Part One – At Midnight
Anna left the bar, tugging her scarf around her neck to stifle the chill of the wind, and headed down Ayres Street. She waved goodbye to Matt and Jenny, who were huddled up smoking by the front of the building. Jenny blew a kiss, and Matt waved back unsteadily. Anna felt a little unsteady herself; she’d ended up drinking more than she’d meant to again. The others had ignored her feeble protests and insisted on ‘just one more glass’. She’d not put up a particularly convincing resistance; she cursed her own lack of willpower. She felt an affectionate resentment for her friends; they didn’t have to work in the morning, so they could stay out all night and drink as much as they wanted. The last thing she wanted was to be waiting tables with a hangover again.
She pulled her coat tighter as she walked; she hadn’t drunk so much that she couldn’t feel the chill in the night air. She thought about heading to the main road and trying to find a taxi, but at this time of night there’d be hardly any taxis around, and it would be quicker to take the back roads. She didn’t like walking through the badly-lit back-streets, but it was the fastest route home, and therefore out of the cold.
As the lights and sounds of the bar faded away, Anna became aware of two figures walking some way behind her. She felt an anxious prickle of nerves. She chided herself for being silly; lots of people used this way to get back from town. The people behind her were just heading home, same as she was, and were almost definitely not following her. She wished she would to stop jumping at shadows. She took a quick look back at the figures behind her; it was too dark to make them out properly, but they appeared to be two men, walking silently almost a full street back from her.
Something about the way they were moving made Anna feel uncomfortable, and she quickened her step, heart beginning to race. She knew she was being silly, but that didn’t calm her thundering heart. All the stories she’d heard about people being attacked on these streets rose up from the depths of her memory and sent a creeping dread spreading up her spine. She knew that most of the stories were made up to scare students, but she still wished she’d taken the main road. She gritted her teeth and kept looking forward, walking faster whilst trying to look casual. She’d be out of the back-streets soon. She’d look pretty stupid running into the brightly lit park with no one actually chasing her.
She glanced behind her, unable to help herself, and her breath caught in her throat. The two men had sped up, and were closing the distance between themselves and her. They walked purposefully, neither of them talking, both staring fixedly ahead. Deliberately not looking directly at Anna. Her pent up dread broke suddenly and washed completely through her. She felt numb, tingling all over. This wasn’t happening. Her heart thundered loud in her chest. She was being silly. This couldn’t be happening to her.
She no longer cared how stupid she would look when she reached the park. She just wanted to get there as quickly as possible, get out of these back-streets, and get away from those men who were rapidly closing on her. She pulled her handbag close to her chest and prepared to run towards the light at the end of the street, when a third figure stepped out from a dark alley directly in front of her. She was rooted to the spot; his figure silhouetted in shadow filled her whole vision, turned her legs to lead. The distant streetlight made something in his hand glisten as he took a step towards her.
She felt like her heart had stopped beating. Every part of her prickled with cold dread as she started to turn away. Her world moved too slowly; she was frozen with terror. She couldn’t make her limbs work properly. Through crashing waves of fear, she felt a dim sense of outrage; this couldn’t possibly be happening to her! That thought repeated again and again in her head, and she clung to it like a life-raft, but her numb disbelief turned to blinding dread as a pair of vice-like hands grabbed her roughly from behind.
The watcher in the shadows knew he shouldn’t intervene. That was one of his rules. He was already here too strongly; this close to the world, he could feel the weight of centuries pressing down on him. But the knife sparkling in the attacker’s hand awakened something in him, an old anger he had thought long since dulled. This was not how things were supposed to happen. A childish thought, wrought of a long-suppressed naivety, but the sense of injustice it brought rushing into his chest made him feel alive again. This was not how things were supposed to happen, and it was within his power to stop it.
He slipped through the dark as quietly as a whisper, moving with improbable grace born of ages-old instinct. The knife-man’s eyes widened with surprise as he approached, and the would-be attacker turned with an animal snarl. The knife darted forward in the dark, flashing dangerously in the dim light, but the watcher stepped easily aside and caught the outthrust arm. Ancient reflex took control, and he turned the attacker’s hand back, using the force of the thrust to drive the knife up and under the man’s ribcage. The attacker’s eyes widened with shock, and a thin gurgle escaped his lips.
He was dead before his associates had realised what had happened. One of them gave a wordless yell and dove forwards, murder in his eyes. The other struggled with the girl for a second, who was now screaming and struggling, before giving up and throwing her roughly to the side. Her head caught the curb as she fell and her scream cut off abruptly. The assailant gave no heed to this as he too leapt at the mysterious attacker.
The first man made a rough grab, but the watcher easily caught his arm, twisting and snapping it in half at the elbow. As the man’s face contorted in agony, a booted foot struck downwards and shattered his knee, sending him crumpling to the ground, whimpering quietly.
Hearing the sharp snap of bone, the last attacker realised his mistake too late. His eyes were just beginning to widen in fear as a hand grabbed his throat and crushed his windpipe. The man thrashed and gurgled for a few seconds, and when his gasping finally stopped and the pressure on his throat was released, he fell to the floor in a limp heap.
The watcher stepped over the dying man and looked at the girl lying still on the floor. The fire of combat had made him feel alive again, had awoken emotions in him he had long since forgotten, but now, as the thrill of the fight dissipated, he felt unbearably tired. The whole world pressed in on him, trying to crush him with its weight. He wouldn’t be able to sculpt properly for a long time after this.
He shouldn’t have intervened. Two men were dead, a third crippled, and the girl was lying unconscious at his feet. She was breathing, but it was a shallow and uneven breath. He looked up and down the dark street. How long until someone else would come across her? It could be many hours. There was a chance that she wouldn’t survive if he left her there.
It was no concern of his. Dying girls were not his responsibility. But he had intervened. In his action he had made her his responsibility. And there was something about her, something that stirred an ancient ache in his heart. The same resemblance that had drawn him to that place, that had made him take the first step out of the shadows, seemed even more pronounced now that she lay still on the road, peaceful in her traumatised sleep.
Even as he willed himself to turn away, he knew he wouldn’t leave her there. Slowly, resisting the pressure of time as it tried to crush his body, he knelt down and took her up in his arms. She was his responsibility now.