A howl, as cold as the night that carried it, foretold of another murdered child. It would be the fourth in as many months. The cry carried to the ends of town, through its many snowy streets and over white roofs where chimney smoke added to a blanketing fog. The shrivelled and bloodless remains were to be found, disposed of like the unwanted remains of a dead pet or stuffed in a crummy back alley alcove and hidden among the uncollected rubbish.
A child would turn up dead; that much was clear by now. The Night Demon was on the prowl again.
Gaslit streetlamps threw gleaming umbrellas through the mist, cones of wan light, the next lamp barely visible through the foggy veil. A girl hurried through vacant streets where she met but the scant silhouette of a lone individual. A lamplighter across the street ignited another streetlamp, and he squinted when he heard it too.
Another intense, bone-chilling shriek died slowly in the darkness above.
The girl cast worried glances. Her unnaturally bright yellow-orange eyes pierced the fog as if they were gas lamps like those lining the streets. She had raven hair, long and blacker than a starless night. Lilian o’Haunt was thirteen years old, and all thirteen spent living in this same town and hating the bridge she had to cross.
Cold, rugged iron comprised her skeleton – a bridge of the new age – with two curved beams forming a high semi-circle on either side, and each ferrous mound had horizontal struts from one end to the other. Crude rivets held it together, and a thick dark green paint warded off erosion.
To Lilian, the bridge seemed cast in perpetual gloom, and even in
summer, this place was somehow darker and more depressed. Yet, she had to pass it almost daily, twice or more often. She whispered a rhyme to keep her mind preoccupied and not think of the bridge. “What is dead but lurks at night. What sleeps in tombs when day is bright?”
She sighed, pulled her red scarf up to cover her nose until it almost touched her eyelashes and sank her hands deep inside her ragged, oversized wool coat. Her feet trudged through fresh snow as she hurried from one lit street lamp to the next and cross the bridge as quickly as possible. She feared the creaking underfoot would betray her in the darkness and briefly basked in the light of the next streetlamp.
At the middle of the bridge, the lamplighter approached her, and they exchanged glances. His face was pale and lined with thick, black veins which protruded from his skin. Around his eyes, a dark web of veins branched like an intricate spider’s web.
It was a long time since she had seen the affliction this bad with someone. Fear briefly grabbed her, but she made it across and leaned against the nearest lamppost to catch her breath.
Fifteen minutes later, she closed the door to her home behind her. She and her parents lived in a cellar-dwelling beneath a tall tenement. There was only one window near the ceiling above the sink. One had to traverse a short stair outside to get to the front door. The dwelling consisted of one large room annexe kitchen, the back third parted by curtains. That’s where the beds were. A single gas lamp provided a modicum of light, and a stove served as their heat source and furnace.
“Close the door!” Mother shouted, not realising Lilian had already shut it. She was in her mid-thirties but already growing deaf. She dropped a potato into a large pot and proceeded to peel another.
Lilian shook the snow off her coat and hair like a dog and took them off. Her face, now revealed, was grey and bespeckled, but it wasn’t the affliction. She started coughing. An incessant itch in the back of her throat was the cause, one which demanded scratching but no matter how violent the cough, it was never enough. She was a dust hunter, and the dust found its way everywhere.
“Go on, drink some water, dear,” Mother urged.
Reluctantly Lilian picked up a mug, held it under the faucet and gave the arm a couple of heaves. The water came from a distance only after several protesting churns and garbles. It tasted metallic. All the pipes were still lead. She knew it was poisonous; everyone knew that — one of many amenities where city planning had catching up to do. But the water finally made the coughing stop.
“Is Father still out?”
“Of course! It’s business as usual these days. Rather spend his evenings with those union types than with his family,” Mother replied.
Lilian sat down at the table in the centre of the room, where she took off her shoes and placed them by the stove to dry. Her brother, Adam, sat in the chair next to her.
Adam was nine years younger. He sat in front of a half-finished plate of porridge. A wooden porridge-coated spoon lay queerly beside it, a thin streak of spilt porridge beside that. He looked at her with a broad porridge-smeared smile and wide welcoming eyes.
“Finish your plate, Adam,” Lilian said, picking up the spoon.
“Nuh-uh,” he said while shaking his head. He grinned mischievously.
She scooped up some porridge and playfully waved the spoon through the air. “Look, a balloon,” she said, holding it higher. “Up and up it goes until it reaches the stars. And then, right into the cave.”
Adam gulped the porridge down, grinned and waited with bated breath for the next ‘balloon’ to take flight.
“I’ve got something for you,” Lilian said and felt beneath the collar of her shirt. From it, she lifted a necklace. It was just a piece of twine joined by a knot on either end with a small ring, yet still a size too large for Lilian’s fingers, as a bangle. “Here, I want you to wear it. For good luck.”
“For me!?” Adam said excitedly and bowed his head when his sister put the necklace around his neck. He took the ring into his hand and ogled it like it were the most precious thing in the world. To Adam, it probably was.
“Yes, but I want you to take good care of it. Don’t lose it or damage it. Keep it under your clothes, against your skin.”
“It’s pretty,” he said, and his glistening eyes went over the markings etched on its smooth surface.
She leaned towards him. “Hy, Pe, Ri, On,” Lilian said, moving her pinky finger over the four strange glyphs.
“Hayeperon? What does that mean?” Adam asked.
She leaned back and pointed upwards. “Like the stars. I’ll show you sometime,” she said.
A loud knock made the whole door shake on its hinges. The handle rattled, startling Mother so much that she dropped a half-peeled potato into the pot along with the peeler.
A towering man wearing a domed helmet came through the door. He breathed heavily; his chest expanded with each inhalation like a bellows. His boots threw half-molten snow over the floor.
“Could you please learn to knock in a civilised way!?” Mother exclaimed with clenched fists. She fished the peeler from the pot.
Father shook like a dog, so father so daughter, and gave his spouse a glassy stare. “Wife, it’s nary as cold in here as out there.”
“There’s no more coal!” Lilian interjected and gestured at the empty coal bin next to the stove.
“What? We live in a mining town, and you’re telling me they had no coal to sell?”
“We had no money for it,” she answered.
He legged it over to the nearest chair at the table and sat down. When he pulled off his boots, his expression turned from annoyed to questioning. “But it’s Friday, isn’t it? Payday!”
“Still can’t buy coal if you don’t bring the wages home!” Mother shouted from behind.
He winced and must have known what was coming next.
“Maybe if you spent less time at the pub and took responsibility for your family instead—” Mother began.
“It’s not a pub; it’s a union. A workers union!”
Mother just finished peeling, picked up the pot and set it on the stove. The remaining embers and residual heat might still boil their supper. “Right! That’s why you all drink like it’s a pub. Because it’s not a pub,” she said sarcastically.
“One pint! I had one pint!”
After their potatoes with butter sauce supper, they all sat at the table to read. Adam was put to bed by Mother.
Lilian’s eyes fell on the newspaper that lay upside down before her.
“Night Demon Kills Again!” it read in tall lettering. A black and white pencil illustration of a dead body in a ditch in the corner accompanied the text.
Lilian cocked her head to glean what the main article said.
They nicknamed them the Night Demon because all the victims disappeared late in the evening or during the night. The first victim, as far as the police could tell, was a twelve-year-old boy. They found him in a damp alley in the worst part of town. The second was a girl aged fourteen, a yarn seller found dead near the market where she sold her yarn. The third and fourth were a boy and a girl of eleven and ten. They were both found on the same day.
Now a fifth victim, so the article read. All were very young and all murdered in darkness. She recalled the chosen name was Night Stalker first, but that quickly changed once the presses got word of the dreadful state of the victims, with their bodies drained of blood and all other liquids.
“Mummified,” Lilian muttered after lifting the word from the page.
“Another boy, I heard. Snatched off the streets late in the evening,” Mother mused as she sat down.
“What has the world come down to? The police beat down on unionists, but deranged lunatics go unpunished,” Father lambasted. He picked up the papers and skimmed through the first paragraph. He lifted an eyebrow and glanced up at Lilian. “It’s best not to dwell on these things. Tomorrow’s a school day, and I’ll give you two shillings to buy coal on your way home.”
“Four,” Mother said. “Price has gone up!”
Father sighed. “Four shillings.”
That night she lay awake in her bed for longer than usual. It was cold, and she thought she could see her breath in the air. Adam, soundly asleep, lay huddled up against her.
The thought of the Night Demon didn’t leave her as readily as Father suggested. The article didn’t mention the screams, even though many had heard them; the loud, bone-chilling screams or howls at night. They sounded like something a human could make, possibly. At the same time, they were otherworldly. What concerned her most was the timing of each murder. Her job as a dust hunter always ended in the wee hours of the evening, precisely during those hours when the Night Demon preferred to strike.
Her trail of thoughts was interrupted by a rhythmic sound. Thudding at regular intervals, which increased in speed and intensity, sank through the thin ceiling. They’re at it again, she thought and sighed. She turned around and huddled closer to Adam, knowing the thuds would cease in only a minute or two. Cold.
A fresh layer of snow blanketed everything, and the air smelled like an ice house. Lilian loved that freezing smell — a clean smell which reminded her of water, fresh and untainted by lead or algae.
She trudged along the narrow streets of the rookery she called home. The crooked tenements, crammed together like matches in a box, offered scantly enough room for the sprawling web of alleys, streets and footpaths. Few were wide enough for a horse and cart; most would fit only the horse, and some didn’t even allow that. There was no plan for the rookeries, only a maze of constructed and reconstructed tenements over centuries of unorganised, ad-hoc development.
She passed over Old Market Square.
People were already up and about, decking out their stands, rolling in their carts with wares or in search of daily groceries first thing. The baker’s stand smelt heavenly, but Lilian had neither the time nor the shillings to buy a loaf. She hurried on and hoped the alluring scent would leave her mind as it left her nostrils. Nearing the end of Old Market Square, she overheard a conversation which drew her attention.
“It’s so loud; I wake up at night! And me missus, she can’t sleep at all out of fright!” a man with a scraggly beard and a torn top hat lamented. His lamentation went to a cleanly shaven man who carried a cane.
Yet another man joined the conversation beside a paperboy with an annoyed facial expression. It was this man who drew Lilian’s attention initially. “A monster, I tell you! A monster!” he opined loudly. He wore a thick, braided scarf which muffled his raspy voice.
“Nonsense! There’s no such thing as monsters. Don’t you go to church? It’s a scourge from the Vigils. Come to punish us,” the first man rebutted.
“Gentlemen, I’m certain this has a perfectly natural explanation,” the third man with the clean-shaven face and cane interjected. He shook his head dismissively. “There must be a perfectly natural explanation to all of this.”
The man with the thick scarf pulled the scarf down. “Perfectly natural explanation!” he scoffed. “Shrill shrieks, cutting straight through every bone in your body. Right down to your soul! No one ever heard anything like it, and you’re telling me it’s perfectly natural? The folly!”
The man with the cane continued. “There’s an owl which makes the same or very similar noise. That may be our culprit.”
“Yea, when I worked across the pond, they’d have these wild cats, bobcats, they call them. Their call sounds like little children screaming their lungs out,” the first man with the scraggly beard now added and started scratching his hairy chin.
“See, good man! An animal is responsible for this,” the man with the cane concluded.
“And the murders?” the sceptical man with the braided scarf asked. “That’s all a coincidence, aye?”
The conversation continued, but Lilian was now too distant to hear them. “An animal or a monster,” she mused, kicking a lump of snow ahead.
Miss Clearwater stirred the fire in the old sheet metal stove in the middle of the classroom. When she heard the children enter, a crowd of thirty, she turned around and bumped the stove door closed with her backside. “Children, please be seated quickly!” she spoke with her high and squeaky voice. Whenever Miss Clearwater spoke, she did so with a peculiar upwards pitch towards the end of each sentence, which made everything she said sound like a question.
Lilian sought out her seat. Hers was one of many large, flat wooden desks. Two students sat side-by-side at each desk and arrayed in rows from the front of the classroom to the back. The stove divided the room into two; boys to the left and girls to the right.
Her spot was next to Elisabeth, a girl the same age she was and, as far as Lilian was concerned, her only true friend. But there was no sign of Elisabeth after everyone had entered and was seated. At first, Lilian assumed she had gone ahead and mingled in the crowd. Then she reckoned Elisabeth was simply late, a common occurrence. Lilian frequently waited outside the school for Elisabeth to come out of detention.
“Open your arithmetic book on chapter seven,” Miss Clearwater said. Her appearance complemented her voice; a long face with a sharp chin, high cheekbones and curly black hair kept in a high knot. “Multiplication above ten. Henry, you will start with eleven,” she said while holding the book in front of her with one hand and keeping the other behind her back.
No sign of Elisabeth still. Perhaps Father was right, and she shouldn’t think about murderers and Demons and all those things that caused distress. Elis was probably fine, running over the school square right now, holding up her skirt and trying not to trip over untied shoelaces.
A deep sigh came from the middle of the boy’s half of the room. A skinny boy reluctantly perked himself upright and straightened the book before him.
“Excuse me, miss Clearwater? Elisabeth isn’t here today?” Lilian asked, holding her finger in the air but not waiting for permission.
Miss Clearwater cleared her throat. “I’ve made a note of it on my attendance list. She’ll be sitting in detention. Again. Now, any more interruptions, and you’ll be joining her.”
Lilian sighed and averted her gaze out the window. She remembered those harrowing screeches she heard last night and how it was a monster or some feral animal from far away. It added to her apprehension, but the murderer at large was of more concern.
“One time eleven is eleven. Two times eleven is twenty-two. Three times eleven is—” Henry started and then faltered.
“Thirty-three, dimwit,” someone from the very back said annoyedly, just a tad too loud.
The class started snickering carefully, but Miss Clearwater would have none of it. “Reginald! One more word from you, and it’ll be detention!” she said, her voice even squeakier.
“Miss Clearwater, I meant to ask. Where is Sidney?” Arthur asked, sitting beside Reginald. “He hasn’t been to school for days. Did something happen to him?”
“What about the murderer?” Reginald added.
The class whispered and murmured; Sidney and Elisabeth’s names rose.
“Enough!” Miss Clearwater erupted. “Everyone be quiet, or you’ll be seeing the headmaster!”
The class quieted down, and the lesson continued in silence. But the overbearing tension betrayed that everyone’s mind was preoccupied with something else than doing tables. They wanted answers, and Lilian wanted answers, but they wouldn’t get them from Miss Clearwater.
Class ended fifteen minutes early.
“Lilian?” Miss Clearwater addressed.
“Yes, Miss Clearwater?” she replied.
“Will you share today’s arithmetic with Elisabeth? Tell her that if she can recite tables eleven to sixteen without error during the next class, she won’t have to sit in detention.”
“I will! Thank you, Miss Clearwater!”
Elisabeth lived in a tenement, not unlike Lilian’s but on the other side of the canal. It was a fifteen-minute walk from school and in the opposite direction. But after reading the news of yet another discovered child’s body, she just had to ensure Elisabeth was all right.
Against her wishes, the bridge was still there. Cold and gloomy like always, fresh snow resting on her beams and heaped on the tips of her rivets. The water ran at an unusual pace below. The banks were frozen over, and a fraying of ice began to creep towards the centre of the canal. Stalks of brown grass stuck through the frozen layer in defiance of their roots’ frigid encapsulation until spring.
Lilian crossed it quickly.
A cold breeze funnelled through East-West Street. She shivered and pulled up her scarf. It was just in time because a fist-sized snowball hit her on the right cheek almost immediately. Laughter came through her clogged ear tube. She rubbed the half-molten ice from her hair and noticed the four individuals across the street.
“Direct hit!” Arthur jeered and held up his hand hidden in a snow-covered glove.
“Volley fire!” Reg shouted with an exaggerated, deep voice. “Present arms!”
The four boys eagerly dug their hands into the snow and formed snowballs. They readied themselves for the order.
“Fye-yur!” Reg ordered with distinct articulation. His name was Reginald Cochemer, but everyone just called him Reg instead. The girls considered him handsome; bright and sparkling eyes, a pronounced nose and a jawline strong for his age. Unlike the other boys, his skin was smooth and free of pimples. His dark-blonde hair was well-kempt, with a lock defiantly drooping over his forehead.
Four snowballs came her way, and all of them hit their mark. But this time, she shielded her face with her arms. “Hey! Stop that!” she objected.
Apart from Reg, the rest of the firing line consisted of Arthur, Berthold and Cecil. They were collectively known as the ABC gang because of their first names. The exception was Reginald. He came later and seemed to be a good influence on the gang. His father was an army officer – a fact Reg frequently bragged about – and the reason he fashioned himself as sort of a leader of this clique. To his credit, Arthur and Berthold stopped being bullies ever since he became their ‘commanding officer’.
“Excellent musketry, chaps. We suppressed the enemy and put them to flight,” Reg praised.
“Maybe that will clean her up, make her smell less like a dank ditch,” Arthur mused. His voice always sounded spiteful, but when he meant it, it stung even harder.
Berthold chuckled with short, sharp inhalations. It sounded like he swallowed his tongue with every breath. “The Dusties don’t use the bathhouse. They have to dip in the river, and it’s too cold for that in winter.” His mouth stood perpetually opened by a bit, but when he grinned, like now, he bared his crooked, blackened teeth. He was known as Big Bertie for his considerable, albeit plump, size. He was the butcher’s son, with a belly to match and only second to his father’s.
“Hey! Don’t say that! I bathe as often as anyone else,” Lilian objected wholeheartedly.
“Forget about that. Look at those eyes. Who has yellow eyes!?” Arthur interjected.
She winced and clenched her teeth. She could say something about the web of black, tar-like veins protruding from Arthur’s eyes. But only she could see that. Only she could see the affliction.
Only Cecil didn’t speak, as usual. He was the smallest and youngest of the four. Before Reg came, if they weren’t bullying someone else, they’d tease Cecil instead. Of all four, only he and Reginald seemed healthy to her.
“That’s enough!” Reg sneered and gave them all an angry stare.
She realised her objections would only fuel their desire to tease her. She turned around and continued, at least for a few paces.
“Wait!” Reg yelled after her. “Where are you headed?”
Lilian didn’t stop at first. “Elisabeth, to give her the homework from Miss Clearwater,” she answered when he came to walk beside her.
“They found another dead kid.”
“I read. What of it?”
Reg stepped in front of Lilian and practically forced her to turn around. Without touching her, he managed to get Lilian to follow him back towards the intersection a couple of steps. “Haven’t you heard? It’s Sid. Our Sid.”
Lilian stopped, and her eyes sought out his. “Sidney? No way!”
Reg pressed his lips together and nodded. “The Night Demon got to him the day before yesterday, just before midnight. And! I know where they found him.”
She was still in disbelief. It couldn’t be the Sid she knew; Reg must be wrong.
Sidney was small in stature and a dust hunter like her. But what he lacked in size, he more than made up for with tenacity and wit. He was the leader of the Worker’s Youth Army! He’d never be tricked or caught by anyone, not even an adult.
“So? Are you coming?” Reg asked.
“Why are you inviting her?” Arthur asked. He cast a dismissive glance at her, his eyes exuding a sense of superiority or perhaps simply a disdain for Lilian.
Reg rolled his eyes and turned around. “Because—!” he replied with a drawl. His demeanour changed in a heartbeat. He clenched his teeth at first, the sides of his jaws popping in and out. “Because I said so,” he said with a slight hiss.
Arthur averted his gaze. “If you say so,” he replied, his voice timid but still disapproving.
Reginald turned back to Lilian; his face returned to normal. “Well? Will you come with us? To the place where they found him?”
She pondered for a second and gazed at the snowy pavement. “I don’t know,” she muttered.
“You don’t know? Or you don’t want to know? Come on, let’s find out what happened to Sid,” he urged as he leaned closer.
She shook her head slowly as if to say she didn’t want to. “I still have to visit Elis, and then I have work,” she answered.
“We’ll be long back for you to crawl under that factory floor.”
She sighed and turned. She was determined now to see Elisabeth. If anything, Reg had just made her even more determined! She was already a couple of steps away when the next thing he said stopped her dead in her tracks.
“Did you know Sidney and Elisabeth were a thing?” Reg shouted after her.
She stopped. A lie, it must be, she thought.
But she also remembered those looks they gave each other. It started last year and how Elisabeth fawned over everything Sidney said or did. Lilian hardly understood it back then. It’s funny how just one year can change so much at her age. Elisabeth had always been quicker to mature than her, but now, one year later, she could recognise the truth in Reg’s words. Possibly. Or maybe, it was just a crush.
“Anyone could have noticed that,” Lilian replied.
“She had a handkerchief, did she not? Sid showed it to us. Her initials were on it, E.D.,” he continued.
Her brow furled, and she turned around. “How did you know about that?” she asked.
He pulled up his shoulders. “Sid showed it to us. He was so proud that Elisabeth gave it to him.”
“Sid’s really dead then?”
His lips became a thin line. He nodded and came closer; his eyes apologised for what he said, even if he was only the messenger.
“I have to go then; she’ll need me.”
He laid a firm hand on her shoulder. “When they found Sidney, they didn’t find any handkerchief. Which means—” he mused.
“It might still be there,” Lilian concluded on her own.
He nodded. “It’s no coincidence we stopped you. We’re going to search for that handkerchief. We want it returned to Elisabeth. Since you’re her best friend, we thought—” he spoke and briefly turned his head towards the rest of the ABC gang. “We wanted you to be the one to give it to her.”
She wondered now if Elisabeth knew of Sid’s death and that this heartbreaking news was why she hadn’t shown up at school today. She held her breath and peeked past his shoulder at Arthur, Bernie and Cecil.
Arthur sighed. “We were on our way to search for it, but Reg insisted we waited for you,” he admitted.
Bernie only nodded, and Cecil gave a faint smile.
She finally let out the air trapped in her lungs. “Only if it won’t take too long.”
“Shan’t take more than five minutes. I know where it is!” Reginald replied.
They found Sid near the canal, between two slummy neighbourhoods and close to the river. Parallel to the canal was a drainage ditch, itself connected to an overflow which carried excess water away from the canal and into the river in case of heavy rainfall. Old, heavy sluices separated the water in the canal from the drainage ditch. There were gaping, round holes in the sloping sides of the drainage ditch at regular intervals.
“This is it?” Lilian asked. She leaned over the edge and observed the dank ditch — an embankment of stone masonry, a diagonal slope and a bottom filled with snowy muck and browned aquatic plants.
“Yes, right there. In that drainage pipe,” Reg replied.
She saw the large, round opening in the side of the drainage ditch. Those led to the canal’s overflow, and kept dry or flooded by the sluices. That much she knew. “There’s nothing here anymore,” she concluded tepidly.
“They removed the body, but see all that muck and how dark it is in there? They might have missed something. A handkerchief might get wet, discoloured to whatever it soaks up or sunk to the bottom of a layer of snow. Who knows, right? But if it’s there, we can find it.”
The boys brought a rope with them and decided that the lightest of them would be lowered. Arthur, Reg and Bertie would remain above, while Lilian and Cecil were to investigate the pipe and its surroundings.
Her shoes immediately sank into the half-frozen and muddy snow, and she almost slipped when she let go of the rope. She stayed upright with one hand against the slope and the other caught by Cecil.
“Careful down there!” Reg shouted.
“Where do we even start?” Lilian asked. Her eyes fell on the entrance to the pipe, a dark gaping hole from which the sound of gently sloshing water echoed in the distance. Now that she was down here, the size of the pipe became apparent. She could put Cecil on her shoulders, and they’d not reach the ceiling with both standing upright.
“In there. They found Sidney in there,” Reg replied, pointing at the pipe.
Cecil gave Lilian a frightened glance, then looked up at Reg and the others. “I don’t know about this, Reg. Isn’t it dangerous in there?” he asked. His voice was soft and unsure of itself.
“Cecil, this is why we’re always taking a piss with you. You’re yellow and daft. Just get in there,” Arthur shouted.
“I promise they won’t ever pick on you again if you do this,” Reg added.
Lilian groaned, and her expression grew sour. She only let in with these bullies for Elisabeth’s sake. She wanted to punch Arthur in the face now. The others, too, Cecil included to make him realise the only daft thing he did was picking the wrong friends.
The pipe was up a ledge she couldn’t reach on her own. Cecil boosted her up. “Hey, don’t touch my butt!” she scolded, the short boy finding no other way to push her up high enough.
“Sorry!” he yelped.
Once she was up in the pipe, the stench of dead cat immediately became apparent. It made her a little nauseous, and she almost heaved when she realised it wasn’t the stench of a dead animal but that of Sid’s body still lingering in the stagnant air. She turned around and leaned over the edge, moving her face and nose as far out of the pipe as possible.
Cecil looked at her with something between a smile and a wince on his face. She helped pull him up into the pipe.
“Vigils, it reeks!” he let out, turned around and emptied the contents of his stomach.
“Are you all right?” Lilian asked. Her hand rested on his back.
He nodded lightly and righted himself. His hand was in front of his mouth, but he nodded again. “Yes, let’s have a quick look.”
They ventured deeper into the dim, Lilian leading. The sun cast an oblong ray into the pipe that soon ceased. There was only darkness from there on, safe for the gleaming light at the distant end. It was far away, and the longer Lilian stared at it, the farther it seemed to stretch away from her.
They got maybe thirty yards in when a long, gasping wind rushed by them. It carried a wailing screech of agony and despair, a scream so loud and high it clawed at her eardrums. It sounded like whoever was in distress cried outright in her face.
“Lilian!?” Cecil yelped and grabbed her arm.
Her eyes opened wide, and fear took hold of her mind and expression. Not only the sound startled her, but a feeling as well. A sensation of sharp claws drawing nearer crept up on her, around her and ready to grab and devour her. She hadn’t felt like this ever before, and it transcended fear and instinct alike.
In the dark, yellow eyes lit like candles, glowing with great intensity yet not casting any light of their own or dispelling the shadow around them. From that shadowy ground, an even darker silhouette rose from the brick-and-mortar surface. At first, it looked like liquid defying gravity, but then that dark and bubbly mass took the shape of a person. “I—I’m cold! H—Help me,” it stammered in a raspy, hissing voice, little more than a whisper.
“Lilian!?” Cecil exclaimed and stepped back, tugging at Lilian’s sleeve. “We need to leave! Now!”
It felt like a clump the size of a football stuck in her throat, and something squeezed her stomach when she heard the voice and recognised it. “Sid? Sidney?” she muttered, her voice whimpering and barely passing her lips. She shuddered and stepped back. “Are you—?” she stammered but did not know the end of her question.
“Lilian? Where am I? It’s cold!” the voice, which was unmistakably Sid’s, replied. “Help me, please!”
Cecil whimpered, let go of Lilian’s sleeve, stepped back, then turned around and ran. Something changed in Sidney’s demeanour when he put distance between himself and Lilian.
Sidney’s eyes shone brighter, and he struck one arm forwards. Instead of being just a gesture, the arm elongated and rushed past Lilian’s shoulder.
She saw the black, crusty skin, not at all like that of a human being and although she never saw it clearly, she was sure it wasn’t a hand but a claw that flew by. She flinched, stepped aside and covered her face with her hands.
Before Cecil reached the exit, the tentacle lashed out at his ankle. He fell into the mud but got up and threw himself over the ledge.
Lilian dared unbury her face from her hands.
Sid stepped closer, human-like in appearance in one moment but sinking back into shadow the next.
She blinked and saw the shadow fly past her on the walls of the drainage pipe. When it briefly enveloped her, she felt an intense cold that made her shudder. She turned and followed it.
Sid emerged from the ground again near the exit but outside the reach of the oblong sunlight. “Lilian. Lilian, help me. Why won’t you help me?” he pleaded, his voice wrought with emotion. From his black body, six more tentacles erupted and hovered around him. “Why won’t you let me eat you!?” he shouted manically and rushed at her.
Her feet came alive. Only a second later did she realise she was running, instinctively and in the opposite direction of Sidney. The wind rushed by and made her eyes teary. “No, please! Leave me alone!” she cried out.
Sid was much faster, and he gained on her rapidly. His guffawing jeers, like that of some jackal or a hyena, came closer quickly.
Lilian saw the light in the distance, still so far away. Her feet became heavier, and the exit on the far side of the pipe, her only escape, seemed to move further away with every step she took. She felt an eery cold creep up her back, and it concentrated on the nape of her neck; an intense feeling of vulnerability and at any moment, she expected Sid to grab her, strangle her, devour her!
Another set of eyes, brightly yellow like Sid’s, lit up in the darkness in front. It blocked her path, and she came to a skidding halt and then to the fearful conclusion that there was not one but two of these monsters. She was trapped.
Sid came rushing towards her, tentacles raised and speeding before him.
She knew there was nowhere to run, and she’d be devoured by whatever ghastly aberrations had cornered her in this damp darkness.
The second monster grew quickly from the shadows, head squarish but pointy at the tip like a rhinoceros and its body much bigger than Sid’s. It took one step, and then its movement transitioned into a vague smear, black yet transparent like a fan spinning at high speed – neither visible nor invisible – and with a sound similar to such a fan, it rushed towards Lilian.
She closed her eyes, not ready for death but utterly defeated. A mighty rush of air passed by her and swept her off her feet. She bumped her head against the side of the pipe, and the world started spinning much faster than it usually did. A cacophony of screams and growls made her come to her senses. When she opened her eyes again, she saw the two monsters locked in combat and tumbling over each other.
Sid managed to kick his assailant off a small distance, far enough to withdraw a little on all fours.
The larger beast bobbed and weaved in the narrow passage, clearly not the ideal place for it to fight. Two tentacles shot from Sid’s body and came for it like spear tips. A bob and a weave, then a dip to make sure of it and the two spears went overhead and struck the bricks behind it.
The impact was enough to tear chunks of bricks, still attached by the mortar holding them together, from the side of the drainage pipe.
The larger beast opened its mouth, and from it, smoke escaped, and a deep orange glow dispelled the looming shadow around the pointy features of its face. It let out a hiss and raised its claw, talons the length of Lilian’s legs extended and poised to deliver the killing blow.
But Sid had yet to show all of his cards. The first two attacks were from his extended arms, making it seem as if the larger beast had bypassed his defences. But from his chest, a third tentacle erupted, long, thin and ending into a perfect tip; an awl made from the dark substance of his body but solidified to resemble steel more than flesh.
The tip penetrated the larger beast’s chest near its right arm, where it stuck a couple of inches out the back. It heaved back and let out a deep and angry growl loud enough to make the debris on the ground tremble. It jerked its elbow back violently and pounded it into the side of the passage. The brick-and-mortar cracked with ease, leaving deep depressions therein.
Sid smiled cruelly, bearing pointed and glowing teeth, for he thought he had outsmarted his adversary.
But the giant beast grabbed the offending tentacle firmly in its claw and clenched it tightly. A bright light shone from its palm, increasing in intensity until it was impossible to behold directly with the naked eye.
The tentacle started to sizzle. Sid began to scream and wriggle. More smoke and louder sizzling came from within the claw, but no matter how much Sid pulled or wriggled, the larger beast would not ease its grip. “Mercy! Mercy!” he cried out.
The beast raised its other claw, and it too now shone with bright light, but these were concentrated only near the tips of its talons. He struck and skewered Sid in the chest.
Sidney let out a final whimpering squeal and then went limp.
Lilian saw most of it, but she had lost consciousness by the end of the struggle. The last thing she witnessed was the larger beast picking up Sid with its jaws and working him down its gullet with a few gulping thrusts of its head.
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