“Thank you, Alison, I’m here at the site of
the most recent attack. The bodies of a man and a woman were found in the
Yorkshire Dales early this morning. Like all the other victims, they both had
four five-inch deep lacerations spanning the length of their torsos. Non-human DNA
has been found at the scene, but experts still haven’t stated what kind of
animal could have caused these wounds. All of the local wildlife parks have
assured us that none of their animals are missing, nevertheless scientists are
working on identifying the DNA.”
Thea watched the news report on the television behind the counter of the café while she idly stirred a sachet of sugar into the mug of hot chocolate in front of her. This was the third attack this year, and the entire information broadcast was still vague. The lacerations along the chest were always equal distance apart, roughly an inch to an inch and a half, and up to five inches deep. No human could be that accurate with a knife, and coroners stated it was always either blood-loss or organ damage that killed them.
Big cats had claws sharp enough to deal the damage, but they were only an inch and a half long. The next possibility was some kind of bird of prey with talons, but birds only tended to have three toes.
With a sigh, Thea looked away from the television screen and sipped her drink. She had already considered all of the possible options. The first attack had caused major panic across the United Kingdom, made worse by the second and no one knew what it could be. Now, three years later, people just hoped the next one would not happen too close to home. What was also worrying was the fact that biologists refused to disclose the DNA often found with the victims.
“It’s too early in the morning for such a big sigh.”
A young man with a cherubic face and bright green eyes took the seat opposite her, his back to the television. He crossed his arms over the table and leant his chin on them, evidently exhausted, his black fringe falling over his face.
“Morning, Joe,” Thea greeted with a small grin. “There’s been another mystery attack.”
He glanced over his shoulder at the television and made a face. “It isn’t worth watching anymore. Nobody has any idea what it is, and religious experts are calling it a demon. I don’t know what it could be either, but I refuse to believe it’s some work of the devil.”
Thea had to agree with him. Once people ran out of logical explanations, they started turning to myths and evil spirits. The theory changed with every attack. Currently on the television, a priest was being interviewed regarding the incidents, but neither of them cared to listen.
“Remember when we did our own research?” Joe asked, sitting upright in his seat.
“We stayed up all night once surrounded by books and our laptops looking for something it could be. I remember we looked for anything, real or not, that could have caused those injuries.” She laughed dryly at their naivety. It had only been a year ago, but they had been so certain they would find an explanation.
“The only thing we could come up with was an eagle with four toes.”
“A victim of radiation poisoning.”
“That had gone mad with aggression,” Joe finished with a laugh. “That was a good night.”
“It was?” Thea questioned, raising one eyebrow. “We both slept in and missed our lectures the next day. It took me a week to catch up on sleep.”
“Almost missed,” Joe corrected. “I think we caught the last half hour of it. Anyway,” he met her smoky grey gaze and smiled softly, “it was the first night I got to spend with you.”
Thea felt her cheeks grow warm at his words and looked down at her mug, clutched tightly between her hands. “It’s not like we did anything,” she mumbled, unable to meet his eyes. They had been the best of friends since the beginning of their first year as university students. It wasn’t until three months ago that he plucked up the courage to kiss her.
“That’s not the point,” he answered with a shake of his head. “You let me stay with you for that long, that’s why I loved it.” Joe cleared his throat self-consciously and averted his gaze back towards the television. The news report had finally moved on, now showing the weather forecast. “I hope whatever’s attacking people stays far away from here.”
“The closest one so far was over a hundred miles away,” Thea pointed out.
“Don’t jinx it,” he responded with a joking half-smile. “Have you finished?”
She downed the rest of her hot chocolate, set the mug down and gathered her rucksack. “Yeah. Have you got another lecture now?”
“Yes,” he said, rolling his eyes. “And I have another one at half-eight tomorrow. In the morning.”
Thea frowned as they left the campus café together. “You don’t usually have one that early.”
“No, but our coursework is due soon. I think the professor wants to have another look at our progress off the radar.” He sighed and looked across at his lecture hall, shading his eyes from the autumn sunshine. “I really need to get some more work done on it. I’ll walk you to work later, okay?”
“Okay. Don’t worry about walking me home if you’ve got an early lecture,” she assured him, patting his shoulder affectionately.
Joe looked conflicted. “Are you sure? It’ll be dark…”
“I know, but I don’t finish until one today. You won’t get enough sleep if you stay up to walk me home, so don’t worry about it. I’ll survive one night.”
He still seemed unconvinced, but he nodded. “Okay, then. I’ll meet you in the library in a little bit.” He stooped to kiss her cheek and they parted ways.
Maisie intercepted her before she reached the library. Her perfect-as-usual silky brown curls rested on her shoulders, the shirt she wore leaving them bare. Thea looked at her like she was mad; it was still October, but certainly not warm enough to warrant just a vest top. She had a polystyrene coffee cup on one hand and at least five novels under the other arm. One of them had a title that was not written in English, and the others Thea did not recognise. “Are you doing anything for the rest of the day?” she demanded, peering closely into Thea’s face as though ready to spot a lie.
“Just coursework,” Thea replied truthfully, glancing past her friend towards the tall library, stocked full of books and journals and newspapers and reports, an archive of information. A combination of those resources and the internet made for an excellent study day. Only now Maisie stood between her and them, and she knew enough about Maisie to know that anything she had planned would be either tiring or frightening, or possibly both. “What’s wrong?”
“Nothing’s wrong, I just need a wing-girl to come with me to a poetry reading tonight.”
A sharp laugh escaped Thea’s lips before she could stop it. “Sorry. I’m not into poetry.”
“You don’t have to be, you just need to sit next to me and not fall asleep. Bring your portfolio with you if you want and you can work on it there, just don’t make me go on my own.”
“I’m not making you go at all,” Thea pointed out, inching her way nonchalantly past her friend and towards the library. “Besides, why can’t you take someone from your classes?”
“They’re all already going, and none of them like me much anyway.”
“I doubt that’s true.” Everyone from the English class was a little eccentric and Maisie was no exception. Thea had no idea how anyone could get excited about literature, but those kids managed it somehow. It was all just words strung together with the use of techniques with fancy names, as far as she was concerned. Juxtaposition and oxymoron meant nothing to her. How it could be called English, she wasn’t sure.
“Please, Thea. Please.” She bobbed up and down on her heels to accentuate her pleading, but Thea was immune to it.
“Maisie, you just want me there for company, and I have my own research to do. I have a deadline coming up too, you know.” She attempted to side-step her begging friend, but her wrist was caught in a vice-like grip, Maisie’s filed nails much too close to her visible veins for comfort.
“You might enjoy it,” she pointed out, going for a different approach. “Poetry is designed to inspire people. It’s an expression of emotion that’s different from other forms of literature. You never know, maybe you’ll be inspired to write something amazing in your project!”
Thea raised her eyebrows dubiously. “Somehow, I don’t think listening to a dramatic reading of Shakespeare or whoever it is will help me explain how a man can survive being shot in the head.”
“Have you read all the sonnets by Shakespeare?” Maisie challenged, her head tilted to one side. Thea sighed and shook her head, knowing this was one argument she couldn’t win. It was a rare phenomenon when she could convince Maisie to admit defeat. “Then how do you know? There could be one all about a man surviving a fatal injury, and the miracle of life, God’s will and all that.”
“Maisie, I’m a biologist, not a theologist. I don’t believe in God, but whether it’s his will or not, I need to know how the brain can survive damage from a bullet. Not how love is like a summer’s day or whatever.” She attempted to shake her wrist free, the library and its archives calling seductively out to her, but Maisie held fast.
“I promise I’ll never ask for anything again,” she pleaded. “Just tonight, please!”
“Nonsense,” Thea scoffed. “You’ll ask me to buy you coffee sometime next week, guaranteed.” Still Maisie did not let go. “Maisie, if you don’t let me go, I swear I’ll make sure no one on campus sells you coffee for a week.”
Thea was released, finally, at the threat of coffee deprivation, but her pleading eyes stayed, along with a pouting mouth. “So you won’t come with me? You won’t spare an evening to share with your best friend at a culturally enlightening event?”
“Culturally enlightening?” Thea repeated with a strangled laugh. “That’s just a fancy way of saying so dull you need a friend there to alleviate the boredom.”
Maisie rolled her eyes. “You caught me. Come on, Thea, don’t be selfish, you can spare me a few hours to alleviate some boredom.”
Thea’s eyes flashed with annoyance. “Selfish? You’re the one that wants me to give up an afternoon of work to sit at a poetry reading that will in no way benefit me just so you have someone to whisper to. I don’t think that makes me the selfish one.” She exhaled heavily, and with it went most of her anger. “Enjoy your poetry reading, I’ll see you tomorrow.” Ignoring her friend’s frustrated sigh, she turned her back and headed straight for the library.
“Someone lit a firecracker on campus.” She glanced up to meet Paul’s entertained gaze, approaching her from the opposite direction as he headed for the same lecture hall as Joe. “I’d hate to get on the wrong side of you,” he added, giving her auburn braid a playful tug as he passed.
“Oh, Paul?” she called. He paused and glanced at her, his eyebrows raised. “Joe said you have an early lecture tomorrow. I thought I’d let you know.”
His face fell into an irritated frown. “How early?”
“Half-eight. I told him not to come and walk me home after work tonight so he could get some sleep.”
Paul huffed out a breath. “Lucky sod. I may as well not go to sleep tonight, then. I’ll see you at work, Thea.”
Trying to hide an amused grin, she gave him a small, half-hearted wave, before she hurried into her beloved library, determined to finish the next chapter of her project: Medical Miracles Explained.
Four hours later, she tucked her portfolio folder under her arm as she and Joe headed for her workplace on the other side of the park in central Nottersfield. Now that her brain was nicely worked to exhaustion, it was time to make her body match with a long evening of waitressing.
“You’re sure you don’t mind walking home on your own?” Joe asked for the third time.
“I’ll be fine. We’re always fine, it’s not like the monster-men are going to get me just because you’re not there.”
Joe exhaled. “I appreciate that, but people are drunk around that time of night, and they lose rationality. Do you have any idea how bad I’d feel if something happened to you?”
“I can guess,” she answered with a grin.
“Give me a call if you change your mind,” he said, bumping her shoulder with his. “Or at least ask if one of the others can walk you home.”
“I’ll be fine,” Thea repeated exasperatedly.
As she was rolling her eyes, she missed the man coming round the corner in the opposite direction. Their arms bumped slightly, and she glanced over her shoulder to apologise, but he beat her to it, not even looking at her.
“Excuse me,” he said softly, barely even looking at her before he carried on his way. She was struck by his unnaturally deep red hair, darker than the colour of blood. Maybe it was just a trick of the light, because in the next second it looked brown.
“Sorry.” She shook herself and turned her attention back to Joe.
It was close to closing time in the quiet, quirky little bar and restaurant. As Thea busied herself with cleaning up the bar, she tried to talk the tipsy customers out of having one last drink. Her three fellow waiters started to clean up the empty tables, handled the last of the bills, and smiled as the remaining customers left.
“See you soon, Mr Thompson!” Sammy said enthusiastically, waving to one of the regulars as he stumbled down the street.
“Don’t encourage him,” Thea admonished her with a laugh, wiping down the countertop. “He’ll drink himself into oblivion, given the chance.” George wandered over to the till with a bill in hand, smirking at their exchange.
“It’s not our problem,” he commented as he counted out the notes he had been given. “He asks for a drink and we give it to him. It’s his choice.”
“Yeah, but if he keels over next time, we’ll all feel terrible,” Sammy pointed out.
“What’s great about the modern world is the freedom of choice,” Thea responded, speaking in a deeper, more profound voice. George snorted at her and Sammy pouted, pushing her pale blonde pixie-cut hair off her forehead.
“Are we about ready to close?” One of the chefs poked his head round the door of the kitchen, his white hat askew. “We’ve cleaned up in here.”
“Just seeing off the last of the customers,” Sammy informed him cheerfully, holding open the door for them. Couples and groups of friends said their thanks as she smiled warmly at them all, inviting them to come back soon.
“In that case, we’ll head off,” the chef announced. “Remember to lock the front door on your way out, kids.”
“Yes, sir!” they chorused.
Paul stalked over with another bill in hand, taking George’s place at the till. Judging by the scowl that had been on his face all evening, Thea guessed he was thinking about the measly four hours of sleep he would get that night. “Just one more,” he muttered, his eyes darting between the money in his hand and the clock on the wall. All of them had been working for eight hours straight and the minute-hand ticked towards one o’clock.
“Enjoy the rest of your night!” Sammy said brightly to the last of the customers as they made their way out the door. As soon as it swung shut behind them, her smile slipped and she let out a heavy sigh. “Right, let’s get cleaned up and get out of here.”
“I second that,” Thea added, rinsing her washcloth.
“Let’s go!” Sammy shepherded the two waiters towards the store cupboard while Thea started wiping down the table tops, sweeping crumbs and spillages onto the floor. Sammy was close behind her, lifting the chairs up onto the tables to clear the floor for George, with the sweeping brush, and Paul, with a mop. It was a plan of attack they had perfected shortly after they all started working together, and the restaurant was sparkling in no time.
“I hate the dark,” Sammy complained as they waited for George to lock up. “It’s creepy.”
Thea raised her eyebrows at her friend. “You’re in the wrong job, then.”
“Yeah, well, it was the only one going,” her friend muttered back, hugging herself against the chilly night air. “See you guys tomorrow!” she called as she raced as fast as her little legs would carry her towards her car, like the night would engulf her if she stayed too long. Paul headed round the back of the restaurant for his bike once George had pocketed the keys.
“Ready?” he asked. Thea nodded and the pair of them ventured down the street together as far as the intersection, where George stopped. His apartment was just up ahead, but Thea had to turn left into the park where there were no lights. He seemed hesitant to leave her alone. “Look, I can walk you home, it’s no trouble.”
George was two years older than Thea. He had graduated from university earlier that summer with a physics degree and was waiting for his qualifications to come through before he moved on. Until then, he planned to continue working at the restaurant as a lowly waiter with lowly pay. Not once had Thea heard him complain.
“That’s kind of you, but I’ll be fine. I go through here nearly every day, and there’s never anybody else there.”
He looked unconvinced. “…Are you sure?”
She showed him a calm smile. “Yes, thanks. I’ll see you at work tomorrow.” To take the choice out of George’s hands, she turned on her heel and ventured onto the footpath alone before he could protest.
Despite her bravado, it was not until she left the illuminated road behind that she realised exactly how dark it was. She had walked this way at the same time almost every night for the past year, but somehow it seemed darker now she was alone, without Joe’s light, cheery voice and a comforting arm around her. The night now seemed to crush down on her. She could barely see the path beneath her feet.
It was deathly silent. The only things she could hear were her own breath, loud in her ears, and her steps on the gravelled path. Although she seemed to be alone, she felt as though she were drawing attention to herself. Halfway across the park, she heard voices.
Thea glanced towards the sound. She could make out the silhouettes of a group of young men not too far away, shouting rowdily as they made their way towards her, clearly drunk. She put her head down and kept walking, increasing her stride. She felt like running the rest of the way, but the last thing she wanted was for the men to see her if they had not already. The voices grew louder behind her and she tried to walk faster.
The gate leading out onto the street on the other side of the park was less than a hundred metres away, and Thea thought she had avoided them completely. The men would not attempt to approach her where other people could see.
Something hot and sweaty grabbed her shoulder and turned her abruptly round.
Her breath caught in her throat. Five men surrounded her, each of them only a little older than she. They could be university students, but she didn’t recognise their faces. Their eyes were out of focus and the stale scent of alcohol lingered on their breath. Thea turned away from the man that had grabbed her and tried to side-step the other blocking her way to the street. They moved to stop her.
“Come on, sweetheart, don’t run away like that.” The voice was slurring, suggestive, and made a shiver run down her spine. Her shoulder was grabbed again and she shied away from the beefy hand.
Thea tried to compose her expression into one of distaste. “I’m in a bit of a hurry, so if you don’t mind…” She went to move past them again, but this time she was pushed. She stumbled and nearly tripped on the gravel. As she righted herself, she froze. Each of them had weapons in their belts, half hidden by their jackets, matte black pistols and knives with strange iridescent blades. She had been scared before, but now terror gripped her heart. What are they going to do to me?
“You want to leave without giving us a good night kiss?” another of the men asked, reaching out for her. She slapped his hand away.
“Don’t be stupid, she has better taste than you. How’s about kissing me? I’m obviously the better choice.”
“I’m not kissing any of you,” Thea snapped, sounding much braver than she felt. “Let me go home.”
“Can we come?”
“No, you cannot, and don’t even think about following me.”
She tried to leave for the third time, but one of them seized her braid and yanked. She cried out in pain, which only made them laugh loudly. She pulled her hair free angrily and somebody pushed her from behind. She fell into another of the men, who gripped her arms painfully.
“Think I’m the better looking one of my friends?” he asked with a slimy smile. Before Thea could straighten up, the man pushed her again. This time, she fell onto her back with a thud, grazing her elbows. He approached painfully slowly. Her heart gave a painful thud.
“Charles!” his friend called out just as he went to crouch in front of Thea. She took his moment of distraction to try and get up, but he stamped onto her wrist to keep her down. She screamed, fiery strings of pain shooting up her arm. His friend kept talking as though he couldn’t hear her. “I’m getting readings, man!”
“Readings?” the man named Charles asked. “From her?” He pointed a sweaty, accusing finger at Thea.
His friend gave a slight shrug. “I suppose so. No one else close enough it could be, is there?”
Each of the men stared down at her, still in their drunken stupor, but their smiles had vanished nonetheless. Thea struggled, her wrist still trapped. There was something worse about the way they were looking at her now, like she was a dangerous beast that must be slain. The man named Charles drew one of the gleaming knives from his belt, and the other men followed suit, drawing varying weapons. Thea looked at each of them in turn, still trapped underneath Charles’ boot. She didn’t know what readings were, or what they indicated, but she was certain of one thing: they were going to kill her.
“Is there no one else?” The disembodied voice was soft, but every one of the men heard it. Charles suddenly lurched away from her and they raised their weapons, searching for the source of the voice. Thea held her sore hand to her chest, her eyes darting about as well. “It could be any one of you.”
“Show yourself, demon!” Charles demanded, his head swivelling as he stared intently into the darkness. All of them sobered up very quickly. “You’re outnumbered five to one. You have no hope of escaping.”
The voice laughed quietly, confidently. “How arrogant. If you want to talk in terms of numbers, I like to count myself as three. You are the ones that have no hope of escaping.”
“You’re a pretty confident voice,” one of the men snapped. Thea wondered vaguely if she imagined the slight tremor in his voice. “It’s a pity we can’t see the face that comes with all that confidence!”
She could not see, but Thea was almost certain the invisible figure smirked at that moment. “You’ll see my face. It will be that last thing your eyes will ever see.” The men exchanged uncertain glances. “It’s a very handsome face, if I do say so myself. Consider yourselves honoured.”
A low growl vibrated on the air and Thea’s breath caught in her throat. No human could make that sound.
Something raced past, too fast to follow, leaving a rush of wind that whipped past Thea’s face and she glanced away blinking. She met the shocked face of Charles, his eyes wide and unseeing, his shirt and chest ripped open in four, deep lacerations. He crumpled to his knees before he fell forward, unmoving. Thea screamed. The men around her scrambled, and the figure was still nowhere in sight. Unlike Thea, they seemed frightened, but not shocked. They had expected this.
That’s it…! she thought, horrified. That’s what’s attacking people!
“Show yourself!” a man shouted in rage. This was the wrong thing to do. The wind rushed again, taking his throat with it. Thea whimpered, too scared to scream again.
Two of the remaining three were picked off the same way as Charles, with their chests ripped open and blood pooling around them. Thea was left alone with the last surviving member of the group. He held a pistol in his trembling hands, desperately swinging in circles in search of the killer.
There were several minutes of silence. Thea wanted to run for all she was worth, but her knees would not hold her. She stayed on the ground, tears of fear streaming down her face. The wind rushed, but came to a halt in front of the survivor. It revealed an image she did not expect: a ridiculously handsome young man with copper-brown hair that covered his forehead and crept down his neck. He stood just less than six feet tall, his black cotton shirt and khaki jacket completely free of the blood that should have sprayed him. His dark jeans looked as though they belonged to a designer label. But it was not his looks or his clothes that took Thea’s breath away. Two pointed ears poked out through his hair and from the back of his jeans sprouted a thick, furry tail the same coppery colour as his ears. Four-inch claws extended from his knuckles, painted crimson.
With a terrible grin, the inhuman man bared needle-point fangs at the survivor and slashed his claws across the last man’s throat. With a final, gargling breath, he fell lifelessly to the ground to join his friends.
The claws retracted impossibly into his hands as the beautiful boy glanced about the dead men with a crooked smile on his face, as though admiring his handiwork. Thea stared at him with her jaw slack, wanting to scream but she had no breath.
“Humans,” he muttered to himself. “Give them a bit of poison and they start turning on each other.” As he turned towards her, she caught sight of his eyes; tawny irises that covered the entire whites with slit, narrow pupils. She scrambled backwards on her elbows as he approached, her breath coming in short, shallow gasps.
He completely ignored her fear as he strode around her and hooked his arms under hers. “On your feet, lady-human. You’ll get dirty if you stay down there.” His words had slight inflections on the ends, but otherwise his English was perfect. He lifted her straight onto her feet like she weighed no more than a dried leaf. By some miracle, her knees held.
When he came round to stand in front of her again, his strange eyes looked normal. Most of her fear evaporated when she looked into human eyes, even though the fox-like ears and tail were still there. “You’re cold,” he stated bluntly, shucking off his jacket. “Here. You’re probably in shock.” He draped it over her shoulders with surprisingly elegant hands. Thea stared at his eyes, sure they had looked feline a moment ago.
“You’re the one that’s been killing humans,” she stated in a whisper.
He stilled for a moment, but then one corner of his mouth curled up into a lopsided grin. “Not me personally, lady-human. This is the first time I’ve had to kill in a long time. We only kill demon-hunters, those that try to kill us first.” He gave a throaty chuckle. “I doubt you’ll believe me, but I am truly sorry you had to witness that.”
Thea was unable to say anything. He was an unreal, fascinating sight. Every question all the attacks posed was suddenly answered, though it wasn’t a possibility she had ever entertained.
“Did they hurt you?” he asked, looking at the wrist she held close to her chest. “May I?” He went to take her wrist, and she surprised herself by letting him. He tenderly pressed against each side of it, moved it back and forth and in circles. “I don’t think the bone’s broken. You will have a bruise to be proud of, but otherwise you should be fine.”
A muffled bang in the distance caught his attention and he looked round, his ears pricked. The sight was almost comical. “Whatever you decide to say or not say about this, I can’t exist, do you understand?” A small smile tugged at the corners of his mouth. “Not that anyone would believe you if you told the truth. See you around, lady-human.” She blinked and he was gone, leaving behind nothing but a slight breeze, five dead bodies and his jacket.
She stared down at the bodies, trying to comprehend everything that had happened in such a short space of time. She realised that her fear had already dissipated and her breathlessness had been a result of wonder, not fright. She knew enough about Japanese folklore to recognise him, but she had never entertained the idea that Kitsune existed.“Demon…” The word escaped her lips in a whisper as she reached for her phone and dialled the emergency number. “There’s been another attack.”