Gilly leant on the concrete balcony and stared at the half-lit plaza – more concrete, the occasional stunted tree failing to bring life to the yard. In the distance there was a scream and a thump, as of someone running into a wheelie-bin. Rosenkrantz was by her side. He touched her arm.
“There,” he said.
She focused on a ground-floor gap in the buildings. A woman, colour swamped by the amber of security lights and street lamps, burst into the bowl created by the squat circle of tower-blocks in which they stood. She looked terrified; even from their vantage point – twenty metres away and another fifteen up – they could see her eyes wide, her breathing laboured. She glanced behind her – and into the amphitheatre came a man. Big – not especially tall, but broad-shouldered, well built – he sighted the girl and made for her.
Rosenkrantz, at Gilly’s side, hissed and drew his sword. His muscles tensed as he turned for the stairs –
“Wait,” Gilly said.
“What?” The word carried urgency, impatience. Below the girl was running as fast as she could for the far exit, where the towers failed to slam shut and the main exit to the complex was to be found. The man was catching her, though; easy loping steps that covered the ground deceptively quickly.
“Something’s not right here,” Gilly said.
Rosenkrantz shifted uncomfortably but the sword remaining unsheathed.
Another glance back and the girl realised she wasn’t going to make the exit. She turned at bay; seeing this, the man too slowed, adopted a stance more ready for combat. Gilly watched his empty hands flex. He said something – a question, maybe. By way of an answer the girl reached into her demin jacket and pulled out an object. As the man approached she held it between them – a flick-knife, Gilly realised, as the blade sprang forwards, street-lights reflecting off the deadly metal.
Still the girl backed off, the man cautious, now, but still coming at her. She slashed the air between them but he barely hesitated, now only a step out of range of her trembling arm.
“Gil –” Rosenkrantz began, fiddling with his sword-hilt, rocking the scabbard back and forth.
“No,” Gilly said. “Just… just watch.”
The girl below them slashed again, skipped forwards as she thrust towards her opponent’s chest. But this time – almost faster than the watchers could perceive, the man’s hand shot out and crashed against the girl’s wrist. Numbed fingers jolted open and the blade skittered across the paving stones to rest against a wall.
The man spoke again and this time, to judge from the slight tilt of the head, it was definitely a question.
The girl had backed up against one of the stunted, bare trees that seemed so out of place. She shook her head mutely – and then, and then –
Slowly she stood up straighter until, Gil realised, she was actually taller than the man before her. The fear went from her expression, her mouth drawing tight and contemptuous. The man took a half-pace back and she laughed, hard and cruel, and there was something unhuman in it, some harmonic that rattled the fillings in the teeth. For a moment the background noise, the ever-present traffic, the nightbirds and night-dwellers were silenced.
Then the dogs started barking.
The woman held up her arm. Gilly watched as her fingers, her nails – they grew, sharpened, became talons. Her face darkened but there was no shadow on her now; as if a tattoo had been hiding beneath the skin and was now coming out to play –
The man stepping forwards and rammed the heel of his hand into the bridge of her nose. The snap echoed around the courtyard. She staggered back against one of the stunted trees but didn’t seem to feel pain. And all the time she was changing, chin becoming pointed –
The man was on her before she could recover, grabbing a wrist in each hand and holding those horrible bladed fingers up and away –
“She’s not bleeding,” Rosenkrantz muttered. He was right. The nose seemed distorted but there was no splatter, no trail – and no sign of pain on the woman-thing’s face.
She tried to kick out but the man was ready for her, twisting his knees to deflect her legs away. She tried to angle her blades down to scalp him but his grip was too strong, too rigid…
With a flexibility that Gilly knew she’d never have the man calmly extended a boot and planted it in the woman’s neck. And he pulled on her arms, stretching her, throttling with the dark sole of his boots. She let out a little gurgling sound, drool spilling down her sharp chin, head forced back against the tree-trunk at her back. She spasmed and shook, the gurgling turning into a keening wail. Still the man kept the pressure on.
“We should go down,” Gilly said. But before she or Rosenkratz could move there was another crunch of cartilage giving – and the girl-thing went limp.
The watchers made their way towards the staircase, still watching as the man kept his boot on the throat for another minute – making sure, Gilly thought, that she was dead. Then, as they reached the harsh grey steps, he stepped back, let go of her arms and let her slip motionless to the ground.
“Follow him,” Gilly said. “We need to know who he is.”
He was looking round now, face calm and controlled. As if he did this sort of thing every night. Rosenkrantz drew Gilly deeper into shadows. She didn’t think they’d been seen.
“Follow him,” she said again and he turned and started to stride back the way he’d come.
“What about you?” Rosenkrantz asked.
“I’m going to dispose of that… thing.”
“What? Why?” he asked as they hurried, as quiet as they could, down to the courtyard.
“It’s not dead yet. Not dead enough.”
* * *
This is the opening scene from my current work in progress, Oneiromancer. There’s many a slip ‘twixt cup and lip, and there’s a good chance this will be either heavily rewritten or cut completely as the inexorable tide of Editing swamps the novel. But, for now, all I can say is that I hope you enjoyed it. Or at least that it didn’t make you vomit coffee at the screen in disgust.