Holy water cannot help you now
See I've come to burn your kingdom down
And no rivers and no lakes, can put the fire out
I'm gonna raise the stakes; I'm gonna smoke you out.
- Florence and the Machine.
Years from now, the girl cowering beside her mother on the street will still remember them with perfect clarity, these cries of anguish that sound as though every shred of hope is being ripped from every soul. The noise echoes in her sensitive ears; it's harmonious and dissonant all at once, throwing her thoughts in a tailspin.
She's not sure when it begins, exactly, but when it does it's horrifying. One minute she and her mother are hurrying home from the drugstore – it was never a good idea to be out in the Narrows after dark – the next they're hearing screams and explosions and her ears are ringing with the noise. White mist fills the air and her mother has the presence of mind to tell her to hold her shirt to her nose and mouth before doing so herself. Being only twelve, the girl doesn't know what the mist is or why it's there but what she does know is that it's terrifying, fogging the world and dimming the already flickering streetlights.
That's when she starts seeing things. Terrible, nightmarish things. Things that make her head spin and her stomach heave, and, before she knows it, she's retching on the street; the images of skin melting off the faces of passers-by and maggots corrupting their bodies fill her vision, even when she squeezes her eyes closed.
Someone screams again close by and there is a sound of shattering glass, of choking, of snarling, and all rational thought just kind of seems to wink out of existence, like a lightbulb burning out. Her flight reaction kicks in and she runs without thinking, and the sound of her mother's voice calling her name, calling her to come back, is lost amid the chaos surrounding her and the pounding of her own racing heart.
She does not scream, she won't, no matter how much she wants to, because it's not real – it can't be real, these things she's seeing are impossible and it has to have something to do with the mist in the air. With each second the panic mounts; with each moment, the fear threatens to send her over the edge.
But she does not scream.
The fog is distorting her vision and making her head spin; nothing is making sense. She stumbles suddenly, running smack against the corner of a building and she smells blood when her hand slides over the wickedly-sharp edge of a broken drainpipe.
She bites her lip and does not scream.
Fear fills her stomach as a massive horse bounds out of the ever-thickening mist around her, and she staggers back, instinctively knowing nothing good could come from getting too close. Astride this horse sits a figure – a figure whose face is crawling with worms and spewing black smoke between the laces of his sutured lips. The horse rears, and the noises it's making sound like shrieks of pain, and flames dance out of its nostrils.
The fear slithers its way into her veins and touches her heart with alarming speed, and the sound leaves her throat before she can stifle it.
She screams. Long and loud, shrieking for her mother who has disappeared, shrieking as she stumbles in the opposite direction, putting her entire soul into one, desperate sound of terror. It tears along her throat, burns her vocal chords and causes her to choke. (She does not know it then, but she will lose her voice for days after this.)
There is garbled laughter behind her, grating on her ultra-sensitive ears, and then the thunderous sound of hooves on pavement in pursuit.
She bites her lip to keep from screaming again as fear takes over every rational part of her brain and her vision clouds even more, her worn tennis shoes pounding on the concrete. The nightmare behind her is toying with her now, moving the horse at an almost leisurely trot because it knows it will overtake her.
It's not wrong, because in her disorientation she trips, sending her sprawling and making her forehead crack against the pavement.
She cries out, head spinning, and pushes herself back up onto her feet. She doesn't know how much longer she can run, but she definitely can't stay down.
The horse and his rider are very close, so close she can see the bloody nails imbedded at grotesque angles in the hooves and smell the stench of rotting meat that the animal carries. The nightmare is shouting now, something about fear, but his voice is so distorted it's impossible to distinguish the words.
She stumbles away, her breath coming in choked, rasping sobs; the mist bends and shifts around her almost mockingly as she whirls around the next corner.
There is an "Oof!" as she collides with someone, and with a shriek of fear she raises her dark eyes to meet warm brown ones. A woman is standing over her, her face marred like all the rest and her eyes alight with flame, but the words that leave her lips are gentle, reassuring, protective. There is already a little boy with her, younger than she is and just as terrified, but he's clinging to the woman as though this is a safe course of action, so she does the same.
The woman speaks in a voice that's somehow layered, normal and human underneath but bathed in the hiss of a serpent, telling them that they're safe with her, that no one will hurt them. But the little girl hears the sudden galloping of hooves just as the nightmare horse appears around the corner, contradicting the woman's statement with a growling laugh.
"Crane?" her newfound protector hisses, and the stitched rider raises a hand, as if in correction.
The name sends icy fingers of horror straight into her chest even as she files the name away, and she screams once more as the three of them take off at a run.
This chase ends even faster than her last one as the rider corners them near a wall, exultant in his power, a king of demons. The horse rears, and she squeezes her eyes shut because she knows when it lands, it will be on them.
Except, it doesn't happen that way.
There is a buzzing sound and a strangled cry, followed by the sound of hooves galloping away. He's gone, just like that. But she doesn't dare peek, not even when her protector tells her, moments later, that it's safe. Somehow she doubts it.
The woman's voice is gentle on her delicate ears, and she tells her everything is going to be okay as she presses her and the boy close, whispering soothing affirmations. She tells them it's not real, it's just a trick, but her eyes dart all around and the girl knows she is ready for another attack at any moment.
They don't have to wait long.
Three men emerge from the shadows, with faces like gargoyles and their bodies dressed in flame. One of them is holding a knife as he cautiously approaches, a wicked leer on his grotesque features. The woman, whom the girl presumes to be an angel of death – a death angel is the only one who could look so decayed and yet protect someone as fiercely as she protects her two charges – tells them not to look as she snags a gun from the body of a rotting, maggot-ridden police officer lying nearby.
The girl, having already seen far more than her share of insanity that night, willingly complies.
There is a second of mortal terror as the woman above her shouts at the figures not to come any closer. Judging by the sound click of a gun being cocked, they don't listen. Later, she would reflect on the stupidity of monsters who ignored angels.
The woman tells them not to look once more, and the girl covers her hypersensitive ears in preparation for the gunshot she knows will be coming.
Except, it doesn't happen that way.
There is a grunt, followed by another, and another, and the girl looks up to see another angel, dressed head to toe in black, wrapping his wings around them and lifting the three of them off the ground.
The girl has never felt safer than she does in that moment, wrapped in the angel's wings and breathing in the scent of danger and something unmistakably secure - the most volatile of contradictions.
And then they are on solid ground again, and the boy is telling the death angel, the woman, how he'd known the dark angel would come. The newcomer looks at him a moment, and the barest flicker of a smile flits over the unshadowed portion of his face.
But then he looks to her, and his gaze – brown, nearly black in the poor light – seems to stare straight into her soul. In the middle of all the chaos, in the center of all the terror, he takes the time to stop what he is doing, and look. Not only does he look, but he cares, scanning her for injury in a single blink. He puts so much interest into a single expression that it takes her breath away. No one, with the obvious exception of her mother, has ever looked at her with so much concern, especially not when they were busy. (She figures he's here to put a stop to whatever madness is occurring around her and ranks that high on the "busy" scale.)
There is dialogue between the two angels after this; the girl isn't quite listening so much as she is studying the outline of her savior. She commits him to memory, in case he never appears to her again, but she knows he will. From what little she knows about guardian angels, she understands they have a habit of sticking around. And she knows that's what he is – a dark guardian.
And, as the mist rises steadily around them and the dark angel flies off into the night, she knows his image will be a part of her for the rest of her life.
She isn't wrong.