Paranormal Hoedown: SWH ep 11 – Lowering the Bar
Well, I really tried, but I just couldn’t make a gym look scary.
Good evening and welcome to episode 11 of The Sunday Witch Hunters, where the ghosts are sweatier and the pants are ALWAYS tighter!
The Sunday Witch Hunters follows teen football star Joe Malone in his initiation into a gang of wily small-town exorcists. Joe is a new face in Muraluna and he’s finding it hard enough to make friends without having to see ghosts and demons on top of it. Luckily the Muraluna Witch Hunters are there to help. Led by the ace librarian/ demonologist Balthazar Knox, the Muraluna Witch Hunters encounter all manner of ghastly demons, devils and poltergeists from the dankest regions of Hell. But unbeknownst to the Witch Hunters, their greatest enemy is still stirring beneath their feet – the underworld’s infernal war machines are on the move, and to Joe, Knox and the crew may be all that stands between Hell … and Hell on Earth.
If you’re as new as Joe to the Witch Hunters, you can find the first episode here. If not, empty your pockets and ready your mothers for…
The Sunday Witch Hunters
Episode 11: Lowering the Bar
Tuesday morning, Geography. Joe walked into the classroom and had to check twice he hadn’t accidentally wandered into a prison block.
But no. It was Geography. The class got underway with exactly nobody other than Joe paying attention. Even Mr. Jervis wasn’t paying attention. That’s why he was talking about the housing crisis in Margaritaville instead of the one in western Sydney.
“Man.” Joe nudged Kammy, who was buried in his PSP. “Did you just hear what he said?”
“He just called Sydney Magaritaville.”
“It’s only Tuesday morning, and he’s already dreaming about the weekend.”
“Kammy. You listening?”
“Man, this level …”
Joe leant back in his seat, and sighed. The student body was massed around him, such as could be bothered to attend class. He’d counted the names in the role book once. Geography with Mr. Jervis should have had an attendance of around thirty. Joe had never seen more than ten in the class. Even then they were present in body only. Some were playing with their phones, one was drawing, another was carving something into his desk. For some reason there was a perpetual lack of sturdy chairs in the Geography room, and so one of the students was sitting on the floor. He had a marker in hand and for a second Joe felt the thrill of not being the only one interested in graduating. Then he looked again and saw the kid on the floor was drawing a dick on the carpet. He was whistling with an absent-minded kind of joy that suggested a master artist at work. Well, that explained all the dicks on the carpet.
Joe groaned without meaning to and slid down in his seat. “How’d I ever end up in a place like this?”
Mashing buttons, Kammy said, “You filled out the enrolment form. You submitted it. Your fault.”
“Yeah, but. I didn’t think it was gonna be this bad.”
“It’s not this bad,” said Kammy. “It’s worse. You ought to see them in Modern History. Guys think they’re Alex freakin’ DeLarge.”
Kammy looked at Joe over his PSP. “You gotta be kidding me. From Clockwork Orange? Don’t tell me you never read that.”
Joe hadn’t been aware that Kammy could read. “I thought that was banned.”
“Yeah. Duh. I’ve read every book on the library banned list.”
“You went and bought and read all the books on the library banned list, just because they’re on the banned list?”
“Uh huh. Well. I didn’t buy most of them. I borrowed them from the school book club. They have all the banned books, and only banned books. They even have Harry Potter.”
Joe frowned. “Pretty sure Harry Potter isn’t on the banned list.”
Kammy wiggled his eyebrows. “This version is. It’s the one with the space wizards, and Harry murders Ron, and Hermione gets teen pregnant, and Dumbledore-”
“Stop, please,” Joe begged. “You’re killing my brain.”
“I’m not even kidding, man. You should read it. Hogwarts plus mechs. It’s a beautiful combination. It’s like poetry in motion, with spells, and giant robots … and extremely visceral death.”
Kammy added, “And mind-blowing sex.”
“You know,” said Joe, “if you were half as dedicated to passing classes as you are to being a dropkick, you’d be a pretty good student.”
“Ha,” went Kammy, returning to his PSP. “Naw.”
“The drive to survive isn’t by necessity provided by despair of one’s mortality; it can, in fact, be given by one’s joy of existence.”
In the gym, breathless, pink-faced, Joe paused with his fist raised. He squinted at Knox. “I’m sorry? What?”
Knox, looking circa 1917 with his shirt sleeves rolled to the elbow and his tie hanging over his shoulders, motioned for Joe to strike. “I’m saying, what drives you? The fear of death, or the lust for living?”
Joe threw his fist at the other man. It was a sloppy hit and he knew it. Knox brushed the hand aside, pivoted on his foot and piled the flat of his forearm into Joe’s ear. Joe staggered backwards, catching his foot on an exercise ball which promptly fled from beneath him.
From the gym mat, he groaned, “It’s the middle of the afternoon. There shouldn’t be any stars out.”
Knox glanced at the ceiling. Black duct tape held the water stained chipboard panels in place. “Nonsense. Up you get. You’ve had no formal weapons training, and that won’t do at all. You need to learn how to defend yourself.”
“I played on the school football team,” Joe groaned, rolling to his feet. “Basketball and baseball too. I know how to defend myself.”
He yelped as Knox kicked the exercise ball into his knees, and went sprawling over again. This time Knox offered him a hand. He flinched.
“What’s the matter?”
Joe cringed. He let Knox pull him to his feet. “I thought you were going to hit me again.”
Knox regarded him darkly. “Sports, indeed. I’ve been fighting demons since I was half your age. I cut my teeth on the armies of the night. Shall I show you how it’s done?”
“You’re going to attack me?” It had been bad enough when Knox was on defence. He’d slammed Joe to the floor so often the gym mat had a permanent imprint of Joe’s head. God only knew what the gym junkies made of it. They were steering clear, that was for sure. Although maybe that was given etiquette for the gym; the place was small, crowded with outdated equipment, tucked away in a corner of the aging welfare centre complex. Judging by the green jumpsuits and singlets most of the clientele were getting fit while rehabilitating.
“Why are we at such a dodgy gym?” Joe wondered aloud, and hit the mat again as Knox swept his feet from beneath him.
“Focus,” Knox said, grinning. “First rule of staying alive.”
“I thought the first rule was never telling anybody else about the Witch Hunters?” Joe groaned.
“Ah? Didn’t we go through that already?”
Joe dragged himself to his feet. This was too much for a Tuesday afternoon. “Yeah. Yeah, we did.”
“You haven’t spoken to your friend?”
“Not yet. Maybe later. I don’t really know what to say to him.”
Knox rolled his shoulders. “Start with the truth, embellish when you run out of things to say. It works for me.”
Was he serious? Joe took up his defensive stance. No, no, he was sure Knox was just trying to distract him. He faced the older man over the mats. Joe was taller, broader across the shoulders and back, more solid for his time on the football team and seventeen years of country cooking. But Knox, whilst wiry, was quick as a viper and could pull a watermelon apart with his bare hands. He was also batshit insane. In these circumstances, batshit insane counted for a lot.
“Defence!” Knox barked.
Joe moved just in time to raise an arm in defence against the open palm being pushed into his face. He swept Knox’s arm aside. He did not even see Knox turn. His breath burst from his lungs as Knox’s shoulder struck him up under his ribcage, tossing him into the air. Knox stretched like Shakil O’Neill’s slam dunk and pistoned his elbow down on Joe’s neck. Joe’s trajectory snapped groundwards. Knox hit the mats first and booted Joe across the gym.
Joe hit the bench press, the walking machine, and a man lifting weights, rolled bonelessly across the gym mats to buffer to a gentle halt at the foot of a rack of dumbbells.
“Knox!” snarled the woman behind the counter, “I tol’ you not to kill anyone in here! That boy better be breathin’!”
“I couldn’t tell you offhand,” Knox called. He stalked over the mats to where Joe lay staring at the ceiling. “Hallo, Joe. Are you breathing? Yes, Eileen, he’s breathing. Tell her you’re breathing, Joseph.”
“I’m breathin’,” Joe croaked.
“Kid’s breathin’,” confirmed the man in green overalls whom Joe had clipped on his flight across the gym.
“Huhn,” grunted Eileen, “Just so long as he knows it. I ain’t gettin’ fined over no dead kid.”
Knox helped Joe to stand. Joe stared hazily at him. He wiped his mouth and kept on drooling. “Did you really – really have to – really have to hit me that hard?”
Knox coughed. “Really, Joe, you should know this by now. There’s no kill unless it’s overkill.”
“But I’m not a demon!”
“I shouldn’t expect so. The demons would sue if we treated them that way.” Knox flashed teeth. “Shall we take a break? There’s a soda machine outside. My shout.”
Joe tagged Knox from the gym. Eileen watched them go with malice and caution in equal doses in her giblet eyes. Deciding it would be better to ignore her, Joe said, “I’ll shout, sir, and thank you. My pay for last week arrived in post on Monday. Only it seems like too much for what I did.”
“Why so? How much was it?”
“Enough to get the game I wanted. And a pair of shoes. See?” Joe pointed to the glossy new kicks near the locker room door. “I’d get a couple of albums too, if I had anything decent to play them on. My laptop isn’t the best for sound. I guess I could save up and get a proper desktop sometime this year. Do you think I’ll make enough for that?”
“You could do. It depends on the jobs you take.”
Knox led Joe into the bright afternoon sun, and Joe reeled away from the stark light. Overkill was right. At least he had stopped drooling. He spotted the vending machine and wobbled vaguely towards it. Was that a tooth loose in his mouth?
“Machine is this way,” Knox called from the far side of the large woman Joe was attempting to push coins into.
“Right, right. Sorry, ma’am.” Joe ducked the flying purse and scuttled towards Knox. He shook his head. “I must have hit my head sort of hard when I fell.”
“You mean when I bowled you across the gym?” Knox asked.
“It isn’t funny. I could have been hurt. I think my tooth is loose.”
Knox shrugged. “I’ll have whatever you’re having. Come and sit down awhile. Your sense of humour fell out of your ear when you tripped.”
With no decent reply, Joe fumbled with the vending machine. He handed Knox a can of Coke and took a seat beside him on the bench. They were right outside the welfare centre. Shouts and curses could be heard from within. Effin Centrelink! Oughta burn this place to the ground, mate!
Joe shivered. Give him the armies of the night any day.
“We were talking bounties,” Knox said, mildly watching two men in singlets and flip-flops escorting a gorgon of a woman out of the welfare centre. “Specifically, the bounty placed on demons. Um, Joe? Are you all right? You look like half of you is in space.”
“The other half is in hell,” Joe agreed. He forced himself to concentrate on the can in his hand. “Don’t worry about me, I’ll survive. I want to hear about the bounties.”
Not sounding as sure as he ought to, Knox muttered, “I’m sure the sugar and caffeine won’t hurt. All right. You’ll remember on your first night we mentioned the 13th Council. The 13th Council are the governing body of all official Witch Hunter clubs in the country. Most jobs we take have been passed through the Council’s state branch. They look at the details of a case and rank it accordingly. The more urgent or dangerous a case, the higher the rank. Each job is ranked between the numbers 1 and 13, where 1 is cases in which nobody is likely to be injured, and 13, where grievous maiming and extensive deaths are expected. For instance, our encounter with Master Ted ranked very low. The pig farm was a little higher.”
“Grievous …” Joe started, but Knox had already moved on.
“That’s all very straightforward. Of course, the higher ranking case, the higher the payout. Occasionally there is an additional reward provided by an interested third party. Say a banshee is proving a particular nuisance for a family. They may pay us to prioritise its exorcism. A third party will pay a sum discussed beforehand with the exorcist. Most cases however will pay purely according to rank, and so for that it’s important to understand that case ranking is based on demonic ranking.”
Joe thought he could follow that. “Is that 1 to 13 as well?”
“No, sorry. It’s demonic ranking because the demons are the ones being ranked. There are seven apparent categories of underworldly creatures. Group one, ghosts and poltergeists. Group two, incubi and succubi. Group three, wisps and nightmares. Group four, mixed-blood demons or rakansha. Group five, elementals and nature spirits. Group six, true-blood demons. Group seven, devils.”
There was something in the way Knox said devils that sent a chill down Joe’s spine.
“Then there are Fates, which are technically outside of demonic lore, and we really never exorcise them, no matter how badly they may require it.” He frowned at the parking lot. “As a shinigami, Drake is one such fate. The other seven categories are divided into a further thirteen ranks. Your household ionic emotions are the lowest rank of the lowest category, ghosts and poltergeists. First class war-devils are the highest rank of the highest ranking category, devils.” Knox cut his black eyes to Joe. “Those last aren’t the sort of fellows you want to face in a dark alley. Or at midday in a field full of puppy dogs. Trust me.”
“Have you ever …?”
“Once. Very low level, and it had been in hibernation for a very long time, so it was weak. And even then, after years of trying, I can’t …” Knox paused.
“What? You didn’t kill it?”
“I didn’t vanquish it, no.”
Joe watched Knox inhale deeply. Knox’s fingernails raked a scar on his wrist. Another deep breath, and Knox dropped his hand onto the bench and smiled at Joe.
“Another point. We Witch Hunters are also ranked according to our abilities. You guessed we weren’t all the same and you were right. There is a difference between exorcists and psychics. Only exorcists combat demons. Psychics provide support. They are strictly non-combative. There’s also a difference between exorcists and psychics, and those who deal in administration. We’re all graded separately according to which group we fall closest to, although again there are exceptions to the rules. For exorcists, your rank reflects the highest rank of demon you’ve defeated.”
“If I defeated a devil, I’d be a, a-”
“A devil hunter,” Knox provided.
“That’s right. A devil hunter. What did you say I am now?”
“You aren’t anything yet. You’ll either be a psychic or an exorcist. Field combat will bring out your talents one way or the other.”
“Right. Then what are you?”
“I’d rather not say. I feel I’m overwhelming you with detail.”
“Oh, go on.”
“Ah, alas. I’m a mere low-ranking true-blood demon hunter. Only class eight, at that.” He glanced at Joe, abashed. “Formally, I suppose I should be Class Eight True-Blood Demon Hunter Balthazar Knox. But it’s rather a mouthful.”
“Especially with your name,” Joe agreed.
“Indeed.” Knox brightened. “That’s all clear enough? The bounty on a demon’s carapace is according to its rank and category. If you get good at this, to pawn a phrase, you stand to make a killing. Are you ready to get back to training now?”
“God, I guess so,” Joe tried and failed to muster his enthusiasm. Seeing Knox about to move off the bench, he blurted, “Hey, what rank is Lily?”
Knox settled back on the bench. “I believe Miss Buchanan is a tenth class demi-demon hunter. She’s quite impressive in battle.”
“I bet. How about Erin?”
“Isn’t an exorcist. I’m not incredibly sure how psychics rank themselves. There are too many different groups of them. Clairvoyants and telekenetics and born psychics and dead-speakers and wiccans and all the rest. They seem to invent new ways to be psychic every time you flip a card.”
Joe couldn’t disagree. “Iluka?”
“Is a psychic. Geoclairvoyancy, she calls it.”
Joe was running out of pretty girls. “Sylvie?”
Knox eyed him. “Really, Joe. Sylvie’s twice your age. Her oldest son is your age.”
“I know she’s a psychic, anyway.”
“A dead-speaker, actually. I know this one. She’s from a local family. They’re all dead-speakers. Even her brother, who is a captain in the local police force, has some skill in that field.”
“What happened to embellishing when you ran out of things you know?” Joe asked, smirking behind his Coke.
Knox endeavoured to appear shamed. “I could hardly tell you mistruths about the club members. I’d hate to lend you false expectations of their abilities.”
“How about Bliss, then?”
“Because she’s a psychic?”
“She’s an exorcist. I won’t tell you because I forget what rank she is.”
Joe grinned. There was something enjoyable about making Knox uncomfortable. A kind of revengey pleasure. “Does that mean she’s higher ranking than you?”
“No.” Knox stared balefully at the younger man. “I’ll have you know I’m technically the highest ranking exorcist in the club.”
“Aside from no one.”
“Then why the technicality?”
“Well, technically,” Knox elaborated, although he clearly didn’t want to, “I suppose O’Roarke outranks me. But he’s not measured to the same standard as the rest of us. He’s an unfair advantage.”
Knox stood up from the bench. Joe frowned after him. Behind the frown, he was laughing like a madman. “Say, Chief? You’re not jealous of O’Roarke, are you?”
“What? That’s ridiculous. That’s the stupidest thing I’ve ever heard in my life.” Knox pitched his Coke can into the bin. It spun on the bin’s curve and dropped into the basket.
First rule of staying alive, thought Joe: focus.
Joe leapt to his feet and grabbed Knox in a flawless classic quarterback tackle.
Or so he thought. Knox stooped as Joe lunged, catching the his wrist and flank. As Joe plunged over him, Knox used his grip on Joe to pivot him into the pavement.
Joe lay writhing on the concrete. Knox gave him a withering glare.
“I’m sorry,” Joe groaned.
Knox huffed. “As you should be. Do hurry along. I wouldn’t want to become jealous of you sunbathing in front of welfare centre.”
This evening, as I was going through the final edits of this chapter, I listened to an old playlist on YouTube. It included this music trailer for the original Hellsing anime. Warnings for a bit of animated violence. Hellsing played a huge roll in showing me what was possible with a demented mind and a desire for destruction. This trailer, even though it is very different stylistically from the show, exemplifies for me what that brilliant niche of paranormal ultra violence is all about. Without this trailer, and without Hellsing, I may never have written the Witch Hunters. Certainly it would be a very different beast from what it is now.
That said, you can’t really call Witch Hunters “paranormal ultra violence” … yet.