Nobody knew where they came from.
The graffiti used to come in words. The bored scrawl of teenagers trying to kill time or make a point. The markings of various gangs pointing out their territory in the worse parts of town. Scribbles that might’ve meant something to the person who’d written it, and then again might not have. Misspelled curses, ‘so and so’ was here, that one’s a bitch, M and L 4ever, call Them if you want a good time-
These were the things people were used to. These were the ones they ignored.
The new ones, though. They were different.
The first one appeared on the side of an office building downtown. It was impossible to miss. People on the morning commute actually pried their eyes up from the impenetrable wall of immovable traffic before them and noticed. People walking on the street with the building looked up, then crossed so they could have a better view. Some took pictures with their phones. Most just stood around and stared.
It was of a dragon.
It was glaring at who or whatever happened to be directly in front of it. Its lips were drawn back in a snarl and its mouth was open, revealing rows of jagged teeth. Its long, curving neck was lined with spikes that went all the way down its back. Huge, skeletal wings fanned out above and around it, taking up not only most of the wall proper, but also cutting around to the other sides of the building. Whoever had painted it had been polite enough to leave the windows clear, meaning the black and red scales were intermittently broken by untouched glass.
Even the most jaded of passersby were impressed. Some were even a little frightened.
It was the eyes, most thought to themselves. The eyes were alive, and they managed to bring the rest of the work alive with them.
While most adults found the mural at least somewhat unsettling even as they admired it, kids didn't seem to mind it in the least.
"Don't worry," said a few when asked. "It's one of the good guys."
Nobody asked how they knew.
The next one appeared several blocks away on the wall of what used to be a canning factory.
It loomed over the parking lot of what was now the new bingo hall but was really another old canning place. There were two of them, this time. They were mermaids, of sorts. A male and female. Both ended in stereotypical fish tails the same turquoise color as the rest of their bodies. They each wore armor- steel breastplate with spikes, arm bracers, helmets- and they both carried spears. Unlike the dragon, who had looked actively hostile, these two merely looked prepared. They were surveying all before them, and evaluating it.
Some people wondered how the paintings could show up so suddenly. There would have to be a team of artists, right? One person couldn't do all of that in one night, right?
Maybe, some postulated, maybe they'd already been there, and nobody had noticed until just then. After all, how closely did anyone really pay attention to some kid's tagging?
From then on, they popped up everywhere.
There was a herd of life-sized centaurs running rampant through the bus station walls, leaping over benches and snarling at something unseen in front of them. Some in the middle of drawing arrows and shooting off their bows. Multi-headed winged tigers prowled on the sides of the local pet shop. While few -like the merfolk and centaurs- were on a larger -than-life, none were ever as large as the dragon, and most stayed relatively small.
Mice the size of housecats wearing armor and looking like something out of Narnia guarded stop signs and bus stops. Legless humans with snake tails and fangs hung around the edge of alleyways, peering into the street proper but remaining out of the way.
Nobody knew who did them.
Police were stumped. Local writers were stumped. Whenever someone tried to write over one of the murals, the new tag would be gone by the next day.
Some people made a great game of it, trying to find every single new piece that would pop up over night. Some thought it was some kind of code. Others scolded them for overthinking some person's street art.
* * * * *
Not everyone was happy with the pieces.
Albert Morris had a nice house. It was small because he lived alone, but it was tidy and well cared for. He had a nice yard. It, too, was small, tidy, and well cared for. And all around his small, tidy lot in life, he had a tall wooden fence. The fence was new- less than a year old. The wooden slats were still clean and a nice, uniform shade of brown. It hadn't hit the rainy season yet, so they didn't even have any weather damage. He liked his nice, tidy fence.
And some punk had gone and spray-painted it.
It was bad enough he now had to work in an office building with a giant dragon on the front, now the stupid little asswipe had gone and painted a lion on his fence. His fence. Not even a very good lion. Morris wasn't sure, but he had the vague idea that lions weren't supposed to have horns, or spikes grown on their tails.
Not only that, but they hadn't even finished. Half of the lion had been painted in -and in extraordinarily fine detail that even Morris couldn't help but notice- but the other half was just flat. If the streak across the back was any indication, the one who’d done it had been called away quite abruptly and hadn't been able to finish adding depth.
He went out there with a roller and a can of the brown paint and took care of it.
Hah, he thought. Nobody messes with my fence.
In fact. . .
He frowned as he went to stow away the painting tools. Whoever made the lion had put a lot of time into it. Well, maybe not time. It had been only- what? A day? But there had been work put into it. Actual effort. Whoever painted it would probably come back. Maybe to finish it, maybe to mourn the fact they couldn't finish it.
A slow grin split across his face.
Albert had always fancied himself a little better than those around him. Not in a derogatory kind of way, but with the good natured reassurance of someone competent surrounded by fools. He was a good citizen. He was head of the neighborhood watch. It was his responsibility, his duty to stop these kinds of shenanigans.
And so he would. He went inside and prepared, glancing out the front window every so often in case the perpetrator was brave enough to come back during the day.
And he would come back. Morris was sure of it. After all, criminals always returned to the scene of the crime, right? And when he did, Morris would be ready.
* * * * *
That night found Albert sitting down in the shrubbery by his fence, a shotgun held tensely in his hands. It wasn't loaded. He couldn't load it if he tried: it was jammed, broken, and hadn't worked in years. But there was no need for anyone else to know that. He waited. He didn't have to wait long.
It was around nine o' clock when the kid showed up. Being the middle of a California summer, that meant the sun was still out. Albert could see him perfectly. Scrawny thing, maybe fourteen or fifteen. Dark hair. Suspiciously bulky looking backpack.
Hah! He thought from his spot in the shrubbery. Evidence.
The boy came to the place where the lions had been, and sighed. He knelt down and began rooting around in his bag. Albert watched as the kid pulled out dozens of spray pain cans- more cans than should have been able to fit in the bag.
He crept out of the bushes, trying his best to remain silent. The boy didn’t notice, and kept on with his work.
Albert came up behind the boy and said, loudly, “What do you think you’re doing?”
The boy started and slashed the new picture- some sort of hyena-dog looking thing.
“What,” said Albert again, “do you think you’re doing?”
The kid didn’t answer. He was too busy staring into the shotgun barrel pointed at his head.
The kid obeyed.
“Drop the fucking can.”
The spray can fell to the sidewalk and rolled off the curb.
“Listen,” said the kid. “Just please listen. I-“
“I don’t give two shits what you’ve got to say,” said Albert. “You were going to paint my fence again, weren’t you? Don’t bother answering, I already know.”
The kid looked around shiftily. “Please, you gotta let me go. It’s going to get dark soon.”
“Shut up and turn around. Hands on the back of your head. This is a citizen’s arrest. Desecration of property. Vandalism. Loitering, breaking curfew-“
“Please, let me just finish this one-“
“You’re really not getting it, are you, kid?” Al pointed the gun down and held it one handed. With his free hand, he pulled out his cell.
"You don't know what you're doing," said the kid.
"I know damn well. I'm calling the cops."
The sun finished setting just then. The change in the street was immediate: the entire neighborhood went from a hazy, orange and rose tint to a darker blue. The kid ran to the picture. "I have to go! They'll be here soon."
The boy didn't listen and started packing away the canisters as fast as he could, dumping them all into the bag without rhyme or reason. In the back of his mind, Al wondered how they'd all manage to fit into such a small duffel.
"We have to go," the boy said.
He sounded like he was about to cry. Albert steeled himself and held the phone up to his ear.
Huh, he thought with a frown. Static.
He'd have to use the house phone, then.
"Alright," he said. "Come on, I've gotta use the house-"
The kid was staring down the street. He'd gone several shades paler, his tan bleaching in the weak light of the street lamp.
"What?" said Al in spite of himself. He squinted into the shadows. "What is it?"
The boy whimpered. "They're here."
Before Al could answer, there was a chorus of cracking, popping, and tinkling behind him. He looked, and watched as every single streetlight went out. The glass bulbs shattered and the plastic covering them burst and bits of plastic and glass rained onto the sidewalk below.
He looked sharply at the boy. "What is that? Is that you?"
The boy finished collecting his cans. "Get out of here," he said. "Run. Don't bother with the gun- it'll only make them angry. Angrier."
Al leveled the shotgun. "You just hold on-"
There was a shriek behind them. A guttural scream that cut through the night and set off sensitive car alarms all down the street. It took Al a second to catch sight of the source.
It was roughly the size of the Volkswagen bug parked nearby and looked like the result of an unnaturally fertile bear running across an unusually open minded panther. Its fur was pitch black with a slight blue sheen to it. Its eyes and teeth were yellow. It saw them watching and opened its mouth a little wider, displaying more needle-like teeth. And it was lumbering casually down the street, right towards them.
The streetlights crackled, snapped, and popped as it passed.
Al watched in horror as more of the creatures pulled themselves from the shadows. It looked like they were pulling themselves out from the road itself, as though it wasn't years old tar they were swimming through, but some unseen hole in the ground they all had to climb out of.
Something tugged at Al's sleeve. The boy looked up at him, eyes wide.
"Run," he whispered.
Al did. He dropped the gun and phone and followed the boy. As though they had been waiting for the chase to begin, the creatures pursued.
* * * * *
Al wasn't very good at running. He'd never had any reason to become good at it. Running was for people too hurried to take the time out and walk.
And now he was paying for it, huffing and puffing along behind the boy who, unlike Al, was obviously very used to running places.
The boy led them streets and streets away, out of the suburbs and into the more urban areas. The buildings got taller, the shadows got thicker, and everywhere they went, the streetlights flickered weakly before succumbing to the explosions of their suburban brethren.
The boy ran down an alley, and Al saw no other choice than to follow. He turned the corner just in time to see the boy place his hand on a mural of a three-headed dog.
"What the hell do you think you're-?"
The kid ignored him. For a split second, a strong, yellow light shot out from between his fingers, as though he was trying to cover a particularly large lightbulb. The light died almost instantly.
The kid grabbed Albert’s wrist and dragged him past the picture. The wall was rumbling.
“Hurry!” shrieked the boy. “He won’t hold them off for long!”
They ran. Al craned his head around just in time to see the dog stepping halfway out of the wall. Albert stopped running, jerking the kid back with his sudden stop. The dog finished exiting the wall, leaving nothing but blank brickwork behind. Al could see the specters coming down the mouth of the ally. All three of the dogs’ heads threw themselves back and howled into the night before charging.
The kid pulled at Al. “Come on! Come on or I’ll leave you.”
Al allowed himself to be dragged along, still staring at the fight behind them. The dog tore and bit at the specters, but how could it hope to hurt shadow? They were winning.
The kid led them to a dead end. He let go of Al and started fiddling around in his bag.
“What were those? What happened back there?”
The boy pulled out a spray can. He started spraying the ground, writing down circles and sigils and things Al thought might be words, but didn’t recognize.
“What’s going on? What are those things?”
A howl cut the air, followed by another, and then another.
The boy looked up. “He’s dead. They killed him.”
He started again, faster, now. Al could only watch helplessly as the boy worked.
No! he thought, suddenly angry with himself.
He looked around frantically and grinned. There, up against the wall. A long piece of piping someone had long ago discarded. Al picked it up and swung it a few times, getting the feel of it. He went and stood in front of the kid, wielding the pipe like a baseball bat.
If anyone wanted the little shit, they'd have to go through him first.
The entire alley was suddenly lit with an eerie glow as something behind him flashed green. He turned and saw the kid sitting in the center of a large, rune-lined circle. The green paint he'd used was burning bright. Al stared.
"Don't just stand there," the boy hissed. "Get in!"
Al did. The boy scooted a bit to make room for him.
"What are those things?" said Al.
"Shadows." The boy said plainly. "Nightmares. They've been tracking me for weeks."
The nightmares in question came slinking down the alley, all gleaming teeth and gleaming eyes, taking their sweet time.
"Why?" said Al, keeping his eyes forward.
"Their boss doesn't like me very much."
The creatures stopped a few feet away from the ring and grinned at the two inside.
"Kid, I'm gonna need more than that."
The kid nervously ran a hand through his hair. "They live under the skin of the world and only come here to hunt. They're made of all the leftover hate and pain people leave trailing in the air behind them and in the gutter and on the streets. They specifically feed off people's fear, and the easiest way to get that fear is by killing them as slowly and as painfully as possible, then eating the rest of the person just to be sure."
"Preposterous. If people were going around and being eaten, the police would notice. Reporters would notice. It would be all over the news." More and more of the creatures were arriving, and none of them bothered coming any closer. They all sat around, watching. Al wished they would stop smiling so much.
"Have you ever walked down the street and seen a piece of clothing lying on the ground?"
"Clothing. A sweater, maybe a shirt. Or a single shoe, just lying beside the road?"
"I don't see how that’s relevant-"
"That's all that’s left of the people they take."
"That's . . . not right," said Albert. "People just leave them. Drop them."
"Leave their shoes? A shoe? "
One of the creatures yawned.
“Why aren’t they attacking?”
“They can’t get in," said the boy. "It’s the circle. They can’t get in. We just have to wait them out until sun up."
"Swell," Al said faintly. "Just, swell."
As a whole, the creatures threw back their heads and howled.
"What are they doing?"
The boy began to shake. "Calling him."
A small spot of blue-white light appeared on the ground, several feet in front of the circle. The creatures stopped howling immediately and backed away, giving the light room to grow. The light sprouted up and around into a roaring bonfire.
“It’s him," squeaked the boy. "He’s here.” He curled up, tucking his knees beneath his chin and wrapping his arms around them. “Oh God, no.”
“Hey, come on,” Al put a hand on his shoulder. “Don’t go to pieces on me now. Who’s ‘he’ and what'll he do?”
The boy wasn't listening. “Oh God please no. He hates me. He hates me so much. I don’t want to go. Please don’t make me go back I hate it there no-“
The blue-white fire rose up and solidified into the form of a man.
He was narrow and tall- at least seven feet, with another foot and a half added on by his top hat. He wore a dark suit with tails, a cravat, and, to Albert's bemusement, spats. The hooked cane he held was probably the same height as Albert.
The man glanced around the alley and prodded a nearby trash bag disdainfully with his cane. Several rats ran past him, squealing their displeasure. He sniffed and turned to the circle.
The man loomed over them both without actually passing the barrier and looked down at them over a sharp nose. The boy whimpered and shrank back, trying to burrow between Al and the wall behind them.
"That," he said, "was an exceedingly unnecessary and time consuming game. What have you got to say for yourself?"
The boy didn't answer.
"I thought as much. Enough. Get out of the circle."
The boy tried moving farther behind Al. Albert let him.
The man rolled his eyes. "Fine. You're only making it worse on yourself." To Al, he said, "You. Man. Shove him out for me, will you?"
Al found that his mouth had gone dry. It took a second for him to say, "No."
"Those things-" he pointed with the pipe. "They'll kill him. You'll kill him."
"Don't be ridiculous. He's much more useful to me alive."
Al threw the pipe at him. It went straight through, as though the man wasn't really there.
"You dropped something," said the man. His sharp teeth glinted in the light of the circle.
"Yeah, right," muttered Al.
"Alright," said the man. "I tried reason. It didn't work." He picked up his cane, spun it in a wide arc, then stamped it on the ground right in front of the circle. The ground shuddered. The cement began to crack. He hit it again, and the crack grew a little larger, breaking part way into the line of paint.
The kid broke. He leapt up and, with a strangled scream, tried to run past the creatures.
The man looked bored. He stuck his cane out to the side and tripped the boy.
The shadows enveloped the boy. He screamed. The man looked on disinterestedly. A thirty second eternity later, the boy and about half the creatures were gone.
The man smiled politely at Al and tipped his hat.
“Thank you so much for finding him, good sir. He’s given us all a hell of a headache trying to track him down.”
Albert nodded faintly. "Right. Is- is he-?"
"I'm not going to kill him, if that's what you're oh-so eloquently trying to ask. As I said, more useful alive than not."
The man looked around at the remaining creatures and snapped his fingers. There was a gust of wind and a flash of white-blue light. When it had cleared, Albert found himself sitting alone in the middle of the now-dull circle. The alley was empty. The only thing left to show that any of them had been there- the boy, the specters, the man in the hat- was the boy's bag of spray cans.
After a long, long moment, Albert picked up the bag and headed for home.
* * * * *
Most of the paintings were dead in the morning.
A few lived on for a couple days more, but none outlived the week.
The dragon lasted the longest. The next day, he was cut up, his wings covered in nicks and cuts, but his eyes still gleamed and there was still a hint of a cocky smile behind those shoe-sized teeth. Two days after, he was torn and bloodied. Instead of standing proudly, he was laying down in a puddle of his own blood, trying to raise itself up onto one leg, but unable to.
By the next Monday, he was lying down, back towards the outside, wings torn into shreds.
The merfolk, too, lasted longer than most. Their armor was scuffed, and they both sported black eyes and bruises. The female died first, with a large gash in her side. The third day had the male dead beside her, his own spear stuck into his side.
The armored mice were found dead in alleys and hidden behind dumpsters. The snake women curled up dead. Griffins, phoenix, centaurs- all were dead by midweek.
Who would do that? People wondered. Why would the artists do that to their own works? Why go to the trouble of repainting them so horribly?
Albert Morris didn't chime in when the people at work talked about their dead dragon, or the orders that had been given to paint over it. He didn't say a lot, that week.
He stopped by the alley after work to see if. . . just to see. A black, bloodied mass that was once the three-headed dog lay at the mouth of the alley to greet him. By the look of it, one of the heads had been torn off.
He quickly walked back to his car.
When he got home, he saw the kid's bag sitting in the corner of the living room where he'd left it. The boy's screams rang in his ears.
Don't let them take me. Don't let me go. Please-
Albert tried to force the thought away.
I didn't even know his name. I watched him get eaten up- taken away, and I didn't even catch his name. . .
The pictures, he thought desperately. They were still fighting out there. They were getting the snot beaten out of them, but they were still fighting for the kid. Maybe . . .
He grabbed the boy's bag and went outside.
It was, he noted distantly, bigger on the inside. More importantly, though, it was full of cans of spray paint.
He went to a shaded corner of his perfectly manicured backyard and, after glancing around to make sure none of his neighbors were watching, he began to paint. A half hour and a lot of do-overs later, Al sat back and examined his work.
A stick figure wearing a box he hoped looked like armor with a half-circle helmet and a cross for a sword. In some places, the black paint dribbled down his once perfect fence.
It was, he thought, pathetic. He sighed. It was a start.
Not quite knowing what else to do, Al took the can and wrapped his creation in a circle.
"I don't know if this is going to do anything," he whispered. To himself, to the stick soldier, or to the boy, he didn't know. "It probably won't. But maybe it will. Maybe it will. . . "
He trailed off, hoping for something to happen- anything at all- to show that it had worked.
The stick soldier stood still as ever, faceless and silent. Albert almost gave up then. He almost went inside to have a whole bottle of anything that would make his stomach and chest and head stop aching. Then, ever so slightly, the soldier moved.
It waggled its sword. Ever so slightly- almost imperceptibly so, but Al was certain it had moved. Positive. He'd seen it with his own eyes, right? That meant something, right?
Albert looked up at the rest of his unmarred fence, and sighed. He scootched along a few feet, away from the soldier, and started again.
It was a start.