Authors: Joshua Ingle
“How much longer are we gonna wait?” Shelley said, her voice muffled. Thorn entered the car so he could hear them better. Soft pop music played on the radio, but Thorn could tell the mood was tense.
“Yeah, I’m really sorry,” Amy said. “Thanks for hanging out with me for this. I feel really bad.”
“No prob, whatevs. Do you guys get in fights like this often?”
“Sometimes. This one was really bad though. Like I said, I’m just worried what she’s gonna do to herself.”
Thorn neared Shelley’s ear and whispered, “Get out of here. This place is not safe.”
Shelley glanced back toward the ominous house, then switched off the music. “What if she doesn’t come out for days?”
Amy’s eyes watered up. She shook her head.
“Sometimes you have to let people hit bottom before they realize they need to pick themselves back up,” Shelley said. “I know that’s like the worst cliché ever, but it’s true. I think we should grab a pizza, then go back to my place and play video games. We can deal with all this tomorrow. What do you say?”
Amy inhaled deeply, then let the breath out and nodded. When she started the ignition and the car started moving, Thorn let himself relax a little.
Thank goodness for Wanderer
, he thought.
Tonight could have ended much worse if I hadn’t learned about Shenzuul from him.
Assuming it was even true. Thorn had found no evidence so far that Shenzuul was who Wanderer said he was. Perhaps it had all been a misunderstanding on Wanderer’s part. Nevertheless, once the girls were safely in Shelley’s dorm, Thorn would take several of his followers to find Shenzuul and Marcus, and exile them from Atlanta.
A repetitive flopping noise followed the thumps. The vehicle shuddered as if driving over uneven ground, and jerked from side to side. Amy wrestled the steering wheel and eased the car to a halt.
“What the hell was that?” Shelley said.
Thorn dashed out through the rear window to see. The car’s tires were shredded. And now the girls were on an even darker street, with forest instead of houses on either side. He traveled back down the road to see what had caused the damage, and found a spike strip twenty yards back. He assessed the distance. The house was three blocks back now, but Amy could make the run in a minute or two. Thorn was less certain about Shelley. Just as he moved to return to the car, he heard a familiar voice, soft, in the trees, thickly accented.
“Big one first. Knock her out, then kill other girl.”
Thorn hurried as fast as he could, but before he could reach the car, Garrett burst from the trees and smashed a crowbar through the passenger side window. The girls screamed. Thorn braced himself for a fight and rushed toward Shenzuul at full speed, but the squat demon leaped away from Garrett and up to the treetops. He appeared somewhat larger and more powerful than he had in the last week, likely due to Thorn’s new, piercing fear of him.
“It done, Thorn,” Shenzuul called down. “She dead.”
Garrett swung the crowbar again and it cracked against Shelley’s skull. She slumped over in her seat. “Run, Amy,” Thorn said. “Run!” Amy tried the gas, sending sparks sizzling from her wheels. The car moved forward twenty feet, then spun out and hit a tree. Amy rapidly unbuckled her seat belt, thrust open her door, and burst out onto the street. Thorn followed her eyes as the realization struck her that the house was a two-minute run from here. Fleeing that way was not a wise risk with Garrett on her tail. Some nearby lights in Piedmont Park offered the possibility of human presence, though, so Amy ran that way. Thorn followed as she bolted past some Do Not Enter signs, through a small wood, and into the park. Garrett chased after her, and Thorn sped overhead, searching desperately for a way to stop this.
Amy’s feet thudded against the turf. Sweat beaded on her forehead and dripped down her face, then spattered away when her panicked breath intercepted it. Garrett ran faster than she did, Thorn saw. Adrenaline would let her continue for a short time, but eventually the killer would catch her, and in this clearing, no safe hiding place presented itself.
There must be night security here, somewhere.
Thorn could find the guard and warn him to check this section of the park immediately, but even if he listened, he’d never get here in time. As Garrett ran, Thorn tried speaking to him, but it came out as more of a frenzied command than a proper whisper. “Leave her here! Go! You will find no satisfaction here tonight, only pain.” Unfortunately, when a human was this committed to action, no mere demonic suggestion could dissuade them. Thorn was no more successful at stopping Garrett than he’d been at stopping Jed.
Amy shouted for help, but her cries reached only empty air. She tried reaching her phone in her pocket. Wind flung her hair wildly about as she ran, sticking it to her face. For an instant, Thorn remembered her as a little girl, running into the woods where she was Princess of the Forest, fighting an army of evil elves trying to steal her territory. Thorn had always ruined her fun, using chores or passing bullies or her own desperation for social acceptance. Now that she might die in this horrible manner, he wished he could go back and let her play. He’d stolen so much joy from her life. And he loved her. And now this madman would take her from him. If only he could touch physical space again, just for a moment…
Amy slowed a bit, and dialed a number on her cell phone. Both Thorn and Amy searched the expansive darkness for any sign of help, but despite the lighted walkway Amy ran toward, she appeared to be alone with Garret and Thorn in this section of the park.
Not entirely alone.
Thorn had been too involved in the chase to notice the demons creeping out of the trees. Dozens of them in their suits and ties, specters floating over the dew-speckled grass. “Help me!” Thorn called to them. Garret had almost reached Amy. “I am Thorn and this girl is my charge. This murder must not happen!” But these were demons, and demons loved death. The few who did heed Thorn’s plea moved farther inward to assess the situation, but by the time they recognized Thorn and realized what was happening, Garrett had grabbed Amy by the shirt. She managed to shout a single, desperate “Piedmont Park!” to the 9-1-1 operator before the killer overpowered her and tossed the phone aside. She kicked and flailed, but Garrett flung her to the ground and buried a knife in her stomach. Thorn’s spirit sank. He floated helplessly over the murder. His face twisted into a horrified grimace as Garrett stabbed her again.
What a gloomy, undignified death. Just some spot in the middle of a field at night.
He cried out in sorrow.
From behind, a hand touched his shoulder. “Let it be, Thorn,” the Judge said. “This shouldn’t have happened, but at the end of the day, she
just a human.”
Thorn turned to him in a daze. What was the Judge doing here? “Help me stop him,” Thorn said, sputtering. “Please help me.” A few of Thorn’s followers should have been among the many demons now in the park, but Thorn noted uncomfortably that these demons were all unknown to him. “Shenzuul did this,” he told the Judge. “Shenzuul told this guy to kill Amy.” Sucking, gagging noises escaped Amy’s mouth as she tried to breathe. Blood poured from her wounds onto the grass.
Laughter from above. Thorn looked up, and there he was. High in the sky above them, Shenzuul sneered. Had the arrogant prick actually come to gloat over his kill?
“Ignore him, Thorn. He’s done for. Exiled if you want. You never have to see him again.” The Judge placed his arm around Thorn’s shoulders—the most comforting action a demon could perform without breaking social taboos. Blood gurgled in Amy’s throat and her body shivered. She’d expire soon. Garrett turned his back to her and wiped his knife on a cloth, no doubt preparing to drag the corpse of the girl Thorn loved back to his car, then to his demented workshop. The Judge said something else then: more words to ease Thorn’s spirits. But all Thorn heard was the sickening cackle from above. The laughter ground at his soul, twisting him from the inside out, taunting him… daring him.
This was Amy. Thorn had been there for her first bike ride, her first kiss, her high school graduation. She was
. And goddammit, she would
Thorn pushed the Judge away and descended toward Amy. White vapor puffed from her lips as she took her final breaths, her heart rate plummeting quickly. Thorn touched her mind, felt awareness leaving her, felt her accepting the blackness. And Thorn grasped.
Amy’s whole body lurched. A human onlooker would have seen a death spasm, but every demon in the horde gawked. Thorn stretched for dominion, and neurons and synapses bent to his control, sinew straining to bind muscle and bone to Thorn’s will. What was left of Amy fought Thorn, but he shut her out, forcing her to retreat into a quiet corner of her mind. He would need all of her faculties for this.
Once Thorn had wrestled supremacy from Amy, he fired every electrical impulse her dying brain could muster straight into her heart. It beat again, then again, compelled to work with what little blood it had left. And then Thorn had her.
Amy stood. The demons around them stared wide-eyed. The Judge raised a hand to his gaping mouth. Thorn blinked her eyes and wiggled her fingers to make sure he had full control, then chanced a step forward as more blood drained from her midsection.
Careful now. One, two, one, two.
Garrett turned to see the girl who should have been dead by now limping toward him, menace in her eyes. In Thorn’s eyes. Garrett anxiously gripped his knife again and bent his knees, ready to attack the oncoming threat if she tried anything. “You like to have control over girls, do you?” Thorn and Amy said to the killer in a bloody, gurgling voice that even Thorn found haunting. He cleared her larynx. “I like to control girls, too.”
Garrett lunged. As Thorn watched the killer’s arm rise and fall, he calculated the timing of Amy’s movements so that she grabbed Garrett’s wrist just as it reached her, and twisted hard. Garrett yelped and dropped the knife. As it fell, Thorn made Amy grab it by the hilt with her other hand and slash at Garrett, cutting a shallow gash across his chest. Garrett stumbled backward and Amy, at Thorn’s direction, raised her knife for the kill.
Thorn’s feet suddenly went out from under him. Amy fell, and Thorn felt himself being pulled out of her. He craned her neck around so he could see.
Sure enough, Shenzuul gripped Thorn by the foot, yanking with all his might to separate Thorn’s spiritual body from Amy’s physical body. Thorn commanded Amy’s arm to thrash about with the knife, but from her position on the ground, she couldn’t quite reach Garrett. Amy’s left arm went limp as Thorn swung his own left arm away from her to strike Shenzuul. Thorn would have welcomed some help, but the other demons just watched from a distance—even the Judge, who had backed away at the start of the fight. Perhaps they were waiting to see if Thorn would die, thus creating a power vacuum of which they could all take advantage. Or perhaps they were afraid of these two powerful demons and didn’t want to interfere in such a dangerous confrontation, lest they fight on the losing side. Perhaps they were just eager to see what happened next.
Shenzuul and Thorn grappled for a few moments, then Thorn—and Amy—looked back, and found that Garrett had balanced himself and hefted up a large rock. He was walking toward Amy with it, gazing curiously at the girl’s writhing body. Just as Thorn was about to stand her up again, Shenzuul jerked at him with such force that any physical body would have torn. A full half of Thorn’s spirit left Amy, but he held fast to her mind, for if he let
go, it might be gone forever. Her body was weakening even further. Thorn could feel the connections in her brain growing unreliable as precious blood became even scarcer.
With one arm still locked in struggle with Shenzuul, Thorn flipped Amy onto her back and forced her to sit. He dropped the knife, then brought both of their right arms up to grasp Shenzuul’s face. Thorn dug in as hard as he could, and twisted.
Shenzuul’s head and neck strained to stay in place against Thorn’s strength. Shenzuul couldn’t drop Thorn’s leg to defend his head or Thorn would reenter Amy’s body in full, and kill Garrett. The two demons had each other pinned. But after a few more seconds of this stalemate, Garrett would reach Amy with the rock.
Thorn locked eyes with Shenzuul and twisted even harder. Shenzuul grunted and crunched his teeth together, glaring hatefully at Thorn. “Marcus!” Shenzuul managed to yell. “Marcus, help!”
Thorn turned to see Marcus, standing just fifty feet away near the front of the demonic crowd. Thorn’s strength briefly faltered at the shock of Marcus’s presence, which allowed Shenzuul to pull even more of Thorn out of Amy. He was losing his hold on her mind.
But he clung to Shenzuul’s head with a fury. The spite in Shenzuul’s eyes gave way to worry, then to panic as Thorn rotated his head even further. “Marcus, help me,” Shenzuul called. Thorn held Shenzuul’s gaze as he turned the demon’s neck past his shoulder. “Marcus, please! You promise me Africa if I learn from Thorn and kill his girl! You promise to return Africa!”
Marcus just stood by, one demon in a crowd of dozens looking on. His face was firm, his eyes intent. Some of the others glanced thoughtfully at him, but they did not move to intervene. Behind Thorn, Garrett raised his rock to strike Amy.
Summoning all his strength at once, Thorn wrenched Shenzuul’s head fully around, snapping his neck and killing him instantly. Amy gasped as Thorn flooded back into her fading body. They rolled sideways together. Garrett’s rock smashed into the dirt where her head had just been. When Garrett swung the rock around for another hit, Thorn ducked her head down, grabbed the knife on the grass, and sliced open Garrett’s throat with a mighty
. Small chunks of bone erupted from his neck, and a stream of blood gushed down his chest. Shock at his sudden defeat rippled across his face. Garrett collapsed.
The other demons closed in, their faces revealing their rage over Shenzuul’s death. Thorn heard a soft hum, and turned to find a lone car driving down the otherwise deserted one-way road nearby.
If there’s any hope, this is it.
Thorn spurred Amy into a brisk limp toward the road, maneuvering well away from the swiftly encroaching devils. He squeezed her larynx again. “Hehhhhhhh,” she said. Thorn raised one of her hands to wave at the car, and moved the other hand to stanch the bleeding from her stomach. He once more cleared the blood from her throat. “Help,” he made her say, but her voice was feeble. Even as she walked, he felt her slipping away. The headlights passed them in the darkness, their promise of life leaving with them. When Amy’s right leg gave out, she crashed to the ground, and her connection with Thorn fizzled. Nevertheless, he collected every remaining bit of energy and forced his way back into her voice, one final time. “