The Walkers

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Nightmare On Oak Street

Catherine Goode dove her head under her blankets as lightning streaked across the sky. "It was a dark and stormy night," Cat realized aloud as thunder shook the air. Cat shivered uncontrollably like a cat drenched in rainwater.

Cat wanted to be brave like her sister Molly but she wasn't the brave type. She was the hide-under-the-covers-until-the-monsters-went-away type. Still, Cat hazarded a peak though her covers. "This is so stupid."

Cat felt a hand fall onto her back. "Boo!" In spite of herself, Cat sprung into the air like a cartoon cat trying to cling to the ceiling. Cat didn't have to look behind her to know who it was. Only one person it could be this time of night. "I scared you, didn't I?" Cat nodded in defeat.

Molly was right. Cat was scared and not just of this either. She was a natural born scaredy cat. Emily sat down on the bed next to Cat. "So, sis, what you doing?" Cat tried to ignore her. Molly just kept scooting closer in response.

Cat did have a reason to be awake besides being afraid of the storm. The news said something about a comet visible from North America. If not for the storm outside, Cat would have had a clear view of Maya's Comet from her telescope. Cat would be Mom's age when she got another chance to see it.

Cat wanted to tell Molly the truth that the storm was blocking her view of natural history. "Nothing," Cat lied as she returned to her hiding place under the covers. Molly dove in after her. Cat wanted to sleep. Molly's bouncing up and down on her bed wasn't helping her get to sleep. Cat turned to face her.

"I know something you don't. I know something you don't. I know something you don't." From experience, Cat knew that Molly could have kept that up forever if she didn't stop her somehow.

Cat relented.

"Mom and Dad aren't asleep either and guess what they're doing?" Cat Goode shrugged, "They're having sex." Cat rolled her eyes. "It's true, Cat. Listen." Nether of them should have been old enough to know that.

Cat was 12 and Molly was 14. Perhaps, Molly might be old enough to know that but Cat wanted a couple more years of child-like innocence. "Come on. It's no big secret. Everybody's moms and dads do it." Cat grimaced at that.

"What's with the face?" Molly grinned. "You should be happy for them." Cat couldn't believe Molly sometimes. Molly loved to talk like nothing in the world bothered her. She wanted to show the world she wasn't afraid.

Cat couldn't do that because of the simple fact that she was afraid. Every waking minute of Cat Goode's life was a struggle not to her fears take over.

Molly shook her head. "You're no fun." Molly jumped off the bed and ran to the door of Cat's room. Sweet dreams, Scaredy Cat." With that, Emily had vanished and left Cat Goode to engage her fear of the storm by herself. In hindsight, Cat wished that Molly could have stayed just a little bit longer.

Cat had every reason to want to be brave. Each time Cat would have a nightmare, her parents would worry. She had been involved in a car crash.

Car crash. Her parents never called it a car accident. To them, it sounded too much like there was no one to blame. That night, the doctors said Catherine had died on the operating table for a minute and a half. The longest ninety seconds of her parents' lives. Her parents, especially her mother, still worried about the prospects of any permanent brain damage.

According to Molly, the drunk driver who hit their minivan was paying them for his mistake and was the reason they could afford such a nice house. It gave Cat the creeps to think her near-death experience paid for all this.

That was four years ago. Around the time Cat Goode started having the dreams. She couldn't remembered much about the dreams. What she could remember was a vague impressionistic blend of shadow play and screaming.

Then, the dreams would slip away as soon as she woke up. Cat took to scribbling down the images on blank pieces of paper with crayons whenever she awoke from one of her night terrors. Cat didn't know where the dreams came from and was too afraid to tell anyone about them. They scared her.

Cat hated always being the one who was always afraid. Her father the firefighter ran into burning buildings for a living. Her mother the emergency medic tended on the wounded and the dying. Her older sister was going to be a cop when she grew up. When Cat grew up, whatever her situation was, she would always be scared. It was a sad truth engraved upon her very soul.

To make waters worse, Halloween was at the end of this. Cat was already feeling like Scaredy Cat, her childhood nickname she would, in all likelihood, never outlive. Cat leaned over the edge of her bed. Her plush pink unicorn had fallen under the bed during the calamity. Cat went to fetch it. As she looked under the bed, a set of glowing eyes looked back at her.

"Aahh!" Molly ran back into Cat's room the moment she screamed. With Molly's bedroom at the end of the hallway, it meant that she had been waiting outside her room. Perhaps, Molly was waiting to jump out at her during her regular visit to the kitchen for her nightly glass of water. Molly kept asking her what was wrong. She said the first thing that came to mind.

"There's something under my bed." Molly grabbed her stomach as her laughter nearly swept her off her feet. "I know how that sounds that I saw it with my own two eyes." Molly stood up as straight as a board and put her finger to her own lips. With the stealth and agility of an adventuring archaeologist. Molly neared Cat's bed and shoved her arm into the dark.

Molly screamed as something pulled at her arm. Cat braced herself against the door to her room, too afraid to approach her sister. The look of fear dissolver from Molly's face as she extracted her plush pink unicorn, Bella.

"Is this your monster?" Cat shook her head. Cat knew the difference between Bella and a hungry set of eyes. "You know, Mom worries about you." Cat nodded solemnly. "So let's just keep this to ourselves, okay?"

Cat nodded and laughed at herself. "You are getting too easy." Molly joined in on the laugh. "Don't make me come back in here again." Both laughs were cut short by the screams of their parents. Cat looked in the direction of the door. Mom and Dad might have been having sex but those were not the screams born of lovemaking. Those were the screams of the terror-stricken.

No sooner had she taken her eyes off Molly, a pair of arms shot out from underneath Cat's bed. Without wasted movement, the arms dragged Molly by her ankles into the dark space. Molly's cries for help became faint as if funneled through a long tunnel. Those same two eyes from before peaked out at Cat, now accompanied by four more eyes. One limb at a time, a tiny blood-red boy dressed in rags crawled out from under the bed.

Cat Goode recognized this thing from her nightmares. His three faces were hardened chalk-white like three mask-shaped calluses growing out of his triangular head. With his four arms, the red-skinned boy pulled himself up onto his feet, scowling at her the whole time.

The thing looked at the closet, In that instant, another creature emerged from the closet. Though easily twice the size of the tinier one, the closet monster was clearly the same species as the one that came under her bed, only older and female.

The tiny one gestured in Cat's direction, all the time licking his three pairs of lips. The large woman got down on one knee to take a closer look at Cat. One of her clothed breasts sagged onto her bent knee. Her six nostrils flared as if sniffing the air for an elusive scent. She shook her head in disgust. This must the boy's mother.

The mother shooed her son away through the closet. The mother scooped up a handful of sand from her satchel. She blew at the sand in the palm of her lower right hand. The sand sprayed into Cat's face as the world around her fell into darkness. The mother retreated into the closet. Cat could feel her mind drifting away to the uncharted territories of her unconscious mind.

Emily Torres didn't have a lot of regrets in her life. Regrets were for people who didn't plan ahead. Emily Torres always planned ahead. That was why she was nurse working her way up the hospital food chain. That was why she was the valedictorian of every school she attended. That was why Scott was planning on proposing to her during their third anniversary as a couple.

The whole thing was supposed to be a surprise. Sweet as it was, Emily didn't like surprises. Surprises were the natural enemies of planning ahead. This was the closest thing to a welcome surprise. She didn't expect for Scott Green to work up the nerve to pop the question so soon in their relationship.

Indeed, a lot of people, her own parents included, didn't consider three years that soon. Her Mormon friend Josie joked about her being a closeted Mormon with how slow and chaste she handled her romantic relationships.

Emily Torres was almost happy about it. Except for one thing. His proposal and her inevitable answer meant she would have to plan ahead. There would be a wedding to plan. She'd end up a full-grown Bridezilla inside a week.

Carol Cohen, decent co-worker and best friend, would try to talk Emily Torres into a bachelorette party. Male strippers. Booze. All her friends kidnapping her. The whole enchilada. Emily would have to hide behind Scott on this. She would have to tell Carol that Scott would never allow it.

In truth, Scott wouldn't mind it at all. He wasn't the jealous type. He was a calm guy. That was what she loved about him. No drama. Really, Emily just wasn't that kind of girl. Carol, on the other hand, dabbled in the slutty arts.

Emily came into the room to do her rounds. Emily always grimaced when they came to little Catherine Goode's room. Her mother, Rachel, was one of them. The family had vanished last week under mysterious circumstances.

A neighbor called the police complaining about screaming come from their household. When the police arrived, Cat was found in her pajamas on the floor of her bedroom in a deep sleep. On her face was a dust-like substance no one in forensics could identify. Cat Goode was the hospital's ghost story.

Everyone fought to keep the details of the story under wraps. A nurse had already been fired for talking to the media. Whatever the question was, the answer was "No comment." There was something very fishy about this little girl.

Emily Torres read through her file. It was the same as yesterday and the day before. Despite the strange dust on her face, Catherine had no signs of any drug in her system. Her coma had not been the result of a recent injury.

Though Catherine Goode had been in a car accident four years back, most doctors were dead certain that her current condition had nothing to do with that. Scientifically, she was just sleeping with the strange addendum of not being able to wake up. She was, in essence, a modern-day Sleeping Beauty.

The scientific anomaly of it all was lost on the local police. The cops didn't care about this girl's reverse insomnia. Three people were missing. One of them was only a couple years older than Catherine. The cops needed to find them. Then, when they had time, they'd get someone to check up on her.

Emily looked towards the door. In the threshold was an elderly woman clutching the strings of a velvet pouch in her right hand. "Ma'am," Emily started in. "You're not allowed to be here. Visiting hours are over." The lady stepped into the light. Emily recognized her. "Mrs. Goode. Is that you?"

Mrs. Goode was one of those relatives of Catherine that weren't quite distant enough to be considered a distant relative. The old lady was Cat's paternal grandfather's sister-in-law. Emily had only met her a couple times before. By all impressions, she was a kindly somewhat doddering old lady.

This erect older woman with hawk eyes wasn't the same elderly woman Emily had met before. There was a purpose behind every step. She knew it wasn't visiting hours and she didn't care. "If you don't leave, I'll call 911."

Mrs. Goode nodded. "Alright." The old lady produced a tiny candle from her velvet pouch. "Call them." The old lady lit a match and pressed against the candle. "Let them witness a miracle." Mrs. Goode placed the candle on the tray over Catherine's body. "I would have come during visiting hours but this must be done when the sun is furthest from this point on the planet."

Mrs. Goode flashed a toothy grin. "True midnight." Emily placed a hand on Mrs. Goode's arm. With an uncanny strength, Mrs. Goode pulled the offending limb off of her arm. Her eyes glowed like a wild animal's at night.

"You are not being helpful." Mrs. Goode returned to her work. "A life hangs in the balance. Cat has been poisoned with sleep-sand from the underground city of Agartha. I have not seen a case of sleep-sand poisoning in decades. It's quite strange."

Mrs. Goode kept talking. "Forgive my rambling. I talk when I'm nervous." Emily stared at the arcane altar Mrs. Goode had assembled over her grand-niece. Mrs. Goode raised a blue flower in the air. "I'd have done this days ago but this little pretty is quite rare and must be plucked in the hour of Jupiter."

As the crazed old lady mumbled words under her breath and waved the little plant back and forth over Cat's body, Emily couldn't contain her skepticism. As a nurse, she had seen everything. Emily remembered this one Hungarian couple had tried to treat their teenage son's gunshot wound with honey.

Cat stirred from her sleep. "What the Hell?" Emily didn't know what else to say to that. Mrs. Goode, like a burglar running out of a home, extinguished the candle and packed up her things. Whatever she had done, she was done.

"Tell them whatever you like." Mrs. Goode paused. "Except the truth." Mrs. Goode flashed that same toothy grin at Emily Torres. "They would never believe the truth anyways." With that, Mrs. Goode stole away into the night.

"I'm here to see Jason Newton." The receptionist buzzed Noah Walker in. Noah often wondered what happened after the heroes killed the monster and didn't ride off into the sunset. The grim reality of that was far from pleasant.

What happened after the hero(es) killed the monster? Life happened. Stabbing the redcap through the skull with a silvered knife didn't make the last two years go away. Jason had really bonded with Red and killing him was no different than a boy having to kill his dog after he contracted rabies.

The post-homicidal depression wasn't even the worst part. The worst part was the ontological inertia of the redcap's rage. Jason's soul still crackled with the highs and lows of a creature's homicidal hatred for human life. It would be a while, perhaps years, before Jason Newton was ever clean again.

Noah had disobeyed Dad's orders not to engage in a hunt and it nearly cost him his life. Mom being saved from the redcap's killing spree had mitigated his rage a bit. Dad decided on a week of no-fun homework-only grounding.

As such, this was the first time Noah would be seeing Jason after his voluntary commitment to the psychiatric ward of this hospital. Noah didn't have the most politically-correct opinion of places like these. There were nuthouses and, at the rate his life was going, he'd end up in one pretty soon.

Fortunately, this psychiatric ward, at least, wasn't like the ones in movies. It was a clean and friendly environment staffed by compassionate professional people. Those housed here, the depressed, the suicidal, the cutters and the schizoids, were often more threats to themselves than anyone around them.

Noah Walker might have preferred an invariable human warehouse stuffed with criminal masterminds laughing maniacally as they plotted against invisible enemies. It would beat this melancholy collection of broken souls.

Noah walked into the room of the psychiatrist, almost expecting to find Jason Newton in a padded room struggling against his straitjacket. Instead, he saw Jason in a hospital bed, virtuously indistinguishable from any other patent. Jason smirked. "I bet you are getting a lot of crap at school for this?"

Noah chuckled. Noah was never going to be the high school president. Nonetheless, Noah's social standing had dipped ever since Jason's parents agreed with their son's decision to commit himself to a psychiatric ward.

Talk about means of destroying mythological creatures and his friend being a wolf-boy probably helped his case. Jason smiled. He was happy to see him. His friend's knowledge of the other world wasn't the reason he was here. Jason had cut himself a few times and was having suicidal thoughts.

"I don't know why I can't just move on but I know I can't." Jason closed his eyes. "I just remember looking in the mirror one day; I couldn't recognize myself anymore. All I could see was a monster with my face who was going to let my best friend be ripped open because his teddy bear told him to."

Jason rose a hand to stop Noah's objection. "And, yes, I know he wasn't really a teddy bear. But I didn't know that at the time." Jason clutched his head. "Now, I don't know anything anymore. All I know is a rage that won't go away unless I do this." Jason showed Noah the old scars of his cutting.

Noah shook his head in denial. "You're being too hard on yourself. You broke free of his control, didn't you?" Noah remembered quite vividly how Jason had tricked Red into thinking he wanted to kill Mom by himself.

Jason then proceeded to stab Red in the head with a knife lined with silver, a metal anathema to shifters of all stripes. Jason was a hero. "You don't understand. When I broke free, I broke everything." Jason shivered a bit.

Jason sighed. "All I can do now is gather up those pieces and do my best to put it back together again." After a minute of silence, Noah decided to leave.

"Grandma?" Noah asked as Grandma showed up at the door with a twelve-year-old girl in tow. Though called Mom whenever she could manage, it had been many Christmases, Thanksgivings and birthdays without her.

"What are you doing here?" Putting mildly, she didn't visit very often.

Mom locked eyes with Grandma, not even bothering to look at the tiny little cherub she had brought with. It took a while to realize what was happening. Then, it struck him like the hammer of the gods. Grandma was here on business. Family business. Monster hunting family business.

"Do I even want to know?" Mom wasn't one for sarcasm usually. Whenever Grandma came over, Noah and Alyssa saw another side of the woman who gave birth to them. Before she was a mother, she was this woman's daughter. "Do I even have a choice?" Grandma's eyes brightened.

"No and no, my dear. These are matters of the utmost gravitas." Noah Walker couldn't recall the last time anyone he knew used the word gravitas in a sentence. From what he could remember about Grandma, she was strange like that. Knowing now that she was in on this whole Benandanti thing from the beginning shed some much needed light on her eccentricities.

The girl stared through Noah like she were stuck in a trance. Noah didn't even have to ask. "This is Catherine Goode, your second cousin by marriage. Her friends call her Cat." Grandma pulled Cat next to her. "She is still recovering from a nasty bit of sleep-sand poisoning. I think she will be okay." Cat blinked a couple times. "I just do not know when. That is all."

Noah knew that look on her face all too well. He had seen that look on Jason Newton's face. It was the look of someone who had seen too much. Noah tried to comfort her. Cat recoiled into Grandma. "Great heavens above, asuras were always a merciless lot, weren't they, Shelley?"

Shelley. That was Grandma's pet name for their mother. He had gone through the ups and downs of puberty since the last time he had heard that name spoken in this home. Mom winced at the sound of that word. Noah had only the vaguest clue what it meant, some sort of nursery boogey of old.

"How many were taken?" Grandma held up three fingers. "Is she the only one left behind?" Grandma nodded. Something else was going on here. Noah hated being out of the loop. Not as much as Alyssa did but enough.

Mom ran to the master bedroom, leaving Noah alone with Grandma. "What did she tell you about your grandfather?" Noah was told that he had died, possibly from a monster attack. "That is what she said about my dear Will?" Grandma put her finger under her chin. " I suppose, in a way, that is true."

Mom had lied about her father's death of all things. Grandma sighed. "Do you know what an asura does when he catches his prey?" A shiver went down his spine. "He doesn't kill him. That would be too civilized. Asuras are oneirophages. That is fancy three-dollar word which means they eat dreams."

Noah could feel his teeth chattering together. "So the asura devours all those dreams that make a person special. What is left of the poor soul is dead to the world. His mind locked in an endless nightmare. That is what happened to your grandfather, Noah. Know and never forget. Just as we must defend our dreams, we must also face our nightmares and vanquish them."

Grandma shook her head. "Take heart, child. All is not lost. Asuras are picky eaters. They do not dine on the dreams of cowards and are said to grow ill from devouring the dreams of those who are weak of spirit." Cat didn't react to being called a coward. "Also, corpses do not dream. The victim must be left alive in order to be fed upon."

"I can only hope my dear Cat is in there somewhere." Noah looked hard at Cat. Grandma's hopes were in vain. The lights were on but nobody was home.

Mom came back to them with a wad of cash. "This is money," Mom said. "Take it and leave. That is all the help you are getting from me, Mother. I know what you plan on doing and I will not let my family be a part of that."

Grandma shrugged. "A part of what? Saving a little girl's family from the terrors of Agartha? I thought you of all people would understand." A long sigh followed. "You still blame yourself for what happened, don't you, Shelley?" Mom winced from that question. "Of course, you do."

Grandma turned to Noah. "Your mother was awake when an asura took my Will and she thinks she could have stopped it." Mom was on the verge of tears. "I slept through the whole thing." She wrapped her arms around Mom. "From what she told me afterwards, she fought better than a dozen hunters and even slit his throat. She was only ten years old sans powers."

Grandma continued her talk with Noah as she comforted her daughter. "It changes you. The day you find out you cannot always protect the people you care about." Noah could feel his blood boiling inside of him. It was the second time he had heard this sad little speech. "It leaves a scar."

Noah looked at Cat. "Mom," Noah began. "I want to help." Mom nodded. She was beyond arguing the point with him. The time for action was now.

Noah had failed to stop a redcap. Now, his best friend Jason was in a psych ward because of him. Noah wasn't going to fail anyone again. Never again.

Somewhere between being born and dying, an individual had to figure out what his/her life was all about. Noah wasn't trying to make some big point about destiny and heroism. It was a very small point indeed. Noah had the help that Cat needed. He wanted to help. It was just that simple.

Grandma took a moment to fill everyone in on the details of their little rescue operation. Grandma, some sort of witch, would conjure up a portal to this underground monster city through the walk-in closet of the master bedroom.

From there, Cat's soul would act as a guideline to her missing family. Tonight was the first full moon after the return of Maya's Comet, the one time every thirty years when those monsters could eat their fill of dreams, leaving only walking husks of human flesh behind.

It was nuts like the kind of thing Noah's friend Jason must be rambling about in his padded room. She'd have disowned this family if she could.

Everything was different now. Erica was onto her secret or, at least, onto the fact that she was keeping something from her. And Alyssa couldn't breathe a word about it without having the wraith of her mother bearing down on her.

Grandma opened a duffel bag full of weaponry and passed out machetes.

Alyssa couldn't think of single other family where it was normal for a grandmother to visit a family and end up passing out machetes in the kitchen a hour later.

"This is beyond crazy." Alyssa eyed the sharpened edge of the machete blade. She laughed at herself. "They need a better word for this sort of madness." Alyssa had given up on a "it was all a dream" ending a month ago. This was real alright. Real crazy. "I mean, I actually miss Game Night."

Noah, that brown-haired brown-eyed suicide-in-training, smiled at Alyssa. "Stop bitching, sis." Dad glared at Noah. "I mean, stop complaining. There are more important things in life than boys, gossip and sparkly vampires."

A sickly purple glow came from the master bedroom. "Like saving this little girl's family so they could raise her up to be some vapid brain-dead bimbo like you." Ever since Noah had found out about this family freakshow, everything he said to her sounded like the dialogue from a bad action flick.

Alyssa could have said a dozen things to leave Noah's bloated ego bleeding in the corner but his words were too stupid to deserve a quality comeback. Alyssa was only doing this to get on her parents' good sides. I. Hate. This.

Once this was done, she was done. The family business was none of her business. For all Alyssa knew, she wasn't even a freak like the rest of her family. She hadn't done anything worthy of freakdom unlike Dad, Mom and Noah. Alyssa was an ordinary girl and this excursion was just a chore to her.

Grandma stayed behind. The kitchen floor was adorned with a variety of arcane symbols. Her eyes rolled to the back of her skull as she sat motionless atop the marble tiles. Mom and Dad led Cat through the light as Noah followed behind, twirling his machete like he was a samurai.

"Hold hands," Dad announced as they stepped into the closet. Alyssa grabbed Noah's free hand. The darkness of the caverns was total. The line of blind travelers pushed forward as an icy wind whipped around them.

A faint light appeared and illuminated the cave system. This was alien world, domain of creatures older than mankind. In other words, it could have used an interior decorator. It was one thing to be a monster. There were no rules that said they had to live like one. Alyssa let these thoughts distract her from the terror of this shadow realm away of the sun's healing touch.

Alyssa arrived at the bird's-eye view of a giant underground city. Alyssa couldn't believe this was Agartha, the same place that Grandma described as once being a glowing subterranean utopia for the asuras' ancestors. This place had definitely fallen on hard times and nothing of that transcendent glory and hope remained in these huddled dilapidated ruins.

It was that terrible moment when Alyssa realized that she had let go of her brother Noah wondering the narrow chaotic "streets" and was now alone in the dark. "I know your secret, Lyssie." Erica Eastman flitted about all around her. "Or should I say 'Lassie?'"

Grandma had warned them about the mind games. Asuras were masters of illusion. Cat had been immune to their tricks due to a head injury from a car accident four years ago. Benandanti and regular folks weren't so blessed.

Asuras would manifest her worst fears and then sneak up behind her for an ambush. Grandma had brewed four cups of blue rose tea, oral vaccines against sleep-sand. Since the asuras were obviously telepathic, they were wise to its use. Asuras would either kill her or take her as a sacrifice. That was no in-between this time.

Erica Eastman continued with her threats as she conjured up the likeness of their fellow students. "I will tell everyone your secret, Lassie. The whole school will know the kind of freak you are. And then, you wouldn't have any friends. Not even me." Alyssa closed her eyes. "After that, the only trick you'll need to learn is how to roll over and play dead." Penetrating the illusion, a sound of breathing came from behind her.

Alyssa twirled around and swung the machete through the air. The blade caught on Erica's neck in mid-flight. Alyssa pulled the blade out and swung even harder into Erica. In moments, the illusion crumbled away. The head of Three-Face landed against a limestone wall with a wet thump. The headless four-armed body fell over.

In spite of herself, the adrenaline rush made her giggle as she stared at her would-be attacker. Grandma had explained how to kill an asura. No special procedures needed here. Just a good old-fashioned beheading for dream-eating monsters.

Michelle struggled to regain her composure. Her worst fear had happened. The asuras had managed to separate them from each other. Ambush was a tactic asuras excelled at.

Michelle steeled herself for the coming illusion.

Michelle looked over to see her husband Bernard staring at her with hellfire in his eyes. "I know what you did." Michelle shook her head in denial. "I'm a cop. I've known for a while now."

Michelle heard a voice from behind her. "You might as well tell him," Nicholas Newton said. "He has a right to know."

Nick looked around at Bernie. "I enjoyed your wife. She was so good I almost paid her for it." Michelle couldn't tell which one was the asura. It could be anyone of these illusions or even none of them. She couldn't tell.

Knowing her father's death was fresh in her mind, the asura should have manifested as her father. Michelle looked around at a third man, her father. "It's all my fault. I was never there for you." Dad chuckled. "So you grew up to be a slut. You banged old Nick there at the first sign of real hardship."

Michelle shouldn't argue or even think of the accusations leveled by these shadows. The asura needed this time to sneak up on her. This was a means of distraction before the deadly blow. "It was only the one time. I didn't know what I was doing. If I could take it back, I would but I can't."

In the blink of an eye, a red cut appeared across Bernie's neck. The man she loved turned into an asura with an old scar across his throat. The head slid off the body onto the rocks below. The real Bernie gave her a wounded look. His machete fell from his hands.

The asura was the same one that had taken her father years ago. Now, he had taken his pound of flesh out of his daughter as well. Bernie had seen the illusions.

He knows.

Noah Walker wiped his machete clean of blood as the fake Ian retreated into the shadows of a building. She cradled the severed stump where her upper left arm once resided. His asura attacker thought she could intimidate him with Ian's likeness.

Wrong. Noah had long since adjusted his mind to the possibility of a second showdown with Ian Rockwell. That big bad Hindu monster didn't know what hit her. Noah thought of chasing the asura down and finishing the job with a quick and clean blow to the neck but this wasn't a hunt. This was a rescue.

Cat waved absently as her family as they waited, bounded and gagged inside an altar made from human bones. Noah and his family had arrived just in the nick of time. Their struggles meant they were still entrees and not leftovers.

Noah stared ahead at Cat. The three-armed asura jumped out at Cat. Noah couldn't explain what happened. As clothes ripped away from his body, tufts of fur grew out of his skin and his bones and organs stretched and contorted.

Noah felt his teeth sink into the asura's throat. Seconds later, the severed head was airborne. Snapped from her daze, Cat screamed as Noah turned back into a naked sixteen-year-old boy with blood foaming from his mouth.

The return to the aboveground from the city of Agartha was an event punctuated by silences. The Goode family didn't ask who the Walkers were, why they had their youngest daughter with them and why they were in a strange house a hundred miles from where they lived. The Goodes just gathered up Cat and phoned for a cab ride home like nothing had happened.

No one talked about the fact that Noah Walker had turned for the first time ever. No one talked about how he ripped off an asura's head with his bare teeth and was now wearing nothing but blood. Noah would have to brush until the first light of dawn to get this putrid gamey taste out of his mouth.

There seemed to be an uncomfortable silence between Mom and Dad totally unrelated to his overzealous killing of an asura. Noah didn't know what it was about. He hated being out of the loop but he was too damn tired to care.

Grandma left them without saying goodbye. Nothing otherworldly had crept in while they were away in the underground. She had seen to that. Not so much as an imp could have gotten by Grandma without her sending it back.

The expression on Alyssa's face was priceless. Noah hadn't seen her this excited since her first kiss. Noah knew what she was feeling better than anyone else. Killing a monster was a life changer. It was the ultimate rush. Everything else seemed dull by comparison. Even sex couldn't be this good.

As soon as he got the chance, Noah would tell Jason about the rescue. Crazy or not, Jason still appreciated a good story. Noah wouldn't share him any of the gory details. 1031 Oak Street had been the site of the most recent win of the forces of good over the forces of evil. Score one for the home team.

Noah pulled on his pajamas. Noah looked over at his open closet. For any monsters still lingering about, Noah flipped them the bird. Noah had always wondered what the monsters under the bed was afraid of. Now, he knew. Me.

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