Excerpt: Empty Vessels
The clattering scrape of claws on the alleyway pavement sound loud even to his own ears, easy to follow, a dead giveaway. But the time for stealth is long past. Too little, too late. He thrusts his hand in front of himself—scaled, with black claws fully extended from each of the fingertips—grabbing a dirty plastic garbage bin and digging grooves into it as he shoves it aside just enough to squirm past.
He hopes it will slow the Terror down.
There’s no time to worry about the humans still lingering in the restaurant next to the alley, closing up and tired, so he tries not to. They’ll be fine—Terrors don’t go after humans if better prey is around. It’s his own hide he has to worry about right now, and he can’t afford to spend his attention on anything except where he’s placing his feet, what’s ahead of him.
No matter how aware he is of what’s behind him.
A fence looms at the end of the alley. He’s got no time to stop, barely any time to slow. He bends his knees, hocks tensing for the upcoming jump as his lizard-like hands grab the top of the chain-link fence. He springs upward, body nearly horizontal as strong muscles tense, vaulting the fence, vestigial wings spreading to catch what air they can to propel him up, forward, past.
Another scrape of claws as he hits the ground and nearly slips on the other side, mud and a wet patch of leaves catching underfoot. There’s a spike of pain as his shoulder slams into the wall. He can feel skin tear on the rough brick. No good. Blood—any kind of essence—will only make it easier for the Terror to keep his trail.
Still, it’s better than falling. An image springs to mind—shadows crawling over skin—and then with a shudder and a desperately sucked gasp of chill air, he’s off again, shoving off the wall and running as hard as he can.
A splash, a corner rounded. Soon he’ll be in the parking lot where he left his car—he’s already passing the boundary, lined with the skeletons of dark trees in the middle of losing their leaves. It’s empty at this hour, with nobody to run to for help, but once he’s in his car he can get away from them easily. Just a bit further and he’ll be free. He spots his old Corolla and his heart soars. He runs faster, not caring about his exhaustion.
But they come.
They swarm him from the front first, with grasping indistinct hands and a screaming maw bellowing. Their hands are darkness coating his scales, trying to swallow him in. Teeth and claws catch and it hurts, it hurts, it hurts.
He roars back in fear and defiance, but there’s a difference between the two sounds. He’s still someone. The Terror in front of him is not, and won’t have fear or empathy or any hesitation. He lunges desperately, fighting and swinging, claws connecting with a sludgy mass and splattering it on brick. It doesn’t remember who it used to be. There’s no way, no way at all, to convince it to not just kill him.
That’s what they do, just kill.
But this Terror—these Terrors, he can see others behind the first—they’re different somehow.
They don’t just feast on him, don’t tear at him more than they need to in order to subdue him, although this is when they would. It’s a spike of useless hope as instead, he’s forced down under their unnatural, unspeakable weight, his scaled knees buckling as they press. He fights the entire way down, straining and struggling to get free, snapping sharp teeth into semi-solid flesh—but he is pressed down regardless.
The one in front groans with hunger, longing to swallow him down, but resists, shifting around to hold him from behind. He struggles, helpless, as another approaches, something clutched in what used to be its hands. He stares at it in a blinding panic and confusion.
“What the fuck is going on?” he screams, or tries to. He chokes halfway through the first word, his mouth full of something terrible and stagnant as the Terror’s bulk presses down.
The bottle glows, symbols crawling across its surface, and it seems to hurt the Terror to hold it, but it approaches nevertheless. The edge of the spout is sharpened into a spike and he realizes what it’s for.
His head is yanked back as the Terror behind him grabs him by one long, ridged horn. He tries to fight it, struggling, nostrils flaring for more air, mouth open. He’s crying. The tears are hot on his face in the cold air.
Slowly and firmly, letting him see every inch of its terrible approach, the Terror drives the spout of the bottle into his eye.
Keith Marose woke with a strangled sound that might have been a yell if he weren’t sleeping facedown. Trying to suck air, feeling as though the panicked flight in his dream were his own, he inhaled wet pillow and coughed.
It took a few seconds of struggling to realize he was awake. When he did, he forced himself to move, rolling over with a strand of spit sticking from his pillow to his mouth. It settled coldly on his cheek and he made a face at the ceiling through blurry eyes.
“Gross,” he croaked, voice trembling.
He thought he heard an answer, but he wasn’t awake enough to be sure. Groaning, he rubbed his face with both hands, wiping his mouth and grinding sleep out of his eyes, then fumbled around next to the bed for the bottle of water he’d left there.
The day outside was bright, sun stabbing in through the curtains—though he wished belatedly that the word stabbing hadn’t come to mind—but the shadows in the room abruptly darkened as the gulp of cold water helped wake him up. His second sight was beginning to take over for his normal sight again, showing him what the room normally hid: the memories the building held, becoming visible to him alone. Along with, of course, the dark shape hovering near the end of his bed.
Another mouthful of water, swishing it around in his mouth to try to get rid of the sour flavor of bad dreams, and the shadow began to resolve into Lucas’s familiar figure: Transparent and washed-out dark hair and brown skin, eternally in polo shirt and jeans. Broad-cheek boned, insubstantial as air, and smiling at Keith despite the concerned set of his brows.
“Morning, sunshine,” Lucas said, warm and sympathetic. “That didn’t look like a good dream.”