The corner of 33rd and Normal was not an extraordinary place, but a completely ordinary place where irregular things happened. Foremost was the appearance of a woman on the steps of Ms. Yarlson’s residence. Not just any woman, but one with hair to rival the most luminescent silver and the brightest star – an angel amongst mortals. Some called her a guardian, and others called her a bum. But most of the time she went by Gen, and needless to say she wasn’t Ms. Yarlson.
Gen’s appearance was heralded by billowing white clouds and the powered hiss of a steam engine coming to rest. Birds chirped from rose bushes in vague annoyance at her arrival; for it wasn’t normal for such a thing to happen – not at all – not even on the corner of 33rd and Normal. With a deep breath and a glance at the sky, she shivered. This was the place all right. The place where everything happened.
It was odd really, how much happened on this street corner and how little changed because of it. Foremost in the mind was the time a necromancer stalked the streets, ushering their minions in a great undead wave to some arcane purpose. Gen could still recall the acrid tang in the air from those days, which if she remembered properly, hadn’t happened yet. But that’s just how it went for the guardian on the train – time was immaterial.
The night was crisp and her breath fogged the air. A small smile tugged at her lips, it was beautiful under the stars; they twinkled and danced like children on a playground, carefree and innocent. Bare branches strained to reach them, but were never quite able to succeed.
Steam blasted as a whistle sounded behind her, shocking the birds into silence. Gen sighed, her time was short – as it always was on special stops. She’d have to make this quick, and if she’d timed it right–
A shadowed figure prowled towards her across the cracked sidewalk. Their hands were shoved deep in their pockets, deep enough that it was impossible to tell if they carried a weapon.
Gen clicked her tongue, narrowing her eyes. Her fingers ran along the steel strings on the instrument slung across her back. The electric guitar was polished to mirror finish, wood grain glistening under the lights. It would be easy to pluck chords, the notes to a song, but she restrained herself. It wouldn’t do to wake the slumbering neighborhood.
The shadowed figure stopped several paces from her.
Gen didn’t blink. She even stilled her restless fingers, but didn’t let them stray from the guitar. Time had taught her the folly of trusting freely – first with her eye then with her wing – and she wouldn’t be making that mistake so easily again.
Gen nodded. The man standing across from her had a voice like tar poured over gravel. More than certainly: Ba’ala’ie.
“A bona fide angel.” He spat a glob onto the ground. “Fascinating.”
“As I live and breathe, and I trust you got my message, since you knew to meet me here.”
“I did. Seemed to good to be true, honest. A trade like what you’re proposing?” The Ba’ala’ie’s tongue darted out, dragging across ragged teeth. “Those don’t come around too often.”
Gen nodded. “I needed to get your attention.”
The shadowed figure remained silent, only the most brave of the startled birds once again chirping their annoyance.
“I have my part of the deal, if you’re still interested.”
“Sure am. Don’t mean I trust that you’re being honest.”
“Is the train not enough? Perhaps my appearance–“ Her solitary eye twitched and she tugged at the navy cloak she wore, emblazoned with an entwined tortoise and serpent. “–is not enough for your sensibilities. Maybe the real one is waiting right behind me, just out of sight, and laughing at some inane joke that only she gets.” Gen flared her wings, one glorious and full feathered, the other hewn halfway down its length. “I don’t have time to haggle.”
The Ba’ala’ie pushed his hood back, revealing muddy skin. “You need this deal more than I do, and I’m not rushing into anything I don’t like the feel of.”
“And pray tell, what don’t you like the feel of?”
“Don’t feel like you’re being completely honest. There’s gotta be more to the hunk of antiquated junk than you’re letting on.”
“It’s legit. Do you have what I want on you?”
The figure shrugged. “Nope.”
Gen took a deep breath – with every moment she had less time. A note, pure and untainted, reverberated under her fingers. The guitar ached to sing, and she to play, but she held fast. “As I already said, my time is short and if you want this trade, I suggest you start cutting the tough man shit. You have something I want; I have something you want. We exchange. I go my way; you crawl back under whatever rock you live under. Otherwise–“
“Otherwise, you’ll have to leave empty handed.” The Ba’ala’ie pursed his lips and shook its head. “Such a shame.”
Another note quailed from under her fingers. “It would be a shame because there are others who need this trade more than your sorry ass.”
“Maybe, maybe not. All I know is that if you want it this bad, it must be pretty important.”
Gen dug in her pocket. She held golden coin between her knuckles, letting the light reflect on its scratched surface. “The lucky coin.”
She flipped it in her fingers, catching it in her palm as the train’s whistle blared from behind her; time grew short. “Brings unfathomable luck to the owner, fame, fortune, and prosperity beyond measure. I’m offering it for that piece of antiquated junk–“ She pointed with the coin at the figure’s pocket. “–in that pocket right there.”
The Ba’ala’ie raised an eyebrow, eyeing the coin.
“And even if you don’t believe it’s the lucky coin, the damn thing is gold and you could sell it at any seedy shop your heart desires.”
“Couldn’t give a damn, whether that coin is real. It’s irrelevant. Tell you what I care about, and I only care because you turned out to be real, not just a myth, but I care what other myths and legends are out there. And which ones are true.” The Ba’ala’ie let his head fall back, beholding the stars. “Which ones are waiting to be discovered? Exploited?”
Gen grit her teeth. She didn’t have time for this.
“Treasure beyond imagination, or even creatures unknown to science and reason. Paranormal things beyond our understanding: all up there, waiting to be discovered and put to their purposes. And now–“ He let his gaze drop to Gen, the pupils constricting as he did so. “–you’re here, waiting for your purpose.”
“I don’t have time–“
The Ba’ala’ie drew his hands from his pockets. Tendrils of red light flashed under the skin – geometric and pulsating with the power of Tiberuim. Sparks flew from his fingers, spiraling to the speckled concrete. “You’ll damn well make time, because you’re going to make me very wealthy.”
Gen glanced over her shoulder and bit her lip; another errant note reverberated from the guitar on her back. It ached to play. She ached to play.
“You’re not getting back on that train, angel.” The Ba’ala’ie took a step into the light spilling from the station door behind Gen. “I’ll make sure of that.”
Gen tucked a strand of silver hair behind an ear, letting a smile get the best of her. She refocused on the creature before her with her single eye, and plucked the thickest string on the guitar. “Let’s see what you’ve got, tough man.”
The birds held their breath.
Fire raced from the veins of the Ba’ala’ie. It raced out to embrace Gen, and in a single smooth twist she slid the electric guitar to her front, strumming with the golden coin between her fingers.
It sang, loud and clear.
So much for not waking up the neighborhood, she thought. A wry smile twisted her face – the power of metal would compel this creature before her.
The guitar sang and the fire shattered, breaking apart into crystals with light dancing inside.
She strummed again.
The Ba’ala’ie went rigid, the next wave of energy dying on his fingertips. Tendons strained under the skin and muscles tensed, but the music bound him stronger than any shackle.
Gen strummed one last chord.
The winter air held the note, cradling it far longer that it had any right to, and the birds cowered in fear.
The guardian of the train slid the guitar onto her back and stepped forward, plucking an object from the Ba’ala’ie’s pocket. She flipped it open and nodded at the faint blue light coming from the screen; a numberpad waited under her thumbs. This was what she sought, even as antiquated as it was.
Steam billowed from the door behind her. The train began chugging and the warning whistle sounded, shrill after the meaty notes still hovering from the guitar.
Gen leaned forward and dropped the golden coin into his pocket, patting his shoulder with a smile. “Say hi to the ferrywoman for me.”
He teetered, and as she slammed the door to the station behind her, exploded into fine ash against the cracked concrete.
The birds on the corner of 33rd and Normal breathed a sigh of relief; it was over, except for the fact that Ms. Yarlson would find use for her dust pan in the morning.