I’ve been told churches were supposed to make you feel safe. Presumably, it had something to do with God watching over you or some other religious voodoo. Still, their open doors are meant to bring comfort to even the worst of sinners. So you can understand why I was feeling a little cheated when I entered the church that night and felt nothing but dread and anticipation clench my stomach. It was unreasonably hot outside, a twenty degree heat wave baking the London streets. If that wasn’t bad enough, the heavy wooden doors of the church cut off what little breeze there was.
“God damn, it’s like a freaking sauna in here.” I hissed into the silence.
A slight crackling and a tiny squeak later and my partner in crime’s voice sung out from the tiny speaker in my ear.
“You know it’s probably not a good idea to say ‘God damn’ in a church right?” Thomas replied.
I rolled my eyes, but after realising he couldn’t see the gesture I whispered, “I’m on a hunt and you’re concerned about blasphemy?”
Creeping forward further into the church, I scanned my surroundings for signs of movement. It was a small, old church. The pews were covered in scratches, worn down from old age. I wouldn’t be surprised if they were same wooden benches as the day it was built. In any other setting, I might have been able to appreciate its rustic appeal, but I was on a hunt which meant my thoughts were slightly preoccupied.
“Hey I’m not interested in going to hell just because you can’t keep a lid on it whilst on holy ground.” Thomas retorted.
Snorting softly, I scanned the first row of seats. Empty. The mongrel wasn’t due for another few minutes, but it never hurt to be too careful.
“Please if there’s anyone less destined for hell it’s you Tom-Tom.”
Though my tone was light, the words rang true. There was no-one nicer than Thomas O’Shay. We had been partners for three years and best friends longer since. He was the rainbow to my storm cloud, the flower to my weedkiller. Without Thomas, I wouldn’t have any friends. Heck, I probably wouldn’t even talk to anyone outside my own family.
Choking back the sudden emotion that was clogging my throat, I spoke again, “And if you do end up in hell, well, I’ll be there waiting for you.”
It was Thomas’ turn to snort, “Knowing you, they already have a special corner carved out just waiting for your arrival.”
My laughter cut through the church’s quiet, leaving the eerie silence all the more unnerving upon its return.
Candles flickered softly, fighting against an imaginary wind.
What was it about candlelight that made everything so creepy?
Shadows danced across the wall, ratcheting my tension higher as I searched for any other signs of life. You never knew what could be hiding in the darkness. Another high pitched squeak caused me to flinch.
“You’re on Jackie boy,” was the only warning I received before a hulking shape flew through the church doors, crashing to the ground in front of me.
It didn’t notice me at first, too focused on, what I hoped was a bloody animal carcass, between its jaws. It’s distraction gave me a quick moment to study it. The writhing mass on the floor was a hideous combination of human and beast. It usually stood on all fours, it’s human-like limbs bent at unnatural angles, appearing deformed and broken. The arms and legs, if you could call them that, were covered in fur and ended in large paw feet, from which sprouted wicked looking claws. The rest of its body was covered in the same fur as on its arms and legs, except for the head. Its face was truly its most frightening feature. With its aristocratic nose, full lips, and slightly upturned eyes, the beast’s face was undeniably human looking. However, the deadness of the eyes and the wild untamed hunger in its features, left little doubt that the monster near me wasn’t anything close to human. Mongrels, was the definition of choice used by the Institute to describe the creatures.
The fact that they had sent Thomas and I, mere knights in training, to deal with it was an irregularity. Usually, you had to be a full-fledged knight in order to be sent out on missions, but for the past year or so Thomas and I had been given the orders to go out and deal with them on our own. The first time we were sent out the gossip was crazy. When we came back not only alive, but successful, it got even worse. ‘Dream Team’ they called us and, in a way, we were like mini celebrities within the Knight community. No we weren’t signing autographs and avoiding paparazzi, but still, whispers followed us wherever we went.
The mongrel let out an awful moaning sound and my grip tightened on my sword, which I had drawn without even noticing. God bless muscle memory. The elaborately carved metal gleamed in the candlelight and not for the first time, I wondered why they had even bothered to decorate the swords. Personally, I was happy as long as it did its job, cutting and slicing up mongrels. All the fancy patterns seemed like a waste of time.
The mongrel moaned again, its deformed body flailing around on top of the carcass. I raised my sword and prepared to chop off its head, when one of its clawed hands shot out at lightning speed, wrapping around my ankle. With incredible strength, it yanked me straight off my feet. I hit the floor hard, mentally reprimanding myself for being so careless. I was lucky the mongrel was weary from hunting whatever poor animal it was feeding on, otherwise I’d be dead meat. Snapping into action, I pushed up slightly and swung my sword at the hand clinging to me. It detached from the rest of the body with a satisfying crunch. The mongrel let out an ear-piercing scream but I paid no attention. Jumping to my feet, I brought the sword down once more, quickly decapitating it. The scream faded to a gurgle before finally dying.
Raising my sword once more, I waited for the next mongrel to arrive. Seconds ticked by but the church was remained silent. Something was wrong, mongrels always hunted in packs. Where there was one, you could be assured there were at least two more waiting in the shadows nearby.
Thud. Thud. Thud.
My heart raced, beating furiously against my chest. I couldn’t shake the feeling of something being off and after another minute and no more mongrel appearances, I decided to consult my partner.
“Hey Thomas, what’s going on? Where are the others?” I paused, waiting for the familiar squeak through the earpiece but it never came.
Thud. Thud. Thud.
I tried to focus on my surroundings rather than my growing sense of dread, but as each second ticked past, it grew harder and harder to ignore. Finally, when it seemed my heart was going to burst, the familiar squeak broke through the panic and I sighed in relief. Then I heard words that chilled me to the bone.
“Jack…help-” I was out the door of the church and running towards him before the last word finished.
Sprinting past buildings, I raced to where Thomas was supposed to be parked in our getaway van, or the Mystery Machine, as he liked to call it. Skidding to a halt outside the alleyway where the van was parked, I quickly scanned for movement but there was nothing. Dashing forward, I slowed as I reached the van. The side door was open, the inside empty. I was about to call out for Thomas when a scratching sound caught my attention. Creeping around the side of the van to investigate, I followed the sound until I reached a lone figure crumpled against a tyre. My heart stopped beating, my mind filling with white noise.
It was the only thought that broke through the cloud. Leaning against the van, Thomas clutched at his stomach where a pool of bright red blood flowed. His face was deathly pale but in one hand he still clutched his sword. Dropping to my knees, I scrambled over to him and finally managed to force words through the fear choking my throat.
“Thomas?” I whispered.
He looked up at me, a smile spread across his face, its usual joy tinged with pain.
“Hey Jackie-Boy. Things aren’t looking so good.” He coughed into his hand, pulling it away to reveal bright red.
Fear clenched my heart so tight I thought I would die on the spot.
“The H-toxin! We have to get you some H-toxin!”
I stood up, about to storm the van in search of the shots when his soft voice stopped me in my tracks.
“Jack.” He said.
That one simple word and I swear I heard my heart break. Heard it crack right down the middle. I didn’t want to turn around because then I would have to acknowledge it, acknowledge what it meant and I didn’t know if I could handle that.
“Jack.” He said again and I didn’t stand a chance.
Slowly turning, I met his resigned gaze and let my eyes travel down to his outstretched palm in which three empty syringes of H-toxin lay. Three doses of the Institutes miracle cure-all drug and he was still bleeding to death right in front of me.
No. No. No. No. No.
I collapsed to my knees again and crawled towards him, not even realising I was saying the word out loud. Tears flowed freely down my face and when I looked up into his eyes and I saw that resigned smile, I died a little more.
“Please, ” I heard myself whisper hoarsely, “Please don’t leave me.” He took my hand in his, squeezing it tight.
“Afraid I can’t promise you that, Jackie-Boy.” He spoke softly but his voice still trembled.
He was trying to be brave, his smile still in place.
I sobbed harder, clutching desperately at his hand.
“No. No! It’s not fair! You can’t. No!”
I squeezed so hard, I knew I was crushing his hand but he kept on smiling. Lifting his free hand which now shook from the effort, he tapped me lightly on the tip of my nose. A gesture he had done a thousand times before.
“Love you Jackie-Boy.”
His skin was even paler now, each breath shallower than the last. I reached up with my own hand, tapped the tip of his nose and spoke the words I was expected to reply with.
“Love you too Tom-Tom.”
Somehow, somewhere, I found a smile in me. For him. He smiled back, even as his eyes filled with tears. Opening his mouth he coughed again and after the hacking subsided, laid his head back against the van.
Hiss voice was little more than a whisper, “I don’t know if I’m going to hell, but it looks like I’ll be the one waiting on you.” His mouth twisted into a smile once more and his brown eyes met mine. “Don’t worry though, I’ll save you a seat.”
The life drained out of him. His eyes unfocused, the hand holding mine slackened as his breathing stopped.
I stared at his mouth, willing air to flow back into his lungs, waiting for him to take his next breath. To straighten up, laugh at me like it was all some elaborate joke and say ‘Fooled you didn’t I, Jackie-Boy?’ I would laugh and punch him on the arm and then we would drive back to the Institute, chatting and laughing the whole way.
But his next breath never came. His eyes never opened and with the force of a dagger to the heart, I realised Thomas O’Shay was dead.
They prepare you for every eventuality at the Institute. Every possible outcome. But no amount of training could have prepared me for this. For the sheer agony of losing my best friend. Because Thomas O’Shay wasn’t the only thing that died that night. No, he went and took my heart along with him.