A scream rose from downstairs. Drayden looked instinctively behind him, listening to the eerie silence that followed the shout. A cat bolted through his peripheral vision, out the door and into the hall. Drayden turned back to Leighon, and stared momentarily stunned at the empty space in front of him. He didn’t know what to think and so thought nothing for the time present. Standing slowly, he backed away from where his friend should have been and wasn’t, then turned and exited the room.
He slipped through the door, looking down both sides of a hallway that protruded over the first floor like a balcony. To his right, the passage ran between walls and doors and to his left, it extended toward a flight of stairs. A glimpse over the banister showed a tiled floor scattered with broken pottery, a strewn plant, and at least one body. Drayden didn’t stop to examine, allowing lingering adrenaline to carry him toward and down the stairs. He stepped on something near the bottom and was thrown awkwardly forward. He leaned back to catch his balance, and failed. His ankle bent and his knee scraped the last two stairs before his hip felt the marble beneath the red carpeting. The thing that tripped him had come down to the base of the steps with him and now lay on the floor in blatant disregard to Drayden’s automatic denial. He recoiled from the hand that had somehow wound up on the stairs without the rest of its body, swallowed his revulsion, and rose slowly when his back met with the wall.
Finally, he began to take in the room. The sights he had already seen were brighter with detail. The sounds were heard now, deciphered; a clock ticking, what might have been a dog eating…a dog that smelled as if it had been rolling in its own waste for several days. The efforts of his churning stomach and his pounding heart were almost enough to make him vomit, but he managed to hold it in, and proceeded toward the exit.
He sidestepped along the wall, eyeing the front door that was just a few feet away. He recalled someone saying to him when he was a child not to run from dogs, that it attracted their attention. For some reason, he heeded the old advice. Slowly, the black and white marble came fully into view.
There was a man slumped beside the clock, the front of his shirt almost black with blood, a pistol in his hand. Judging by his position, his off aim had shattered the potted plant. A second man lay prone near the center of the room, illumined grotesquely in his pool of blood by the chandelier high overhead. The third man, missing his hand, lay crumpled and red beneath a man—or a manlike thing—with skin that was almost transparent, overlong legs oddly folded beneath its lean frame, and ragged flaps of skin and bone protruding from its spiny back. Arms nearly as long as it was tall extended over the length of the victim, skeletal hands pinning the man at the head and ankles while it bent over his chest and gnawed as if at the sweet and sour flesh of a plum.
Horrified and yet mesmerized, Drayden failed to watch his slowing steps and kicked what the severed hand must have been holding. The gun spun around on the marble and bounced off the baseboard, sliding to a stop approximately three feet out from the wall, directly in Drayden’s path to the front door.
The creature lifted its blood-smeared face, spotted Drayden, and narrowed bulbous black eyes. It was completely hairless, colored beneath its milky skin with the webbed pattern of its veins. It flapped the useless fins, or wings, and showed Drayden all of its countless needle-sharp teeth as it hissed at him. Consciously and helplessly, Drayden stood frozen in place, awed by the impossibility of what he was seeing.
The grotesque thing leaned away from its kill, moved its hideous maw, and somehow formed discernible words. “Stranger—feed—now.”
Drayden stared, feeling again like he would vomit, and at the same time as if his breath had run out.
It repeated itself. “Stranger—feed—now.”
Drayden glanced at the dead man torn open before the creature, wondering if it had said the same thing to him. He wondered next how far he would get if he bolted for the door.
It started its request again, and then the man beneath the chandelier groaned. He stretched one arm forward, using the other for leverage as he tried to push himself up and crawl away at the same time. God, he was still alive!
The creature pivoted to face the rising survivor, coiled back like a serpent with limbs, and propelled itself forward and through the air, oddly frog-like. Clawed fingers sank into already torn flesh and the thing brought its victim down again. Even seeing this and understanding now how the three strangers had fallen so quickly, Drayden thought to take advantage of the creature’s distraction and dove on sheer impulse for the gun he had kicked. He’d never fired one before in his life, but somehow he gripped the weapon accurately, and while rolling over, pulled one part with his thumb, and squeezed the other with his forefinger. He scarcely heard the explosion even as it was amplified by the acoustics of the hall, nor did he truly see the blossom of red that unfurled before his eyes as the creature was hurled back in mid-leap. Warmth splashed Drayden’s brow and neck and spattered his hands, but he did not take the time to notice it, hurriedly sitting upright, dragging himself away from the beast as he tried and failed to stand.
He hadn’t killed it. It lay momentarily on its back, then sprang forward. Drayden failed to fire again, but held the pistol steady, which seemed to be enough to make the creature reconsider a second leap. It crouched before him, hissing, bleeding low on the shoulder.
“No!” Drayden shouted, feeling his muscles begin to quake under the strain of his fear. “Stranger fire again! Do you understand?”
The black orbs of sight blinked wrongly. A long-nailed hand lifted partly in front of the gore-stained face. “Stranger—no—fire! It—understands!”
Breathlessly, Drayden dared to say, “Stranger leaves. It…stays.”
“No! It stays!” Drayden shouted again. In reply the creature hissed, but stayed put. Drayden spared a glance at the front door, then noted the stairs in his peripheral vision. “Leighon!”
Drayden readjusted his faltering aim. “It stays where it is!” He rose slowly to his feet, seeing nothing but the creature. He took a step back.
A yowl sounded suddenly from upstairs, as if a cat had just had its tail stepped on…or severed. The noise drew a startled glance from Drayden, a mistake which led to a blur of white; a powerfully lean form tackling him, death staring him in the face with eyes like obsidian stones. One hand pinned him at the shoulder, the other squeezed his wrist so tightly that the claws cut into his skin. He understood as the blood was quickly loosed how the third man had lost the gun and his hand along with it. Understanding that helped him to realize that he still had the gun and he fought to aim it at the creature as he pushed at its chest with his other hand trying to keep the head and its mouth full of teeth away from his throat.
He bit down on the pain and panic, twisted his wrist in the razor sharp grasp, and fired. Liquid warmth splattered his skin. The claws relinquished their grip and the weight of the creature fell away, crumpling limp beside him. One of the long legs still draped him and he convulsed out from under it, unaware of the repeated curses that spilled off his lips. He didn’t stop scooting away until the wall stopped him. He sat there cradling his bleeding arm and the gun, eyes on the fallen creature. If it so much as twitched, it was getting the rest of the bullets, however many there were remaining in the weapon.
It didn’t move, though. It didn’t even hint at a spasm and slowly, Drayden dropped the pistol, and started to breathe again.
Raventide the novel
Available from Raventide Books