Sharp Like Shadow

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Chapter 9

The first thing Alice noticed was the smell.

A damp musty odor hung on the air and whispered of dark holes in the earth where evil things liked to hide. It reminded Alice of grandma’s basement, but somehow more menacing as if the air itself had died and was infested with mold and rotting away. Alice always hated going down there in the basement, too many creepy crawly things skittering around in the dark and building little web-like kingdoms in the corners. Of course, after all the things she’d seen over the past few hours, basement spiders should be no big deal. Compared to body-snatching demons, the spiders sounded like pleasant company. Maybe she could let go of her fear of the basement now, if she ever made it back to Grandma’s house — if she got out of this alive.

But this was not her grandmother’s basement.

When her eyes cracked open Alice discovered it was much, much worse than that. She was in a large open space, surrounded by giant pools of cracked dingy concrete. The ceiling felt high and the edges of the room were invisible, lost to the boiling darkness beyond the reach of the single construction-lamp providing the only available light. Alice guessed she was on the lower level of some kind of industrial building, probably abandoned, nobody around for miles, no one to hear her scream. How typical. Apparently, the Vetala had seen a movie or two. This place was right out of every kidnapping scene she’d ever watched. The only thing missing was a video camera on a tripod to record her reading of the ransom demands. Maybe there would be no ransom. Maybe she and Royce were as good as dead already, just breathing borrowed oxygen until their creepy captor decided to end it.

Alice inhaled a sharp breath of musty air, her eyes snapping all the way open. Where was Royce?

She tried to move her arms and discovered she couldn’t. She’d been duct-taped to the old wooden chair she sat in, hands behind her back and bound tight. How cliche. Her good friend fear jumped onto her shoulders, sending frigid shivers down her spine and twisting her gut into aching knots. Panic hit her in the face and she thrashed in her seat, desperation rolling through her thoughts like thunder clouds and trailing feelings of utter powerlessness like acid rain soaking her brain. Her efforts sputtered to an end a moment later, as exhaustion wrapped itself around her. Alice closed her eyes, working to calm her emotions. She had to figure out a way out of here and panic wouldn’t help her.

Breathe, she told herself, we have each other.

Royce. She had to keep it together for her brother. She had to find him. Alice examined her surroundings again, turning her neck and shoulders, and straining to see as far behind her as she could.

“Hello?” She tried. “Royce?”

Her voice shook a little, sounding week and small as it disappeared into the open space.

“Royce?” A little louder now as fear for her brother worked its way back into her conscious mind. “Royce, are you here.”

“He’s here.” The voice from the darkness was low and grating like it came from a throat made of stone rather than flesh and blood. “But you don’t need to see him just yet.”

A shadow moved at the edges of the light, shifting from one place to another like flowing water. The sound of the voice followed the shadow — the Vetala, formless and disembodied, circling her in the dark.

“First you and I need to have a little talk.”

“Where am I?” Alice asked the obvious question, the first thing that entered her mind.

“It doesn’t matter,” said the Vetala. He was probably right. They could be in a basement in Pittsburgh a block from her house, or they could be in the deepest reaches of hell and it wouldn’t make any difference. Either way, Alice would still be just as screwed.

“You are my guest until you cease to be useful to me.” The Vetala’s voice rumbled like an oncoming storm, reigniting forgotten embers of fear deep inside Alice. “So I suggest you make every attempt to remain useful.”

Alice tried to still her trembling and keep her mind clear, picturing Royce’s face in her mind and knowing he needed her to think her way out of this, but the fear kept rushing in, angry waves against a crumbling barrier, threatening to overwhelm her senses and drown her rational thought in an ocean of terror.

Breathe. Alice inhaled. Just breathe. Exhaled.

“What do you want from me?”

“I want to talk about your new friends.” The shapeless shadow that was the Vetala moved without a sound, rolling around Alice like living smoke, deepening the darkness. “Jacob, Aaron, Miriam, tell me where they are.”

“I—” Alice couldn’t think. Her mind was in a haze of fear, sluggish and unresponsive. “I don’t know.”

“Alice.”

The shadowy shape of an arm stretched towards her.

“You’re lying to me.”

Ice trailed down her neck as shapeless fingers caressed her.

“That’s not a very polite way to treat your host.”

The fingers closed around her throat, their intangible substance hardening to an iron grip, stopping her breath and cutting off the blood from her brain. She tried to gasp, but the air wouldn’t come. Blotchy shapes of black and red danced in her vision as what little light there was in the room began to dim. Then the fingers where gone.

Alice choked and gasped in a sputtering breath, her head pounding from the abuse.

“Tell me where I can find the Holders of Light,” the Vetala repeated, “or I will kill your brother in front of you.”

Alice shook her head to clear it, fighting back her terror, striving for a coherent thought. She could not tell this monster where the Achisons were hiding. She couldn’t be responsible for what it might do to them if it caught them by surprise, especially not after Jacob had saved her life. But she couldn’t just let the Vetala kill her brother either. He had never asked for any of this. It wasn’t even his fight. The Achisons were obviously in this by choice, and Alice had been drawn in because of her death-visions, but Royce was an innocent bystander. Whatever happened next, she had to find a way to keep her brother safe. Of course, she had no idea how she would do that. Her experience with hostage situations involving disembodied ancient sorcerers wielding dark unnatural powers was fairly limited. She needed to buy herself some time to think.

Alice coughed a few times, searching for her voice.

“Why do you want to find them anyway?” Alice said. “You know they want to kill you.”

“Oh, I’m well aware of their ambitions,” the Vetala grated. “Your new friends have been following me for months, sniffing at my footprints like dogs, chasing every false trail and running headfirst into every dead-end I lead them to. It’s been fun, to a point, but it has become annoying.”

“Yeah.” Alice coughed again, shoving through the lingering pain in her throat. “I bet it’s not so fun now that someone can find you and tell them where to shoot.”

Alice wasn’t sure if it was a good idea to taunt the Vetala. But she figured she had nothing to lose. Her position was already hopeless. And this creature was obviously full of itself, draped in layers of pride and conceit at its own cleverness and longevity. If she could find a way to push the right buttons, maybe she could lure the monster into making a mistake, revealing a weakness of some kind.

The Vetala moved out into the weak light, a living shadow, the ragged length of its arms dragging behind its hunched shoulders and elongated head.

“Yes.” The monster’s voice seemed to come from all around Alice as if the darkness itself served as the creature’s voice. “You were rather unexpected, Alice. I’ve been hunted by the Families of Light for centuries. I’ve fought them many times, and I’m well aware of their capabilities, but I have never encountered one of their number whose connection to the Light manifested as it has in you, Alice. I find it— disconcerting.”

“Wait.” Alice ’s mind was on fire. Realizations and possibilities flew through her head like wildfire, burning away her long-held beliefs and assumptions about her death-visions. “Are you saying I’m like them? Like Jacob and the others?”

A low rumble echoed through the empty room, the Vetala’s laughter, deep and menacing, pulling shivers from Alice’s extremities.

“You have no idea what you are, do you, Alice?” The Vetala moved back into the darkness, turning his back on Alice. “Well, it’s not my job to educate you. You were indeed my primary point of interest when I came to see you at your home, but I’m afraid my interests have shifted. Tell me what you know about the girl who accompanied you to the school. Tell about the Holder of Light called Miriam Acheson.”

“Miriam?” Alice said. “I just met her. I really don’t know anything about her except that she hates you.”

“Yes,” said the monster, an odd note of satisfaction grinning through its tone. “She does.”

The voice receded as the Vetala moved deeper into the dark.

Panic licked at Alice’s face like tongues of fire. She was losing the advantage here. The Vetala was drifting away, leaving her alone in the dark with no way out, no way to help her brother.

“I want to see Royce!” She said. The monster stopped, waiting for her to say more. “If you want me to tell you anything about Miriam, I need to see my brother. I need to know he’s ok.”

“You want to see your brother.” The Vetala repeated. “And you think you can make demands of me because you have information I desire.”

The monster’s shadowy figure rolled toward her like a soundless tidal wave, and suddenly the cruel fingers were back around her throat, squeezing like a vise.

“You should be more careful,” the Vetala breathed into her ear, “what you wish for, my dear, dear Alice.”

Pressure built in Alice’s head, threatening to burst it and shower the rough cement floor with her brain matter. Then the merciful dark closed in around her and stole her consciousness away.

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