It was almost three stations later when he finally noticed. To be fair, his new purchase had the most outrageously irritating collar, which had absorbed his attention for no small period of time, but the sheer bulk of the rod should have alerted him to its presence sooner, he thought. When he first touched it in a creased alcove of the deep pockets, he felt a shiver of nervous electricity race up his spine. He thought it was a gun. Only guns made you feel like that, like you could take on the very stars, and snuff them out one at a time. A ridiculous impulse of power, but the feel of the thing was all wrong. Where there should have been a handle and trigger, was only smooth wood, indented for ease of grip. Finally, curiosity overcame him, and as the subway clattered into a tunnel he drew it out of the pocket with a small, embarrassed flourish.
Across from him, an old man in a grimy cardigan snorted awake and began to squint skeptically at him. Suddenly, he felt very foolish, and shoved the thing back into the coat. He'd only caught a glimpse of it, but that was enough to bring a red blush to his cheeks, and he turned a little in his seat to try to disguise the motion. The train left the tunnel, and began to run along a small groove embedded a few yards from the highway. Along the concrete enclosure walls, the tops of a few green trees waved shyly, before disappearing as the train once again plunged into the earth. He sighed, reached in, and pulled his phone from a different pocket. Half past ten. Another, heartfelt sigh, and he rubbed his tired eyes. The night shift had been a mistake. His apartment in the city was a twenty minute walk from the metro station, and when it was dark the route was a chancy one. He touched the frayed edges of the coat. Good price, he thought, and just unappealing enough that it was unlikely to be stolen if he were mugged. The color was a bland beige, riddled with curious stains and confusing straps. It had been almost a full hour since he'd left the flea market, and he was still discovering new pockets. He drew a hand lazily across the front buttons, and hooked another one. worming a finger in, he found the button and unclasped it to find...
Half a dozen matches, cleanly snapped in half and burned to a useless black. Curious. He was reminded of those Christmas crackers his family used to pass around during the holidays. Of course, none of those crackers had contained the carcasses of what seemed like a hundred crickets, but the concept of surprise was the same. He had rather liked the holidays, as a boy. But that was then.
There was a lurch as the train pulled into a station, and soon came the leisurely bustle of people departing. A rush of motion, and now he was one of only five people in the car. The old man, grunting, rose with newspaper in hand, and was gone.
Now, then... he looked around slowly. His neighbors were all occupied on their phones, and a middle-aged woman with frazzled hair and an ill-fitting pair of baggy jeans was squinting at a paperback novel in the corner of the car. The coast was clear. He reached into the pocket and found the length of wood, and drew it back into the light.
It was just as ridiculous as he had first suspected. Little sequins adorned the sides, and a ridiculous hot glue job had plastered the tip with bumpy yellow stars. It was a wand, he decided. A mutilated and thoroughly unimpressive toy. Bored, he flicked it a few times experimentally, before moving to throw it under the subway seats, as it was uncomfortable when it pressed against his ribs.
Several things happened at once.
A thin screech slashed the air, accompanied by the heavy clunk of the subway cars arranging themselves for departure. The low whine of passing air had just begun in force when an equal pressure drove it to a stop. The lights, as one, went dark. Outside, spaced lights placed into the walls of the tunnel flickered, dimmed, disappeared, then returned in a sullen red. The woman with the book lost her seat, and crashed to the ground with a cry. Something heavy in her purse bounced away with a sickening noise, and a tall boy with acne-accented cheekbones cursed loudly into the slowly quieting air of the car. The wand in his own hands bounced violently, but by some miracle, stayed.
"Damn utilities," someone muttered, when the last of the noise had died. "Don't half know why we pay 'em a dime."
He focused on breathing. A rush of inexplicable terror had filled him when the train had begun to flag, and as he calmed by degrees he saw the same expression mirrored on the faces of his fellow passengers. The woman was now groping under the seats. muttering something about a melon. One hand still gripped the book, a finger inserted at the page.
"I wish the lights weren't so red," he said to himself. "This wouldn't be half bad, if the light wasn't this red. A nice yellow - is that too much to ask for?"
Beside him, a stout man with ferret eyes and a squashed nose heard him, and began to blab about Russian alarm systems. He had what could only be described as a jailbird accent, and used a variety of interesting gestures that drew no attention whatsoever to his words.
"Ne'er mind it," he finally finished. "I' t'waint be long now, 'spect. They got systems for the'e things, see? Not long now." And with a nod, he leaned back. And the window beside him shattered with a crash.
He had seen broken windows before. This was not a broken window. The glass was pulverized in an instant, becoming a fine powder that did no damage whatsoever where it brushed against his face. It was simply gone, and something flew into the car, grabbed the man with the nose, and was gone again. He jumped out of his seat with a cry, and raised the wand reflexively in defense. There was no jet of fire, nor blast of eldritch light. Nothing happened, but there was the empty window, and there the empty seat, and terror oozed into the car like a plague. Another lightning movement from the hole, and he leaped to the ground with something too strangled with fear to be a scream. A respectable man in a shabby suit who had been looking at him very strangely was swept from his chair with a shriek of alarm, and now there was running, and screaming, and another series of movements that left him quite alone, now - but that wasn't quite right. The woman with the book had slid into the nook beneath the seats, her knees curled into her chest, and her eyes met his with a plea. Something moved, and she, too, was gone. For a moment, the broken cantaloupe left under the chairs looked like her head. Now, properly, he was conscious of his own screams. One last movement, and he expected at any second to feel what he was sure would be tentacle wrapping around him, taking him out, towards a mouth of gnashing, alien teeth...
"Who are you?"
An unimpressive figure stood silhouetted in the hole that had once been a window. A shabby youth in his early twenties, at the latest, with an unbuttoned faux-leather jacket and sagged jeans, stood at half-attention, but even in the dim light his eyes were a brilliant, focused green.
"I said, who are you? Where's the old man?"
"He - that is - gone." He pointed expressively at the window, unable to articulate exactly what had happened. His mind was still trying to process the disappearance, but managed to grasp one thought out of the wild maelstrom that now was flailing for attention behind his eyes. "Down! It's still"-
"Do be quiet. You know very well who I mean." As an afterthought, the boy picked at his teeth with one surprisingly elegant finger. "Horrible aftertaste," he seemed to mutter, and he began to inspect every corner of the car with uncanny interest.
"It'll kill you - you have to get down, it'll"-
"What did I tell you? Didn't I say to be quiet? Either shut up or help me look. By Hartagem, if he's putting you up to this, I'll skin you just slow enough to make it hurt. Where's he gone?"
"Dead... all dead... gone... out there"-
"For the love of - wait." The youth's eyes narrowed into slits of emerald, and he looked at him, properly, for the first time since entering the car. The gaze was physically chilling, and a shrill note of revulsion shuddered through the man's spine. It was like having a slug thrown into the back of your shirt.
"Where did you get this?" He hadn't even seen the boy move, but now here he was, not four inches from his face, touching the garment of the coat. He repeated the question, louder. "And get up. Let me get a better look at you. Get up!"
Slowly, shaking, his legs obeyed the command.
"Where did you get this?"
"F- Flea Market. Jerome - Jerome's Thrift and Flea Market. It's on 12th Street." There was something wrong with the boy. He didn't feel like a boy should. If a wolf were to dress as a lamb, it would dress like this. The flesh drooped in all the wrong places, and when he spoke, the lips didn't quite match the words. It was so very odd. So very terrifying.
"That can't be. That's not right," murmured the boy, and for a moment he seemed distracted. The fiery green eyes darted first to the melon, then to the chair where the man had been sitting, then to the hole where the... thing... had gained its entry.
"Please... we have to hide"-
"Shut up! I won't tell you again. This isn't right, I tell you... Where do you live? Tell me, or I'll tear off your arm and feed it to you." The boy took a step forward, menacingly. The man's arm raised suddenly, in a jerking motion. The sequins glimmered where the red light hit them, and the wand twitched very faintly as the hand that held it shook. The boy stopped. For once, and unmistakable emotion crossed the unnatural features. Curiosity, mingled with fear.
that's just what I was thinking. "Back off. Get away. Please."
"You don't know how to use that, do you?"
There was something very ridiculous in this situation. A part of him , a hysteric and suicidal part, wanted to laugh very much, but he quenched this desire when he spoke. "Get away from me. You came from the window."
"Yes. Put down the wand."
"No. Get away." The boy took a step back, one eyebrow cocked into skeptical condescension.
"Most impossible," he said again, and softer. "Where is Virdival? Why are you wearing his robes?
"I don't know what the hell you're going on about. Where are those people? Did..." He gulped. Terror fought with shock in the base of his throat. Nothing made sense. How was this real? He read every day in the papers about terrorists and murderers, but this... what even was this? "Did you eat them? Oh, God..."
"Regrettably, the answer to that is yes."
"Is not as you know him. And your fellow passengers tasted terrible, if that reassures you. Justice has a way of being poetic when it wants to be. Where is Virdival? Is he dead? But I still feel him... he is near, very near. Where is he?"
"Get away from me! Get the HELL out!!" He felt his voice rising, bursting into hysteria, and now he was gesturing frantically with the wand, this ridiculous, posturing toy, and a single purple spark sizzled from the tip and fell very slowly to the ground. For a moment no one moved, and the two pairs of eyes traced the winding path of the thing as it dropped to the ground, and sizzled into nothing.
An irrational bravery seized him and hardened his eyes. He raised the wand once more, slowly, and now the boy did back away. Not out of fear, so much as the same caution one pays when matches are being lit near large batches of fireworks. "Have it your way," the soft, peculiar voice said. "But I will be back. Know that very well, for a moment will come when you must rest. And then that stick will not be there to help you."
One final rush of wind, and then he was gone. A slight hissing came from all around, and then with the ponderous motion of Leviathan, rising from the sea, the car began to move. A crackling voice came from overhead. "Northeast Tramway apologizes for the disruption. We are now back underway. Northeast Tramway apologizes for the disruption. Next stop: Times Square."
He settled into his seat, trying not to think. Shock and fear and a silent cold covered him until he could barely move.
He caught a glimpse of movement on his shoulder, and look over in dull horror, half expecting a pale hand attached to a dark sleeve and hard green eyes. Instead, he found a cricket. It waved a pair of antennae almost colloquially, and its legs rubbed together in hesitant music, producing a noise like a tinny violin.
He laughed, wildly, for a while, and then moved the insect onto one outstretched finger, which it accepted gratefully. He held it up for closer inspection, watching the way the light glanced off the hard shell, and the dark recesses of the disproportionate eyes.
"Hello," he said at last.
"Indeed," came the reply.