His partner barely looked up from the computer screen. "What are?" he asked, sounding bored.
"The harpies." He let the slat fall back into place. "I guess that means trouble."
"I guess so," his partner replied. He stopped typing for a moment to look up. The room was darked, save for the glow off the monitor; no light came in through the window. Suddenly there was a peal of thunder. "Great," he sighed, saving and then turning the computer off. "A thunder storm is just what we need."
"Maybe that's what's got the harpies all in a whirl," the first man said.
"I hope so," replied the other, wearily. "You know, I'm getting too old for this."
Jill Melville stepped off the curb, heading across the street. She was barely paying any attention to her surroundings; her mind was too focussed on the tasks at hand, on what she still needed to get, the errands she still had to run--
The tiny part of her brain that she had set aside for watching where she was going warned her of an oncoming car. Startled, she looked up, and hurriedly backed out of the way as a car sped through the intersection. Cars on each of the four streets honked their irritation. She shook her head and continued on, only to have to leap out of the way of another car moments later.
Her heart pounding, she decided just to run to the other side, before the lights changed.
"Stupid city drivers," she grumbled. As soon as she could, she was going to get Greg to move out to the suburbs with her. She couldn't take this kind of chaos day in and day out.
Making sure she still had a firm grip on her bags, she started off. She walked only a few paces when something in the back of her mind told her to turn around. She did--there was nothing there. Then a shadow seemed to pass over the concrete. Confused, she looked up.
Silhouetted against the sun was the largest bird she had ever seen. She blinked from the sudden glare, and then realised it wasn't a bird--it was the wrong shape--she blinked again, and the shadow was gone. She rubbed her eyes, they were tearing from the strong sunlight, and shook her head. She couldn't have seen what she saw. She picked up her bags again, and set off.
"I'm home," she called, as she opened the door to the apartment. "Honey? Are you in?" Greg mumbled something as he walked by, staring at a list. "Honey?" Jill prompted again, setting her bags on the floor. "Is everything okay?"
Her fiancee stopped, as though startled to hear her voice. "Oh! Jill. You're home."
"I am," she replied, confused. "Why do you look so upset?"
Greg sighed, running a hand through his short, rumpled brown hair. "The office just called. The company wants me to do another presentation for them."
"That's great!" Jill exclaimed happily. She noticed the look on his face. "That's great, isn't it?"
He shrugged. "It's tonight."
"Tonight?" she repeated incredulously.
He nodded. "I know we had planned to go out, but honey, this contract could mean--"
"I know, I know." She held up her hands in defeat. "I know. It's okay. I'll just do something by myself tonight. Or maybe just stay in."
He leaned forward to kiss her. "I knew you'd understand."
She smiled. "We'll do dinner later, though? Tomorrow, maybe?"
He nodded, then kissed her again. "I've got to go get ready. I'll see you tonight, all right?"
She smiled. "I hope it goes well." She turned to get the bag of groceries and carried them into the kitchen. Greg was already in the bedroom, changing.
"Which tie should I wear?" he called to her.
She put away the apples into the basket. "The blue one. It brings out your eyes."
There was a snort of laughter. "Everything brings out my eyes, according to you."
She grinned to herself, her expression carrying into her voice. "They're nice eyes. What can I say?"
"You can give me an honest answer for once." Greg came out, doing up the tie--the blue silk one that she had suggested. He looked down at his watch. "Shit--I've got to get going. I don't know when I'll be in tonight, so don't wait up."
Jill frowned. "You're not going to be that late, are you?"
He shrugged, picking up his jacket from off the hook by the door. "I don't know. If it goes well, we might all go to the bar for a celebratory drink, you know, that sort of thing."
"Oh," she replied.
"Don't look so glum. We'll go out tomorrow." He smiled at her, his hand on the door handle. "Bye, honey. You should go out too and have some fun."
"I will, don't worry about me. Good luck," she repeated, blowing him a kiss. He grinned, and stepped out of the door.
She watched the door close, feeling tired. This presentation was so important to him--they all were--and she was respectful of that, but--
She shook her head. There was plenty of nights to go out to dinner. Tonight, she'd stay in, curl up in front of the TV--she stopped. What the hell--she'd go out. She'd go out by herself, have some fun by herself. It wasn't that hard. She might even make some friends in this godforsaken place. Jill grinned, starting to put the groceries away again, already thinking about where to go.
The bar was quiet, almost too quiet for a Friday night; there were only a few people, clustered around the bar. Feeling distinctly nervous and silly, Jill walked in. A waiter intercepted her, asking if she'd like a table; she nodded and he led her to a booth. She slipped in, the cool vinyl covering slippery against her legs. She was wearing a short black dress, with nylons; she had to restrain herself to keep from sliding around too much. She giggled quietly to herself, almost nervously. She felt like a sixteen year old on her first date.
The waiter came back, bearing a menu. She thanked him and asked for a glass of water. He nodded and disappeared. She had a brief glance at the menu, but wasn't sure what to get, so she set it back down and looked around. The bar was small, and quite nice; she'd been here before with Greg.
There was a man at the bar, watching her. When she realised that he continually looking in her direction, she blushed. She didn't want to give anybody the wrong impressions. Maybe this was a bad idea...
The waiter returned with her water. She didn't want to make him wait, so she spontaneously decided to try the house Caesar. The waiter wrote the order down, then took her menu and left. Now she had nothing to look at, and she found herself gazing around the bar again--
He was still there. And he was still looking at her. When they made eye contact for a moment, he squinted, concentrating; almost as though he was trying to place her. She returned the concentration, but as far as she knew, she'd never met him before. He wasn't particularly tall; he was brown-haired and dark-eyed; a fuzzy goatee; kinda plain, really--he didn't stand out very much. Perhaps she had met him before, and simply couldn't remember.
Finally she grew too embarrassed, and turned her head away. She could still see him, out of the corner of her eye. She realised with a start that he was coming her way--oh no, she thought, nervously. What if I have met him before and I don't remember--I hate it when that happens.
He was a few feet from her when someone knocked into him. The new stranger had appeared almost appeared from nowhere, and had just barrelled into him. The man frowned, his eyes narrowed. The other man--taller, darker, with a full-but-trimmed beard--grinned. "Fancy meeting you in here, Keller."
The first man, Keller, said something under his breath. The other man laughed. "I didn't catch that. Can you repeat it?"
Keller caught Jill's eye for a moment; she was ashamed of having been caught eavesdropping. She turned her head and concentrated firmly on the table, playing with her napkin. That didn't stop her ability to overhear, however.
"I said, get out of my way, Jorge," Keller's voice remained low and cold. "I'm not about to start anything with you."
"You're not?" Jorge feigned a tear and a sniffle. "How upsetting." He suddenly grabbed Keller by the lapels and pulled him close. Jill was shocked by the aggressive move, and she looked at the pair just in time to see Jorge's grin: he had fangs.
She couldn't believe her eyes. He had fangs, he had sharp canines. Confused, she was just about to say something--she didn't know what--when Jorge suddenly shoved Keller back, hard. The man went flying, crashing into a set of tables, which were luckily unoccupied. The waiters and bartenders came rushing over to see what the fuss was about.
Jill gulped, squeezing into the corner of the booth. She definitely did not want to get mixed up in this, whatever it was. Jorge turned to face her, still grinning. She could see his eyes, now, and that frightened her; the irises--they were dark black, they had no pupil--they were just holes in his eyes. She stifled a scream, but wasn't sure how long her composure would last. She could feel her panic rising.
Jorge reached in, and grabbed her, clamping a hand around her throat. She gasped, clawing at his wrist, but he didn't even seem affected.
"Leave her alone," someone snapped. It was Keller--he was on his feet--Jill was feeling woozy. Everything was taking on a dream-like quality. Jorge dragged her out of the booth, ignoring her struggles.
"What does it matter to you?" he asked, with a sneer. "And what does it matter to me?" He tugged upwards, lifting Jill nearly off her feet. She thought she was going to pass out any moment; her vision was tunnelling.
Suddenly, without warning, there was a sharp noise and then the iron grip around her windpipe vanished. She fell, gasping, breathing deeply, holding her hand to her throat, shaking. She looked up. Jorge was still standing, but now he was clutching his shoulder. Blood was streaming through his fingers.
Keller was holding his arm outstretched, the gun fixed on Jorge.
That's what the noise was, Jill thought belatedly. She wanted desperately to scuttle out of the way, but was too scared and still too woozy to move. He shot him. Another thought occurred to her belatedly: where the hell did he get a gun from?
Jorge was hissing through his clenched teeth. "How did you--what--where did you get that from?" he snapped, moving backwards. Keller advanced on him.
"Like I'm going to tell you. Is he back in town? Is that what this is about?" He raised an eyebrow at the wounded creature.
Jorge spat on the ground. Jill noticed--with the odd clarity of someone in shock--that his spit was blue. "Go to hell."
"No thanks," Keller replied easily. "Already been. Send my regards, though." He fired. Jorge snapped backwards, and Jill screamed; she couldn't help it. The creature--whatever it was, it wasn't human--crumpled beside her, then suddenly it seemed to glow for a moment. Then the glow faded and the body disappeared.
She pressed herself up against the side of the booth, shaking with fear. She couldn't understand what was going on, what was happening, was it a dream, or--
"Hey." She looked up. Keller was standing over her, tucking the gun into the waist of his pants, covering it with the flap of his jacket. "C'mon, we've got to get going." She stared at him with incomprehension. He grabbed her by the arm, hauling her to her feet. "You don't want to be here when the cops arrive, trust me."
"Let go of me!" she snapped, twisting her arm out of his grip. "I'm not going anywhere! I want to know what just happened!"
"I think it was obvious, but maybe that's just me. Look, you need to be out of here when--" He grabbed her by the wrist again, and then he stopped, listening, and looking at something over his shoulder. He dropped her arm and took off out the back. She watched him go. Something in the back of her mind urged her to follow--but that was stupid and reckless and she needed to tell the police exactly what happened. She looked down at the space that Jorge had occupied before he had disappeared. They needed to be told what happened.
Jill curled up on the couch, miserable. Even Greg didn't believe her! Neither had the cops. They thought she must have been drinking or smoking something before she went to the bar, and had thrown out her evidence all together. She had staggered home, at four in the morning, exhausted and furious; Greg wasn't even home yet. When he did come in, at about six, he collapsed and slept for a few hours. She had stayed sulking in the apartment, waiting for him to wake up so that she could tell him all about her ordeal. When he did wake up, he was in no mood to comfort her.
"I have got the worst headache," he had groaned, rolling over, a pillow over his head. Furious to the point where she couldn't trust herself to be rational, she had stalked off. Later that day, when he emerged from the bedroom, she had told him everything that had happened. He had listened seriously at first--but then he had laughed.
"How much did you drink?" he had chuckled, getting up from the couch. She thought that he might have been going to make her some tea, or something, when he had made his way to the kitchen; but then she had heard him opening the refrigerator.
"Greg!" she had snapped. "This isn't funny! I was attacked in a bar!"
He had believed that much--but he didn't taken in a word about the monster with fangs. According to him and the cops, some drunken idiot had decided to pick on a lone woman in the bar, prompting some chivalrous Samaritan to step in, before disappearing. There was nothing about fangs, or even the gun. That was the official story. The waiters had all been convinced of that; why had she?
So now she sat on the couch, seething. He was off at work again--he was always at work--and she wouldn't have wanted him around anyway. She didn't want to be laughed at all the time. Especially since she knew what she had seen was real. She knew it.
"It happened," she said out loud, defiantly. "I'm sure that guy Keller knew what was going on."
She sat bolt-upright. Keller. He'd know what that thing was. He could tell her. Even if no one else believed her, he would. She leapt off the couch and fetched her jacket. It was about three o'clock now, he wouldn't be at the bar, but maybe the bartender knew him--it was worth a shot, and it gave her something to do, at least. And it would prove her right.
She stood outside the door to the bar, huddled in her spring jacket. It had started out a bright and sunny day, but soon clouded over, and now the wind had picked up, blowing in fitful gusts. She was tempted to go in just to warm herself up. She felt so silly coming back.
She sighed, shivering, knowing that she would never be able to work up the nerve to talk to the bartender anyway. And even if she did, why would she assume that the bartender knew Keller, anyway? It was only her second time in the place, maybe it was his too. Maybe it was even his first. There were too many what-ifs and maybes. She sighed again, and turned to go home.
The shadow drifted over her head, its crisp dark edges showing on the pavement. She gasped, and looked up--there was nothing there. She looked down again, but the shadow was gone too. Feeling weak, she leaned against the building. What was the meaning of all of this? First monsters, then--no--wait, she had seen the shadow before, when she was running errands. She had forgotten about that.
Both of the shadows looked faintly like birds--like very large birds. But the second one she had seen in more detail, the outline of each outstretched feather and it almost seemed as though...
...as though the wings were attached to a human.
A flying human with wings. It was preposterous, it was unheard of, it was--
--as real as that monster in the bar.
Jill started to shake, rubbing her hands over her eyes. What was the matter with her? Was she going insane? Why was she seeing angels and devils? She didn't believe in God anyway, she hadn't been raised with any sort of religion, she was as atheist as you could get. There had to be some other explanation, some other reason why she was seeing the things she was seeing. Perhaps--perhaps she was just insane.
She laughed out loud. That's something that's going to cheer you up, Jill, she thought with a snort. She stood up, shivering from the wind chill. She rubbed her hands briskly together. Maybe she ought to tell Greg again, tell him how much it was bothering her. Yes, he had laughed, but maybe that was just his mood. If she told him how serious she was being, no doubt he would take her seriously too.
She started walking down the sidewalk when she felt as though someone was watching her. She whirled, but the street was relatively empty; there was a few people a couple blocks away, buying fruit at the corner store, and that was it.
She looked up. It was still cloudy, it looked like it might rain.
She stopped in her tracks. It was overcast. There was no sun. She checked down at her heels and sure enough, there was only a grayish, blurry penumbra where her shadow ought to be. She couldn't have seen a shadow like the one she had seen moments ago: there wasn't enough light to cast something so black, and with such precision!
"What the hell is going on?" she whispered out loud. She didn't expect an answer, and she didn't get one.
"Did you see anything?" his partner asked, writing down notes.
"Yep," Keller replied, casually. "Tons of stuff."
His partner looked up, curious.
"But nothing that was actually useful," he corrected himself. "The harpies got it wrong, as usual. We hung outside of that apartment for hours, Ellis, and she wasn't there."
"Or maybe she was, and you didn't notice," hissed a female voice. He looked around himself, sharply, then noticed the figure in the corner.
"Oh, god, Vireo, what are you doing here?"
"Getting some work done, which is what you should be doing," Ellis snapped. "She can't be that hard to find."
"We found her, and we're only harpies." Vireo sniffed.
Keller sighed, running a hand through his hair. "Look, Vireo, you know I don't--"
She stopped, cocking her head sideways. "They're at it again." Both men looked at her, ready to act, comments forgotten. She listened to something that only she could hear. "There's one of the men following her. Maybe more. I don't want them getting to her first, we can't afford to lose anyone. That includes you two. Keller, don't screw up like last time." She glared at him from within the shadows of the office.
He scowled. "I didn't screw up. But if you're so worried, then why should you want me to do it by myself?" He looked to his partner, an eyebrow raised.
"Take Grayson," Ellis snapped, refusing to take the bait. "I can't go, I've got too much stuff to take care of here."
"Especially with him on the move," Vireo agreed, nodding. "Take the other one, and bring her back here. I will send the pair of kestrels to keep watch."
He snapped off a salute, making it seem as sarcastic as possible. "I hear and obey," he remarked, heading out.
"Oh, and Keller?" Vireo called after him. He turned to look at her, expectant. "Don't let me catch you calling us 'harpies' again."
"Whatever you say," he said, rolling his eyes, leaving and slamming the door behind him.
She turned to Ellis. "That didn't sound very much like a promise."
"That's the best you're going to get out of him," the man replied, with a sigh.
Jill quickened her pace. Now she really couldn't shake the feeling that people were after her, even though the streets seemed deserted. And that seemed odd as well. Forreton was a big city--the weather wasn't that bad--why weren't there more people around?
Maybe her paranoia was a symptom of whatever was affecting her. She shivered again, her shoulders up around her ears, as she tried to keep warm. The wind was whistling right through her jacket as if it wasn't there.
Suddenly she heard shop doors creaking, and closing, and she heard footsteps behind her. She sighed. She felt better with people around. She looked quickly, over her shoulder. It was two men, having emerged from the bank, she guessed. For some reason she didn't feel as reassured as she thought she would have. She continued walking, not daring to look again. It would be rude, for one thing. She shivered, feeling very uneasy.
This is so stupid, she thought to herself crossly. You're jumping at spooks and shadows.
Someone grabbed her arm, whirling her around. She was so startled that she was speechless; she thought it was one of the men that had started walking behind her. It wasn't, it was a creature like the one at the bar--it grinned at her, showing its fangs, its black eyes--where did it come from, she had been alone--
She screamed, and not thinking, threw her free arm towards it, clouting it on the side of the head. The blow didn't even seem to register. "Let me go!" she shrieked. "Let me go!"
Another grabbed her, from the opposite side, so that she couldn't struggle. They grinned at each other, and then the second pulled her head back by the hair. She tried to kick it, but it barely blinked. That then--to her utter horror--it leaned forward, to sink its teeth into her neck. She screamed again, hysterically, fighting to pull away. What the hell was it doing to her? What was going on? She tried to kick it again, but the two held her immobile, taking turns biting her neck.
Then she heard shouting, she saw people running--one of the creatures dropped his grip on her, but the other grabbed her arm before she could strike out again. He pulled her closer, continuing to bite her, pressing her against his shoulder. She could barely breathe, and she couldn't see.
The pain helped sharpen what she was noticing all around her, she lost the blurriness that comes with shock. She heard the flapping of giant wings, she heard men yelling--then gunshots. She struggled harder, but remained trapped. She couldn't see anything, pinned the way she was, but she could hear. Men and women, shouting in anger.
"Let her go!"
"Get away from me!"
"Stop the other!"
"Save her, before--"
She was feeling weak. Jill tried to struggle again, but didn't have the strength to, and she found that she was losing feeling in her hands and feet. Her arms and legs. Suddenly she heard gunshot again, and the creature screamed, pulling away from her neck. As horrible as it had been, she half-wished that it hadn't been shot--it was holding her up. As it fell, she tumbled forward to the pavement, unable to stop herself. Something cracked as she fell, there was a sharp pain in her shoulder, but she was too woozy to properly figure out what was going on. She struggled to keep her eyes open.
One--no, two faces appeared in her field of view. One looked vaguely familiar, she tried to place him--then it came in a snap of recognition. "Keller?" she whispered. He was Keller, from the bar. He blinked in surprise and then straightened up, moving out of her field of view. She was left staring at the other man, a stranger. What was going on again? Her mind was flipping around like a channel changer. "Keller?" she repeated, confused.
"No," said the man, misinterpreting her question. "I'm Grayson. Larkspur, do you think you'll be able to carry her?"
A new voice, a female one. She sounded young. "Possibly, but I don't think it's wise to move her like that--she's in shock. I could, but I don't think I should."
"Could we carry her between us?" the man called Grayson mused.
"We can't risk it," someone else snapped. The voice sounded familiar--but she couldn't quite remember who he was. Someone she didn't know all that well, and yet... "She's practically dead weight. We couldn't drag her and defend ourselves. And Larkspur's right; she's in shock. We need to be careful."
"Well, what else can we do?" Grayson asked, looking up and away, to whoever was talking. Jill squinted her eyes, trying to keep him in focus. It was harder for her to keep track of who was saying what, and why. She struggled to stay awake, and concentrated on Grayson.
"We'll take her back in a taxi," replied the voice, smartly.
"A taxi? That's the stupidest thing I ever heard."
"Put your jacket over her, Grayson, and don't argue. I know what I'm doing. You two, go tell Vireo we got her, but the vamps got to her first."
Vamps? she thought, woozy, gray flickering lights appearing in front of her eyes. He can't mean vampires, can he? The flickering grayness was growing, it was spreading until she could barely make out any shapes. Then she couldn't make out light or dark, and then she just closed her eyes with a sigh.
"Wake up!" There was stinging pain across her cheeks. She blinked, confused. Where was she? She was moving--being moved--she was in a car? Someone was holding her. It was too much to take in all at once, she closed her eyes again. Then someone slapped her.
That was the stinging sensation. A little more awake, she struggled to sit up, but she couldn't. She was half-lying down, half-sitting--someone was holding her up. "Where?"
"Hey, I thought you said she passed out," someone, a rough sounding man, snapped. "She isn't having an overdose, is she? I don't want no corpse in my car!"
"Shut up!" someone snapped. She turned her head, slightly, to see who. It was Keller, the man from the bar. What was he doing here? Images came back, foggy, but growing clearer. The man that had creatures following him around, evil neck-biting creatures. Vampires? Vampires. "Jill? You awake?"
She tried to nod, but she wasn't sure if she was or not. Everything she did, from to keeping her eyes open to a simple nod to just plain breathing took a lot of effort and concentration, as though her body was a puppet on strings, and she had to take the time to manipulate it.
"Good, stay awake. You've lost a lot of blood--" Keller began, when the irate taxi driver interrupted.
"What the hell did you just say? Blood? I don't want no blood in my taxi, and I don't want to get mixed up in no gang war, I'm stopping the car--"
"Keep driving," Keller said in a low voice.
"Look, buddy, I'm stopping the car, and you can take your friends--"
Keller's arm went towards the inside of his jacket, but Grayson stopped him. "Don't," he warned. He gestured to the ceiling of the car. "Larkspur can take care of this."
"I thought she went with Tanager," Keller replied, with a frown. Then he shrugged, settling back. "Whatever."
Jill tilted her head, trying to see what they saw. But all she could make out was the dark-burgundy mock-velvet of the cab's roof. Then, to her astonishment, a hand started to reach through the car, down through the ceiling. It was pale white, almost deathly so, and its fingers long and smooth like a woman's. Then suddenly, from underneath the fingernails, claws unsheathed. She stared, wide-eyed with horror, as the clawed hand reached for the taxi driver. There was a moment where the hand hesitated; then it shot forward. It went through his head, the way it had passed through the roof. The driver was grumbling to himself, then stopped, abruptly.
"She doesn't like it," Grayson reported, his voice sounding strained. "She says it's disgusting in there."
"Tell that to someone who cares," Keller replied, with a sigh. "Just as long as she gets us back in one piece."
Jill started shaking, as she stared at the phantom hand that had reached through the car to grab the inside of the taxi driver's head. What the hell is going on? she almost whimpered. She struggled to get up again, but Grayson's arm held her down.
"Don't," he said, softly. "Don't struggle. You've lost a lot of blood."
Sparkles were appearing in front of her eyes again. "Try and stay awake," he urged, his voice in her ear. She could barely hear him, otherwise. All that she could make out was the ever-growing pattern of sparkles, and, just beyond the dancing colours, that hand.
The rain was striking the window hard, almost rattling the panes. There was low rumble of thunder, and Jill started to wake up. She was groggy, and had to fight her way to consciousness, and even when fully awake, she wasn't sure how she could tell. The room was almost totally dark, with the exception being the square of dim light that came from the unshaded window. She was lying in a bed, with several covers over her, and her entire right shoulder ached, terribly.
She couldn't figure out where she was. There was a musty smell in the room, a smell of dampness and old newspapers. For half a moment she thought she was in a crypt, and her heart pounded at the thought; but then a flash of lightning illuminated her surroundings for a moment. She was in a room, with bare walls, and no furniture. But it was definitely a room. She tried to sit up, the pain in her shoulder keeping her from accomplishing anything.
"Greg?" she moaned, bringing a hand to her shoulder to rub it. It was swathed in thick bandages. "What the hell? Greg?"
"Shh," whispered someone. It was a woman's voice. A creak signified a door closing. Jill gulped, clutching at the covers, as though she was a seven year old again, afraid of the dark and the things that crept in it. "You need to rest."
"I want to know where I am," she replied, shaking. "Who are you? Where are you?"
"I am here." The woman had a calm, measured voice. She stepped so that she was crouching by Jill's head. "It's all right now, you're safe."
"Safe from what?" Jill asked, cautiously. There was something about the woman that made her uneasy. She couldn't see her clearly in the darkness, she was just a shadowy shape, but something seemed wrong.
"From the Others, who tried to kill you," the woman answered, quietly. She stood. "Now, please, try to rest."
There was another low rumble of thunder. Jill stirred, gritting her teeth so that she could sit up. The pain was ferocious, and she remembered now--she had been bitten. "Please, don't go. I just want to know what's going on. Why were they trying to kill me?"
"That is best left until you're better, Jill." The woman started to leave. Jill gasped.
"How--how did you know what my name is? I never told any of you--Keller, he knew too. How? How did you know?" she tried to get up. "I want some answers!"
The woman seemed--from what Jill could make out of her--a little anxious. "Please, you need to rest." Her voice carried a rising note of anxiety. "Please, do not worry about this. We will explain in the morning."
"I want to--" Jill was cut off by a crackle of lightning. For a moment, the bolt lit the room up, almost like day; the light lasted only a second, but it was enough. The woman she had been talking to was no human. Wings--great feathered wings, glossy black, sprouted from her back. And her eyes--round, like a cat's, pale-yellow-green. The woman blinked in the sudden light, and a nictating membrane slid, briefly, across her irises.
Jill screamed, leaping backwards, slamming into the crumbly plaster wall. Pain shot through her shoulder and she nearly passed out with the shock; adrenaline kept her going. She scrabbled to her feet, standing on top of the bed, pointing with horror. Where were all of these things coming from?
The woman also backed away, frightened. "Grayson!" she called, looking towards the door. Jill followed her gaze, then leapt off the bed, scrambling towards the exit. "No, Jill, stop!"
Jill found herself on the landing--to her left was the staircase. She flew down them, two at a time, skidding as she hit the old linoleum floor. There was another door, a closed wooden one, and then a main corridor. Deciding just to make a run for it, she headed down the hallway. There was a flap of wings behind her. The unearthly reminder of the sound--birds did not have wings that big--only spurred her on faster. There, she could see the door at the end of the corridor. It was an old one, ornate, with glass panelling. She reached the brass handle and pulled it down. She threw it open.
The storm was just as thick as it had been when she had been listening to it rattle the window. She didn't care--she just wanted out. She wanted to be far away from everything that had happened. A hand grabbed her arm, her injured right arm, and she gasped with the sudden pain as she whirled herself around, punching her assailant squarely in the face.
The creature--the bird/cat/woman--staggered backwards, clutching her nose. Green liquid was trickling through her fingers--blood--the creature was bleeding green. One more surprise heaped upon mountains of them. Jill didn't look back as she charged out into the storm.
She thought she heard someone call her name. She didn't look back, she just kept running. The wind was furious, and each rain drop stung as it was whipped onto her. Her shoulder hurt so badly it was starting to go numb, as though her body couldn't handle it any more. She kept running.
She didn't know where she was, exactly. Somewhere in the old part of town, the area she didn't know well but always liked the look of. Old Victorian houses, old oak and maple trees. She loved it in the daytime.
At night, it was another matter. Everything was angles, dark corners, it all looked the same. There had to be a street sign around here somewhere.
She stumbled to a halt at the end of the sidewalk. St. Alecost Street East, and Savin Avenue. She knew was she was, vaguely. She knew that if she followed Alecost far enough, it would lead to more populated areas--and her home. She could find a phone, call Greg--who no doubt was out of his mind with worry--call a cab, call the police, call everybody she could think of. She heard someone call her name again, and she took off, as fast as she could in the fierce storm.
The running was hard--the pavement was slick with rain, as was the grass. The last thing she could afford was to slip and sprain something--even just slipping would cause a delay, would give her pursuers more time to catch up. She nearly fell while running through a puddle that had formed in a depression in the sidewalk. It was a lot deeper than she thought it was, and she stumbled, but luckily kept her footing.
The pain in her shoulder was excruciating, especially as the water soaked through the bandages. She hissed through her teeth, wondering what in the world she had done to end up in this situation. This wasn't supposed to happen to her, she didn't want to be a part of this, she didn't find it adventurous or exciting or at all scintillating. She wanted to go home.
Her heart pounding from the exertion, barely able to catch her breath, she was forced to stop, and she leaned against a tall tree, gasping. She wiped some of her hair out of her eyes--it was soaked, and flinging itself into her face like sodden pieces of rope--and started onward again. She felt like collapsing, but forced her legs to move onward.
"Jill!" she heard someone cry, behind her. Terror gave her a spurt of energy, and she tore on, starting to run again. Then her foot slipped out from under her and she fell, landing palm first on the pavement, her bad arm tucked against her chest. She swore and struggled to get up.
Someone pulled her up by the arm. She gasped from the pain to her shoulder--he had pulled on her bad arm--and she tried to yank her arm away. It was one of the men--Grayson. "Leave me alone!" she yelled at him, scrabbling to her feet, backing away. "Leave me alone!"
"Jill, don't be like this," he said, placating. She didn't reply. Over her shoulder, she could see someone else approaching. It was Keller--and behind him was one of the creatures. Jill's eyes must have widened at the sight. Grayson noticed her surprise. "Jill, that's Larkspur. She helped us find you when they attacked."
"What the hell is going on?" Jill whispered, as the pair approached her.
"What the hell is going on?" Keller barked. He was hunkered down inside his jacket, as though the hoodless garment would protect him from the rain if only he hunched his shoulders. "What the hell are you doing out in this storm?" Divine irony punctuated the sentence with a flash of lightning. "Are you crazy?"
"Yes," Jill snapped, furious. "I must be, since I'm seeing things, after all."
Keller stared at her, and then looked to Grayson for an explanation.
"She means Larkspur," he replied.
Keller nodded. "Okay. Gotcha. So that's what this is about. Look, Jill, we'll explain everything back at the house--"
"No." She backed up another few feet, her eyes glued to Larkspur, whose wings were fluffed out to keep the rain off them. Water ran down and along the feathers, efficiently diverted from her. "I want to know now. I'm not going anywhere with you otherwise."
Keller started to snap something, but Grayson interrupted.
"Jill, it's stupid to stay out here in the rain. Come back to the house. You're not a prisoner, you never were. We'll explain everything there, out of the storm."
She looked at him, to Keller, to Larkspur, then back to Grayson. He looked trustworthy. Keller looked fed up and pissed off, and Larkspur looked cold and miserable. But Grayson... he looked like he wanted to help her, and she felt that she could trust him. She took a deep breath, praying that she was making the right decision, then nodded.
"Good, let's get going," Keller said, turning and walking back up the sidewalk.
"I need a rest," Jill replied, hesitantly, holding her injured arm. Her heart was still pounding inside her chest and she was out of breath.
Grayson and Keller exchanged glances. Keller looked up to the sky, blinking out the rain, as though he could see what or who was personally responsible. "We're only three blocks from the house," Grayson said, gently, taking her good arm. "You can lean on me, if you need to."
"What?" Jill blinked in surprise, flipping some more wet hair from her eyes. That couldn't be right. She had been running for--for--ages, anyway.
"We can rest if you need to," The creature--Larkspur--said, kindly. "But it would be better to get out of this rain."
Jill shivered. "I guess..." she began, then stopped, shaking her head. "Nevermind."
"Don't worry. We'll get you dried off, and something warm to drink, and you'll feel fine," Grayson told her, as they started walking, slowly.
She sat on the thin, worn chair, uncomfortable and half-frozen. Jill couldn't rest her arms on the hard, curved wooden arms, and she was still feeling stiff and cold, even though she had been given dry clothes to wear. She didn't ask from where, or from whom; she just changed quietly in the bedroom while Grayson had waited outside. He had led her down the stairs to the corridor, and then to a sitting room that was at the front of the old, Victorian-style house.
Grayson had just wandered off now to make her a cup of tea, and Keller was gone. She hadn't seen him since they returned to the house. Now she was left alone with Larkspur, the cat/bird-woman.
"Are you cold?" Larkspur asked. "I can't tell when humans are cold. Except Grayson." She shivered, running her hands along her bare arms, to warm them. Jill stared, momentarily lost, staring at Larkspur's hands. They were very white, her fingers long--they were the hands that had reached through the taxi roof and touched the head of the driver.
Jill shivered, pulling her legs up onto the chair seat, cradling her injured arm, wrapping her good arm around them and watching Larkspur with barely concealed anxiety.
Larkspur, for her part, was uncomfortable as well. Suddenly she looked up. "I don't know what to do," she said, softly, obviously not talking to Jill, but almost to someone standing over her shoulder.
The human woman looked around, but the room was empty. The antique windows had thin white cotton curtains, fastened below the stained glass that formed the upper half of the bay window. There was only the three chairs in the room, all the same old, darkened wood, that were arranged around an unused fireplace. Jill shivered again.
"Your hair is wet," Larkspur said, suddenly, getting to her feet, her wings lifting slightly. When she had been sitting, they had been held relatively close to her body, only over the arms of the chair; as she stood they fluffed and lifted themselves. Jill stared at them in horror and the bird-woman seemed to know that she was causing the human distress. "I'll get something. I'll be right back."
She left the room quickly, her bare feet making no sound against the hardwood floor.
Jill leaned her cheek against her knee, wincing at the slight movement. She felt so tired, so unbelievably weary of this dream that would not end.
"Here--" Jill looked up, blinking in surprise, as Larkspur held a towel in front of her face. "It's for your hair." Jill stared at her, unable to move. Larkspur shook the towel slightly, distressed that her offering was not being accepted. "Take it, please. It's just to dry your hair."
Jill took the towel, gingerly. Larkspur stepped backwards, her wings quivering slightly. From the expression on her face, Jill took the shivering movement to be akin to a human wringing their hands. The familiarness of the distress--the human-ness of it--bothered the woman a great deal. They weren't human--why were they acting so?
"I don't know, he went away," she whispered, her chartreuse eyes almost black thanks to the wide, slitted irises. The room had no lighting, besides the gloom that made it through the window, and the odd flash of lightning that lit everything eerie blue-white.
Jill closed her eyes, scrunching them tightly, wishing she could open them and be in her own bed, with Greg, having just woken from a nightmare...
She opened them and found herself in the same place she'd been, holding a towel with one hand, staring at a woman who seemed to be a cross between an eagle and a house cat, who was talking to herself.
Larkspur sighed, and looked at her forlornly. "I'm sorry," she said, genuinely upset. It startled Jill for a moment, she didn't understand what the creature had to be sorry about, unless she was about to do something horrible to Jill...
Jill's apprehension must have shown on her face; Larkspur looked like she was about to burst into tears, then she fled from the room.
She was sorry I was so afraid of her. She was sorry I was so upset.
Jill found herself alone, in an empty house, in the middle of a raging thunderstorm, still wet, and holding a towel. So she dried her hair.
Grayson put the cups on the tray, arranging them around the old, cracked teapot.
"Where the hell did you dig that up from?" Keller asked from behind him. Grayson looked around, then shrugged.
"Under the cupboards. I cleaned it out, and it works okay."
Keller sighed, lifting the lid off the teapot to peer inside, his eyebrows furrowing in curiosity. "What's in there?"
"Tea?" The older man laughed. "You can be really old-fashioned sometimes."
"I asked her what she'd like to drink and she said tea," Grayson snapped. "Look, I don't see you helping."
Keller was leaning against the counter watching his partner with a sardonic smile. "She has to get used to the fact whether she likes it or not. Tea isn't going to help."
"It's not going to help her accept anything," Grayson admitted, lifting the tray, "but it will help her calm down, and warm her up. This place is a little drafty, but I don't suppose you spend enough time here to notice."
Keller's eyes narrowed. "What is that supposed to mean?"
"What do you think--"
"Stop it, both of you." Vireo was in the doorway to the kitchen, her arms folded over her chest. She stared at them in fury. "Enough of this. Serve the beverage to the woman, and then let's get this over with."
Grayson didn't reply, but waited until she moved, then slipped past her, out the doorway. Keller sauntered out after him, raising an eyebrow at the woman. "That's the Vireo charm we all love," he said smartly. She scowled, and followed on his heels.
She looked up, startled by the sound of his voice. Grayson set the tray down, and then took one of the seats. "I brought you some tea," he continued, pouring her a cup. "I see you got Larkspur's towel."
"Yes," she admitted, gingerly touching the towel wrapped turban-like around her head. "I did. And... thank you." He didn't reply, but smiled as he handed her the cup.
There were sharp footsteps out in the hallway, someone wearing high heels. Jill looked over his shoulder, alarmed, but he wasn't worried. "That's just Vireo," he said, pouring himself a cup. Then he raised his voice just a touch. "She can hear you, you know."
Jill thought that he was speaking to her, but he wasn't. He was talking to the woman that appeared in the doorway. She was a full human woman, without wings or claws and she was dressed in an immaculate black pant suit, as though she had just come from the office. She stayed hovering by the door.
"Hello," Jill offered, glad to see another human. She smiled, hesitantly, unsure who the woman was, or what she wanted.
"Vireo, don't be rude," someone remarked, and Keller walked into the room, pushing past, knocking her with his shoulder, an act which the woman seemed to find almost offensive.
Jill just stared, unsure of what her place was, what her purpose was, why they were fighting--
"Aren't you going to say hello to me too?" Keller asked her, making a joke. She blinked, confused; she took him literally, being in no mood for humour.
"Hello," she said, solemnly, her eyes flickering between him and Vireo.
He smiled, just slightly, and then smothered the grin. "Where's Larkspur?"
"On the balcony," Grayson offered, taking a sip of his tea. He looked over his shoulder. "Are you sitting, Vireo?" She shook her head. He then looked to Keller, who shook his head as well. "It's kinda cold in here," Keller remarked, suddenly, rubbing his hands together. "Are you cold, Jill?" Jill didn't say anything, she just stared, as though she didn't understand why he was attracting any attention to her. He ignored her discomfort entirely. "You look a little on the chilly side, Jill. Why don't we get the fire started? Then we can have a nice little fire-side chat. Vireo, you can start the fire."
"Keller," the woman warned, in an icy tone.
He grinned, a grin that told just how much he was enjoying playing with her. "C'mon, Vireo. You said yourself she ought to be told everything."
"There is a time and a place," Vireo snapped. "Wait for Ellis."
"I think we should get this rolling now," Keller replied, still grinning, but his tone was low, suggesting he was through playing.
Grayson sighed, heavily, and started to get up, but Keller held out a hand, stopping him. He sat back down, catching Jill's eye, and shaking his head slightly.
"Wait for Ellis," Vireo repeated.
"Who knows when he'll get done with that paperwork of his, it never ends," Keller snapped, sounding bitter. "Just get this show on the road."
"There are other ways to introduce her to us--" Vireo tried a different tactic, but Keller wasn't going to hear of it.
"I think this way is the best," he said. He turned back to Jill. "You wanted answers, right?"
She nodded, dumbly, afraid.
"Then you deserve to get them. I--"
"Wait for Ellis to explain!" Vireo nearly shouted, her hands in fists at her side. Keller smirked, and Jill realised that Vireo's anger was what he'd been trying to get all along. Vireo, for her part, seemed infuriated both by Keller and her lack of control; she stormed from the doorway, her high-heels sounding like miniature cracks of thunder on the hardwood floor.
She couldn't hear any. Jill turned to look out at the windows. It was still raining, but the thunder was slacking off, only a soft rumble in the distance. "The storm is moving off," she said, in a whisper.
Grayson nodded. "It is. It should be gone by the morning."
Keller was still leaning against the fire-place, looking lost in thought. "Where's Tanager?"
"Hmm?" Grayson looked up at him, confused.
"She--should be in the attic, why?"
"Have her come down here."
Grayson paused. He cast a look at Jill. "Do you think that's wise? Vireo will be back with Ellis--"
"And Ellis can take it from there. Jill," Keller said, kneeling by her chair, and looking her in the eye, "I know this seems very, very strange to you. I think the best way is to just show you."
"Tanager," Jill repeated, nodding, slowly. She shifted around, just slightly; Keller's frank gaze was making her uncomfortable.
"Jill," Grayson said, after a moment, hesitantly, "I know you want answers, but think about this carefully. You've had a lot of shocks lately--"
"I want to know," she told him.
"I want to know," she replied, sharply, feeling a rush of anger. Things couldn't get any weirder, and the more answers she had, the better she would feel. She looked down at Keller. "I want to know."
He grinned, a bright, wide grin that made her smile falteringly in response. He gave her a smack on her good shoulder as he stood back up. "Grayson, call in Tanager."
Grayson nodded. He didn't move a muscle.
Confused, Jill looked to the doorway, waiting to see the mysterious Tanager appeared. The name sounded familiar--where had she heard it?
The taxi. It came back to her in a flash of recognition. Keller had asked where Tanager was--no--Grayson had mentioned Larkspur, that was it, and Keller had asked if she had gone with Tanager. That meant that Tanager was probably another one of those creatures...
As if guided by her memory of that car ride, Jill looked up, towards the ceiling, in time to see the long slender legs start to slide down, followed by the body, the head, and the enormous wings. They were black, and glossy, spread out to check her momentum as Tanager fell through the ceiling and landed with a soft thump, on the floor, in a crouch. She straightened up, her wings remaining slightly spread.
"What's happening?" she asked, her voice more gravelly than Larkspur's had been. "Why was I called?"
"Tanager of the Kestrel Wing, this is Jill Melville; Jill, Tanager," Keller said, doing the introductions.
Tanager dipped her head, slightly, her wings stretching for a moment, and then folding. Like Larkspur, she was dressed in a sort of tunic, made out of a pale material. She had shorts on underneath, probably more for modesty's sake, but other than that, she was bare. Her long legs ended in normal, human looking feet, except for the fact that she remained constantly on her tip-toes. Then Jill realised that must be the reason the wings stayed slightly spread.
The wings. Huge, easily longer than Jill or even Keller was tall. Black and as glossy as an oil slick, Tanager's sported bright orange-red patches, just above the shoulders. Jill gave an involuntary gasp.
"She likes your wings," Grayson said, with a smile.
He sighed, typing the last few paragraphs. "I'm almost done," he said, although Vireo hadn't said anything, she had only entered the room with a face like a thunderclap and stood, glowering, in the corner. She didn't have to say anything, he knew already what the problem was: Keller and his mouth.
"He is--" Vireo started to say as he stood up, turning the computer to stand by, but he cut her off.
"Vireo, I know how much he bothers you, but he's my partner, my friend, and one of the best operatives that we have. I know he's an asshole at times, but you're just going to have to bear with him."
"Ellis--" she began, but he cut her off with a glance.
"She left me in charge," he reminded her. "So let me deal with it."
Vireo didn't say anything, a sure sign she was furious, but reluctant to cross the line. "And the woman? Melville, I suppose she will be called?"
"I'll deal with her too," Ellis replied, crossing to the other end of the room, and flicking off the lights. He opened the door. "After you."
Tanager and Jill stared at each other for a moment. Tanager's hair was black and her eyes were a orange to match her wings; the unusual colour suited her, and didn't disturb Jill as much as it should have.
She supposed she had reached her shock tolerance for the day.
Tanager raised her wings slightly, then let them drop.
Grayson sighed. "Jill? Are you okay?"
Jill nodded numbly. "How--" she began, her voice dry. "She--how?"
"We are not as close to the physical world as you are," Tanager said, gently. She looked to Grayson. "Perhaps Ellis ought to explain this."
"Who is Ellis?" Jill asked, plaintively. "Everyone keeps talking about him, but--"
"I'm Ellis," someone announced walking into the room. It was another man, followed by Vireo, who kept her distance. "I'm Jonathan Ellis, Ms. Melville. It's a pleasure to meet you, finally. I'm sorry I didn't come sooner, but work has kept me very busy lately." He shook her hand. He was shorter than Keller but fairer, with a closely trimmed beard and a much more open manner. One look at Keller would tell you he enjoyed keeping you guessing; one look at Ellis told you he was ready to get down to business. He moved to the unoccupied chair.
Both Vireo and Keller moved to stand by his shoulder; however, neither of them wished to have to stand by the other. Ellis looked up to Keller and shot him a look; his partner stepped back and leaned against the mantlepiece, leaving Vireo alone.
"Jill," Ellis began, leaning forward, "Were you ever afraid of the dark?"
The innocuous question caught her off-guard. "Of course," she replied, easily. "As a small child. Isn't everyone?"
"Did you ever see things in the dark that you didn't think could have been there?" he persisted.
She wondered if he was joking with her, pulling her leg, but he was leaning forward, resting his forearms on his thighs and regarding her with interest and utter seriousness.
"Maybe," she said, slower this time, getting chills. "I don't remember. I wasn't unusually afraid of the dark."
"I was," he replied, in the same serious tone. "Because I saw things, and those things talked to me."
He leaned backwards, opening his arms to indicate Keller and Grayson. "We all did. We all saw them. And you did to."
"No I didn't," she said, her voice higher than normal. She forced it down. "That was all just childish nonsense."
There was a silence.
"Nonsense," Tanager repeated, quietly.
Ellis held up a hand. "How old were you?"
Jill held herself tighter. "I don't know what you're talking about."
"How old were you when you convinced yourself that they were nonsense?" he elaborated. "I don't think you could have been that old, you strike me as a particularly practical woman."
Jill pulled herself upwards. "I am practical."
"I know that, I wasn't being sarcastic. I'm just surprised at how hard you've resisted seeing what's right in front of you." He leaned back, resting an elbow on the arm of his chair, a finger stroking his beard in thought. "There are two and a half kinds of people in the world, Jill, those who can see and those who can't. And then the half-and-half group: those who can see, but won't."
Jill, for her part, was trying very hard to figure out where this was all leading, but she had no clue, none at all. Her shoulder was hurting, her muscles were cramping, she was in shock and they were leading her around in circles, talking in riddles and generally being far too cryptic for her. She hated cryptics. She hated beating around bushes. For a moment, her emotions broke through the surface.
"What is this?" she demanded, angrily. "Why can't you just tell me what's going on, who you are, what they are, and what I have to do with any of this!"
Again, silence descended down on the group, while they waited for Ellis to respond. He seemed lost in thought. He started to say something, and then looked at the empty fireplace. Keller pulled a cigarette from the inside of his suit jacket, and then a lighter. He lit the cigarette, ignoring Jill's, Vireo's, and Tanager's look of disgust.
"I wonder," Ellis said, quietly, looking up, "if there is a simple way to explain it all."
"Probably not," Keller remarked, between puffs. "Otherwise we would have found it by now."
"Start small, then," Jill found herself saying. "Why am I here?"
"That's actually the easiest one to answer," Ellis answered, with a slight, fleeting, smile. "You're here because you're one of us." He paused. "And that right to explanation number two. You're one of us because you can see the Wings."
"The wings?" Jill repeated. "Their wings?" This was said with a nod towards Tanager.
"Not quite. That's what they refer to themselves as--the Wings. Capital W." Ellis looked up at Vireo, who was standing with her arms crossed over her shoulder. Then he regarded Jill again. "And because you can see them--the Others." He smiled. "Capital O."
"The Others?" Jill repeated, confused. "The other what?"
"Just 'the Others'," Vireo replied, speaking for the first time since she had entered. "We do not, technically, call ourselves the Wings. We have no word for ourselves. There is simply us--and Them."
"Them." Jill recognised the emphasis now. Then inspiration struck. "The vampires?"
"That's just what we call them," Grayson answered for Ellis and Vireo. "It's just a nick-name. They're not really vampires."
"Oh." Jill paused. "Then what are they?"
"Demons," Vireo replied without preamble. Keller suppressed a slight smile. Grayson sighed, and Ellis shook his head.
Grayson was the first to speak. "That's not quite true either, Jill. The Others aren't demons, not in the traditional sense. Both the Wings and the vamps are from outside our realm of reality. They've taken physical forms here. Humans, ordinarily, can't see them."
Jill blinked. "Other realms of reality."
She looked at each in turn with the notable exception of Tanager. "You're insane."
They all smiled, and Keller snickered. "Are we?" he asked, blowing smoke in her direction. She waved it away from her face, wrinkling her nose in distaste.
"Yes, you are," she answered, firmly. "I am, too."
Ellis chuckled, relaxing. "What did I tell you--practical. Look, Jill--"
"Melville," Vireo hissed.
He ignored her. "Jill, it's been a long night. I think it's best if we stop here, and get some rest. In the morning, after breakfast, we can start again. There's a lot to get through, so it's best to do it in small chunks."
"I'd prefer not to do it at all," Jill replied archly.
Ellis got up from his chair. He looked at her, non-plussed. "Keller, you can show her to her room."
"Me?" his partner repeated, not looking pleased.
"Yes, you. I have to talk to Vireo and Grayson. Jill needs some rest." Ellis walked from the room. Grayson and Tanager exchanged looks, then he, too, got up and followed. Vireo turned and made her exit, with a final parting glare to Keller, just for good measure.
Tanager spread her wings, bent her knees, then jumped. With a flap, she propelled herself up through the ceiling. Jill watched with wide eyes.
"Come on," Keller said to her, dropping the cigarette stub and rubbing it with his shoe against the hearthstone, "let's get you tucked in."
Half in a daze, she followed him down the hall to the staircase. It looked familiar, and at the same time new; she hadn't seen it from this angle. He led her up the stairs to the small landing, and pushed the door open for her, without going in.
"Do you want anything, medication, bandages, that sort of thing?" he asked, at the last moment. She stood, still on the landing, clutching at the towel-turban that was threatening to fall off.
"No, I don't think so," she replied. He waited, his hand on the door, until it was clear she wasn't ready to go in yet.
"Nothing's going to bite," he said, then noticed her wince. "Right. Sorry. Look, I know it's a lot to take in, but Ellis is right. Sleep will do you some good. My room is on the next floor, so if you need anything, just yell." He started to leave, walking down the stairs.
"You'll hear me?" Jill inquired, nervously, torn between following him and entering the empty room.
"No, but somebody will," he replied, nonchalantly. "They will, at least."
He motioned with his arms, flapping. Wings. "Them. Don't worry, Jill, you're in good hands. See you in the morning." A few quick steps and he was on the ground floor--a few more and he was out of sight.
She took a deep breath, and strode into the room. There was nothing there but the bed. With her eyes so adjusted to the dark, she could now make out the faded floral wallpaper, torn and peeling in some places. The decor did nothing to improve her anxiety.
Crossing the floor quickly, she dove into the bed. She could remember being eight and having the firm belief that creatures lived underneath the bedsprings; she had to be quick and leap into bed so that she stayed out of their grasp. If she didn't leap, they'd snatch at her ankles, trying to drag her under the bed, where they could... she wasn't sure what they would have done, she'd never allowed herself to dwell on it.
She pulled the covers around her. They were no longer warm, since she had been gone such a long time, but they weren't as cold as they could be, either. She draped the towel at the end of the bed and tried to make herself comfortable, which was not an easy task.
All the time, her mind was spinning, whirling, memories flying at her, the sparks of a mental Catherine's Wheel. The dark, the shadows in her childhood rooms, the times she had heard voices, people whispering to her. Bogeymen, ghosts, monsters under the bed, soon they all had the same label: figments of her imagination. She had never been a child to believe in fairy tales, and the creatures of the dark fell under that heading.
Except when she saw them, and they saw her back.
She pulled the covers over her head. The air underneath was already stifling, but it was better than regarding the shadows, looking for the eyes that watched her in return.
He was right. She had seen things when she was young, but as she grew older she dismissed them, and they had faded until they were no more as real as the toothfairy or Santa Claus.
She started shaking.
Why is all of this happening to me? She couldn't understand it. As far as she knew, it was not normal, it was not a natural part of growing up to have your childhood fantasies come to life. If it was, then why did no one else speak of it? And if her childhood fantasies were becoming reality, then where was the horse she had always wanted, and never received?
She poked her head back out of the covers. Calm down, she thought, sternly. Keep a hold of yourself. I'm sure there is an entirely rational explanation. Somewhere. You just have to find it.
She closed her eyes, tried not to think of how Greg must be worrying, and gradually drifted off to sleep.
Jill awoke in a panic, the smell of smoke curling into her nose. She leapt out of bed screaming, "Fire, Greg, fire!" before she got her bearings and remembered where she was. She wasn't at home, but the house was definitely on fire.
"Fire!" she yelled again, rushing out onto the landing. This wasn't the brightest thing for her to do. The flames were down below, and the smoke in the hall was choking. She headed back to her room, slamming the door shut, fighting down the feelings of panic, of sheer primal terror. She didn't want to die. Not like this--
She got to the window, trying to force it open. It was an ancient sliding window, made with a wooden frame which, with age, was becoming jammed. She struggled, finally managing to creak it open about and inch or two. Her shoulder hurt like hell. Now, with it open a slit at the bottom, she could get her good hand in and force it upwards. It was hard work, but easier than pulling at it from the top.
The window was open part-way, about a foot. There was no screen. She leaned out. She was on the second storey, there were bushes under her--if she jumped, she might break something, but on the other hand, she'd survive.
But what about everybody else in the house? Keller had said to yell for help, they'd hear her. But what if the fire had gotten everyone else already? What if they were already dead? Could they even die, those creatures? They did bleed.
Deciding to take her life into her own hands, she forced the window up as far as it would go, then started to climb out when she felt someone touch her leg, just above the ankle.
She looked over her shoulder; the room was empty. Smoke was steaming in under and around the door. Now or never. She looked down, taking a deep breath. "Now or never--"
Someone yanked hard on her ankle, almost pulling her back into the room. She screamed, clutching at the sides of the frame, trying to keep from being pulled into the burning room. Fire was licking and sparking its way up the ancient wallpaper-- "Jill, stop this--!"
"Let me go," she yelled again, and tried once more to go through, but there was another grip on her leg and she was pulled forcibly through. Her head knocked the window as she was yanked back into the room--stars flooded her vision.
And when they cleared, she was back on the bed, facing Keller, Grayson and Tanager.
There was no smoke.
"What the hell were you doing?" Keller demanded, looking rumpled and furious, standing in his boxers and a t-shirt. "Trying to make a fast get-away?"
"She was asleep," Grayson informed him. He too was looking very rumpled, and in his pyjamas. They must have just gotten out of bed. "She was dreaming."
She pointed to the door, her arm trembling. The door was wide open, showing the gloomy blackness of the landing. "Fire. The house was on fire, it was in the room. I... I had to get out."
Keller sighed, running a hand through his hair. He seemed to be trying to smooth down a patch at the back which had been sticking straight up; but his attempt only made the bedhead worse for it was now a collection of patches standing on end. He sighed again. "Jill, go back to sleep."
"Wait a second," Grayson interrupted, even as Tanager started tugging on his sleeve. "I know, I know, Tanager." He looked at Jill, crouching down so that he was almost eye-level with her. "You said you were dreaming. Do you normally sleep-walk?"
She shook her head no. "I don't even talk in my sleep, never mind climb out of windows."
"This sort of thing has never happened to you before?" he persisted. She shook her head again.
He stood up, looking at Tanager for a long moment. Then she dipped her head and crouched, spreading her wings. She jumped, sailing up through the ceiling.
"What was that all about?" Keller asked, with a yawn.
Grayson shook his head, then crouched back down. "Jill, are you very sleepy still?"
"I am," Keller informed them with another yawn.
"Keller," Grayson warned. "Jill, are you sleepy?"
She shook her head. And then nodded. "I--don't know. I don't feel sleepy, my heart's still racing, but I could go back to sleep--"
"No, it's better if you don't," he said, suddenly. He looked up and one of the creatures came floating down through the cracked plaster ceiling. It was the paler of the two Wings that she'd met; that meant Larkspur. "We'll stay up with you, keep you company."
Keller grunted something, rubbing his eyes.
"No, you can go back to sleep," Grayson snapped, standing up. He and Keller faced off for a moment, and then the older man shrugged and left the room.
"I wish you wouldn't do that," Larkspur murmured. She looked to Jill. "Are you all right? We could feel--"
Grayson cut her off. "That's for another time, Larkspur. Come on, Jill, I'll make you some coffee."
She sat at the kitchen table, her legs curled up on the seat, her hands wrapped around a mug of coffee. The sun had risen, or was starting to rise; outside the windows the sky was turning blue. Large bushes obscured most of the window, but a small strip of sky was still visible. She had no idea which way the house was facing.
"Would you like something to eat?" Grayson asked. He was sitting across from her, nursing his own mug of java. Larkspur sat in between them, her eyes closed, her feet resting flat on the floor, her hands flat on her thighs just above the knees; her wings framed her figure and she resembled a stone statue carved by the ancients. She had been like that ever since they had come downstairs, and Jill didn't want to inquire. Grayson seemed to not notice.
"Maybe, I mean, yes please," Jill said, stiffly stretching, after placing her cup on the stained wooden table top. "Something light--maybe cereal? Fruit?"
"Cereal we have," Grayson agreed, getting up to get her a bowl. "Fruit is a little harder to come by, unfortunately, since it doesn't keep. We've got--" he checked through the cupboards, "--corn flakes and rice krispies."
"Nothing with marshmallows in it?" she asked, sounding disappointed. He looked over at her, somewhat confused, and she smiled to let him know she had been joking. He looked startled for a moment, then smiled back.
"That's the first happy expression I've seen you with," he remarked, cheerfully, setting the bowl in front of her. "Corn flakes or rice krispies?"
"Corn flakes," she replied. He fetched a box from one of the cupboards. Half-a-moment later, she was served her cereal. She dug in eagerly, not having eaten since the previous day's lunch; the bowl was polished off in seconds. Grayson had the box handy and poured her another.
"Still tired?" he asked.
"Actually, I'm not," she replied, between mouthfuls. "I was for a while, but now I just feel fine."
"That's good," he answered with a grin.
There was a lapse in the conversation while both finished off their coffee. Jill set her cup down, and drew her legs up to her chest, she hugged them to her and stared at the lightening strip of sky that was visible through the window.
"Are you okay?" Grayson asked, quietly.
She turned to look at him. He was genuinely concerned, and he had never seemed anything but concerned; on the other hand, she was still a prisoner in a madhouse. She didn't reply, but turned her head slightly to regard Larkspur, still frozen in her position.
"Oh," Grayson said, quietly, looking ashamed. "I guess... you're feeling a little confused, still."
Jill, again, didn't bother to reply. She rested her cheek on her knee, wearily.
He started to say something else, and then he faltered for a moment. He got up to refill the kettle and set it on the stove. "Uh--is there anything you want to talk about? Most of the big questions you'll have to save for Ellis, but I can try, too. If it will make you feel more comfortable."
"That's very kind of you, thank you," she said, slowly, wondering what she should ask about first. Not a "big" question, Grayson would just avoid answering, to "save" it for Ellis. Ellis--he was a question in and of itself.
She leaned back in her chair, feeling slightly queasy from eating so fast, while she pondered her first question. Best to milk the opportunity... "Actually, there is something that I wanted to ask." She nodded in Larkspur's direction, then leaned across the table. "What's she doing?" Jill asked in a whisper.
Grayson looked thoughtful. "I'm not sure how to explain... she's... sort of... meditating."
"Meditating?" Jill repeated with her eyebrows raised. He nodded, and didn't look like he was going to volunteer any more information. The emphasis he placed on "meditating" meant it was a euphemism of some sort. She had the feeling he wasn't going to tell her exactly what he meant by it.
"Anything else?" Grayson prompted, when she didn't answer.
She thought for a moment. "Who is Ellis?"
"Pardon?" Grayson didn't seem to understand the question.
"Ellis. Who is he? He seems to be the leader here, but at the same time Keller doesn't--" she trailed off, not sure if she was poking her nose in too far. "Keller doesn't act around him the same way you or--Vireo?--does."
Grayson sighed, picking up his cup of coffee again. It was empty, so he was just playing with it, while he thought up a diplomatic response. "Keller... treats all of his friends the same way. Ellis and Keller used to be partners, until Ellis was promoted and given this sub-group. He is a leader, in a sense--we report to him."
"Who's we?" she asked, her head cocked to one side.
"Me, Keller, Larkspur, Tanager, and Indigo Bunting. You haven't met Indigo Bunting yet, she's away on a mission. And then there's Vireo, but she's not really in our group; she's our link with Gyrfalcon."
"Gyrfalcon," Jill repeated, nodding. It sounded like something from a bad movie. "And Gyrfalcon is--?"
"The leader of the Wings. The one they all report to," Grayson explained. "There's different layers, a structured hierarchy, and Gyrfalcon is at the top. Vireo, for comparison, is more towards the middle, Larkspur and Tanager under her." He stopped as the kettle started to whistle. "There's the kettle. Do you want some tea, or more coffee?"
"Tea would be great," replied Jill. He got up to make the drink, and she took the time to study Larkspur without being noticed. The woman was still sitting, without moving. Almost without moving. Underneath her eyelids, her eyes were shifting back and forth, watching things that only she could see. Jill shivered.
"Here you go," Grayson said, putting her cup down in front of her. "It's herbal, I hope you don't mind. We're out of the regular."
"That's fine," she assured him, taking a sip. It was pleasant, although slightly bitter. "It's nice. Is... um... Larkspur going to have anything?"
He shook his head. "She's... meditating." He paused. "When they're... meditating... they are barely aware of anything around them."
"Really?" Jill fought down an urge to snap her fingers in front of Larkspur's face. How childish, she thought, angrily, at herself.
He nodded. "A bomb could go off and she wouldn't hear it. That's how focused they can be. I'm nowhere near that level yet." He trailed off, looking thoughtful.
Jill sipped her tea, unsure of how to respond. The silent and unmoving bird-woman unnerved her, and she was unsure how to communicate that to Grayson, or if he would even know what she meant--he was so comfortable around the creatures, he may not understand how she felt.
She looked down into her tea cup, to avoid staring. After a moment, she decided the silence was too awkward, and looked back up, determined to start the conversation again, and perhaps glean more information.
Grayson was gazing at Larkspur, a soft smile on his face. "They're really something, aren't they?"
Jill blinked, caught off-guard by both the sentiment and sentence. "That's an understatement," she remarked, dryly.
Grayson caught her tone and snapped out of his reverie. "I forget that you're not used to this. You seem like one of us already."
She didn't reply, but forced a smile instead. She took another sip of her tea.
"Oh--no--" Grayson suddenly exclaimed, getting up from his chair. There was a brown stain spreading out over the table from under the teapot. "That damn teapot is leaking again. I really ought to get a new one, but I haven't had time--"
"Here, I can clean it up," Jill offered, getting out of her seat. She caught his expression. "No, really, it's not a problem. You can sit, and finish your cup."
He didn't seem to know how to take her offer; finally he just accepted it and sat back down. "Thank you. Stupid teapot," he added. He leaned around Larkspur, pointing towards the sink. "You might as well dump it out, it'll just keep leaking."
She nodded, picking up the china teapot carefully, holding it by handle and spout to avoid the leak. "What about Keller and Ellis and Vireo? Won't they want some?"
"Ellis has coffee and Keller doesn't drink either," Grayson told her, leaving Vireo conspicuously out of the explanation. "Are you sure you're okay?"
"Fine," she snapped, as she took careful steps toward the sink. She reached the basin, and gently tipped the teapot over. The lid dropped off and the remaining tea swirled down the drain.
She lifted the empty teapot in her hands. It was fairly heavy, but not overly so.
"I think I see where the leak is," she called to him, starting back towards the chairs. Larkspur still hadn't moved.
"Really?" He twisted around to see her. "Where? I tried to patch it, me and Tanager, but it didn't seem to work too well--"
"I can see the patch, and I can see the new leak," Jill remarked. She held the teapot over his head to show the crack in the patch. "See?"
He nodded, ruefully, turning back around to get his cup of tea. "It's a shame, we've had that teapot a while. I'll have to show the new leak to Tanager."
Jill stared at the crown of his head. She paused, feeling the weight of the china in her hands.
"I suppose we could try--" he began, before she brought it crashing down onto his head.
The noise was horrendous. The teapot shattered, spraying porcelain shards all over the floor. Grayson crumpled immediately, going completely limp, and she drew back, shocked by her own actions and the consequences. He was going to fall from the chair; instead she grabbed him under the arms and lowered him gently down. She hated having to do this, but once everyone else was up she'd have no chance, she wouldn't be left alone.
She checked his pulse, it was strong and regular, so he didn't seem to be in any danger. There was some blood matted on his scalp, but only a little, and she knew head wounds usually bled profusely so it couldn't have been that bad.
She cast a look to Larkspur. The creature still hadn't moved. Checking in Grayson's pocket for some spare cash, she found an unexpected bonus--her wallet. It hadn't been in her own pockets; they must have given it to Grayson for safe-keeping or some other stupid reason. She was perfectly capable of keeping track of her own wallet.
Her Ids and, mostly importantly, her cashcard, were still there. Her keys, however, were not. However, she didn't need them at the moment, although she supposed it meant the locks would have be changed at the apartment.
She straightened up, clutching her wallet. She was tempted to go and change, but knew that would waste valuable time. She had her cashcard, she was all set.
She tip-toed from the kitchen, sneaking one final glance over her shoulder at Grayson, out cold on the tiled floor, and Larkspur, still as motionless as a statue.
She made her way to the door without any trouble. No one else was up, and she was careful to move quietly through the house to the front door. The floorboards squeaked terribly, but she walked as lightly and as quickly as she could.
The lock, once she got to the door, was proving to be more difficult. It was old-fashioned, and in need of repair, like the rest of the house; the thick metal of the bolt was hard to unfasten. It ground inside the lock and her fingers had a lot of problems forcing the latch back, but she got it unfastened, and then eased the door open.
She slid out, wishing she had a pair of shoes. There had been none around and she had not needed them while sipping tea in the kitchen, in her sleep-wear, so there had been no point to asking. Indeed, she hadn't thought she'd need them until she picked up the teapot and by then it was too late.
She closed the door carefully behind her. As she heard the click of the tongue, she sighed with relief. The hardest part was behind her; now she just had to get home.
She remembered which way she had headed when she had escaped, during the storm; she purposely headed in the opposite direction, hoping it might throw them off. The route would take her a bit farther into the suburb, but hopefully she would be able to flag down a taxi at the major intersection.
She knew she had to be very conspicuous, a lone woman going for a walk, Saturday morning, dressed in pyjama pants and a tank top, no shoes, and a bandage around her shoulder. It was fairly cool out, as well, and the asphalt was cold under her feet, and none of that was helping, but she knew it would be worth it once she got home.
She made her way through the tree-lined streets, barely able to admire the scenery, the architecture, that she had enjoyed looking at so much when she had first moved to Forreton.
Jill couldn't shake the feeling that she was being followed, but soon realised that it was a perfectly normal feeling to be having in her situation. It was perfectly natural for her to feel paranoid. She was, now, technically, on the lam; she could have people chasing her down at this very moment. The thoughts didn't help her disposition or her worries, but they did help her speed up a bit.
Jill kept her pace as brisk as she could. If she started to run, she'd only run out of breath, so she kept at a steady half-walking-half-running stride. If she looked like a demented jogger, it couldn't be helped, and moreover, she really wasn't in the mood to care. The longer she took, the more chance of being caught, and she wasn't going to be caught again. She had gotten out, she was free, and she was going to go back to her apartment and her fiancee and her sane, normal life.
She waved and the taxi slowed. She opened the back door, scooting in along the seat, sighing as the heated air touched her exposed skin.
"It's a little chilly today for tank tops, isn't it?" remarked the driver, a middle-aged woman, bundled up in a thick jacket.
"Yeah," Jill admitted, rubbing her sore arm, pretending that she was used to running in the morning. "That's why I decided to get the taxi. Fifty-four Clary Drive, please."
"Sure thing," the driver replied, pleasantly.
The taxi slowed in front of the apartment building. "Thank you," Jill said, handing her cashcard through the slot to the front.
The driver swiped it. The machine beeped, indicated the transfer had gone through, and then the driver handed the card back. "Thank you. Have a nice day, ma'am."
"You too," Jill said, as she got out of the car. It felt weird being addressed as "ma'am" by an older woman. She shivered as she stood on the pavement, looking up at her building. Something didn't feel right. Something didn't... she shivered, and rubbed her arms again. She walked up to the door.
Joe Manner, one of her neighbours, was just coming out of the building. He saw her, and rushed over. "Jill? Jill Melville? Where have you been? Greg's been worried sick!"
"I know," she said, suddenly nervous and unable to explain why. Joe's eyes travelled to the bandage. "I'll tell you all about it later, Joe, really. I just want to go home, change, and relax for a bit."
"Of course, of course. I'll walk you, if you like," he said, smiling. She blinked.
"Oh, well, that's not necessary," she replied, feeling very uneasy. She rocked back from one foot to the other. He was in the way of door, she'd have to push past him if she wanted to get in.
"Of course not, but I still insist," he replied, with a smile, touching her on the elbow, guiding her towards the door. She felt a flash of repugnance for him, but immediately felt sheepish; she had known him for months now, he was a very nice man and was only trying to help.
"Thanks, Joe," she said, trying to keep her voice level as she entered through the door that he held open.
"It's no problem," he replied, gallantly.
Jill stepped out of the elevator, glad to be back in the familiar halls, walking down the familiar red-blue carpeting, smelling the familiar mingled smells of family cooking and the building cleaners.
She stopped at door five-oh-nine.
Joe saw her hesitate. He touched her on the elbow again, then stepped back. "I'll see you later, Jill. Take care."
"I will. Thanks, Joe," she replied, with a wave. He waved back and then disappeared around the corner. She took a deep breath, wished again for her keys, and then knocked on the door.
It opened, suddenly, and she found herself face-to-face with Greg.
"Jill," he gasped, flinging his arms out. She squeaked with pain as he squeezed, tightly, wrapping his arms around her. "Oh god, I was so worried. Where were you? What happened? Where did you go? Oh, god, Jill, I'm so glad you're home."
"So am I," she replied, with a grin, burrowing her face into the crook of his neck and returning the hug. "So am I."