ve mentioned that part about not looking earlier.” He voice brightened. “Except this way I guess everyone will stay until the end of Vicky’s demonstration. Sweet.”
A quick glance around the classroom showed Tina’s warning had come a bit late. All the students, plus the teacher, plus the career–day guests, were as immobile as lumps of rock. Except for mine and Tina’s, everyone’s eyes were fixed on the demon’s head. Mrs. McIntyre stood beside her desk, her hands clutching her skirt, a statue of an anxious high school teacher.
I stood and grabbed her vacated chair and hoisted it. I poked at the air, keeping the chair between me and the Harpy like a lion tamer. I watched the Harpy’s body, its great flapping wings, but avoided looking at its face.
“Harpies usually attack in threes,” Tina was saying, “but I guess Vicky figured that would be overkill for a classroom demonstration. Also, it’s really awesome that we can see this Harpy. I mean, okay, it’s not all that awesome for those of you who are paralyzed right now. But Harpies usually stay in the demon plane, becoming visible only to the victim. When one’s fully materialized like this, it means—” She turned to me. “Um, Vicky, how come we can all see it?”
The Harpy shrieked out its battle cry and dived at my head.
“Because it’s trying to kill me!” I shouted, batting at the Harpy like it was an ugly, oversized piñata. The chair made contact, slamming the demon to the back of the room and out through the broken window. Its howls grew distant.
I stood, panting, still holding the chair.
“Yeah, that’s what I thought,” Tina said. “Just like when that crazy sorcerer dude sent all those Harpies to attack the Halloween parade. Everyone could see them because they were told to kill.” She turned toward the broken window. “So is that it? The Harpy’s gone? How come nobody’s moving yet?”
Before I could answer, the Harpy blasted back into the classroom. Tina ducked, but it flashed past her. Once a Harpy locks on to its victim, it ignores everything else. And this one was sure as hell locked onto me.
I swung the chair again, but the demon swerved at the last minute and went around behind me. It landed on my shoulders. I wriggled them, trying to keep its talons from digging into my jacket. I dropped the chair and put both arms over my face, shielding it from the snakes’ fangs. Then I reached back and got my right hand around one of its legs. I pulled hard and flung the demon away from me. It flew back up toward the ceiling.
Tina pinched her nose. “Oh, and in case you’re wondering what that smell is,” she said, “that’s the Harpy. They stink like garbage and rotten eggs and I don’t even know what else. That’s why Vicky puts eucalyptus oil in her nostrils before she fights a Harpy, to cover up the smell.” She turned to me. “You know, you could’ve warned us you’d be bringing a real Harpy for show–and–tell,” she scolded. “It’s not as much fun when I feel like puking.”
The Harpy dived again. I somersaulted, and it crashed to the floor. It leapt into the air, jumping over me and landing on my left ankle. Talons dug through my jeans and into the thick leather of my boot. They didn’t penetrate to my skin, but this time the Harpy had a strong grip on me. I kicked. The demon spread its wings for balance; its beak tore into my leg. Cloth ripped, and pain slashed through my thigh. A moment later, I felt the sting of a snake bite. My leg went numb.
“To fight a Harpy,” Tina was saying, “it’s best to use bronze bullets. You want to kill the demon before it can get close to you. As Vicky is demonstrating for us, once a Harpy gets its claws into you, you’ve got a real problem.”
No kidding. My left leg, useless as a fallen log, now merely served as a perch for the Harpy. I kicked at the demon with my right leg, trying to knock it off while avoiding its beak. I smashed the sole of my boot into its beak and chest, but its grip only tightened. Its beak slashed my right calf, and I pulled my leg back to keep it out of range of the snakes.
The Harpy hopped up my paralyzed leg, digging its talons in above and below my knee. It was trying to make its way to my torso, where it would rip into my abdomen to feed on my guts. I kept kicking. I was not going to be disemboweled as the finale to Career Night.
Still kicking with my good leg, I worked my arms out of my jacket. If I could wrap the thick leather around the Harpy, I might be able to trap it long enough to wrestle it into a locker. With the demon encased in metal, a quick containment charm would hold it in place while I figured out how to finish it off.
I shrugged off the jacket as the Harpy inched up my leg. I was running out of time. Keeping my gaze slightly to the right of the Medusa head, I waited for it to strike. Tina’s voice droned on. I wasn’t listening to her, I was listening for the soft, guttural clucking that a Harpy makes when it’s about to feed.
The Harpy lunged forward to strike, and I threw my jacket over its head. It shrieked with fury as I wrapped it up in the jacket. Keeping the head covered, I clasped the demon in a bear hug, pushing with my good leg so I rolled over on top of it. It bucked and writhed, but I held it.
Now to stuff it into a locker. Not so easy to do with only one working leg.
“Tina,” I said. “I need your help. We have to—”
“I thought you’d never ask,” she said. “We were only supposed to get ten minutes, you know.” But she didn’t come over. She kept talking to the class. “Now, if you don’t have bronze bullets, you need a bronze blade of some sort. Bronze is like poison to demons. So—”
The Harpy heaved, almost bucking me off.
“Tina!” I shouted. “We’ve got to imprison this Harpy. I don’t have a bronze blade.”
“But I do,” she said. She pulled a six–inch bronze dagger from her backpack. “You told me you wouldn’t bring a weapon into school, so I did.”
Bless the girl. And zero tolerance be damned.
“Toss it to me.” I tried to hold out a hand so she could throw me the knife, but the Harpy’s frenzied movements were too wild. I had to grab the demon again before it threw me off.
Tina sauntered over. The Playboy bunny on her shirt winked as she bent to examine the situation.
“I’m going to pull back the edge of the jacket,” I said. “Just a little. When I do, stab the exposed part—”
Before I could finish, a taloned foot worked its way out from under the jacket. The bronze blade flashed as Tina stabbed upward, under the jacket, spearing the Harpy in its leg.
It let out a furious shriek, loud enough to make all the demons of Hell cover their ears.
“Good!” I shouted. “Move the blade around. Maximize contact with the bronze.”
Tina made a face. “It’s getting, like, all mushy.” She pinched her nose again. “And it smells even worse.”
“That’s exactly what we want.” The Harpy’s struggles were getting weaker. “Give me the dagger. I’ll finish it off.”
Tina pulled the dagger from the Harpy’s body. Black slime dripped from the blade in long, gooey strings. The smell was eau de sulfur, accented with notes of rotting garbage, decaying flesh, and vomit. Tina handed me the dagger, then covered her nose with both hands and backed away.
Keeping the Harpy’s head firmly wrapped in my jacket, I exposed its body. Its wings flapped weakly, without the strength to lift it into the air. I raised the dagger high and drove it straight down into the demon. And then again. And again. With each blow, the Harpy got smaller. Its cries grew fainter, its movements more feeble. In a minute, all that remained was a still, deflated body in a stinking puddle of demon guts.
As soon as the Harpy was dead, the class came back to life. Zombies blinked and coughed. They stretched and looked around. “Dude,” someone muttered. “I feel like I’ve been reanimated all over again.”
Feeling was creeping back into my leg, but I couldn’t yet get it under me to stand. Tina came forward and put out a hand. I reached out so she could help me up, but instead she plucked her dagger from my hand. She faced the class and brandished it.
“And that,” she declared, “is how you slay a demon.”