Title: Morrigan's Tithe
Warnings: Death, violence, light gore, attempted assault, swearing, pessimism of the Maupassant variety.
Vittoria teetered through her doorstep, feet burning in her high-heels after another night at work, and let her tripled-up plastic shopping bag drop to the floor with a loud squelch. Immediately, the muffled patter of paws rushed to greet her.
"Ciao, Piccolo," said Vittoria, letting her cat climb up into her arms, holding him close. The animal rubbed its head against her cheek, its purr tickling the side of Vittoria's neck. He was an ugly thing, with a chewed-up ear and a dull grey coat, but what he lacked in looks he made up for in his cloying and needy attitude. "I missed you too my darling."
A door slammed somewhere in the two-bedroom flat, and Vittoria's distant second favorite thing in the world came storming into the living room.
"Oi! Did you get food? I'm hungry!" Vittoria's fourteen-year-old brother stuck his chin up at her. Vittoria's jaw fell open.
"Gabriele! It's three in the morning!"
"It's Friday. And I got an A-star on my math test today, which means I get to stay up," Gabriele brandished his exam paper in triumph and slapped it onto the dining table like a winning royal flush. "Now hurry up and gimme food, woman. I left my game on pause!"
"Don't talk to me like that, you prat. And we've got to get up early for your rugby practice."
Vittoria reached into one of her shopping bags and tossed a Tesco sandwich in the general direction of her sibling. With the agility of a well-trained circus seal, Gabriele dove from his seat and caught the food, nearly crushing Piccolo in the process. Gabriele stood and dusted himself off.
"Thanks," he said, "Oh, and don't forget to pay the rent. Landlady was calling."
In less than a breath, the boy had apparated back to his bedroom, no doubt planning on finishing another Dragon Age quest and ignoring her pleas for an earlier night. Vittoria put the exam up on the fridge with the rest of them and went to change out of her work clothes, Piccolo wrapping himself around her legs like a pair of fluffy Ugg boots. Vittoria missed the days when she had been living alone with Piccolo, before her father had finally followed in her mother's footsteps and overdosed. When social security had showed up at her studio with her underaged brother, she had had no choice but to move into a bigger flat, now the legal guardian of a child ten years her junior.
Thankfully, this apartment had been available on short notice. The rent was as low as the crime rate in the area was high, but that issue could be overlooked once Vittoria had armed Gabriele and herself with pepper spray. In hindsight, it really had seemed too good to be true. She had found out why, shortly after moving in.
The first time she had done it, she had been scared, but it had been a few months now, and she had gotten used to the dent that had been made in her understanding of the world. Vittoria went back to her front door, lifting the tripled-up plastic shopping bag off the ground. It weighted down like a sac full of soaked towels. Keeping the bag as far away from her face as possible, Vittoria rushed into the hallway, two doors down and knocked. She swore when she noticed that the floor under her bag was dotted in blood. Four bags it was, next time.
The apartment door swung open, and there stood a girl about Vittoria's age. Her long curtain of hair, dark like an oil spill, was pulled back from her paper-white face in thick braids today. The landlady always had nice hair.
"Just in time, Vittie," said the girl, relieving Vittoria of her bag. She stuck her nose into the bag, inhaled and moaned with an indecent amount of pleasure. "Oh, lamb! See, this is why I like you, Vittie. You know how to keep me guessing every day."
Vittoria forced herself to smile. She wouldn't have managed, if she hadn't been trained to do so in her line of work.
"No problem, Morrigan. Same time tomorrow?"
The girl flashed a smile, and her teeth were already stained red.
"Cheers. And tell Gabriele to turn down the volume of his porn. He knows that I can hear through the walls."
With a coy wave, Morrigan shut the door. Vittoria went back to her flat where Piccolo was sitting, waiting vigilantly for her safe return. She double-locked the door behind her, as if that would keep a permanent nightmare out.
The truth was, Vittoria wasn't sure what Morrigan was.
"She's a wicked faerie, my nan told me about them!" said Lidia, the gossipy coke addict in flat 211, "They steal newborn babies!"
"Sexy vampire," said ChenWei, the drug dealer in flat 126.
"Friendly demon?" said Eliah Ali, the young boy living downstairs. One of Gabriele's classmates.
"Just make sure you pay your rent on time. We have a Halal butcher we can recommend," Eliah's parents reminded Vittoria daily when she passed their shop on her way to work, "The man who lived in your flat before you. He forgot one time. His son never came home from school the next day. So please, lest the Devil feel insatiate and go after one of us instead."
She had stopped trying to meet anyone else in the building after that.
The tenants were a complete mish mash of people with financial struggles, randomly washed ashore onto this relatively peaceful island of Hell. Vittoria herself figured that Morrigan was a true breed of monster that no known human culture had correctly described, though they had tried over the millennia, in old folk tales meant to ward children away from danger, and in paranormal novels that taught teenage girls to romanticize it.
Morrigan wasn't even her name. She had let Gabriele pick one for her the day they moved in, like she did all the tenants. Her kind didn't have names, she had said. The girl had explained the terms of her contract, that they were to supplement their laughably low rent with a daily delivery of a kilo of raw flesh per tenant. In exchange, she pledged that they would always be safe from danger, so long as they were in contact with her property. No other questions asked.
Part of Vittoria wondered why she hadn't turned her tail and emigrated back to Italy on the spot. In the end, though, convenience overcame horror. She worked long shifts at the gentleman's club, and there was no more reliable baby-sitter for her headache of a brother in this borough of London than a flesh-eating monster. Part of her still didn't believe it, anyway. Maybe if she closed her eyes, Morrigan would turn into an otherwise normal cultish young woman with a big appetite, a huge iron deficiency, and unshakeable dreams of becoming a method actress. Maybe she was harboring an illegally imported pet tiger.
But as long as her tithe was paid, Morrigan had promised, there would be no trouble. And despite the God forsaken neighborhood they were stuck in, the private school a few train stops away was prestigious, and Vittoria would cut off her own leg if it meant that Gabriele would get perfect exam scores and go off to a university of his choice, to find something far better than the life she, and their parents before her, could offer him. Stripping paid great when you lived alone, but barely enough when you had a dependent who went to a posh school and had a gaming addiction.
If only he wasn't such an ungrateful little prick.
"C'mere, Piccolo," said Vittoria, patting the empty space beside her on the bed. The cat curled up to her side like a warm croissant, and she pulled him against her chest. A few more years of this nightmare, and Gabriele would be an adult. Then it would just be her, and her cat, somewhere far from here. "Goodnight, amore."
It was a ten-minute walk from the nearest bus stop to Vittoria's building, and it was one she had braved, chin up and hand clenched around her purse, without anything more than a few dozen catcalls from the drunks milling around the alleyways. No one had persistently harassed her, or tried to follow her home.
Vittoria tried to keep her breath quiet so she wouldn't betray her fear, but she could hear it come out in loud pants like an inflation device, despite the heavy background noise of rain. Fucking British weather.
"C'mon, darling! I just wanna talk!"
Vittoria felt the skin on her toes chafe, split and bleed at her fast pace, unsuited for high heels, but it was hardly the time for a wardrobe change. She kept her eyes locked on the gates of her building. It loomed like an abandoned jailhouse over the rest of the block but to Vittoria it was a lighthouse. Her hand was wrapped and ready around her keys. She had left her pepper spray at work. Of all nights.
"I SAID I want to talk!" shouted the man, his steps louder and louder on the wet pavement behind her. Vittoria broke into a run.
"Fuck off mate!" she called over her shoulder. "I'll call the cops!"
"Don't be a bitch!"
He sped up. Vittoria tore through the street. Dark puddle water splashed her with each step she took. She ignored the aching cold and stiffening of her limbs. Almost there.
"Help!" she cried. The noise was absorbed in the thick blanket of rain like white noise. "Help me!"
Just as she reached her door, her high heel snapped with the sound of a breaking bone. With a cry, she fell to the ground. Vittoria crawled towards the door, hand searching frantically in the dark for her dropped key.
"No. No no no no no no…"
A dirty hairy hand clasped itself around Vittoria's mouth and pulled her off the ground. With a muffled shriek, Vittoria swung an elbow into the man's face. It connected with his nose with the sound of a crunched soda can. Vittoria tugged herself out of his grip, towards the building's gate, and pressed her fingers to the wet, corroded metal.
The next moment, the man was crushed to the ground by a shape that had just jumped out of a window three floors up.
"Wha-!" was all the man had the time to say, before Morrigan tore out the man's throat with a single bite, spraying Vittoria with blood.
Vittoria watched. The man's arms twitched towards the sky as if he were drowning, then dropped to his side. Morrigan stood. She tilted her face up to let the rain wash away the blood that coated the bottom half of her face like a red surgical mask. Vittoria watched, the way you would an incoming hurricane, aware that she was witnessing a destructive force capable of ending her life in a snap. It felt almost disrespectful to look away from something with such spectacular power.
"You killed him," Vittoria managed to say, rearranging her shirt where it had been yanked down her shoulder.
"Is that a thank you?"
"You killed him."
Morrigan pulled the man's corpse up into her arms and bounced him up and down.
"I will say this settles a month's rent for you. What do you think?"
Vittoria shook her head.
"You can't eat him. He's… he's a human being."
Morrigan laughed and wiped at the remaining blood on her lips. In the dark, it could have been smudged lipstick.
"He's certainly not going to be tastiest thing you've brought me," Morrigan leaned in, as if to smell Vittoria's perfume. "But I'm not feeling picky tonight. I always keep my promises, Vittoria. No matter the cost. Now, do you want me to leave him here to decorate the pavement?"
Vittoria shivered and turned away. She picked her key off the ground. She could feel her legs shaking.
"I'll get the door, then," she said, fumbling to open the building's gate. By tomorrow morning, the rain would have washed the pavement clean of blood, and no one would ever find the man. Morrigan skipped up the stairs ahead of Vittoria as if the body weighed nothing.
"You always walk home alone," said Morrigan conversationally. "Maybe I should start using you as bait!"
When Vittoria didn't respond, Morrigan rolled her eyes and carried the dead man to her door with a pout. As Vittoria stepped into her own flat, it dawned on her that Morrigan had probably been joking. Nevertheless, she followed her ritual mechanically. She stripped off her wet clothes, checked that Gabriele had done his homework and was asleep. She went to pull on her raincoat and make a round at the local supermarket, but stopped when she realized she didn't have to. Only when she was in bed, with Piccolo pulled, wiggling, against her chest, did Vittoria start to cry.
The next few weeks passed without Vittoria needing to carry a sack of flesh home with her, so she hoped that she would never have to see Morrigan at all. But to her horror, Morrigan had taken the liberty of inviting herself over for tea instead. Had she thought that saving Vittoria meant they were friends? Vittoria didn't think that she was in the position to complain, so she made small talk about her work and her Christmas plans. Morrigan listened and offered to teach Vittoria different hair braiding techniques. Morrigan did not seem regretful over what she had done to rescue Vittoria, which left Vittoria feeling torn between hating her and hoping that she never changed her mind about wanting Vittoria alive.
Vittoria could have handled this entire situation, if Morrigan didn't always come over on the days that Gabriele was awake. He was inevitably drawn out of his room at the sound of their conversations and shoved himself into the seat beside Morrigan to overflow with idle chatter about video games, making it impossible for Vittoria to yawn and politely proclaim that she was too tired to continue.
Vittoria had never told Gabriele about what Morrigan had done. About the inconvertible proof that, even if Morrigan turned out to just be a human, she was still a monster. The Alis' words echoed in her head, about the previous tenant, whose son had disappeared. Vittoria watched, helpless, as Gabriele's eyes lit up in teenage awe at having an older woman smile at him.
Stupid, stupid boy.
She even caught them whispering about something, when Vittoria had to go to the bathroom, and they had immediately stopped talking when she had returned. Every time Morrigan walked into her flat with a wink and left, blowing the two of them a kiss, Vittoria felt the ground beneath her feet crumble away a little more. At least Piccolo felt the same as her, as he always hissed and ran into a bedroom whenever Morrigan appeared.
"What is she doing?" asked Vittoria. Piccolo looked up at her, comforting but clueless. "He's my little brother."
As the weeks rolled by, Vittoria pondered her dilemma every waking moment. It was only when she showed up at work and saw the 'closed for Christmas' sign that she realized that the rest of the world had passed her by. Vittoria managed to catch the last public bus to her stop and went home, early for the first time in months.
After pulling her cat up into her arms, Vittoria frowned. The apartment was so quiet.
There was no answer. He probably had his headphones in again. It was too early for him to be sleeping. Vittoria knocked on the door of his room. She called again.
Vittoria pushed Gabriele's bedroom door open. Tacky posters of anime women stared back at her.
He wasn't there.
Vittoria shouted her brother's name again and ran to the kitchen to check her calendar. When she was reminded what day it was, she felt her entire world tilt, and she stumbled, off-balance. She had forgotten to pay the rent. Two days in a row.
"No," Vittoria whispered. She threw herself out into the corridor and stumbled up to Morrigan's door. "No."
Vittoria banged on Morrigan's door. The door opened before Vittoria even had to knock twice. Morrigan stood there, her hair up in a Renaissance bun.
"Oh, Vittie. You're back home early."
"Where is he?" said Vittoria, clenching and unclenching her fist. Morrigan looked her up and down. Vittoria hadn't changed out of her work clothes.
"Where is who?"
"You promised you would keep him safe," said Vittoria, her voice trembling. "He's my only family."
"I seem to remember another part to that promise. Something about actually paying rent on time?"
"This is the first time. You can't do this. You can't."
"I don't owe you anything," said Morrigan. Her eyes seem to shutter, all friendliness extinct. "I waited, yesterday, but you never came."
"Where is he?"
"You're going to need to figure that out yourself."
Morrigan moved to close her door, but Vittoria struck her foot out to block it. Then, accidentally, she glanced over Morrigan's shoulder into the girl's apartment. Her eyes ignored the blood-splattered kitchen, and zoned in straight on a familiar computer, sitting on open on Morrigan's table. Gabriele's laptop.
Vittoria's mind blanked. In the next second, Morrigan was on the ground underneath her, Vittoria's hand clasped tightly around her throat. The girl looked up in surprise, then laughed in delight. Vittoria squeezed and the sound choked to a wet gurgle.
"Where. Is. He." Vittoria punctuated her words by slamming Morrigan's head to the floor. A look of anger flashed through Morrigan's eyes, then suddenly Morrigan darted upwards and attached her mouth to Vittoria's.
Vittoria released her prey in a moment of shock and pain. Morrigan rolled away, coughing.
"I've been generous," said the girl, crouched over her floor, back arched like an animal's. "I've given you a day. We had a deal, Vittoria, and you will hold up your end of the bargain. Now, how I get my payment for today is really up to you, isn't it?"
Vittoria met Morrigan's gaze. Morrigan's gaze was ruthless like an executioner's, and a thin ribbon of blood trickled down her chin. Vittoria brought her hand up to her lip and felt the spot where Morrigan had taken a bite out of her.
With a stilted nod, Vittoria grabbed Gabriele's laptop and walked out of Morrigan's flat, and into her own. She looked through her fridge, her drawers, for anything, anything, she could give to appease Morrigan. She found nothing, and threw her face into her palms, and screamed. Piccolo rushed into her bedroom, startle. All the shops were closed for Christmas. She stumbled around her flat, checking the fridge again as if four kilos of fresh meat would just magically appear in it. It was still empty. Vittoria's brain swam with images of what could be happening to Gabriele. Of what she would do in exchange for his safety. She glanced towards the fridge yet again, at all the perfect exam papers staring right back at her, and wondered how such things had been all that mattered to her, once.
Morrigan almost looked sorry when she received her offering. Her hair had been fixed.
"You are a desperate woman," she said, and pointed behind Vittoria.
Vittoria spun around and saw Gabriele standing by the door of their flat, key in hand, looking guilty. Vittoria followed her brother into the apartment and gently shut the door behind her.
"Where were you?" She managed to ask, her voice low and cold.
"What's it to you?" Gabriele threw his schoolbag onto the chair, then braced his hands on his hips.
"I called you five times."
"Why are you home early?" he shot back, armed for an argument. Then he looked at her and deflated immediately. "The fuck happened to your face?"
Vittoria stared him down in silence, until he started scraping at an old brown blood stain with his shoe. "I was just downstairs. Eliah got a new game."
Vittoria closed her eyes.
"And you couldn't think to pick up your fucking phone?"
Gabriele shrugged, running his hands through his hair.
"It was an intense game, ok. Calm your tits, woman."
Vittoria's hand shot out, but she managed to stop herself from hitting him. Gabriele didn't even flinch, like he knew she wouldn't do it, but his jaw dropped.
"Are you kidding me? After all I've done? After all I've given for your stupid fucking-… I should have let social services keep you."
A second after she had uttered them, she wished she could take the words back. But another part of her had never felt so good.
"I'm sorry," said Gabriele, scalded. His bottom lip trembled just a little. Vittoria covered her eyes so she didn't have to look at him.
"I saw your laptop in her flat. I thought Morrigan was going to kill you because I forgot to pay rent."
"Morrigan?" Gabriele sounded shocked. "Oh. No. I made a deal with her. I let her play Dragon Age on my computer whenever I'm hanging out at Eliah's, and she promised to make sure Mr. and Mrs. Ali never found out. He's not supposed to have people over when they're out. And I didn't think to tell you. You're always working."
Vittoria fell into the couch, her legs finally giving up.
"That's all it was. All that for nothing," she said into a couch pillow, and went quiet. Gabriele nodded, pulling on the sleeve of his uniform.
"I'm gonna do my homework now," he said. He went to his room. Then into Vittoria's. Then into the bathroom. Searching. After a few minutes, he went back to the living room, and found his sister where he left her, crying, hugging a couch pillow to her chest as if it could love her back.
"Vittie… Where's Piccolo?"