If downtown at two AM was a mathematical equation, the answer would be ‘creepy times ten.’ I took a gulp of room-temperature coffee.
Outside our booth window sat a table full of Goths who clutched their coffee mugs like weapons and glared at anyone who got too close. An apparent dress code of mile-high spiked hair, ten pounds of facial piercings, and exposed boxers made the sidewalks an even bigger freak show.
Across the table, my roommate, Marc Gillam, stretched his arms above his head. The metal bracelet on his wrist clanked on the back of the booth. His mouth gaped in a silent yawn.
“Ready to go back yet?” I asked.
“Nope. Are you?”
“Oh, no. I love sitting here with my contacts getting all grainy and my chin dragging in my latte. I’m good.” I took another gulp. “Just surprised you want to stay out this late with finals coming up.”
“Josh, please, like you care about finals.” Marc stared out into the café, drumming two fingers on the lip of his coffee cup.
I shrugged and turned back to the window. Rather than watch the passersby on the sidewalk, this time I watched the ghostly reflection of the café interior. It reduced the café to a wash of warm browns and bright splotches of clothing, the faces of everyone around me blurred beyond recognition. Even my own long face, spiked hair, and brown eyes looked vague.
Twenty-three years old, five ditched bachelor degrees, and just a few points away from getting kicked out of our military-strict college. Marc was right. Who cared about tests anyway? I yawned.
Marc ran his hand through his dark blond hair. “Heard you had a meeting with your school counselor this afternoon.”
Small talk? From my best friend? I looked at him and raised one eyebrow. “Yeah. Turns out that my trig professor didn’t appreciate me hacking the school BlackBoard and changing the class schedules.” That’d been the least I’d done, but apparently it was the proverbial straw, which made Professor Blackaby a camel. The mental picture made me snicker.
Marc rolled his eyes. “Genius Josh strikes again.”
“If I hear that nickname one more time, I’ll kick your butt so hard it’ll be your new belly.”
He grinned. “C’mon. All you need is a pocket protector, and…”
I kicked his leg under the table.
“Ow! What’re we now, in grade school?”
I crossed my arms on the table and rested my face on them. “Dude, why are we really here?”
“Do we need a reason?”
“Mister Perfect decides to sneak out of his dorm on a weekend, when he should be studying for finals. No, I don’t need any—” I rolled my eyes and immediately regretted it when my contact stuck in the corner of my left eye. “Gah, that burns!” I pawed at it. The contact came loose and dropped into my palm.
The doorbell jingled over the coffee shop entrance. I glanced toward it. One of the aforementioned guys with mile-high hair ducked into the café’s main room, his eyes running over the crowd as if he was looking for someone specific. Even with only one eye functional, I recognized the squirmy scar on his neck and the Mohawk hairdo. Blake Davis, a guy I’d gone to high school with. The gigantic linebacker’s hair was purple now, and he had a few more facial piercings than when I’d known him, but the scar was too unique to be anyone else.
I started to wave.
“What?” I glanced at him.
Marc slumped down in his seat, his face turned toward the window. “I don’t especially care to talk to him right now.”
I lowered my hand, but Blake had already seen me. He waved back, but instead of coming across the room, he just stood by the door, staring at us. At Marc, specifically. Another guy with a spiky blue Mohawk came in the door and stopped beside Blake. They exchanged a few words, and then the blue-haired kid ducked back out. Blake never took his eyes off us the entire exchange.
“Creep,” I muttered.
Marc shifted in his seat and finally looked at Blake. His eyes narrowed.
Blake grinned, the silver stud in his lip twinkling, and pointed at Marc in an “I’m watching you” sign, first two fingers in an accusing V. He turned and pushed out the café door. For a split second, as he crossed the threshold, his skin seemed to waver, a chunk ghosting away to reveal a flash of green scales clinging to his forearm.
I blinked hard.
The door slapped shut behind Blake, and he disappeared from my sight.
“Dude, did you just see that?”
Marc flicked a wadded up napkin at me. “What?”
Okay, fine. I shook my head. “Never mind. I still have one contact out. That’s got to be messing with my vision.”
Still, though, that had been weird. Scales? I shook my head, stretched my eyelids apart and stuck the contact back in. It felt like it was full of sand. “Geez, if I’d known you were going to make me stay out this long, I would’ve brought my glasses.”
I fished a small bottle of contact solution from my pocket and dropped some into my eye. Something rustled across the table. What was Marc up to? I blinked, feeling the solution dripping down my cheek like a tear, and glanced at him.
Or, where he should’ve been sitting. The seat was vacant, his coffee mug sitting to the side where he’d left it. I glanced at the door in time to see Marc step outside. Blake came up to his side outside and draped his arm oh-so-casually over Marc’s shoulders. Marc’s steps were slow and draggy as they headed out into the parking lot.
I frowned. Marc had a phobia about people’s hands or arms getting anywhere near his neck. Even Sarah, his one-and-only girlfriend during high school, hadn’t been allowed to put her arm around him like that.
I stood up and wove my way around the tables, mindlessly calculating the numbers I saw on random tables’ checkout slips as I tried to figure out what business Blake had with Marc. Three hundred seventeen bucks and sixty-one cents. This place was making a killing.
I slid out the door and glanced around. Marc and Blake had disappeared. A few dozen cars crowded the small parking lot, which was overshadowed by the taller office buildings and warehouses the café was squeezed between. One light sat in the middle of the lot, flickering as if it were ready to die. Between the parking lot and the alleys that opened on either side, there were too many places to hide.
I stepped into the lot and cocked my head. Since the traffic in front of the coffee shop was mostly on foot, the occasional car buzzing by wouldn’t bother my listening that much.
As I neared the middle of the lot, I heard a clatter from the alleyway on the right. I spun around and squinted into the shadows. The alley shot between a warehouse with broken windows and a defunct grain elevator. The brick walls were swirled with colorful graffiti, though I couldn’t see more than a few feet in. The shadows lurking in the back of the alley were perfect for people who didn’t want to be disturbed.
Maybe that was the point, but it was hard to believe that Marc would have even known Blake. I’d only known the guy because his family had, briefly, lived across the street from my family. The guy had been suspended from high school once or twice for drugs and fighting. Marc wouldn’t have involved himself in something like that.
As I neared the alley, I heard voices. One was definitely Blake’s—low and growly, like he was gargling a mouthful of gravel. The other was Marc’s panicked voice, cracking and pitching like he was going through puberty again. Or like he was freaking out, like when his dad had died earlier this spring.
I slipped closer, hugging the back of the grain elevator.
“…don’t know how many times I have to say it!” Marc sounded mad, despite the girly pitch. “My dad destroyed his key. I’ve never seen a cipher like this. It’s not like I can Google the numbers.”
“Blodheyr thinks you’re stalling,” Blake said. “If you’re so stuck, why don’t you ask your genius roommate for some help?”
“There’s no way I’m involving Josh. He wouldn’t—”
I slid around the corner and crouched, hoping Blake wouldn’t notice me. He had my friend pinned against the brick side of the grain elevator. Marc’s sneakers dangled close to three feet off the ground.
Wait a sec—
As I watched, the human Blake turned into a ghostly image and faded, similar to what happened if I looked at something while crossing and uncrossing my eyes. A huge monster appeared in his place. His skin was the mottled greenish-gray I’d glimpsed in the coffee shop. His purple Mohawk became a series of dark, bony knobs that started on the crown of his head, continued down his neck, and disappeared under his 2XL shirt that bulged to the point of popping seams.
He still hadn’t noticed me.
Blake’s clawed hand tightened around Marc’s throat. Marc dug his fingers into the monster’s arm, jaw clenched.
I scanned the alley, trying to find something—anything—I could use as a weapon. What am I thinking? There’s nothing short of a nuke that’s even gonna make this thing blink!
“Your father’s neck was easy to snap, Marc Eothan Gillam. Yours will be easier, I think. You’re more cowardly than him, running away from the Underworld. As if it isn’t in your blood.”
Something big slammed into the small of my back, snapping my head back. I tumbled forward, pavement scraping along the length of one forearm, and made a personal acquaintance with the alley’s overflowing dumpster. The smell of old coffee laced with rotting banana peel jammed up my nostrils.
Before I could recover from the whiplash, a hand gripped the back of my shirt and hoisted me into the air. I flailed my arms as I twisted around, coming face-to-face with Blake’s blue-haired friend, who was now as tall and ugly as Blake. I pawed at the guy’s arm, but couldn’t get a good grip on the slick scales.
“You idiot!” Marc yelled.
For once, I had no comeback.
“What should we do with this one, Scyrril?” The blue monster gave me a brain-rattling shake. “You wanted him, right?”
Blake—Scyrril—grinned at me, revealing brown-stained teeth filed into sharp points. My hands shook as my heart worked overtime. Brilliant, Josh. Stupid, stupid, stupid. We’re so screwed.
“If we take him—” Scyrril’s words cut off with a deep bellow. He jerked away from Marc.
Marc hit the ground with his shoulder and rolled to his feet. In one fist, he clutched a dagger, the blade glistening with blood. He grabbed a long, thin case from the ground.
A sheathed sword.
Marc drew the katana and ran at the monster holding me. The blue monster dropped me. I scrambled backward until I ran into the grain elevator.
The monster sank into a crouch, his clawed hands held in front of his body like a boxer. Marc gripped the katana’s hilt with both hands. Behind him, Scyrril was struggling to rise, one hand clamped over the gash in his side.
The blue monster struck, claws going straight for Marc’s face. Marc ducked and came up inside the monster’s guard. He swung, but the sword was at an awkward angle, and the monster easily deflected the swing downward. The point of the sword dug into the pavement. Marc stumbled forward, and the monster grabbed the back of his shirt, forcing him to stay in a crouch.
Marc still had the dagger in his other hand. He reached around the guy’s leg and slashed at the back of his knee. The roared as it pitched forward, nearly knocking over Scyrril as he scrambled to his feet.
Marc grabbed my shirt and hauled me up. I stumbled, my brain numb, not ready to communicate with my feet.
Marc dragged me behind him for several yards. Finally I jerked free and ran a few feet behind him. He dashed past the coffee shop and onto the street. I dodged one of the few cars coming through the intersection. The horn blared in my ears. We ran down the street, passing several closed boutique shops and one open bar before hitting another intersection. Rather than wait for the light to turn, Marc turned left on the sidewalk.
I glanced behind me. I couldn’t see the monsters behind us, but somehow, I doubted that meant we’d lost them.
Marc grabbed my arm and pulled me into another alley, then shoved me. I lost my balance, tumbled into a pile of full garbage bags overflowing from a Dumpster. They squelched as Marc jumped in beside me.
“Are you—what—” I started to stand.
Marc pushed me back down and dragged a long piece of cardboard over our heads. “Stay still,” he hissed. “Too much rotting junk here for them to smell us. It’ll throw them off.”
I pulled my feet up under the cardboard. The smell of rotting vegetables and who knew what else seeped through the bags and soaked into my clothes. I took a short breath through my mouth and nearly gagged.
Marc elbowed me.
I pulled my jacket sleeves over my hands and pressed them to my face. Marc lifted one corner of the cardboard and watched the alley entrance.
A minute ticked by…two…three…
Blake and the other monster walked into view, back in human form. The blue-haired dude limped heavily on his right leg. They paused in front of the alley, and their human forms flickered once, twice, before sliding away and revealing their monstrous forms. Blake drew in a deep, phlegmy breath.
“Ugh. Humans,” he growled, pressing his hand to his side. “I can’t smell them anywhere, thanks to this dung heap.”
“Marc will be trying to hide now,” the blue-haired one said. “Let’s go check Angel’s garage. He’ll probably be heading there.”
The two jogged off.
When their footsteps had faded, Marc flung the cardboard off our heads. “Crows take them! Just a few more weeks! Almighty, wouldn’t that have been enough? Siabhra diabhal…”
He stood and started down the alley, muttering under his breath.
I trotted after him, brushing away the flies that buzzed around my head. “Marc? Care to explain what’s going on?”
He glanced at me, his lips tight. I stepped back, staring at his eyes, unable to look away.
His eyes were flashing through different shades of blue. Each flickering color came, spiked as it filled his entire iris, and faded away to be replaced by another color, reminding me of the Northern Lights I’d once seen as a kid.
Forget what those monsters were.
What was my friend?