Alice was running out of time.
Her arms chafed and burned at the wrists, muscles tight and throbbing in her shoulders from working to get an arm free. But the duct tape securing her had barely moved. Alice found herself wishing she’d been more athletic, like her brother. Maybe then she would have a bit of upper body strength to work with at times like this. Not that she usually spent much time tied to a wooden chair and waiting for death at the hands of an ancient shadow -monster-thingy.
Royce had fallen into a fitful sleep an hour ago, his body slumping forward in the chair. Alice knew he was counting on her to get them out of this and she wrestled with a rising sense of panic as the moments ticked by into hours, knowing that at any moment the Vetala would return. She tried to hear her grandmother’s voice in her head, combing back through memories of a thousand conversations and searching for bits of wisdom to keep her going. To keep her hoping. But as the fear rose inside her again, and her heart became a throbbing rush in her ears, Grandma’s voice grew more indistinct with each passing moment.
There was a time when a quiet word from Grandma at the right moment was all that kept her sane. After their mother’s accident, when she and Royce realized that they were orphans, Grandma had been their anchor. She was the one who put the pieces of their broken lives back together. She gave them a home in a safe place, taught them how to work hard, stand on their own two feet, and find the courage to fight for what they believed in. Looking back on those times, Alice was grateful for the lessons she’d learned, but she wasn’t sure how much help they could be to her now. After all, grandma didn’t know what was out there. And all the loving thoughts and wise words she’d ever heard were not going to save her when the monster returned.
Alice squeezed her eyes shut tight, She felt a single tear escaped from one, trailing its hot frustration down her cheek.
That was when a loud clang echoed through the room.
Alice looked up for the first time in hours. Nothing had changed in the large industrial space. The dingy concrete floor stretched out around her disappearing into pools of shadow at the edges of the room. She could see only a vague impression of the room’s walls at the farthest edges of her sight. Her panic returned in full force, lungs pounding each breath in and out of her chest. No other sound followed, but she knew what the noise had probably meant: the Vetala was back, and she was out of time.
Alice sighed, deflating into her chair. There was nothing she could do now but wait. As the seconds ticked by, she looked back at her life wondering what she could’ve done better. What she could’ve done differently. She hadn’t had much time, after all. She wondered if she should wake Royce. Maybe try to say goodbye.
A small scraping sound reached her ear. Subtle, like the scuff of a shoe on the floor. A failed attempt at stealth. She moved her head around in wild motions, eyes searching out each possible entry, waiting to catch a glimpse of her death as it approached.
She caught sight of a movement in a doorway to her right, near the corner of the room, barely visible from her position. She knew it was over now, the Vetala had come back to finish them off. She almost smiled with relief despite her terror.
But the figure that crept from the shadows into the dim light was not the one she was expecting.
Miriam held a finger up to her lips, stepping across the floor on quiet toes.
Alice clamped her teeth together, forcing short breaths through her nose and struggling to stifle her impulse to shout her relief and scream her terror. Miriam moved to her side and went to work on the duct tape that bound Alice to the chair. Alice watched the doorways, wide eyes threatening to leap from her skull. Her heart hammered against the walls of her chest. She just knew the Vetala would return at exactly that moment and spoil their escape. But the seconds ticked by and he didn’t show.
Alice heard Miriam curse, then felt a warmth on her wrists and suddenly she was free from the chair. She stood, rubbing life back into her arm as she moved to her brother. Miriam was already working on his bonds and Royce began to stir, moaning as he returned to consciousness. Alice slapped a quick hand over his mouth and his eyes snapped their focus to her face.
“Shhh.” Alice rested a finger against her lips.
Royce nodded his understanding. If he felt any fear, he kept it well hidden, his face a mask of calm despite the danger. Alice was barely keeping it together and part of her felt a little pissed off at her brother’s refusal to freak out. Why did he have to make everything look so easy?
There was a gentle flash of light, and Royce was free to stand. Alice threw her arms around her brother, crushing him against her and letting out a small whisper despite her best efforts. Royce returned a quick embrace, then pushed her gently away, nodding towards where Miriam was already moving back towards the exit. She waved an impatient hand, motioning them forward. Alice grabbed her brother’s hand and they followed their rescuer through the door.
Miriam stopped at the next corner, hunching close to the ally wall and peering out into the street with heavy eyes. Alice fell in next to her, pressing her back against the cold brick, breathing hard, her limbs burning from exertion. Royce stumbled to a halt near them, hands on his knees.
He spat to one side. “Why we stopping?”
Miriam held up a hand, gesturing for silence.
“What is it?” Alice breathed.
“That was too easy,” Miriam said. “There’s no way it was that easy.”
“Whatever,” Royce said. “Let’s just get out of here. We can talk about how easy it was later.”
“When was the last time you saw the Vetala?” Miriam turned the intensity of her gaze on Alice. “He wasn’t anywhere on the property when I got there. How long is he been gone?”
“I… I’m not sure.” Alice tried to clear her thoughts. The hours she’d spent lashed to that chair blended in her mind, creating a convoluted mixture of discomfort and terror. “It’s been gone for hours, I guess. I was unconscious when it left, and when I woke it was just… gone.”
“Something isn’t right about this.”
She stayed put for another 30 seconds, then eased out into the road and crossed the street, slipping into another alley on the far side. They were moving into a busier part of town now, and the world was starting to wake up and drive to work. Still, the occasional cars that passed seemed distant, driven by average people going about their average days, unaware of the insanity that Alice’s life had been sucked into. She fixed her eyes on her friend and stumbled on. Her lungs burned and her limbs felt like jelly, but Miriam plowed ahead, driving them forward — closer to safety and farther away from the monster that hunted them.
Alice couldn’t believe she was free. It felt like a dream. The relief that had flooded through her at the sight of Miriam’s face had overwhelmed her senses and left her feeling numb and emptied. She’d been certain that she was going to die, convinced that Miriam had been killed at the school and that Jacob and Aaron had no idea Alice had been taken or would have no way of finding her if they did. But somehow Miriam had come for her.
The rescue had felt a little anticlimactic after all of the intense drama of their abduction and captivity. Miriam had simply wandered in, cut the tape that bound Alice and Royce, and led them back out again the way she had entered. The only difficulty had been getting over the chain-link fence that surrounded the property. But Miriam had barely slowed down, heading straight towards a shiny new section of the fence and tossing her hands out in front of her. If Alice hadn’t seen so much weird over the past twelve hours, she would’ve been shocked beyond words to watch the links of the fence tear themselves apart, the fence posts bending outward and sending jagged cracks through the concrete sidewalk. But Alice barely noticed her surroundings as they jogged through the dust and rubble of Miriam’s improvised exit and escaped.
While they ran Alice tried to ask Miriam how she had survived back at the school, how she had found Alice and Royce. But Miriam shushed her, saying they would talk later once they knew they were safe. Alice was about to ask how they would know when they were safe, but she never got the chance before they reached the intersection of two alleys in the middle of the block and turned right, rounding the corner and stepping neatly into an ambush.
“Well shit,” Royce said, skidding to a halt and grabbing Alice’s arm to keep her upright as she bumped into him.
“Looks like your crazy-ass friend was right, Alice. That was too easy.”