Panic squeezed my lungs but my legs pumped anyway, driven by animalistic terror. Death stalked us, and my lizard brain knew it. Survival instincts screamed in my skull, and I clutched Ezra’s hand as we dashed through the maze.
My blind fear said to run, to flee, to escape, but human logic was screaming something else. How do you outrun a demon that can fly?
I didn’t look back to see if it was following us. I just ran, half a step behind Ezra, struggling to keep pace. He kept pulling away until our arms were stretched between our bodies, then he’d slow again to let me catch up.
We reached another intersection and he wheeled into an even narrower alley. Heading east. Fleeing toward the Crow and Hammer.
Yes. Yes, yes, yes. The guild was full of combat mythics resting between shifts. We didn’t have to outrun the demon. We just had to reach the guild before the demon attacked us.
We sprinted between buildings, and I prayed I wouldn’t trip. Couldn’t fall. Had to run.
Ezra slammed to a halt. I flew past him before he yanked me off my feet and into his chest. He scrambled backward, holding me tight against him, the soles of my shoes brushing the wet pavement.
Metal creaked overhead, then groaned under a heavy weight. Two stories up, dark wings unfurled from atop a fire escape.
Ezra dragged me backward, keeping the demon in sight. Hysterical babble filled my head. Demon. The demon was here. It was stalking us. Why was it here? How was it here? It was supposed to be terrorizing combat mythics twenty blocks east of Gastown.
Reaching what he must’ve considered an acceptable distance, Ezra spun around and broke into a run, pulling me with him. We raced back to the intersection, and he turned north. Yes. Go north, cut east again, bolt for the guild. We weren’t that far. Only a few more blocks.
We got six steps before Ezra pulled up short again. He backpedaled and I almost fell from the sudden change of direction.
Black wings flared as the demon landed on a wooden beam above a set of power lines, halfway along the northern alley. Waiting for us. Taunting us with our inability to outrun it.
Ezra backed up step by step, his breathing fast and harsh. I clutched his hand, my limbs shaking. We retreated into the intersection of alleys. The demon had cut us off when we went east. It’d moved to stop us from going north. Just south of us was the crowded street the alley paralleled.
With nowhere else to go, we ran west—away from the Crow and Hammer. Where else could we go? I raced beside him, too frightened to think beyond the next moment. Just run. No time for strategy. Just—
We skidded to a stop again, but not because the demon had cut us off.
A four-story wall rose in our path. A dead end. I scoured the rows of tall overhead doors, all shut and locked. A single lightbulb glowed above a recessed metal door with a heavy padlock hanging from it. We were trapped.
Ezra and I spun around.
The demon prowled into the alley, its magma-red eyes radiating malevolent power. A low, growling laugh throbbed from its throat.
Terror buckled my legs. Ezra grabbed my waist and pulled me against his side.
The demon was huge—seven feet tall with a heavy head and monstrous wings. Four thick horns rose off its hairless skull, covered in dark skin with a reddish undertone. Bands of muscle crossed its broad chest and its thick arms were weaponized by the spines protruding from its elbows and the curved talons tipping its strong fingers. Black cloth, covered by interlocking metal armor and a wide belt, wrapped its hips and upper thighs. A heavy tail dragged behind it, ending in a bony plate that could crush a human skull with one hit.
Petrifying fear like I’d never felt before closed my throat. No mythic had frightened me this much. No black-magic rogue. No darkfae. This was something else, something worse.
It was pure evil. It was death given form, the embodiment of murder and bloodlust.
As though it could hear my thoughts, the creature’s lips pulled back to reveal huge, flesh-tearing fangs. Its quiet, gravelly laugh echoed down the alley, and it took another step. The beast was toying with us, drinking in our terror as it stalked closer. Even fifty feet away, its suffocating presence filled the alley. I couldn’t breathe through the icy chill.
Ezra’s arm tightened around me—and I realized the cold was coming from him.
He grabbed my upper arms and pushed me on stumbling legs until my back hit the locked metal door. Then he forced me into a crouch in the alcove, where I trembled against the frigid steel.
“Tori.” He took hold of my wrists, his skin like ice. “Tori.”
I forced my gaze up to his, hyperventilating in rapid wheezes.
“Listen to me. I’ll keep you safe—I swear I will—but I need you to promise me.” His fingers tightened painfully around my wrists, then he lifted my hands to my face and pressed my palms over my eyes. “Keep your eyes covered. Don’t look.”
Confusion fizzled through my panic and I tried to lower my hands. “Ezra—”
He held my palms against my eyes. “Promise me, Tori. Cover your eyes and stay here and don’t move until I come back, or—” He stuttered. “Until I come back.”
“Tori, promise me.”
With my eyes covered, I couldn’t see the expression that accompanied his hoarse, desperate command. I swallowed hard. “I promise.”
He released my wrists. Squeezing my face with my hands, tears wetting my palms, I trembled at his quiet footsteps walking away from me. Alone, cornered in a doorway, my eyes covered, a demon stalking closer.
Ezra’s steps retreated until I couldn’t hear them, then came the quiet sound of the demon’s deep breathing—close. Much closer than before. Panic swept through me, so potent my muscles convulsed.
“Tūiranā thē, hrātir. Eshanā paissum adhʾsūv thē.”
The harsh, gravelly rumble vibrated in my bones, a language I’d never heard before. The demon continued in its guttural tongue, then broke off with a deep growl. The temperature plunged and the orange glow leaking around my hands disappeared as darkness overtook the lightbulb.
Red light flared, shining through my palms.
The air, searing with painful cold, turned electric and power scraped across my bones like thousands of tiny knives. The demon barked something in its harsh language, then came the grind of claws dragging across pavement.
With a sickening thud, flesh struck flesh.
The demon roared. Thumps, grunts. Crimson light flared again and frigid wind blasted me. I pressed into the alcove, knees pulled up to my chest. Arctic cold clawed at my exposed skin, stealing my body heat. My tears froze to my cheeks.
Red light blinded me through my hands, then a clanging boom as something hit an overhead door. My instincts screamed at me to look, but I didn’t want to. I didn’t dare. Huddling into a tighter ball, I crushed my eye sockets with the heels of my hands.
Crack. The sound of breaking bone. A deafening howl echoed off the alley walls, and air boomed with the labored beating of wings. The sound grew distant, then silence settled around me.
Shaking in my alcove, I waited. And waited. And waited.
Silence. Nothing but silence.
Trembling so violently I could barely control my limbs, I lowered my hands. The lightbulb overhead buzzed and flickered, casting a weak glow across the alley.
Glittering white fractals covered the ground, the damp sheen of recent rain turned to pale ice. Frost coated every surface, and thick crimson blood had frozen to macabre pink. A huge dent, smeared with icy blood, had caved in a steel door.
Exhaling in a wintry-white cloud, I pushed out of the alcove and onto unsteady legs.
Ice crunched under a heavy footfall. I spun toward the shadow-swathed dead end. Ezra limped out of the darkness, heavily favoring one leg. His face was splattered with blood and he held a hand over his left eye, covering his scar and pale iris. Blood dripped steadily off his elbow.
“Ezra.” My mouth formed his name, but only a croak escaped my dry throat. I stumbled across the frozen pavement, reaching for him.
“I was coming to get you.” His normally smooth voice was a rough, painful rasp, no louder than a whisper.
I grabbed his arm to steady him—and my fingers slid through slick, warm wetness. Jerking back, I looked in horror at my hands, coated in bright red human blood.
“You’re hurt.” With those two words, I threw off my helpless terror and pulled myself together. Ezra was injured and it was my turn to be the strong one.
My purse was gone—lost while we’d been running. I ran my hand over Ezra’s front pockets, feeling for the shape of his phone. With no time for bashfulness, I reached around and grabbed his ass with both hands. He jumped.
“Tori …” he muttered hazily. Was he going into shock?
My fingers pressed into the hard shape of a cell. I yanked it out of his pocket and pressed the power button. The screen lit up but a spiderweb of cracks had turned the display into a hideous pattern of black and neon streaks. Useless.
We needed help. Ezra was limping too much to walk far, and I didn’t know how much blood he’d lost.
“Hoshi?” I called.
A breeze washed over me, then a bluish-silver shape appeared. The sylph’s pink eyes glowed faintly, her gecko-like head adorned with two pairs of antennae that ended in little blue crystals. Her body was mostly tail, and her long, sinuous form undulated weightlessly, as though the air were thicker than water.