Laying on the bed, grinning up at the ceiling as he heard the shower start, Charlie was feeling pretty good about life. Sure, the problems he'd pondered earlier were still at his doorstep - in a week or so he'd be leaving Shelly, his friends and their struggles, and his girlfriend behind for what seemed like too long a time. But it was hard to be morose with that many endorphins and post-sex feel-good hormones rushing around his body. Sophia had definitely achieved her goal of being memorable, that was for certain. For a moment, he reconsidered his acceptance of the theater camp placement. Sure, it was only a few weeks. But then, it was a few weeks without Sophia. Sighing, he sat up and swung his legs over so his feet touched the floor. At least it was after Homecoming. At least he'd be able to help fight the Dark with his friends, rather than leave it roaming free in Shelly where it might even conceivably hurt Sophia. He remembered what he'd said to her, in the conference room under the Marias Medical Center when she'd asked what the Dark was.
"Evil force of evil." Charlie had whispered to her. "But I'll never let it hurt you." It was important, that promise. It had seemed casual when he'd uttered it, a bit of bravado to allay her fears (and his own). But he found, reflecting on that moment, that he meant it, powers or no.
Standing, he stretched, then turned and frowned at the state of the sheets and blankets before quickly stripping the bed. After all, they were both getting showers, so clean sheets was probably a good thing too, right? Dumping the sheets in the hamper, he quickly re-made the bed with fresh ones then, hearing the shower still running, decided to go and get them both a drink. Humming, he pulled on a pair of shorts and headed downstairs.
The lights were turned down in the lounge, the flickering of the TV screen still casting shadow-puppets on the walls. They'd moved their shenanigans from the couch to upstairs without bothering with niceties like thumbing the remote. Grinning at that, Charlie picked up the remote and flicked the TV off, leaving the lounge quieter and darker, the shadow of a tree cast across one wall by light from the street. Barefoot, he ambled into the kitchen and opened up the fridge, rummaging around for some suitable refreshment and finding a couple of bottled wine coolers near the back. He stared at them for a moment, doubt nagging at his mind. His mom wasn't likely to raise hell over the wine coolers, but it would lead to questions, which would lead to awkward conversation... He shrugged, grabbing the bottles. The hell with it.
But the nagging doubt persisted, causing him to frown as he opened the bottles and poured them into a pair of glasses. Something was off. Something was- He paused as he set a bottle down, staring blankly at the doorway to the lounge. Then it occurred to him with a chilling realisation: The shadow. On the wall.
There was no tree in the yard to cast a shadow from the streetlights.
Fuck, he thought as he moved to the lounge doorway and peered inside. The light from outside shone on the wall unblemished, no shadow cast across it. Had he imagined it? A prickling on the back of his neck said that no, he hadn't. Lately, Charlie had learned to trust that cold prickle. He'd felt it looking into Jason's eyes. He'd felt it more strongly meeting the mysterious Mr Enterich. And right now, he felt it most strongly of all, accompanied by a slick, oily cold slithering sensation that crawled his flesh. He knew what that meant. Cold prickles were one thing, gut feelings. But this was something else.
This was the presence of the Dark.
He turned, his first thought to get upstairs, to get to Sophia, his mind filled with fears of her being vulnerable and alone, easy prey. And ran into a solid figure that had, unheard, slipped behind him in the gloom of the downstairs hallway. In his instinctive concern, he hadn't recalled what they had learned as a group. The Dark didn't really care about regular folks. It needed the deaths of those with a little extra. Those with Shine.
Not-Cody grinned down at him, a skeletal noseless mockery of a human face, crowned with spreading antlers, his mouth a red sideways gash lined with scalpel-like teeth. Charlie felt a bony hand grip his shoulder, the points of claws digging into his flesh, smelled the rotten charnel reek of Cody's breath as the monster's other hand moved from here to there. Staring, in shock, Charlie dimly registered a pulling across his abdomen, a warmth that flashed into hot pain, cold around the edges, and some part of his panicked mind registered that he had just been opened up like one of Cade's landed trout. A stink filled the air. That's me, he dimly thought. That's my insides. That jolted another realisation. I'm dying.
Setting his teeth against the pain, he started to shapeshift, chitinous armor plate beginning to form as his hands shifted to ferocious clawed appendages. Cody / The Horned Man laughed, a glottal sound of sick amusement, and his long arm with a hand tipped with claws flashed once more across Charlie's field of vision. The teen felt his blood gout, hot vital fluid drenching his bare chest as his throat was opened from ear to ear. Choking, he lost his concentration, shapeshift forgotten as he dropped to his knees, drowning as his lungs filled.
Cody squatted on his haunches, grinning his awful shark grin. "I'll never let it hurt you." he said in a deep, hoarse voice that, despite it's inhumanity, nevertheless conveyed mockery. "Oh, but I will hurt her, boy. She will satisfy my many hungers until there is nothing left." Red-rimmed eyes flared hellishly as a clawed finger swiped through Charlie's pooling blood and came up to the beast's mouth, a long tongue cleaning the talon. "Picture it as you die. Hear her screams. Know despair!"
Charlie opened his mouth, shut it again, gaping like a fish in air. He couldn't speak... but perhaps he didn't need to. The thing had quoted his own words at him. Perhaps it was reading his mind. His vision darkened, contracting around the red eyes glowering at him from a face no longer human, and Charlie put all the effort he could into one final thought.
My friends... are gonna fuck you up. They'll beat your ass till you scream and fry you in your own skin. He cast the thought at the creature with every ounce of defiance and dark amusement he could muster, and was rewarded with a hiss of anger and, dare he say, fear. You'll lose. Charlie added with a sense of fatalistic triumph. So you despair, fucker.
Hissing louder, almost a shriek of rage, the creature half-rose and struck out. Charlie, his vision dimmed, saw the taloned hand sweep towards his-
The creature that had been Cody Sikes stood, breathing deeply as it looked down at the body at his feet. The defiance had not tasted good, and it was with a growl that he brought the still-warm heart to his maw and devoured it in several bites. The warmth of the boy's Radiance was delicious, a tingling sensation that spread through Cody's limbs and brought a low moan of pleasure from his throat. Somewhere, he knew the Tree was likewise pleased, the conduit between them transferring the Radiance to it, nourishing it.
"Charlie?" The girl's voice from upstairs, laced with mischief. "I need some help washing my back." A giggle, then the sound of the bathroom door shutting.
Cody looked up the stairs, a grin that was equal parts snarl crossing his deformed features. Turning from the now-useless husk at his feet, he moved to the foot of the stairs and started up them.
The night's hunt had been productive, but after all, he had many hungers.