A Handful of Dust

"I will show you fear in a handful of dust." –TS Elliot, "The Wasteland"

The Double Serpents

Summary: Neben Ka was once a peerless sorcerer in antiquity, feared by god and mortal alike. In the present, he has been reduced to sharing a crumbling apartment with the last descendent of his sworn protectors. Seeking to regain vestiges of his former glory, he turns to criminal enterprises. Roxanne Ryder and her friends are college students by day, and monster hunters by night. When they inadvertently kill drug junkies, they are drawn into a rapidly escalating conflict with an ancient and devious mind.

Into the Breech

A trio of masked assailants formed ranks in the hallway of a decrepit apartment building. Clad in baklavas, padded jackets, and thick jeans, their individual was subsumed beneath their improvised uniforms. In their hands were crossbows and on their hips were various blades. A brief series of beeps came from the walkie-talkie at the leader's hips, signaling the coast was clear. At a gesture from the leader, the entire team turned on the tactical flashlights underneath their crossbows. The physically tallest of the trio let his crossbow hang freely while hefting a massive fire axe. He stood with his shoulders apart, holding the weapon with the skill of an experienced executioner.

He gave a slow-motion chop before the leader gave a thumb's-up. Without hesitation, the axe-head arced through the air until reaching the terminus of its strike, causing the flimsy wood to immediately yield. His heel smashed into the center of the door like a battering ram, and he brought his crossbow up as he charged into the room along the right-handed wall.

As soon as the pointman cleared the doorframe, the leader stormed in with her own crossbow raised. Flanking along the left wall, she inhaled the details of the room while searching for targets. Thick curtains were drawn across the windows and balcony door, darkening the room save for a flickering bulb above them.

In the insufficient illumination, she saw the disarray that greeted her. Stuffing emerged from aging furniture. Dishes covered in leftovers collected flies and grew maggots. Clothing was tossed about the room in no particular order. If she had not been exposed to far worse odors, the stench would have overwhelmed her. When her tunnel vision detected something moving, she aimed her crossbow and fired.

For a split instant, she saw her target stumble backwards in the flashlight as he covered his eyes. The bolt caused her entire weapon to reverberate as it launched and embedded itself deep in the man's chest. He went down far faster than the leader expected, falling limply like a discarded ragdoll. Reaching the corner of the room, she saw the pointman had also emptied his weapon. Another body laid on the floor opposite hers.

A third figure emerged from the bathroom holding a pistol, only to have a crossbow bolt from their rearguard energy his back. Still standing, the hostile struggled to aim the weapon as all three drew melee weapons and charged. Savoring the comfortable heft of her kukri, she saw the pointman's fire axe and the rearguard's cutlass emerge ready while the enemy still reeled.

Much to her dismay, the rearguard had already finished the enemy. Her blade had sliced through half of his neck as he fell to the ground gurgling in a pool of his own blood. She would have lowered her weapon then, if not for an instinct that caused her to turn around. One of the enemies she had written off as dead instead barely made it to his feet and hobbled towards the balcony door.

Cursing to herself, she raised her blade and charged as fast as she could. Ahead of her, the man propped himself on the balcony's edge, as though contemplating suicide. Before she could finish him, an arrow penetrated his neck and killed him. Looking outside at an adjacent balcony, she shot a "thumb's-up" at the archer she had positioned to cover the balcony and beeped him over the walkie-talkie for additional certainty. She pulled the body back inside before removing the head to be sure.

With a gesture, the leader ordered the others to remove the heads and collect their bolts and arrows. The relative ease of their assault caused a sense of unease to rise from the base of her spine to the crown of her head. Checking the bedrooms and bathroom for further hostiles, she used her gloved hand to investigate the mouth of a severed head. Roxanne Ryder partially lifted her baklava, revealing a ruddy face with green eyes and short brown hair.

"There's no fangs or sharpened teeth here," she told her pointman, Sanjay. "I know they revert after death, but not that quick. You find anything?"

"Same," Abby said as she partially lifted her baklava for a closer look, revealing a round Polynesian face with black hair, tan skin, and brown eyes. "I'll check the pockets."

Sanjay partially lifted his own mask as he pulled a briefcase from beneath the sofa, allowing the others to see his dark Indian skin and brown eyes. Within were plastic baggies full of white powder, two bongs made from plastic water bottles, and unmarked prescription drug bottles containing questionable capsules and crystal powder. "I don't think these were vampires," he said in a Singaporean accent.

Abby returned from the bedroom with a black duffel bag, unzipping it to let the others see the contents. Wads of dollar bills held together with rubber bands spilled out of the bag before Abby shoved them back in. "They were hopped up junkies," Roxanne said in a fear-tinged epiphany. "Shit."

The walkie-talkie on her hip began to beep rapidly, signaling Calvin saw police sirens. She was unsure if their antics had resulted in someone calling the police, but she decided to play it cautious. "Grab the bag," she said, lowering the baklava back over her face. "We're leaving."

Weapons sheathed beneath their thick, padded coats, Roxanne led the two others down the hall to the fire escape. Running out the back into the maze of alleyways in the poor part of town, she piled into a van marked "Hodgson Pest Control." A thin boy barely out of his teenage years sat at the wheel, his bow and imitation katana stuffed behind his seat. "Great shot, Calvin," Roxanne said authoritatively. "But we've got to go."

Instead of flooring the accelerator like she expected, Calvin pulled out of the alleyway and onto a road lined with decrepit row houses. Behind them, a police car converged on some unseen prey. Hoping it had not been them, Roxanne held the bag tighter. Counting the money within, she realized there was at least several thousand dollars.

The full magnitude of having mistakenly ended several human lives gradually sunk in over the ride home, resulting in a long and awkward silence. The implications of stealing a bag of undoubtedly illegal cash from its original owners did not haunt Roxanne nearly as much as the nausea from how casually she had dispatched and ended the lives of the fellow humans she swore to protect. The total emotional burden weighed upon her like the gold of Croesus until she vomited in the rear of the vehicle.