The final breath of summer’s muggy heat wrapped around Emma like a thick blanket as she and Adrianna stepped out of the boisterous restaurant, chatting loudly. The scent of fresh rainfall cleared her head like nothing else could, and she found herself inhaling it deeply, a smile curving her lips.
The cars that drove by splashed water up onto the curb, their headlights reflected off the road.
“I can’t help it,” Adrianna said matter-of-factly, “drummers are my weakness.”
Emma laughed. “Aaron plays the guitar, that’s close. Besides, he’s a good-looking guy, not to mention extremely smart. He couldn’t keep his eyes off you at band practice.”
“Yes, but he’s a ginger.”
“Ouch.” Emma mock-winced. “My mother has red hair, you know.”
Adrianna’s snort was nearly drowned out by the clacking of their heels on the wet pavement. “She has strawberry-blond hair. That doesn’t count,” she countered.
“I think you’re just scared to go outside your comfort zone. Give Aaron a chance. He might rock your world.” Emma winked. Both girls burst into laughter.
As they rounded the corner, their laughter faded. The air became like ice, sending a shiver down Emma’s spine. Clutching her arms around herself, she shared a look with Adrianna that said, Why didn’t either of us bring jackets?
A whimper that stretched into a whine brought them to an abrupt halt.
“Did you hear that?” Emma asked. Adrianna’s thick brows creased. The whimper came again, followed by the unmistakable howl of an animal.
They approached a darkened alleyway on their right from where the sound seemed to emanate. The hairs on the back of Emma’s neck stood on end, her skin clammy.
Emma started forward, but before she entered the side street, a slender hand gripped her arm, whipping her around.
“You can’t go down there!” Adrianna hissed.
“There’s an injured animal down there, A.” Emma turned her head and squinted, trying to catch a glimpse of the creature. As if in answer, a light from above a shop door flickered on for a moment, illuminating a dumpster and a dark form on the ground beside it.
“And what are you going to do about it if there is?” Adrianna asked, panic growing in her voice. “Just call your mom and have her come take a look.”
Emma shook her head. “She’s in surgery until at least eleven tonight.”
“Well, we can call a veterinary clinic on our way to the concert,” Adrianna suggested, gripping Emma’s arm with both hands as if anchoring her to the pavement. Adrianna was only about an inch taller than Emma, but unlike Emma, Adrianna’s mother hadn’t insisted she take self-defense classes on a regular basis. Emma glanced down at her friend’s tightening grasp.
“Come on, Em, please,” Adrianna whispered. “You know I don’t like alleys. Or the dark. Combine the two, and you’re just asking for a panic attack!”
Emma stared into Adrianna’s dark, frightened eyes. With a small, reassuring smile, Emma eased the fingers off her arm one-by-one.
“You stay right here; I’ll just be a minute.” Emma pulled out her phone and turned on the flashlight feature. The animal let out a low, pained moan, making Emma’s chest ache. She stepped forward softly, crouching so as not to scare the creature. Each step pushed a dagger of ice further between her lungs, the weight heavy in her chest, making it hard to breathe, but she didn’t stop.
The light from her phone showed the black, long-haired dog, lying on its side. Its breath came in quick, raspy pants. The fur on its heaving chest was matted with blood, which pooled beneath the creature. Emma didn’t have to scan the dog long to find the injury; a large hole, about the size of her fist. Her stomach turned. What on earth did this?
“What is it?” Adrianna whispered loudly.
“A dog,” Emma choked out. The sight of the blood didn’t bother her. Her mother was a cardiothoracic surgeon, so Emma had seen gruesome photos from textbooks lying around when she was younger, but the sight of the injured animal shook her to her core. Her eyes filled with tears as she met the creature’s wide-eyed gaze. The animal was going to die, and it knew it. Emma lowered herself even further, a hand outstretched as she crept closer.
“It’s okay, fella,” Emma said gently. The dog stared at her apprehensively as she made her way to its head.
Adrianna’s heels clapped loudly, the sound echoing off the brick walls as she shuffled into the alley. The dog’s eyes snapped to the approaching stranger, and it gave a low, half-hearted growl.
“Quiet!” Emma hissed, trying to make herself heard over her friend’s thunderous footfalls. Adrianna paused. Her next steps were taken with exaggerated slowness.
Emma stroked the wiry, unkempt fur of the dog’s head.
“We won’t hurt you,” she murmured. It relaxed into her touch, an animal starved for affection. The aching in her heart grew at the resignation in the creature’s face.
Adrianna hovered above them, arms crossed over her ample chest, her dark skin barely visible in the dim alley. “How did this happen? There aren’t any bloody tracks,” she said, looking around.
Emma looked around too, shining the light from her phone. There was a second large dumpster in the dead-end alley and some trash that had either been carried away by the wind or left by those too lazy to deposit it in the very obvious receptacles.
“I don’t know.”
The dog shifted, knocking her phone from her hand. It clattered to the ground, the light offering just enough illumination to see around them. Emma ignored the phone and used both hands to steady the creature, coaxing it to lie still, her voice gentle as she soothed it. Its breathing grew more ragged. It was almost over. Her hand trembled as she stroked its face, tears burning her eyes
“There’s nothing I can do.” A tear slid down her cheek, its warmth leeching into her cold skin.
“So much for seeing my favorite band play,” Adrianna muttered. Emma shot her a glare, her mouth opening to reply when two tall, inky black shapes moved at the opening of the alley. She froze, her heart leaping up in her throat.
“Who’s there?” Emma called. The beast beneath her gave a final, rough exhalation before going still. A small sob escaped her as she looked back down at the dog’s lifeless form. What wretched timing.
“If you’re the ones who did this to this poor, defenseless animal, you’d better run because this chick is a black belt in like…everything!” Adrianna shouted shakily. Emma made a small noise in the back of her throat, her eyes wide as she looked back up at her friend. Emma was not a black belt in anything, but Adrianna’s scare tactic made sense.
Reluctantly, Emma rose to her feet. Neither girl was intimidating, each just a few inches over five-foot, but they were both fairly fit. Adrianna had a curvier shape, but she was all lean muscle from playing sports. Emma had a slimmer build but was just as strong.
The two shadows took shape, still lingering in the darkness at the mouth of the alley. They did not resemble anything human with their elongated limbs. They were more like spiders that glided toward the girls with unnerving grace. Their luminous yellow eyes were fixed on the pair. The girls took a step back in unison, earning a chorus of hisses that sounded suspiciously like laughter. Just as Emma opened her mouth to speak again, a third shape appeared, taller than the other two, with billowing shadows melting and reforming its intimidating form.
Adrianna shot Emma a look of pure terror that made Emma’s mask of bravery slip. Her heart thundered in her ribcage. Was the dog a trap? Had these creatures wounded it to lure them away from the street?
Her mind raced, survival mode kicking in. All three figures were grouped together on one side. If she and Adrianna were fast, they could try to make it past them.
“We need to run, A,” Emma whispered. “Run as hard as you can straight past them.”
Another round of hisses sounded. The closer the figures got, the more the cold weight between her lungs increased. Emma exchanged a furtive glance with Adrianna as they moved their feet into a ready stance. She spared a pitying look at her phone but didn’t waste time trying to grab it.
“Go!” Emma yelled. They took off like rockets, fueled by the flood of adrenaline in their veins. If they could make it to the street, there would be cars and people. They just had to get past the figures.
Emma ran knowing her life depended on it, ignoring the stabs of pain in her ankles from her high-heels. She was faintly aware of the next set of hisses. The spindly figures were maybe ten feet away, towering above them, yet they appeared to be nothing more than black mist swirling and leeching icy-cold air that choked her.
There was a crack like thunder then a wall shot out of the ground, raising up several stories high, blocking what little light they had. What the—?
Emma brought her arms up, shielding her face just before she hit the wall with an oomph. Adrianna screamed as she collided with it less than a second later. The rough, stone wall was as cold as the air outside, but it did little to soothe the sting in her forearms from the impact. Adrianna swore loudly. Their eyes were wide as they stared disbelievingly at each other. Emma’s hands shook as she slapped her burning palms against the solid stone. It was real.
“What the hell just happened?” Adrianna asked.
“I don’t know, but whatever those creatures were, they’re on the other side.” A breath of momentary relief flowed through her. Then hissing laughter filled the air behind them.
They whipped around, their backs pressed hard against the wall. The three shadows with deadly, glowing eyes like wolves, stood in the middle of the enclosure. The darkness that clung to them dissipated, revealing two sets of long bony arm-like appendages that touched the ground.
Adrianna whimpered, then spun and began pounding her fists against the wall, screaming for help, but Emma couldn’t move. Her eyes were fixed on the three creatures. The light her phone emitted lit the one closest to it from the side. They were all at least seven feet tall with elongated heads with sharp chins, and two rounded bulges on the top of their skulls. But it wasn’t that, or the way their dark skin hung off their bodies like tattered rags that made Emma gag. It was the smell of burnt, decaying flesh mixed with the sharp, metallic scent of blood. Beside her, Adrianna struggled to keep her dinner down.
“Sssso fun,” the first voice said in a taunting, snake-like voice.
“Myyyy favorite part,” the second chimed.
But the third, the one touched by the dim lighting, taller than the others, cocked its head to the side, its glowing eyes fixed on Emma. It stepped forward in one gigantic, smooth stride. Emma pressed herself harder into the wall, willing it to swallow them whole.
Adrianna sobbed, shifting the creature’s gaze to her for a second, then as if dismissing her, looked back at Emma.
“Interesting,” it rasped. This one’s voice was different from the other two. It sounded more…human. A chill snaked down Emma’s spine.
She thought of her mother and closed her eyes, waiting for death. She’d had to beg and plead with her mother to go out with her friend tonight.
Emma wondered how long it would take for her body to be found. People would undoubtedly notice a wall had enclosed the alley that held the back doors of several shops. But someone would have to break it down to find them. By the time she was discovered, her mother would have worked herself into a flurry of panic. Her mother’s bright smile and shining eyes filled her mind. Tears slipped from under Emma’s tightly shut eyelids.
The putrid smell was practically suffocating her now. A deep, throaty inhale made her eyes shoot open. A pair of large, sickly yellow eyes stared back at her.
“Very interesting,” the creature repeated.
“P-please. Let us g-go,” Adrianna begged through poorly-stifled sobs. Emma reached out and grabbed her hand, giving it a light squeeze. At least she would face her last moments with her friend. Neither would have to die alone. Emma tried to speak, but her mouth wouldn’t open.
The three creatures gave another round of laughter.
“Ah,” the middle one said after breathing deeply. “Tasssste that fear, brothersssss?”
“Enough of thisss, I’m ssstarving,” the one furthest in the darkness hissed.
Emma saw the two creatures lunge for Adrianna. The one standing directly in front of her had her practically caged in against the wall, making it impossible to help her friend. Its mouth opened, stretching wide enough to fit an entire human head inside of it.
Emma’s reaction was quick, her fist coming up in a right hook. It collided with the cold, papery flesh of its low-hanging jaw, snapping it shut. A jolt of something dark and powerful flooded her. Her blood burned like fire in her veins, and she cried out.
The creature’s eyes widened in shock. It felt it too. The sensations of power and heat faded, but the creature remained stunned. A scream echoed deeper in the alley and Emma leaped around her attacker. One of the creatures had its long, spindly arms wrapped around Adrianna like an enormous insect grasping its prey. The other was trying to get its gaping mouth around her thrashing limbs.
Emma charged at the two creatures, but her movement startled her attacker from its stupor, and it grabbed for her with its hand-less stumps. It moved sluggishly, and she dodged its limbs, but not before its skin brushed against hers again. The creature screeched so fiercely that Emma spun back toward it. Another surge of what felt like pure adrenaline coursed through her.
More something inside her demanded. Her head spun as she lunged for it, wrapping her arms and legs around its thin, spider-like arm. She ignored that smell that filled her nostrils and made her stomach roll. A rush of energy crashed into her, invading every cell with power. A laugh of pure ecstasy bubbled up out of her throat.
The creature’s scream was more of a croak. It tried to shake Emma off, swatting at her with its other three uncoordinated arms. But everywhere its skin made contact with hers, the heady rush grew, and the creature stiffened. Emma watched with fascination and wicked delight that didn’t feel like her own as the enormous figure began to wilt. Its dead eyes lost their glow and shrank back into its skull. After another moment, the energy stopped pumping into her, and a dry, brittle husk crackled into a fine powder in her arms.
Emma couldn’t help but stare for another moment before her friend’s agonizing screams made her whirl around. One of the creatures had gotten Adrianna’s arm in its mouth and clamped down. It slurped noisily as blood dribbled from its mouth and onto the pavement. Emma sprinted toward it, her body light and fluid.
She moved so quickly that everything was a blur. She flung her body around the decaying flesh of the creature’s leg. The creature shrieked and writhed, releasing Adrianna, who hit the ground with an audible snap and a strained sob. It stepped back with slow, jerky movements. Emma clung to it, needing to feel the incredible power that filled her. She could snap the entire thing in half with ease, but the thought of letting go for even a second made her cling tighter. She wanted it. No, she needed it. The remaining dregs of energy permeated her skin like a sweet, sticky sap. The second creature was a heap of dust before Emma got to her feet. It coated her clothing, her skin, and her hair. Head lowered, her eyes locked onto the remaining creature. More.
Emma stalked forward. She wanted to enjoy this next one. She wanted to drain it slowly. She wanted to watch the life leave its eyes. A grin split her face as she prowled forward.
I want you to look at what’s left of your friends and know what’s coming for you, Emma thought. It backed away, stumbling as if it heard her thoughts. The lanky stick-creature hit the side of the building and hissed threateningly.
“What are you?” it asked, each word a hiss. Its fear was like a drug that Emma craved, and her smile grew. All she cared about was getting close enough to touch it. Seeing it cornered like they had done to her, filled Emma with a glee that whispered: death. It was unlike anything she had ever felt before. She felt alive.
“Emma.” The name made something inside her freeze. It sounded familiar. After a moment she realized it was hers. She turned slowly on the spot.
A girl cowered on the ground, bleeding from her arm. She gripped her ankle, staring at Emma. She blinked, as the heat inside her slowly dwindled. Details started to click back into place. Who she was, what she was doing here, and more importantly, that the injured girl was her best friend.
Emma took a step toward her and Adrianna made a sound akin to the pained whimper of the mutilated dog. Emma stopped dead as her heart lurched painfully. The remaining energy inside her left in a rush, and suddenly she was ice cold all the way to her bones. Her skin ached, and her muscles felt strained and overworked. A bitter taste had filled her mouth, making her want to spit.
She whipped back around to drain the last creature, only to find that it was no longer there. She searched the alley, and her eyes landed on the open street, which was no longer blocked by a wall. That must have been what Adrianna was trying to tell her.
Emma spun back toward her friend and rushed forward, but the girl scooted away fearfully.
“A?” Emma said tentatively. “I’m not going to hurt you. I would never hurt you.”
Adrianna’s eyes were filled with uncertainty, her brows creased, but she let Emma close the distance between them without moving again, her eyes never leaving Emma’s.
She bent down, observing Adrianna’s bloodied arm first. The teeth had only punctured around the elbow and could be explained away as cuts, but she didn’t know how deep they were. She did a quick scan of the rest of Adrianna’s body, her gaze landing on her ankle. It was at least twice its normal size, and she could make out a bone jutting to the side, stretching the skin. Definitely broken.
“Let’s get you to a hospital,” Emma said, offering her hands to help her up. Adrianna flinched, forcing Emma to meet her gaze. “What’s your deal, A?” she demanded. Her chest swelled as emotion worked its way up her throat. She had just saved Adrianna’s life, and now her friend was acting like she was a plague.
“Your eyes,” Adrianna whispered. “They were glowing.”
Emma shook her head. She had no idea what had just happened, but nothing made sense. She looked over her friend’s shoulder to her phone, and her stomach dropped.
The dog that had died right before her eyes was no longer there. There was no blood on the pavement except for Adrianna’s. No evidence of anything that had just happened. The dusty creature’s remains were already being swept away by the brisk breeze. For a split second, she questioned her sanity.
“The dog isn’t there anymore.” Her voice was a whisper. She wasn’t even sure if she was saying it to herself or her friend. Adrianna twisted slowly, wincing as she looked behind her. When she turned back to face Emma, her eyes were wide and filled with tears.
“What’s going on?”
Emma shook her head again. “I don’t know. We couldn’t have both imagined the dog and the wall. We touched them. They were real. And I killed…” Her voice cracked. She had killed. They were horrible, inhuman things, but she had killed. Her head gave a mighty throb.
Tears spilled over Adrianna’s cheeks. Her whole body shook, struggling to contain her wails. Their fear was bone-deep. But there was relief too. They were alive. Emma rubbed Adrianna’s back until her tears slowed to a stop. Then her friend asked, “How did you kill those two things?”
“I don’t know,” Emma replied truthfully. “My touch sort of…dried them out from the inside?” Even as the words left Emma’s mouth, she knew they sounded insane. I drank their power, she didn’t say.
“This is too freaky.” Adrianna tried to move to her feet but immediately collapsed again, unable to support her weight on her ankle.
“Let me help you,” Emma offered. She placed her hands under Adrianna’s arms and pulled her to her feet.
Adrianna leaned into Emma as they hobbled out of the darkness, stopping briefly so Emma could grab her cellphone, keeping the flashlight lit. Once they reached the light from the street lamps, they both let out a sigh of relief. Adrianna handed over her keys before Emma lowered her into a sitting position on the curb and told her to stay while she grabbed the car. She heard Adrianna give a small, humorless laugh before she sprinted to the next block where the car was parked.
Emma helped lift her friend into the passenger seat, her arms and legs quivering with the effort.
“The hospital is only a few miles away,” Emma said as she fastened her seatbelt. Adrianna nodded stiffly, her eyes closed.
They drove in silence, Emma pushing the speed limit just enough to get them there faster, her mind still racing. She pulled up to the emergency entrance, then shifted to face Adrianna.
“You fell, cut up your arm and broke your ankle. Don’t mention monsters or anything else, okay?” Emma said. Adrianna nodded. “You tripped and fell on the way back to the car. Glass cut up your arm.” The words didn’t seem terribly unbelievable given their footwear, but the lie seemed to glare back at her.
Adrianna unfastened her seat belt with a shaky breath before Emma went to grab a wheelchair from inside the sliding doors. Within a few moments, several staff members came out to help load her friend into the wheelchair while asking them both a slew of questions.
Emma paused outside the automatic sliding doors, as a tingling sensation crept up Emma’s neck, sending goosebumps down her limbs. She turned, squinting out past the area lit by the parking lot lights, into the darkness beyond. A cold lump dropped into her chest as her heart picked up speed again. You’re safe, she told herself. No more monsters. But she couldn’t shake the sensation that somewhere within the shadows, she was being watched.