I nearly ran past the dead-end alley before it clicked. I stopped dead and ducked into the dark passage, stumbling as the sweet-acrid smell of rot and piss hit my nose.
There was a dumpster sitting a little skewed at the end of the alley and I slipped behind it and squatted down, huddling in the shadows. I hoped that the dark, smelly surroundings would throw off my tails.
I closed my eyes and concentrated on slowing my breathing. I ignored the drip-drip to the left of me, just missing my shoulder, and the cool spread of dampness on my right hip. The distinctly moldy scent teased my nose with a sneeze.
It was just like meditation; in – mind goes blank, out – I'm not here. Over and over; in – mind goes blank, out – I'm not here. Mind blank, not here. Mind blank, not here. Mind blank, not here.
I felt my consciousness go to the other, the place of visions and mindfulness. My awareness slipped into that place of there/not-there, where I could hear and see and smell, but as if watching a movie.
I felt a shadow of gratitude that I'd practiced this until it was second nature. It wasn't me present in that stinky darkness; my knowing was completely objective. I held the distant feeling like a shield. My breathing changed from the panting gasps of an out-of-shape runner to the deep, controlled breaths of one just this side of asleep.
I heard my hunters approach the alley with a sound of scraping claws and wet, snuffling growls. Terror played with the edges of my mind.
They went past the mouth of the alley, and a sliver of relief pierced my objectivity. I heard the noises stop just past the alley and my heart tripped over itself. A light pad-click of clawed feet came closer. I could hear the sniffing of creatures searching for me.
I clung to my detached state, willing the darkness around me to cover me like a cloak. Not here, not here, not here. My mind cycled through the mantra, projecting the image of my physical form transforming into just another shadow behind the trash bin.
The padding footsteps stopped in front of me. My eyes opened, slowly. I kept my mind distant, and my feeling was of curiosity and the small anxiety one feels for a beloved fictional character in trouble.
I could see a sliver of the creatures, mostly still hidden by the dumpster. They had oddly colored skin of gray and blue and purple that faded into the shadows of the alley. Their eyes glinted red and yellow when they caught the faint light. Their teeth stuck out prominently, shining with spit.
They were tall, nearly 8 feet, I would guess. And the first thing that came to mind when searching for a label for the creatures was... demon. These were creatures of fire and torture, taken from the imaginings of hundreds of Christian painters and writers.
One of the creatures stepped forward, bringing its head fully into view. Its jutting lower jaw dripped thick saliva and the deep red of blood.
Terror clawed at the edges of my mind, a gibbering panic that tried to take control. I firmly layered more darkness around me, burying my consciousness beneath the shadows of my own mind.
The creature turned its head to look at me, craning its too-long neck to peer around the dumpster. It stared into the corner where I was crouched, sniffing wetly. The sulfuric smell of its breath hit my face as I forced my lungs to breathe, slow and even.
An eternity passed while it searched my hiding spot, as if it sensed that I was really there. I clung to my mental cloak, fighting the horror each time it’s mouth passed within inches of my nose.
Tires screeched on the road at the mouth of the alley. The creature jerked its head around and snarled.
“Creatures of the desert god, I challenge you to battle!” a female voice cried out, fearless and powerful.
One by one, they vanished from my field of vision, claws scraping on the filth covered cement.
I sat, frozen with the shock of how close I'd come to being caught, listening to the sounds of fighting. I struggled to bring my mind back from the shadows. Not the terror and fear, but the part of me that could think and function.
I heard the dull clink of metal striking flesh and bone, and the curiosity of who my savior was finally dragged my consciousness fully back into my body. I blinked a few times and struggled in the muck to stand up. Clinging to the side of the dumpster, I stared at the sight at the mouth of the alley.
A blonde woman in hiking boots and a red flannel shirt held a huge sword in front of her. Two of the three creatures were still standing, bleeding a black bile from cuts on their arms and chests. One creature lay to the side of the battle, the reddish light gone from its eyes.
I tore my gaze from the fallen monster as one of the creatures lunged at the woman. In a blur that told me she wasn't quite human, she parried the creature's attack with her blade and followed with several slashes, drawing blood again and again.
The other creature attacked while the woman was still slicing at the shoulder of the first, and I swallowed a gasp as the woman pivoted mid-stroke to drag the heavy blade across the second creature's throat. It fell to the ground, twitching as its life drained away. The first creature glanced at its fallen comrades before it bolted away down the street.
I staggered out from behind the dumpster and headed towards the woman. As I came near, she shook the sword in her hands and I watched in awe as it shrunk down into a large bowie knife. The blonde woman sheathed the knife at the small of her back and chuckled.
“I guess he didn't like the odds, huh?” she said, turning to face me.
“Mercy.” I said, looking her up and down. She nodded. “What the hell.”
“Get in the car,” she said. I glanced at the tire, which had the too-small look of a donut. “I doubled back and got the tire changed. I'll explain the rest while we get out of here.”
I hesitated a moment. “There was a cop...” She shot a questioning look at me. “He was in the street. I ran past him.”
She sighed. “He's dead, then.”
“There's nothing we can do for him,” Mercy pointed out.
I nodded again, reaching for the passenger door handle.
Mercy grabbed my arm and turned me to face her. “Nicola, it wasn't your fault. Those creatures kill and that cop was just in the wrong place. It isn't because of you. It's just a shitty thing that happened.”
I pulled away from her grasp and mumbled, “I know. Doesn't make it better, though.” I opened the door and got into the car.
Mercy hesitated a moment, like she was going to try to talk to me again, but she just walked around to the driver's side.
We pulled away from the alley, and I stared out the window, not paying attention to where we were going. I wondered what would happen when someone found the creatures' bodies. I wondered how we would find Joseph and if he was alive. I wondered what the police would believe when they found the cop torn apart.
The flashing red and blue lights caught my attention, and I focused on the scene down the street as we rolled past. Mercy was keeping the speed well below the limit, so I had plenty of time to see the medical examiner bent over the dead officer's body and a detective pulling something out of the dead officer's car.
I also saw Ames standing with his arms crossed over his chest, watching the others work with a critical look on his chubby face. And I saw his face turn towards us. His eyes landed on our car and his arms dropped as he stepped towards us. And a building cut off my view of him as we moved past the intersection.
I turned to Mercy. “Ames saw us.”
She shot me a worried look.
“I don't know if he could see us,” I clarified. “But I'm sure he recognized the car.” I turned my head back to the window. “He probably can't prove it was us, but he'll suspect.”
Mercy turned back to face the road, nodded once and slowly accelerated. She turned left at the next major intersection and drove several blocks before turning back in the direction that Joseph had headed.
I noted in the back of my mind that she was making a wide arc around back towards Keith's place. I remembered vaguely that I'd said to head back to the building after losing the men… no, monsters.
An image of the dead creatures flashed in my mind and I choked back a laugh. It was probably hysteria after the shock. A part of my brain kept the running commentary of objective observations about the evening’s events. Another part wept and laughed in equal measure.
A third part of my mind noted that the others were pretty standard symptoms of psychological shock. And I stared wide-eyed out of the window, counting doorways and tracing neon signs with my eyes.
We came to a stop at the side of the road and I blinked away the blank expression. I focused on the building we'd pulled up to for a long moment before I recognized it as the apartment building we'd left only an hour earlier. Of course, with weird creatures on our tails, I hadn't really paid much attention to the surroundings.
I did recognize the creepy, broken-winged angel statue in the front yard. And, next to the pathetic heavenly host, Joseph sat perched on the edge of a giant, cement planter.
I rolled down the window and called him over. He seemed as shell-shocked as I was, walking towards us in a dazed, almost drunken way. He climbed into the back seat and Mercy drove away. I'd never been so relieved to leave a place in my life.