There was blood on Riyad’s face and in his hair, dripping into his eyes and mingling with his tears and sweat. Du’shan’s blood: funny because it didn’t taste like liquor, but painful because he could taste it at all. Running hurt but the pain was almost a pleasure. Du’shan was dead--legs keep moving. Du’shan was dead--lungs expand. Du’shan was dead, so Ath’ran was dead. Heart, keep beating--keep going before it really hits.
Riyad commanded his limbs not to tire and his brain not to think, but his body and mind were outside of his control. He could see the hand, thin and black with nails like tusks, sharpened bone extending from a hand that was only nearly human. It wore Du’shan as a bangle around its wrist. It didn’t care about Du’shan; it had wanted him. He should have been the one to die, not Du’shan. Not Ath’ran.
He didn’t see the body lying in the street and stumbled over it, smashing into the ground and rolling. Layers of skin scraped off of his palms onto the pavement, and he could already feel bruises starting on his elbows and knees. It wasn’t enough, though; the thoughts and images were too powerful and with a dreadful rush in his gut, it all came out.
He sobbed as he retched on the blood-speckled street. He needed air, and he choked on bile as he tried to catch his breath. The combination of air and stomach acid made his throat feel raw. He needed to breathe, to calm down, to think.
On his hands and knees, he watched the golden cross sway beneath his lowered head. He focused on the way the light from the street lamps caught the edges, the way the thin metal danced on the chain with each labored breath. He could feel his heart begin to settle in his chest and the sickness in his stomach faded to a vague uneasiness. He stood up and moved away from the slowly spreading mess to sit on the curb, hugging himself while the world caught up to him. With his hand wrapped around the cross, he shifted his gaze down the street, searching.
He was in the alley. The sensible part of him knew that: he was in the alley with Du’shan and the thing that had killed Du’shan. He was where Riyad had left him.
Riyad clenched his jaw, feeling the cross bite into his palm as his fist squeezed around it. He tried to tell himself that there was a chance Nyr was still alive, but the monster hadn’t chased Riyad. It could have caught up; the things were fast, mush faster than he was. If it had wanted him, it could have easily run him down and killed him. But it hadn’t. Why would it, when it had easier prey right there? Nyr, terrified, hugging the wall for strength... Riyad squeezed his eyes closed to block out whatever scene his imagination could concoct to finish the train of thought.
There was nothing he could have done to save Jin or Du’shan or Ath’ran. The only person he could have done anything for, he had abandoned.
Riyad shook his head, choking back another sob. He hadn’t meant to. Nyr was supposed to have been right behind him. He’d been too scared to look back. Du’shan had--
He hadn’t been thinking, he’d been feeling, he’d been reacting out of terror and...and they were all dead.
He hoped it had been quick for them all. Du’shan hadn’t suffered. He’d never even heard Jin scream in all the confusion inside the bar; he hadn’t heard Nyr as he ran away. He wondered if Ath’ran had felt anything, or if he had simply been living one minute and dead the next. Either way, it left Lisa and the kids alone. Had they known this could happen? That their husband and father could drop dead in an instant if something happened to Du’shan? The world was going to hell and there was no one there to look after them.
The sound of his phone ringing nearly killed him. Riyad jumped, almost screaming, and fell over the curb onto his back so that he was looking up at the bright light overhead. The phone skittered over the sidewalk, vibrating and harping in a high-toned beep, spinning at the edge of a shadow. He imagined monsters rising up from among the bodies on the street, drawn to the sign of life, and scrambled to silence it. He didn’t check who the caller was--it didn’t matter.
He pressed it to his ear, scooting away from the halo of light until his shoulders hit a wall. Hiding in the darkness, his eyes darted from side to side to see if he was still momentarily safe. Nothing moved in the street.
“Father?” His voice cracked, but there was no room in him for shame. He cradled the phone closer to his face, desperate for every word.
His father let out a sigh of relief. “Words cannot relay the pleasure I take in knowing you are alive.”
“Father...are you home? Is everyone well?” Riyad fell into humble Arcadian, ignoring how strained and scratchy his voice sounded.
“I am returning there at once. Our home remains untouched, the last I heard. The upper levels are as of yet unaffected. Are you safe?”
“I’m... They killed my friends... I’m not hurt, though. I’m really glad to hear the family’s okay.” v“Riyad Shihar, the trams are no longer in service, but if you can get up to a skyway, you can cross to the upper levels and avoid the chaos. I’ll have a vehicle waiting for you. Tell me which building you can reach fastest.”
Riyad looked up. The buildings where he sat weren’t tall enough to reach the upper levels, but not too far off he could see a cluster of transparent, strangely vacant skyways. He would only have to walk a couple of blocks. The many flights of stairs didn’t seem too bad, either, when he considered the alternative. In an hour he could be in a vehicle, on his way to his father’s home.
While Ath’ran’s family suffered.
Riyad bit his bottom lip. It still tasted of the half digested hamburger and fries. “Father, I can’t. I have people down here who need help. I think...I think their building has a skyway, though. I promise when I get to them, I’ll take us up to the upper level. I’ll call home and you can send for all of us. I just... I can’t leave them. If they’re alive, I have to try.”
There was silence on the other line. Riyad found himself holding his breath. If his father ordered his obedience, he wasn’t sure he could refuse. The frightened child in him screamed for that order to give him a way out that he didn’t have to feel guilty for taking. He couldn’t just leave Lisa and the kids, though; they were his responsibility now. Ath’ran wouldn’t necessarily have wanted him to put himself in harms way for them, but he’d have been happy to know someone had.
“If that is how you feel.”
Riyad kissed the number pad. “It is. I’m sorry. I’ll call as soon as we get to the upper levels.”
“This line will remain open for that call. The sooner the better, of course. Stay safe.”
Riyad nodded, even though he knew his father couldn’t see it, and the call ended. He held the phone clasped in shaking hands as he dialed another number. If he could get through to them, it would make everything simpler. He couldn’t recall the last time he had phoned Lisa, but the numbers tumbled from his mind to his thumb as though he called her every day.
Holding the phone back to his ear, he counted the rings. One.... Two.... Three.... Four....
“Hello, you have reached--“
Riyad cursed, fingers raking through his bangs. Not answering. Or incapable of answering. It made his stomach begin to churn again. What if they were dead too? The beep came and he swallowed down the bile. He needed to sound strong and sure, like he had a plan and he wouldn’t fail them.
“Hey, Lisa, it’s me, Riyad Shihar. I need you to get yourself and the kids to the upper levels. I’m headed over to you right now, so I need you to call me and let me know you got this message. If you get up top, then I can call my father and he can take you back to the family home. They’ll take care of you there. But you have to call me. I’ve got to know what’s going on. Don’t be scared. I’m on my way.”
Riyad hung up and tried their home number with the same result. The message he left was similar.
He stood up, slipping the phone into his back pocket. The busses and trams weren’t running, so the only way to get to Ath’ran’s home was on foot. He didn’t really expect to make it there, but he was going to try. He couldn’t face Ath’ran or Du’shan in the afterlife if he didn’t; he owed it to them both.
He eyed the skyway he had spotted while speaking with his father, and then the building a few blocks away that gave access to it. It would be his first obstacle. Once he got there and up to the skyway, he could use the connecting buildings to make his way across the city more safely. If he was really, really lucky, Ath’ran’s building would be one of those connecting buildings, and if he was smart about it, he would survive long enough to get there.
He set off at a jog, careful of the bodies on the street this time. He tried to ignore what they were, choosing to see them just as obstacles. If he let the bloody lumps become people--children even--then he doubted he could splash through their entrails without feeling sick again. A meat packing plant had exploded, he imagined. Or it was like at Kalyphtian, where masks and food were left littering the streets after the celebration was over. Or there had been a strike among the garbage workers and now the city was covered in lumpy bags of trash. It felt disrespectful, but he was left no other mechanism to cope with his surroundings; they couldn’t be people, not while he ran past them. He’d remember them as people when the time was right.
The building was not what Riyad had been hoping for. It had been one of his earlier choices for possible headquarters before he’d found the basement space available, and he could remember a small fountain in the lobby, viewable from the street through the front windows. For a lower level establishment, it had been rather grand.
It was in ruins now, as were the apartment complex and bakery next door. The front door had been blown in the same way the pub’s had been. There was glass everywhere, and the metal beams of the building’s façade had been twisted inward by inhuman strength. There was blood on the walls and one of the elevator’s doors was opening and closing around an arm sticking out between them. The fountain was a sputtering pipe with its concrete and plaster shell mangled around it.
The building was ghostly quiet. His shoes crunched in the glass with every tentative step towards the decimated lobby. It didn’t feel right, but then neither had anything else in the city since the massacre had started. It was hard to tell paranoia and honest unease apart under the circumstances. The building had power, though, unlike several others nearby. If he wanted to, he could risk the quick trip up the elevator to the skyway and bypass the stairs altogether. Speed was certainly of the essence.
He walked softly but quickly to the elevators, pressing the buttons to bring all of them to the lobby. If the monsters were waiting in the building, it would boost his chances of not being caught to have multiple carriages moving. He waited, listening to the nearly imperceptible roll of the cables within the shafts as the elevators were lowered and stood back customarily as the doors parted for the first to arrive.
They were demons. He hadn’t had the time or the light to really see their features during his encounters at the pub and in the alley, but in the light, leaping from the elevator towards him, it was impossible to mistake them for anything else. He supposed Alan hadn’t been lying after all about his adopted son.
Riyad tripped over the body of the desk clerk and landed on the ground, and the demon came down on him in slow motion. Other elevator doors were opening, and other, similar bodies were pouring out. They had been waiting in the elevators, ready to slaughter people trying to escape. They were intelligent. Riyad wished he had known just how intelligent before he’d tried to make it to the skyway.
The demon’s back legs and claws were almost touching him before the hulking beast was jerked back as though it had reached the end of an invisible tether. Riyad felt nothing: not its weight nor the force that had forced it back. He lay immobile for a second, watching the too human expressions play out on the creature’s face. It was confused. The others that had gathered around looked between the two of them as though searching for answers.
One bolder than the others attempted another flying leap. Riyad scrambled to his feet to evade, but couldn’t hope to match its speed. Like the first, it fell away from him without even leaving a scratch. Riyad dove behind the front desk, crashing into a bunch of file boxes along the wall behind it, and scuttled towards the door leading into the managerial center of the building. He wasn’t about to rely on whatever force was keeping the hoard off him; if he hurried in their confusion, he might be able to hide and wait for a chance to sneak out from their trap.
The back room was pitch black. He found the table with his big toe, clenching his jaw to keep from hissing in surprised pain. They knew where he’d run to; he was under no illusion that he’d evaded them so quickly or effectively when all he’d done was run for an adjoining room. It seemed wise to maintain silence, though. He felt along the edge of the table, using it as a guide as he searched for another door to duck through. He moved through the room in less time than it took his eyes to adjust to the darkness, taking him several steps into blind shadows while outlines began to detach themselves from the background.
A question tugged at the edge of his mind like a child at the back of the class with his hand up high, but he refused to acknowledge it. If he stopped long enough to allow his brain to catch up, he wouldn’t be able to continue. As his eyes adjusted, though, so did the question’s insistence, until the answer was so clear it no longer begged asking.
Why hadn’t any of the demons chased after him yet?
Because there was already one standing in the room, waiting.
Riyad’s heart fell, the glimmer of hope he’d held onto dying in a brilliant eruption of sudden terror. The demon was smiling at him, long pointed teeth so thin and jagged they didn’t fit in its mouth. Drool glistened on them, and there were darker patches that had to be blood; in one hand, it held a human arm with chunks so large missing from it that there was no doubt what had happened to it. So it wasn’t just senseless murder. The demons were feeding off the most abundant resource in Solace: the population.
Riyad stepped back, his shoulders bouncing off of the chest of a demon he hadn’t even known was there. He looked back at the newcomer then forward at the one enjoying its snack. The one behind him lowered a hand to his shoulder but it never made contact. Instead, it seemed to float a finger’s breadth from his body.
Its hands were massive. The palm alone covered Riyad’s shoulder, and its long fingers hung a third of the way down his torso. It curled its other hand around his other shoulder, keeping him in place without having to actually touch him.
“What manner of magic is that?”
Riyad momentarily lost his ability to speak as the words left the creature’s needle-toothed mouth. The one holding him turned its hand over, fingers flexed out in front of his face. He watched the nails coast across his vision slowly, digging into nothing, staying the same breath’s width from his skin.
“No magic. It’s far too ancient. I can think of no way to break through such a seal. By whatever grace, this one is untouchable.”
“I bet he’d still splatter nicely if we threw him from a window.”
“W-wait!” Riyad’s mouth felt dry as the words tumbled out. “Why are you doing this? What have we done to deserve this? How-- How do we-- How do we make things right? You want something, right? Maybe we can work together. I know a demon that lives in Solace like anyone else, so I know it doesn’t have to be like this. How can we end this peacefully?”
Their laughter was not an encouraging response.
“Why would we want peace? Your fear and pain feed us even better than your meat does. You’re foul with it. So full of desperation, sadness, guilt... So much potential.”
The first demon laughed again, pointing at his comrade with the severed arm he held. “Taking yourself a pet, are you? He’s base. Throw him out a window and forget him.”
“Base to us, but something in him is apparently worth protection. I don’t like it when gods meddle. I’d just as soon stretch it out. The sweetest tortures are not physical.”
Its interest lost, the other demon went back to its meal, the sickening sound of tendons ripping punctuating its disinterest. As pleased as he was that the same fate was apparently impossible for him, Riyad wasn’t sure that made him much luckier.
The demon behind him released his arms and stepped back. “You will return to the lobby,” it said. “There is an elevator waiting for you.”
Riyad spun around. “I’m not just going to follow your orders. If you can’t touch me, then I’m as safe standing right here as I am anywhere else.”
The demon nodded, its expression bored. “That is true. I wonder, though, if the bookshelf can still squash you.”
Its long, thick tail slithered along the wall-length shelf in question, wrapping around a hinge with which to pull it down. Despite his desire to make things difficult on the killers, Riyad had doubts the heavy metal shelf would fly off him in the same way the creatures had. He walked quickly, not wanting the thing to doubt his intention: he’d go back to the lobby. The monster’s tail snaked back behind it and it turned to lead the way.
The rest of the creatures were still congregating in the lobby, much to Riyad’s dismay; it would be harder to make a run for it with so many onlookers. The rubble that had been the front door was nearly cut off by their hulking masses.
They were diverse in appearance: some had wings, others tails, some moved on two feet and others on four. As Riyad walked among them, he could see that not all were capable of speech or possessed any more intelligence than a dog. His presence brought on hissing, howling, roaring unlike any beast he had ever heard.
Riyad followed the one from the office, deciding it was best to attempt escape as far from the cleverer ones as possible. They moved to corral him toward the elevators, though. Whatever plan they had made in the time he had been in the office, they were putting it into action with every step he took. They were above, behind, below, all around him, forcing him to either stand frozen in their presence or board the elevator.
He stepped into the blood-speckled elevator alone and turned around in time to see a giant hand scoop the electronics out from the other side. The doors were forced closed by two others in the time it took him to blink and he found himself in total darkness. He reached out and ran his hand over the button panel to find the console unresponsive; he couldn’t move the elevator or open its doors.
Getting out his phone to use as a light source, Riyad looked for a hatch in the ceiling or mechanism that would trigger some emergency power so that he could at least get out. He found nothing but the lifeless buttons and a sign reminding him to keep out of the elevators in case of emergency.
He sat down with his back against the wall. He was stuck. Was this the torture the demon had spoken of? Lock him in a giant metal box and wait for him to waste away? He punched the floor, all the fear and anguish inside him welling up with no place to go. He’d failed. No one would be coming for Ath’ran’s family and no one would be coming for him. The world was going to end with him stuck in an elevator. He looked at his phone, not surprised to see that it wasn’t receiving a signal. He couldn’t even tell his father not to wait for him or apologize for the inconvenience; he couldn’t tell Lisa why Ath’ran was gone or warn her of the monsters’ traps. He was alone in the dark, surrounded by all the things he couldn’t do.
A wasting death, indeed.