Outside, after curfew

The bells had chimed six at the church down the street and tonight, as it always did in the workers' quarter, there followed several seconds of complete silence. Invariably the silence was broken by a desperate whimper or a panicked cry. Every door that opened onto the street locked automatically at this hour and wouldn't open again until six the next morning. This night a whimper had broken the silence. John Stone had woken up on a sidewalk bench find himself outside after curfew had fallen.

Drugged. He knew he had been taking a risk, but still, he never expected this. He had only ten minutes or so before the changelings began roaming the streets. He should have known better than to trust some worker. The working class were all looking for ways to strike a blow at the government class. It didn't seem to matter that John was seeking a better way. Now he was breakfast for the bogeyman. 

A shriek! There it was, a long way off, but it marked the beginning of a long, terror-stricken evening. It was June and at this latitude, the sun didn't set until past 9:30. By ten the changelings would be finished and gone home. He had to survive for four hours. Very few ever did. John turned to the west—to the sunset, to the edge of town. He heard scrambling, then:

"Get out of the streets, man!" as a middle-aged man ran around the corner. "They're coming!"

John Stone ran. The man's urgency compelled him. Another shriek, perhaps a mile behind. The changelings were brutal. Curfew breakers were beaten, trampled, flayed, bitten, clawed, clubbed, and gored. They were never eaten. However their version of reality had determined their evolution, the changelings were not cannibals. They were terrible killers, however, and none they found were ever left alive.

To the left, from down a side-street, another runner, a woman, jogged, panting, towards John and his sweating companion. Ingrid! It was the woman John had met with earlier this afternoon. The woman had recognized John at the same time. 

"Somebody really wants us out of the way," she said to John, stopping briefly to catch her breath.

"Come on!" John said and grabbed Ingrid's wrist. "I would guess that somebody already knows more than you've told me and doesn't want anybody else finding out."

"I suppose you thought I drugged you."

"You thought the same of me, no doubt."

"Shut up!" the other runner said.

A block behind, a runner came around the corner, screaming. Behind him ran a changeling. Tall, long-legged, they always chose the same shape for this task. A nightmare figure—ridged brow, bristling black hair, large mouth with long teeth, long, sharp nose and a jutting chin. Werewolves. The changeling's long strides easily overtook the runner. The monster extended a clawed hand, swiped at the runner's back and tore his shirt to shreds. John could see the blood on the bogeyman's claws. He turned away and ran.

A hair-raising cry cut the night behind them, strangled to silence by unseen claws. John and Ingrid ran side-by-side and passed their companion. Grunting, and a shrieking growl from behind as the one changeling was joined by another. They howled their triumph and pursued the three runners.

"Stay with me," Ingrid said. "I may have a way out." She turned down an alley.

"Eustace!" she shouted. "Eustace!"

Ahead a window opened. Below it was a dumpster. Two ropes were dropped, waiting for the runners.

"Only two," John panted.

Ten strides behind, the first changeling had caught up with the straggler. He made a diving tackle and tore the runner's throat out before he hit the ground. The man didn't have a chance to scream.

Ingrid reached the dumpster ahead of John and made the jump up to the edge. John was right behind and as they began scrambling up the ropes, the ropes were being pulled up from above. As they were hauled over the window sill and dropped to the floor inside, John and ingrid surveyed their saviours.

Ingrid looked at one of them. "Euscace, I presume?"

"That's the one thing I am sure of," Eustace replied.

The End

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