It was dusk by the time Sol reached the south entrance to Central Park. As a child, his mother warned him not to go in the park after nightfall for it was frequented by lurkers and thieves and other less honourable people whose activities were best practised under cover of darkness. Several hundred men had been arrested that year alone for "annoying women"—and many of those had been arrested during the day.
But they weren't what scared Sol tonight.
Sol weaved his way steadily north through the winding paths, passing fewer and fewer people as he neared the lake at the park's heart. Goone said he could take whatever course he wanted through the park, so long as he kept moving and didn't stop—no matter what. If he encountered a lost child crying for their mother or if a passerby collapsed dead in front of him, he was to turn around and run in the opposite direction.
He became increasingly aware of animals moving in the shadows as he went, from the manic fluttering of bats above to the scurrying of rodents among the thickets. He almost yelled when he saw a beast with bright yellow eyes clinging to the side of one of the trees ahead, only to realise it was a racoon. It stared at Sol as he approached like he was the first human it had ever seen.
"Stupid fat cat," Sol growled. He slowed, wondering if he should double back and find another way around. A racoon was a common enough sight in Central Park but Goone's warning about staying away from anything ominous had him spooked. When the racoon hissed, Sol's mind was made up; he turned back without breaking his stride to seek another route.
He proceeded west until he joined the wide bridle path which led north around the side of the lake, skirting the park's edge. If he was forced to run then he could at least make up the bank for the road, he mused.
Fortunately, he passed the lake with no trouble at all. The bridle path began to narrow as it crept slowly uphill where it cut its way between two steep rock formations. A small footbridge had been built over the path between the rocks, supported by a narrow stone arch no more than a few feet wide. Sol was feeling tired and keen to press on, but then he caught a whiff of something foul in the air and stopped dead. It was a stench he knew well, though he had not encountered it in many years—a combination of every vile and stomach-twisting odour imaginable. It was like a cauldron of excrement and hot sweat, bubbling over a broth of rotten flesh.
The smell of Death.
He covered his mouth and nose with his arm and realised the ring was glowing. It was squeezing his finger tighter and tighter with every second. A breeze stirred the air, sweeping a circle of dust about Sol's feet.
"Ssssolomon..." said the breeze.
Sol spun around, but there was nothing there. The park was suddenly very quiet. No owls hooting or rodents rustling in the bushes. It was like they'd all run away.
A twig snapped. Sol turned to his left where the sound had come from.
"Who's there?" he asked the darkness. The ring was squeezing his finger so tightly that it hurt. He wasn't sure if he was imagining it, but there seemed to be a shape standing amongst the shadows behind the trees, like a person, but tall and stretched thin, almost like a tree itself.
"Sol! Run!" screamed a voice from behind. It sounded like Goone but Sol couldn't be sure. He turned and scrambled up the bank, desperate to get away from the thing in the shadows. The foul stench grew stronger then as a terrible wind whipped through the air, almost knocking Sol sideways. Ahead of him, he could see Goone running towards him, his arm outstretched with his wand pointed right at him.
"Get down!" yelled Goone.
Sol dived for the floor, his hands automatically covering his ears like they were bracing for an explosion. It never came, but there was a scream. Sol looked up and saw Goone staggering sideways. A dark blur shot past him and knocked him back, and suddenly there was blood on his face.
"NO!" Sol shouted, but his voice was cut off by a pure, unnatural silence. The air was suddenly alive with tiny flying creatures. He thought they were butterflies at first, but then he saw their tiny arms and legs which were green and slightly translucent, like young twigs. They had little faces, too, though they had no noses. Their eyes were tiny black specks.
They seemed quite friendly and were as fascinated by Sol as he was by them, though he was quite sure he'd lost his mind by this point.
"Hello," he said, only to find that he could no longer hear his own voice. The silence was absolute. The little creatures started to fly away, gesturing for him to follow. Sol got to his feet and saw them amassing around Goone. He was exactly where he was before, only now his back was arched and he was a foot off the ground, like a photograph of a boxer who had been knocked clean off his feet. Sol gasped as it dawned on him what had happened. He looked at the ring on his hand and saw the stone glowing brighter than ever.
Time had stopped.
Sol ran to Goone and saw three long slashes across his face, narrowly missing his eyes. The creatures were studying his wounds and seemed almost sorry for him.
"What am I supposed to do?" Sol mouthed. As though it heard him, one of the creatures flew over to him and pointed to his pocket. Sol reached into it and took out the coin Goone gave him earlier. He looked back at the small stone archway squashed between the rock walls and wondered if that would work.
The creatures suddenly started flying about in a frenzy, like a swarm of bees whose hive had been struck by a stone. Sol watched as they swarmed into the trees, gathering about one in particular. Except it wasn't a tree, Sol realised; it was the monster.
And it was moving.
Its movement was very slow like it was running underwater, but it was definitely running... and it was coming right for Sol.
In a panic, Sol grabbed Goone by his waist and prepared to take his weight, but to his surprise, he found that Goone weighed nothing at all. He pulled him through the air like an empty paper bag, taking him towards the arch. When he was close enough, he tossed the coin under the arch and watched it disappear in mid-air. He glanced behind him and saw the shadow monster still moving closer. Its head seemed to be sprouting tree-branches or antlers.
Sol turned back to the arch and saw the hollow space starting to shimmer. With Goone in one arm, he said a silent prayer and stepped beneath it.
* * *
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