They’d open to me on the date specified on my transfer memo. After that, I’d be permitted to come and go at will.
A shiver of apprehension ran through me. Not long now.
With a final look at the forbidding gates and the moonlit gravestones beyond, I hoisted my box of stuff higher on my hip and headed toward the tube station.
The empty streets didn’t usually bother me; neither did the silence. It was soothing. But for some reason, there was an edgy feeling in the pit of my stomach this morning. But I wasn’t the only person out and about at this time. A man walked ahead of me, suitcase in hand, steps hurried. He turned down Pembroke Street—technically more of a wide alley—which connected two main streets. It was my regular shortcut to the station. I reached the mouth of the alley just as a surprised bellow hit the night air.
“What? Argh!” the man cried.
The lights were out down the alley, and with the moon stuck behind cloud cover, the route was dark and forbidding. A large, lumpy shadow writhed on the ground, grunting and gurgling.
The man was being attacked. Probably mugged.
“Hey! Hey, stop!” I dropped my box and ran toward the huddle. “Leave him alone.”
I was almost on them, handbag at the ready to hit the attacker, when the moon came out, lighting up the scene.
The man lay on the ground, head twisted at an odd angle, eyes wide with shock, and a thing sat astride him. Thing. Not person. Fucking thing. Naked and twisted with corded arms and legs. Its head was pressed to the man’s chest, and sounds—awful, wet, munching, crunching sounds—drifted up into the air.
Every hair on my in-need-of-a-wax body stood up in salute.
The word filled my head even as my mind rebelled.
Monsters weren’t real. Monsters were confined to books and video games, but here it was. Eating a man. Blood pounding in my head, bladder squeezing painfully with the need to release. I took a careful step back.
Run. My muscles ached to flee. Oh, God. I wasn’t a fast runner. My ass and thighs loved gravity way too much, but I needed to turn and run. I needed to do it now.
I took another step back, preparing to turn on my heel and make a break for it.
The monster stopped feeding, and I stopped breathing. It slowly raised its bulbous head to look at me with its scream-worthy, empty-your-bladder grotesque face. My scream locked in my throat as its gaping, circular maw pulsed in my direction as if eager to latch on to something else.
Latch on to me.
Run, dammit. Feet, what the fuck?
But my body was in meltdown, unable to move, unable to save itself. The thing inched closer in a jerky marionette way that made my insides curdle. A spine-numbing chittering sound filled the air. My heart pounded so loud in my chest it was ready to smash some ribs because I knew, without a shadow of a doubt, that this thing, whatever it was, meant to eat me too. It intended to put its pulsing, teeth-infested mouth onto my flesh and chomp.
It was going to kill me.
I didn’t want to die.
My paralysis snapped just as it lunged. I smacked it in the head with my bag and then ran. The mouth of the alley grew closer. Almost there. Almost out.
A weight slammed into my back, pitching me forward. No. Fuck this. No. I twisted beneath the monster and brought my fist up to connect with the side of its head, knocking its mouth away.
I had to fight.
The heat of rage burned away my terror as I bucked and lashed out at the monster. Its hand landed on my throat, pinning me. I couldn’t move. I couldn’t fucking move. Its stinky breath wafted into my face. No, no, no. Tears of impotence leaked from the corners of my eyes. Fuck you, monster. I hope you bloody choke on me.
The monster’s mouth came at my face, and the scream locked in my throat finally broke free, but the bite of teeth never came.
The weight on me was gone. I was free.
I scrambled to my feet.
The monster was several feet away, and a man—tall, broad-shouldered with a tapered waist, dressed in wicked black leather—stood between us. His hair was golden, gleaming in the moonlight. I wanted to see his face. I needed to see it. Forgetting the danger, I took a step closer to him.
His shoulders rippled with tension, but he didn’t turn to me. And why would he, for fuck’s sake? There was a bloody monster to deal with.
“Hello, mouth,” the man said in a smooth chocolate voice.
Mouth? Was he addressing the monster? Apt name, if he was.
“Out of my way, demon,” the monster said in a sibilant rasp. “Unless you wish to be my meal. You’re no match for me.”
“Seems like the human managed to get in a few good punches,” golden boy said. “I don’t think you’re as tough as you make out.”
“That?” the mouth hissed. “I was playing with it. The fear and adrenaline make the flesh taste so much sweeter.” Its maw pulsed eagerly. “You, I won’t play with.”
“What about me?” another male voice said.
A figure floated down into the alley. This man was all long dark locks, dark eyes, and angry brows low over an aquiline nose. But the thing that had my attention was the huge black wings rising behind him. They vanished as his boots touched the ground. The moon slipped behind a cloud again, and his face was hidden by shadows.
The word reaper blazed in my mind.
“How do you want to do this, Peiter?” the golden-haired dude asked the one with dark locks.
Peiter reached over his shoulder and drew a huge fuck-off silver sword. “Painfully.”
The mouth let out a warbling scream that was cut short as the golden-haired dude and the reaper rushed him.
Black liquid sprayed, and a horrific aroma hit me, and then wispy silver shit was rising into the air. My paralysis broke. I turned and ran but didn’t make it far before tripping over the box of stuff I’d spilled and hitting the ground with an oomph.
“It’s all right,” the smooth chocolate voice said from behind me.
I took a deep breath and pulled myself to my feet.
The golden-haired guy approached, his hands up in a placating gesture. “You’re safe now. We won’t hurt you.”
The moon came back out, and the shadows dropped away from his face. My breath stalled in my chest, and heat rushed to my face because wow, what a face. Eyes so blue they looked like gems against his creamy skin, lips just short of being pillowy enough to be feminine, and a hint of blush across his high cheekbones that spoke of exertion. His lips curled at the corners slightly. He was amused. I was amusing to him.
Shit, could he tell I’d peed myself a little?
“Conah, just get on with it,” Peiter said.
“Are you hurt?” Conah asked me, his voice soft.
I stared at the blond Adonis, wanting to speak, but finding that my tongue was stuck to the roof of my mouth, I settled for shaking my head.
He gently took my wrists and studied my bloody palms. “You’re lucky this is all the damage it did,” he said.
The heat from his fingers seeped into my chilly skin and up my arms.
“Conah?” Peiter urged.
Conah let go of my hands and smiled. Oh, fuck, take me now. “Look. It’s probably best you don’t go around telling people about this.”
“The monster?” Thank God, my voice was back. “Yeah, I doubt anyone would believe me. Hell. I don’t believe me.”
His smile dropped, and his expression sobered. “Yes, true. But aside from that, we don’t want to incite panic. These creatures thrive off fear and panic.”
I stared warily at him. “The mouths … the monsters. Monsters that eat people.” Fuck, I was still wrapping my head around it.
“Conah, let me,” Peiter said. He grabbed my shoulders and turned me to face him. Shit, he was tall. Rugged. Kinda scary. “You didn’t see anything.” His voice was a pleasant reverberation in my mind. “No monster. No reapers. You tripped and dropped your things. You’ll pick them up and then go home where it’s safe.”
What? What did he mean?
But he was backing away, and then they were both launching themselves into the air. One with wings, the other with the force of a leap, and in a matter of a second, they were gone, and so was the mutilated body of the dead man.
I stared at the spot the monster had been. It was gone too, as if it had never existed, except it had. It had been there, and the reapers had killed it so hard there was nothing left.
I’d seen two reapers.
I’d seen a monster.
It didn’t matter what the Peiter dude said. At least my pulse was back to normal. Hell, if not for my skinned palms, I’d be inclined to think I imagined it all. My trembling bladder said differently, though.
I picked up my box and quickly gathered my stuff. I needed to get home and change out of my pee pants.
My house was a tiny, three-story, five-bedroom affair with a twenty-foot garden I rarely used. The residents in this part of town were older, one-foot-in-the-grave kind of people. It hadn’t always been this way, but over the last decade, the younger people had moved out, and the older ones had moved in. Aunt Lara used to joke they were moving closer to Soul Savers so they could get into the queue quicker once they died.
But it wasn’t just old people that died.
Life didn’t work that way.
I climbed the steps to the porch, blinking against the outdoor lights, and let myself into the cozy, warm foyer. Thank goodness for timed heating. Shoes and coat off, I ran up the stairs to change.
My bedroom was the attic room, fully decorated and adapted for my use with an ensuite bathroom and plenty of space for my many books. Shelves dotting the walls were piled with fantasy and romance novels, but my all-time favorite books held the prized position on the bookcase opposite my bed. Mysteries and thrillers were my go-to preference. I loved the whole investigation process, the clues, and the lead-up to the big reveal. I’d grown up on Nancy Drew and Poirot and then devoured anything that felt similar. Video games were piled on the floor by my desk. Now, for these, I preferred role-playing games. Monsters and warriors and magic. I’d shelled out a bucketload on the best gaming console and even fitted surround sound so Cora and I could have some hardcore gaming sessions on the weekends. Right now, we were exploring Chaos Dimensions, a game of portals and realities.