“So what did you do, follow me?” Alice wheezed, working to keep her breath even as she and Miriam jogged toward the High School.
“Didn’t have to,” Miriam’s voice was steady, unaffected by the strain of running for twelve blocks. “We already knew where you live.”
Before they left the house, Alice had called on Mrs. Thomas, her next-door neighbor, and asked the kindly older lady to keep an eye on Grandma for a while, telling her that it was an emergency. Then Alice and Miriam had taken off running before any probing questions could be asked about the specifics of their emergency.
“Right,” Alice said. “Forgot about that. Well anyway, thanks for coming. And for, you know, helping me go after my brother.”
“Hey, you’re helping us out too.” Miriam shrugged. “We needed to locate the Vetala. Now we know where he is.”
Miriam slowed for a moment. She caught Alice’s eyes with her own and her voice wrapped itself in a sincerity that Alice hadn’t heard from it before.
“I will do everything I can to stop the Vetala and save your brother Alice. Whatever it takes.”
“Thank you.” Alice nodded. Miriam was scary intense, but Alice thought she might be starting to like her. Just a little.
The two girls continued their run, moving at a pace Alice could never have maintained without the motivation of desperation and fear. Under normal circumstances, Alice enjoyed the long walk to and from school. Even in the winter, when the frigid air could freeze her lungs and the whipping wind stung tears into her eyes and then froze them in the corners, Alice would still prefer to walk rather than subjecting herself to a cramped, stuffy ride in a school bus. It gave her a quiet time alone to think things through. She had the kind of mind that was constantly active: scheming, planning, looking for new angles and new ways to tackle a particular problem. She did her best thinking when she was alone. Just walking by herself to school was often enough to help Alice center herself and come to terms with whatever challenges she would face that day.
But tonight was different.
She had no time for a calm, relaxing stroll. No, tonight she had to run. Every second that passed was another tick of the clock, counting down the final moments of Royce’s life if Alice and Miriam couldn’t get to the Principal’s office in time. Unlike the daily walk to school, she had no space in which to think, no peaceful moments for rolling things around in her mind and searching for a reasonable course of action. At the moment, her brain was barely functioning well enough to tell her feet that they should keep jumping one in front of the other to propel her down the street. Alice knew she should be thinking about what to do when they got to the school, trying to come up with a plan that might save Royce’s life, but she had no idea what to expect when they arrived.
Jacob had said that the Vetala would not look the same the next time she saw it. What would it look like now? Would it look like someone she knew? And how could she know for sure that it was the Vetala? She assumed one of her death visions could tell her, but she had no control over them. No idea how to make one happen. She’d certainly never tried to before. Alice supposed she could just look for the scary guy holding a knife to her brother’s throat or a gun to his head. That would probably be the Vetala.
After she’d identified it, what would happen next? How would she get Royce back? Alice glanced over at the girl running beside her. Miriam moved with the deadly grace of a predator, her body cutting easily through the cool dark, her limbs a slow blur, smooth and soundless as they ate up the distance between Miriam and her prey. Alice figured if she could identify the Vetala, she would just point and let Miriam handle the rest. The girl was certainly far more experienced at hunting terrifying monsters in the dead of night than Alice could ever hope to be. Alice would have no choice but to rely on Miriam and hope she made good on her promise to do whatever it took to save Royce.
Mary Lou Williams Metropolitan High School ghosted into view, materializing from the late-night gloom like an oncoming storm, and somehow darkening an already pitch black horizon. Alice and Miriam slowed to a walk, creeping toward the doors of the school on careful toes. Alice clenched and unclenched her jaw as her heart began to pound again, forcing the throb of her rising terror through the raw framework of her veins. Miriam paused, glancing Alice’s way, and Alice thought she saw a flicker of concern flash across the other girl’s eyes.
“Why don’t you let me go first?” Miriam’s voice was low and icy, as though whatever small pockets of warmth it held had drained away into the streets of Pittsburg as they ran.
Eyes wide, Alice nodded, falling back and allowing Miriam to take the lead as they entered the school.
The school doors, normally locked that time of night, opened easily for Miriam. Apparently, the Vetala knew they were coming and had made sure they could get inside. Alice felt like an intruder in her own school. The main hallway sat dead and silent. It reminded her of an empty grave breathing in slow patience and waiting for its future occupant to arrive. She and Miriam moved through the empty space, their beating hearts the only source of life and warmth inside a yawning tomb.
Alice didn’t dare speak out loud to direct Miriam to the Principal’s office, but the girl seemed to find her way without any problem. They approached the administrative offices in silence and Alice was not surprised to find that this door had also been left unlocked for them. Miriam paused again, offering Alice what she was sure the other girl intended as a reassuring look, but it only served to add to the menace in the air. Her smile looked more hungry than comforting, and her eyes held an expectation of violence that sent a fresh chill crawling down Alice’s spine. Alice nodded in response and the girls moved into the office to face whatever would come next.
They didn’t have to wait long.
As Miriam and Alice entered the reception area of the school office, the principal’s door opened and Mr. Berringer, the High School principal, stepped through. Only it wasn’t Mr, Berringer. Alice realized immediately that she needn’t have worried about trying to trigger a death-vision. Maybe it was her heightened emotional state, or maybe it was her desperate need to save her brother, or maybe something else entirely. Whatever the reason, when Mr. Berringer stepped into the reception area, the death-vision began immediately. A familiar pain exploded in Alice’s head, and Mr. Berringer’s face transformed, bubbling and melting to reform itself into a black-toothed, grinning horror with grotesquely elongated features and smoke seeping from its every opening.
Alice felt her limbs freeze and all their heat fled from them leaving her numb and frigid to the core. She heard herself gasp as her hand shot out to grip Miriam’s arm, her knuckles whitening around the dark fabric of her jean jacket.
“Th—, tha—, that—” Alice couldn’t manage to complete the thought through the bitter numbness creeping into her jaw.
Miriam narrowed her eyes, leaving them fixed on Mr. Berringer.
“That’s him, isn’t it,” she said. “That’s the Vetala.”
“Yes.” Alice forced the word out as a hiss through clenched teeth.
Miriam nodded, a wicked smile peeking around the edges of her lips.
“I’ve been waiting a long time for this, asshole.”
The Vetala ignored her. He turned instead to Alice and fixed her with a gaze that was both calm and murderous, promising her the most gentlemanly sort of disembowelment imaginable.
“I’m disappointed, Alice.” He sounded a bit like Mr. Barringer if the unfortunate high school principal’s voice had been tossed into a garbage disposal and then somehow deepened by three octaves. “I suppose I didn’t specify in my note for you to come alone, but it really should have been implied, dear. Honestly, have you never seen a movie?”
“S—s—sorry.” Alice worked to find her voice again. “Not.”
The Vetala laughed. An unsettling sound, like a stone lid sliding over a tomb.
“It’s turned out for the best, though,” he said. “Now I’ll have the opportunity to eliminate you, and to destroy a Holder of Light as well.”
“A what?” Alice said.
“Never mind.” Miriam cut it. “Where’s the boy, demon. He’d better be alive or I will roast you into a charred lump of dickhead.”
“Oh, not to worry.” The Vetala’s smile stretched even wider in Alice’s death-vision, its teeth lengthening into grotesque blackened spikes. “He’s—”
Alice was sure the Vetala had been about to launch into some long-winded monologue, teasing them about the whereabouts of her brother and reveling in the leverage he’d gained by kidnapping Royce. But he never got the chance. Miriam chose that exact moment of launch a beam of blue-white fire from her thrusting hands straight at the Vetala’s smug, gloating, swagger-infested face. The sudden light blinded Alice, and she shielded her eyes as Miriam poured her strange power into their mutual enemy.
The Vetala rocked back beneath the force of the blast, his form hazy and indistinct in the heat of Miriam’s power. Alice was sure the monster was done for, but after a moment of withering beneath the attack, the Vetala began to rise. He tipped forward again until he was standing straight, and as he rose a black film spread into the air in front of him, reaching into the room like liquid darkness and cutting him off from the constant stream of Miriam’s power. Alice watched as the spreading darkness shaped itself into a half-sphere, encircling the Vetala and redirecting the force of Miriam’s attack. The beam of power ricocheted off the dark sphere, blasting into the walls on either side of the room like a wrecking ball. The explosion was deafening and the force of it threw Alice to the ground. Her head impacted the carpet-covered concrete.
A white curtain flashed across her vision, and her sense of time and place disappeared behind it. Alice floated in a formless space where nothing seemed solid or complete except the fear that ran its icy fingers through her hair, breathing humid air along the back of her neck.
Alice shuddered and opened her eyes, narrowing them against the haze of dust and demolition. The room was destroyed. Gaping holes in the walls revealed hallways and classrooms on either side. Broken pipes spilled brown water from jagged cinder-block wounds, like the lifeblood of the school emptying into the ruined office. Random sparks cracked the air from broken electrical lines. Alice tried to rise, limbs trembling, pulling herself up from the rubble while a dozen small pains jabbed her body from all directions. She made it as far as her hands and knees before she noticed the shadowed legs of a figure standing beside her.
Alice looked up.
The Vetala stood over her, a manic grin carved across Mr. Berringer’s stolen face. Her death vision had ended, but the monstrous creature inside her high school principal was just as terrifying without it, and his voice crawled up out of depths of his chest like a demon loosed from its cage.
“I’m afraid I have some bad news for you, Alice,” the creature said. “It seems you’ll be reuniting with your brother after all, though not in the way you’d hoped.”
The Vetala raised his foot above Alice’s head and brought it down like a hammer, plunging Alice into the sudden dark.