Rain was dripping off the eve above them and running down the back of her neck beneath the collar of her somber black coat, but Helen Magnus did not seem overly concerned by it. Her eye remained fixed on the gloom that formed the rounded opening of the sewer tunnel leading out of the Old City. Her concentration was evident, her hand tight around the butt of the automatic weapon she held in slender fingertips. Movement alerted her to the presence of the others, her daughter's golden hair glinting in the weak light cast from a nearby building as she crept across the alley. "It's not coming out," Ashley said with a hint of resignation that suggested they go in after it.
"It will," her mother promised. "We have it cornered. It cannot escape."
"Mom, we have been here for five hours. It's not coming out. Let's go in and finish the job."
"And I say we consider what we are dealing with, before we go storming in there and get ourselves killed." Helen had a commanding sort of authority that no one ever dared contradict, although Ashley had tried numerous times in her childhood. She had been an impetuous, argumentative, occasionally bad-tempered child with all of her mother's instincts and her father's stubborn nature. The best of both, or the worst, considering who you asked. Ashley pulled one of her customary expressions of annoyance and looked at the huddled-up figure behind Helen, the collar of his coat turned up as he tried to keep himself warm in the downpour.
"Will?" she demanded, and he looked up at them through fogged-over glasses. He had joined their expedition a few months earlier and was already accustomed to their quibbling, but as usual, had no desire to become involved. Will was thinking of his warm office back at the Sanctuary, of a chair by the fireside and a stack of well-worn philosophy and psychology books, as he attempted to figure out how to communicate with their more unusual captives. He did not particularly want to sit any longer on this damp, dank street corner, nor did he want to go storming into the gloom of the sewage tunnel where they had managed to corner a creature of some sort.
Both women looked at him expectantly. Will sighed. "We don't even know what it is," he hedged.
"We know it took out two policemen, a fire engine, and a second story window before it vanished. That's good enough for me." Ashley checked the rounds in her assault weapon and, without her mother's permission, ran for the entrance. Helen called after her and then followed with Will bringing up the rear, his footsteps reluctant. He had seen all manner of strange, abnormal, psychotic, and just plain weird creatures since he had become a member of their elite group, but he still had no burning desire to land in the proverbial or literal line of fire. Ghouls, vampires, werewolves, mermaids… all were still new to him, invoking a curiosity he could not subside, along with an equal amount of trepidation.
Moving carefully in the shadows, Ashley listened for any sound that might seem abnormal. The stench of the place was horrendous, fouler than anything she had ever encountered. There was more than just muck in there, and she shone her flashlight carefully in all directions. Water was seeping out of the tunnel and left the ground spongy, making sucking sounds at her boots with every step. Behind her, Will made disgusted noises as he contemplated his new surroundings. Helen wavered off the main path and cast the light behind some boxes, silent as she contemplated the grotesque remains of something hideous. Only skin, sinew, and bones remained, indicating that whatever had taken it out was much bigger than the creature it had decimated. This was the source of the stench, and she looked up as her daughter progressed further into the tunnel.
"Ashley," she called, and the blonde head turned toward her, sloshing through the standing water to see what remained of the creature that only a few hours earlier they had chased into the pipe. Will came with her and said, "Oh, geez," before turning away with one hand over his mouth. When he turned back around, water dripping from his glasses, Ashley had drawn near enough to see the dismembered creature at its fullest, her gaze burning with uncertainty. Helen rose to her feet, keeping her light focused on the creature's vivid green eyes, having lost their gleam now that they were stilled forever. In life it would have been terrifying, but in death it was even more horrendous.
"That's so not good." Will's damp hair was hanging into his face, and it was obvious from his stance that he was cold. He kept shifting from one foot to the other. It was apparent from his expression that he was thinking what the rest of them were: something had done their job for them, but where was it? Flashlights swiveled in all directions, chasing away numerous shadows, but nothing moved, nothing breathed, nothing made a sound apart from the rain pattering on the pavement outside and the sound of their footsteps. Helen sensed something evil there, but could not put a name to it. Only that it lurked deep in the darkness without stirring, and that it was far too dangerous to encounter before the dawn.
"We're going home," she said, and for once, no one argued with her. Ashley accompanied Will back the length of the tunnel and once more into the rain, Helen following on their heels. Once, she thought she heard something and turned to look back, shining her flashlight as deep into the gloom as it would go. The light flickered in her hand and almost went out, but she slapped it with the palm of her hand and it resumed its strength. Nothing. Feeling suddenly cold, she quickened her step and returned to the others, joining them in the van. No one spoke as Bigfoot drove them back to the Sanctuary, each one wondering what might have killed such a violent creature in such a short amount of time. Somehow, it had been slain without alerting their suspicion, for they had been at watch all night.
Ashley was sitting with one foot up, her fingers loosely wrapped around her weapon. Will was hugging his arms to his chest, his features a mask of concentration. Helen exchanged a meaningful glance with the driver as they passed through the electronic gate. Throwing off rain-soaked coats in the entrance hall, all of them went off to their rooms, Ashley no doubt to come up with a plan of action once dawn broke, and Will to pace the floor with nervous tension. Helen watched them go in silence and then looked at her only remaining companion. Bigfoot held out his hand for her coat and she gave it to him, the fondness in his eyes evident. He was a hideous looking creature, yet liked her tremendously, and Ashley as well. He was not a being of deep contemplation, but his intelligence was evident, and his loyalty profound. More than once, he had risked his life for hers, in repayment for the bullets she had taken out of him.
"Would you care for some tea, Dr. Magnus?" he asked her in that warm, gravely tone she was so accustomed to, and listening to the rain on the roof and the quiet sounds of the creatures in the Sanctuary below, Helen nodded. He said he would bring it up to her office, and went into the kitchens to make a pot, well steeped, just as she liked it. Her office was spacious and crowded, hundreds of reference volumes overflowing the shelves and scattered across her desk. In the weak lamplight, Helen opened several of her books and started cross referencing, but it did not take long for her to realize how tired she was.
Taking a sip of her now-cold tea and making a face, she rubbed her temples to ease the tension and glanced at the clock. It was four in the morning. The Sanctuary was quiet at this hour. Helen almost never slept, for she had no need to. The same unique strength in her blood that allowed her to remain unchanged as she grew older also allowed her to function on very little rest, but for the first time in a hundred years, she felt tired. The concept was foreign to her, distant, even troubling as she rose to her feet and moved down the gloomy corridor to her room, where a fire blazed warmly in the hearth and the four poster bed welcomed her presence eagerly. The pillows formed around her as she lay down, staring drowsily into the flickering flames. They crackled and popped, blurring as her eyes lost focus and sleep settled in around her.
For an instant there was movement against the shadows, a flame that looked strangely like a face she knew well, and then all faded into nothing as she heard, in no more than a whisper, her name.