Note: The big event of this chapter was not originally in the NaNoWriMo draft, but I tried to drop a few hints after I decided to turn the plot this way. I have no idea if this works or not, so if you think this comes completely out of the blue let me know! :)

Chapter Twenty Five: Daybreak

She ran.

It was seven blocks from the wall to the last place she had seen her husband. She ran those seven blocks as if the beasts and the monster in her head were still at her heels. Anke knew they were gone with nauseating certainty, even the tentacled ones at the behest of the shadow, and they were all heading toward the depths beyond the bay. She pushed them from her mind and concentrated on finding that one little house at the end of the alley.

The old building was so changed in the sunlight that she almost ran past it. All around her, the city shimmered with condensation, the wood and brick buildings sodden with sea spray from their impossibly long night. It was as though a great storm had suddenly passed and the noonday sun flooded over them with glee. Cloying steam rose around her, clouding everything, but she hardly saw it. She was studying every storefront and shattered home for some indication she was in the right place. Her feet skidded to a halt at the entrance of the alley as she spotted the door with the odd hinge, the door she'd opened the wrong way to find a place for them.

She removed the hinge pegs and pulled the door open. It was dark inside, not as dark as the night had been, but in the painful brightness of daylight she had already lost her night vision. After a moment of near blindness, Anke felt her way to the door of the inner room, and dimly registered the doorknob. She fumbled with it a moment, hearing the loud rattle overpower everything as she strained for some sign of life beyond the door. The knob caught and turned in her hand and the door opened.

The door creaked on its hinges and again Anke cursed her blindness in the unlit room. She peered around the door, expecting the worst. At first there was nothing but more darkness, layer upon layer of shadow. Then a clatter of something heavy falling to the floor and a whisper of quick movement. A large shadow loomed toward her and for a second she feared a monster, a straggler lurking to finish them-

But Roldan emerged from the darkness, threw his arms around them and lifted Anke in a massive embrace. "Roldan!" she shrieked, as he spun them around and practically dragged her into the other room. He stepped back for a moment, looking from her to Nolke with wide-eyed relief- and disbelief.

"You're alright," he said at last, quiet and dreamlike. He touched her hair, caressed down her cheek, and stroked Nolke's hair as thought they were exotic treasures.

Anke, in turn, stared back at him. It had to be a trick! A trick of the light, a figment of her imagination, a specter standing before her... "H-how?" she stuttered out. "Roldan, what-"

He shook his head, slight at first and then fervent, disbelieving. "I don't know, Anke, I don't know how to explain it. I was drifting in and out and I know I was in a bad way. I heard this chewing sound outside, thought it would be the last thing I heard." Roldan's fingers trembled minutely but he continued unfazed. "I drifted to this place where I was floating every way and no way all at once and the darkness was whispering to me, all around me."

"The shadow creature!" Anke exclaimed.

Roldan nodded. "It came for me but it let me go. It... it..." He struggled for the words for a long moment. "Well, look!" He led her into the relative light of the alleyway and lifted the tattered remains of his shirt, revealing a neatly healed abdomen. Anke set Nolke down beside her and knelt for a closer look. The skin was not perfect, marred by a dark crescent scar across most of his belly. But there was no blood, save for the stains on his clothes, and he stood before her pale but vital.

The creature's departing thoughts bubbled into her memory then. A gift, it had whispered. One last gift. And here he stood, the most glorious gift she could imagine. Shock and relief overwhelmed her then, and her legs buckled. Sliding unceremoniously to the ground, Anke let the tears come.

Roldan sat down on the damp cobblestones and pulled her onto his lap. Nolke toddled over and Anke held them both close as she sobbed. She felt their hearts beating with hers, felt their breath on her skin, and knew all would be okay. Time passed; the steam dissipated from the city streets and a faint mourning cry drifted to the edge of her consciousness, but it felt miles away. She focused only on her family.

"You came back for me," Roldan said after a long silence. His dark eyes smiled down at her and he placed a tender kiss on her lips. "Even though you knew I was nearly dead when you left, you came back for me."

"I said I would," she said. "It's as simple as that. " Nolke fussed in her arms, no doubt feeling the ache of hunger and exhaustion that settled heavily into her now that the danger had passed. "And now it's time for us to go home."

"Home," Roldan repeated. "If it's still standing at all."

She smiled as they got to their feet."Yes, it's still standing, my dear. I'm sure of it."

She knew it with the certainty that she knew the beast was now curling up on the seafloor like a cat in front of a fireplace. It called to her, faint now. It told her it left her home untouched, told her it was there if she ever needed anything, and it was glad she was happy with her gift. It purred...

But she didn't tell Roldan that. Not then. Now it only mattered that they were together and they walked into the remains of the city. Looking to the north, to the east, away from the bay, it almost seemed like an ordinary day. Anke finally got to walk the cobblestone streets with her husband and son and, for the moment at least, it was a good day.