The darkness was thick and suffocating; it clogged her windpipe like sludge and her breath stuttered in her lungs. There was a warm, sticky slickness that covered her forearms and hands. Her grip on her double-bladed scythe was unsteady but manageable. Gwen stepped forward, exploring the abysmal blackness without an inkling of fear. Shadows were simply the absence of light; she knew what could hide in the darkness and in most cases, the things that could hide in the light were much more dangerous.
Movement to her right drew her attention and she hesitated mid-step, her breath held protectively behind her teeth. She could almost hear something breathe a few feet away, but the sound of her infernal heartbeat drowned it out. She hated having a human body; it made her vulnerable, and there were few things Gwen loathed more than being vulnerable.
When the second gust of movement came at her, she was ready. The blade of her scythe pressed into the throat of the demon that approached her, but no blood was drawn. Instead, the demon simply looked at her – its eyelids flinching with the indecipherable movement of its pupils in the blackish pools of its eyes. Rotting stitches punctured its lips in crooked lines, sealing them closed. It stank of death and decay and an unshakable agony. It grimaced an unnerving smile at her.
Instinct dictated her movements, then, and she was glad for it. The early stages of terror had settled into her bones and she feared she might never shake them loose; not with the image of that smile haunting her mind. The smooth, damp shink of her blade sinking into flesh brought her back to reality. She opened her eyes. The demon was still smiling its tortured smile.
An astounding pain that had her nerves in spasms exploded across her throat. She gurgled, once, as her mouth filled with blood. Gwen understood where she was, then, as her knees cracked against the invisible ground and the aphotic void around her swallowed her whole.
With a panicked, desperate gasp, she woke in the car. Just beyond the windshield, the sun was setting. Beside her, Archer tossed a glance her way and said, “Everything all right?”
No, she thought, but her mouth said, “Yeah, it was just a dream.” The longer she collected herself, the farther away the dream seemed. She was hungry and the sluggish burden of post-sleep clung to her brain, slowing down her thoughts and preventing her from reasoning away the nightmare. “I need to stretch and eat, would you pull over?” As she’d expected, Archer obliged without a word. When he stepped out of the car, she swapped her jeans for a pair of leggings and her loose blouse for a fitted tank top.
The sun sank below the mountain range a few miles ahead of them. The sky was cloudless. Gwen lit a cigarette and began one of her short yoga routines; she’d learned a long time ago that the best way to wake up her troublesome human body was with some light exercise – it limbered her up and allowed for her brain to dust off the cobwebs. Already she could feel her aching muscles release some of their tension. She paid no mind to Archer’s curious gaze, and after a while, he turned away and popped the trunk of the BMW to search the contents for edibles.
They drank warm bottled water and ate a couple of her granola bars each, quietly observing the absence of clouds in a sky they’d both grown to expect storms from almost ceaselessly. It had been weeks since either of them had seen a sky so clear and non-threatening. It was not the pleasant weather they were seeking answers to, however, when they stared up into eternity.
Within half an hour, they were back on the road. Gwen drove and, for a while, Archer navigated. It was nearly midnight when he dozed off in the passenger seat as they sped down the highway at a hundred miles an hour, dodging the abandoned or wrecked cars that got in the way, and every minor shift or twitch of his limbs elicited a series of crinkles from the map still open on his lap. Her stomach rumbled with a hunger she knew granola bars wouldn’t satiate. She needed to find real food for them, something with more substance. They were angelics but they weren’t invulnerable to malnutrition.
She kept an eye on the signs along the road, weighing the likelihood of a run-in with demons on every exit. When the hunger became too much too ignore, she took the next exit with a food sign and killed the headlights. The BMW’s engine was all-but silent, and she coasted along the road with only her exceptional night vision as a guide. A few miles off the highway she found an abandoned restaurant and pulled into the lot.
The map crumpled as Archer sat upright suddenly; his eyes wide open as he inspected his surroundings. Gwen said, “It’s all right; we’re just stopping here for food. Those granola bars won’t hold me over for two days in a row.”
He shook off whatever sensation had spooked him and folded the map neatly before he shoved it into the glove box. They split up to do a scouting loop around the building and met at the back door. The absence of demons should not have given her so much suspicion to course through her veins, but it did and she couldn’t rid herself of it. She picked the lock on the door and they crept inside, crouched low to the ground with their firearms clamped firmly in their fists. There were no lights on, and no matter how much she strained her senses there were no indications of life in the restaurant besides the two of them. Only mildly satisfied, she flicked the lights on and bolted all the doors from the inside while Archer secured the windows.
She couldn’t deny that it was a pleasant idea to eat a real meal, though, and soon her stomach gobbled up even her suspicion and left her with only one desire: feasting.
Archer shrugged off his jacket and cleaned off a few prep tables with a spray cleaner he found on a shelf above the sink basins. Gwen scoured the fridge for anything still edible, and came out with an armload of frozen meats and a few fresh vegetables that hadn’t been devoured by rot. As she thawed the meat under the water in the sink, Archer peeked his head around a display shelf full of cooking implements and tossed a fistful of dry rice at her with a laugh. He scampered off before she could retaliate, but she smiled to herself and stifled a chuckle.
They made stir-fry over rice and drank a few of the beers they found in the cooler. Gwen wanted to stay, to enjoy the serenity they’d found in the kitchen of the abandoned restaurant, but it was a selfish urge and she shoved it aside. Besides, she thought to herself as she finished the last of her beer, she knew what would happen if she allowed them to stay there.
Some things could not be fought, and the way Archer looked at her was on that list. She knew she would lose if she left herself vulnerable to him.