Lumen watched wearily as Venatio rounded the corner, his handgun held high. After he surveyed the alley for a moment, Venatio nodded to Lumen and cautiously crept forward. Lumen had lost count of how many alleys he had now followed Venatio down. The promised thrill of a chase he would never forget had dissipated around the time they walked out of their fifteenth alley. It was slowly dawning on Lumen that he had made a serious mistake. Not only had he wasted his time walking around the cold, damp city streets, but for a time he had actually believed his patient, an error not even an inexperienced psychotherapist would make. He had got caught up in his patient’s delusional fantasy. What was worse, he had helped him so that he would be free to live it out. He had put his career in serious jeopardy, his patient and the public at risk. No longer bored, Lumen was wracking his brain trying to devise some way of undoing his mistake.
He looked down at the handgun he was holding and shook his head in disgust. He had tried to refuse it when Venatio had handed it to him from his hidden cache, buried in the basement of an abandoned building.
“I’ve never even held a gun before,” Lumen had objected. “I’m more likely to shoot you or myself than Dolor.”
“If you’re coming with me, you’re bringing a gun,” Venatio’s tone had brokered no argument. “You’ll need to defend yourself when we run into Dolor, and an empathetic ear isn’t going to cut it. Now pay attention.”
Venatio had proceeded to give Lumen a crash course on how to use the weapon. It did little to boost Lumen’s confidence.
Now, standing outside the alley, Lumen fingered the safety on his handgun thoughtfully. With a troubled sigh, he finally rounded the corner after Venatio. He immediately stopped dead.
Venatio was crouched near the alley wall, his hand held up to stop and silence Lumen. Peering into the darkness to determine why they had stopped, Lumen could just barely make out the outline of a sleeping wino. The therapist felt suddenly alarmed. Was Venatio imagining that the man had been attacked, or was under attack? Was he about to commit another murder? How could he stop him?
His concerns about Venatio vanished, but his alarm increased as a sudden painful scream split the night. Venatio immediately stood upright and ran out of the alley, heading toward the sound. Lumen followed hastily, desperately hoping that no one would suffer any serious harm. Lumen chased after Venatio as he charged across the street and plunged into an alley they had checked half an hour earlier. Venatio rounded the corner first, with Lumen close on his heels. As they pounded down the alley, the screaming grew steadily in intensity.
Lumen stopped cold in his tracks. The screaming came from a prone man or woman, Lumen couldn’t tell. The figure was largely irrelevant for the moment, because slowly coming toward Venatio and Lumen was a slouched, grey-skinned creature.
Venatio’s handgun snapped upward without hesitation. He fired two shots in rapid succession. The bullets hit the creature squarely in the chest. It staggered backward a few steps, but then resumed its steady movement towards them.
“Looks like it had enough time to feed,” said Venatio steadily. “We need to get out of here.”
Venatio calmly turned around and began running. Lumen watched the creature quicken its pace and finally break into a run. Needing no further prompting, Lumen followed quickly after Venatio.
As he ran, Lumen could hear the creature hissing as it gained on them. He looked back over his shoulder just in time to see it bound onto the wall, take a few running steps and then spring off. The creature slammed into Lumen from the side, sending him flying into a pile of garbage lying along the opposite alley wall. Lumen’s gun flew out of his hand and into the trash. Momentarily stunned from the impact, Lumen struggled to draw a breath. He clumsily climbed to his feet and saw the creature coming at him with a casual but inhuman walk. Lumen stared in horror as it approached him, unable to escape.
Suddenly, a staccato series of gunshots roared through the alley and lead hail pelted the monster. It stumbled sideways, raising its arms to try to protect its head from the bullets. After being struck several more times it finally collapsed onto its back. As soon as it hit the ground, it began to pick itself up again.
“Come on doc!” urged Venatio, his pistol still covering the creature.
Lumen ran toward him, unable to take his eyes off his attacker. As he watched Dolor rose hesitantly to its feet and raised its head to glare at its escaping prey. There was a grim look in its dark eyes.
Lumen turned away from his attacker and pushed himself as hard as he could. He felt his lungs straining as he heaved in great gulps of air. He could feel his heart in his head, beating against his brain. Venatio was just ahead of him, running with equal fervour.
Just as they finally reached the street, Lumen heard a loud hiss again, flying past him. The creature landed nimbly directly in their path, facing them in a crouch with its claws raised. Venatio levelled his handgun and pulled the trigger, but a series of dry clicks revealed that he had depleted his ammunition.
“Shit!” Venatio screamed, as he turned and ran back into the alley, brushing past Lumen.
Needing no encouragement this time, Lumen hurried after him, his heart ready to explode. As he struggled to keep up, he watched Venatio drop his empty clip and hastily load another. Lumen glanced back to see where the creature was, but saw no sign of it behind him. He threw a panicked glance to his left, only to collide into a warm dark mass. Lumen bounced off the creature’s steaming hide and fell brutally to the pavement, the breath knocked out of his lungs. Lumen panicked as he saw Venatio also on the ground. One of the creature’s feet was pressing against the hunter’s chest, pinning him. The monster struck Venatio a savage blow, eliciting a cry of anguish. Lumen watched, unable to move until Venatio shouted at him.
“My gun! Get my g—aaargh,” Venatio spluttered helplessly as the creature grabbed him by the throat and began choking him.
The psychotherapist surveyed the ground around him in desperation. Where had Venatio’s handgun gone? He could not see it in the dark alley. He ran over to a garbage can instead and seized it. With all his strength, he threw it at the creature’s back. As it struck, the monster released Venatio’s throat. It glanced at Lumen, then picked up Venatio, raised him over its head and hurled him at the therapist. The two men collapsed in a heap among the trash, sending garbage flying in every direction. Venatio immediately struggled to raise himself and lifted Lumen bodily to his feet. As Dolor hurried toward them, the hunter thrust Lumen at the creature. Lumen stumbled and fell onto the monster, entangling its legs and inadvertently pulling it down on top of him. Dolor hissed in annoyance as it freed itself from the floundering therapist. Terrified, Lumen rolled on to his back and tried to squirm away, but his eyes remained fixed on the looming creature. It struck him with a vicious backhand blow that twisted Lumen onto his side. Lumen’s head swam from the force of the blow. Bright lights danced in front of his eyes as his head pounded. He felt himself spitting out a mouthful of blood as his shirt was seized from behind. Shots rang out in the alley again and Lumen felt himself released. His face slammed into concrete and he lay still for several long moments, until he felt himself being heaved to his feet.