I have to catch it.
He knew that even before he knew he was running, even before he knew where he was, when the world was just a rainbow of colors, blinding, disorienting, and him staggering like a three-footed drunk, his eyes blinking furiously as they tried to sort it all out. And then the colors sharpened and separated and he found his footing, the world coming steadier. And there were shapes.
Too many shapes, too different.
He kept moving through the storm. He had to catch it.
Then the noise hit him.
He stalled. He was drowning. He was being crushed. By the colors, by the shapes. By the movement, by the sound. The universe pressed in on him.
Something pounded inside him, and a word came to him:
It was his heart pounding.
That was the second word. And now there was a torrent of words: Eyes. Ears. Feet. Sky. Ground. Buildings. Tree. People. Cars. Helicopter. Phone. Hands. Legs. Trousers. Sun. Clouds. Bus. Windows. Slitherer.
The last word galvanized him. He saw the smear of fecal brown, the shimmer of mustard as it moved, and he ran. Ran as if his life depended on it, a flat-out sprint, hampered though he was by the sidewalk thronged with people. He slid between them, bounced off some of them, slid on a slick of something noxious and twirled around one particularly fat one like a ferocious moon in desperate orbit, and saw for one triumphant split-second a clear path between him and the slitherer, and then it was gone, the movement of the crowd hiding it again.
He ran, following that flickering will o’ the wisp with grim determination, relentless as a starving wolf, till the crowd thinned, showing nothing more foul than the toxic smoke from the slow-moving yellow cabs. No slitherer; no demon of any kind.
His legs slowed. But didn’t stop. Instinct screamed that he had to keep moving, that to stay still was to die. And he felt the demon twitch at the edge of his awareness, like a fish struggling at the end of a long line. He could follow that line, he could hold the demon. He would catch it.
It was what he did.
Words continued to pop madly in his mind: cab, umbrella, giant sub, Starbucks, nickel, pole-dancer. He didn’t know what the words meant, most of them, nor where he was or where he was walking to. But he could feel his prey, and that was enough.
Then a shiver started at the nape of his neck and travelled all the way down his spine. Ice broke over him like a collapsing wave. He began to run again.
Not far. He turned another corner and came to a short alley, and there was the slitherer, slim as a snake, but nowhere near as clean. He spotted four sickly yellow eyes, then the head jerked around, pulling the demon into a U-shape, and the number tripled. But it wasn’t the eyes that were the danger. The small mouth opened.
That was the danger. But the slitherer was a small slyness; it couldn’t be the source of the ice. Something bigger had come through.
Behind the turd-like demon, a grabber hovered in mid-air, its huge white eyes riveted on the woman standing staring at it, her mouth wide in a silent scream.
The grabber could do that. Damp the sound of its prey. If it was close enough, and it was surely close enough. Its breath must be shriveling the woman’s hair.
But he’d distracted it. The evil little monster reared up, its bulbous eyes swiveling to lock onto this new threat, and without thought he hurled himself over the girl’s head, directly into the face of the monster, and, not coincidentally, over and out of the way of the poisonous stream jetting toward him from the slitherer’s mouth.
He passed through the grabber like a barracuda through a vat of glue. As he rolled on the hard, filthy ground, he felt his exposed skin —hands, neck, face — pull away from his flesh, then, reluctantly, spring back. His skin felt tacky.
He bounced to his feet, the air around him gritty with imploded demon, the woman still staring open-mouthed. The slitherer was gone. Slipped the line while his attention had been distracted. Its poison sac would be depleted, even if it had the will to face him in direct combat. It was no fighter; it was a lurker in dark corners, in your unattended boot, waiting for unwary prey.
Or leading its prey into ambush. Was that what it had thought it was doing? But a grabber was no match for him, which meant … He went to snatch the woman’s hand. “We need to get out of here!”
The woman took a step back, turning her body, before he could touch her. She frowned. Maybe she was in shock. But she didn’t have the blank, dazed look he associated with shock. Her eyes were still wild, but she looked calm for someone who’d just faced a grabber. Maybe she’d done it before.
He spoke more slowly, not trying to touch her this time. “There could be more. We need to get out of here.”
Her head tilted as if she was listening hard, but her frown didn’t vanish. Maybe the grabber had messed with her hearing?
She said something. Now he frowned. “I’m sorry?”
This time it was almost intelligible. He watched her lips intently, as if that would help. Then he banged the side of his head and said, “Testing, testing.”
He raised his eyebrows. “You understood that?”
Okay, communications, check.
“What was that?”
He heard the shake in the woman’s voice. Maybe it was only hitting her now, more likely it hadn’t been evident to him when he couldn’t understand her words. He didn’t wonder at that — why they hadn’t understood each other, why they now could. Something in him accepted that that was normal, nothing to worry about. In any case, right now he had bigger concerns.
He glanced at the place the grabber had been. Passing through it was not his preferred method of dealing with a demon — fleetingly, he wondered what other options he had — and his skin still crawled as if his flesh was trying to shrink away from it, a shiver deep in his bones, nausea soul-deep. He ignored it all, thoughts and feelings. Right now he had bigger concerns.
He smiled at the woman, voice easy, although her demeanor suggested she wasn’t easily panicked. “Probably a good idea to get out of here. Just in case.”
She blanched. Maybe she’d already been pale — he didn’t know what her usual skin tone was — but this was definitely paler, a very milky coffee. She didn’t need him to draw a diagram. She hightailed it out of the alley.
He looked around one more time, not sure what he was looking for but certain he’d know it if he saw it. If this was supposed to be an ambush, it was remarkably slow in coming. Maybe the slitherer had simply sensed the other demon and thought to distract him with it. If so, its plan had worked. He’d lost the trail now, and in any case he couldn’t leave the woman, not without assurance she was safe from further attack. The presence of a grabber was … worrying.
The thought galvanized him. He moved swiftly, but she hadn’t gone far. Lingering around the corner, her dark eyes watched the mouth of the alley. She waited for him to catch up to her and then started walking. Softly, eyes in constant watch on the people passing, she asked again, “What was that?”
“I call them grabbers.”
“You’ve seen creatures like that before.” An edge to her voice, not quite an accusation.
She turned her head, eyes wide with disbelief. “Hell, no!”
Impressive. But maybe her composure was down to ignorance. If she’d known what the grabber was and what its coming portended, she’d surely be scared witless.
They had both stopped moving. The woman was studying him now, her eyes narrow with thought. The slight frown indicated the thoughts weren’t happy. No surprise there, who’d be happy to have a demon after them? But he suspected it was himself she was brooding over.
A skinny youth moving jerkily brushed her arm as he passed. She flinched and glared after him, then looked around warily. Too many people. Did she feel that too, or was this normal for the time and place?
“Come on.” She grabbed his arm. He felt a spark, shocking in its intensity, and her hand sprang open convulsively, then tightened again. A reflexive jerk, not a deliberate second try. But there was no spark this time. They both stood frozen for a moment. She took two shaky breaths while he took one long, deep one. He felt … grounded.
She met his eyes. Hers were a rich dark chocolate. The word sparked a memory, a taste, of something luscious and bittersweet. Have to try some of that. He didn’t wonder at the strangeness of the thought, how he could remember something he had no experience of.
“I need a drink.” The woman’s voice was jagged, and he heard the subtext behind the word: something that calmed the nerves, distanced the fear. Probably not water then.
She pulled him along with her as if afraid of what would happen if she let go, and he allowed this willingly, adrift now with no beacons calling him. They didn’t go far. Halfway down the next block, she pulled him into one of the buildings. Darker, no natural light, a cozy lamplight glow. A smell, sharp and pungent, hit him as soon as he breathed in, and his feet stopped in momentary shock. But she tugged him on, and the smell softened into something more familiar. He had a vision of a heather-clad hillside under a wide open sky, and peat burning.
And now he heard the soft slur of voices and the sound of glass on glass, and liquid splashing in a small, contained space. There were people sitting on high stools at a bar, and a man standing behind it, and light reflecting off glass bottles behind his head.
The woman pulled him to the bar and said to the man, “Jack Daniels, double, straight up.” She turned to him, eyebrows raised. He shrugged. She turned back to the man. “Make that two.” She released his hand, cautiously, her eyes sliding toward him as if she wasn’t sure he wouldn’t disappear. Reaching into a pocket of her jacket, she pulled out something small and black, that opened like a book. Wallet, he thought, and as she pulled out some patterned slips of paper, money. She paid for the drinks and picked up one of the glasses on the bar.
“Cheers.” She held the glass in front of her for a moment as she said it, then knocked back half the contents of the glass in one quick motion. “God, I needed that.” She glanced at the glass still sitting on the bar. “You’re not teetotal, are you?”
He didn’t immediately recognize the word, but he thought he could guess at the meaning. He didn’t know the answer, but he picked up the glass and imitated her action. The liquid hit the back of his throat in a burst of fire and left a raw trail in its wake. Something very familiar about that. And welcoming. The bone-deep tremble, the nausea, the unpleasant tackiness on his skin, they were all still with him, but the fiery liquid helped. He grinned. The woman seemed to approve; a matching grin appeared on her face. Maybe it also helped her get over her fear he would disappear, because she tilted her head toward the back of the room and moved off without making sure he was with her.
He followed her of course, because what else was he going to do?
Sitting down on a cushioned bench in a booth, she took another, smaller, gulp from her glass, and looked up at him. “You need an invitation?”
He dropped onto the matching bench on the other side of the table, taking another long draught before setting down the glass. The tremble settled to an uneven vibration, like a two-stroke mower with a cold engine fighting month-long grass.
Putting her elbows on the table, the woman leaned forward, speaking softly, although there was no one close. “So how did you know there was one of those things there?” He blinked at her, his mind still caught by that sensation of mowing grass, an impression as random and out of context as those words cascading into his mind before the alley and the grabber — still flooding in, now he thought about it, only more quietly.
When he didn’t answer right away her voice took on a harder edge. “The chances of someone who knows about monsters like that actually happening by at the right time are pretty remote. You knew it was there.”
“I knew,” he admitted. How had he known? Something in him shied away from thinking about that. Just like it didn’t want him thinking about any of the other stuff. Was that wisdom, or fear?
The woman tilted her head. Perhaps it was wisdom, he thought. Survival demanded that the environment take priority, and things were becoming clearer to him all the time. He could hear the conversations going on around them, and he could see now that the woman opposite him was young, and attractive. Her dark hair, falling in heavy waves below her shoulders, swung as she moved. Even sitting here, she was still in motion, hands, shoulders, face, and head. Even her feet — he could hear them tapping a staccato rhythm beneath the table. A generous mouth, high cheekbones, a slender nose. Skin like caramel.
Was that important? More important than questions about himself? Or was he simply distracting himself?
She’s brave. And smart. Cautious, but not timid. Self-contained. Those were important. More important than her physical attributes.
But her eyes warmed him, and her restless energy found a resonance in his own body. And she was studying him as intently as he studied her, and he liked that too, although he didn’t know why. Attention wasn’t something he sought, mostly.
“So, how long have you been chasing monsters?”
He thought she meant it as a joke; it had the cadence of a joke. But his mouth, open to answer, stayed open. The word, whatever word it had been, stalled in his throat. Choked him. His eyes widened.
The woman eyed him warily. “I hadn’t got to the hard questions yet. I thought.”
He closed his mouth, shook his head, his eyes still wide. “I don’t know.”
“That long, huh?” She was trying to make light of it, but the watchful expression in her eyes didn’t match the smile on her lips. “I’m Elly, by the way.” The watchful look had intensified, and somehow he knew what she was going to say, and what he would answer, even though he hadn’t realized any of it until the moment the words were out. “You got a name?”
Panic rose in him, swelling like a mushroom cloud. He’d had no panic at all the strangeness; no panic on seeing demons. But now, on hearing that simple question, panic. He knew now what his mind had been shying away from, what he’d been refusing to let himself realize. He didn’t want to know it, but it was too late now. She’d asked the question, and an answer had come, in its way.
“I don’t know.”