A Joyful Heart

Summary: Matthew Murphy and Jada Jackson are Marked by otherworldly forces, charged with battling the forces of Hell. After a strange vision, they must protect an newfound ally before a supernatural killer strikes again.

No matter where or how you live, there comes a point where you can't go home again. For me, it began a month ago, after strange Amharic characters appeared on my hands. I met an amazing woman, my girlfriend Jada, but I made an enemy of Hell itself. Things got stranger since then, despite my attempts otherwise.

I worked in construction, as site manager. After an attempt on my life, I went back to work the following week, pretending that nothing happened. Despite my best attempts, it didn't work. The site manager wanted to suspend work after my coworker Greg was murdered, even though the police were finished going over the site. My friend Manny bailed resigned for another company, wisely wanting nothing to do with this old job. I saw new faces, but I did not even bother to learn their names. I was a living ghost, drifting between alien souls.

I morosely wondered for a moment about even working. I'd continued my routines, even doing them more intensely. I seemed to run for longer in my morning jogs. I seemed to absorb even more information from the podcasts I read. I seemed to have more ideas for things to build, and how to build them more easily. I seemed to think of Jada more often, and all the wonderful things we'd do on nights we could go home together. Life was more vivid, more intense, as though I'd become aware of some integral part of the

I wondered if it was love or shock. In my case, the symptoms seemed simpler. My old job was a dead fugue, a gray miasma that I felt as distant as photographs of days and places long gone. After exercising and cleaning up, I still left home each morning before the sun rose, riding my moped to the construction site. I remember those lonely, deserted streets, how I was like some apocalyptic survivor crossing a desolate world.

I recalled one morning, I was listening to a podcast on New Urbanism, on how pedestrian friendly streets created a more welcoming environment. I lived in the soulless suburban sprawl that blighted American cities like cancerous polyps blighted a healthy body. In Europe, the central cities were more affluent, owing to the massive rebuilding after the Second World War. There were exceptions to both, like the surprising Mormon fixation with urban planning in Utah and the car-filled streets of the former Soviet countries, but I focused on how isolating it felt. Other than Jada, I had no one in Pittsburgh. My parents retired to Florida, my older brother barely talked to me, and my old friends all moved away for college or other reasons. Here I was, a lonely soul in a doomed world.

I saw a utility van emerge from an alleyway, a white and bloated thing that drove with the grace of a beached whale. It rattled and clanked as though it would fall apart at any second. It was like the used car my dad trained me to drive in, a fossil on wheels better suited for a museum than open road. It pulled up behind me at a red light, and I felt something amiss. It was like a titanic beast moved up behind me, an apex predator sizing up a rival. I turned right, and it followed me. I could not see the driver, but part of me did not want to. Eye contact with someone who'd kill me would not end well.

I heard the van's engine roar to life. I looked behind me and saw the van lingered further back than I anticipated. I detected a certain hesitation, as the van's driver pressed down the brake. All they had to do was to lift their foot, and they'd speed forward and run me down. While I could try to evade on my moped, the street was too narrow to escape. I felt my muscles tense as I accelerated towards the end of the narrow one-way street. The van moved behind me.

I made a right, and then another, so that I doubled back on my original route. The van was gone, but I could not shake the lingering feeling that some terrible harm was narrowly averted. That van sounded like a rolling jump heap, but the engine was perfectly functional. All sorts of creeps roamed the roads at night, and I felt I'd just encountered one. Nevertheless, I forced myself to think it was a random encounter. Nevertheless, I decided to go with my gut. I gathered my things from work and left that day for good. The site owner was going to suspend construction anyway, so we were all just wasting time. Good riddance.

On my way back, I expected that creepy van to follow me home. I thought I'd be stalked by somebody, gangsters, crooked cops, mad cultists, somebody. But it was only the regular rush hour rogue's gallery of irate drivers and honking horns. I fortunately left on the earlier side, so I avoided the worst of it. I traveled to Saint Barbara's Parish, the Catholic church I sometimes worked part time at. I ran a small workshop in the basement, where I was finishing up a personal project.

I locked the door before retrieving the key component. I'd left it to soak in a small container of holy water, a plastic tub half-buried under a pile of wires. I pushed them aside and pulled it up. It was like a reverse baptism, as it reflected the basement lights. Strange characters pulsed along my arms, sinuous words unseen by all human artifice or instruments. The part I gingerly held flashed in golden, geometric patterns, resonating with the ones on my arms.

It was the pipe shotgun I'd modified since its first use. It was made of particularly robust, corrosion resistant pipes, so I did not fear soaking it in holy water. What was just a step up from zip gun was now a proper weapon. The longer pipe now made two shorter barrels, arranged in an over-under configuration. It was joined by a hinge to a pistol grip, which contained two triggers and firing pins. The whole thing was compact, but solid enough to bludgeon someone. Barbara was the patron saint of thunder, fire, and artillery, so she'd be a worthy namesake for a shotgun. Besides, plenty of fictional heroes used double-barreled shotguns against evil. Now, I had one, too.

Groovy.

I heard a knock at the door, and I slipped my handmade shotgun into to a drawer. It was technically legal, but easy for others to misunderstand. I looked at the ancient clock that hung from the wall, and I knew who it could be. It was almost time for the women's self-defense class, and the main instructor would be arriving. I opened the door and saw a wiry, muscular black woman. Jada stepped inside and closed the door behind her.

"Still playing with your gun in here?" she asked, grinning. "Or just firing blanks?"

"Only full power loads here," I replied. "Anyway, I finished your new toy. I call it the Crucifer, after the altar server that carries the cross in a Catholic Mass."

The device was a small tank of compressed air, a supplemental scuba diver's tank, connected to a pneumatic nailgun. It discharged 18-gauge brad nails like a machinegun, since I'd removed the safety and modified the trigger. It was more ergonomic than it appeared, since I'd added a lighter piston in the interior and re-weighted the grips. Jada would be able to hold it in one hand with little extra effort, and use her reproduction British 1796 Pattern Infantry Officer's blade in her other hand if she wanted. I'd considered making a submachinegun, but I wanted something quieter and able to hold more ammunition.

Her blade was dangerous enough. Inside the handle was a carbon dioxide powerlet, which fed through a narrow channel in the blade to inflate the guts of anyone it punctured. I added a reinforced button to prevent compressed gas leakage. This way, it could be used multiple times before changing the gas cartridge. The last time Jada used it, the entire cartridge was used, and the results were very, very messy. Now, it had a suitably agonizing longer-ranged companion.

"How was work?" she asked.

"I left for good," I said, debating how to bring up the van incident. "Something weird happened on the way to work."

I explained the van incident to her. Her eyes widened in rapt attention. Her postured turned erect and tense, like a jungle cat stalking prey. She breathed slowly and deliberately, as if any could be her last. She kept her eyes trained on me for the duration of my explanation, save an occasional glance towards the stairs up. I saw the sigils on her arm glow, the Amharic characters mirroring my own.

"We should leave town," she said. "We need to find somewhere to lay low, somewhere we can get our bearings."

It was good to know she came to the same conclusion I did. This did not mean we'd flee from whatever scumbags lurked around Pittsburgh, but it meant a temporary, tactical withdraw to a safe haven to plot and plan. From my encounter today, I'd got the feeling that they'd already found us. Two of our enemies already tracked us down to St. Barb's, so it was logical to assume they knew more about us. If they knew where we hung out, they definitely could find out where we worked and lived.

"Do you have any savings?" I asked. "I've got some."

"Not as much as I'd like," Jada said. "But the loot from Nick's vault could keep us going for a while."

"It'll still run out one day, especially with no income."

"Fortunately, both our jobs are in demand worldwide," she said. "Although, I think you could be a good machinist."

"And you, a good fitness instructor," I said. "You never run out of stamina."

"Hah. You last longer than a race horse," she said, slapping my rear. "But I fear we can't rest so easily."

I felt a warm sensation creep up my arm. Jada's hand caressed my forearm, and I saw her arm flash in synchronicity with mine. Something crawled up my spine, a sensation not easily translated to words. It was a vibrancy, an excitement like that of my younger self sitting in front of a table full of birthday presents. Jada's eyes widened, and she clasped my hands tighter. Something overtook our vision, our touch, our smell, and the remaining senses.

I felt beads of sweat slicken my palms. A burner phone, an old flip one, almost slipped out of my frantic hands. I paced back and forth nervously as I heard the ringing on the other end. I felt heavy, belabored breathing in my chest. I felt a certain heft to my body, like my limbs were heavier than I remembered. In a mirror on an unfamiliar wall, I saw the body I occupied was not my own.

He was a tall black man, strong but overweight. He had a slight growth of beard on him, but photographs around the room revealed a rounded, clean shaven face from his youth. He wore a white tee-shirt with an anime character on it, a samurai with drawn sword. A samurai sword, a katana, hung on a nearby wall, but I could not tell if it was functional or just a decorative replica. He spoke with a deep, stentorian voice when someone answered the phone.

"Hey, Kendo here," he said. "The Vet's van is moving again. My plate readers saw it heading downtown this morning."

"Oh, shit!" came a panicked voice on the end. "He's here!"

The line went dead, and Kendo cursed under his breath. He frantically tried to dial again. As he waited for the other person to pick up, I saw a printout hanging from the wall. It read "CompTIA Security+" on it, with the name, "Ken Obogun" on it. I thought I saw a business card with the same name beneath it, but I did not glimpse it for long. Given his apparent interests, I could imagine where the nickname Kendo might've come from. He tried to call once more, but there was response. The abortive call terminated, and I awoke back in my body.

The Amharic characters on our arms glowed a particular series of characters I could strangely read. "Friend," I read aloud. "Ally."

"And we have to help him," Jada said. "Or I think so."

"I got that feeling, too," I said. "He mentioned someone called the Vet and a strange van."

"This is no coincidence, Matt," Jada said. "It's orders."

"We don't know how to contact him, or what he's after."

"I thought I saw a business card," Jada said. "Look him up online."

In the corner of the workshop was a computer, and I opened an internet browser. I searched for Kendo, his real name, and his certificate. I skimmed over the top results. Apparently, his certificate was a cybersecurity credential. He was a consultant for hire, at least according to the most recent results we found. Fortunately, we found a number on his website. Jada jotted it down, and I pulled out my own old phone.

Jada glared at me, and she handed me another.

"Oh, right," I said, remembering. "Burner."

Even with a burner phone, I hesitated for a moment. A thousand doubts surged into my mind, like a swarm of ravenous locusts. How would he react to us? We'd be two random strangers calling him up, who seemed to know him. Suspicion would be the best-case scenario. He could just hang up on us, or try to track us down. Anyone spying on him would be alerted to his, or to our, locations. I never made that call, though.

I smelled it before I saw it. It reminded me of moldy clothes and dead rats. It came sprinting down the stairs, snarling from all three mouths. Yellowing, jagged teeth slavered rivulets of drool and puss as its four festering paws bounded down the narrow stairs. Six beady, bulging eyes met my own gaze, radiating an otherworldly hatred. A yell escaped my lips, and a pestilent odor assaulted my nostrils. The filth-beast sprinted towards us, and I felt my arms stumbling for a weapon. Jada slipped something heavy and metal into my hands as another appeared. It growled as I snapped the breach closed.

Barbara thundered, and barked back. Several things sent me stumbling backwards: an instinct to avoid those rancid, filthy fangs; the staggering recoil of two shells discharged simultaneously; the urge to shield Jada; and the spray of polluted bile. My shotgun painted a putrid arabesque on the floor, issuing from what used to be the beast's central head. My mind was still comprehending the beast and its form when I felt Jada pull me back.

I felt my balance betray me as I ingloriously fell on my back like an overturned turtle. I turned towards Jada, who deftly danced around its snapping jaws. The tattoos on her forearms glowed, seemingly to reflect in her deep brown eyes. In one hand, she had her sword. In the other hand, she held the Crucifier. Her sword moved like a tailor's needle, reflecting the black, sunken eyes of the creature before it. Like a bull before a matador, she was toying with it.

I grabbed the box of shells from the drawer I'd hidden them. My fingers fished futilely for ammunition, but Jada held her own. I heard the release of pressurized air, a pneumatic hammering that I'd grown accustomed to at work. I heard a canine whimper as the beast reared back. I heard another discharge, and then a series, of which I could not discern individual releases. The hellhound whimpered and whined, before Jada jammed her sword into between two of its heads. She grinned wickedly, and pushed the hidden button.

It exploded a split second later, painting my workshop in carnage. A chunk of gangrenous flesh, punctured by nails in several places, flew beside my head. I covered my hands, in a futile effort to avoid more filthy fluids spraying over me. The explosion of necrotic tissue and infected organs was far larger than my humble shotgun. Whatever power Jada was channeling, it was far more intense than mere compressed air. Now the threat was removed, she looked at me and chuckled.

"We can't stay here anymore," I said. "And we can't come back."

Normally, I'm not a fan of leaving a mess for someone else to clean up. It was like the time as a kid, I babysat my neighbor's cat while they traveled. The cat crapped outside the litterbox sometimes, and I'd have to clean up after it. I remembered the way I'd always be coughing and sneezing from the cat fur, but I forced myself to clean it up. Something about these creatures, these monsters, made my skin crawl like some invisible allergen. The dead things irritated me, but it was not merely their monstrous appearance or steaming guts. A tinge of sadness, an uncontrolled pathos, ambushed me when I saw what they were.

Or rather, what they had been.

The symbols on my arms glowed. I saw the scars along their sides, infected sutures at the base of their necks. Each of the beasts, these hellhounds, was once a canine. The other two heads were grafted from other dogs, different breeds and ages than the main body. Red, infected flesh smelled of rot and gangrenous decay. The scarred head of a cocker spaniel was crudely stitched onto the side of the bloody stump that had once been a Doberman's head. On the other side was the head of a golden retriever, soaked dark brown from dried blood. I pressed the muzzle of the gun closer to the bloody stump that was once its neck. I found myself in the body of an animal.

I felt agony, from every part of my body. I felt narrow cage bars press against a distinctly canine body. I heard the whimpering of whipped dogs, their fur falling off in clumps. Their ribs nearly poked through their bruised, paper-thin skin. A gloved hand reached towards a dog with broken legs, a rusty scalpel in hand. The grim scene vanished, and I pressed my head in my hands. I tried making sense of what I saw, as best I could.

"Someone's making these," I said. "These Cerberus knockoffs. These abominations."

"With this much infection, they still managed to survive long enough to get us," Jada said.

"I don't think they did," I said. "You can feel it too, can't you? It's something evil keeping these poor, mutilated mutts moving."

Jada looked down, silently nodding in agreement. However, she was not one to reflect on the macabre discovery. With her weapons in hand, she bolted up the stairs, likely hoping to catch whoever had unleashed them on us. I reloaded Barbara and chased after her. I smelled the odor of decay, of putrefying flesh, rise from the basement behind us. She threw opened the front door, only to hear a distant vehicle speeding away. It was a motor I recognized from this morning, but my mind was elsewhere. I breathed in the fresh air, greedily gulping it in as Jada did the same.

"It's not safe here," she said. "We need to go."

I nodded. I descended into the basement, hoping to gather our things. I had mentally been preparing for this moment, perhaps unknowingly, since this all started a few weeks ago. Now, my stashing and caching was paying off. I already had my toolbox ready to go, a heavy metal container with hand tools, spare parts, and assorted items. Jada was of the same mind, following behind me with her duffle bag. As I gathered my things, I glanced once more at the dead hellhounds. I wished I hadn't.

The canine carcasses rotted at a rapid rate, sloughing flesh with unnatural alacrity. Flesh dried and shriveled like rotten fruit. Beneath the sullen skin and sunken eyes was a layer of maggot-eaten musculature. Muscles and tendons went taught, snapping like old rubber bands. Beneath them, bone went brittle and fragile, before disintegrating into dust in an unseen breeze. Not a single trace of the abominations remained, saved the impacts my and Jada's weapons in the surrounding floor. I would have stared longer, had Jada not yanked me up the stairs.

I'd let Saint Barb's know I'd not be coming back later, but they'd undoubtedly find the bullet holes and nails in the wall one day. Better to run today, than be trapped tomorrow. The disgusting hellhounds' remains vanished in mere minutes, and I did not fully grasp the implications at the time. Adrenaline narrowed my vision, and survival instinct moved my legs. Something was at our heels, literally and figuratively. I carried my things into the parking lot, and I hopped onto my waiting moped. I let Jada and her car carry the heavier loads. We'd need to live out of that for a time.

It was a short trip back to my apartment, where I gathered the remainder of my things. Jada lived out of a car for over a year once, so she'd been ready to go for a while. As a relative neophyte to the nomadic lifestyle, I hoped I'd manage it as well as she did. I knew I would not be coming back to this place, but I didn't have a formal lease, anyway. I rented the room from a former coworker's relative, so vanishing overnight would not arouse too much suspicion. I'd planned to move out soon anyway.

I mentally found myself running down the weapons we had: my new shotgun Barbara, my grandpa's suppressed HDM, Jada's Crucifer, her Walther, her sword, and whatever I could pull out of my toolbox. It was an appreciable arsenal, but nothing against organized opposition. This Vet, or whomever was coming for us, didn't want to stick around to see if his pets failed. That was a small comfort, although it meant he was free to continuing torturing and mutilating more dogs into undead hellhounds. Either way, we'd have to confront him before he struck again. If he knew about us at St. Barb's, then he probably knew where I lived.

I looked around my apartment one last time. It was a small room at the side of my landlord's house, which a fenced in facsimile of a larger yard. Beside a willow tree and chain-link fence, it was almost quaint. Instead, I ignored it and threw opened the door. Jada waited in her car. I left my moped here, since it would be too slow for where we needed to go. I already packed my things into two bags. I went inside and grabbed them. I came outside with my roller bag and backpack, only to hear the car horn and a visitor standing on the front lawn.

I recognized him from my vision. He was a bit taller than I thought he'd be in person. He waved his hands in the air like he was trying to flag down a passerby, but he made eye contact with Jada, and then myself. His round face and wide eyes gave a certain credibility to his desperate waving, like he was trying to warn us of some mortal peril. For all I knew, he was. Jada slowly approached him, her hands empty and visible. He was excited, but probably not hostile.

"Excuse me, ma'am," Kendo said, looking at Jada, and then me. "And sir."

"Kendo, is it?" I asked, extending my hand. I carefully reached for words, selecting each like a dangerous power tool. "We have some mutual friends. The Vet just tried to kill us."

His eyes went wide for a second, and he ceased his frantic waving. He slowly walked towards a vehicle parked nearby. It was a beige Toyota Camry, a vehicle about as generic as they came. In other words, the perfect vehicle to blend in to almost any road, any town, or any place in North America. He opened the passenger side, and he pulled out a small briefcase. Inside was a laptop computer, which he set down on the hood of the car.

"Why don't we do this elsewhere?" Jada said. "Like away from the street?"

"Just a minute," Kendo said. "As you probably know, I'm Ken Obogun, cybersecurity consultant."

"How do you know about us, and who exactly is the Vet?" Jada asked, her voice rising in intensity.

"I worked for a corporate client who maintained an offsite database, just a simple MySQL implementation," Kendo explained. "It was a metadata from Federal agencies, and sent them to a series of dark web proxies."

I knew less on computer networks than I did on electronics, so I let Ken continue. I simply nodded in agreement. I visualized a sort of sieve, channeling water into a small channel that vanished into the ground. I thought I saw the sigils on my arms glowing, as though they were trying to interpret his description in imagery familiar to me. It was not unlike what happened when I studied the hellhound carcass.

"It was a real rush job, but I did the best I could," he said. "Until I saw something I wasn't supposed to."

"What?" Jada asked, accusingly.

"Names, addresses, personal info. And I noticed those people started dying."

"And you tried to warn someone?" Jada asked.

He nodded. "A local reporter, who was about to expose a sham cult."

I had a gut instinct into whom he referred to. The scam minister there was able to identify where I worked, so I presumed they were able to track me from my employment records.

"I have a backdoor into their network. Your names came up."

"Thanks for the warning," Jada said. "But the only way to make this stop is to go after the person doing the killing."

"The Vet."

"What do you know about him?"

I saw an involuntary shudder run down Kendo's arms, goosebumps rising in their wake. I never met him face to face, but Kendo's wide, fearful eyes told me everything I needed to know. "Is he some kind of military veteran?" I asked.

"What I know is he's a veterinary medicine dropout named Michael Carver," Ken answered. "He abuses attack dogs, and he uses them to murder people my former client wants dead."

"He does worse than that to those dogs," I said. "Whatever he does, it ain't natural."

"He was stalking us in his van, and he just sent his dogs after us," Jada said. "We took two down."

Ken strangely perked up. His eyes widened, in excited, rather than fear. The slight grin on his face betrayed a latent, slumbering optimism I would've scarcely thought him capable of a moment ago. His panic receded, although tempered by caution. I sensed him sizing us up, as though we'd be capable of far more than he thought. He regained his composure, clearing his throat before continuing to speak. "T-that's the first time I've heard of anything like that!"

"Hopefully not the last," I said, quipping. "If he can make beasts, we can break them."

"Tell us where he lives, and he'll never harm anyone again," Jada said.

Kendo wrote a small address on a notebook. "Many contacts died to find this," he said, sighing. "And no one that went there ever returned."

"Never gone to the cops?" I asked.

"Not with how I acquired my information," he said. "And whoever the Vet is, he has powerful friends."

"Now, so do you," I said, giving him a raised thumb. "Do you need protection?"

Kendo pointed into the backseat of his car, revealing a samurai sword propped against the back seat. He lifted up his shirt, revealing a concealed holster with a snub revolver inside, the sort a noir detective would use. His hands were shaky and uncertain, so perhaps best he didn't use it without more training. An unfamiliar weapon could be as dangerous to its user as its target, but I knew Kendo would avoid a fight.

"If we survive, we'll give you a rendezvous location," I said. "If we don't get back to you by tomorrow morning, leave town."

Kendo nodded grimly. He stepped into his car, and he drove off without further ado. I looked around, hoping we hadn't been observed. We'd tallied too long outside, without the anonymity of crowds or solitude of nature. I climbed into Jada's car, and I looked up the address we were given. It was time to give the Vet his medicine, before we became his next patients. I looked at the clock on the dashboard, reading "1722."

I thought of Proverbs 17:22: "A joyful heart is good medicine, but a crushed spirit dries up the bones." I don't know how I remembered it. There was little time for reflection. I felt a compulsion to end this threat, before he had a chance to dig in a like a wounded beast. He probably didn't expect us to survive our encounter with his creatures. He might've gotten joy from his sick experiments, but I would get more from giving a final mercy to those poor creatures.

The Vet's house was an unremarkable two-story house in an equally unremarkable subdivision. I recalled a crime podcast I listened to, where a former burglar described how he cased a place by driving around in front of it, getting a feel for when the owners would be out. I wish I could describe some ingenuous, complex heist, or some masterful disguise. Such stealth was not an option for us, since we both knew we had to end it fast.

To give the enemy time would allow them to prepare and counterattack. If they knew us, they potentially knew our friends and family. After the Vet was dead, we'd have to warn them and disappear. This was our last sojourn as Matt, construction manager, and Jada, physical trainer. After this, we'd be ghosts in the system, fitting between fake identities and precarious escapades. In a sense, I'd now had the perfect reason to leave Pittsburgh and see the world. But I had to see the end of today, first.

We parked a few blocks away, at an empty strip mall. On the way over, I arranged two backpacks to hide most of our gear, although Jada slipped her sword sheath between her bag and back, concealing it beneath a jacket. We looked like two average locals, maybe college students, walking down the street. Part of infiltration, as I recalled from a podcast interviewing an intelligence officer, was not mere stealth. It was going in like you owned the place.

Jada and I walked past it, and it was disturbingly normal. There was a slightly overgrown front lawn, a few trees growing in the back, and a small chain link fence around the rear. It was painted a generic white, with black framed shutters. The windows on both floors were obscured, and I wondered what horrors awaited us beyond them. There was a driveway but no garage, with a familiar van parked out front. It was a potential way our target could escape, so we had to deal with it first.

Jada slashed all four tires, each with a single, fluid cut from a small knife she carried. We'd save the bigger weapons for once we got inside. A frontal assault would be too risky, so we decided to go around back. We strolled through the unlocked side gates in the waist-high chain link surrounded the backyard. I wondered if the Vet didn't bother locking them because he didn't care about escaping animals, or because he wanted to entice would be burglars into his house, more victims for him to experiment on and vivisect. Either possibility had its more disturbing implications.

I saw the back door was unlocked, and I loaded Barbara with subsonic slugs. Anything too loud would deafen me in those tight corridors, and that would mean critical seconds if another hellhound charged me. I threw opened the door, and I heard barking. The vet knew we were here, and he had at least one pet with him. I hoped that was the extent of his reinforcements. Those hopes were wrong. My shotgun in hand, I charged into his den with double-barreled companion ready. Jada flanked along the other wall, her Crucifer in one hand and sword in the other. I heard something bounding towards us, and then another set of footsteps.

Two hellhounds sprinted down the hallway, each an undead assemblage of canine parts. The bodies did not quite match the legs they sprinted on, and the heads moved slightly askew as they sniffed and scanned. Instead of imposing and intimating, these looked pitiful. The first of the patchwork pooches sprinted into two barrels discharging slugs, while the second received a salvo of nails to its neck before a familiar blade punctured its throat. Its guts exited through its sides and rear as Jada released the compressed gas, causing the animal to yelp and whimper.

I glanced at my surroundings as I reloaded. The house was filled with faded old furniture, reeking of mildew and mold. That was before the odor of putrefying, pureed pets hit. There was a small kitchen that showed signs of use, with little effort being made to clean the overflowing dishes that filled the sink. Whatever occurred in this house was rotten on many, many levels. Footfalls above us caused me to sprint towards the stairs. They were the only way out, unless the Vet wanted to jump out a window.

I was about to charge up the stairs when something humungous bounded down it. I thought it was a dog at first, but it moved in an almost feline way. Its trunk-like torso pounced towards us like a boulder in an avalanche, and its limbs were far longer than a dog's. The three slavering heads, though, were very much canine. I gave it both barrels, but my frantic shot went wild. The beast plunged through the air onto me, just as a figure appeared at the top of the stairs behind it.

The Vet stood at the top of the stairs, emerging only for a split second with a dart pistol in hand. That was all I needed to see the man who'd stalked me, Jada, and my new ally. He was a spindly, sickly man, clad in a blood smock. He wore dark glasses, even in the dim house. His mouth was covered by a filthy surgical mask, likely used long after it should have been. He breathed through it like a wheezing patient, an anthropomorphic disease vector. I barely avoided the dart with my name on it, likely full of some horrible toxin.

The more immediate concern was the slavering abomination before me. I fell back while Jada flanked it around the base of the stairs. As I drew my HDM, I recognized something about it. The uncanny way it shambled on the ground. The geometry of the torso. The legs as long as my own. This thing, this Chimera, was human and animal parts. The legs were from two separate people, and the torso that served as the thing's body was also human. The jaws of a Doberman snapped at my hands, but I moved back, trying to draw its attention from Jada.

I heard Crucifer unleash a torrent of tormenting flechettes. The nails did nothing but irritate it, despite lines of blood and bile that leaked on the floor. I fired the HDM with all the precision I could muster, which was not much. My rounds traced a line across the closest head, and I clustered those shots on the forehead of the nearest, slavering head. Its eye partially tumbled out of its socket, and its partially decomposed tongue fell out its mouth. Despite this minor victory, the Vet felt emboldened once more.

I saw Jada curse as the beast grasped her forearm, causing her to drop the Crucifer. The sword in her other hand did not sever the offending beast's head, though. A metallic reverberation sounded as a dart impaled itself into the nearby wall. I raised my pistol to take a shot at the Vet before he could reload, but he vanished behind cover before I could shoot. The slide locked back, and I was out of ammo. I drew my empty shotgun and charged into the fray. A construction worker is never unarmed.

I made Barbara's pistol grip with a metal butt-cap, like old flintlock pistols used to. I smashed the knee of the nearest human leg, and the decomposing joint cracked like a rotten log. The ungodly abomination shrieked like a banshee, hissing and recoiling in pain. I grabbed another of the legs as it reared up, and pressed it against the wall. I saw a reassuring shape out of the corner of my vision: the glint of Jada's blade.

I saw her sword slice through the air like a righteous, reaping scythe. I felt the beast struggling against me, trying to leverage itself out from my pin. I pressed into it like a furious wrestler, trying to avoid succumbing to that flurry of hot limbs. Grappling was like sex, because you got to know your partner's body, how it moved, and the fluids inside. Like sex, the encounter ended with a messy penetration. Jada's blade bisected the thing's torso, making it rigid for a final time. The body went limp after that, but the Vet was not done.

The Vet emerged once more with his dart pistol, his beady eyes trained on us. He stood at the top of the stairs, a distance I could not hope to close before he shot. I was out of ammo, but I feared he'd shoot Jada. I wanted to use my bulk and athleticism to my advantage. If I charged up the stairs, he'd focus on me, instead of Jada. My arms began to glow, and I felt an adrenaline rush. I trusted in my otherworldly benefactor. I trusted in myself. I trusted in Jada. I trusted in physics.

All that trust was rewarded. My tunnel vision closed in on the Vet, as I charged up those stairs with the celerity of a cavalry steed up a precarious peak. I clutched Barbara in hand, preparing to cave his skull in with the weapon. I saw him train the pistol at me, but he never pulled the trigger. Instead, he clutched the red stain that appeared on his chest, he dropped the pistol, and he staggered backwards. He was dead when I reached the summit of the stairs. I looked behind me, and I saw Jada holding her smoking Walther.

That's one more reason I love her.

The remainder of the residence was a charnel house. The upper floors had been converted to a series of rooms, with what had been the master bedroom turned into an ad hoc vivisection chamber and laboratory. I did not know what the apparatuses or machines did, but they were clearly not commercially manufactured, and unlike anything I'd seen before. I was not sure I wanted to know, given the dried blood that caked most of it. These machines were not designed for study or medicine, but whimsical pain and mutilation. And that was just the first room.

The second room was a makeshift kennel, the room I'd seen in my vision. It smelled of feces and urine, and not entirely canine. There were smaller cages for dogs, but larger ones for human prisoners. The Vet's largest chimerical creation indicated at least two people had given up their lives for it. I wished for a gasmask, since that room was revolting.

The third room we beheld was disturbingly unlike the others. It was a small, made bed beside a small desk and filing cabinet. It would've been like any other home office, had there not been small blood specks on the furniture. There was a bookshelf containing textbooks on human and animal physiology, ritual magic, and notebooks full of childish drawings of mutilated animals and indecipherable sentences. Jada found a small ledger on his desk, which detailed his finances with disturbing detail. We found some cash, old jewelry, and stuff that looked valuable, which we'd sell later.

The last room was the smallest. It might've been a kid's bedroom, before the Vet converted it to something far more horrific. There were drums of chemicals, drums that looked to heavy to lug up the stairs. Like everything else in this disgusting house, they reeked of death and decay. I saw a bloody hatchet beside a plastic-covered section of bare floor, which I presumed he used to dismember bodies. The chemicals, I presumed, would be used for his experiments, dissolving bodies, or both. It was horrifying to think his victims could be poured down the drain when he was done with them, minus any parts he used in his 'work.'

While it seemed a lot longer, Jada and I had cleaned the place out in less than four minutes. I wanted to set the place on fire, but we didn't have enough flammable material, it might release the toxic chemicals upstairs, and it would ruin the evidence once the police showed up. They couldn't ignore something like that. Nor could we. Jada and I casually left a slightly different route that we arrived, getting back into our car and driving off. We did not see sirens flashing or even a police car, but we did our best to stay under the speed limit to avoid attention.

An unspoken tension descended as we considered the full impact of what we'd done. We'd broken into someone's house with the sole intention of murdering them. We had done so, despite the formidable obstacles in our way. Not only that, we'd both come out relatively unscathed, and a little richer for it. Worst of all, it felt good. The strange sigils that Marked us glowed softly, in a symbiotic, synchronized unison. I felt what we'd done saved a lot of lives.

Yet there were two lives we could not save: Those of Matthew Murphy the construction manager and Jada Jackson the physical trainer. We disposed of our phones, avoided our old email addresses, and warned our old friends and family to lay low as our last messages to them. Where we were going would be unsafe for them to follow. Yet were not alone.

Kendo had done the same, by the time we met him at a motel on the Ohio border. We have him the documents, ledger, and journal, hoping he could recover anything of value. He was going his own way, to hide with his own contacts. Someone wealthy, we suspected, supported the Vet's work. Perhaps they even "collaborated" on research. Either way, that was a battle for another day. We'd won a small victory, and that was enough for us.

You may win inches, but in time, you make the miles. You just have to keep pushing ever onwards, so long as you have a joyful heart for your labors.