Anna rocked the candle back and forth, examining the wax as it thickened and set around the edges. The blackened wick, now extinguished, puffed out little coils of gray smoke.
“Why do you always do that?” asked Sue.
“I just like playing with the flame. Sometimes it lights itself again…”
Sue wrinkled her nose and shook her head. “No it doesn’t. Sorry Dean. She’s in one of her moods again.”
Dean smirked and fingered his well-groomed beard like he was about to say something clever. It was a practiced affectation. Sue looked at him with wide eyes and left a long space in the conversation, but no one filled it. Anna winced as her friend coiled a lock of blonde hair around one finger while staring at Dean’s lips. Forcing her gaze away while maintaining as neutral an expression as she could manage, Anna turned her attention back to the candle.
The bar was busy, but they huddled intimately around a small table in a quiet corner. Anna wondered what they must look like to an outsider. The soft orange light might hide each of their flaws. A stranger might think Dean’s smile looked friendly rather than predatory. Sue might seem serene rather than desperate. Anna knew she looked tired, but from a distance, the dark circles under her hollow eyes might seem to disappear. From far enough away, she might even look happy.
Although she looked at their faces, in her peripheral vision Anna saw Dean’s hand sliding up her friend’s thigh. It made her uncomfortable. Sue was right; she was maudlin tonight, but she was also wary. Dean’s words were honeyed but too-smooth. Too sincere. In the spaces between the jokes, he would look directly into Anna’s eyes. There was an implicit challenge. He wanted Sue. Anna didn’t want him to have her.
Dean gave Anna a wink before turning to face Sue. “Did you know that if you tell a lie, there’s a way your body gives it away? And I know what to look for. It’s a little thing you absolutely cannot hide. Should I show you?”
Sue nodded eagerly. Her eyes shone.
“It probably wouldn’t work on Anna. We all know she’s a robot.”
“Never mind her. Do me!” said Sue. She laughed too hard, but Dean gave her a serious look.
“Okay, now look straight into my eyes. I’m going to ask you some questions. Okay? You have to keep looking into my eyes.”
Sue sucked her lips nervously and gave him a short nod. Anna glanced around the bar, looking for a distraction. Her gaze rested on the barman at the other side of the room. A young, nervous looking boy with a wispy moustache, he was leaning on the bar and frowning. When she caught his eye, he gave her a tiny, conciliatory nod. She gave him a little thumbs-up in return, then looked back at her two companions and wished she hadn’t.
“You’re not going to hypnotize me to…do things, are you?” asked Sue. She used a tone of voice Anna had never heard her use before. Childlike. Baby-talk.
“Oh for fuck…” Anna caught herself too late.
Sue shot her an angry glance. “What? What’s your problem?”
“It’s fine, it’s fine,” said Dean. “Anna’s too clever for my tricks. Isn’t that right?” Dean turned his whole attention to Anna. He was waiting for an answer.
She raised her head, put the candle to one side and looked back at him flatly.
“Yes,” she said, keeping her expression neutral.
Dean leaned back in his seat, ignoring Sue now and addressing only Anna. “You’re the smartest person here, right? Real clever. What is it you’re studying again? Feminism?”
Sue picked up her drink and sipped as she tried to look nonchalant, but her leg shook nervously under the table.
“No.” replied Anna.
“You’re writing a thesis though right? ‘The Benefits of Celibacy’? Based on personal research?” Dean’s clear blue eyes shone. He was loving this. Sue laughed for a fraction of a second then stopped when no one else joined her. There was a sliver of concern in her conflicted expression. But not enough.
Anna didn’t look away. “I’ve heard people talking about you, Dean. I’ve heard rumors.”
“Anna!” snapped Sue. “Why do you always do this? We’re having a nice time. Why do you always have to be like this?”
Dean’s smile widened. “Since the accident, right Sue? People talk about you, too, Anna. People spread terrible rumors. I think it fucking sucks. They say it was your fault he died. Why would they say that?”
Anna almost flinched, but though her stomach twisted in knots, she willed herself to stay calm. He wanted a reaction, and she refused to give him that. She nodded nonchalantly.
Dean leaned his big hand across the table and touched her arm. She forced herself not to yank it away. “We’re here for you Anna. It wasn’t your fault. Okay?” He flashed her a tiny smile, then squeezed her arm hard. It hurt.
“See.” Sue grinned, oblivious to the tension. “I told you he was okay. I told him everything that happened to you, and he doesn’t mind. We’re all here for you, Anna.”
Even after Dean let her go, her arm throbbed.
Anna’s head spun. She forced herself to calm down. She wouldn’t storm off or shout or scream. That’s what he wanted. If this escalated into a full-blown argument, Sue would be in trouble. She was enthralled by Dean, and he was trying to drive a wedge between them. To protect her friend, Anna had to assuage Dean’s suspicions while placating her friend. Taking one long breath, she centered herself, settled back into her seat and gave them a smile so good it was almost real.
“Thanks, guys. I’m just touchy, you know? Just ignore me.”
Sue smiled with relief. “Oh, don’t worry. We don’t mind. Anyway, why don’t you tell us about that mystery man of yours? Your internet guy. Teej?”
“Who is this then?” asked Dean with a sickly-sweet smile. “Teej? Is it another gamer nerd? Or are you a cam girl now. Stripping your way through college?”
Relieved that the focus was moving away from Sue, and glad that Dean was no longer touching either of them, Anna relaxed a little. She shook her head. “No, he was…that was a mistake. He was someone I met online. He was an expert on…well, he seemed to be an expert on everything. He knew a lot about the philosophy I was reading for my thesis: Absurdism and Albert Camus. But I haven’t spoken to him since I graduated.”
“He turned out to be a major psycho!” interjected Sue with relish.
“Like what?” asked Dean. “Obsessed stalker?”
“No, not that kind of psycho,” said Anna. “Kinda worse. He told me he knew Camus. Personally.”
“But he’s been dead for hundreds of years,” said Sue. Anna and Dean shared a look but neither spoke.
“Anyway,” Anna went on, “I don’t talk to him anymore. He got very weird. Maybe he was weird from the start. He had a lot of ideas about the world that were…look, it doesn’t matter. It was never going to work out.”
They shared an awkward silence. Anna opened her mouth to speak again, but Dean broke in, “You just need a good man.”
“Sure, that’s what I need.”
He smirked in response to her sarcasm but went on. “And not one you meet online. That’s not working. You know what Einstein said: Insanity is repeating the same actions and expecting different results.”
Sue nodded thoughtfully like this was sage wisdom, but Anna smiled broadly.
“Einstein? Einstein didn’t say that. And even if he did, it’s fucking stupid. I mean it literally makes no sense. Do you roll dice over and over and expect to get the same number every time?”
For a moment, Anna was genuinely happy at Dean’s furrowed brow. Sue waited for him to retort. Instead, he pushed Anna’s drink across the table to her. “Drink up, smart ass. You win this round.”
She smiled and finished her rum and coke. Even if the company wasn’t good, she was happy she could still amuse herself. Her head spun a little from the drink. She let herself enjoy it.
“Well, I have to go to the ladies,” said Sue. “You kids chat amongst yourselves.”
Sue unsteadily clambered over the low stools as she left, and Anna mused that her friend seemed more drunk than she should be. Anna fidgeted absent-mindedly with her ring, twisting it around and around while Dean watched Sue go. He rubbed his biceps unconsciously, forcing Anna to notice the definition of the man’s upper body in his tight shirt. He was broad and powerful. She brushed a red curl from her face and waited for him to meet her gaze. She tried to sit up straight and appear as tall as she could, but still, he loomed over her.
“I am too smart for your tricks,” she said.
“Not all of them,” he replied without looking at her. He picked at his beard absent-mindedly.
“What do you mean? She won’t go home with you. She’s not like that.”
He turned to her, and for a moment, he looked almost hurt. But when he answered, there was a sense of the inevitable in his tone. “It’s already decided. I’m an alpha, Anna. I get what I want. I’m not a bad guy, but in life when you really want something, you have to be brave enough to go take it. There’s no point denying what you want. And I want her.”
Anna shifted in her seat and considered chasing after Sue. Perhaps she could make an excuse for them to both leave now. She had to get away from Dean.
“We should play a game,” he said, changing the subject. He rubbed his hands together with nervous energy. Anna shook her head, beginning to suspect something was seriously wrong, but he went on.
“So, you think you’re pretty clever. That you’re a good judge of people? Well let’s test that. I’ve put a little pill in one of these drinks.” He slid two identical glasses across the table, leaving one slightly closer to Anna than the other.
“A little pill that would help anyone chill out. Even you. If you choose the wrong one, me and Sue go home, and you have a little nap. Maybe some kind gentleman will escort you home. If you get the right one though—and drink it down—I’ll make an excuse and go home and you can have your friend back for the rest of the night. What do you think?”
Anna’s mind raced. Time slowed to a crawl. The music in the bar seemed to fade. Had Dean planned this all along? Was this a joke? A trick? She felt the blood pumping in her ears.
“So, if I say to you that this one on the right—” he pushed the drink toward her “—has the pill, will you believe me? Am I lying, Anna? Why don’t you look in my eyes? Look in my eyes, and tell me if I’m lying?”
Obeying him, Anna looked into Dean’s eyes and saw the truth. This wasn’t the real game. The real game had already taken place. She had already lost. Anna debated stepping away to call the police or signal for help, but he’d revealed his hand, and there was no way he was letting her get away. She was trapped here with him in this quiet corner, and he counted on her complicity. He was controlling everything about this situation, and she had to take that control back.
It all happened so fast. She flipped the table. Or tried. It was heavy, but urgency lent her strength, and she pushed with enough force to topple the drinks, glasses clattering and shattering across the wooden floor. Dean shouted something unintelligible, and everyone in the bar turned to them. Good. She had to make a scene. She had to get to Sue.
Legs of lead, head filled with fuzz, the stumble was almost a fall, but she pushed through it, getting as far as the bathroom door before she stopped to steady herself with both hands. Her legs felt like they were already asleep. The drug was fast. People got out of her way, but she was barely aware of them. Behind her, Dean might have shouted but the sound was muffled, like she was underwater.
Her mouth felt like it was stuffed with cloth. Gagged. A calmness was falling over her mind like a shadow, dampening her panic and fear. It lied to her that everything would be okay. It robbed her of the anger and desperation she needed to fight. She raged against it. She might have screamed.
Pushing through the heavy door, she almost fell down a set of stairs. Both arms shot out to grasp the walls on each side of the stairwell. She stumbled downward, battering her way into the bathroom and past a woman to collapse into the bathroom stall. Barely aware of what was happening, Anna stuck two fingers down her throat as she leaned over the toilet bowl, her other hand instinctively pulling her long hair back behind her head. When the vomiting subsided, there was dry heaving that seemed like it would never end.
Eventually, her gagging ended, and all she felt was pain. On her knees on the cold floor, arms out to steady her, Anna’s head pounded with every thudding heartbeat, and her throat and mouth burned. In the distant background, she was vaguely aware that her phone was ringing.
Unable to do anything but breathe in and out, Anna desperately tried to clear her head. No doubt he had slipped them both a pill, but she wouldn’t let him do this. She would get to Sue. She had to give herself a moment. Just a moment longer. As soon as she caught up to them and could tell the police where Sue was, she would call them.
Steeling herself to face Dean, Anna tried to catch her breath. She recited that old mantra in her head. The mantra she repeated for every man she ever met.
Never play their game. Their game is always rigged.
The streetlights became long, hazy streaks as Anna pushed herself through the dark, wet roads. Panic and desperation fueled her steps, impelling her forward so she was half sprinting, half falling. The ground was unstable and rumbled under her feet, like she was at the epicenter of a tiny earthquake. As she stumbled through the rainy night, the moon was the only constant; everything else morphed and twisted and shifted, as if reality itself was reflected in a melted mirror.
Trees. Trees all around her. Anna struggled to comprehend why the buildings on either side of the street sprouted long, gnarled, black branches. The city was becoming a forest, and she was running deeper and deeper into its dark heart.
Maybe she ran past people on the streets. Maybe they turned to look at her. She couldn’t tell.
She wondered where the wheezing, ragged breath came from. It took her long minutes to realize the sound came from her. Still, she pressed on.
Over the sound of her own breathing, her phone continued to ring in her pocket. She’d been ignoring it for a while now, but suddenly, a flash of insight hit her: what if Sue was calling? Leaning on a nearby wall, she fished it out of her jacket with numb fingers. Confusion tipped over into frustration as she struggled to process what she was seeing on the bright screen. There were flashing symbols and shapes, but she didn’t recognize them.
She closed her eyes. The world thrummed around her, but she forced her concentration to focus on where she was right now. Her current location. Outside a nightclub. She’d run down Mitchell Street. For five…no, ten, minutes. She was almost at the big crossroad with Dunmer Avenue. Without opening her eyes, she tried to reconstruct her reality. The drug Dean had slipped her was very strong and it affected her senses, but her thinking was beginning to clear. She could intuit where she was. She could force her perception back to where it needed to be. She could still help Sue.
Anna cracked her eyes open and looked at the screen. She could make out an outline of the letters. “Teej.” He was messaging her. She had told him never to contact her again. Why was he trying now? It was just two words:
What was that supposed to mean?
Unable to ignore the message, Anna turned to her left to look down Miller Lane. At the end—perhaps a hundred feet away—she saw two figures: a woman leaning heavily on a much taller man. Illuminated by a streetlamp that shone on them like a spotlight, Anna took a moment to realize who she was looking at. It was Dean and Sue.
Anna found herself running again.
The lane was narrow, and as she splashed through puddles and past dumpsters, old boxes and piles of trash, the world began to morph and change around her once more. Each step seemed to take her further from reality. She ran deeper into the dark woods, the long, twisted oak branches clawing at her as she scraped through. The passage narrowed as she pushed on. It seemed for a moment that the woods might swallow her completely, but she cleared the periphery and broke through into the city again. She knew it wasn’t real, but she had no time to think about it. No time to process the effects the pill still must be having.
Unable to mask her ragged breath and faltering footsteps, she couldn’t sneak up on Dean. As she approached, he turned to face her. She squinted to see him more clearly. He glowed with a sickly green patina, a greenish-gray aura that made him stand out from the environment. She rubbed her eyes with the heels of her hands, trying to physically scrape away the illusions the drug imposed on her senses.
He smirked at her. Sue hung from his right arm, her body limp in his grasp. Her head lolled back and forth as if too heavy for her neck. Still, he held her easily, his broad arm locked tight around her waist. The rain beat down on them as the winds whistled through the night. The streets were deserted. Where was everyone?
“You asshole. Let her go!” shouted Anna.
He laughed. “You are fucked up! Look at you. Your eyes are like saucers. You can barely stand. It’s supposed to make you chill out. It’s supposed to make you relax. Nothing works out for you, does it? It always has to be complicated with you.”
A rumble of thunder shook little ripples through the puddles. In a few minutes, the storm would be on them. If Anna looked past Dean and Sue, all she saw were dark trees and shadows, so she focused her gaze on him. The drug would fade. This feeling wouldn’t last forever. Right now, no one could help her. She had to push through this. She just had to get Sue to safety.
Anna’s tongue felt fat in her mouth. She struggled to get the words out. “I won’t let you do this. You’re…you’re not taking her home.”
He rolled his eyes. “Don’t be so dramatic. It’s just a joke, Anna. It’s all just a joke. I didn’t even think the pills would work. I’ll get her home, okay. I’m sorry you had a weird reaction. Maybe you are, I dunno, allergic. They’re supposed to make you relax. I mean, I take them sometimes. It’s always fine. Just calm down.”
His words came in low, soothing tones as if he was speaking to a mad woman. But she wouldn’t let him talk his way out of this. Anna steadied herself and took two steps forward. She tried to look sober and serious, but her legs betrayed her. She swayed.
“You let her go right now!”
“Let her go?” he laughed. “Why? Are you going to carry her home?”
Dean slid his arm down Sue’s body and lifted her so she stood up straight. Wet hair ran across her face. Her bare legs were pale, and she’d lost a shoe somewhere.
“Where do you want to go tonight, hunny? Back to mine? Or should I leave you? You don’t want to be alone, do you?”
Sue’s head rolled across his shoulder and flopped forward again. He pulled her chin up so she could speak. “Not alone. Don’t want to be alone…”
Anna, now close enough to touch them, reached out to grab Sue’s arm, but Dean pulled her away. Off balance, Anna almost fell but righted herself at the last moment.
“Dean, if you rape her…”
“Oh, fuck this!” he screamed. “You bitches. You spend all that time trying to turn us on, then when we react, you scream rape. Rape! I don’t need this. Fine! You get her home yourself. I’m out.”
Sue’s limp body fell like a doll, and she flopped to the ground. Anna tried to catch her, but her own legs gave way, and they both ended up in a tangle on the ground. Anna fell heavily, her hip crunching down on the sidewalk and sending a jolt through her body as she cushioned Sue falling into her lap. The drug anaesthetizing her, Anna felt shock rather than pain.
Anna cradled her friend’s head and looked down at her with concern. Sue was moving her mouth but no words came. Sitting on the wet ground, arms around her friend, Anna looked up at Dean.
He took three steps away from them. Then just when Anna thought she was safe, he turned on his heels and came back. He loomed over them. Anna looked up in defiance as he deliberately and slowly leaned down. He raised a hand, but she didn’t flinch. His face twisted in rage, unsure how to react to her defiance, he spat in her face.
“You should’ve drowned in that river with him. Bitch!”
Anna forced herself to remain completely still. Her eyes locked him in place. For a moment, he looked embarrassed or confused. Because she didn’t look away. She didn’t wipe her face. She didn’t respond. No crying. No tears. No way I let you win. No way.
He turned and strode off, pulling the collar of his shirt up as he stomped along the street, around the corner and out of view. And just like that, he was gone.
Anna fingered the wet strands of hair out of Sue’s face and checked her pupils and breath to see if she was lucid. Her friend mumbled under her breath.
“Ruined it. You ruined everything. I hate you…I hate you so much. I hate you…I hate you.”
Sue repeated the words over and over. In the heart of the dark woods, Anna just sat and listened.
Long hours passed, but Anna couldn’t find a route home. She’d managed to get Sue to safety, but after leaving her friend at her mom’s house, Anna wandered deep and far into the night. Sue’s parents lived in the city center, but Anna’s apartment was miles away on the east of town. At first, the route had seemed straightforward, but the farther she went, the less familiar everything looked. She tried to look at the map on her phone, but it was a smear of color and symbols her brain didn’t comprehend. Where was she? Why did the streets keep flickering and bending? Why was the ground beneath her constantly rumbling?
Somehow her condition was worsening. Though her mind was clear, her senses were clouding over. The buildings wobbled up and down in waves, and the streets flickered between bright, blinding light and all-encompassing darkness. As the rain fell heavily on the wet road, Anna felt like she was floating off to sea. Lost. Drowning.
The streets felt unfamiliar, and the alleyway she’d followed led to a very definite dead end. When she turned, her escape was blocked by a wall of utter blackness. Beyond the buzzing strip lights that illuminated the dirty back entrances in the alleyway, clogged with rubbish and battered and boarded up windows, there seemed to be an impenetrable black nothingness. The streetlights, the shop fronts and even the moonlight seemed to stop at the end of the alleyway. Turning away from the darkness and holding her aching head in one hand, Anna turned her attention to her phone. It was ringing again. The cheery tone she’d selected was so incongruous in her current situation that she almost smiled. Marimba.
With Sue home safe, she faced her own predicament with disinterest. With a heavy resignation—and lacking any hope that it might be a good decision—Anna touched the green icon on her phone and lifted it to her ear. She had no idea what she would hear, but with her reality still impaired, and unable to dismiss the illusions that plagued her senses, she decided the phone call couldn’t make her night any worse.
“Anna, it’s me. You are in trouble. Remember what I told you before? In the messages? You’ve gone too far and too deep. I can’t get to you in time. Do you remember what I told you about being in a Haze?”
Haze? It was the first time she had heard Teej’s voice. It was clear and resonant and not nearly grim enough for a night like this.
“Yes. I mean no. I remember you sent me lots of messages. They were all crazy. I told you we shouldn’t talk any more. You know what? Could you just go away? My night can’t get worse, but it definitely doesn’t need to get any crazier.”
Anna felt like the words came directly from her thoughts; the normal filter between her brain and mouth was gone. Meanwhile, all around her, the alleyway seemed to be getting darker and darker. She jumped as a high, nasal moan pierced the stillness of the night. The sound continued, wheezing and creaking and getting closer. Anna’s hands and arms began to shake.
“What is this? I can’t handle anything else. I’m done—”
“Listen to me,” he cut her off. “Just do what I say. Do you see them yet?”
Panic rising, Anna glanced around the darkness closing in on her. She was in a little island of light, and the fear was rolling toward her in waves.
“See what? None of this is real. I should just stay here in case I do something stupid. Wander across a road and get hit by a car. Are you real? You can’t be. You couldn’t know what was happening to me. This is all in my head…”
Anna heard her own voice drone on and on, justifying and explaining. The moaning closed in on her. She saw something reach out of the shadow at the end of the alley; monstrous blue-gray arms, far larger than a human. Nightmares made real. Her whole body went rigid, her fingers curled into claws as she froze in place.
“Anna, it’s not in your head; you’re in a Haze. The Doxa are after you. Didn’t you read my warnings?”
She frowned. Huddling down, she tried to ignore the movement in the shadows. She closed her eyes. “The crazy stuff you sent? I’ll be honest, I stopped reading when I got to the bit about super powers.”
The noises were getting louder. She clung onto the phone tightly.
“Super powers? No, listen, you have to—”
“Can you just get me help please? In the real world? Someone gave me a drug or something. I’m seeing things. I can’t even dial my phone.”
She rubbed her head with the sleeve of her cardigan, closing her eyes tightly and trying to dismiss the incoming horrors by disbelieving them.
“You have to listen carefully,” he replied. “There’s a door to your right. You can burst through it if you hit it hard. Run into it. Go now. You can do it.”
Anna found herself moving. He was right—she was in trouble here. The writhing shapes in the shadows forced her to look for any escape she could find. She was running, discovering energy she didn’t know she had. No longer numb and acquiescent, her body and mind entered a kind of panic. She had to get out of this place. She had to get home.
Both feet leaving the ground, she launched herself into the door shoulder first, and it buckled but didn’t break. Rattling on a deadbolt, the rotten wood bounced her backward. She almost dropped the phone, but she heard him shout something so put it to her ear again.
“What do I—”
“Hit it again. With your hand. The palm. Just think of the wood splintering. Picture it in your mind. Quickly!”
He sounded calm, but she felt something drawing nearer. The alleyway was filled with the reek of dampness and rot and something worse. A tang in the back of her throat. Like metal. Like blood.
As she pressed her hand into the wood, she felt heat spread across her palm, into her fingers and up her wrist. A swelling as something within her pushed outwards, past her own skin and into the wood. It buckled, although she didn’t put much pressure on it. She felt a momentary burst of strength, as if temporarily imbued with the power to smash through any barrier. The door crunched off its hinges, collapsing inwards, and she was inside.
Anna ran into what looked like a dark storeroom and pushed through another door. Momentarily blinded by sudden light, she held the phone to her ear and heard Teej speak again. It took her a moment to understand the words.
“…I said get down. To the right. Behind the shelves. Go now.”
She obeyed. Stumbling down onto her hands and knees, she saw cereal boxes. She was in a convenience store. Scrambling along the aisle, she kept her head down and moved toward the exit. Her shiny black shoes clacked on the tiled floor, so she kicked them off. The bright ceiling lights made her conspicuous and vulnerable. She huddled in on herself as she moved, sure something or someone would spot her any moment.
“No, go back,” said Teej on the phone.
She froze and glanced up. Ahead of her, towering above one of the aisles, she saw the head and shoulders of one of her pursuers. Bizarrely tall. Filthy gray-blue skin pulled tight over a stretched, ridged skull. A wet, twitching snout for a face, mostly hidden beneath a long black hooded cowl. No eyes and no ears, just two wet nostrils that trembled and wheezed. No mouth to scream. The cowl only covered the upper arm—the rest was a sickly mass of slick sinew and muscle. The creature carried a large gray sack over one shoulder while the other hand rested loosely on top of a shelf. The three fingers were each as big as her arm. It was a wretched, crooked thing, but if it stretched to its full height it would exceed eight feet.
Anna huddled in close to the shelf to hide. Behind her—her back to the boxes—she heard another creature plod down the aisle. Each percussive footstep shook the ground, knocking loose items from the shelves. From the other end of the store, she heard someone scream.
Scurrying to the end of the aisle, she crouched low and looked around the corner toward the deli. One of the creatures had grabbed an old man around the waist with a single hand. He screamed and fought, but the creature slowly and carefully lifted him up, held his wriggling form over the sack, and placed him inside.
As he fell into the bag, it constricted tightly around his body, shrinking, and wrapping the man. She could see his face moan and gasp beneath the tight material, struggling for air, fighting to escape. His movements got smaller and more desperate as he kicked and twitched in the dairy aisle, till eventually the shrink-wrapped victim was still, and the creature pulled another sack from beneath its cloak to plod off in search of its next victim. For a moment, it seemed it might come Anna’s way, but a young girl ran between them, and the creature plodded after her toward the back of the store instead.
Anna dropped low as she heard the creatures methodically gather up each and every person in the store, their immense size and strength making any attempt to fight pointless. She glanced over the shelves again, but it was clear running was not an option. One of the creatures resolutely blocked the exit, its huge gray body as broad as both doors.
The place was filled with screams, but one by one they died out. Once inside the sacks, the victims’ screams stopped. They struggled and fought for long minutes in silence before falling still.
Anna squeezed into a space between an ice cream freezer and a drink machine. Her arms pressed tight into her body and her knees drawn into her chest, she made herself as small as she could manage. It was over. It was all over. They would get to her eventually, too.
Cupping the phone close to her face so they wouldn’t hear Teej’s voice, she whispered, “There’s one near the door. I can’t get out. What are these things?”
She felt herself curling tighter into a ball. Over her head, the shadow of the creature sniffed the air above her. She held her breath, and after a long moment, it moved on, leaving her momentarily safe.
“The creatures you see in a Haze are called Etunesand the particular Etunes the Midnight Man commands are called Night Collectors. These ones are just nasty little foot soldiers. You could just…well, I guess you don’t know how yet. Just wait five seconds, and run for the door when I tell you.”
She didn’t start counting. She had too many questions and was too paralyzed with fear and disbelief and confusion. She realized he was still speaking.
“Are you counting? Now, Anna, now!”
She saw the thing in her peripheral vision as she pushed her feet under herself and started to run. Her legs felt heavy and slow, and the creature reacted instantly. It was far away but abnormally tall. Stretched out, like a long shadow. A huge gray hand reached for her, and the arm grew along the length of the aisle. Five, six feet long. It grasped her cardigan, but she shed it as she ran, twisting out of the sleeves and sprinting for the open doorway. To her left another one of the tall creatures turned to her. Its long black cloak fluttered in the air as both huge arms groped toward her.
Anna tucked her legs in and jumped through the space between them. It was an acrobatic feat she wouldn’t have attempted had her life not depended on it, but it worked.
She was out, into the black street once again. Behind her, the creatures moaned and screeched and followed her outside. Pure adrenalin fueled her steps as she ran to freedom.
Beyond the entrance of the store there was inky darkness so thick Anna stopped dead in her tracks. The shops and bars were all closed, the streetlights were all out, there were no cars or people and no one to help. Only the moon offered any succor, its light cold and distant and faint. She stopped and turned, facing back toward the shop entrance as she lifted the phone to her ear.
“Teej, what is this? Are you doing this to me? There’s nowhere left to go. I want to go home. Please just let me go home…”
“I’m sorry. I’m…I’m so sorry, Anna. You’re in a Haze. You’re trapped there; I can’t get through to you. He is resisting me. I can’t find a way in. I can see this world, but I can’t touch it. It’s all I can do to get these messages to you. You’re near the periphery. Help me find you. He is making you feel more lost than you really are. Resist him.”
She beat her head with one fist while holding the phone with the other, her eyes closed in momentary rage. When she opened them again, the creatures were snaking out of the shop and approaching her. Long baggy sleeves held gray, slick hands that groped the air in her direction. They grasped and gestured with the heavy sacks in her direction as if they offered her something. They writhed toward her, their wet noses sucking in air and her scent.
“I don’t know how to resist him. I don’t know what to do!”
“Listen to me! There’s always a way through a Haze and out the other end. I can’t help you find it. I can only tell you that it’s there.”
She wished anything he said made sense. He made it sound so easy.
Two of them were close and moving toward her faster than she could back away. The nearest suddenly loped forward, momentarily falling to all fours before leaping at her.
“You just have to…”
She dropped the phone, and it clattered across the ground as a muscled gray hand grasped her ankle, each finger as thick as her wrist. With beastly strength, it tugged and she fell backward heavily. Cracking her head on the concrete, her vision swam and filled with stars. The Night Collector pulled her across the ground with ease. Looking straight up, she watched the distant stars as the world slid by above her. There was nothing else she could do, so she stopped struggling and surrendered.
Then something flashed. A deep anger rose in her. Fireworks in her head, Anna’s mind lit up. A spark caught, and she felt something awaken. Something angry and defiant. She scrambled and struggled, trying to turn over. The thing started to lift her. Her world tipped around and up again.
“No!” she screamed. As the words came out, Anna felt like the whole world shook. The air cracked, the sky trembled, and the monster froze in place. Her voice held a primal power. In this world, she could command these creatures, and they were compelled to obey. That was the Word. It extended beyond sound, penetrating the creature like a shockwave. It wasn’t what she said, but the force behind her command. An instinctual, deep and resonant blast, it twisted and warped the reality of the Night Collector. Instinctively she realized her word was a weapon. She felt its power flow up from her bones, rise in her chest and warp the air it touched. The creature recoiled, dropping her and retreating with both arms held up in a defensive stance. She pulled herself up, barely aware of the cuts and bruises and the throbbing pain in her ankle. She faced them.
“No. You will not!”
They huddled low and retreated farther, her words anathema to their very nature. A great understanding started to come over her. This type of nightmare—this type of monster—held no threat for her. She did not know how or why, but she was not in danger here. Not unless she allowed herself to be.
They recoiled, pushed back by an invisible barrier they could not cross. Anna wanted to chase them. Grab them and crush them with her bare hands, but she was exhausted. As she took a step, her knees started to buckle. Her will was still strong, but her body was failing. Beaten and pushed to its limit, she felt her legs give way under her, but she didn’t fall. Someone caught her. He had come through that door to help her.
“Easy, Anna,” the voice said. “I heard you use the Word, and that’s how I found you! You see? In a Haze, your Word carries power. The Word protects you, and it commands those within the Haze, but it’s also a signal flare that helped me find you. I just followed your flame.”
Anna tried to speak again, but the words came out as a low moan. Teej nodded as if he understood her.
“You’re Behind the Veil now,” said Teej. “And Undreaming is hard when you haven’t fully awoken.”
She collapsed backward into his arms and fell from consciousness into a deep, black sea of nothingness.
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