EncounterMature

The rain clouds were making good on their threat. Just hours after sundown the sky had opened up again and was doing it's best to drown Marsten and it's inhabitants. Through the deluge stalked Noman and his dubious servants, the living shadows. They reveled in the darkness as they swarmed along the darkened streets with him, glad that the moon was hidden by clouds and that the rain extinguished all unprotected flame. He noticed they seemed to be in a mood tonight, and watched curiously as they skirted ever closer to the edge of the light that was cast by streetlamps, or spilled out of windows. It was almost a game. Each shadow would try to get closer than the one before it. And when they got too close to the edge, and strayed from darkness into the light, he was something interesting. Their usually amorphous, ever shifting forms took on a semblance of solidity. Black, chitinous flesh became substantial and somehow more real, though it still maintained a roiling chaos of movement, as if it were constantly shriveling and regrowing, being absorbed and pushed back out - a kaleidoscope of inky black meat.

To think of the shadows as actual physical beings, things that could become solid and real rather than mere suggestions of form sent a small shiver down Noman's back. Thankfully they appeared to dislike such contact with the light, and when one strayed over the edge it quickly darted back into hiding with an offended hiss. And there were plenty of places for them to hide tonight. It was certainly convenient, he thought, how the weather seemed so accommodating to his purpose this night and last.

What wasn't accommodating was the Watch. They were out in force tonight, and on more than one occasion Noman found himself shrinking into a darkened corner to be cloaked by his shadows as they passed. Apparently the activities of the night before had made an impression. It wouldn't be enough, of course. Not against him. No matter how many men they put out to patrol the streets he would prevail. He had the voice on his side, and they had no idea what they were up against. "Poor bastards," he said to himself as he watched a patrol turn down a side street and disappear from sight. The shadows clicked and hissed, perhaps in question. He ignored them.

Tonight he had a goal. He'd had a goal last night, of course, but it had been more loosely defined. Last night it had been more along the lines of "make an impression". Now there was a specific agenda in mind, something more than just creating chaos so people would know something was happening. The deaths tonight would have purpose, though he had little notion what that purpose was. He knew it involved a good deal of blood and quite a bit of arcane symbology. Preparations for a ritual of some sort? His mind had briefly gone to demons and the summoning thereof, but he'd chosen to block that out. The voice hadn't explained what she intended. She'd merely told him to do it, and suddenly he'd known what symbols to draw. The shock of suddenly having that knowledge thrust into his mind had been something he wasn't prepared for. His brain still felt like it itched behind his skull, and though the feeling had mostly faded it was still a maddening sensation.

There.

Noman stopped walking, listening for any further information as he looked around. The only point of interest were the large buildings that began just a street over. Warehouses, if he had to guess, probably to store trade goods. 

Very good, the voice affirmed. They're your first stop tonight. You should have no trouble finding what you need here. Be quick. You have three more stops to make before the night is through.

Noman snorted. What he needed... in other words, some poor bastard who was going to lose his life tonight. "Go," he ordered the shadows, pulling the green stone from his pocket and gesturing to the warehouses with it. "Find me a sacrifice."

Some minutes later they had all returned, and four swam before him waiting to be acknowledged. "This would be so much easier if you little shits could speak," he told them. His observation was met with hisses and clicks that he still could not decipher. If it was an attempt at communication it was lost upon him. He shrugged by way of reply and pointed to one at random. "You. Show me."

It had found a warehouse under guard by four moderately armed individuals, all of which were inside. Mercenaries, no doubt. Likely  hired by whoever owned the warehouse to protect whatever was housed within. With four hired thugs to protect it, it was either illegal or very valuable. Noman didn't particularly care which. He wasn't there for loot. He stood on the roof of the next warehouse over, watching the mercenaries through the upper windows. When he was satisfied that there were only four, he left the roof and gathered his shadows in the alley between the two buildings.

"You," he gestured to a handful of shadows, "Keep watch." There was a side entrance into the building here, locked heavily but not half has much as the front doors. He looked it over, and finally decided that subtlety would not be of any particular use in this instance. He kicked in the door, splintering the frame and tearing locks from their wooden anchors. It swung violently on it's hinges, slamming into the opposite wall. If the mercenaries weren't aware of his presence now they had to be comatose. Lightning flashed, followed almost immediately by a deafening peal of thunder that Noman could feel in his bones.

He counted, slowly, to ten. Nobody came to the door. "So much for doing this the easy way," he muttered. If they weren't going to come out, he'd have to go in after them. But not before he'd sent the shadows in to get things started. He looked around the alley at the constellations of glowing green eyes that covered the walls. "Kill," he ordered them. They needed no further instruction. They swirled around him and funneled in through the door like billowing smoke being drawn into a vortex. A noise followed them, starting as a low hum and ratcheting up to a loud buzz. When it stopped, the screams started. Tossing the green stone from one hand to the other he walked in after them.

Things were over frighteningly quickly. The mercenaries had no idea what they'd be facing and had been taken completely by surprise. In one case a man had literally been ripped to pieces. Noman surveyed their corpses without expression or emotion. Ordinarily he would have had no reason to wish them dead. There was no malice to the act - he took no pleasure in the fact that they were dead. It was what had to be done, and that was that.

He knelt by a corpse, trailing his fingers through the still warm pool of blood that had spilled from it. Closing his eyes he recalled the symbols... and he started to draw.

***************

Hatchet trudged wearily through the rain, eyes darting around in search of hidden danger. He'd been on the lookout ever since they'd left Ivory Tower, and having his nerves on edge for so long was starting to wear him out. There was no banter to distract him like there would have been with Byrd. He and Anara moved quietly through the night, communicating only when they needed to. They'd made it halfway through their patrol without a single incident. Apparently the criminals didn't feel like getting wet tonight. It was a blessing and a curse. Hatchet was almost to the point where he would welcome an excuse to burst into action, to release all of his pent up tension in a burst of frenetic activity.

They sloshed their way across another street. It might have passed for a small river if not for the valiant efforts of the gutters on either side, funneling water off to parts unknown, and taking a great deal of refuse with it. "You'd think the place would have been all cleaned out after last night," he observed, watching bits and pieces of filth bob and swirl away.

"Never underestimate humanity's ability to fill a city with garbage," Anara replied. "Human or otherwise."

"Heh." Hatchet took in the social commentary without thinking too much about it. They had just entered one of the warehouse districts that dotted the city. Normally this would be the place to look for crimes. Break-ins weren't uncommon here, it was universally accepted as the price of doing business. Merchants had to store their stuff somewhere, and while they locked it up as best they could there was always an enterprising thief who found a way past the thick doors and heavy locks.

When merchants wanted better protection for their wares, usually when those wares were of the rare and expensive varieties, they would hire extremely expensive mages to put protective wards on the entrances. Any thief trying to get past that without the password to deactivate it was going to be in a world of hurt. A somewhat less expensive option was to hire 'private security'. Usually this was in the form of mercenaries or local thugs. For the most part, their mere presence was enough to scare off any potential thieves.

Lightning flashed at random intervals,  illuminating their path and the warehouses around them better than any covered street lamp could have. It was in one such brief illumination that Hatchet saw something that made him freeze in his tracks. He could have sworn he saw a shadow moving along the side of one of the warehouses... a shadow that shifted and changed shape until darkness cloaked it again. He pulled his helmet low, protecting his eyes from the rain as he peered into the darkness.

"Hatch?" Anara had noticed that her partner wasn't following her. She turned to him in question, her gaze following his through the downpour.

"You see it?" Hatch demanded, taking his rifle from his shoulder and holding it in a ready position.

"What?" Anara was instantly alert. Though she didn't see what Hatchet was talking about, she knew him enough to trust that he wasn't just jumping at shadows.

"Something moving..." He gestured with the barrel of his rifle. "Over there, that warehouse. I... I think it was what attacked Byrd."

"You sure?" Her own rifle was in her hands in an instant.

"Yeah." He swallowed nervously, knowing they would have to go after it. "I'm sure."

"Hit the crystal and call for backup." She broke into a trot, head moving from side to side as she scanned the night for danger. Thunder rumbled menacingly overhead. Hatchet followed her, digging the communication crystal from his belt and alerting Ivy that they had a line on the creature as he trailed after Anara.

They stopped at the entrance to the building, scouring the night for signs of movement. "Which way was it headed?"

Hatchet closed his eyes and replayed that brief moment when the lightning made everything visible. "The alley," he nodded to the gap between this warehouse and the next one over. "It went into the alley."

There were no cobblestones between the warehouses. Under normal circumstances the alley floor was hard packed dirt and a few tufts of grass and weeds. Tonight it was a soggy morass of mud into which the Watchmen's boots readily sank. They sighted their rifles down the gap, feet squelching as they advanced. With every step the earth threatened to swallow their boots - if it came to a close quarters fight things would be difficult. By the time they reached the side door Anara, who was ever so slightly out front, had resorted to hand signals. It was, in Hatchet's opinion, a good move. They didn't know what kind of hearing this animal had. If they were lucky, the sound of the driving rain and the occasional peal of thunder would be enough to mask their approach. But that was no reason to tempt fate by talking.

She signaled a halt, gesturing for Hatchet to take up position on the other side of the broken door as she planted herself against the wall beside it. She signaled she'd be going in, and he nodded. He did a quick mental count - one, two, three, and she had stepped through the door. He turned so he faced into the alley and stepped backwards to follow. Inside the sound of the rain became muted. With a glance over his shoulder he verified that Anara was still moving forward with slow, measured steps. It took a moment for their eyes to adjust. Even outside there had been the occasional covered lamp that survived to shed light on it's surroundings. Inside the warehouse there was nothing.

The smell hit them after only five feet. For Hatchet, the odor was unmistakable. It was a warm, coppery smell tinged with the stink of a sewer. The smell of death, and fresh death at that. "Shit," Hatchet hissed under his breath. That thing was definitely here - and it had been busy.

"Mmm-hmm," Anara hummed an almost inaudible agreement. She also knew what that smell meant. It didn't take them long to find the first body. The side entrance had opened into a hallway with a number of doors set into it. Offices, most likely, for handling all the paperwork that came with running a mercantile storehouse. The body was at the end of the hallway, slumped against a wall. Blood had pooled on the floor, making things slippery as they made their way past. From the sound it made as they walked through it the man had only died a short time ago.

The hallway led out into the warehouse proper, a cavernous space that was no better lit than the hallway. Stacks of crates and boxes obstructed their view, providing plenty of potential hiding places for the creature they were tracking. Not for the first time he wished for a torch. Despite the attempt at stealth their boots still made small squelching noises as they walked, leaving footprints of blood on the floor behind them. Hatchet's breath came slow and ragged. Every beat of his heart reverberated through his entire body. With every step further into the warehouse, the closer they were to the creature.

A sudden flash of lightning poured light in through the high windows, tearing the veil of darkness away from the warehouse. A thunderclap sounded simultaneously, a wall of sound slamming vengefully into the world. The warehouse shook with it's passing, and the two Watchmen stood stock still. "Hatch?" Anara whispered.

"Yeah?" he whispered back, keeping his voice as low as possible.

"See anything?"

"No. You?"

"Bodies."

Every curse word he'd ever known ran through Hatchet's head in an instant. He even threw in a few foreign one who's meaning he wasn't entirely sure of.  "Where?"

"Straight ahead."

A clicking noise, low and growl-like, started at the edge of Hatchet's hearing. "Anara," he hissed so quietly that he could barely hear himself.

"I hear it."

The Watchmen went back to back, each scanning the warehouse and trying to locate the source of the noise. But it was playing tricks on Hatchet's ears. Maybe it was the acoustics, the noise echoing, but it sounded like it was circling them. Lightning flashed, and the crack of thunder was joined by the report of a rifle firing. Hatchet whirled to see what Anara had fired at, but saw nothing. "Where?" he demanded.

"It's on the fuckin' wall!" Anara exclaimed, incredulous. She hurried to reload her rifle as Hatchet caught sight of a spot on the wall, darker than the rest of the shadows and moving quickly up towards the roof.

"Oh, you've gotta be kidding me." He growled as he took quick aim. As his finger tightened on the trigger the shadow leapt from the wall. Narrowly avoiding the bullet that spak-ed into the wall, the shadow sailed through the air and landed on a stack of crates. It paused there, turning glowing emerald eyes towards the Watchmen. With a petulant hiss it slid away, and Hatchet lost sight of it as it melded with other shadows.

"What is that thing?" Anara demanded, rifle up and ready again.

"A demon," Hatchet answered. "It's a demon."

The End

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