A jagged black tear split the air open near the door and a man stepped out of it. His clothes were torn and it looked like he’d been drenched by a bucket of black paint. Cuts covered his face, the same black seeping out of them as what covered his clothes.
He surveyed the room with eyes that looked like pools of his strange black blood, eyes that were almost hypnotic to look into. Mira took an unconscious step backward and jerked her gaze away. The movement drew his attention in the form of a stone-faced stare.
“We have to retreat deeper into the ruins. The yith are starting to overrun the outer terrace,” he said.
“That could be a problem. Mira can’t pass through the nether with us,” Shy said with a frown. “We’d have to abandon her.”
“Hey!” Mira said.
“No. Leaving her to die would have unacceptable consequences. We’ll have to fight off the yith or sneak past them.”
“A tall order,” Shodo said. “I could probably hide myself from them, perhaps the girl as well. That’s assuming there aren’t too many?”
“I killed thirty, at least. That wasn’t even half of them.” Jorath frowned and looked over his shoulder at the door. “They’re closing in on us. If we don’t move soon, we’ll be trapped.”
“Leave Shodo to hide Mira with his magic. The two of us will travel through the nether to a safe location,” Shy suggested.
Jorath gave her a withering glare. “She’s more important to me than you are, Annidra.”
“Hate that name,” Shy muttered. “Fine, then what? We fight off a couple hundred yith? You look like you’re ready to fall over already.”
Jorath eyed the tattoos on Shy’s arms. “We don’t have to fight them. We just need to distract them. If we create a diversion and draw their attention away from this area of the city, Shodo can move Mira to a safer location. There’s a chamber under the castle that we can seal up from the inside.”
“Oh no, you don’t mean…” Shy trailed off. Jorath stared at her, unblinking, until she continued. “Is that why we’re here? You know your master will kill you if he finds out you’ve been in there.”
“A risk I’m willing to take.”
“Excuse me,” Mira said. “Could someone tell me what the fuck is going on?”
“You explain it,” Jorath told Shodo. “We’ve got work to do. See you there.”
Shy stepped past Jorath and into the rift. He followed behind her and it closed, leaving Mira alone with Shodo, who shook his head and sighed. “Damned unlucky timing,” he muttered. “ Huervas’s schedule has never been predictable. It would have been better to find a safe place to wait out the red moon before he attempted this.”
Shodo ignored her and scratched as his chin while he stared at the door. With another sigh, he said, “We might as well get this over with then.”
“Get what over with?” Mira demanded, exasperated.
“The Toshi clan’s dominion was the mind. We made clever use of illusions, telepathy, even implanted memories, to outwit our prey. I’m going to make the two of us invisible to the yith while we walk to the Toshi Reliquary.”
Mira wasn’t sure about all of that. She vaguely remembered something in science class years ago about light reflecting off the pupil, and that if a person could actually become invisible, they’d also be blind since light would go right through them. If they were going that route, it seemed like it’d be a better idea to just sit tight.
“How far is this place… the Reliquary? And what is it, for that matter?”
“Not too far. Half an hour’s walk if we’re not interrupted,” Shodo said. “You’ll see when we get there. But it’s time to get started now. We need to take advantage of the distraction our companions have created for us.”
Mira waited for something to happen, split between curiosity and dread. Shodo started out the door, then stopped and gestured for Mira to follow. “Aren’t you going to-” she started, but Shodo cut her off with an upraised hand.
“Make as little noise as possible. The invisibility doesn’t extend to noise or smell, just sight. The yith have keen noses, so we’re relying on the confusion caused by them not being able to see us.”
“But I can see you!” Mira said.
“Yes, we can see each other. But no one else can see either of us. At least, not with their eyes.”
Mira didn’t feel any different. She looked down at her arm, which was as solid as ever. She even waved a hand in front of her face, but nothing looked strange to her. With no choice but to take Shodo’s word for it, she followed him up the stairs and out into the night.
The city was just as abandoned as it had been when Shy had led her through ten minutes earlier. They walked down empty streets as quickly and quietly as they could, though her hard-soled boots and an entirely open city made for some strange acoustics. More than once, Mira thought she heard something nearby, but whatever Jorath and Shy were doing was working.
Shodo led her in anything but a straight line. More than once, they stopped and waited for no reason that she could see, and a few times they threw caution to the winds and sprinted several blocks before slowing back down again. Throughout all of it, Mira never once caught sight of the mysterious yith.
She wondered what the creatures looked like. They were small, supposedly, but ferocious. In her mind, they became something that looked like the giant spider tattoo of Shy’s, and Mira found herself watching the walls and second story windows more than the street.
Shodo grabbed her arm and pulled her into an empty house. She opened her mouth to say something, but his hand clamped over it with surprising strength. He looked her straight in the eye and slowly shook his head before releasing his grip.
The two of them stood at a window, the glass of which was so covered in dust it was difficult to see through. Something a little bit bigger than Mira’s cat and low to the ground scuttled down the street. She couldn’t make out more than its shape through the window, but it was easy enough to see when a second one joined it.
Mira tugged on Shodo’s sleeve to get his atention and mouthed, “Yith?” He nodded and went back to looking out the window. As they watched, a third, then a fourth joined it. They raised their heads in unison and sniffed at the air. Shodo’s mouth hardened into a line and he pulled Mira farther back into the house.
“Stay,” he whispered into her ear. He padded back to the door and waited, still as a statue, for something to cross the threshold.
When it finally did, Mira had to stifle a confused laugh. The creature, the yith, if that’s what it was, had four short stubby legs and a striped tail. Black patches circled its eyes. “A raccoon?” she said out loud.
Instantly, the raccon’s head snapped up to stare in her direction. All the sudden, it didn’t look so innocent. Red light reflected off its eyes as it studied the interior of the house. Slowly, its nose in the air, it advanced into the room.
Shodo drove his foot down toward the raccoon’s skull. Instead of dashing it across the floor, the raccoon slipped aside and latched onto his leg. Blood blossomed from a dozen small cuts as its hands and feet shredded Shodo’s skin. Without hesitation, he spun around and kicked out to slam the raccoon into the wall. It let go of his leg and fell, dazed, to the floor.
This time, Shodo’s stomp found its skull. A sharp crack rang out through the house, then nothing. He picked the raccoon up by its scruff and limped away from the door while glaring at Mira. The body was thrown into a back room and the old man resumed his post.
It didn’t take long for the other three to show up. The fresh blood and the sound of violence drew them in quickly. This time, Mira kept her mouth shut. The raccoons followed their noses into the room that contained the body of their companion. Mira could hear them tearing strips of flesh off it all the way from the other side of the house.
Shodo caught her eye and gestured for her to follow him. Together, they crept out of the house and down the street. He had both hands clamped on his bleeding leg, but even so, a slow dribble of blood stained the streets behind him. Its fresh crimson made a stark contrast to the rust colored stones.
“The yith will follow the blood scent,” he whispered to her. “We have to be quick now. There’s no outrunning them. If they catch up to us, it’ll be all over.”
“I don’t understand,” Mira said. “Those are just raccoons.”
“Young lady, trust me when I say that those are not like any animal on your world. They’re smart, good trackers, pack hunters. And they’ll eat absolutely anything with meat on it. Now come on. We’ve got to reach the castle before they find us.”
“So let’s find a house that still has a door and lock ourselves in. For that matter, why didn’t we just stay together before?”
“They’ll tear through a wooden door in minutes, at most. If they can find a window or chimney to come through, they’ll do that. When the yith want inside something, it’s very difficult to keep them out.”
“I don’t get it,” Mira said. “How have these things not killed everybody if they’re that bad?”
“No time now,” Shodo said. “We’ll talk later.”
They ran then. At first, Mira was worried about Shodo’s ability to keep up with an injured leg, but he soon proved to be the faster of the two. It was all she could do to maintain the pace, and after a few blocks, she started to fall behind. Shodo slowed his pace just enough to accommodate her.
“There,” he huffed as they ran. “Through that gate and into the castle proper.”
They veered off the street and into an open run leading up to a castle, only to come to an abrupt halt when a dozen of the raccoon-looking yith appeared around them. They spread out into a loose circle around the two people and advanced slowly. Their positions made it clear that they didn’t know exactly where Mira and Shodo were, but they had a close enough guess that they were going to find their soon-to-be meal anyway.
Mira tried to keep her breathing as shallow as possible, but sprinting half a mile and with terror filling her gut, each breath came out as a ragged gasp. The yiths could hear it too. Though Shodo was the one bleeding, it was her they were closing in on.
She looked around for another house to duck into, something with a door she could lock and close. Unfortunately, the street leading up to the castle didn’t have anything like that. It was all open field for at least a hundred feet from the walls. Going back wasn’t an option either. Enough of the yith had come from behind them that they’d blocked off the street.
A black rent split the air and Jorath stepped through. He lifted his hands, and the yith’s shadows came to life. They sprang off the ground to leap upon their owners. Blood splattered across the stone as shadowy claws ripped through flesh. The pack of yith was caught offguard for only a second before they launched themselves at Jorath.
His shadow surged forward and up into a solid physical shape that blocked the first few yith from passing, but there were too many and he knew it. Jorath took off running into the open field, dozens of yith streaming after him and ignoring the shadows tearing into them. They ran far faster than any raccoon Mira had ever seen, and were on him in seconds.
Not all of them went, though. The ones whose shadows hadn’t animated were still focused on Mira and Shodo, who was standing with one foot in a small pool of his own blood. The two of them edged toward a gap in the new circle, newly formed when the majority of the yith had ran off.
An explosion lit the sky back in the city, followed by a roar so loud that it rocked Mira back on her heels. The yith all turned their attention from stalking Mira and Shodo to the noise. Chittering clicks passed back and forth between them, and the group split in two.
The time hadn’t been wasted. Mira was now almost through the castle gate, with Shodo walking backwards and keeping an eye on the remaining yith. With only four of them left instead of the original thirty or forty, she felt like they had a fighting chance.
The reached some sort of courtyard. Mira looked to Shodo for guidance, who nodded toward a shadowy patch on the far wall that she took for some sort of door. Upon reaching it, however, she discovered that it was actually the opening into some sort of hallway. Without a door, they couldn’t close it against the yith who were still following them.
Worse, she thought she could hear scrambling inside. It was too dark to make out any movement, and the thought of walking into pitch blackness that might hold flesh-eating raccoons wasn’t a pleasant one. Shodo didn’t hesitate though. He limped past Mira, looking far greyer than when they’d first met and moving much slower than he’d been a few minutes ago.
Without much of a choice, especially if she wanted her shot at Jorath, she followed him into the darkness.