Wren never used to fear the dark. She never used to fear much of anything. Once upon a time, her gilded cage had kept the world away from her. But two years was more than enough time for the world to teach her about fear. She shivered as the last hint of sunlight faded from the sky; more than anything, she had learned to fear the creatures that hid from the sun.
She stood at the door of the train, jostled by the other commuters, and the air was tense. Her train was always late, but in the middle of winter the nights closed in much too soon. The nervous energy was palpable and, when the doors finally opened, they swarmed onto the platform in close groups. Everyone in Ossian knew that there was some safety in numbers; the Mage Lords had issued enough pamphlets about appropriate safety etiquette.
They also knew better than to linger, so Wren was soon left alone in her hesitation. She stared at her phone, wondering whether she should call Corvan to meet her. She agonised over the decision for far too long, her hands trembling. Eventually, she scowled and pocketed her phone. Taking a deep breath, she steadied herself and put her earphones back in. She adjusted the bracelet of light crystals on her left wrist and started on her way home.
One of the UV lampposts sparked into life as she passed by. It should be comforting, but it just reminded Wren how late it must be. She trusted the natural sun’s protection far more than anything manufactured by the mages. Too many times had she seen their magic fail to have much faith in them. But as she felt a presence lurking in the street behind her, she paused under the lamppost.
A low chuckle slithered over her and she clenched her fists. She knew the beast wore a human face in the light, but there was nothing human about the monster now. It wasn’t her first time seeing one of the Faceless, but she still recoiled as it prowled into her line of vision. Where there should have been a face was only a twisted maw with rows of teeth, dripping with saliva. It laughed again, awkwardly shuffling towards her.
She knew not to trust the jerky movements. Her associate, Nadja, was the only person she had ever seen outrun one of these things, and that was only with the help of a binding rune. Their elongated limbs were lined with corded muscles suited to catching up to any prey. And she well knew that was what she was. Prey.
Her hands shook at her sides as Wren locked eyes with the beast. It prowled closer to the edge of the light, waiting in the shadows for the moment the light might flicker. She couldn’t just stay there until sunrise. Bracing herself, she pulled a milky crystal from her bracelet and crushed it in her hands, muttering “Light.”
It shattered with a dazzling flare and the creature shrieked, howling into the night. The acrid smell of burning flesh reached her, and she bit down on her nausea. The light would last at least thirty seconds and Wren knew she would have to make them count; a scream like that would undoubtedly draw attention. Holding her glowing fist out, she sprinted across the cobblestone path, stumbling more than once in her haste.
When she finally skidded to a halt, she made sure she was in a secure circle of artificial sunlight. Her breath was coming too quickly, and her chest heaved as she desperately tried to think of a plan. If she needed to, she could use the last few crystals and make it home. But then what? Once they set their sights, they never let their mark escape.
As three more creatures joined the first, prowling disjointedly down the street towards her, tears sprung to Wren’s eyes. She would not die here. Not to these abominations. But she couldn’t afford to call Corvan to rescue her, or they might recognise him. If they recognised him, they were certain to realise who she was. All she could do was wait, and hope they would get bored.
With a soft clack, the lamppost at the furthest edge of the street went out. Panic froze her senses for a long second before she realised; they were throwing stones. When another light fizzled, Wren dropped to her knees and rummaged hurriedly in her bag, cursing her lack of organisation. Finally, she pulled out a piece of chalk and drew a rough circle around herself. In the centre, between her feet, she scrawled a rune she hoped was correct and drew her knife.
As always, she hesitated as she touched the blade to her hand. She was purposely avoiding looking at the Faceless but their laughter was ringing through the air, raising the hair on the back of her neck. They were toying with her, she knew.
Looking up into the gaping maw of the closest creature, she snarled “You will not have my face.” She drew a line across her palm with the knife, and let the blood drip onto the rune. “Defend.”
The instant her blood touched the lines of the symbol, blue light burst through them. Wren knelt, keeping her bleeding hand to the centre of the rune. As long as her blood flowed, and the chalk lasted, nothing would touch her there. But chalk was weak. The magic would burn it up eventually. If the Faceless chose to attack the barrier, it would deteriorate even faster. She had only bought herself more time.
If she were being honest, it would be better if they killed her. If she died, they couldn’t use her to hurt the people she loved. Their plans would fail, and her family would have more time to prepare. Perhaps enough time to succeed for good.
Her tears smudged the chalk, and she cursed. The creatures prowled closer, hissing and cackling at her pain. Wren hated herself for pulling her phone out of her pocket, but her decision was made. She didn’t want to die.
As soon as the call connected, the air rippled. Black wings bled from the shadows. The rune flickered and died, but Wren was not afraid. She was safe now. He was here. Corvan wasted no time in wrapping her in his arms and taking off. It wasn’t until they skidded back to the ground that she saw the blood blossoming from his chest.