For the 24 Hours in the City of Bones competition!

Lara Woods is, as far as she's concerned, a perfectly normal 16 year old. But a chance encounter with a shape-shifting demon sends her perfectly ordered world crashing down around her.


1. 1

  I really should have brought a coat, thought Lara as she rubbed her arms and shivered. The day had been warm and sunny, the sky cloudless – very unusual for a British summer. But as the sun went down a cool breeze kicked up, which all too quickly turned gale-force, howling down the streets of London and sending tourists, shoppers and big-shot bankers alike running for shelter in cafes and shop doorways.

  Lara felt almost smug as she hopped onto a bus and flashed her bus card at the driver. It was crowded with similarly smug commuters on the bottom floor, so she headed up to the top and settled in a window seat, piling her shopping onto the seat next to her. She sat watching the world go by, smiling to herself as she saw people jostling each other in bus shelters.

  Her smile soon faded as she felt a prickling sensation on the back of her neck. Someone’s watching me, she thought. She pretended to be looking for something in one of her many shopping bags, glancing around the bus in search of staring eyes.


  A boy – or man, Lara supposed, it was hard to put an age on him – with honey-blond hair was staring at her, dark brown eyes meeting her own hazel ones for a brief moment. She quickly looked down and went back to rifling through her bags. Well, at least he’s not old, she thought, her cheeks flushing slightly. Her eyes flicked back in his direction. And he’s not bad looking, even if he is dressed a little strangely. Still, it didn’t change the fact that a complete stranger was burning a hole into the back of her neck with his eyes. She shifted in her seat, suddenly uncomfortable.

  She went back to gazing out the window. Traffic was clogging the roads so the bus had made slow progress – in half an hour it had travelled as far as it usually did in ten minutes. She sighed and tapped her fingers on her legs. If the traffic didn’t let up soon, she’d be better off walking home. It was at least a thirty minute walk, but the way things were looking she would take about an hour on the bus. She made her decision. She would get off at the next stop. As the bus trundled along as a snail’s pace she gathered her things and made her way downstairs and joined the crowd of people who had evidently had the same idea as her.

  Lara felt inexplicably relieved to be off the bus as she stepped off the bus into the chilly night air. She breathed out slowly and started walking.

  Her relief was short lived, however, as she was soon struck by a feeling of deep uneasiness in the pit of her stomach. She could have sworn she heard footsteps approaching behind her but when she turned around there was no one there. She quickened her pace, suddenly desperate to get home and out of the cold.

  She paused for a moment as she reached a turning for a footpath. The path would take her almost directly to her street and would take about quarter of an hour off the walk. But the path was poorly lit, and her dad had frequently warned her against using it. “It’s not safe,” he had said one day when she had wanted to walk down there to get out of the rain. “You never know what could be lurking down there.”

  Lara knew he was right, but even so...

  A sudden gust of wind made the decision for her. She didn’t want to be out in this God-forsaken weather a moment longer than was necessary. She turned and started down the path.

  Instantly she knew she had made the wrong decision. She slowed down almost to a stop, then spun round to go back to the main road...

  ...and almost collided with the boy from the bus. He grabbed her arm to stop her from falling and grinned at her.

  “Hey, didn’t mean to startle you there,” he said, his tone at odds with his friendly words. “I think you left something on the bus.

  He wasn’t quite so good looking up close – his grin didn’t reach his eyes and his unblinking stare made Lara feel uneasy.

  “Uh, I appreciate you coming after me and everything but I’m pretty sure I didn’t leave anything behind,” she said, trying to hide her discomfort with a forced smile. “But, uh, thank you anyway.”

  She tried to tug her arm out of his grasp, but he only tightened his hold, and his smile widened Cheshire Cat style. Lara felt her heart beat a little fast and beads of sweat broke out on her forehead and the palms of her hands. “Oh come on, I didn’t follow you all this way for nothing,” he said. His voice had seemed normal at first, but the more he spoke the more Lara could hear that something was strange about his accent. He sounded almost robotic, his voice lacking emotion.

  “I’m sorry but I really have to go, I need to get home,” she said, silently cursing herself for the tremble in her voice.

  He laughed, but this time it definitely wasn’t robotic. It was humourless, edged with malice. Lara’s heart hammered in her chest and something flashed in his eyes. He’s enjoying this, she thought wildly, he’s enjoying my fear. Her mouth went dry as she realised his eyes had turned almost completely black. She opened her mouth to scream, to yell for help, but he flung her around so her back slammed into the wall and covered her mouth with his free hand.

  “Oh come on now sweetie, there’s no need to make a fuss! I’m not that scary, am I?” he said, still grinning. Lara made a whimpering sound and he laughed again, and moved his hand from her mouth to her neck. He squeezed and she choked for breath, her chest heaving. She tried to kick out at him but her legs suddenly felt very weak. Black spots danced about her vision, time seemed to move in slow motion, and she felt certain that she was about to pass out when suddenly he let go of her.

  Her legs gave out underneath her and she fell to the ground, dry sobs racking her body, the cold night air almost burning her lungs. She tried to push herself up off the ground but her arms trembled so violently that she collapsed once more and started coughing uncontrollably.

  The boy crouched down in front of her and grabbed her chin, forcing her to look at him. His eyes searched her face for something, examining her from different angles. “Yes, it’s definitely you,” he muttered almost inaudibly, seemingly satisfied with what he saw. He let go of her and reached inside his jacket for something.

  Regaining her breath and a little courage, Lara said, “What do you mean, “it’s definitely you”?” Her voice was raspy and weak, and it hurt to talk.

  He stopped and looked at her, and he smiled again. But before he could answer, a different voice called down the pathway.

  “Yeah, what exactly do you want from her?”

  Both Lara and the boy turned to look at the newcomer. He was dressed in black from head to toe, a hood obscuring his face. As he walked under a lamppost, something on his belt glinted in the dim light.

  Oh my God, Lara thought, he has a knife.

  He carried on towards them, never taking his eyes off the blond-haired boy in front of him. “You shouldn’t be here, shifter,” he said almost lazily, “you know the rules.” He flicked his hands towards the ground, and Lara’s eyes widened as two blades appeared.

  Okay, several knives then.

  The blond boy let out a snarl. “You dare tall me where I can and can’t go?” He spat on the ground. “You think you can control us but you have no idea. You are way out of your depth.”

  Lara gasped. The boy – or the thing that looked like a boy – was growing taller and taller, his shape changing into something monstrous. Claws twisted out where his hands had been and he kept on growing and growing until he stood taller than the houses that lined the alley. He was huge, but he still looked vaguely human.

  Vaguely being the operative word.

  “Get behind me,” the hooded boy said. He pulled the knife from his belt and threw it at the floor in her direction. She scrambled to pick it up and stood up shakily, leaning against the wall for support.

  Then the creature swung a huge arm at them, and pure terror gave her the strength to stand unsupported. The boy leapt into action, ducking beneath its arm and moving in a blur. The creature roared in agony as the blades sliced at its legs, and started changing shape again. He shrank down and sprouted leathery wings, like a human-bat hybrid. The boy was seemingly not bothered by the sudden change, and he ran at it, pulling out a longer blade – where the hell did he get that, Lara thought dazedly – and swinging it in the air above him.

  It shrieked as thick black blood started pouring out of a wound on its belly, and it swooped down – not at the boy, but at Lara. Claws raked her skin and she screamed in pain and lashed out with the knife.

  The creature fell through the air and crashed to the ground, spattering blood everywhere. In a matter of seconds it seemed almost to dissolve, and with one final screech it was gone.

  For a second, Lara and the boy just stood there, breathing heavily. Lara couldn’t take in what had happened at all. She felt numb with fear. She forced herself to speak. “Wh-what just happened? What was that thing?” she asked, her voice high-pitched and breathy.

  The boy looked at her. He said nothing for a moment but examined her silently. Finally he spoke. “You’re hurt,” he said. “Come with me, I’ll get you somewhere safe.”

  Lara’s head was swimming but she shook her head. “No, no, I have to go home, my dad, he’ll be worrying, I-“

  The boy cut her off. “No, you’re coming with me. Come on.” He took her hand gently and pulled her towards him. But as she took a step in his direction, a fierce burning pain shot through her body. She cried out, and the last thing she saw was the boy crouching down to catch her as the world went black.

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