Reya ran, her footsteps echoing loudly in the narrow alleyway. The only light came from the streetlamps by the road, which made it hard to see. The smell of rotting, sunbaked garbage was heavy in the air, threatening to make her sick, and she forced herself to hold her breath until she was clear of it.
Running while holding my breath, she thought. Only one of the many useful skills I’ve picked up.
It had rained a couple hours ago, and the ground was still wet, so she wasn’t worried about leaving footprints. If she were lucky, the slick ground would be enough to throw them off her trail— because they were right behind her!
She could hear them chasing her. Their footfalls were even louder than hers, and there were several of them. How many? She had counted three when they’d first spotted her, but there were probably even more now. There were always more.
Her breath came in ragged gulps, but she didn’t let herself slow down. She was faster than they were. She could outrun them. She was starting to get tired, though. Her hair streamed out behind her like a flag, a fiery red beacon to the ones chasing her, and she cursed herself for not bringing a hat.
“This way,” a voice behind her shouted. “Don’t lose it!”
Defiance fought against terror inside her. If they caught her, she was dead. It was as simple as that. But all those years she’d spent living on the streets hadn’t been for nothing. Reya knew her way around these back alleys better than anybody else. She’d stayed alive this long, and that wasn’t going to change tonight.
She spotted a dumpster sitting against the wall in front of her, and the fire escape above it. Without pausing, she jumped on top of the trash can and then onto the rusty catwalk. She climbed the ladder with astounding agility, stopping on the roof and looking down at the narrow street three floors below. Less than half a minute later, a man came into the dim light, his long black coat billowing out behind him. He ran past the dumpster, just like she’d hoped, as did the one that came behind him.
“That’s two of them,” Reya whispered, watching them until they were lost to sight. “Where’s the third?”
He’d most likely been left behind during the chase. Not many people could keep up with her. In fact, she was impressed that those two had managed it for so long. Either way, she needed to get back to shelter before they realized they’d been tricked. Taking a few steps backward, she got a running start and jumped to the next building.
Her home was about half a mile west of where she was, and she didn’t want to spend a minute longer than she had to out in the open. Her feet hit the roof of the next building running, and she vaulted over the next gap as well. She moved with more confidence now, knowing that she could pass right above the men and they wouldn’t even notice her. It was amazing, really, how people never thought to look up.
She was soaring over the gap between another two buildings when she saw him. Like a shadow come to life, suddenly another figure was running beside her. His black coat fluttered behind him like a cape, and she caught of flash of white when he gave her a taunting smile. He matched her pace perfectly, and when she jumped they landed in flawless synchronization.
Reya skidded to a halt, breathing heavily. Her pursuer stopped as well, but he didn’t seem to be out of breath at all. He stood up straight, his cold blue eyes glaring at her underneath a mop of raven-black hair. He couldn’t have been more than a year younger than she was.
Reya clenched her fists, pushing her fear away. “I don’t want to hurt you, kid. Just get out of my way!”
The boy laughed. “Kid? I’m a Slayer.” He raised his hands to fight as well. “And Slayers don’t just step aside for things like you.”
Reya’s eyes narrowed dangerously. “Fine, then. Take this!”
Reya threw herself at the young Slayer, and a set of needle-sharp claws sprouted from her fingertips. She lashed out with them, but the boy merely sidestepped her attack. With a growl she came at him again, swinging her right hand first, then her left. The boy leaned away from her right hand, and then caught her left one before kicking her in the stomach.
Reya sucked in her breath as she fell to her knees. A kick from any normal person wouldn’t have been able to hurt her that much. But this boy wasn’t a normal person. He was a Slayer, trained from birth to kill Mythics like her.
She needed to get away!
Before he could react, Reya jumped up, performed a back flip, and landed several feet away from him. She didn’t stay there long enough to see what he would do, she turned and ran, jumping between buildings as adrenaline turned her blood to fire. How could he be so strong? So fast? He couldn’t be older than sixteen. Reya had fought Slayers twice his age without breaking a sweat. It wasn’t natural.
She moved in what she hoped was an unpredictable pattern, jumping between buildings randomly while still making steady progress towards her home. If she could just get to the abandoned hotel, she could hide from him until he gave up and left. She’d have to leave, of course. If she stayed, she’d only find more Slayers breathing down her neck. For now, though—
Reya misjudged the distance between buildings, and her foot caught on the ledge, sending her sprawled out on her face. She got to her hands and knees, breathing frantically, and chanced a look back. Almost unbelievably, the Slayer wasn’t anywhere in sight. She got back to her feet, knees bleeding from the fall, and looked around. No, he wasn’t hiding somewhere. He really was gone. After that show he’d put on earlier, had she really lost him that easily?
Don’t look a gift horse in the mouth, she thought. Just get home before he comes back!
And there it was, only one building away. Reya ran for it, jumping the gap and crashing through the boards covering the window. She rolled when she hit the floor, throwing up a thick cloud of dust. She coughed, but couldn’t help but laugh with relief. She’d made it! She got shakily to her feet, her heart still pounding in her chest. She wasn’t in the clear yet. She had to get deeper inside the building. The Slayers would probably look here for her. If she could just stay out of their sight long enough, eventually they’d give up.
Her hand groped in the darkness for the wall. There had been a fire years ago, long before she’d moved in, but for some reason the old place had never been torn down. Since a lot of the floor had been burned away, it was risky to move around in the dark. Tonight that could work to her advantage, though. If the Slayers decided to search the building, they might collapse the floorboards and take care of themselves.
Suddenly, the boards over another window imploded, and Reya spun around just as the Slayer from before landed. He rolled into a crouch, a wicked gleam in his eye.
Reya’s feet were glued to the floor as he stood up. “I knew you’d lead me back to your den. How many other monsters are you squatting with in here?”
“We are not monsters!” Reya snarled.
The time for subtlety was over. If she was going to survive the night, she had to hit this kid with everything she had. She lunged at him as fiery red fur sprouted from her body, the same color as her hair. When her hands touched the ground they had become paws, and two long, white tipped tails whipped back and forth behind her. Reya had revealed her true form: a fox the size of a small horse.
“Now that’s more like it!” the Slayer laughed, reaching into his pocket. When he withdrew it, he was holding a sword.
Reya growled and pounced at the Slayer, aiming for the jugular. He spun to the side and swung his sword, cutting a gash along her cheek. Blood stained the fur on her face when she landed. She spun around, using her powerful tails to strike the young man. It threw him several feet backward, and she jumped to pin him to the ground. The Slayer’s foot shot up, connecting with her chest, and he kicked her over his head, flipping her upside down in the process. He sprang to his feet and swung his sword, slicing the white fur off of the tip of her tail. Reya snapped at him, but retreated when he swung his sword at her face again.
“Slayer dog!” she spat.
“Kitsune scum,” he retorted.
Reya spun, trying to hit him with her tails a second time, but the Slayer caught them in his hand. With a grunt, he turned around and yanked them over his shoulder, pulling Reya into the air and slamming her down again. The rotten wood floor shattered, and she fell down to the story below. Dust and soot filled the air, choking her and making it impossible to see.
No! she thought, scrambling to her paws. Her front leg hurt, probably dislocated. It can’t end here. Not like this!
She heard a thump nearby as the Slayer came down to join her. She could barely see him through the dust. His blade reflected the dim light, though, and she managed to duck before it hit her.
“Why are you doing this?” she gasped, still trying to catch her breath. “What did I ever do to you?”
A cold gust of wind wafted through the room, blowing the dust away and revealing the Slayer’s ominous scowl.
“Because of what you took away from me,” he answered, advancing on her.
“I didn’t take anything from you,” she protested, retreating, her leg still throbbing with pain. “I’ve never seen you before in my life!”
“It doesn’t matter,” he said. “You monsters are all the same.”
“Please,” she begged him, “don’t! Just let me go!”
He ignored her and raised his sword. “No more innocent people are going to suffer because of you.”
A final, desperate anger rose up in her. She wasn’t just going to lie down and die. She was going to take him with her! She lunged at him, going for his throat again. The Slayer didn’t even blink. He merely stepped to the side, raised his sword, and swung it down. Cold steel met warm flesh, and Reya’s body fell to the floor in a heap. Her head rolled a few feet before coming to rest, her lifeless eyes staring back at him, stuck forever in a shocked expression.
The Slayer pulled out a rag to clean his blade, and then reinserted it into his pocket. The enchanted fabric expanded to fit the weapon without leaving any suspicious bumps in the coat. Then he picked up the kitsune’s head and made his way to the window. Without any hesitation, he stepped over the edge. A strong wind kicked up, catching him halfway to the ground, and set him down gently. He turned when he heard footsteps coming from the other direction.
“Porter, we lost… oh,” the other Slayer said when he noticed what was in the young man’s hand. His companion came running up behind him, puffing with exhaustion.
“You already got it, huh?” he said, stopping to lean on the wall. “Good job!”
“It fooled you two,” he said tossing the head into a nearby garbage can. “If I hadn’t been there, it would have gotten away.”
“Sorry,” the first Slayer said.
“Never mind,” Porter said, shaking his head. “Let’s just get back to Red Castle.”
There was a bright yellow flash, and all three trench-coated men were gone. Above them, Reya’s body lay bleeding on the floor of the abandoned hotel where nobody would ever find her.